We first went to Croatia in 2006 and it definitely is worth a visit. It can get overwhelmingly busy during the summer months, especially in Dubrovnik and Split. If we could go back again, we likely would choose to go before the flood of tourists arrive there and while the weather is still nice, like May or September.
Rom Brafman, who last wrote about El Salvador and is the New York Times best-selling author of Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior and other business and psychology books, recently went to Croatia and here are his practical tips.
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From a travel perspective, Croatia doesn’t quite fit into the European mold. Although it’s only a short one- hour flight from Rome, just across the Adriatic Sea, in some ways it seems like it’s a universe away. Tell your friends and family that you’re vacationing in Italy and the likely question you’ll get is, “Oh, yes, which part?” Tell them you’re going to Croatia and they’re likely to ask, “Uhm, where is it again?” Croatia is like the distant cousin who always attends the family reunion but no one is exactly sure how he fits into the family. That’s not to say that there’s anything wrong or peculiar with Croatia, it’s actually a delightful place, but it’s surprising that although it’s so close to some of the most popular destinations in Europe, it is still, relatively speaking, not as well known.
This article is about three of the most frequently visited parts of Croatia. It’s not a complete guide to the country (just in case you were itching to write that in the comment section below, save yourself the time :-))
For those of you not old enough to remember, Croatia used to be part of Yugoslavia, part of the Soviet block. In the ’90s, it suffered through a brutal civil war. Today Croatia is as safe as any other modern European country, though it’s daunting to think that in many of the places where you’re traveling, gunshots rang only a couple of decades earlier.
To and Fro:
Although many European countries have great train options, Croatia decided to sit that one out. The distance among the main attractions is quite large and the only practical way to move among them is by bus, car, or plane.
We found that Croatia has great private accommodations that are half the cost of most hotels, ranging from 60-110 dollars a night (the local currency, the kuna, runs at 6.75 to the dollar). You get your own room or apartment, Airbnb style, but you can book it through booking.com, Expedia, or similar sites. We used TripAdvisor special lodging section reviews as our guide. Our hosts in each of the places we stayed were incredible. The wifi was good and we were extremely happy with the value we got. Make sure you go for the 5-star TripAdvisor places and book way in advance because these places go fast. And remember to bring cash with you because you will have to pay for your stay with kunas or euros.
Located on the central coast, the city is often used as the launching point for boat cruises (mostly popular with young people). Even if you’re not taking a week-long cruise, you can take a day trip to the nearby island of Hvar. Split was our first taste of Croatia and it proved to be our least favorite spot in the country. There was nothing wrong with Split, per se, nothing glaringly awful. But there was nothing particularly outstanding about it either. This was our subjective opinion, so take it with a healthy grain of salt.
After you’ve visited the city’s Diocletian’s Palace, an ancient Roman set of buildings located conveniently right smack in the center of Split, adjacent to the port, there is not much more to see. If you have plenty of time on your hands, you can certainly make do with Split, but if your time is precious, we found that the city wasn’t as impressive as others, and in our opinion it was commensurate with many other European coastal cities; think Genoa, Italy. (For a better coastal experience, read further, or try Santorini in Greece, or Capri, Amalfi, or Cinque Terre in Italy.)
We stayed in the Apartments Magdalena, a short walk from the city center. We got a full apartment for half the cost of a decent hotel room. The manager not only gave helpful recommendations for places to eat and things to do, when we asked where we could do laundry he offered to do it for us and bring back our clothes the next day, without charging us anything extra. He even apologized that unfortunately he will not be able to iron our clothes! Once we explained to him that we never iron our clothes anyway, he felt more at ease.
You must go here. If you like nature in any way, you’ll love this place. It’s like Yosemite on an acid trip (not that I would know), gorgeous waterfalls cascading over lakes, with wooden walkways crisscrossing among them, and extra clear water with easily visible fish. Of course Plitvice is in the middle of nowhere so getting there is a pain, but you have to find a way.
The park opens early, 7:00 a.m. during the summer, and I recommend getting there when it first opens because it gets crowded later on. Two other early-rising couples and us had the place basically to ourselves in the early morning as we hiked quickly, stopped to take pictures, hiked quickly, stopped to take pictures, hiked quickly, making sure that the masses that we knew would come in later on in the day would not catch up to us. In retrospect, we were a bit paranoid and we could’ve slowed down our pace and still been fine.
From Entrance 1 (there are two entrances to the park), make your way down the walk path and then take a right to go see the big waterfall. This is your chance to take pictures before it gets crowded. Then follow Path C. Your pace does not have to be hurried. It takes a while for the park to get filled, plus at a certain point, about 45 minutes into your walk, you will have to wait for the first ferry (comes complimentary with your entry tickets so make sure you hold on to them) to shuttle you across the lake to the upper lakes. It’s sad to think that the civil war was raging in this area 20 years ago, but looking at the pristine beauty of nature, you wouldn’t know it. It’s as if the calmness swallowed up and erased any signs of the bitter fighting of the past. Keep following Path C as you take in the breathtaking waterfalls. We actually walked the upper path twice because approaching them from the opposite direction gives you a unique perspective. If you want to take a picture but there are too many people around, simply wait a few minutes and you’ll be fine. Once you’re done with your exploration, take the free ferry back toward Entrance 1 and walk back to the waterfall.
Here’s a secret few people know about. To the left of the waterfall, there is a staircase. Climb it all the way up and keep walking up until you get to a paved road. Keep walking, cross a bridge, and take the first trail after the bridge on your right. This will shortly lead you to a lookout point that is amazingly gorgeous, by far the best aerial view of the park. The whole journey will take you about 4-6 hours. Keep in mind that Plitvice, with its higher elevation, is cooler than the coastal towns, especially during the morning hours. We stayed at House Marija, another great accommodation, seven km north of Entrance 1. Our accommodation was nice and inexpensive, plus there was free homemade plum wine (yes, we finished it all) and some other homemade alcohol that was available for guests at no extra charge. Again, cash only for the room.
Getting to Plitvice means long travel. I highly recommend renting a car (out of Split if you’re visiting there or otherwise, a closer city with an airport, such as Zagreb). Bus tours are quite expensive, plus the bus gets to the park well into the morning. I recommend getting to the area the night before and entering the park bright and early.
A coastal town in the southern part of the country, this is another wow destination. The old town is completely encased within walls, giving it a medieval feel. It’s as if you’re transported back to time and living inside the castle walls of a medieval village but with modern amenities. I would recommend staying here a number of days and doing day trips to nearby islands, as well as kayaking right outside the city walls. You can also pay to climb up the wall and walk the perimeter (think Great Wall of China like) to get good shots of the buildings below.
Dubrovnik is unique and special, capturing that old world charm for which you’re traveling to Europe. For us, the city was a combination of Florence, San Francisco (chic charm and hilly), and Capri. We stayed at Apartments Dubrovnik Center. The host was magnificent. He waited for us outside the city wall, insisted on carrying our luggage (“otherwise my wife will beat me”) and gave us a history of the place plus many recommendations. Again, book way in advance. During the morning hours, you will find a farmers market near the church. You must try the candied orange peels. They are homemade and different farmers sell theirs. Try a free sample from each farmer until you find the one you like best. They’re not inexpensive, and they’re definitely not healthy, but we found a farmer who perfected the tart and sweet combo and enjoyed the treats for the rest of our vacation (easy to pack but hard to resist.)
In retrospect, if I had to do the trip again, I would skip Split, fly into Dubrovnik, fly from there to Zagreb, check out that town, drive to Plitvice, drive back to Zagreb, then fly onwards or back to Dubrovnik. You could also drive or take a bus from Dubrovnik to Plitvice or Zagreb, but it’s a long drive. The way I think about it, even if flights are a little more expensive, it’s a one-time expense so why not save the energy and time while on vacation?
Croatia delighted us with Plitvice Lakes and Dubrovnik, two places that were uniquely beautiful and special, but very different from each other. Staying in private accommodations helped us save money, gave us a spectacular level of service, and made us feel as if we were living among the people.
About The Author:
Rom Brafman is a New York Times bestselling author of Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior and other business and psychology books. In his free time, he acts as travel agent for his gorgeous wife, Josyn, as they travel the world with their playful gang of Boco, Edna, and Zippy.
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