Seasoned travelers seeking a coastal escape with appealing culture should look no further than Croatia, says Ben Lerwill
Europe’s Mediterranean region is hardly lacking when it comes to stylish destinations, but there’s something about Croatia that sets it apart. With some 1,185 islands scattered off its handsome coastline, the country retains a warm, unrushed atmosphere and bears precious few scars of mass tourism, neatly matching its billing as ‘the Mediterranean as it once was’.
Croatia continues to grow in consciousness among North American travelers. In the first five months of 2012, it saw an increase of 16.5% in arrivals (48,683) from the US and Canadian markets and 14.5% in overnights (120,374).
Andreja Cvitkovic, director of the Croatian National Tourist Office in New York, says: “Croatia appeals to the more seasoned American traveler looking for an off-the-beaten-path destination. We’ve had a steady increase in arrivals over the past 10 years.”
The jewels of the coastline are Croatia’s most celebrated assets — the picture-perfect walled city of Dubrovnik and island getaways along the Dalmatian Coast — but there’s more to the country than elegant sun-seeking. There’s a proud local culture, evident in everything from food and drink to historical sites: authenticity and tradition are big parts of Croatia’s appeal.
In recent years, the Croatian Association of Travel Agencies has helped develop Discover Croatia, a project through which some 800 special interest programs have been developed for long-haul markets, particularly the US. These include everything from activity vacations and wine tours to bird watching and cycling trips. Cruising is another big draw for US travelers.
Wanda Radetti, of Tasteful Croatian Journeys, sums up the current appeal: “In the last five years, we’ve seen a steady flow of travelers thinking about, and eventually traveling to, Croatia. It’s beautifully organic, civilized and safe.”
WALKING THE WALLS OF DUBROVNIK
Few cities in Europe can match Dubrovnik for sheer attractiveness. The walled city, its red rooftops contrasting with the clear blue of the surrounding ocean, has drawn romantics, artists and travelers for centuries. Tourists stroll its cobbled streets, yachts moor offshore and the 82ft-high walls provide a picturesque loop around Croatia’s most photographed city. Lord Byron, the famous English poet, had it right when he called it ‘The Pearl of the Adriatic’.
Dubrovnik’s history is integral to its character. Stretching back more than a millennium to the days when it rivaled Venice as a regional power base, and incorporating the much more recent unfolding of the Balkans conflict in the 1990s, the city stands as something of a living museum. The Old Town plays home to everything from churches, monasteries and palaces, to fortresses, squares and clock towers, while a smart selection of hotels and eateries — both inside and outside the walls — add to the appeal.
The best way to get an overview of this epoch-spanning drama is to walk a circuit of its walls. There’s a raised footpath around the mile-long route, leading you past towers and crenellated battlements and affording superb views of the city and adjacent coastline. You’re able to walk at your own pace, stopping for as long and as often as desired, making it arguably the most enjoyable and remarkable pleasure-stroll in the country.
SAVORING ISTRIA’S GASTRONOMY
A heart-shaped slab of land in the northwest of the country, Croatia’s Istrian Peninsula blends a lush, rolling interior, quaint little villages and a tourist-friendly coastline with some seriously impressive culinary treats. The region sits close to Italy, and it’s from there that much of Istria’s gastronomy draws its influences.
Fresh seafood is a specialty, but pasta, meat and olive oil also figure highly, and the local vineyards produce excellent wines. Truffles are another regional (and affordable) delicacy, while for those who like their drinks with a kick, raika is made from grapes or mistletoe.
A trip to Istria is about enjoying the finer things in life, and its popularity has been largely founded on the joint appeal of fertile landscapes and good food. Mealtimes are integral to an enjoyable vacation, so whether you’re based in a beach resort, an inland village or a city like Pula, there’s much to enjoy.
ISLAND HOPPING OFF THE DALMATIAN COAST
Stretching from north to south in a necklace of pretty coves and golden sands, the 1,000-plus islands that lie off Croatia’s Dalmatian coastline (around 50 of them inhabited) offer genuinely superb potential for classy vacations.
They range from the near-legendary — the island of Hvar has become a magnet for the rich and famous, as attested by visitors ranging from Beyonce to Steven Spielberg — to the barely discovered and, combined, entice everyone from sailors to wildlife-lovers and from outdoor types to luxury-seekers.
The coastal cities of Split and Dubrovnik, both tremendous attractions in their own right, provide the two most obvious hubs for flying into the country and heading out to the islands, although there are alternative ports such as Zadar. Scheduled catamarans and ferries offer routes to and from the most popular islands, while visitors on private vessels have the wider delights of the Adriatic at their disposal.
Various islands enjoy outstanding reputations. Mljet is lush and green and well suited for hiring bikes and exploring lagoons, while Vis is hilly, under-populated and laid-back, and Korcula is renowned for its scenery, beaches and wine. The aforementioned Hvar is a draw for upmarket clients, while the Kornati archipelago is well placed for independent-minded exploration. A whole host of lesser-known jewels exist, with peaceful outcrops in ready supply. Accessible, beautiful and diverse, Croatia’s Dalmatian coastline remains one of Europe’s most rewarding spots for island-hopping, with plentiful sunshine and Mediterranean cuisine adding to the appeal.
ENJOYING ZAGREB’S CAFE CULTURE
Zagreb is an intriguing city. Often overlooked in favor of the postcard honeypots around the coast, Croatia’s capital is nevertheless somewhere with real tourism appeal. You’ll find a series of fine old-world buildings, a lively arts scene and an individual culture that draws elements from both Eastern and Western Europe.
The city has plenty to offer year-round, but those keen to experience it in its finest form, come in the summer months, when the local cafe culture is at its al fresco peak. Coffee drinking and conversation are two of Croatia’s national pastimes, so it’s common to see Zagreb’s squares and pavements alive with crowded tables.
This garrulous energy continues well past sundown, too — Zagreb has a young population, meaning there’s some decidedly vibrant nightlife to enjoy. For those who like to keep things traditional, the opera, ballet and theater are all of a high standard. In short, it’s somewhere to really experience the pace of life of a European capital, but without the huge tourist numbers.
BACK TO NATURE AT PLITVICE LAKES
The classic vacation image of Croatia is that of the country’s coastline and islands, but there’s far more to the destination than its beaches and blue-green ocean. Plitvice Lakes National Park is a case in point. Inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 1979, the 115sq mile park is home to caves, woodland and — most famously — lakes and waterfalls.
The centerpiece is a series of 16 lakes, water cascading from one to another as it makes its way downstream. There’s a frisson of wildness added by the presence of brown bears, eagle owls, wolves and wild boar, although you’re unlikely to spot bears or wolves near the main paths during the day, and there’s great potential for serious hikers.
But Plitvice is by no means somewhere just for hardy adventurers — trains and boats provide sightseeing options through the main highlights of the park, located just a couple of hours south of Zagreb, or north of Split.
Travel tastes: “It offers gastronomy at its best — lamb from Cres, oysters from Ston, tomatoes from Hvar, sheep cheese from Pag, figs from the Kornati Islands.” Wanda Radetti, Tasteful Croatian Journeys.
Size matters: “You can travel all over the country in two or three weeks.” Maja Halvaks Geriric, Scrinium Tours.
Euro star: “Croatia has all that a traveler might want: the architecture speaks of Greece, the Roman Empire, the Republic of Venice and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.” Wanda Radetti.
Up and coming: “Lonely Planet, Conde Nast Traveler and National Geographic all praise the country, but the real ‘Croatia discovery’ in the US is yet to come.” Maja Halvaks Geriric.
High standards: “Despite the global crisis, Croatia has continued investing in tourism and raising quality.” Andreja Cvitkovic, Croatian National Tourist Office in New York.
PUBLISHED IN THE FALL 2012 ISSUE OF ASTAnetwork