Croatia’s idyllic interior, compact capital and national parks deserve more attention, says Andrew Eames
There’s a country bordering the Mediterranean whose 500-mile coastline shelves steeply into the deep blue — but then changes its mind and pops up again. And again. And again. The result is a proliferation of over a thousand islands.Both islands and mainland are studded with ancient, Venetian-influenced stone villages that cluster around peaceful anchorages, creating some of Europe’s best places for shoreline mooching, lingering on restaurant terraces, basking in quiet coves, and messing around in boats.
That country in question is Croatia, one of the recent success stories of European tourism. It’s a destination that welcomed over 16 million tourists in 2016, helped by the huge role played by the UNESCO-recognized walled city of Dubrovnik in the hit HBO series Game of Thrones. Thanks in part to all that good publicity, this boomerang-shaped country, with one long arm along the shore of the Adriatic and the other poking into the heart of the Balkans, is steadily attracting increasing numbers of US travelers.
But that success isn’t just down to Game of Thrones. Innovation for 2017 includes a new brand of the Unique Luxury Hotels Group called ‘Stories’ that focuses on 16 selected hotels located in everything from feudal manors to city palaces. Meanwhile, the country is celebrating its first ever Michelin star, awarded to restaurant Monte, in Rovinj, which is known for its seafood, truffles and exceptional wines.
Ina Rodin, the Croatian National Tourist Office’s director in North America, says: “We’ve focused a tremendous amount of effort to inspire travelers and are humbled to see that our efforts are being recognized through overall visitor numbers.”
Transportation is benefitting from substantial investment, too, with a new terminal just opened in Zagreb airport to equip it to deal with five million tourists a year. Airports at Brac and Losinj are being upgraded and the new Dubrovnik terminal is slated for completion by 2019. Air Transat’s nonstop seasonal flights between Toronto and Zagreb were successful in 2016, and the airline plans to expand upon the route in 2017. For younger visitors, the country is maintaining its profile as a festival hotspot with the likes of Soundwave Croatia, Outlook Festival and Ultra Europe Festival.
When the new Hyatt Regency opens in Zadar in 2019, the resort city will have taken a big step towards emerging from the shadow of its more famous neighbors, Split and Dubrovnik, to its south. The latter two may have their hinterland of fashionable Dalmatian islands such as Hvar, Brac and Korcula, much loved by cruise ship visitors, but Dubrovnik, in particular, gets overwhelmed with summer crowds.
These days those who want to avoid the crowds are staying north, in the Croatian heartlands, preferring the likes of Zadar, with its quirky history as a narrow-laned trading port, 19th-century Austro-Hungarian resort and 1960s Communist outpost on display. Zadar County has its own offshore island playground, and then there’s the adjacent Kornati archipelago, a marine national park. These will all be an easy boat ride for the new hotel’s guests.
And even if they don’t get to go offshore, they can get a sense of the sea’s mystery by standing on the end of the city’s peninsular, where a unique instrument beneath the concrete uses pipes to harness the sea’s movement and make otherworldly music, as if mythical feet were working the pedals of a celestial cathedral organ.
Plitvice Lakes National Park
The appeal of Croatia’s heartlands is not just about the coastline. Inland from Zadar, a 90-minute drive up the new highway towards capital city Zagreb, is the Plitvice Lakes National Park, also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The design of Plitvice’s main entrance still smacks of the Communist era, but once visitors have penetrated inside — mostly on wooden walkways — they’ll begin to fall under the spell of the place.
The park is extensive and wild, with bears and wolves roaming the surrounding hills, but for most visitors the focus is on Plitvice’s pools of karstic water. Here water and vegetation co-exist in strangely compelling hanging gardens. Waterfalls burst over hillsides in a tumbrel of eddies and cascades. And as for the pools below, they’re gin-clear and filled with multicolored fish.
Back on the new highway a couple of hours north of Plitvice, the Croatian capital Zagreb is regularly overlooked by holidaymakers in their rush for the sea. Yet this is a genteel place, dominated by cultural institutions, with more than hint of Vienna about it. Mostly built by the Habsburgs, it comes in two main parts: Gornji Grad, the old town home to the Croatian parliament, sits atop a hill and has a sleepy village vibe, except when motorcades of politicians sweep in. Donji Grad, the lower town, is the commercial center where the theaters and museums (including the Museum of Broken Relationships) are located. The market is great for regional produce, and the restaurant-lined Tkalciceva Street is a top people-watching spot in the evenings.
If Zagreb is almost like a country town pretending to be a capital city, then its hinterland, the Zagorje, is its cottage garden. This inland region nestled against the Slovenian border is a slice of 19th-century Europe preserved in aspic, smelling of summer kitchens and newly mown hay. It’s a landscape of tiny vineyards, vegetable gardens, orchards and cornfields. There are also jumbled hills, woodlands and rivers, sometimes overlooked by crumbling castles, plus villages with no vowels in their name and barely any traffic on their roads.
Finally, there’s more traditional, seaside holidaymaking to be done on Zagreb’s nearest stretch of coast. Beyond ferry port Rovinj is the Kvarner Bay resort of Opatija, 90 minutes from the capital, set on a curving coastline that climbs steeply into forested mountains. In the late 19th century, the aristocracy decamped here en masse as soon as it got chilly in Vienna. Today, Opatija is still the Nice of the Croatian Riviera, a place of old money, with great fish restaurants and private casinos. The seafront is one long promenade, with a botanical garden, a bandstand and tea rooms. The Viennese, who were partial to a bit of cake, used to have it sent here by train, and it’s still a place to have a sachertorte with a sea view.
Some of Opatija’s glorious villas are still in private hands, but one or two are the dowager duchesses of the hotel world, with high ceilings, faded damask, echoing corridors and the aura of the Orient Express. Staying here is a bit like stepping into the location for a period movie where the cast and characters have just left. And it has that in common with Dubrovnik. Although in many other respects it belongs to a very different world.