Crusin’ along the Dalmatian Coast
Have you ever heard of the old adage, otherwise known as Murphy’s Law, that, “anything that can go wrong, will go wrong”? That is how my two girlfriends and I felt in the days leading up to our road trip to mark 10 years of graduation from University and 13 years of friendship. This particular trip was years in the making. Not only do we live in three different cities but each of us have very full schedules so trying to find a mutually convenient time to travel was an achievement in its own right.
Getting back to the story.
In the days leading up to our trip, one injured her hand playing netball, which would have been alright were she not one of the two drivers on our trip, the other being me. My other friend had a more serious injury leaving a huge question mark on whether she would be able to join us on the trip at all.
Well, as luck would have it, I was waiting to receive my passport from the Embassy. What should have been a two week process, three weeks and four days later I was still waiting to hear from the Embassy. Fortunately, my passport came back the day before I travelled and we were all good to go, except for the part where I was only issued a single entry visa to Croatia. The importance of this will become clearer below.
With the limited time that we had in Croatia (9 days in total), we decided to forego spending time in Zagreb. As it happens when you try to pack too many things into a short itinerary, you regret having to give things a miss.
My flight was the first into Zagreb at 9am and as my friends weren’t due to arrive for at least another few hours, I opted to head into the town centre and take a bike tour with Zagreb By Bike. I had pre-booked a private bike tour with the company but when I arrived at the store-front, I realised that I had given them the wrong dates! More Murphy’s Law. Fortunately, the tour guide was very understanding of the situation and she was able to accommodate on a speedy tour around Zagreb.
Zagreb feels almost like any other European capital with the town square being the centre of attraction. There were definitely sights that I wish I could have explored, if I had the time – the Museum of Broken Hearts being one of them. So my advice, if you are visiting, try to spend a day or two in the city.
Once my friends arrived from London and Birmingham, we set off for Plitvice Lakes. All the literature we had read recommended spending a full day at the lakes, especially if we wanted to avoid the crowds. With that in mind, we decided to drive down the night before. The lakes are approximately a 3 hour drive from Zagreb. Unfortunately, getting out of Zagreb took longer than expected due to rush hour traffic. Add in a couple of snack and supply stops, by the time we arrived at our B&B in Plitvice, it was quite late. We arrived to rain, only to be told our room had been mistakenly given to the wrong person. Our host suggested that we head to the nearby restaurant (not a good idea) to have dinner whilst she sorted out our situation; more Murphy’s Law anyone?
All of the trouble we experienced was forgotten as soon as we touched down at the Lakes, the next morning. From our accommodation, the Entrance 2 gate is only about a 15 minute walk. We set off fairly early the next morning in the hopes of beating crowds. There is plenty of literature available on how to navigate the Lakes, but what you should know is that it is one of the oldest national parks in South East Europe, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it is a series of 16 interconnecting lakes separated into an upper and lower cluster known as the Upper Lakes and Lower Lakes. In places, the water is so clear that you can see right down to the lake bed. The water is such an array of colours on the colour spectrum that you would need to know all the shades of blue, green and the colours in between to describe it. The advice I would offer is this:
- Spend at least one or two nights in Plitvice which will give you a full day at the lakes. This allows you to explore the lakes at a leisurely pace, and cover the length and breadth of the area.
- I would advise that you start at the Upper Lakes as I found this area to have a lot more natural and rustic beauty in comparison to the Lower Lakes.
- Arrive early to avoid the massive crowds that come in by bus or car from Zadar, Split and Zagreb.
- Take advantage of the row boats. It was so nice to row out to the middle of the lakes and appreciate the scenery without anyone around.
I don’t deny that the Lakes are beautiful and a wonder of mother nature. Unfortunately for me, I read too much and viewed a thousand pictures of the Lakes prior to visiting that the experience on the whole was a bit underwhelming. There was almost a choreographed feeling to the experience that you felt that the experience on the whole was a bit unnatural. I read somewhere that almost a million people visit the Plitvice Lakes each year, so clearly millions of people feel differently than I do.
- Food options are very limited in and around the Plitvice Lakes, however Licka Kuca is a nice place to visit for dinner. They have a few sea food options. Vegetarian options are unfortunately limited.
- I would recommend carrying food along with you in to the Lakes area. The options are limited for people without dietary restrictions, so you can imagine that for vegetarians and those who are halal conscious, the lack of dining options would pose a challenge.
The following morning we set off for Split. Our intention was to spend the day in Split before catching a ferry to Hvar. The drive to split is approximately 2.5 to 3 hours.
Although Split is beautiful and I would have liked to have spent more time exploring the town, the sheer number of tourists detracted from our experience, so much so that we were eager to move on to our next destination. And yes, I completely understand the irony of that statement, but I like to think that I’m ‘different’ and not like the ‘rest’. My friends make fun of me for saying this but I like to think that I am a Traveller and not a Tourist. Again, I digress.
Part of the reason for the city being overrun by tourists are the cruise ships. Most of these ships port in the city in the morning and set sail again by late afternoon; so you have upwards of 3,000 cruise-shippers trying to make the most of their short time in the city.
There is plenty to see in Split, but because we were limited on time, we did the highlights version and stuck to the Old Town. If you are a fan of the Game of Thrones, many locations around Split would be familiar to you. After you take in the sights, enjoy a cup or cone of gelato by the harbour.
- Try and get to Split early in the morning or late afternoon, this is when most tourists leave so you will be able to enjoy walking around the Old Town without having to bump into tourists at every corner.
- All transportation to the islands usually leave from Split.
- Diocletian’s Palace
- Cathedral of Saint Dominus
- Temple of Jupiter
- Gregorius of Nin
- Basement Halls
- Villa Spiza – By the time we got here, the restaurant was closed but it comes highly recommended.
- Bepa – Lots of really good vegetarian and seafood options. The black mushroom pasta is especially divine.
Hvar is more affectionately known as the party island of Croatia. And it is one of the most popular tourist destinations. The only way to access the island is by catamaran or ferry. If it’s possible, carry a rucksack or a small suitcase to the island, as there are plenty of hills and limited transportation to get you there. Trust me, carrying suitcases uphill or on an uneven path is no easy feat.
We were in Hvar for about 2 days and that gave us plenty of the time to eat gelato and lounge in the sun. Most visitors to the island, as far as I could tell, are either day trippers or back-packers. The island also has a distinct Mediterranean feel to it; people are very laid-back and
One place I cannot recommend enough is Fortica. Although it is a bit of a trek to get there, the views are definitely worth a visit. If you have the time, visit Vis and the Blue grotto, which are accessible as a day trip from Hvar.
- Suncani Hvar Hotels – this chain operates many of the high end hotels in Hvar.
- The Shaka – this is a hostel that also offers private rooms. Slightly away from the main town, the hostel offers some beautiful views of the island. I was anxious about staying in a hostel, because I am not comfortable sharing with strangers and I like to have my own bathroom. My one and only experience at a hostel in London was disastrous but I was advised not to set the standard by that experience. Fortunately, the staff at The Shaka were super lovely and welcoming and the rooms were clean and comfortable. If your a solo traveller, a hostel can be a really great place to stay as there are so many people that you can befriend and experience the city with.
- White Rabbit Hostel – this was our first choice due to the proximity to the town, i.e. around the corner, but it was unavailable at the time that we had booked.
- Fig – This is a top place to visit for breakfast or brunch. The spicy eggs are amazing.
- Vartal – visit for the mussels. Not as good as mussels that you would get in Belgium, but they measure up. Be warned, mussels are generally cooked in wine in Croatia so ensure that you ask for it to be cooked in cream or tomato sauce. You will get weird looks from the wait staff, but ignore this.
- Aloha – Great place to sit by the harbour, have a drink (of the non-alcoholic variety of course) and enjoy fabulous music by the DJ.
- Falks bar – came highly recommended by the staff at our hostel, but we didn’t have sufficient time to visit. It is about 30-45 minute from the town square and is a type of beach bar with HAMMOCKS!!
- Fortica – for the most amazing views of the island. Head up just before dusk to experience a beautiful sunset.
- Walk along the coast, in the direction of Pokonji dol if you want a off the beaten path beach experience.
- Beaches – Get there early if you want prime sun-bathing real estate close to the town square. Beaches are also pebble beaches as opposed to sandy beaches so make sure you have appropriate footwear for when you venture into the water.
There are challenges to travelling because of my nationality. I will never be able to to be one of those people who would be able to travel and work from anywhere, primarily because I need a visa to get to most places. One of the key requirements for a visa is having a place of residence. No where was this made more clear than in Croatia. Getting to Dubrovnik owing to my Indian nationality was not easy. But never let a challenge stop you from travelling. Essentially, due to the fact that driving to Dubrovnik required crossing the Bosnian border, my girlfriends and I had to part ways because I was only provided a single entry visa to Croatia and I didn’t have the requisite visa to cross the Bosnian border. So, I departed on the 9am catamaran to Dubrovnik and my friends were going to meet me in Dubrovnik (they had to travel back to Split to pick up our car).
If I thought Split was overrun with tourists, then what awaited me in Dubrovnik was next level crazy. There were tourists, tourists and more tourists. An indication should have been the cruise ships I had seen when pulling into the harbour but my mind just didn’t register anything beyond wondering how some of these ships could have more than 10 levels! I mean some of those ships were larger than apartment buildings at home.
We had made the decision to stay within the Walled City because we wanted to explore the Old Town outside of the peak hours. And I’m glad we made that decision. On one of the mornings, we woke up fairly early to catch the sunrise and on another day we explored the town long after all the tourists had left. Our apartment was located on the main Stradun which meant we were minutes from all the main sights. Because there was so much to do within the Old Town, we didn’t really explore anything outside of the city, which I regret now as I’ve heard there are some great beaches such as Copacabana Beach and Lapad Bay.
We were in Dubrovnik for about four days which is more than enough time to explore the Old Town, and the Dubrovnik in general.
- There are plenty of hotels and hostels in the Old Town. As with Hvar, if you have a lot of luggage, I would recommend staying outside the Old Town as there are quite a lot of steep stairs to navigate.
- We stayed at the Princess Dora Apartments (booked via booking.com). Although the price is steep, I would definitely recommend staying here because not only is it a cosy apartment, but it is located on the main Stradun which makes it convenient to go back and take a breather if it gets too hot.
- Bota – Amazing sushi and oysters
- Oliva – For great pizza
- Nishta – Vegetarian restaurant that weirdly enough offers quite a few Indian dishes
- Moskar – There are quite a few vegetarian options here
- Sunset kayak – This is such a special experience. There are plenty of companies in and around the Old Town that offer sunset kayaking experiences. They all follow the same route so it doesn’t really matter which company you choose.
- City Walls & Forts – Whilst you can explore the City Walls on your own, I think having a guide along will give you a more enriched experience. If you’re there early in the morning, you can also stop off along the way for a lovely breakfast.
- Pile Gate – This is the main entrance to the Old Town. Also, a Game of Thrones filming site.
- Onofrio Fountain
- Pharmacy within the Franciscan Monastery & Museum – This is one of the oldest working pharmacies in Europe. We stumbled across this pharmacy almost by accident when we went in search of allergy medication. What we found inside this pharmacy were long queues of Asian women. When we inquired what the hoopla was about, we were told that these women were waiting to buy creams were made from herbs and plants that were especially grown within the Monastery. One thing I know is that Asian women know their beauty products. So my friends and I jumped on the bandwagon, and bought some creams to take back with us.
- Lovrjenac Fort – On the way to the fort, you will pass a couple of areas that were used in the filming of the Game of Thrones.
- Buza bar – This place started out as one of those hidden treasures but has quickly become popular amongst tourists and locals alike. It is also a bit of an attraction for daredevils, as you can jump off the cliff into the sea below (see photo above). I tried and failed miserably – couldn’t gather the courage to make that jump.
Krka National Parks
We needed to drive back to Zagreb to return the car and catch our return flights to our respective home cities. Unlike my journey to Dubrovnik from Hvar, there were no ferries that would offer me a similar journey back to Hvar or Split which meant that our only option was to drive. This meant that we needed to find a route that would allow me to avoid the Bosnian border. Fortunately, I had done some research before arriving in Croatia and new that we needed to set off from Dubrovnik at sunrise in order to catch our ferry from Trpanj to Ploce and then drive on to Zagreb from there. As the drive from Dubrovnik to Zagreb showed as being over 6 hours long, we decided to break our journey by visiting the Krka National Parks. We had hoped that we would be able to spend a half day in the parks before heading to Zagreb, but we got turned around along the way and so ended up only being able to visit one part of the parks (the less popular part).
Krka is similar to the Plitvice Lakes in that there are many natural bodies of water surrounded by lush vegetation. However, what makes the parks distinct is that the river water has created a canyon over time and the resulting vegetation has created some magnificent waterfalls. There are many ways to access the park. We were told that the popular entrance to the park is via the town of Skardin. If you have the time, I would recommend that you start there as the tickets include a boat ride that will bring you to the part of the park that we visited. Because we got turned around on our way to the park, we accessed the park through the entrance that serves Roski Slap (translates to Big Waterfall). In comparison to Plitvice Lakes, I much preferred this Park because it was more peaceful here. We hiked to the top of the canyon, by mistake (we misread the trail signs), but I’m glad we did because the views were definitely worth it.
- The restaurant at the hotel serves fresh trout that they fish out of the local water. When I say fresh, I mean literally just fished out of the water.
- The drive from Roski Slap to Zagreb will take you approximately 4 hours. Leave plenty of time to get back.
- If you are looking for a hotel near Zagreb airport, Barca Nikko is a really lovely place. The best part is that it is only a 10 minute walk to the airport.
- Beware of cruise ships. If you are visiting any towns or cities where cruise ships port, I would recommend spending the night. Why? Most cruise ships port at around 10/11am and leave around 4/5pm. Use the hours before and after to explore the towns/cities you are in. Cruise ships range between 3,000 to 10,000 passengers. And in towns like Split and Dubrovnik that are fortified, you will feel it.
- Most people to travel to Croatia during the summer to take advantage of the fabulous weather. It may be worthwhile to travel there at the beginning of the off-season so that you don’t feel as stifled by the tourists.
- A theme that has been recurring during all my recent travels is that I never have enough time to explore the places I visit. Croatia especially, drove that point home. My recommendation is that if you have the time, take 2 – 3 weeks to explore places like Istria, Pula, Zadar and nearby Bosnia and Montenegro.
Driving in Croatia
- If you are driving along the coast and not using the highway, the scenery is something out of this world.
- One of the things we underestimated during our trip was how difficult and expensive parking would be. Make sure you plan well by ensuring that either your accommodation offers parking or that you know where the closest public parking garage is located.
- If you are planning to visit places like Plitvice Lakes, Istria, Zadar, Sibenic, Krka National Park etc, then I would recommend driving. However, I would recommend making Split the last stop on your drive prior to visiting the islands or Dubrovnik. I would drop off the car in Split as the islands and Dubrovnik are accessible by Ferry (and convenient). Dubrovnik airport serves many destinations, so you can fly home from this city.
- Book ferry / catamaran tickets in advance as there are limited ferries and you want to make sure that you get on. www.jadrolinija.hr is the main ferry operator in Croatia.
- There is only one ferry a day to Dubrovnik from the island of Hvar, leaving at 8.45am.
- Keep plenty of change on hand for highway tolls.
- Along the coast, much of the roads are dual carriage way which makes for a slow drive. Ensure that you have more than one person who is able to drive as the journey tires you out quite easily.
- Don’t underestimate drive times. Add at least 30 mins more to the journey than planned.
- If you are driving, to get to Dubrovnik you need to cross the Bosnian border. If you require a visa to enter Croatia, then you would require a Bosnian visa as well.
- As an Indian, I would recommend applying for a multiple entry Schengen visit visa. Although Croatia is not part of the Schengen area, having a Schengen visa will allow you entry to Croatia as well as allow you to cross the Bosnian border. It’s also handy if you want to visit Budva or Kotor in Montenegro and Mostar, Bosnia.
- If you want to drive to Dubrovnik by avoiding the Bosnian border, it is possible but requires a longer drive You need to catch a ferry from Trpanj to Ploce. Ensure that you get there early enough to buy a car ferry ticket. These cannot be booked in advance.