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  • Elaine Philbrick

Croatia



Mediterranean vacation where English is the lingua franca, unlike most of Europe. Charming medieval towns and Roman Empire sights, including the best-preserved coliseum and Roman emperor’s palace in the world. Stunning scenery, turquoise waters, beautiful islands and beaches.




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Restaurant reservations are highly recommended as Croatia is a very popular tourist destination. You won’t get in or will have to wait a long time for any good restaurant. Making reservations are easy: there’s no language barrier and email and OpenTable make it convenient to do from home.


 

Split’s Palace Bell Tower

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Sleep Split Hotel is moderately priced but delivers way above its pay grade. It has a super location near the Golden Gate in the center of the old city, good air-conditioning, spotless airy rooms in a historic building, modern bathrooms with good showers, and an elevator if you don’t want to take the stairs. It is close to a large ground level public parking lot for your rental car (parking lots in the city are rare), next to one of the few taxi stands in the city and that even has taxis always waiting, and even has a few spaces for easy drop-off and pick-up by the front door. This hotel has rare easy logistics for this old city so will really make your trip easy. And the beds are as soft as clouds!


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"Wow Cities". Most Americans visit Dubrovnik or other charming medieval Croatian villages, but for us the most ‘wow’ cities are ones like Split and Pula that have excellently preserved 2,000 year old architecture. Pula is often overlooked by Americans because it is in Istria, the Italian part which is a 5-hour drive north of Split. However, for its quality and quantity of world-class Roman Empire architecture it is a must-see destination.





FRIDAY Arrive at Split Airport with its dramatic location on a harbor and immediately stop at an ATM to take out some cash for the taxi ride. Warning: Croatian taxis only take cash, as do some businesses. Take taxi 25 minutes to the Sleep Split Hotel next to Diocletian’s palace in the center of the old town. Check into hotel and relax. Then walk 3 minutes to the taverna Konoba Kod Joze in an historic house with a traditional Croatian menu which is open until midnight and was full of locals. Go to bed early as the next day will be busy!


Perystile courtyard of Diocletian’s Palace


SATURDAY Get some breakfast to go at the oldest bakery in Split - Tradicija Bakery (cash only – great cinnamon rolls and cherry strudel), then walk 8 minutes for the 8:45 am boat ride on Sugaman Tours Office to swim and snorkel in the Blue Lagoon off Budikovac Island, have lunch at Beach Club Shkoy that is super Instagrammable and has great food and vibe, and visit UNESCO site Trogir (est. 300 BC), returning at 2:15 pm.


Schkoy Beach Club Restaurant
Shkoy beside the Blue Lagoon

Relax at the hotel, and then explore the city with one of the self-guided tours available for free on the internet. Among other sights you will walk through each of the 4 gates of the Palace of Diocletian (Gold, Silver, Bronze, and Iron), rub Bishop Gregory of Nin’s toe, and visit the Cathedral of St. Domnius (2nd oldest church in the world from 295 AD, and only church with hunting scenes since it was the emperor’s mausoleum with the altar where his coffin was!). If you still have energy you can walk 15 minutes uphill or take a taxi for dinner at Restoran Vidilica with its stunning views of Split from their small lookout point. This restaurant and the Restaurant Adriatic have the best views of Split.


View of Split from Restoran Vidilica

SUNDAY Grab another breakfast to go in order to join an 8:00 am private boat charter. We cannot recommend Dario Besic, owner of Croatia Boat Trips, highly enough. He went over our itinerary to make it sure it was the best for us. We decided to nix the Blue Cave, Monk Seal Cave on Bisevo Island, and Stiniva Cove as it would add an extra 3 hours to the trip not including waiting to enter the coves. Instead, we decided to snorkel on Vis Island to view the underwater Stations of the Cross (giant statues) and crashed plane, floating inflatable trampoline and slides, and incredibly charming day loungers perched in nooks along the cove’s cliffs. We had the lunch of fantasies at Zori in the Pakleni Islands overlooking a scenic narrow cove packed with yachts, stopped at Maslinica in Solta briefly for drinks, and then our favorite stop - snorkeling over the sunken ship in the shallow blue waters of Necujam harbor on Solta. We then went to the famous sunny Hvar where the men – in sandals! – hiked up the steep cliff to its castle. We returned at 6:00 pm to Split and after resting in our hotel took a taxi to Restaurant Adriatic for dinner. The restaurant is set on a high cliff overlooking the Adriatic and Split, and has a vibrant social scene as it’s frequently the setting of marriage proposals, baby showers, date nights, etc.


View from Fortica Fortress, Hvar


MONDAY After a quick breakfast take a cab (always cabs waiting in front of the Croatian National Theatre) or an Uber to the airport to get a rental car. Drive 50 minutes to a 10:00 am whitewater rafting start on the Cetina River meeting in front of the Zlatna Dolina Restaurant (59 Bajagic in Blato Na Cetini). Another top notch recommendation earned by Marko Franic, owner and guide at Active365. With 20+ years of experience on the Cetina, noone is more knowledgeable, more skilled, or more cheerful! In addition to paddling narrow kayak-shaped rafts, you can jump off rocks of 10 and 30 meters, and treat the kayak like a slide as it balances against rocks!


Cetina River rafting

The river is fantastic – crystal clear water with a very fast current spilling over numerous small waterfalls within high cliffs. At one point where there were no protruding rocks, we all snorkeled enjoying watching the fish and rocks going by at a fast pace – we just had to keep busy steering with our flippers since we were already going much too fast to need to swim! The whitewater rafting concludes around 1:00 pm, so you can lunch there or drive 50 minutes back to Split for lunch. After relaxing from your big adventure, stop by the Game of Thrones Museum and its store across the street where you can take a photo on the Iron Throne with any purchase. Then we recommend you head out to dinner at Chops Grill – Steak & Seafood, which is a truly great steak house that does everything well so is sure to please everyone. It’s also a short walk back to the hotel.




TUESDAY On this day we recommend you either visit the famous Krka National Park or go on an ATV tour with Asteria Adventures. We chose the former, and it’s an easy drive to Skradin where you can take the ferry to the justly most famous waterfall in Croatia, Skradinski Buk.


Skradinski Buk waterfall in Krka
Skradinski Buk waterfall in Krka

ATVing in Pula

Two notes of caution: it will be crowded which means long waits to go over the bridge to get closer views, and very long lines to wait for a boat back. Despite what some travel books and websites told us, there is no swimming allowed near the waterfall with multiple signs warning against it. There are lots of places to buy food and souvenirs. Because of the crowds it is likely the only part of the park you will see, so it was disappointing to us that we couldn’t also get to the Visovac Franciscan monastery on an island in a lake. For dinner, treat yourselves to what is considered the best restaurant in Split called Dvor, which has a famous chef and a beautiful location overlooking the harbor.

WEDNESDAY After breakfast, check out of the hotel and drive 2.5 hours to Plitvice Lakes National Park. Since they sell out, be sure to buy a ticket to the park online as soon as you can (before coming to Croatia is best), and be prepared to specify an entrance gate and the time of day. We can highly recommend Fenomen Plitvice Chalette Luxury Lodge with its charming and expansive grounds, high quality restaurant on site, and a hot tub cabin you can privately reserve for several hours that’s free for guests. Enjoy a relaxing dinner at the hotel.

Plitvice waterfall

THURSDAY Park right by the entrance gate and walk to the boat that takes you to a good network of trails. Since you can only use the boat once (!) plan on taking the train-bus (long bus with multiple sections attached) back. You could also hike right from the entrance to the whole park if the line for the boat is very long. Explore Plitvice Lakes National Park by following the longer and more scenic C trail, and finish at the main lodge area where there is food, bathrooms, and a train-bus stop. Take the train-bus back to the entrance you started from. On the short few minutes’ drive back to the hotel, stop on the right before the bridge and follow signs to view a dramatic tall waterfall. Note that if you have to do laundry it’s about a 20-minute

drive away to another hotel and is quite expensive. We can highly recommend enjoying dinner at Etno Garden Plitvice which is only 1 mile away and is very charming with crowd-friendly food.

FRIDAY After breakfast, check out of your hotel and drive 3.5 hours to Pula. We highly recommend staying at the Grand Hotel Brioni overlooking the ocean. It has an incredibly dramatic long infinity edge pool that faces the sunset. If you have the energy and interest, book one of the many dolphin sunset dinner cruises offered at the harbor, where you’re virtually guaranteed to see dolphins on any given night. It’s a tough choice though, between that and the really extensive and amazing quality of the buffet dinner at the Hotel Brioni!

Grand Hotel Brioni sunset

SATURDAY After enjoying another incredible buffet for breakfast at the hotel, you’re in for the treat of world-class sights. The first must-do is the best preserved Coliseum Coliseum/Amphitheatre from the Roman Empire. You will want at least an hour there, walking around and absorbing the atmosphere. Built between 27 BC and 68 AD, it was where many early Christian martyrs were killed, particularly in the time of Diocletian. They have a service we can recommend of renting quality Roman Empire period clothing, and in that authentic setting your photos will look very convincing!


Taking in Pula’s Colosseum

Dave and Brett as Roman gladiators!

Also in Pula is the well-preserved Temple of Augustus (Caesar) built in 1 AD overlooking the former Forum, the Gate of Hercules, and the amazing Arch of the Sergii which was built in 29 BC to celebrate the defeat of Cleopatra and Mark Antony.

Arch of the Sergii in Pula

The triumphal arch is in good condition especially given its age, and was likely the influence for the later Arch of Titus which in turn was the basis for Paris’s famous triumphal arch. There is a perfectly preserved 1,500 year old mosaic discovered after WWII when the city was clearing away houses bombed by the British, that anywhere else would be in a major museum! Here it’s a hidden gem in which to find it you have to walk through a dress shop out its back door and walk to the right of a dirt parking lot and it’s behind a metal fence! TripAdvisor and guide books only give instructions to the general area and tell you to ask directions of locals. Here’s the GPS address you need: walk through the shop at 18 Ulica Sergijeva.

SUNDAY Checking out of your hotel, if you didn’t choose the ATV tour near Split, a great choice is Quad Explorer Tour that will have you off-roading around a former military base, climbing up an Austro-Hungarian fort tower for expansive views of four significant islands, and really enjoying Danijel’s Lighthouse hippie beach bar with creative art furniture and a usable porta-potty with the most insane location and view in the world: it’s bungy-corded on a cliff edge! Then drive 2 hours to Zadar and check into your hotel and catch the amazing sunset! A must-do is to join the crowds and sit and enjoy the Sea Organ (waves make haunting sounds through organ pipes in the water under you) and The Greeting to the Sun (floor solar panels which light up at night making a big outdoor colorful disco floor).


Zadar’s Greeting to the Sun

We highly recommend dinner at Butler Gourmet & Cocktails Garden (cash only) which has a great location and festive atmosphere on the harbor, and a crowd-pleasing menu. We stayed at Demar Residence Zadar and can highly recommend it with its spotless sunny rooms, pool, and easy free parking.

MONDAY It’s an easy 1.5 hour drive to Split Airport, so you may find yourself with extra time. An easy and great stop on the way is to go to Kastela (15 minutes from airport) which has lots of free public parking lots, and enjoy a crepe breakfast or lunch overlooking the water under tents at Krespo Bar. Their crepe menu is many pages long! It also is next to a playground and attracts lots of families which makes for fun people- watching. Sadly drive back to the airport and return your rental car and catch your flight home.

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