In each quaint village I visited in Croatia, the local tour
guide proudly informed me that I was in “the most beautiful town in
all of Croatia.” The frescoed churches, winding cobblestone streets
lined with bakeries and the view of the surrounding Tuscan-inspired
green hills, all convinced me that this tour guide, in this town,
was correct in his boasting.
As Croatia rides the wave of its thriving rebound back into the
tourism industry, it seems each citizen is sure of the validity of
Croatia’s success. It is without a doubt for each Croatian I came
across that their homeland is deserving of the accolades and its
new status as a “hot” destination. Every taxi driver enlightened me
politely of the fact that Croatia offers “over 1,000 islands” with
an endearing sense of ownership and pride.
Perhaps this eagerness to convey what makes Croatia special
derives from the country’s recent history. Occupied by Serb
military as recently as 1998, Croatia’s economy was virtually
destroyed. A current turn to capitalism is helping to rebuild the
country including the tourism industry. Croatians are keen to prove
to the world that they are no longer a war-torn nation but a
recovered country with a chance to show travelers, as yet another
proud citizen put it, “this beautiful little piece of the earth
that we call Croatia.”
The Eastern European gem has played on its natural beauty and
prime location to attract visitors, and it has worked, as the
number of travelers coming to Croatia is rising.
“Croatia is extremely popular within Europeans, and more and
more Americans are discovering its beauty in all segments,” said
Daniela Pavelic, travel consultant for the Croatian National
Tourist Board. “There were 141,867 arrivals (from January to
October 2006) a 35 percent increase compared to last year’s
numbers. This number does not include numerous cruises that have
ports of call along the Adriatic.”
According to the FutureBrand Country Brand Index, 2006, Croatia
has been deemed a “rising star” in the way of tourism and is likely
to become a major tourist destination in the next five years.
Despite the increase in visitors, Croatia is not overcrowded.
Travelers get a sense of the exoticism of Eastern Europe and still
have plenty of choice in activities and accommodations. Many hotels
are now promoting spa treatments and watersports alongside
traditional concerts and historical tours. In fact, there is no
better time to visit Croatia. Even the Croatian National Tourist
Board’s slogan addresses this quality: “The Mediterranean as It
Once Was.” Many liken Croatia to a pre-tourism Italy, offering the
same gorgeous scenery and historic charm without the inflated price
tags and crammed cafes.
Although many tourists head straight to its stunning coastline,
Croatia is now urging visitors to discover the country’s interior
for its well-preserved historical towns and award-winning
As the capital of Croatia and the hub of international
travel to the country, Zagreb is the natural core for Croatian
inland itineraries. Described by one of our guides as having a
“very good cultural life for such a small city,” Zagreb offers a
variety of well-appointed accommodations and easy day-trip options
without the frantic pace typical of capital cities. The city still
employs a lamp-lighter to turn on the streetlights each
The most esteemed hotel in Croatia, the Regent Esplanade Zagreb,
is a luxurious and historical hotel set in the heart of the city
within walking distance of attractions. The hotel reopened in 2004
after a complete renovation designed to merge up-to-date comforts
such as complimentary high-speed wireless with the building’s
impressive art nouveau architecture. Guests can also enjoy the
on-site health club offering treatments, saunas and a fitness
Nearby is the 306-room Sheraton Zagreb Hotel and The Westin,
which are also conveniently located near the city’s places of
Guests can stroll from either hotel to see the city no taxis or
mass transportation is needed in Zagreb. As one resident put it,
“The people of Croatia live very much outside,” and leave their
homes to participate in the local street culture.
Clients can rub elbows with city residents at the Dolac Market,
where locals sell fresh produce. The market is surrounded by cafes
that allow for great people-watching and a chance to see the city
at its natural pace.
However, the best feature of Zagreb may be its usefulness as a
center of Croatia’s interior, providing an excellent home base for
daytrips to the country’s one-of-a-kind castles, wineries and
Croatia’s farmlands and historical villages are the
underappreciated side to this mostly coastal destination.
“When people think of Croatia, they think of our coast,” said one
tour guide. “But we have wine, lakes, countryside and fresh
The geographical and historical positioning is also key to
Croatia’s complexity, as many in the country say, it is like five
different countries merged into one. A history of rule by the
Turks, Italians and Austro-Hungarians has made Croatia very
multicultural, which is still evident today in the way of life.
Foods, wines, music and family names differ depending on the region
the Italian influence is felt more on the coast, and the
Austro-Hungarian culture in the interior.
Hrvatsko Zagorje, Croatia’s “castle vicinity,” includes sites such
as Trakoscan Castle and Veliki Tabor and the eco-village Kumrovec.
Guests can roam as they wish or take part in a guided tour.
The region of Slavonia is the dominant Croatian destination for
wineries. Clients can tour ancient wine cellars stacked with
barrels of local specialty wines, such as the fruity Grasevina.
Many wineries are still operated by multi-generational families
that have been in the area for centuries. The Family Kos Agro farm
offers local specialties such as handmade sausage and thick fresh
bread along with generous wine tasting at the family’s farm
overlooking the vineyards.
Istria is a northern coastal destination, which separates it
somewhat from the Dalmatian Coast.
“We don’t want to be full of concrete like other points of the
Mediterranean,” a Porec of Istria local explained.
One of the biggest tourism draws of the Istria area is the
prized truffle. Restaurant Zigante in the village of Livade offers
truffle-based dishes, and clients can follow this with a hands-on
Opatija is also home to beautiful villas reopened as small,
personal hotels. The 15-room Villa Eugenia, built in 1910, was
renovated in 2003. The Villa Astra operates six rooms and must be
booked three to six months in advance. Slightly inland but worth
the distance is the Hotel Draga di Lovrana, which completely burned
down in 1923 and has been rebuilt exactly how it once was. Four
double rooms and one two-bedroom apartment are upstairs, with a
formal restaurant and tavern below.
One of the most naturally impressive locations in Croatia’s
interior is the Plitvice Lakes National Park. A UNESCO World
Natural Heritage Site, the park contains a string of lakes that
flow into one another by a succession of waterfalls. The Hotel
Jezero is located at the park’s entrance. A variety of trails and
trams leading through the lakes and wooden walkways give up-close
access to the clear water. It is a destination not to be missed as
the beauty rivals that of the coast, and is included on most
Coastline and Dubrovnik
Many tour operators begin itineraries in Dubrovnik and
work their way up the coast, ending with a flight out of Zagreb.
Dubrovnik is still the biggest draw for the country’s tourism due
to its stunning location. The intimate enclosed Old Town offers a
walk around the surrounding wall to see the drop-off views of the
Adriatic. Visitors can work up an appetite on the wall and relax
with gelato by the ornate Onofrio’s Fountains.
According to Nena Komarica, general manager of the Croatian
National Tourist Board, Croatia is easy for agents to book.
“Travel agents can book directly with Croatian hotels, or
through tour operators and agents based in the States who sell
Croatia and have negotiated rates with hotels, airlines etc.,” said
Komarica. “We have a list of those tour operators ... and our
office sends out this list on request, which is also available on
our Web site.”
Brendan Vacations offers a 10-day Dalmation Sunshine tour that
begins in Dubrovnik and includes stops in Split, Zadar, Plitvice
Lakes, Opatija and more. Prices begin at $1,278 per person, land
Other itineraries make a circle from and back to Zagreb, like
Trafalgar’s Best of Croatia. The 11-day tour starts at $1,325, land
only, and includes Opatija, Zadar, Dubrovnik, Split and Plitvice
For more information visit the Croatian National Tourist Board,
|Island of Korcula|
With over 1,000 islands to choose from off the coast of Croatia,
how can agents decide where to send clients? One option that offers
a pleasing variety of activities and lodging but isn’t congested is
the island of Korcula.
Easily accessible from both the coastal cities of Split and
Dubrovnik by ferry through Jadrolinija, Korcula is near the popular
tourist island of Hvar. Whereas Hvar offers a hot nightlife and
caters to a posh beach set, Korcula presents a less-developed, but
still convenient, alternative.
Ways to spend a day on Korcula include lounging on the island’s
numerous beaches (many still relatively deserted), touring or
strolling the small historic town, wine tasting or taking a Riviera
tour by boat. It is also possible to take a taxi boat to a tiny
neighboring island for a private excursion.
The town of Lumbarda also offers kayaking, snorkeling and boat
trips through Sokol, a company that began offering
Hawaiian-inspired activities only last year. Commissions are
The conveniently located 20-room Hotel Korcula is situated
directly on the sea with a large terrace and a restaurant. The
Hotel Marko Polo is all-inclusive and offers bicycles, mopeds and
motorboats to rent.
Not to be missed on the island is the moreska, a dramatic fighting
dance that employs swords and has been performed in the town of
Korcula for over 400 years. The dance is held only once a week, so
check with the local tourist board to make sure clients visit
Korcula on the correct day.
Driving in Croatia
Travelers who wish to see Croatia independently will be pleased
to know that driving in the country is simple and reliable. Manual
or automatic rental cars can be obtained and road signs are clear
and easy-to-follow. Visitors get from city to city by following
large yellow signs with the city name emblazoned upon it no need to
read complicated signs in Croatian and it is easy to find your way
back to main roads.
However, there are a few things to watch for. Tolls are frequent
and are proportional to how far the road has been taken, so be sure
to have clients keep their toll cards and be prepared to pay up.
(Credit cards are accepted at toll stations.) Tolls can be
calculated for planned routes on the Croatian Auto Club Web site.
Also, gas stations are not as frequent as in other countries so it
is important to “always have at least half a tank,” as a few
anecdotes from locals convinced me locations can also be mapped on
the Auto Club site.
Cars can be booked through Auto Europe and National Car Rental
among others. All companies have convenient pick-up and drop-off
points in Croatian cities like Zagreb, Split, Rijeka and
|Dubrovnik by Sea|
Cruising Croatia Aboard Holland America Line’s Noordam
By George Figueroa
I stepped onto my stateroom balcony aboard Holland America
Line’s Noordam, eager for my first glimpse of Croatia. Our journey
during Noordam’s inaugural season had taken us to exotic and
stunning locations along the eastern Mediterranean, but none as
enchanting as the scene before us now.
Thickly wooded hillsides, covered with oak and cypress, cascaded
toward a glistening, white limestone shore. So dense was the forest
that it conjured up images of elves thriving in its midst, with the
occasional troll standing by to harass unwary travelers.
Appropriately, our destination derived its name from the Slavic
word for “oak wood,” or dubrava. It’s the ancient port city of
Dubrovnik, Croatia, visible in the near distance.
Having suffered during the recent Balkan conflict, Dubrovnik was
fully restored in the wake of the 1995 Dayton Peace Accord,
rebounding once again into a magnificent cruise destination.
Holland America Line was the first to bring its ships back to the
city known as the “Pearl of the Adriatic,” and other lines quickly
Embarking to shore on the Noordam’s tenders, we admire the
stately stone villas perched between the woods and the crystal
waters of the Adriatic. Their owners’ modern sea-going pleasure
crafts moored nearby announce this as a destination for the
wealthy. The sleek state-of-the-art vessels are the only sight that
betrays this as a contemporary scene, though. Medieval fortress
walls, impressive turrets and bright red tile rooftops appear to
positively glimmer in the midsummer sun in this age-old trading
center. We arrive in the Gradska Luka or “Old Harbor” and quickly
pass through the Pile Gate into one of the most beautiful town
squares I’ve ever beheld, opening onto a wide promenade known as
the Placa. It is no accident that this city seems to shine so
brightly and that its surrounding waters take on the pristine
colors of a swimming pool. After all, the city’s walls, streets,
walkways and fountains are all fashioned out of the same gleaming
white limestone that makes up its shores and interestingly, its
seabed, hence the brilliant range of hues from cerulean to royal
Built in the 12th century, Dubrovnik’s city walls are a marvel
some twenty feet thick and eighty feet high, stretching 6,350 feet
around the city’s perimeter. My shipmates and I spent the better
part of a day exploring their ramparts and taking in fantastic and
ever-changing views of town, stunning coastline, outlying islands
and open sea. But the walls are just the beginning of the wonders
we discovered on our shore visit.
Dubrovnik contains a wealth of architecture; including a
12th-century Gothic cathedral built by Richard the Lionheart on his
way home from the Crusades. We see masterful masonry at every turn,
from the palatial to the simply practical. At the extreme end of
the Placa is the Onofrio Fountain, whose 12 stone sides contain
carved heads that spout fresh cold water to thirsty summer
tourists. To the north and south of this busy thoroughfare, with
its specialty shops featuring a variety of local goods from
Dalmatian lace to Croatian wines, lie the stepped streets that are
home to the local residents.
Walking along the southern stretch of city wall, we encounter
charming residences bordered by courtyards bursting with summer
blossoms. Shady, stone-paved streets suddenly open into sunny
vistas of distant countryside. At one point, we follow strains of
string music echoing off the stone walls, only to stop to rest
outside a local conservatory, where a cello student creates a
lovely sound track for our serendipitous outing.
Before heading by ferry to Lokrum Island, a favorite summer
playground for locals and tourists alike, we dine on fresh seafood
and risotto at a restaurant tucked away in a narrow alley on the
north end of the square. The proprietor and his children make us
feel like welcome guests, serving us a favorite local beer, Viva.
It might have been the unusually high alcohol content of the beer
but later, as I stroll under the forest canopy on Lokrum Island, I
swear I can see an elf scurry for cover behind the trees.
In addition to Holland America Line, a number of cruise
lines have included Croatia in their 2007 itineraries. Costa,
Celebrity, Crystal, MSC, NCL, Orient Lines, Oceania, Princess,
Regent Seven Seas, Royal Caribbean, Seabourn and Silversea will
call in Dubrovnik. And, some lines will also call in Split, Zadar,
Korcula, Rovinj and Bucht von Kotor.