Croatia on the Cusp

Now is the time to visit this traveler-friendly country

By: Terra Judge

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 wineries.

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 evening.

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 room.

Nearby is the 306-room Sheraton Zagreb Hotel and The Westin, which are also conveniently located near the city’s places of interest.

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 countryside.

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 food.”

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 truffle-hunting excursion.

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 tours.

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 only.

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 Lakes.

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 available.

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.

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 followed suit.

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 blue.

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.

Cruising Croatia
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.