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Trip Report - Croatia in 18 days

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Trip report for Croatia.

Thanks to all the helpful information on this site, we had a wonderful vacation in Croatia, so I thought I would share a trip report.

For some background, we are mid-30's and mid-40's, and most of our previous travels have been in western Europe. We generally choose simple, inexpensive hotels and restaurants, and although we like exploring cities and tourist sites, we also enjoy spending time in small towns and exploring little neighborhoods. We don't usually choose fancy resorts, and while we enjoy the beach, we want to enjoy other sights as well. We didn't know anything about Croatia until I happened on some Fodors threads discussing the beauty of the country. We used this site and a guide book to plan our 2 ½ week trip.

After much planning, we decided on the following itinerary:

Day 1 - Arrive Zagreb
Day 2 - Zagreb
Day 3 - Travel to Plitvice Lakes, stay overnight
Day 4 - Travel to Trogir
Days 5-7 - Trogir, with a day trip to Split
Day 8 - Travel to Hvar
Days 9-11 - Hvar
Day 12 - Travel to Korcula
Day 13 - Korcula
Day 14 - Travel to Dubrovnik
Days 15-18 - Dubrovnik
Day 19 - Depart from Dubrovnik

After much deliberation, we decided to exclude Istria from our trip; although it sounded beautiful, we preferred to focus on fewer areas, and didn't want to be packing and unpacking our bags every day or two. For us it worked well, allowing us to spend multiple days in a few places and relax a little bit too. Also, we're going to have some time in Italy next year, so I am already planning a trip to Slovenia and the Istrian coast.

We flew into Zagreb, and spent the evening and one full day there. We stayed at the Hotel Jadran, which was ok for 2 nights. The room was very small, but clean, and in a good location. At 726 kuna per night, I thought it was a bit expensive for the size of the room, but it was cheaper than many of the other options I found online for Zagreb. We spent the first evening just wandering around the Kaptol and Gradec districts, which were an easy walk from our hotel. The walk up Radiceva street all the way up the hill leads to beautiful views of the city, and then back down Tkalciceva Street, with all the little cafes full of comfortable armchairs and sofas instead of hard metal café chairs. What a great idea - so conducive to snuggling into one all evening and chatting and people-watching. The next day, we did some more exploring, and also visited the Technical Museum, which has a good exhibit on Nikola Tesla. They also have good exhibits on aviation and you can take a free tour of the mine, where different styles of excavation and bracing are shown. The Tesla lab tour and mine tour are not in English, but our tour guide spent time answering our questions afterwards. We also enjoyed the market at Dolac, with all the fresh produce, flowers, and all the little old ladies with their wheels of fresh cheese. Zagreb was nice, and I'm sure with more time we could have explored more deeply, but we found that 1 ½ days was fine for a first trip.

The next morning, we took the bus to Plitvice Lakes, which was about a 2 ½ hour trip. The lakes were beautiful - a brilliant turquoise color with crystal clear water, waterfalls everywhere, and a good system of trails, bridges, and trams leading to the different lakes. Unless you're a big hiker or a huge fan of the outdoors, I think 1 day is plenty. We had not made hotel reservations beforehand, so we found a basement room at the Hotel Bellevue for 400 kuna. It was certainly nothing fancy, but clean and adequate, if you didn't mind all the passers by looking down into your bedroom!

The next morning, we caught a bus from Plitvice Lakes to Trogir. We had read on both the Fodors site and in our Rough Guide book that we needed to stand at the bus stop by the entrance to the Lakes, and just flag down the next bus headed to Split - buses supposedly come by every 30 minutes. We confirmed this with the hotel desk, and since it was September, there weren't as many tourists, but we still waited for 2 hours. And the poor couple across the street from us, who were going in the other direction, were there before us, and were still waiting for a bus when we left! We saw one bus to Split, but even though I stood in the road and waved madly, it never even slowed down, despite being only ½ full. Two charter buses passed by, but it took over an hour before another bus to Split stopped and picked us up. Then, the bus stopped at every little town from Zadar to Split, so it was a long ride. We had decided it would be too much trouble to rent a car just from Zagreb to Split, and in the end, the bus was fine, but just keep in mind that it may take some time to find one. A local told us later that if you buy a few loaves of bread and a bottle of wine, and wave them at the bus drivers, that often even the charter buses will stop for you. So future travelers might want to give that a shot. The benefit of the bus ride was that we could both enjoy the scenery. The countryside was beautiful, although there was plenty of war damage visible in the towns along the way: piles of rubble, and beautiful stone houses that were roofless, abandoned shells, but there were plenty of others being rebuilt. Every town had roadside restaurants with the ever-present pig roasting on a spit outside. And those little stone walls crisscrossing the countryside.

Based on recommendations from Fodorites, we had decided to stay in Trogir rather than in Split, and I was glad we did. We arrived in the late afternoon, and were able to walk to our room, which we also found through this site - Apartment Bakica (bakica@vip.hr). They have several rooms; we stayed in the "room for 2" for 32 Euros a night. The room was tiny, but clean, with a private bathroom, a/c, and a mini fridge. There was no maid service, but they did a load of laundry for us at no charge. It was a little noisy in the morning - we could hear voices and noises from the main house, but the proprietors seemed nice (no English skills, but none needed), and we were happy with it. The location was good - Trogir's Old Town is an island between the mainland and the larger island of Ciovo, where our room was. We had a wonderful view from the patio outside our door, with fresh kiwis growing on the overhead arbor, and we could just walk down a hill and across the bridge to get to the Old Town.

Trogir was beautiful, a pretty town full of ancient stone buildings with red tiled roofs. We enjoyed just wandering the back streets - finding restaurants set in buildings with no roofs; just crumbling stone walls draped in grapevines and flowers, with windows opening to the sky. The feel is similar to the Italian towns of Tuscany and Umbria, but instead of colorful plaster walls, most of the buildings are grey stone, with a few weathered green doors and shutters. There were several fun markets to explore, with fresh produce, inexpensive beaded jewelry, little old ladies all in black selling fresh raspberries and lavender sachets. Several times, we brought home a grilled chicken and fresh fruit from the market for a simple meal at home. Our best restaurant meal was a lunch at Don Dino in Old Town Trogir.

After an evening and a full day exploring Trogir, we decided to take a day trip to Split, and took the local bus. We entered the old town at the beginning of a large street market, and spent several hours just visiting the stalls, which were mostly women's clothing and jewelry (nothing fancy, just fun). Although the city is large, the old town is in a compact area by the water, and easy to explore. We visited Diocletian's Palace, which is mostly in ruins. It was odd to see apartments built into the remaining walls, and cafes set up in the "rooms" of the palace. We spent the rest of the afternoon just wandering the streets and shops, which seemed to be mostly clothing stores, although we unexpectedly found a great bookstore. The city is filled with beautiful stone buildings, and a colonnade looking out to the harbor. It was a fun city, with lots of hustle-bustle, and fun for people-watching. But I was glad that we stayed in Trogir and made the day trip to Split, instead of vice versa.

We spent one more full day in Trogir, and then took a catamaran from Split to Hvar Town. We learned that when talking to the clerks at Jadrolinja, you need to ask specifically about all the options. At least to the clerk we spoke with, "boat" meant the ferry, and the "speedboat" was something else entirely, and he would not have mentioned the existence of the "speedboat" had we not specifically asked. In fact, the speedboat is a large catamaran, and is a shorter trip of 1 hour, compared to the ferry. It also goes directly to Hvar Town, instead of Stari Grad, which is what we wanted, and leaves earlier in the day.
The speedboat was very inexpensive, and a pleasant, air conditioned ride.

We had not booked a room in Hvar Town, and planned to go to one of the 2 agencies listed in our guidebook. We arrived at 12:30, only to find that one of the agencies no longer existed, and the other closed from 12:30-5:30. By 12:45, all the women at the harbor with rooms to rent had disappeared, and when we started asking at booths and shops, everyone told us their rooms were booked (even though the town didn't seem to be very packed). We didn't want to stay in a hotel, so finally my husband walked up the hill and started knocking on each door with a "Zimmer/Sobe" sign. He found a great apartment half way up the hill overlooking the harbor. The family was very friendly, but gave us privacy, which we prefer. We had a detached apartment just behind their porch, with a full kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, and a tiny dining room. We also had a porch w/ table and chairs, overhung with grapes and surrounded by a lush container garden. It was so peaceful there, and VERY quiet; at night we couldn't hear a sound, and we slept in each morning, which is rare for us. We did have a lot of steps to climb, but that is true of most locations in Hvar Town. Since it was off season, we negotiated to 960 kuna for 4 nights. The only drawback was some sort of problem with the septic system. To put it bluntly, the bathroom was clean, but smelled of sewage. Hey, it was $40 a night, so we just kept the door shut.

We absolutely loved Hvar, and it was the highlight of our trip. The old town is lovely, the island is filled with charming small towns, there are plenty of nearby islands to visit, and it is an easy home-base for excursions. I could spend a whole vacation there. We also found that there were lots of amenities for a relatively small town - continuing back from the corner of the harbor, heading toward the bus station, there are several small supermarkets and a pharmacy. There is an outdoor fresh produce market, and below it is a very clean public restroom, laundry (expensive, but handy), and a left luggage facility. There was also a large supermarket a few steps further, by the bus station. So I imagine it would be a good base for families with children too.

As soon as we got settled, we headed back out to explore, and had dinner at Alka – decent restaurant with a good view. The next day, bad weather was expected, so rather than plan a beach excursion, we rented a car to tour the island. We headed out on the New Road to Stari Grad, which was a charming town. I've read from people who loved staying in Hvar Town, and those who loved staying in Stari Grad. We preferred the atmosphere of Hvar Town, but then we were also not there in July or August with the crowds of people. There was actually a dolphin in the harbor of Stari Grad, and we enjoyed walking around; it was very peaceful and relaxed. We continued on to Vrboska and Jelsa, which were both pretty towns and worth a stop. At Vrboska, we stopped at a sign near the FKK campground - looking back at the map, I think it was U. Rapa, but I'm not positive. We pulled off into a small grassy lot and walked out on a rocky trail to the ocean. This was our first real taste of the dramatic coastlines of Croatia; it was absolutely beautiful. Just beautiful grey and white rocks, with clear blue sky and brilliant turquoise water. It was still early, and we were the only people there, so we climbed down the rocks to the ocean for a swim, and layed out on the rocks - nothing like laying there in the breeze and looking at the dramatic cliffs and hearing nothing but the waves on the rocks. A few hikers from the FKK campground came by, but we had the place mostly to ourselves; it was so peaceful, yet invigorating.

After Vrboska and Jelsa, we headed south to Zavala. On the way, we passed through Pitve, a tiny hill town with a picturesque cluster of ancient stone houses, many of them crumbling ruins. It was so beautiful, and reminded me of some of the tiny hill towns in Umbria. It made me want to buy an old ruined stone house to restore. Zavala was very tiny, but we had fantastic spaghetti Bolognese at a tiny pizzeria overlooking the water. We then continued west along the southern coast to Sv. Nedjelja. There isn’t much there, but the views are amazing, and at the furthest point of land, there is a good place to swim, where you can dive off the rocks right into the ocean.

We then backtracked to Stari Grad and picked up the Old Road back to Hvar Town, which follows the central ridge of Hvar Island. The road is very narrow and winding, with steep dropoffs and no guard rails, so it's not for the faint of heart. But the views were incredible. And I found the stone walls so intriguing - they were everywhere, just covering the hills as far as you could see. They almost looked like foundations of buildings from some lost civilization, like Pompeii, and I found it hard to imagine how much work went into building them. We found a beautiful little chapel along the side of the road on the way back, and a little hut built of flat stones in the field. There was hardly anyone else on the road, and the weather held out until we were about 20 minutes from home, so it was a wonderful day full of beautiful sights and great memories. I would definitely recommend at least 1 day exploring the island. I think we paid about 600 kuna for the rental car, as we felt it would be easier than trying to deal with buses to all those different towns. I know there are also off-road trips to some of the wilder areas of the island as well.

We had intended to take a day trip to Bol, on Brac Island, and visit Zlatni Rat. But Saturday morning was very grey and overcast, with storms predicted all day Saturday and Sunday, so all the trips for both days were canceled. We bought fresh bread and fruit from the market and hunkered down for a sleepy day at home with a good book. But surprisingly, after a heavy storm, the weather totally cleared by about 11:30, so we took a taxi boat to Jerolim, which is the nearest island in a chain of 11, and is an FKK (naturist) island. I guess the bad weather had frightened everyone off, because the island wasn't very crowded. The weather was great, with a constant breeze, and great swimming. Boats stopped by every 30 minutes, and it only cost 30 kuna for roundtrip. We spent the whole day, and still had plenty of time to clean up and get to dinner. We found that the restaurants tend to get packed by about 8 PM, but if we went at 7 or 7:30 we had our pick of tables. Fodors site recommended the restaurant Macondo, and we second the recommendation; just 2 blocks from the harbor, uphill towards the castle. We had a great meal there, but many would-be diners were turned away, so go early or make a reservation. Since we had an early dinner, there was plenty of time to wander the little back alleys during the evening. It's so peaceful in the little neighborhoods up the hill from the harbor. We loved just sitting up there in the evening and enjoying the view.

Sunday, we decided to just return to Jerolim rather than see if the trip to Bol had been reinstated. We figured Jerolim would have fewer people, rocky beach vs sand (we are total converts to the pebbly beach!), and it would be easy to come and go as we pleased. We picked up a roasted chicken, fresh fruit, and snacks to bring as a picnic, and snorkeling gear. It was warmer, and there were more people, but it certainly wasn't crowded, and we really enjoyed the beach there. Sunday after dinner we hiked up to the castle. Although we didn't try it, there is a restaurant there, and also a discotheque - it seems like a great place for a party!

As I said, Hvar was the highlight of our trip. It’s a great home base - there is a lot to do on the island itself, and it’s easy to take trips to any of the nearby islands. There are several tour companies in shops right near the harbor, and many boats docked there with signs indicating the trips they offer. It would be easy to plan lots of trips in advance, or to do spur-of-the-moment trips instead, and there are places you could go for a day-trip, or islands you could pop over to for a quick picnic. The town itself is beautiful and has lots of character, and it's well worth taking some time to visit some of the smaller towns on the island. I would suggest that if you only have a limited time in Croatia, make Hvar one of your stops. Then, once you're there, you'll have lots of options for both relaxing and for daytrips or onward travel.

On Monday we caught the evening speedboat to Korcula. Once again, the "speedboat" worked better for us, as it goes from Hvar Town to Korcula Town, while the ferry is slower and goes from Stari Grad, Hvar to Vela Luka, Korcula. And although they call it a speedboat, it's not something tiny, it's a large, safe boat. We hadn't booked a room yet in Korcula – when we arrived, we talked to one of the women at the dock holding up signs, but when we followed her to the room, it had no a/c (she had told us it did), and was next to a noisy bar. So we made our apologies and headed back to the dock, where we found another room. The proprietor was very kind – the room was only available for one night, but he promised to find us another good room, nearby, for the same price. I'll see if I can find his card to post his contact information. The room was nice, with a fairly large bedroom, a tiny nook with sink and stove, and a bathroom. It is on the upstairs level of his home, with a very steep and narrow staircase, but that seems to be the norm in Croatia. The couple was very friendly, and the location was great.

With only one full day in Korcula, we spent most of our time exploring, and actually saw most of the town that first night. The town is certainly very charming, with beautiful stone houses and lots of nice architectural details. But on Tuesday there were tons of tour groups, which we hadn't encountered to date, and cars driving too fast in the old town, and tourists stopping in the middle of the sidewalk to gawk. The shops also seemed to have a lot more touristy kinds of things for sale. It was much more touristy than anywhere else we’d stayed, so we spent some time at the cafes reading, talking, enjoying ice cream, etc., and then waited till things got quiet again in the evening. The family that rented us our room recommended Kanavelic, and we had a very good and reasonably priced meal there. A cocktail bar has been built into one of the town’s old fortifications – sort of like a half-turret that looks out over the town and the water. You have to climb a ladder up to the top, but it's worth it for the atmosphere. And since we were looking for something different than fish and pasta, we had lunch at "Fresh," a tiny new stand near the bus stop with smoothies (alcoholic and non) and wraps. It was a great place, and was packed both times we went there. They also have a book exchange, a traveler's bulletin board, and guide books to peruse as you’re eating. It's a nice change of pace, and the smoothies were good. Although Korcula was very beautiful, in my opinion the constant tour groups detracted from the atmosphere. We enjoyed the evening of our arrival, when the streets were quiet and we could go exploring, but by the next afternoon, we were ready to move on, and I imagine it's much worse during tourist season.

On Wednesday, we took a bus from Korcula to Dubrovnik. Be sure you book the bus early - everywhere else we'd been, they told us to book the day of the trip, but we nearly didn't get a seat on this one. The bus trip took 3 ½ hours; it drives onto the ferry to get to Orebic, and then drives on to Dubrovnik. We’ve done a fair amount of bus travel, and this one was not very comfortable - very very hot and stuffy, with no a/c, and the bus was totally full. I'm not sure if the ferry would've been a better option; it takes longer, but might've been more comfortable. Either way, you will still need to take a taxi or bus to the old town. In Dubrovnik, we had booked a room through Magical Apt., recommended by several Fodorites. Unfortunately, we weren't happy with our experience. We had requested a/c and a private bathroom, and dealt with the difficulty of paying a deposit (kind of tough to do a bank transfer when you’re currently living in Iraq!), but when we got there, hot and tired from the bus ride and winded from climbing a mile of steps, the room had no a/c, and the bathroom was not only shared, it was down a dark, steep flight of rickety, creaky steps. We tried English, Italian, and broken German, but were unable to speak to the landlady at all, and did not have a cell phone to reach the booking agent at Magical Apartment. We stayed for one night, but were forced to close the windows and swelter, because the bar just a few doors down was filled with drunken tourists singing and breaking glasses until 3 AM. The very next morning, we went to Perla Adriatica, just outside the Ploce Gate, and asked if they knew of another available room. They quickly found us a wonderful room for only 50 Euros a night (vs 45 Euros for the first one), with a/c, a private bathroom, and a fabulous view of the old town. There was even a great view from the bathroom! The home is high up one of the side streets, far from any bars, and it was quiet and peaceful. The owners were an extremely nice couple, who spoke good English and were very friendly. Perla Adriatica seemed to have plenty of places to choose from, so I’d recommend using them if you arrive without a room. It seems that other Fodorites had good experiences with Magical Apartments, so maybe ours was an anomaly. I know that they offer several different rooms, so maybe we just picked a bad one, but then I wish they had provided more information in order to help us make our decision. I had sent many e-mails back and forth discussing the rooms, and had never given them a price limit, so clearer descriptions would have helped us. I would definitely recommend staying in Old Town or right nearby, and staying up high, where there are no bars.

We enjoyed our time in Dubrovnik, but looking back, I think 2 days would've been plenty for us. We loved walking the walls, and enjoyed wandering the side streets and relaxing in the cafes and people-watching. But once again, there were huge tour groups everywhere! The shops didn’t really have anything unique - just clothing, jewelry, and kitschy souvenirs. There were lots of art galleries, which we enjoyed. We didn’t visit many memorable restaurants during our time there; we had dinner at Lokanda one night, and we had terrific lasagna for lunch at a tiny place called Pizzeria Barracuda. We enjoyed several smoothies at a new bar on one of the side streets just off the main street (it's the only smoothie bar in town, so not hard to find). The owners are very friendly, and it's a nice change of pace. The best meal we had was at a restaurant recommended by the smoothie bar owner. Called Sesame, it is located a few blocks outside the Pile Gate, on the left just past the Hilton Hotel. There was a fair amount of traffic noise, but they had a nice patio to eat on, and the food was wonderful.

Our landlords and a few other tourists and locals we met encouraged us to go the folklore show held twice a week just outside Ploce Gate. But although we showed up several hours early (and hours before the time they suggested to us), all the tickets were sold out. So if that's something that interests you, go early. My husband booked a scuba diving trip through Perla Adriatica (just outside the Ploce Gate), and had a good time. It wound up being just him and one other person, plus the divemasters, and the water was crystal clear with lots of fish and other sea creatures visible. The prices were reasonable, particularly since he already had his PADI license, and the divemasters were safe and professional.

Although we love small towns, we also love exploring the nooks and crannies of cities, but after only a couple of days in Dubrovnik, we felt like we had seen every alley several times already. And although you can take trips from Dubrovnik, it's not nearly as easy and convenient as from Hvar. Many of the trips are for larger groups, which we weren't interested in. And the bus station is far from the Old Town, so you can't easily just hop on a bus and go somewhere. (As an aside, I don't recommend having a car in Dubrovnik; our landlord said the parking fees are quite high, and it is very difficult to even find parking places).

We took a boat out to Lokrum, the closest island, and one with an FKK area on the point. It was a very pretty wooded island, with a nice area to lay out on the rocks. It’s an easy boat trip from Dubrovnik, and boats leave all through the day. We also took a cab to Trsteno, where we spent the afternoon at the arboretum. It's quite large, and there weren't many people, so it was very peaceful wandering around the paths there. We had a great lunch at the little restaurant up the hill, right across from the town square, where there were little old ladies selling fresh herbs and cheese.

Although Dubrovnik was certainly beautiful, we felt there weren't quite enough nooks and crannies to explore for more than a few days, and it seemed too geared towards accommodating the hordes of people from the cruise ships and package tours. I was glad we saw it, but Hvar was still the stand-out memory for us.

A couple of random thoughts to finish off with - one thing I found surprising is that although we loved our trip, we didn't come away with many memorable souvenirs, which is unusual for us. Of course, it depends what you like to shop for, but we often have to buy extra suitcases for our treasures, and on this trip, we didn't do that.

Another random thought - be prepared for steps - lots of them. Many of the towns, particularly Hvar and Dubrovnik, require navigating multiple sets of steep steps to get to your room. And nearly all of the private rooms we saw were on an upper floor, in buildings that have steep, narrow, twisty staircases (another reason to pack light!). I'm sure if you needed to, you could find ground-floor accommodations, but the majority are not, so it's something to be aware of.

Overall, prices seemed reasonable, but not a terrific bargain. Our rooms were inexpensive, but I thought the restaurants were expensive, considering. We tend to try for middle-of-the-road sort of restaurants, often family-run places with good food at reasonable prices, but nothing fancy. But often we found the restaurants were overpriced, for food that was quite unmemorable. And often, side dishes are not included, so if you want anything with your main dish, you're paying even more. If you're on a budget, you might need to stick with pizza and pasta, or create your own picnic at the local markets; there are plenty of fresh fruits, vegetables, and cheeses, and we found fresh breads and grilled chickens too. Just something to keep in mind.

I would also seriously consider the time of year you visit. I can't imagine how crowded things must be in July and August. Early September was still very warm out, and there were still plenty of people, but the towns didn't seem overrun with tourists.

We had a wonderful time in Croatia. It was easy to get around, the people were friendly, it was very safe, and prices were generally reasonable. The scenery was just breathtaking, with crystal-clear water, dramatic rocky coasts, and picturesque towns. Although we are usually on the go during our vacations, this one was a bit different - it offered us the chance to explore quaint towns and still spend time relaxing on the beach, which was a very nice mix. I’m so glad I happened upon the Fodors chat on Croatia - it was a country I knew very little about, and wouldn't really have considered for a vacation, but we had a wonderful time, and would love to return and explore more of the country. Thanks to all of you who offered suggestions and advice.

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