Triple America's five Great Lakes, shrink them each to manageable size (i.e., 536 acres in all), give them a good cleaning until they look virtually blue, envelop them in lush green forest with steep hillsides and cliffs all around, and link not just two but all of them with a pint-sized Niagara Falls. The result? Nacionalni Park Plitvička Jezera, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Croatia's top inland natural wonder. And it's not even out of the way. The park is right
on the main highway (E71) from Zagreb to Split, but it's certainly worth the three-hour trip from the capital regardless. This 8,000-acre park is home to 16 beautiful, emerald lakes connected by a series of cascading waterfalls, stretching 8 km (5 mi) through a valley flanked by high, forested hills home to deer, bears, wolves, and wild boar. Thousands of years of sedimentation of calcium, magnesium carbonate, algae, and moss have yielded the natural barriers between the lakes; and since the process is ongoing, new barriers, curtains, stalactites, channels, and cascades are constantly forming and the existing ones changing. The deposited sedimentation, or tufa, also coats the beds and edges of the lakes, creating their sparkling, azure look. Today a series of wooden bridges and waterside paths leads through the park. The only downside: as lovely as it is, all of Europe wants to see it, so the trails can get crowded from June through September. That said, there's not a bit of litter along the way—a testament either to respectful visitors or to a conscientious park staff, or both. No camping, no bushwhacking, no picking plants. And no swimming! This is a place to visit, for a day or two, but not to touch. It is, however, well worth the 110 Kn summertime entrance fee. There are two entrances just off the main road about an hour's walk apart, aptly named Entrances 1 and 2. The park's pricey hotels are near Entrance 2, the first entrance you'll encounter if arriving by bus from the coast. However, Entrance 1—the first entrance if you arrive from Zagreb—is typically the start of most one-day excursions, if only because it's within a 20-minute walk of Veliki slap, the big waterfall (256 feet high). Hiking the entire loop that winds its way around the lakes takes 6 to 8 hours, but there are other hikes, ranging from 2 to 4 hours. All involve a combination of hiking and being ferried across the larger of the park's lakes by national park service boats.
There are cafés near both entrances, but avoid them for anything but coffee, as the sandwiches and strudels leave much to be desired. Instead, buy some of the huge, heavenly strudels sold by locals at nearby stands, where great big blocks of cheese are also on sale. At the boat landing near Entrance 2, by the way, you can rent gorgeous wooden rowboats for 50 Kn per hour.
Plitvicka Jezera, 53231, Croatia