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10-12 Days in Croatia with Son

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Hello! Starting to plan an itinerary for April 2017 trip to Croatia with my 20 yr. old college student. Planning to fly into Zagreb and home from another airport. We want to see Plitvice en route to the coast. I'm thinking of driving west from Zagreb, stopping in Plitvice, and then making our way either north or south from Zadar by bus or ferry. If heading south, we're considering Split, Hvar, Korcula on the way to Dubrovnik. If heading north, we'd be heading to Istria and possibly ending in Venice. I know we can't cover both north and south, I'm trying to decide itinerary, length of stay in each place and best modes of ground/water transport. We're interested in architecture, food, markets, historical sites, museums, city and coastal life, scenic routes. Zagreb is a must for us, as is Plitvice. I mostly want to see the sea organ in Zadar, but I figured we could stop there before continuing in either direction. I know we can only fit in so much.

What I'd like to hear from you:

Must visit island or town, what you love about it, how much time do you suggest spending there?

Is it more reasonable to concentrate on the north or south given the amount of time we have?

Suggested modes of travel between stops with travel times.

Your advice and experience is most appreciated. :)

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    Early April or late April? I assume you are aware that the coastal towns aren't as appealing earlier in the year; they are apparently pretty dead off season. I visited Croatia last year starting the last few days in April in Istria and heading south from there. It turned out to be a good time to go - not that busy but things were open, season felt like it was just starting. Not sure what it's like a month earlier, however.

    (Click on my name to find links to my two trip reports that involve Croatia and also lots of pictures.)

    I wouldn't go to Zadar just for the sea organ. It's pretty neat but not exactly worth driving far out of your way for. Zadar (where I spent a night) is otherwise OK but I preferred the town of Sibenik about an hour south. It felt like a less touristy, more authentic, more interesting town.

    Dubrovnik is pretty amazing but very touristy especially during the day (cruise ship tour groups invade the place). I'd call Dubrovnik must see if you are anywhere near it, but it's really up to you whether you want to focus on points south or north on your trip. There are plenty of great places.

    In Istria, I absolutely loved Rovinj, a tiny Venetian town that's great to come back to at night so a great base for day trips.

    Plitvice is essential but already on your list. If you want to add a second park, consider adding Krka which is an our south of Zadar (near Sibenik).

    I stayed in Korcula two nights - the only island I visited in Croatia. Korcula town feels like a mini-Dubrovnik. I was there mid-October and the season was ending, and even though restaurants were still open, the town felt pretty dead.

    If you wanted to focus on the north, consider adding Slovenia, which is one of my favorite countries (especially the capital, Ljubljana). Venice is amazing too but a very different experience - one of the most touristy places in Europe, no doubt, but a magical gem at night when most of the tourists leave. Ljubljana is vibrant student town with beautiful architecture and not many tourists (at least American tourists).

    Croatia has a decent bus system but few trains. I rented a car both times I was there - in April, the roads are not busy and driving is easy. The roads are modern and well-marked. You can do a one-way rental from Zagreb and drop in Dubrovnik or some other Croatian city. Dropping a rental car in another country usually incurs a steep drop-off charge.

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    You have a wealth of opportunities! I think you are wise to consider focusing on EITHER the north OR the south of Croatia, and even so, your challenge will be in deciding what to skip, not what to include!

    With your interests and your time frame, and with Zagreb as a MUST, I think there are many merits to staying to the north. Zagreb itself is, IMO, a vastly underrated gem. (FWIW, consider arranging a tour of the National Archives and making time to go to Mirogoj Cemetery – awesome, unique places!) I gave Zagreb only 2.5 days, and sincerely wish I had given it more – and I wasn’t trying to deal with jet lag while there!

    From Zagreb, you can easily visit Varazdin and Cakovec, both of which offer a range of options that are within your stated interests. IME, the Rough Guide provides especially good coverage of these often skipped cities.

    IMO, a stay in Zagreb, with side trips (or even an overnight or two) and a night or two in the Plitvice Lakes would leave you enough time for either one or two of the following options, depending on your interests and preferred travel pace:
    (a) Varazdin and Cakovec (consider, say, at least 2 days for the two together);
    (b) charming Ljubljana and maybe, depending on how you spend your time, Bled (consider AT LEAST 3 days for both; 4 would be MUCH better IMO);
    (c) Istria for whatever time you have “left” (and given your stated interests, that is the area I would most recommend deferring for this particular trip); and/or
    (d) a few days in Split and – if your timing works out -- a night or two in Zadar and/or Sibenik (and that route could, again depending on your timing, include the Krka National Park). And FWIW, I certainly would not say that Sibenik was "less touristy, more authentic, more interesting" than Zadar -- each has some heavily touristed areas, some areas largely untouched by tourism (is that was "more authentic" means?) and some VERY interesting areas -- IMO!

    If you decide to head south, I think you will need to be MUCH more selective – MAYBE a night or two on and island, MAYBE a night or two in Split / Zadar, MAYBE a night or two in Dubrovnik … and if you choose that option, I don’t think you’ll be able to indulge your interests in a particularly satisfactory way, as trying to see the architecture, markets, museums, historic sites, etc. will simply take too much time. JMO.

    For travel options between places, check
    I’m a strong advocate of public transportation whenever possible – you can enjoy the scenery safely and can also see how “locals” interact with one another, which is something I consider a priceless part of foreign travel. But for some routes – including almost anything that includes the Plitvice Lakes – a car can be an advantage. Consider options for using a car only for the parts of your final itinerary for which it would be most advantageous.

    Hope that helps!

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    Thank you, Andrew! I enjoyed your trip reports and photographs, what a great resource. Our travel dates will depend on my son's spring break, the dates haven't been announced yet. I understand we'll be traveling off-season, which is usually my preference anyway as long as it's not completely shut down. I was hoping I could drive west from Zagreb and return the car wherever we stop first on the coast (possibly Zadar), then use bus/boat from there either north or south. I don't want to drive through our whole trip and hope to see some of the coast by boat. I've just read a 2 week itinerary that begins in Dubrovnik and goes North to Istria with several stops then east to Plitvice and ends in Zagreb. It seems much too ambitious for our 10-12 days even if we omit a few stops. Perhaps our timing will help decide where to focus.

    Thanks also for the Slovenia suggestion, I'm looking at cities in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro as well and watching Rick Steve's travel segments on Croatia and surrounding areas as I type. I wish I had a month!

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    And thank you, too, kja! These are excactly the suggestions I'm looking for. It's so hard to refrain from trying to squeeze it all in, my travel opportunities are rare. I agree with you on public transportation, it's a joke with us that while on vacation I don't want to operate anything heavier than a peddle-boat. It seemed like a car would be best from Zagreb through Plitvice to the coast as we may not be staying overnight between the two points and we'd be able to store our things and tour the park at our own pace.

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    I fully appreciate the challenge of balancing one's interests agains one's opportunities to travel -- so many hard choices!

    FWIW, the realization that I will NEVER see all the places in the world that I want to see makes me want to maximize the time I have to actually see and experience the places that I choose to see, while minimizing the time spent traveling between places (unless, of course, the point of the journey IS the time in transit). Rather than skimming the surface and spending time getting from place to place, I choose to skip some places entirely, even if I am sure I would enjoy them. I’m most likely to skip or skimp on places that have international airports, because those are the ones that I can most readily visit again. I’ve also realized that if I can return to a region, the LAST thing that I am likely to want to do is spend my time re-tracing all that extra travel time so that I can go back and finally see the things I skipped the first time. In fact, I might end up not returning specifically because it would require so much time to go from place to place -- which sort of defeats the purpose of "deferring" them in the first place.

    FWIW, I spent 30 days in Croatia and nearby places, and still had to leave SOOoooo much out! I am confident that you can come up with an awesome plan for YOUR time ... but only (I'm sorry to say) by prioritizing and making some really hard choices.

    I think that Andrew would agree that he and I have different interests, and so we plan our time differently. (And I am sure that he will say so if he disagrees!) My interests include visiting museums and sites of historic interest and taking the time to appreciate architecture and roaming through local markets and savoring local foods and wines.... I'll be happy to offer further comments if and when you think they would be useful.

    No right or wrong answers here -- just difficult choices.

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    Actually, I would keep the car as long as you can in Croatia. It is helpful until you want to go to the islands (you can take passenger-only catamarans in some cases e.g. between Split, Hvar, and Korcula), and it can be a burden in Dubrovnik unless you are using it for day trips. (I found driving in Dubrovnik a bit stressful.)

    I'm not opposed to public transportation - I use it on most trips to Europe. It makes more sense in some places than others. I just got back from a 2.5 week visit to the Baltics and took only trains and (mostly) buses. But most of my stops there were big cities where driving can be stressful. Most of the stops in Croatia are smaller towns (other than Split and Dubrovnik, really), and it's easy to drive there outside the cities, especially in April. A car will save you a lot of time when your time in country is limited, and it will give you the opportunity to stop in more places. But I suggest you plan an itinerary, then check out bus schedules and times and see how it would work out without a car. (Try to start.)

    (Plus, with a one-way car rental, you're probably going to find that it costs about the same for a two day rental as a four day rental - they seem to have a minimum number of days built in for that kind of rental. Check for yourself and see. Maybe it depends on the cities and the company, but that's what I've found.)

    I really recommend getting into Plitvice first thing in the morning if you can, which means probably spending a night there. The park gets crowded with tour groups mid-day even off season, apparently. (It was busy both times I was there, in mid-May and early October, but technically I was there in the shoulder seasons, I guess.) The park has a couple of overpriced but convenient hotels. You can easily see it in 5-6 hours and be out by mid-afternoon.

    I'd probably start in Zagreb and end on the coast instead of the other way around - because as you get further into April more and more things should start to open as the summer season approaches. But in Zagreb it doesn't matter as it's not a tourist town.

    I loved the Bay of Kotor scenery in Montenegro, and I recommend Mostar as a stop-over at very least to people visiting Croatia. It's up to you what you want to try to fit in. I suggest you look at it philosophically: plan to come back if you like Croatia. I did - last year I basically re-traced my 2009 trip, re-visiting favorite places but visiting many new spots. And I suspect I will return again. I don't feel that way about all of the places I've been in Europe, even the places I liked.

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    Again, LOTS of personal experience / personal preference stuff here – and not just the merits of a rental car vs. public transportation. (And BTW, buses within Croatia are frequent and comfortable, and are easy to use even for trips that call for lots of moving about – I know: That’s how I visited the country!)

    As one of these other KEY differences: I am NOT a morning person, and so didn’t start my visit to the Plitvice Lakes until about 10 a.m. – which worked out PERFECTLY for me, because I was BEHIND the bulk of tour groups. For much of my visit through this park on an otherwise heavily touristed day, I saw surprisingly few others. :-) Of course, it also depends on the direction in which you walk: I recommend walking so that you FACE waterfalls (from lower end to higher). Those who walk in the reverse direction not only miss some gorgeous views, they also face the hordes of people heading upwards. :-(

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    Sorry -- clicked off before I meant to....

    And I enjoy museums, while not everyone does (Andrew has, in the past, said, quite explicitly, that he does NOT, as a rule, like museums -- but maybe his interests have changed?) ... and I enjoy both cities and tiny towns, and am willing to spend time savoring architectural details, and to give places a try even if my initial impression is not what I expected, etc. -- again, things that not everyone enjoys or does. And to repeat: NO right or wrong choices -- just different ones.

    So please, take what we say into consideration, but do your own homework -- even those of us who LOVE Croatia come away with different ideas of what was best and worst, etc.

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    Thanks again to you both, all perspectives are welcome. My son is reading along here too. We're absorbing as much info as we can and will be comparing notes and choosing the itinerary together. For instance, in Zagreb I chose museums and he chose a soccer match. I think we've at least settled on spending the 1st few days there with a potential day trip, an overnight close to Plitvice, early entry to park then head west by car. The next week or so is yet to be determined.

    Andrew, I considered starting in Zagreb for the same reason you mentioned. I did look into one way car rental. I am taking travel times and convenience into account.

    Kja, we're easy going. You could pretty much drop us anywhere and we'd find something to do and have a good time. That's not to say we won't take advantage of the extra time for research and planning this go 'round. :)

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