Day 1 – Thursday, June 3, 2021 – The Journey to Croatia
On June 3, 2021, I embarked from my home in Austin on my much anticipated trip to Croatia with ASTA (American Association of Travel Advisors). I flew Lufthansa as they have a relationship with Croatia Air. Unfortunately, my day began with weather delays from Austin, so my original Lufthansa / United / Croatia Star Alliance itinerary of Austin – Denver – Munich – Spilt flight quickly became an Austin – Chicago – Frankfurt – Split flight. With barely 40 minutes to make it to my new gate, I arrived there in the nick of time only to find out I was downgraded from my business class seat to a premium economy middle seat – but that certainly did not dampen my enthusiasm for this trip! It’s all in the way you look at thing’s folks – I had made the flight – it was the shortest one on my route and was still on track to get to Croatia!
Travel Note: Here I would like to make note of some very important information regarding both the Austin and Chicago legs of my journey. On both I needed to show my proof that I was vaccinated – i.e. my vaccination card. They also made sure my Croatia paperwork – i.e. my Croatia Travel Announcement Form – was printed out and filled out. This is important – make sure it is printed out! Once all that is checked, and you have a sticker on your passport then you are allowed to board. Another important thing to note here is that in both Austin and Chicago as your boarding the aircraft, US customs will ask how much cash you have with you, because if you take over ten thousand dollars it gets taxed. This was a brand new experience for me so I wanted to highlight it here as something you too might experience.
The good news is that I made my connection from Chicago to Frankfurt and enjoyed that leg of the trip from my United Polaris seat which is business class which means I got to lay down flat and catch some z’s. Once in Frankfurt I didn’t have to go through immigration – I just simply went to gate for the final leg to Croatia.
Travel Note: In the EU surgical masks are required. Cloth masks are not acceptable.
Day 2 – Friday, June 4th, 2021
After my arrival at Split International Airport in Croatia, I was greeted by the most amazingly sweet and lovable, the most genuinely caring folks I have ever met, and knew Croatia was going to be magical. On my 30 minute drive from the airport to my hotel the driver made sure to give me a personal tour as we drove along. Now – this was so very cool because you are literally seeing history in the form of a lot of remnants from the old world. There you are driving along the highway and pieces of architecture and amphitheater come into view!
The first stop in Split was checking into my hotel – which was the Hotel Globo in Split – a no frills property in a super amazing location as it is just five minutes from Diocletian’s Palace – which is an ancient Roman palace that forms almost half the town of Split.
Next up – my colleagues and I headed out to do a little walking tour of Split on our own. And let me tell you it’s an amazing combination of both Roman and Greek influences and they have saved and preserved a lot from both World War 1 and World War 2 as well. That being said – it’s also a coastal town that to my surprise had palm trees right there in the middle of Central Europe! And of course, I broke my own rule within hours and bought a painting while visiting Diocletian’s Palace. (The rule – don’t buy anything when you arrive! Oops!) It was a lovely night, and we found a wonderful place to eat then went back and pretty much crashed thanks to that super long travel day! And that my friends is just the start of my adventure!
Travel Note: You always want to make sure you go to an ATM that is attached to a bank in Croatia because the fees and exchange rates are horrible if it is NOT attached to a bank (i.e. don’t go to places like a Euromat and / or a Banko). Go to a bank instead for the best rates – I personally choose Opt Bank.
Day 3 – Saturday, June 5th, 2021
On this morning we were picked up and transferred to the cruise portion of my trip and although normal time to board would be in the afternoon, the group I was with – ASTA – got priority boarding that morning.
Now, there are no big boats that cruise the Dalmatian Coast – they feel more like a typical river cruise vessel – just not as long – because the bigger cruise ships can’t sail to the smaller islands. Our boat – Rhapsody – had just 19 rooms so it was more like a yacht if you will. It was a very quaint, higher end ship – definitely deluxe accommodations. My room was on the top level, so I did have a balcony, but I would like to note here that they don’t all have balconies. Those cabins located on the lower levels have port holes instead. However – having a balcony means you have a smaller room – but I personally want the balcony so no big deal. Typically, you are only in your room to sleep anyway and – by the way – all cabins sleep two persons. (Funny thing was that the bathroom is bigger than the room!) And for my foodies – the dining area is located on the entry level and food on the ship was fabulous.
Once we departed Split, we sailed a few hours, and our first stop was the island of Brac. Here we visited the
Stone Masonry School where stone mason work is still done by hand. They start at the young age of 14 finishing at age 18 as it is a four year program. To graduate they have five days to complete a decorative piece as their final project – which is then used in the actual construction of a building – perhaps as a decorative column or archway.
After our time in Brac we sailed to Trogir next which was a cute little port town with an old town feel where we overnighted. We dined in Trogir and after a wee bit of checking it out I retired for the evening as the jet lag had caught up with me!
Travel Note: These boats don’t sail at night as they don’t have permissions to so departure is typically after breakfast. The motors are diesel and not very quiet, so you do hear them. Also, I want you to be aware that the water on the boat will sometimes smell of diesel, but it is by no means unsafe, and they do give you two bottles of water a day with the option to purchase more.
Day 4 – Sunday, June 6th, 2021
Our first stop today was to explore the beautiful Krka National Park where we took a small boat ride and got to view gorgeous waterfalls. Krka National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it’s easy to see why! There are certain areas where you can swim here – although I did not partake. One quite interesting thing we saw while there was where the Croatians first created hydroelectricity in their part of the world – at the Krka Hydro Damn – which was around same time as it was happening in US.
That afternoon we set sail again to visit historic Sibenik. Here we toured with Irena as our guide who was truly lovely and filled us in on all the folklore and unwritten history. We dined at one of the oldest pizzerias in town that features an old fashioned wood-burning brick oven and whose interior was built on the model of the dome of St. Jacobs Cathedral’s and Sibenik’s city hall. And let me tell you – the food was beyond amazing – super fresh and no GMO’s so a tomato tastes like a tomato! Everything in this coastal town is about true island life and it’s an amazing town filled with so much history. As you walk you will notice faces etched into the buildings – and better yet – no one knows who they are. And every so often you will also see holes in the buildings which were for the street dogs and cats to drink from, as the locals took care of them (it was a village effort – aww). After our busy day we returned to the ship where we overnighted in Sibenik.
Day 5 – Monday, June 7th, 2021
Today we traveled to the island of Vis – an amazing island that is so very peaceful and tranquil that I would just love everyone to experience it. It is teaming with World War 2 history including a landing strip where the allies could stop and refuel. It is also a lobster heaven thanks to the fishing town of Komiza where they catch fresh lobster. Thanks to the fresh catch there is sea to table – as well as farm to table – cuisine everywhere. Also Komiza’s claim to fame? It’s where Mama Mia 2 was filmed!
On the way back to boat in we stopped for wine tasting where we tasted lots of yummy local wines. Now, sour cherry is a local flavor here and there is homemade cherry wine that is fermented in the sun and is to die for. It is both sweet and dry at the same time. Honestly, it could be a dessert wine but doesn’t have to be.
PS – This is also a great place for divers as you can dive for shipwrecks off the coast here.
Day 6 – Tuesday, June 8th, 2021
On this morning we set sail for Hvar where those amazing lavender fields can be found. Here we did a walking tour and needless to say I bought plenty of lavender products! So, the one thing that makes me love everything Croatia is that’s it’s all about the lavender. I haven’t been to the lavender fields, but all the souvenirs are purple! Also here you will find a handful of nuns – the few left in the world – who make lace out of the agave plant. Totally amazing!
Now on pretty much every day they did have swim spots where you could jump off the boat and get refreshed. So, on the way to Korcula – I did just that – jumped right into the Adriatic Sea! It was
very clear and could see right to the bottom – and even though it was a bit chilly it was very invigorating and well worth it!
Afterwards I even got to help the captain steer the ship. I wanted him to let me sail it on my own, but he wouldn’t leave – lol!
Tuesday night we arrived in Korcula where we also overnighted. Korcula was a beautiful town and one of the things I loved about it was all of the wine! There was a wine corner store – called Wine Corner Korcula owned by a simply fabulous man named Marco. He had us there for two hours indulging in great conversation and of course doing wine tastings as well as learning the history and the gastronomy of local wines. He was such a marvelous host to us – you guys absolutely must stop in and visit Marco when you are in Korcula. He also gave us a history of Grgich wine and how Croatia was the predecessor to Napa Valley wines thanks to Grgich taking the seedling of the grapes from Croatia to Napa. There he did such a good job they asked him to come back and do it in Croatia – and now he has vineyards throughout Croatia and is the top wine producer!
Day 7 – Wednesday, June 9th, 2021
Today we left Korcula and headed to island of Mljet. Mljet is a meditation haven – like 1000% zen! It is also another diver’s paradise. Now when you get there you have to hike a little over a mile – really hike – very uneven terrain – to the ferry. Fun Fact: The ferries are all solar powered. The ferry will take you across the lake on stunning turquoise blue water to Mljet’s St. Mary’s Island – which you can also swim in. But – and this is a big but – you will need swim shoes to walk down to it and on to the beach as pretty much all the beaches are pebble beaches in Croatia.
You also have the option to rent a bike or a canoe on the island. There is an eight mile bike path that goes around the lake that you can cycle on – which is asphalt – but you do have to go through that uneven terrain first. And if you rent the canoe, you can take that across the lake to St. Mary’s Island. Insider tip you guys – don’t rent the canoes or the bikes until you get past the uneven terrain – rent them down at lake or else you have to carry them to lake!
So, when you get to St. Mary’s Island it’s a place where you simply let the breeze take over and mediate away. That’s why you want to go there – to see nature and beauty at its best and the silence you hear is nature – it’s the stillness of the water – the breeze that talks to you. There is also a great restaurant there called Melita which is where we grabbed some lunch but truthfully, I could have just gotten in a hammock and swung in the breeze instead of eating. By the way – St. Mary’s is a very small island within Mljet that you can walk in about 20 minutes.
After our time in St. Mary’s, we headed back to the boat and sailed on to Luka Sipanska – which is a very sweet little town that is also very family oriented on the island of Sipan. We did a little walking tour on our own here before heading back to the boat and the Captain’s Dinner.
Day 8 – Thursday, June 10th, 2021
Today was the end of my fabulous adventure on the Rhapsody as we arrived in Dubrovnik for the ASTA Conference – where by the way – I met many, many local tour operators who are going to help me curate the most amazing experiences for you in this fabulous country!
Day 9, 10, 11 and 12 – Friday through Sunday, June 11th – 13 th, 2021
I did get to see Dubrovnik during the conference, and I must tell you that like the rest of Croatia – walking around was challenging. There are lots of levels and the stairs are uneven because they were built in ancient times. Sensible walking shoes are a must – if you wear flip flops you will suffer – trust me! One cool thing you must do here is take the cable car from the city of Dubrovnik up the mountain for an entirely different experience. It’s a whole new part of the city that offers amazing views. Another neat thing to do here is a trip to Mali Ston to visit an oyster farm for a hands on experience. Not only will you get to sample the oysters, but you get to sample some wine as well. If you eat seafood and love oysters you need to experience this!
Day 12 – Monday, June 14th, 2021
So once the ASTA Conference was over I stayed on to explore more of Croatia with a few of my colleagues. Our tour guide for the week was Mario from Lighthouse Adventure Travel and he was fabulous – so much so that he has now become my preferred vendor there. Mario’s level of service is above and beyond. He even found me a purple suitcase and if you know me you know purple is my life! He truly knows every nook and cranny and off the beaten path place in the country and together we will curate the most amazing Croatian adventure for you!
Our journey with Mario took us north as we left the South Dalmatian Coast. On Monday, our first stop was Zadar, a couple of hours north of Dubrovnik – however on the way we made a stop in Omis where we went ziplining – over the Cetina River! Although it was a bit of a hike to reach it was an incredible experience and one that I highly recommend.
We arrived in Zadar in the evening, and it is certainly a city where you will want to spend some time. It’s a cute little town that is absolutely beautiful and there’s even a sandy beach here located at the Falkensteiner Club Funimation Borik which is a great property for families.
Day 13 – Tuesday, June 15th, 2021
On Tuesday morning we set out to explore Zadar. Here we discovered hidden bays, amazing architecture, plenty of culture and lots of wellness opportunities.
After leaving Zadar – on our way to Pag – we found another sandy beach close to the city of Nin that also featured mud baths nearby. The best part? It was totally off the beaten path and only the locals know about it. We reached Pag Tuesday night and rested up for another big day ahead of us.
Day 14 – Wednesday, June 16th, 2021
I absolutely loved Pag and the whole island experience. What was so incredibly cool about it was that the landscape looked like what you would imagine Mars to look like. So, hey you can take some pictures and say you went to Mars on earth – lol. Pag is accessible by car and ferry – we crossed the Pag bridge on our way from Zadar. Now, this is an island that has amazing wines. In fact, we visited Boškinac in Pag – a hotel / restaurant / winery – where we had a great fresh cheese and wine experience. Here I also learned that Pag cheese is one cheese that they cannot export. It can be made from both the milk of sheep and cows and sometimes they mix the two together. We also got the chance to visit the Gligora Cheese Factory here to learn more about the cheese making process.
Next up was a stop at Zavratnica Bay, part of the Velebit Nature Park where we parked the car, entered the park and proceeded to do a two mile hike (one mile each way) in the beating sun – the temperature was in the 90’s that day! It is a low to medium intensity hike, but the views are breathtaking!
The neat thing was we were actually walking along the edge of the Adriatic Sea – (a narrow ledge if you will) – with many treasures along the way. We came across caves that you actually walk through, we saw an abandoned German Wehrmacht shipwreck from the Second World War, which sunk in the bay while hiding from British bombings. Or, better said, it is the wreck of a Siebel ferry, a shallow-draft catamaran landing craft.
We ended Wednesday in the town of Opatija –the gateway to the Istrian Peninsula – also known as The Nobleman’s Playground and The Hamptons of Croatia. Opatija is a beautiful coastal town that caters to tourists. Here you’ll find tons of restaurants on the promenade, and you may be surprised how very Americanized it is. We learned that lots of Viennese would come and summer here from Vienna and the architecture is representative of that fact. And here is a fun story – while exploring an art gallery I came across a painting of a woman who resembled yours truly!
Day 15 – Thursday, June 17th, 2021
Thursday morning we travelled to the heart of Istria. On the way we stopped in Hum which is a very cute, quaint and historic town that is quite popular as it is known as the world’s smallest town. Here we spotted another amazing little church – Croatia is filled with small churches – and really not much more – but it is a great stop to just enjoy a glass of wine, enjoy nature and go for a ride on a swing.
From Hum we headed to the hilltop town of Motovun which is known for movie festivals, truffles and wine. There are a lot of things to see and do here and you’ll find some pretty incredible views too. Among our adventures in Istria was a visit to a winery and a sighting of Croatian race car driver Mario Andretti’s birth home in the middle of wine country. We also visited Aura Distillery where they make wine and oils and grappa – which is like vodka on steroids and dined at the Michelin starred Sv. Nikola Restaurant in Poreč.
Also while in Istria we met up with tour guide Nikola Tarandek, who is the owner of a marvelous truffle hunting experience complete with those infamous truffle hunting dogs! Here we joined Nikola truffle hunting in Motovun Forest and although on this particular day we didn’t find any as it was a paired down version of his typical tour, Nikola demonstrated for us just how it works by planting truffles and having the dogs find them. So cool!
Afterwards we journeyed to the village of Livade where we were treated to a spread of truffle chips and wine. We also got to shop for truffle oils in a store adjacent to and owned by the Zigante Restaurant which is where we met up Alex from Taste Istria – another of my preferred suppliers. Alex led us to the restaurant side of the establishment which is home to a bronze replica of the Guinness Book of World Records largest truffle! And I must note here that the restaurant is Michelin starred and would be a great option for a buy out for say a destination wedding, or any other type of event really.
Day 16 – Friday, June 18th, 2021
Friday was the last day of our whirlwind tour. We left Istria and drove four hours north to Zagreb which is the capital city of Croatia. Along the way we stopped in Pula where we saw a coliseum that looks very similar to that oh so famous one in Rome – thanks to the Roman influences in Croatia.
Once in Zagreb we walked around town that evening which was definitely the most hustle and bustle city I experienced in Croatia. It was a lovely combination of both old and new as it still has the Austro-Hungarian Empire architecture with out-of-place skyscrapers dispersed throughout. Here you can also take a ride on a funicular which takes you to the old town via a two minute ride up the hill. It is here that I also learned that Croatia is on a fault line and some things have been lost due to various earthquakes throughout the years. In fact, one of the cathedral steeples in Zagreb had to be moved in order for it to be saved at one point. Oh, and also while I was here it was restaurant week, so you know I ate good!
Saturday morning, I left Croatia out of Franjo Tuđman Airport to head back home. Needless to say – I am already missing Croatia. The coffee, gelato and pretty much all of the food just doesn’t taste the same here!
There is a zen about the country, on every island and all the people we dealt with, and I totally fell in love with it. Just the feeling of relaxation and island time – I mean, they focus on island time and really live it. In conclusion, here are some key observations I made and / or things I learned during my trip to give you an even better idea of what awaits you on your very own Croatian adventure!
- As you may have already guessed, Croatia is one of those destinations that is totally off the beaten path – making it a quieter – and less crowded option to say Greece or Italy – thanks to its many Greek and Italian influences given its location so near to both.
- Croatia is known as the country of islands as they have over 1200 islands with the majority of them being found in Southern Dalmatia.
- Pretty much all of the towns are port towns in terms of Croatia – and although you can find stuff inland – the majority of residents live off the sea. The majority of Croatia is in the capital of Zagreb and four other of Croatia’s largest cities – Split, Rijeka, Osijek and Zadar.
- There is also no hustle and bustle – they are all on island time. You will find Croats will sit in outdoor cafes and watch the world go by for hours while sipping a cup of coffee.
- Every town has main squares where everyone meets up.
- Every island has fortresses and with them comes the history of why they are protected.
- They don’t need air conditioning because of the way their architecture was done. They created the cross streets and parallel streets so that they could have natural air conditioning thanks to the crosswinds from the waters. This was done centuries ago.
- Pretty much everyone under 60 speaks English – however those over 60 – from the Stalin Era – typically don’t.
- Croatia is known for Salt Pans – that was their commodity through the ages. In fact, they traded in salt – that was their money – so they were a very rich county in salt which is no wonder why people wanted to take over their land.
- In addition to great people, Croatia has great food and amazing wines – both reds and whites.
- Croatia has been ruled under various different empires. There’s the Romans, Greeks and Venetians so you will see Italian and Greek influence in the southern part and then there’s the Austria-Hungry and the Ottoman Empire influences in the north. There was a minimum of four different regimes throughout history and everything that you see, taste or experience is a combination of all of those that the Croats have made their own.
- There are an enormous number of churches and cathedrals in Croatia and the islands, and everything is religious based. The majority are the Byzantine and Orthodox Catholics. In fact, it is a very catholic country that has saints for everything and those saints are always a reason to celebrate something or the other.
- On a final and oh so important note – Croatia cannot be considered handicapped accessible as it would be very difficult for someone in a wheelchair or scooter to get around (too many steps, lots of cobblestones, uneven terrain) and most buildings have no elevators. In fact – you have to be pretty physically fit because if you can’t walk or hike five miles a day you’re going to be in pain and not be able to do everything that you would like to do. (And because of this you will see lots of young people vacationing here.)
For more details on things to see and do in Croatia where to stay, it’s price points and more – contact your Travel Guru! Oh, and if you need a payment plan to fund your travel adventure – we got those too!