Extremely quiet in summer as everyone heads to the coast, and only locals know that in winter you can ski within an hour of this pinnacle of inner, real and urban Croatia. Similarly those mountains are there to be hiked when the snows melt.
You don't have to go too far from the coast to discover national parks with lots of ups and downs. Hiking and cycling up. White water rafting and kayaking down. Slavonia in the far east of the country is still totally untouristy too.
With Italy, Slovenia, Hungary, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro just over the border, you can easily go where the Croatian tourist board won’t tell you to go.
Slavonia is the agricultural region of Croatia in the far East of the country. Unknown to most tourists, it was badly hit during the wars of the 1990’s and is still recovering. This is a flat landscape of wineries and wetlands, with the Nature Park Kopacki Rit at its heart. The main towns of Osijek and Vukovar are quaint and culturally rich.
It’s the ‘Pearl of the Adriatic’, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a medieval walled city and it’s on the sea. What’s not to love? The crowds, the cruise ships, the crappy souvenir shops. However, go outside July and August and it’s a different story. Or just go late afternoon when the cruises have done their bruising, and the tidal wave of tourists has turned.
With all those beauty spots you might make a mistake of trying to take them all in. This is when expert package trips really come into their own as they have spent forever creating the perfect itineraries for you. From hiking in the national parks, cycling around Istria, to kayaking en famille on an itsy bitsy island, there is a pretty package for everyone.
Rovinj is the beating heart of the Istrian peninsula. With ancient cobbled market streets, a strong artists’ community, picture postcard market, cathedral and cycle routes spreading out like webs along the coast. Ferries also leave from here to Venice in Italy, which is two hours away. Within 30 minutes from Pula airport, you can be swimming beneath the walls of this gem.
Food is not a la carte, but it is Croatian. If you want Michelin Star, go elsewhere. If you want fresh fish, seafood, olives, local wine and smoked dried hams, you will eat this place up. Literally. A lot of Dubrovnik has gone from slow to fast food to cater for the cruise ship roll on roll off culture, which is a shame. But dig deep and you will find.
Island hopping looks like a dream when you look at the map. But sometimes it can be more of a nightmare, as usually you need to go back to the mainland and then back out again, and suddenly you have lost a day. Some activity holidays use speedboats to go between islands, taking 45 minutes instead of 4.5 hours
Split is fine as a ferry hub and a day trip, but for smaller and so much sweeter, head to nearby Trogir. The medieval old town is actually on an island, and is so spectacular it has UNESCO World Heritage status.
Service is still a notion that is catching on in Croatia, particularly in the south. Istria is more ahead of the game, but with such a huge influx of employees from farm labourers to students simply to cater for July and August madness, staff turnover is high, and the mood can verge on cranky sometimes.
The wars in Croatia were very recent, and so do take this opportunity to read up on them. Some local people want to talk about them and others don’t. Some tips, however: don’t refer to them as a civil war. It was a collection of wars about territory and independence and calling it civil will not go down well. Nor does calling it a Balkan country, or worse, former Yugoslavia.