Feast on Istrian produce, then venture inland to admire almighty waterfalls and traverse deep canyons, before exploring Croatia’s showstopping Dalmatian Coast - Oliver Smith of Lonely Planet Traveller magazine plans your perfect trip.
Istria: best for food and drink
Wine production is old news in Istria. The Romans once considered these vintages among the best in the empire – one empress was said to have lived to the age of 86 after insisting on only drinking Istrian wine every day.
Ever since, Istria has been synonymous with Epicurean living: plentiful seafood and fine wine, late nights and mid-afternoon naps. It’s become one of Croatia’s classic seaside destinations – a miniature Côte d’Azur on the Adriatic, with grand hotels interspersing fishing villages along the coast, and local trawlers competing for moorings with oligarchs’ yachts.
Holidaymakers may come and go, but Istria’s gastronomic traditions have endured. To the north, the town of Buje claims the world’s biggest white truffles – hunted, until recently, with pigs on leashes. To the south, centuries-old olive groves are still harvested by hand – their branches rattled by generation after generation of the same family.
Plitvice Lakes National park: best for waterfalls
The Plitvice Lakes National Park is a place of such otherworldly beauty, you get the feeling that a CGI artist would be proud of it. Spread over a green valley in the Croatian interior, a series of waterfalls tumble down from one spectacular cascade to the next, pausing in the occasional turquoise lake before slipping down a sheer karst canyon and out of sight.
As geology goes, Plitvice is still breaking news. These lakes took shape only 12,000 years back – mere moments ago in geological terms – when subterranean rivers flowed out of the hills and began depositing limestone to form natural dams. Even today, Plitvice’s landscape is one of Mother Nature’s ongoing construction sites.
The king of all the waterfalls, the appropriately named Veliki Slap, shoots over a cliff edge and slaps noisily on the valley floor below. Meanwhile, tiny streams babble about, running into small ponds where shoals of rainbow trout flit about in the shallows.
Paklenica National Park: best for nature
A region of deep canyons and scrubby badlands, Paklenica National Park almost looks like it’s been involved in some geographical mix-up – a chunk of the American West accidentally transplanted to the Balkan Peninsula. In fact, it counts among Croatia’s wildest corners – a remote stretch of the Velebit mountain range home to bears, wolves and wildcats, and a place whose remotest reaches were known only to roving shepherds until roads reached here in the 1950s.
The air turns hotter and the terrain becomes harsher on the walk down Velika Paklenica, the jagged canyon that cuts squarely through the middle of the park. Lizards scamper fitfully about the rocks, and if you glance up, you might be lucky enough to spot a golden eagle wheeling overhead.
Paklenica once had a career moonlighting as a lookalike for the Wild West, serving as the location for one of the most successful Western movie series of all time, albeit one little heard of in the English-speaking world. The German Winnetou movies of the 1960s saw steam trains, frontier towns and Indian camps all imported to what was then Communist-era Yugoslavia, with local comrades enlisted as cowboy extras. Fifty years on, coaches full of German tourists periodically turn up at Paklenica dressed in Wild West costumes to relive the shoot-outs of their childhood: estate agents playing outlaws, bank managers turned braves.
Mljet: best for islands
Few places can induce a state of happy torpor like Mljet. One of the southernmost and the most beautiful of Croatia’s islands, it is a grand finale to the succession of mighty headlands, sweeping blue bays and meandering inlets that stretch south from Split along the Dalmatian coast.
Less than an hour by ferry from the mainland, Mljet is an island of just a few hundred souls, a dozen villages, two tidal lakes and one solitary road that scrambles its way across the thickly wooded hills of the interior. It is a place where the pace of life seldom nudges above the lower end of the speedometer; where fishing, eating and napping have been priorities for as long as anyone can remember.
Dubrovnik: best for history
Night is drawing in, and a bura – a cool, northerly wind – is blowing through Dubrovnik, dipping down the alleyways of the old city, rattling the laundry lines and threatening to carry pairs of pants and socks over the battlements before setting them adrift on the Adriatic.
By degrees, the streets empty of their crowds, and the city’s majesty quietly reveals itself. The creaking of moored boats and the slosh of the tide sounds around the old harbour, while statues of saints, warriors and cherubs glower down on the marble streets, still warm from the day’s sunshine. Dubrovnik is perhaps the most beautiful town on the Mediterranean – encircled by fortifications, battlements and towers stacked on top of each other with the silliness of a massive sandcastle. Twenty years ago, however, the Yugoslav Army besieged the city, killing almost a hundred civilians and destroying historic buildings in the process. As a Unesco-listed town of little strategic value, Dubrovnik was an unexpected target.
Two decades on, Dubrovnik closely resembles its former self – the Renaissance city-state once renowned across the Mediterranean for its democratic principles, rich culture and philosophy. Churches, palaces and townhouses that were blown apart by shells have been patched up and restored, and today host concerts and exhibitions. Tourists have returned to the town in droves, but traces of old city life survive: the surge of customers to cafés after Sunday mass; the food stalls that set up shop in the town square on weekday mornings. Even now however, many locals are reluctant to talk about the siege. Those who do relate the experience with a gritty black humour or with accounts of heroism.