I’ve been hearing about Croatia for years with a steep escalation once we moved to Europe. The Greek Islands however have stolen my summer heart and without a sailboat we kept putting Croatia off. Enticed by the promise of warmish weather, we finally decided to visit Croatia in the off season. Instead of swimming suits we packed our hiking boots for nine days in October.
Croatia has 1100 miles of coastline and as many islands (the legend is that God cried on bare rocks where his tears turned into islands) and so the project of figuring out “How to do Croatia” was a bit like a plodding jog after an undigested lunch. The travel guides are helpful until the moment that you have compiled two dozen places you want to see and then realize that half of them require ferries – which logically won’t be running in October. This meant crossing the Southern Dalmatian islands of Vis, Brac and Korcula off our list. (Glamorous Hvar was already o$$ our list.)
Our best and cheapest flight option was into Zadar and so that became our jumping off point for a driving tour down the Dalmatian Coast. (Northern Zagreb, on many Best of Europe lists, was also crossed off to make way for a southward journey.) Always the optimist (and never the driver), I booked our first place on the island of Pag which was conveniently connected to the mainland by a bridge but a not-so-convenient 1 hour 40 minute drive from the airport. [Take note: Car renting in Croatia is not at all like car renting in the USA. In and out efficiency is not their sweet spot. If you lean towards beating someone to a spot in line, this is absolutely the time to engage those quick twitch muscles.]
Like a lonely swing set on the edge of nowhere (especially in the dark) is perhaps the first impression you might have of the long, skinny island of Pag with its moonscape, rocky terrain. The second impression is sheep. Pag is home to around 8,000 people and three times as many sheep. If you miss your first photo of sheep, be assured – you’ll be grazed with another. Roaming the slopes in search of edible herbs like sage, Pag is home to famous Paskisir sheep cheese that is every bit as delicious and earthy as their diet would suggest.
When you travel off season rates are obviously better which means you might be able to book a place one star higher than you would during peak season. That advantage allowed us to stay at HOTEL BOŠKINAC, an 11 room family run hotel with gourmet restaurant & winery in a beautiful peaceful setting among vineyards and olive trees. I’d like to take credit for finding such a gem, but Anthony Bourdain found it first and his word has a way of traveling the blogosphere. He was also right. It’s an awesome self-contained place (important when traveling to an area where much has already closed for the year) with wonderful but unfussy service, huge, nicely oriented rooms, a wedding-worthy terrace, and indeed tasty food (octopus carpaccio, roasted lamb, risotto with shrimps, squid and potatoes ) and wine.
We were Hotel Boskinac’s very last guests of the season though not the loudest. Credit that to the local dinner guests the night we arrived who were celebrating a 60something birthday party with two guitars and a whole table singing traditional Dalmation music long into the evening. Not only was the music lovely, but there was something about watching an older group of Croatians who had likely been around for the conflict only thirty years prior and now living in a tourist boom sing every word to every song with an intensity that was mesmerizing. My family’s sweet Happy Birthday serenade the following evening was meek by comparison but loud enough to wake the kitchen into a special dessert.
People come to Pag to party. Often called the Croatian Ibiza, most of the partying radiates around one of the three main beaches near the non-descript town of Novalja. Even without the crowds (not a soul in fact), it was easy to imagine that the “scene” is more of a draw than the “scenery” as the beaches are relatively small and pebbled. Call me a snob but I like my beaches with sand and minus the floating party dock. But, then again, we were here to hike and hike we did.
Hike #1: The Super Windy Hike
October is the month of bora winds which blow down from the mountains along the eastern Adriatic. The gusty winds keep fisherman grounded (hence the dinners of squid and octopus which are the only fish that they freeze) and *may* have caused me to bark a few too many inaudible commands to stay away from the edge. Our first hike was on Metajna, a rocky stone outcropping on the east of the island. The roughly 3.5 mile rugged coastline hike takes you along four distinct sections: a long rocky beach, a moonscape rock scramble on a point, a pine forest with small beaches, and a narrow walkway along a rock cliff that ends in a small village. It’s not a groomed hike with trail signs. Great for rock climbers. Even great in wind.
Hike #2: The “When Can We … Go Skinny Dipping?” Hike
Never suggest the remote possibility of skinny dipping before a hike begins. It impedes leisurely progress. Our second hike was on a botanical reserve of olive trees on the northern tip of the island called Lun. Developed into a reserve by the UN in 2013, the Lun Olive Garden has more than 80,000 olive trees including the oldest olive tree at 1,600 years old. A 7 km trail runs through the garden – part of which is along coast with great places to picnic and an interior part with some elevation and great views – with a surreal mix of rocky undergrowth, dense groves, and sheep crisscrossing through dry stone wall pens. It’s absolutely stunning. On both hikes, we never saw another person. Had the water temperature been more agreeable (and the begging less relentless), it could have been ideal for skinny dipping.
One of the highlights from our time on Pag was touring and tasting at the Sirana Gligora dairy to see how the Paskisir sheep cheese was made. Naturally this called for a hazmat suit. Like so many things during shoulder season with the hives of tourists gone, it ended up being a private tour which meant that we didn’t have to conserve our questions. At the start of the tour the guide asked Lawton, “Where does milk come from?” to which Lawton replied, “Mom.” Clearly, we needed the tour and the full airspace for questions.
From the island of Pag we drove down the Dalmation Coast to Croatia’s second largest city, Split. Instead of the motorway, we took a slower route that hugged the coast which was well worth the time investment. Packing a picnic lunch is always advised when taking the scenic route. We’d been advised to stopover in Sibenik on the way down for a few hours but got seriously lost on a tangle of steep streets that seemed to be going everywhere but the medieval centre and sucking all collective will from the car.
We carried on to Split where we booked an apartment at Divota Apartment Hotel – a scattering of restored stone houses in the center of old town Split near the harbor. The location could absolutely not be better. They have apartment configurations for all sizes and budgets and they are wonderfully managed properties. (We stayed in House 800.) Highly, highly recommend.
As the second largest city, Split is obviously a year round place that doesn’t shut down for the season. There is a pride among people from Split as well as a disproportionate number of Olympic athletes. With its cobblestoned old town and great seafront promenade, like Budapest did, Split was lively and fun and exceeded our expectations. We did some of the recommended site seeing, challenged ourselves to find above average food (Konoba Marjan, Villa Spiza, Uje Oil Bar, Wine& Cheese Bar Paradox, and Restaurant Dvor were all solid triples) and of course hiked.
Hike #3: The Urban Hike in Cute Shoes
A favorite hike you must do in Split is climb Marjan Hill which is located on the city’s peninsula with the city to one side and the sea on the other. A longer and steeper climb with footpaths most but not all the way, it is advised to ditch the cute shoes in favor of running shoes. Ballbach shoes that weren’t mine were also found running up Marjan Hill several mornings.
Hike #4: The Unfortunate Hike to Dinner
Some walks turn into hikes when maps don’t help you anticipate walking the long way around bodies of water in the dark. Those are never fun on an empty stomach and 15 minutes past your reservation. Then again, who needs reservations in the off season except the one time you don’t. So if you want to have dinner at Restaurant Dvor, call a cab and if you want to get a table at Tavern Matejuska, make a reservation. Thankfully before dinner that night, we finally got our swim in (though with suits on.)
Leaving Split in route to Zadar for one night before our flight home, the plan was to drive into Bosnia-Hercegovina to add another country to the kids expanding list and then either make a second attempt in Sibenik or head for a final hike in Krka National Park. The Bosnia plan was thwarted when we drove out of our way deep into the hills to a lonely border crossing only to be inexplicably sent away in gruff Croatian (USA citizens don’t need visas and so our passports should have been enough.) Watching the next car pass through the border in our rear view mirror, our only conclusion was that maybe we needed to pay a bribe. Honestly, I was a bit relieved as there was something eerie being in a place so desolate and disquieting to read constant reminders about care when walking off trail due to mines left from the Balkan War.
Hike #5: The There Could be Snakes Hike
After that, we opted for Krka National Park which was totally the right choice. Visited by almost 750,000 people a year, the cascading waterfalls of Krka National Park are not to be missed. You enter the park by car, park and then hike along elevated foot paths. At the beginning of the hike, you will see signage of the types of flora and fauna found in the habitat and there WILL be pictures of snakes. This was deeply troubling to some members of our family who shall remain nameless. Like the eternity of a spiritless basketball game that only turns on in the last two minutes of the game is a hike with someone you love with a phobia who finally releases the death grip in the last hundred meters.
Hike #6: The Itty Bitty Hike
Zadar is tiny and sleepy and aside from the The Sea Organ and Greeting to the Sun light tiles is an overnight kind of place. Then again, maybe we were just tired.