Plitvica Lakes Croatia

You have to take a hike around Plitvica Lakes. It's breathtaking!
As soon as we started telling people that a Croatia trip was on our travel agenda, almost every one said that we had to visit Plitvice Lakes National Park. I had never heard of the Lakes before moving to Serbia, but then all of a sudden pictures started popping up everywhere: facebook, twitter, pinterest, travel agency magazines - everywhere! The first picture that I posted is the one that kept taunting me though the frigged Balkan winter. Doesn't that just look heavenly after the winter from hell?! The Plitvice Lakes are only five hours away from Subotica, Serbia in the neighboring country of Croatia, but I wanted to see the lakes exactly like that picture, so we waited for the summer. 

A little bit about the Lakes:
The Plitvica Lakes cover 73,350 acres or 296.85 square kilometers (making it the largest national park in Croatia) and it is a UNESCO World Heritage site. On an average year, some 1,100,000 tourists visit Plitvica Lakes so you can count on it being super crowded in the summer! The Lakes are actually one of the most visited sites in all of Croatia and can easily be reached by bus from Zagreb or even the island of Krk. 

In 1991, a bloody battle between the Croatian Army and the Yugoslav People's Army was fought here and Croatia lost control of the Lakes to Serb forces. Once the Croatian war ended in 1995, the Lakes were once again controlled by Croatia, but the war had taken a toll on the natural wonder and beauty of the site. In 1998, the Lakes were actually taken off of the UNESCO list due to the apparent risk of buried mines; that was all cleaned up quickly and UNESCO invited the site back into the fold once the dangers were eliminated. Today, you could lose your balance on the wooden walkways (there are no handlebars) or twist an ankle if you're not careful, but those are about the only dangers you might encounter. 

What it cost in 2012:


Our Hvar, Croatia Favs

Hiking down to Dubovica Beach - Hvar, Croatia
We initially planned to spend three days in Hvar, but after our first full day of exploring, we extended that to five. Lucky for us, the super affordable place we were staying at (Pansion Lacman) could accommodate us for a couple more nights. I think we could have stayed for 55 days without getting restless. Okay, maybe not that long, but really there is so much to do in Hvar! We found a helpful tourist office on the harbor called Atlas Travel Agency and they listened to what we were interested in doing and then pointed us in the right direction. The owner of the agency grabbed an island map and circled his favorite vineyards, hidden beaches, bars, and hiking trails. We visited almost every place he suggested and even booked a tour through him to see the mystical Blue Cave. Our trip to the Blue Cave was one of our most memorable experiences from this past year. I am going to beg Chris to write about that excursion in a later post. *Hint hint, Hubby . . . You're just so good at story telling!

Over the past years, charming Hvar Town has earned a reputation as a coastal party spot. It seems that celebrity sightings and lavish yachts have done quite a lot to boost tourism. Adriatic cruise ships frequently unload 1000's of tourists, and British youth spend part of their "gap-year" (it's a new fad to take a year off in between high school and college) drinking the summer away at hip beach bars. Chris and I walked past the famous Hula Hula Hvar and Carpe Diem bars, but we were more interested in exploring hidden treasures on the island known for lavender and wine. 

Breathtaking Dubovica Beach just for us!
We hiked around Hvar Town quite a lot, and while we found several remote and romantic beaches, my favorite beach was Dubovica. You have to drive about ten miles east from Hvar, park your vehicle near the road, and hike 20-ish minutes down to the beach. The beach is marked along the road, so it's pretty obvious where you have to park and hike. It was totally worth the trouble! Chris and I were some of the only people on the beach, but apparently it gets more crowded in high season.

Taking in the silence on Dubovica Beach.
Mustaco Beach and beach restaurant. 
Checking out the beach from inside Mustaco beach restaurant. 
There is only one small beach in Hvar Town (in front of Hotel Amfora) and other than that, there are beach chairs (for rent) precariously set up along the jagged rocks overlooking the water. We decided to take a hike and check out a more proper beach. We left Hvar Town and made the 20-minute walk to Mustaco Beach, and we really liked the vibe. On Mustaco, you can rent chairs and umbrellas, and there's a good mixture of families, elderly couples and young people soaking in the summer rays. I think it's a clothing optional beach because a lot of ladies had their tops off. The little seaside restaurant is rustic and "beachy" and the pizzas are pretty tasty. I was surprised that they will let you enjoy your beer or cocktail down on the beach.

On one afternoon, we took a $5 round trip boat-taxi to Mlini Beach on one of the Pakleni Islands. You can choose to taxi to several of the islands in front of Hvar - some FKK (nudist) and some not, some with hopping beach bars and some totally remote. We chose to check out Mlini Beach and it was a relaxing and quiet (but rough and rocky) beach. 

We took a water taxi to Mlini Beach on one of the Pakleni Islands. 
Beach Bar Mlini is owned by a family that lives on the island. 
You cannot go wrong with pizza in Hvar! We always split one!
After you've spent the entire day roasting your skin, swimming in the clear water, and sweating like a pig, the only thing you really want is a good meal with an ice cold pitcher of water. As I said in my last post about Hvar, the food is a blend of Balkan and Italian. Of course you're going to find pizza and pasta and tons of seafood, but you'll also see more traditional Croatian dishes like mixed meat platters and goulash. On our first night, Chris and I had dinner at Dalmatino . . . and we loved it so much we went back two more times! I know, I know, we're already like a totally boring old couple; but we found something we loved and we stuck with it. The restaurant is tucked away from the hustle and bustle, and everyone sits out on a covered terrace. The service is the clincher! The whole staff works as a team to make every single dining experience superb. They start your meal with a shot of traditional brandy (rakija), give you a little appetizer and then finish you off with a sweet, dessert wine. Their attention to detail is spot on and they are friendly and engaging. The food is amazing as well. Chris tried their Filet Mexico the first night, and he loved it so much . . . guess what. . . he had it two more times! I cannot fault Chris, I ate their homemade gnocchi every single time just with different preparations. They take credit cards and that was another plus!

Our favorite restaurant in Hvar - Dalmatino. 
The most handsome date in the world!
Homemade black gnocchi with shrimp at Dalmatino.
On one evening, Chris and I had dinner at a fancy restaurant called Giaxa. The setting is so romantic. Giaxa is housed in a 15th-century palace and the architecture and design of the place are so classy. I could not stop taking pictures! Unfortunately we were a little disappointed with the service after our experience at Dalmatino. It was not bad, but it was nothing special. The food is very tasty and artfully designed, but the portion sizes were sort of small for the price. Our meal was about double what we had paid the night before for a similar meal at Dalmatino. I would absolutely recommend seeing this place, but maybe just go for a post dinner drink and dessert. And to take a bunch of pictures of course!

Octopus salad starter at Giaxa Restaurant - Hvar. 
Sea bass with grilled local veggies. 
Good bye Hvar! This time - next year??


Heavenly Hvar, and Beyonce.

Hvar Town captured from the vantage point of the Fortress. 
Words cannot express the enticing beauty of the Dalmatian island of Hvar, Croatia. We parted ways with our friend, Reece; he headed north towards Germany and Chris and I followed a winding, Croatian road south towards the city of Split. We gave Split a little "shout-out" and hastily drove our car onto a Jadrolinija ferry  bound for Stari Grad on Hvar Island. The two hour trip passed fairly quickly, and after a final 20-minute drive, we found ourselves navigating the car down a steep road into Hvar Town.

Hvar Town is comfortably nestled at the base of some pretty big hills. The craggy hillside is dotted with pine trees, olive groves, vineyards, fruit trees and of course a whole lot of lavender fields. Once an important port town within the Venetian Empire, the architecture and elegance of Hvar are unmistakably Italian. The food is a marriage of Croatian (or Balkan) and Italian flavors, and even their alcoholic beverages are a blend of two cultures. The popular pre and post meal brandy (rakija as we've come to know it in Serbia) is served in Hvar right alongside a glass of local Plavac Mali red wine. We fell in love with the hospitable people and indulged in the wonderful flavors of the island, and that may be saved for another post. For now, enjoy a few pictures from our Hvar holiday. 

Picture opportunities around every corner. 
Croatia and Ireland's soccer teams played each other  - He was the biggest fan. 
The setting sun on Hvar port. 
Maybe my favorite Hvar, Croatia harbor picture. 
Hvar Fortress at night looking out for the harbor below. 

We hiked to a hidden cove with the clearest blue-green water. Breathtaking. 
Wine and the Hvar sunset before dinner.
Can we go back?!
The Hvar Fortress illuminated behind The Palace Hvar Hotel.
Setting sun over Hvar Town.
I just had to buy some to take home. 
The locals said that huge yacht is Beyonce's; no star sightings. . . but just maybe she was there too!
I'll tell you all about our Hvar excursions and the amazing food we tried in a later post. I will leave you with this final picture. While we were in Hvar Town, the most lavish yacht pulled into harbor. I asked Chris if it was a mini-Adriatic-cruiseship because it seemed too massive to be a private boat. Nope, that huge, floating mansion belongs to someone. She is called "Romance" and three cabin crew personnel guarded her back deck at all times. The locals said that a year ago, Beyonce and Jay-Z rolled into Hvar on that very yacht. There were no star sightings while "Romance" parked her huge booty in Hvar harbor, but that power couple could very well have been looking out onto the same Adriatic Sea as us.

Does this count as a star sighting? I think not.


Baska Beach - Krk, Croatia

Sipping local Croatian wine near the port in Baska, Croatia. 
All I needed to hear was "great local wine," and my oversized (and unnecessarily overstuffed) suitcase was packed and ready for the Croatian coast. To be fair, I was excited for more than just wine, but sipping a chilled glass of Zlahtina by the beach seemed incredibly enticing. Serbia and Croatia are neighbors, and while the 7-hour drive to Krk, Croatia seemed easy enough, we had to wait for the weather to turn from spring to summer before planning a beach escape. It is good that we waited until early June because we soon discovered that most of Croatia's tourist spots don't even "open" until the beginning of June. 

The first two hours of the drive from Subotica, Serbia to the northern island of Krk, Croatia took us through winding back roads that were littered with slow moving farm equipment, surprise pot-holes, and oblivious, bike riding baba's and deda's. We rolled up to the Serbian-Croatian border and assumed we had missed a turn. The "border" leading into Croatia is nothing more than a small, rusty one-man shack, and we were the only car seeking passage. I wanted to take a picture, but then Chris reminded me that picture-taking at a border crossing could land me without a camera. I decided against a picture. We sat at the border for about ten minutes as the officers curiously thumbed through each of our passports. They asked all sorts of questions simply because an American is a rare site to see at that rural border crossing. They bid us farewell and a pleasant trip (srecan put), and we felt like we were finally on our way to the beach!
First glimpse of Baska beach in Krk, Croatia. 
We were lucky to find a great deal at The Atrium Residence Baska Hotel right in the center of all the action. The Atrium Hotel is one of the newest hotels on Baska so their listed rates are fairly high, but thanks to hotels.com, we were able to enjoy our beach vacation in style and still have a few dollars left to spend. Chris and I had never before heard of Baska, or the island of Krk for that matter, but apparently Baska is one of the most desirable beach destinations on the Adriatic seaboard. There are not many sandy beaches in Croatia but the small white pebble beaches mean that the aqua-green water is unimaginably clear. We quickly realized that most of the tourists are either Austrian or German; the location is not marketed to Americans so we hardly heard any American English. The picture above is the beach in front of our hotel and it was our first peek of the ocean. 

We met up with our friend Reece and the three of us spent a few days soaking up the rays, enjoying local cuisine, meeting new friends, hiking, and avoiding the FKK (free body movement) or "nude-only-beaches."

Enjoy some pictures from our trip!
No editing here! The water is so clear you can see straight through it! Amazing!
Complimentary shots of Rakija on our first night. 
Met an Austrian painter named "Picasso," he painted me this. . . er . . .  "picture."
Baska Beach Krk, Croatia at dusk. 
This is how the boys spent their afternoons on the beach. 
Great little place called Bistro Francesca on Baska. 
On our second evening, we had dinner at a little place called Bistro Francesca. The restaurant is a little bit off the main drag and away from the water, but the intimate courtyard is so quaint and romantic. We were dining with a party of five so we had a bit of a wait, but it just gave us more time to get to know our new friends. While I was waiting in the hotel breakfast line earlier that morning, I heard a girl speaking English with an American accent. I asked her where she was from and turns out, her and her husband live an hour or so away from where we are from in Kentucky! Instant friends! Tim and Shellie are just awesome! They live and work in the States, but they often satisfy their need to travel and see the world. I half expect to see them again while we're living in Europe! You two know you always have a place to stay wherever Chris and I happen to be!

Tim and Shellie at Bistro Francesca. 
Bisto Francesca is owned by a local family that lives above the restaurant in the summer. All of their ingredients are fresh and the owner proudly makes and serves his homemade brandy to each table. The setting is warm and cozy and we hardly realized that three hours lazily slipped by as we were enjoying each others company. Finally, we were the last table on the patio. The server and owner took one last shot of brandy with us before we bid them farewell and goodnight. 

There is something so romantic about boats in a harbor. 
Hiking in Baska on Krk, Croatia. 
There are 16 mapped hiking trails originating in Baska, and any tourist office or hotel reception can give you a map of the routes. We had heard tales of the FKK (or nudist beaches) on Baska, so we scouted out a route that would AVOID those areas. Unfortunately the route we decided to follow took us on the outskirts of a nudist beach and camping area. A flimsy barbed-wire fence was all that stood between hikers and aging nudists. We quickly learned that "nudists" are never the people you really want to see nude. It was not a pretty site and just slightly uncomfortable with my husband and another guy trailing behind me. Luckily, we found a few hidden coves, escaped the nudists and jumped from jagged rocks into the icy cold water below. We forgot about the nudists and discovered paradise by swimming through Croatia's crystal clear water.

Ohhh so in love!
Amazing fresh seafood plate!
Seafood feast!

Farewell Baska! We hope to visit again!
Croatia: Know Before You Go:

- Tourist season starts at the beginning of June, and the busy months are July and August. 

- Pack shoes for the rocky beaches. Those white pebbles are pretty but they hurt bare feet!

- It is illegal to drive while talking on a cell phone in Croatia. 

- The main tourist routes have updated roads, but that means hefty tolls. We paid about $100 in tolls on our ten day trip. From the Serbian border to Baska, we paid about $30. 

- Make sure you have a good GPS for travel in Croatia. We use Navigon Europe
 for the ipad. 

- If you rent a car with a GPS in Croatia, the country may be listed at Hrvatska or Republika Hrvatska (not Croatia).

- Some places only accept cash (Croatian Kuna). We found that big restaurants, hotels, stores and toll booths took credit cards, but excursions, guest houses, and cafes expect you to pay in the local currency. 

- About 70% of the wine from Croatia is white, but they are known for their reds as well. Usually the house wine is wonderful everywhere you go. Drink up!

- There are a lot of nude beaches in Croatia and they are usually marked as "FKK" or Naturist beach/camping site. Most of the other beaches are clothing optional, and that basically just means a few ladies will have their tops off. 

- Bring a lot of sunscreen because the sun is intense! 

- This goes without saying, but eat as much seafood as you can possibly manage! Most of it is fresh and everything we tried was amazing! A server told us that calamari is only fresh in the winter in Croatia, and in the summer they are flown in.