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Road trip Croatia: from Istria to Dalmatia

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Enticed by hearing over and over from friends about beautiful Croatia, we took off on a road trip to see for ourselves. The water is supposed to be clear like Sardinia’s, the scenery a luxuriant green, the towns picturesque and steeped in history. Say no more; let’s hit the road!

From Zurich, we took Edelweiss directly to Pula in Istria. Here we grabbed our rental car and, more or less, headed south along the coast — with side trips into the backcountry — and, 12 days later, we flew home again from Split on SWISS.

Croatia Coast line as seen from the airplane

Approaching Pula in Istria on Edelweiss

But, let’s take it one stop at a time….

Istrian Riviera – from fishing port Rovinj to Opatija seaside resort

In Istria, we mostly explored the scenic little coastal towns. They attract hordes of visitors, drawn by their glistening cobblestones and snug little streets. Sometimes, they seem to be inundated with tourists. But, don’t let that keep you away, because we found Rovinj to be the high point of our Istria tour, with the seaside resort at Opatija and its chic beach clubs a captivating close second.

Fishing boat in the Poreč marina

The Poreč marina

Rovinj Istria Croatia

The small fishing port of Rovinj with Sveta Eufemija church tower

Opatija in Istria Croatia

Promenade in Opatija

Plitvice Lakes and Krka National Park

The Plitvice Lakes as well as Krka National Park are among the most-visited tourist attractions Croatia’s. The glistening turquoise lakes, the roaring waterfalls and the unique karst formations furnished the settings for the lake and waterfall scenes in those Winnetou movies featuring Karl May’s fictional Indian chief.

Even if both national parks are overrun by tourists, a visit is worth it — but get there early in the morning!

Kozjak Lake Plitvice Lake Croatia

Plitvice Lakes. One of rare tranquil moments…

Waterfall Plitvice Lakes Croatia

Turquoise waterfall pool at Plitvice Lakes

Plitvice Lakes Croatia

More Plitvice Lakes. “The Treasures of Silver Lake” is supposed to be somewhere here about.

Skradinski Buk Krka National Park Croatia

Skradinski Buk in Krka National Park

Krka National Park Croatia

Krka National Park

Hvar Island

Having earned the title of the St. Tropez of Croatia in the meantime, Hvar Island just a few years back was still a well-kept secret. Now, it’s one of Croatia’s trendy destinations. These days, even international jetsetters tie their fat yachts up here.

Rocky coves, emerald-green blue hues, and extensive olive orchards help make this small island the popular hotspot it deservedly has become.

Hvar Croatia

Hvar and the humongous “Selene” sailing yacht

La Spanjola fortress Hvar Croatia

The view from La Španjola Fortress

Hvar Port Croatia

A Hvar sunset

Split and Trogir

No Croatia trip is complete without a visit to Split, so be sure to include it in your itinerary. Thanks to its harbor promenade, the cafés and restaurants and, especially, its crooked little alleyways, Split will leave an unforgettable impression!

St. Domnius Cathedral Split Croatia

The Cathedral of St. Domnius in Split

That said, just 30 km northwest of Split you will find the no less spectacular little town of Trogir. Medieval, precious, and, yes, touristic without end — but definitively also worth a visit!

Fortress Kamerlengo Trogir

Trogir’s Kamerlengo Fortress

Yacht and pier in Trogir Croatia

Sailing yacht moored at the promenade

Kamerlengo Tower Trogir Croatia

Eating and drinking in Croatia

Everywhere we went, we found good food. Most of all, of course, the fresh fish and shellfish stood out. With their offerings of shore dinners, grilled plates, pizza, and pasta, the Croats succeed in pleasing the palates of international tourists.  So, you can’t really go wrong…

A cautionary note: The days when Croatia could be sold as a cheap destination are long gone. Although, on occasion we ate wonderfully well in small (less touristic) villages for little money (ca. 20 € per person), in the tourist-heavy locales the hungry traveler will have to fork over more. But, hey, the fish is fresh like nowhere else and the view to go with it is often priceless ;-)

Seafood Hvar Croatia

Dalmatian shore dinner

Opatija in Istria Croatia

Tuna tartare in Opatija

Plava Alga restaurant Hvar Croatia

The view from the Plava Alga Restaurant on Hvar

By the way, we had another restaurant tip from Walter’s colleague Sandra for Konoba Vinko. It takes 50 minutes by car to reach this family-style restaurant from Trogir or just 20 minutes from Šibenik. We were not able to try it out it ourselves, but with a 4.9 out of 5 on 113 Google reviews, there must be something to this recommendation…

Sandra (in voice over) :

What I like best is that everything is homegrown or comes from the neighbors; you’ll get at least 20 schnapps before the meal starts!

Okaaay… we don’t guarantee it! But, anyone who knows better, can we hear from you?

While we’re on the subject of good drinking: In the Hotel Navis near Opatija we discovered a Slavonic Krauthaker. The oak-barrel aged chardonnay is worth a try! Or make that two, three…

The local red wines are also not bad, but they can’t quite go head to head with the better known terroirs from Italy, Spain, or France.

Driving in Croatia

Driving in Istria can be quite pleasant. Unlike in Italy, people take it a little easier on the road here and speed limits are (more or less) observed. You will pay toll on the autobahns. Be sure to have change on you, although in some toll booths they do take credit cards.

Croatia may be a member of the EU since July of 2013, but it has not (yet) introduced the euro. Do not forget to bring Croatian kuna with you. Some shops will only take cash in kuna, and while some restaurants take credit cards, in others you will be obliged to settle the bill  with local currency!

So, if you like to travel on credit cards be sure to check the payment method before ordering. Otherwise, you may wind up staying a little longer than planned washing dishes…

We also noticed how clean it is everywhere. Not just are the towns kept tidy, but the allees and autobahns are also very well maintained. Public restrooms are also spic and span, looked after mostly by hardworking staff who really earn their tip money.

Beaches

Do not expect any sandy beaches! It may look like there are some from the air, and, sure, here and there are short sandy stretches worthy of a Caribbean postcard, for the most part you’ll find gravel beaches and rocky coves in Croatia.

In which you can also plunk down a designer hotel… and why not?

Navis Hotel Optija Croatia

Navis Hotel perched on the cliff face between Opatija and Rijeka

But yes, Croatians still manage to squeeze in a beach club or two. Here’s our guide to the best beach clubs they have on offer.

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Katja is travelmemo.com’s destination research and booking expert. She always has the upper hand on itineraries and travel details.

When not on the road Katja is a corporate communications and events manager.

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