Scan the photo essay from our road trip along Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast and it is obvious there’s plenty to like. Beautiful water? Check. Hidden coves? Check. Lots of sunshine illuminating cute stone houses with red tile roofs? Check.
Then there’s what can’t be seen in photos: plentiful fresh fish and healthy Mediterranean food coupled with a burgeoning wine scene, for one. And the people? Let’s just say they might even rival Sicilians for the title of “friendliest Europeans.” (But since this isn’t the Olympics, let’s not rank order. Suffice it to say that we felt truly welcomed, and that combined with the prevalence of English-speakers made it easy to strike up a conversation with just about anyone.)
True, some modern-day truths about Croatia left us wanting, which is why we put together the tell-it-like-it-is “Is Croatia Overrated?” However, that’s not the complete story. The truth is that we managed to have a wonderful time and stumbled onto some great off-the-beaten-path destinations. You could almost call it our “travel karma,” but one thing Ben and I do really well is manifest – yes, I said it – great travel experiences. We count on the fact that we’ll enjoy the places we visit, and even if they don’t quite live up to our expectations, we know we’ll have fun seeking out the hidden gems that rise above the status quo.
This is a fantastic micro-region of Croatia’s wine-growing Peljesac Peninsula, and even in July you won’t find many people there – local or tourist. Want proof? When I tried to look up the tiny town of Borak, it didn’t even appear on Google Maps. Now that’s off the beaten track!
“How could this be?” you ask, brow furrowed in tech-aged confusion. Well, maybe it’s because there are only two ways to get there: by boat, or through a tiny, unmarked tunnel just large enough for one car. Or maybe it’s just because those kids at Google don’t get out much.
Back to the matter at hand: oh, is that tunnel worth it. You’ll emerge amidst steep, vine-covered slopes, the island of Korcula beaconing you down to sea level. Take the sign to Borak, and you’ll dead end at the Matusko winery’s restaurant and its cantilevered deck over the water. They’ll provide mild olives arranged on a bed of seaweed, fresh seafood, and the humble and somersault-worthy garnish of broth-simmered fresh greens doused in olive oil which appears on plates throughout the region (just give me a big bowl and a fork, and off to heaven I will go). To drink? Why, their own wine, of course, grown on these very slopes.
If we had it to do over again, this is where we would stay.
No post with this title would be complete without mentioning Plitvice, though it doesn’t actually qualify as “hidden” or “Dalmatia.” This is Croatia’s premier national park and one of its top tourist attractions, located northeast of Zadar. Yet many people that “do” the Dalmatia/islands thing miss it entirely. Unless you can promise you’ll be back within a couple of years, do not miss this on your trip to Croatia! Move hell and high water to make it happen, because a natural wonder like this exists only one place on earth: here.
We talked about Plitvice Lakes in a previous post, but just two final notes:
1) The water actually is that Technicolor shade of emerald. Even Disney couldn’t do better.
2) Because this is a national park and development is moderated, you’ll be missing out if you come in on a day trip rather than staying overnight (at least). We stayed at a small guesthouse in rural Korenica owned by a local who fed us both the great meals he prepared himself and great tips for the park, plus taught us some important local customs (“In Croatia, first we drink!”)
Believe it or not, there is a town on the coast within an hour of Zadar Airport and just minutes from party-town Vodice where traditional local life still exists.
If you are inclined to visit, you must promise to tread quietly (yes, fellow Americans, I’m speaking to you), softly, almost invisibly; we’ve made our decision to reveal favorite destinations based solely on this premise. Otherwise, I will mislead you and send you to the other Zaton, which is close to Dubrovnik, and which you will see right now if you pull it up on Google maps.
Still with me? Good. We want a different Zaton, the one which is tucked away in a fjord-like inlet leading to the Krka Krajolik – Donji Tok Protected Landscape, a series of lakes and waterways that would definitely be crawling in motorboats and jet skis where I come from.
While boats are permitted – in fact, its sheltered position makes it a nice place to dock – nobody seems inclined to destroy the peace. This is a hamlet where children still stroll the promenade into the night, golden-aged women sit and gossip (or ponder geopolitics – who knows?), and each of the five bars has a distinctive flavor. Except for fishing boats heading out and an occasional shriek of laughter, you could hear a pin drop.
**Tip: Can’t stay for the night? At least head to Konoba Porat for Dalmatian delicacies by the water, where you can not only eat well but crack yourself up playing ventriloquist as the two men in the corner – who look the epitome of grizzled sea captains – enter into animated and unintelligible discussion. (Keep a close eye on their table, since these are the kind of people that know how to work a menu.) If you can’t make it to dinner, at least visit the website for some translation giggles.
And there you have it: we’ve given you our best. There are undoubtedly more where these came from, proving you actually can get away from the crowds … if you’re willing to do crazy things like drive through unlit tunnels. There’s only one part of this trip that we haven’t covered yet – but that’s a story for next week.