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Croatia's Dalmatian Coast
"All of Croatia is beautiful," Slobodan Vrdoljak corrected me jovially. He is the man to contact for people flying by private jet to Zadar, on the country's Dalmatian coast. (See "Zadar Airport," on page 38.) Having only recently arrived here, we were lounging with him in the airport coffee shop. I'd just commented on the splendor of the famous lakes and waterfalls at Plitvice Jezera National Park, located in the rugged mountains near the border with Bosnia-Herzegovina. Several days and many miles later, I realized that Slobodan was right. All of Croatia is at least pleasantly scenic and parts of it are stunningly gorgeous.
Still, we chose to focus our trip on the region around Zadar. Other coastal airports, at Dubrovnik, Split and Pula, are jet-capable and surrounded by scenic beauty. But Zadar Airport offers proximity to the islands of the Zadar Archipelago and has less tourist traffic than the other Croatian destinations. If you really want to get away from it all, in fact, Zadar is about the best place in Europe to point your jet.
The small city of Zadar (population 71,000) is old even by European standards. It was already bustling long before the Romans showed up a couple of millennia ago to expand their empire, having been a city or at least a large settlement since the Stone Age.
Wandering the narrow streets of Zadar's old town district, you encounter a wealth of very old architecture and recently unearthed artifacts, with archaeological digs ongoing right next to outdoor cafés and boutiques.
We drove north from Zadar through the upscale waterfront suburbs on the Put Nina road (306) to the old city of Nin. The "old town" section of Nin is on an island, with more recent development spreading out on the adjacent mainland. Upon arrival, we parked and walked into the old section by crossing a stone bridge known as the "Donji most" (lower bridge). Although it never grew to become a large city, Nin was once the home of Dalmatian kings and Catholic bishops. Today it makes for a fascinating walking tour. If you're in the mood for a somewhat longer hike, go about two miles north of town, where you'll find what is regarded as the best beach in Croatia, one of the very few with fine sand rather than pebbles. You might see people smearing themselves with the mud found near the beach, as it is highly touted for its muscle-soothing medicinal properties.
Arriving at the Zadar ferry terminal early the next morning, we intended to get a jump on the nearly perpetual jam of people, cars and trucks lining up on the quay to board ships that go out to the islands as well as up and down the coast and to Italy. As it turned out, our first opportunity to get out to Dugi Otok-which translates as "long island"-was 10 a.m. The crush of traffic was in full swing when we returned. What a different scene we found when we arrived at the island! It is sparsely populated and exceedingly tranquil.
The ferry arrives at Brbinj, a small town in the middle of the eastern side of Dugi Otok. Finding little there to attract us, we drove south toward Sali, a much more interesting coastal village. There is a travel office in Sali where you can arrange to stay in one of the stone fishermen's cottages, often referred to as "Robinson Crusoe" vacations. Some of these huts are near a landlocked saltwater lake, Jezero mira, which has warmer water than the surrounding Mediterranean Sea. This area is popular with naturists. It seems you can take the Robinson Crusoe concept quite far on Dugi Otok.
About 40 miles north-northeast of Zadar is a series of lakes connected by waterfalls and spillways known as Plitvice Jezera. We went a couple of times, once via the new freeway/turnpike that links Split to Zagreb. We also took the traditional route over the mountains, recommended for those who think a stick shift plus a winding road equals fun.
You can reach the lakes and falls via either of two entry points. Whichever you choose, the idea is to hike from one end to the other and then return to your car by way of a shuttle bus. The falls are on the must-see list for many visitors to Croatia, so expect busloads of tourists. We found early morning to be best.
We also took a long hike in the opposite direction from the falls, up into the mountains toward the Bosnian border. This is an excellent trek on a clearly marked trail during which we encountered only a handful of other hikers, all of them Croatian. (By the way, the guidebooks recommend that you always stay on the marked trails when hiking in Croatia. Mines were placed there during the war with Serbia and there is no guarantee that all have been cleared. Even the area surrounding Zadar Airport has signs warning of mines.)
It is difficult to describe adequately the Dalmatian coastline without resorting to syrupy language. Suffice it to say, it is quite beautiful-easily on a par with northern California although quite different in character. From Split north through ˘Sibenik and Zadar, private homes line the waterfront and driving the road affords only occasional views of, and access to, the coast. The drive from Split south toward Dubrovnik, on the other hand, goes through what is known as the "Makarska Riviera," and the roadway hugs the edge of the water and the cliffs that rise from it. The views are plentiful and spectacular. This route belongs at the top of any list of planned driving excursions in Croatia.
Perhaps an even better way to tour the coast is on a chartered yacht. One benefit of that choice is that you can visit any of the country's more than 1,000 islands, only some of which are populated. Lodging opportunities include villas and cottages, some accessible only by sea. Although getting out among the islands by yacht is enjoyable, bear in mind that several larger islands are best toured by car and that makes a standard ferry ride the most practical means of getting there. If you have time, consider doing both.
Whether you travel the country by road or by water-or simply relax in a seaside villa, island cottage or mountain hideaway-Croatia's Dalmatian coast affords a multitude of great opportunities to truly get away from it all. Yet you'll still be only an hour or so by jet from Europe's major metropolises.
Traveler report card
Accommodations (A+): Croatia's Dalmatian coast offers an extraordinarily wide variety of accommodations, from five-star luxury villas to "Robinson Crusoe" holidays in primitive stone fisherman's cottages on remote islands. There is also everything in between, including four-star resorts and private "apartmani" vacation rentals up and down the coast.
Food (B): Menus feature a large selection of fresh fish, which bumps the grade up for seafood lovers. In general, though, we found the food to be hearty and nutritious but generally less exciting than what the French, Italians and even the Germans prepare. This is the Mediterranean-or the Adriatic to be exact-and one gets the impression that they put olive oil on everything but ice cream.
Activities (A+): The Dalmatian coast and the mountains that border it offer sailing, wind surfing, rock climbing, hiking, mountain biking, swimming, tennis, sea and river fishing and more. Golf is a weak spot except on the island of Brijuni in the north of the country, but plans are in development for new courses. Most of the beaches have pebbles rather than sand, but that's where the similarity ends with Pebble Beach. Nightclubs also are not Croatia's forté, so lower the grade if that's important to you. This is not Paris.
Quietude (A+): If you opt for one of the "Robinson Crusoe" holidays in a stone cottage on a remote island adjacent to a nude beach, there will be no sounds other than the birds and the bees (so to speak). Even the more customary accommodations are relatively quiet, some seaside villas superbly so.
Traveler Fast Facts
What it is: A relatively remote region in a long, narrow country with a spectacular coastline, rugged mountains and an archipelago of more than 1,000 islands, many of which are uninhabited and all of which are surrounded by sparklingly clear, blue water.
Where it is: Across the Adriatic Sea from Italy, forming the west coast of the former Yugoslavia.
Ambiance: Laid-back Mediterranean atmosphere at its best. The climate is sunny and the people are friendly. Croatia is increasingly merging with modern Europe at the expense of its ancient authenticity, however, so the sooner you visit the better.
History: Deep. Zadar is said to have been populated at least since the Stone Age, millennia before the advent of the Roman Empire. Current archaeology in the old town continues to unearth more of its ancient heritage.
Joining the European Union
While Croatians wanted no part of a "Greater Serbia" when Yugoslavia splintered and fought a war over it, they're now keen to become part of a greater Europe. Talks began more than five years ago to address their accession to the European Union. After some delay caused by their initial reluctance to surrender several citizens to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, it now appears the lights are green for Croatia to become an EU member state.
One sign that the EU is expanding into Croatia is that, from a mercantile perspective, it already looks like a done deal. Virtually all of the large German supermarket chains have outlets in the country. If there's any difference, it's that their stores in Croatia are even bigger and better stocked than those typically found in Germany.
Lodging: At the top end is a €12,000-per-night villa whose price includes use of a speedboat, a Jaguar, a Bentley and a BMW (Villa Elita at Importanne Resort,
www.importanneresort.com). Only slightly downscale is Villa Sheherezade (www.gva.hr/english/rooms_vsheherezade.htm) at €6,000 per night. Also interesting at the high end is Dalmi Resorts Primšten (www.dalmiresorts.com), a five-star property. Zadar's first five-star spa-resort is scheduled for completion in phases beginning this summer and is a project of Falkensteiner Resorts & Hotels (www.falkensteiner.com), named Punta Scala (www.puntascala.com). At the other end of the scale but still interesting are the stone fishermen's cottages on remote islands with great solitude but few or, in some cases, no amenities. You can book them through Val Tours in Biograd (www.val-tours.hr/engleski/english.html).
Yacht Charter: Croatian Caribbean Yacht Charter offers high-end power craft in the €20,000- to €100,000-per-week price range (www.ccyc.eu). Nautical Center Prgin has similar offerings, although slightly downscale at around €4,000 to €40,000 per week and including sailing as well as motor yachts. You can find information on sport diving at www.diving.hr.
Tourist Info: Croatian National Tourist Board, www.croatia.hr, firstname.lastname@example.org; Croatian National Tourist Office, 350 Fifth Ave., Suite 4003, New York, N.Y. 10018, (212) 279-8672, email@example.com; Zadar County Tourist Office, Sv. Leopolda B. Mandica 1, 23000 Zadar, Croatia, +385 (0) 23 315 107, www.zadar.hr/English/Onama.aspx, firstname.lastname@example.org; Tourist Board Dugi Otok, www.dugiotok.hr.