Croatia had long been on our list to visit. I had heard nothing but wonderful things about Plitvice Lakes from many people who had visited. Not many people I knew had visited Dubrovnik, as it is a little far from the Ryan Air airports that fly from Frankfurt Hahn. It was on my list though, and if we were going to make a trip to Croatia, then we would have to figure out a way of making it down to Dubrovnik also! Our short visit to Croatia covered a lot of ground (and was incredibly eventful), so this will be a two-part series to do the trip justice. This blog will cover Plitvice Lakes and Bosnia, and part two will cover Dubrovnik and Montenegro.
Nick’s dad and stepmom were visiting so they came with us to Croatia. We set off from the same airport as we left from when we visited Malta. We had to rise early as the airport is two hours south and a little out of the way. We were mainly worried about the traffic, as we would be travelling through rush hour. Thankfully, we made it to the airport with perfect timing. We were soon on our way for the short flight down to Zadar Airport, Croatia. It was an hour and a half flight over the beautiful Austrian alps.
We arrived and picked up our car from Sixt car rental. They tried to sell us a gas package, saying that the nearest gas station was too far away to fill up the car on returning it. I’ll skip to this part now as I won’t cover it later – do not include this gas deal. We decided to risk it and bought a gas can at one of the petrol stations to ensure it was full on returning it. When we returned the car, the girl said we didn’t need to do that and as long as we filled up at one of the stations before the Zadar airport turn off, we would have been good. We were covered though, and the $5 for the gas can and gas in it was worth it for the peace of mind.
The drive to Plitvice (phonetically Pleet-veet-seh) Lakes was about an hour and a half from Zadar airport and we set off immediately. It was an easy drive with a few tolls. They accepted euro and Croatian kuna – that ended up coming in handy to the end of our trip when we were running low on kuna. The conversion rate was roughly $1 USD=4 kuna. The countryside was stark and a lot of parts reminded me of Perth, Australia. There were many abandoned towns along the way and it was hard not to think of the wars that had dominated the lands we drove through in relatively recent history.
We arrived at the parks at about 1400 and set off for the walking paths. I had Rick Steve’s Croatia book with me and it had a loose map in it of his suggested route. We followed it exactly and I feel like his comments and walking path was excellent. It ensured we saw everything, even down to the return. The full walking path was about 3 ½ hours, at a brisk pace. There are a lot of other tourists visiting, so if I was to go again, I would visit in the off-season.
Interestingly enough, the Croatian war apparently began in this national park. During the 1980s, the park became a popular tourist spot for Yugoslavia. However, in 1991 a park guard was killed here – this was the first armed confrontation of the Croatian War of Independence that resulted in fatalities. During the war, the park was a battleground. The park was one of the first places to be cleared of mines after the war ended. It’s hard to imagine that only twenty years ago this place was covered in land mines!
The park also has a large variety of wildlife in it. Brown bears, lynx and wolves make this national park their home. We had been wondering about all of the bins that had bear guards on them – I guess that makes sense now!
Obviously, the pictures speak for themselves. It’s not an illusion, and going from the bottom to the top of the lakes means that the best part of the park is left until last. I like that Rick Steve’s guide had us go that way.
One thing to note is that by the time we got through the whole park, it was getting pretty late. The park closes up at 1800 and we walked out of it at 1700. There was nowhere that had food available at that time, so we had to drive down the road to a restaurant. Food can be taken into the park though, so bring snacks, especially if you have kids or someone who gets hangry!
Now this is where the story gets interesting. We had the worst possible travel experience happen while we were in Croatia, and it just so happens that it had to happen when we had visitors joining us!
We set off down to Split – this wasn’t a short drive, another two and a half hours south. We set off, it was already dark after eating at a local restaurant and got back on the autobahn. Nick had arranged for us to check in late to our hotel, if we called 15 minutes out then we would be let in. We get 15 minutes out – already tired and ready for bed after a long and active day. The guy picks up and says there’s been a problem, there’s no one to let us in! Well that’s a surprise. He says he’ll call back in five minutes. He doesn’t. We keep driving.
Meanwhile, we end up following the GPS up a road that was getting more and more narrow. It got so narrow that we started freaking out, especially as it was a raised up concrete pad by about 30cm. If we went off it, we’d be writing off the rental car – not an ideal start to the holiday. Eventually the road completely ended with no way of backing up, and no way of getting down off it to go down the road that was running alongside the concrete pad. There was a lot of yelling on Nick’s part and stressing out. Eventually after ten or so minutes of trying to start backing up the most narrow road ever, a Croatian man comes out and starts directing us into his house. We’re like what? So Nick tries using his drive to back up back out onto the concrete pad. Lots of signalling going on, as no one knows the other one’s language. It turns out that we could drive through this guy’s house and get out to another road. This was literally the most stressful driving experience and we’re so thankful that the man come out and helped us in our hour of need. Thank you random Croatian man!
There’s still no call back from the hotel. We arrive in the town and call him again. He says he’ll be there in a few minutes. We go and drag our bags down to the hotel (we parked so that we didn’t risk going down some random street like earlier) – about two kilometres away. An hour passes, he’s still not there. I could go on about this forever, but basically the guy never arrived and then turned off his phone so we couldn’t call him. So we’re in Croatia, stranded, with no where to stay at 11pm.
We begrudgingly head back to the car and try to find another hotel. The local girl in the only shop open by now didn’t know of any other hotels in the town, so we go online to hotels.com and find a hotel that had availability of two rooms for that night. We head towards Hotel Jadran. It was only twenty minutes away and was almost the same price as the place we were going to stay, so it was going to turn out ok. By this stage, we just wanted a bed.
We arrive there and go to check in. The guy doesn’t have a record of our booking – what? Turns out we drove to Hotel Jadran TROGIR when we should have driven to Hotel Jadran SPLIT! Are you freaking kidding me?! What are we, amateurs?! By this stage I wanted to breakdown, but thankfully he had availability so we were able to check in and stay for the same price anyway. The booking I’d booked on the way to hotels.com had free cancellation, so it was fine. Or so I thought. We get up to our room and I check it and IT WAS NOT FREE CANCELLATION! We were going to get charged for the other Hotel Jadran.
As it turns out, it was all fine. After staying up for a couple more hours calling booking.com (we didn’t want to give hotels.com more business) we ended up with it all being cleared up. But that literally felt like the longest, most stressful day we have ever had while travelling. I cannot make up how much went wrong. While we were at Hotel Jadran number two, the man at the front desk tried calling the hotel owner (turns out, he lived in that same town) to no success – he was going to give him a piece of his mind! Secondly, he also informed us that Hotel Jadran is like saying ‘Adriatic Hotel’ – it’s a common hotel name. Doh. That’s the kind of mistakes= you make at almost midnight. I never want to have something like that happen again though, so if you’re reading this, don’t stay at Luxury Apartments Perko in Kastela, and we will never stay at a place that doesn’t have 24/7 check in again if we are arriving late.
Did you know that you have to drive through Bosnia to get to Dubrovnik? I did, but many people don’t realise that. There is a short stretch of Bosnia that meets the Adriatic sea and there is no way of avoiding Bosnia if you are driving. It’s actually a pretty cool little town.
Bosnia has twenty kilometres of coastline that cuts Croatia in two. It has been the case since the 1600s and is the only access that the country has to the Adriatic sea. Today, Neum exists mainly for the tourism it brings. How many other people did what we did? I had originally wanted to visit Mostar or Sarajevo during this trip and was disappointed that we wouldn’t have the time to do so. We started driving through Bosnia and then thought, why don’t we eat here? Lunch in Bosnia – how often can you even toss around that idea?
We followed signs for a seafood restaurant down at the waterfront. It did not disappoint. Nick and his parents had a variety of different seafood that were all exceptionally good. The good thing about this area of the world is the seafood is fresh caught which is obvious with all of the traps viewable from the road during the drive. We ate at Restaurant Bonaca – the signs saying it was highly rated on tripadvisor drew us in!
The view from the restaurant was absolutely stunning. We almost ended up eating there again on the drive back through, it was that good!
After lunch we continued the drive to Dubrovnik… to be continued in part two!