Croatia (Dalmatia Region) - Plan Your Own Adventure
I'm always tempted by the Rick Steves or REI group travel adventures. In theory, this seems to be brilliant; a defined group of travel buddies all gaining an experience together. Then reality sets in as I look at the price tag...ouch...that is a steep cost. Not to knock Rick or REI, as I'm sure those are great trips with all the logistic managed for you. Yet every time I research how to do one of these trips solo, I find I can do it for half the cost! Those trips have their time and place, but this post is for someone who is trying to plan their own Croatian adventure and wondering how others have succeeded in the past.
In May 2015, I traveled to Croatia and fell in love with the country and the Adriatic. It took a bit more research than an Italian adventure (as the resources were not quite as plentiful), but in the end I found the Dalmatian Coast to have the most beautiful views, fabulous wines, and amazing seafood. Rick Steve itineraries are actually a great place to start in planning. There is a reason the tour groups go to the specific locations they pic, Rick does his research!
There is no shortage of amazing destinations in Croatia. I settled on the southern region, known as the Dalmatian Coast. Due to limited timing, this made the most logistical sense. The trip was a total of 15 days, including travel time, and included Split (including Krka National Park), Havr, Korčula, Dubrovnik (including Elafiti Island and Ston)...also a very bizarre 24-hour layover in Oslo, Norway and an overnight layover in NYC during the return trip. When all was said and done, I spent $2,497.59; click here for my review of dollars spent.
This post will review the planning for each location, as well as a review of accommodations and public transit in Croatia...as well as a few lessons learned along the way. I flew into Split, then, by ferry, went to Hvar, Korčula, and Dubrovnik. From Dubrovnik I took the 4 hour bus ride back up to Split for a few nights before flying out of Croatia. Favorite Croatian things: 1) ice cream in Dubrovnik, 2) Wine! 3) mussels and clams, 4) olive oil, and 5) THE AFFORDABILITY OF EVERYTHING.
Getting there - day 1-2 The flight to Croatia proved to be the most challenging aspect of planning, as flying into Croatia from the US is not an easy or affordable task. After months of research, I found a NYC to Split flight with a 1-stop layover in Oslo, Norway; I could not find anything nonstop. I then found a round trip flight to NYC from Denver. I typically use Kayak when doing flight research. Kayak allows for multiple airports (up to 4) to be included in your search. Once realize most Croatia flights go through London, Paris, or Oslo, I started searching for cheap flights from the US to those locations. It is always a tough game to finally bite the bullet and buy a flight. In the end, I would have rather paid a little more to only one one-stop (instead of two) and to have only flown with one airline. As it turns out, our NYC to Split flight was changed and resulted in an unexpected 24 hours in Oslo, Norway. Luckily we made the best out of it by finding a unique park (see pic below) to entertain us for our day in Oslo.
Split - day 2-3 After arriving in Split we took the bus to city center (which was very easy and cheap). We were only there for one day at the start of the trip, so we took advantage of time by walking around the Riva (the downtown promenade) and touring Diocletian's Palace (UNESCO heritage site).
Hvar - day 3-6 We had 3 nights in Hvar, but could have easily reduced to two. Hvar is an island about 2 hour ferry ride from Split (with ferries multiple times a day).
Hvar is advertised as a rather hedonistic party zone. Although there was a good amount of party goers, we also found some amazing secluded beaches. There is a wonderful pedestrian walkway from the main pier heading south. Our first afternoon in Hvar (day 4) we walked to Beach Pokonji dol.
Day 4: Rented bikes for the day (which were easy to hire from the main square in Hvar) and biked to a small town called Milna. The town was quiet, but we found a little spot to enjoy lunch.
We then biked a little a further to a gorgeous white stone beach called Dubovica (about 6 miles from Hvar Town).
Day 5: Hired a motor boat and sailed out to several small beaches on the archipelagos off the coast of Hvar. Our favorite was Palmizana Beach (on one of the Pakleni Islands). We parked the boat at the pier and hiked across the Island to another beautiful beach to have an amazing seafood lunch at Bacchus Restaurant. I will admit it is a little intimidating to have the boat rental guy show you how to run the little motor boat, but it a great deal of fun once your out on the water...and so much cheaper than hiring a skipper. It was easy to find fun beaches to check out, even in low-season.
Korčula - day 6-8 After a two hour ferry from Hvar, we arrived late in the day on day and settled in to our room, followed by a lovely seafood dinner of grilled octopus. Korčula was the only town we went to that really demonstrated the off-season time we traveled. Nearly every winery was closed while we were there.
Day 7: Again rented bikes and traveled to a fabulous little seaside town called Lumbarda (about 4 miles). Lumbarda has several beaches and wineries. We enjoyed Beach Vela Przina the most; such spectacular water!
Dubrovnik - day 8-11 Again, we boarded a ferry, for travel to Dubrovnik. Despite the fact that we spent 4 nights at Dubrovnik, I would have happily enjoyed another week in this location. We chose to stay just outside the Old Town walls, at the Airbnb location Honey Apartments. Our host Nikola was a wonderful host! The room is located about half way between Old Town and the base of the cable car; we could easily walk everywhere we wanted to go in town. Upon arrival we spent day 9 wandering around Old Town, taking time to walk the wall around the town and walk up to the top of the cable car...and eating so much amazing ice cream!!! I was very happy to be in Dubrovnik in May. There were a lot of people there, but it was manageable. I think high season (July/August) would have been uncomfortably packed.
Day 9 we booked a cruise tour (out of Old Town) for Elafiti Islands, which included stops at the islands of Lopud, Sipan, and Kolocep. The cruise also includes a full lunch of grilled fish, salads, and wine! I believe we paid about $60 each. You can find people selling this tour all around Old Town. At most Croatian beaches, you can expect to pay for chairs and umbrellas. In many instances we simply asked if we buy a drink or food will they wave this fee; in nearly every instance they did. That being said, on this tour booze was included, so we didn't feel the need to spend more money on beverages, so we just lounged in the sand and it was wonderful.
Day 10: Similarly, there are people selling kayak tours everywhere near Old Town. We did a sea kayaking tour around Lokrum Island. It is a half day tour that starts at Banje Beach (just to the south of Old Town). The guide also took us to two different sea caves – one on Lokrum Island, and then another near Betina Beach that are only accessible by water. This trip was around $35 and was our favorite Dubrovnik activity. The water is so amazing everywhere in Croatia. Sadly we did not get a chance to actually to to Lokrum Island, but it was strongly recommend as a beautiful nature preserve.
On day 11 our Airbnb host, Nikola, offered to take us on a one-of-a-kind adventure to Ston (on the Pelješac peninsula). Nikola is an aspiring tour guide and took us on his Hiking and Gastro in Ston tour. We hiked along the largest stone wall in Europe from the town of Ston to Mali Ston. Nikola took us to a family owned muscle farm and restaurant where we had the most AMAZING crustaceans. He was an amazing, thoughtful, informative guide. I would STRONGLY recommend him to anyone.
Nikola took us to a family owned muscle farm and restaurant where we had the most AMAZING crustaceans. He was an amazing, thoughtful, informative guide. I would STRONGLY recommend him to anyone.
Beyond the muscle farm in the bay, was Bosnia across the water. The family also provided us with their family pressed olive oil and wine samplings.
Split - day 12-13 I believe there is a ferry that goes from Dubrovnik to Split (with a stop or two), but that ferry was not running during May. We opted for the lovely coastal bus ride (~ 4 hours). In Split the main bus terminal is right by the ferry port, again, it was so easy to walk around everywhere we went in Croatia!
Day 13: We really only had 1 full day in Split. Plitvice Lakes National Park seemed a bit too far away, so we opted for Krka National Park. We were not disappointed. We booked with small, self-started, tourism company Dream Transfers and Excursions, run by Petar (http://www.transfers-excursions-trogir.com/). Here is the link to his Trip Adviser reviews. We booked the Krka NP tour with wine tasting. It was truly a perfect day. Petar was a spectacular guide! The small group tour included transportation and guide (Petar) to 2 small Croatia towns, where Petar explains some of the history and culture of Croatia, then onto Krka National Park, followed by a wine tasting at the small local winery, Sladić, in Skradin. All of this for the same price as other tours that only include transfer to/from Krka.
Petar was a hilarious, informative, and interesting guide. He shared a great deal of fascinating Croatian history/culture with us, but more so, he was a blast!! The wine is very enjoyable, plus Petar shared with us the story of the family who started the winery and some information about wine cultural in Croatia. Petar does an amazing job of catering to the group of each tour to ensure that everyone has a great day.
Day 14: Sad day...depart for home. We took the public bus back to the airport and then flew out of Split to NYC. We had an overnight layover in NYC before returning home on day 15.
Accommodations - Throughout the trip I used Airbnb to find apartments in each city. I love this option for travel in Europe as it is very easy to find an accommodation with a kitchen, thus creating the ability to cook a few meals and experience the thrill of buying foreign food at a foreign market and cook in a foreign kitchen...and cuts down on food costs! Use this link to get $40 off an Airbnb reservation if you are new to the site. I found it easy to utilize their map view to ensure I got an apartment that was close enough to city centers to make walking easy. I also wanted to make sure that public transit from the main bus station or port would be easy enough to navigate. I found Croatia in general to be very easy to navigate on foot and via public transit.
Public Transit - I struggled with how much information to include here (links of bus timetables, maps of bus stations, etc.). Ultimately, the timetables change every season so links would likely be outdated very quickly. It was a minor struggle to hash out a public transit plan in advance, but in real time, the local tourism guide stands or the bus stations themselves are VERY easy to navigate.
If you are going in a non-high season month (which is June-August) you will want to pay a bit more attention to ferry scheduled. For instance, we had to plan our trip around when the Korčula ferry went to Dubrovnik (as it only went twice a week in May. The buses seem to be very regular and easy to navigate once there. I found Rome2Rio a really useful tool when navigating public transit options.
Final public transit thoughts:
- Everything seems closer than it looks on a map. Walking around was such a breeze. A destination that looked like a long trek on a map was a 10 minute walk in actuality.
- Croatia is very affordable and easy to utilize public transit. For the Dalmatian Coast, I would not recommend a car.
Please feel free to send any additional questions my way (email@example.com). I hope you find some of this useful. It truly was an amazing trip.