Amble along Croatia’s beautiful coastline.
A. ZagrebIt’s easy to get geographically confused in Croatia – but pleasantly so. Head down to its glittering Adriatic coast and you see how the Venetians left their mark with their gleaming white stone houses and green shutters. Veer inland toward the lively capital, Zagreb, and you’d think the Austro-Hungarian Empire never went away as you drive through handsome Habsburg towns. And there’s more than a touch of Tuscany in the olive groves and truffle-rich forests of the Istrian peninsula.
B. Plitvice Lakes National Park
For a uniquely Croatian experience, though, it’s tough to beat the sheer spectacle of the Plitvice Lakes National Park – a jaw-dropping marvel of 16 turquoise lakes tumbling into each other via countless waterfalls and streams. It’s only a two-hour drive from Zagreb, the first half of which is along a relatively new motorway. If you want a quick taste of Austro-Hungarian history along the way, pop into Karlovac for a stroll through baroque squares and a pit stop at one of the tree-shaded cafés.
Back on the E71 motorway, you soon come within nudging distance of the Slovenian border before swinging left onto the A1. Enjoy the luxury of the dual carriageway while you can, because after about 20 km you’re on single-lane roads where the pace becomes as relaxed as the tranquil villages you pass through. Fields of maize and wheat glint in the sun as you weave past rustic farmhouses. In the distance there’s the promise of bluish wooded hills, and it’s not long before the road begins to bend and twist upward under the shade of pines.
The forests become thicker as you pass the sign welcoming you into the 300sq km national park and UNESCO World Heritage Site of Plitvice Lakes. This is your cue to stop at one of the park’s four hotels or two campsites – or just look out for signs advertising “Sobe – rooms – zimmer” at one of the handful of informal B&Bs. If you come in the summer, you’ll need to book ahead.
Once you’ve paid your entrance fee (55-110 kuna, depending on the season), you’re free to explore this luxuriant wonderland, which was formed by limestone deposits on a massive scale. Its ecosystem is so delicate that only electric trains and boats are allowed, and raised wooden walkways link many of the lower lakes and wind past spectacular waterfalls.
It can be quite hectic in the summer, so escape the crowds by taking a boat across Lake Kozjak and exploring the quieter upper lakes. If you’re in a really remote spot, you might see signs of brown bears and wild wolves.
After a few days in Croatia’s hinterland, strike out for the coast. If you’re really daring – and you’ve got a few days to kill – take up the challenge of driving 615 km of the E65 Adriatic Highway from Rijeka to the Montenegrin border. It’s one of the world’s greatest coastal roads – and one of the slowest, thanks to the single-lane highway that squiggles along the crazily contoured Adriatic coast. You could save hours by using the more sensible A1 dual carriageway that runs inland for much of the route, but where’s the fun in that?
The Adriatic Highway, or Jadranska Magristrala as the highway is known, starts in the port of Rijeka in the Kvarner Gulf that’s wedged beside the Istrian peninsula. Once you get through Rijeka’s sprawling outskirts, you’re hit by the intensity of the shimmering blue Adriatic. Get used to it: it’ll be your distracting companion for most of the journey. At times the road scoots into the scrubby hills for a few kilometers before nipping back along the coast.
It’s tempting to leave the highway and drive across the bridge to the island of Krk, which vies with its neighbor, Cres, for being Croatia’s largest island. Another 85 km farther south at Jablanac, ferries wait to take people (and cars) to the exquisite island of Rab, which is worth a detour if you’re in the mood for a leisurely Croatian odyssey. Next is the island of Pag, known for its delicious cheese (paški sir), herb-fed lamb and the manic nightclubs that cluster around Zrće beach. But pace yourself: you’ve got more than 500 km to go.
D. ZadarThe forbidding limestone Velebit mountains eventually come into view and form Paklenica National Park, where keen climbers and hikers in the know make a beeline for its rugged peaks. The highway crosses Maslenica Bridge – a favorite spot for bungee jumpers – before reaching the appealing town of Zadar. You’re now in Dalmatia as you head toward Šibenik and nearby Krka National Park – another of Croatia’s natural wonders that’s begging to be explored properly. But before then is Tisno, the small fishing village that’s become a big hit for festival-goers, thanks to the Garden Festival, Soundwave, Electric Elephant and Stop Making Sense.
If you haven’t stopped for a break and wandered through the medieval lanes of pretty Trogir, then Split should be your next stop. In fact, Croatia’s second city is one of the best ports for island-hopping. Car ferries leave regularly for sleek and chic Hvar, isolated and peaceful Vis and Brač, where the slender V-shaped Zlatni Rat is one of the most recognizable beaches in the country.
As the Biokovo mountains rear up on your left, you reach the Makarska Riviera, the Croatian version of the Spanish Costas. It’s busy, big and brash, but it does have long, sweeping shingle beaches backed by pine forests. The ones at Brela are definitely worth a dip.
At Ploče, the road swerves inland and skirts round the waterways that make up the Neretva Delta. Soon after that, the road crosses into Bosnia for less than 10 km before reaching Croatia again, so have your passport ready and be prepared for queues at border control.
You’re almost at the final stretch here – but once again, the Dalmatian coast has many ways of coaxing you to linger a bit. As the road crosses the Pelješac peninsula (home to some of Croatia’s best wines), it passes tantalizingly close to the village of Mali Ston, home to the country’s best oysters. Oh, and there are a few more islands here that beckon: Korčula, lush green Mljet and the Elaphite islands.
G. DubrovnikBy the time you’ve arrived at Dubrovnik and its medieval walls, you’ve
definitely earned a good flop on the town’s St Jacob’s beach. But try to
find a bit of energy to explore the delightful village of Cavtat
(they’ve got beaches there too) before you reach the Montenegrin border
– and the next chapter.