Ah, Croatia! The country of sun-kissed skin and partying until the sun rises, of deep blue water and stony beaches. Croatia is a unique beauty and each town has its own unique quirk, whether it is a club inside a cave or gorgeous national parks. Unfortunately the rest of the world has caught on and Croatia is packed with tourists (what place isn’t these days?), so tackling Croatia becomes a matter of timing and being willing to wander off the beaten path.
The southern islands of Croatia are full of boats from Sail Croatia, Busabout, Topdeck and Contiki. This is where the young people come to play.
Heading on a seven day Sail Croatia cruise is an awesome experience. Sail Croatia brings a group of like-minded young people together for an epic week of tanning, swimming, boozing and dancing till the sun come up – just make sure you don’t miss your boat the next morning! The Croatian islands are not as well-connected as the Greek islands, so a cruise is often the cheapest and quickest way to explore.
So where does the boat take you? First stop: Omis, a very small town with plenty of live music and delicious ice cream.
Then on to Macascar, whose main attractions are the man-made cave nightclub and the brightly coloured markets.
Stari Grad: another small yet beautiful town with little market stalls to explore.
Hvar: this island is the most famous and is therefore extremely touristy. The prices for food and drinks are high but Hvar is a worthy destination purely for a trip to an nightclub that must be accessed by boat… because it’s on a small island just off the coast.
Korcula: every sail company constantly offers overpriced and often boring activities, but kayaking and going on the buggy safari in Korcula are both affordable and lots of fun! Korcula is also home to the infamous Jungle party.
Mljet: this is a very small town, so we had a quiet night and booked a table for 23 at a restaurant and stuffed ourselves silly with delicious seafood and wine.
The passengers of Princess Tuna were extremely blessed with a fantastic crew. Though our boat had less time on land, we spent much more time anchored in the middle of the ocean swimming in the crystal clear water and enjoying the sunshine. We jumped off the boat, tanned on lilos, played Tuna Olympics, rode along the back of a speedboat clinging onto a rope and played games on the deck.
Most boats dock by midday to leave passengers time to explore the town, but even though we didn’t dock until 5:00 p.m. most days, I think we were a lucky bunch. We had more time to enjoy Croatia’s perfect oceans and each other and we spent less time desperately searching for wifi.
The sail that I took began in Split and ended in Dubrovnik, but no matter what route you take I suggest that you spend a few days in both towns before and after your sail. Both are seaside towns, but that is all they have in common. Split is a beautiful mix of old and new, of modernity and tradition. The city caters to the tourist masses with a modern marina full of European chain stores and seaside restaurants. Picture extra large pizza slices and huge scoops of ice cream and huge markets full of Croatian souvenirs, incredible jewellery and fresh fruit and vegetables. The modern thoroughfare is interspersed with ancient ruins, stunning churches and old stone buildings. It doesn’t really matter where you stay in Split as long as you’re near the centre of town, which gives you access to everything you need.
I stayed at Hostel Split both times I visited because it is small, clean and in a fantastic location (close to the city centre and to all forms of transport). They have table tennis in their courtyard, coffee and tea all day long and they provide breakfast for a small fee. The rooms are large and each dorm is equipped with air conditioning as well as individual curtains and lamps. The staff are friendly and will happily take you out at night to explore the Split nightlife. A night at Hostel Split will set you back at $AUD37 (€26) for a bed in one of their mixed dorm rooms.
What can you do in Split? Starting with the nightlife, the main hotspots are Diocletian’s Palace and the Bacvice complex. Within the Diocletian palace you will find numerous bars, cafés and hangouts, and for late night partying you can head to Bacvice complex, which is full of buzzing cocktail bars and night clubs. Spend your days walking along the water and further down the coast until you find the locals cliff jumping and sun bathing on the large rocks, join in if you dare! I only jumped the five metre cliff and refused to go any higher – don’t judge me!
The old city of Dubrovnik has preserved its ancient architecture and atmosphere. The famous walled city looks like something out of a fantasy movie – or Game of Thrones, which is filmed there. Dubrovnik offers cheap walking tours, which give a bit of context to the majestic stone buildings and towers. Stroll through the old town with your ice cream in one hand and your camera in the other as you battle tourists along the limestone path, wandering in and out of little shops and checking out the museums. Walk around the old city walls or take the cable car up the hill for a panoramic view of the whole city. Take the ferry to Lockrum, the island just off the coast of the city, for hiking and secluded lagoon beaches. Take a bus to Trsteno Arboretum for stunning views and fairytale gardens. Hit up the beach clubs at Eastwest or Copacabana. Enjoy the infamous nightlife and cheap drinks! Just wander around and marvel at the architecture. You will never be bored in Dubrovnik.
If you are travelling in a small group, stay at Hostel Panorama and enjoy the incredible views from the balcony. The hostel is a little hard to find and it’s very small but Eijet and his family will make you feel at home. He and his wife drove us to and from town and ordered pizza for dinner, which he and his son ate with us. Hostel Panorama is a little more expensive but you will find accommodation in general whilst in Dubrovnik a bit on the steep side. A double room with a sea view will cost $AUD111 (€78) and a triple room with a sea view will cost $AUD130 (€91).
Our LTG Editor suggests that if you’re travelling solo, give Dubrovnik Backpackers Club a try. It is fifteen minutes from the old town by bus, but the family touch makes it worthwhile. Cherry liqueur on arrival, day trips to Bosnia or Montenegro if you’re pressed for time and a home cooked breakfast every morning. They will make you feel welcome with their spacious rooms, all with a private toilet and shower, as well as use of a the large kitchen and BBQ. They now also offer free pick up from the main bus station to anyone who books two or more nights! As I mentioned above the prices for accommodation in Dubrovnik may be a little over your budget no matter where you look during the peak season, and a bed at Dubrovnik Backpackers Club is no exception at $AUD50 (€35) a night.
You may have noticed that I am slightly obsessed with Croatian ice cream. I haven’t been to Italy yet, so I can’t say that it’s the best in Europe, but it’s certainly the best I’ve ever had. The food in Croatia is mouthwateringly delicious and they’re known for their fresh seafood dishes such as squid, octopus, tuna, shrimp, fish stew and mussels. Pasta is one of the most popular food items in Croatian cuisine, so expect find large hearty servings of every pasta you can imagine. I stuffed myself silly each day with hearty meals of fish, meat and pasta but it was worth it – you’re on holiday, treat yourself!
Some people choose to take it slow in Croatia and make the journey through the islands with friends, but having been on Sail Croatia and having met many others who have done the same, all agree that it’s really what you make of it. If you’ve only got a week to spend in Croatia, the sail will allow you to see a lot in a short period of time. Each company differs in prices and experiences but nearly all follow the routes of Split to Dubrovnik, Dubrovnik to Split or Split to Split. However, note that the round trip starting and ending in Split does have fewer stops. I chose not to have communal bathrooms and dorm rooms on the boat for a week and spent just a little extra to enjoy the luxury of a double room with an ensuite. Huge servings of delicious breakfast and lunch are included in the package, but be careful of buying too many drinks on board: as you don’t pay until the end of the trip, many have been shocked by their tab! Having spent 24 hours a day for seven days with the people on my boat incredible friendships form that will last a lifetime.
I hadn’t planned to return to Croatia on my second visit to Europe, but then again I don’t plan a thing and I jumped on a spontaneous trip with some new friends. If you want to stay longer in Croatia and you want to see more than the standard island hot spots, visit some of the places I’m about to describe. They are untouched and pristine – even the photographs I took can’t do them justice.
I had met a gorgeous couple in Bosnia who invited me on a road trip adventure to Murter Island. I loved that I had never heard of it and no one else I knew had either. This part of Croatia is virtually free of Australian tourists and I was one of the few westerners on the island.
We were lucky to find an apartment for €50, which was split between the four of us. If you’re feeling outdoorsy, you can also camp on the island’s renowned, extensive camping grounds – you could even call them ‘glamping’ grounds. The small island’s town centre is sleepy during the day, but at night the entire island gathers there for live music and street performances. There are a bunch of restaurants, small bars and pizza and ice cream stalls, but the island really isn’t about the town. It’s about the salty cool water and the hot sun. If you head away from the main beach and walk all the way around the cliffs for about fifteen minutes, you will find private beach areas with the most incredible scenery. If you have jelly sandals or beach shoes make sure to wear them in the water though, the sea urchins are out to get your toes.
I headed back inland to Zadar to make my way up north to Slovenia, but I loved the hostel and the people so I extended my stay another five nights. The Wild Fig Hostel is great! Spacious rooms decorated by a local artist, private bathrooms and a fantastic atmosphere. The kitchen is huge and really makes cooking for yourself simple, they even have regular BBQs and curry nights! The hostel also has a spacious beautiful garden, which is a great place to relax, unwind and meet fellow travellers. Hopefully their gorgeous white kitten, Fig, is still hopping around! A night at The Wild Fig Hostel will cost you $AUD36 (€25) during the peak season for a bunk in a dorm room.
Walk along the waterfront and whenever you see a path leading down to the water, just take it and check the beach out. So many areas are filled with no more than ten people and the privacy is really enjoyable. I spent hours laying on piers in silence with a few friends undisturbed by screaming children. Best of all unlike the beaches that are closer to the city, which are filled with private pools and water slides, it was completely free. Also check out the flashing floor that lights up at night as well as the ‘wind organs’ by the water. While in Zadar, a few of the guys I had met were heading up north along the coast in their van towards Slovenia, and they invited me along.
These next few days were unforgettable and will remain a favourite memory of all of my adventures. From Zadar we drove towards Karlobag, stopping along the way at any spot we found, such as an abandoned fisherman’s house, for a picnic and an incredible swim in the clear, blue water. We spent a few nights in Karlobag and slept in the van, Ebba, and explored nearby towns like Rijeka and Medijva. Then we parked the van in Ika and spent our nights stargazing and our days floating in the water.
Getting to and from Croatia: it is difficult and expensive to fly in and out of Croatia, so ground transport is preferable. From Mostar to Murter Island was only a four-hour drive but I am unsure if direct buses follow this route. I highly recommend the bus system over the trains in Croatia, because they seem to be more frequent and direct. The journey from Croatia to Slovenia involves taking a train from Zagreb. It’s fairly quick and cheap, but leave plenty of time to get to Zagreb, which is easy by bus from Split. Which is also the same when travelling from Split to Hungary, you can take a short bus ride from Split to Zagreb, then jump on the train to Budapest.
Otherwise I would take the bus when travelling to and from Croatia from any of the following destinations: Sarajevo to Dubrovnik: €20 with Croatia Bus. Sarajevo to Split: €21 with Croatia Bus. Mostar to Dubrovnik: €15 with Croatia Bus. Mostar to Split: €16 with Croatia Bus. Kotor to Split: €24 with Croatia Bus. Kotor to Dubrovnik: €18 with Croatia Bus.
All of Croatia is unreal. Even though I feel like I’ve seen so much, I can’t wait to go back and see even more. The beaches may be covered in stones, but the water is so clear and the sun is brilliant. The Croatians are lovely and friendly and they will welcome you with open arms. Make your own memorable experiences and try going to places that are off the beaten track because you’ll find the true beauty of this land.