Three years ago, HBO decided to film its hit series Game of Thrones in Croatia, attracted by its stunning natural beauty and rich historical heritage, making it a natural backdrop and fitting right into the storyline. Dubrovnik, a major Mediterranean vacation city and the pearl of the Adriatic, was selected to serve as the setting for the story’s capital of the Seven Kingdoms, the city of King’s Landing. Since Game of Thrones started filming in Croatia, there has been a 25 percent rise in the number of American tourists who visit Croatia, as well as an increase in the number of other international visitors. Currently, there are many tour operators and travel agents offering Games of Thrones’ tours in Croatia.
Other Croatian Jewels
Croatia is often called a nautical paradise, with one of the most indented coasts in the Mediterranean, and home to more than 1,000 islands. Sailing along Croatia’s coastline from north to south is the best way to explore it, or a visitor can hit the road instead, and discover some of the more off-the-beaten path sites. Croatia has more than 680 miles of motorways, connecting the capital Zagreb to other parts of the country. While July and August are the most popular months for vacationers seeking sun, sea and beaches, Spring and Fall are also perfect times to explore and experience Croatia’s rich history, charming towns, award-winning vineyards, scenic hiking trails, and culinary delights-all nestled along the Adriatic Sea. Croatia boasts seven UNESCO sites, fourteen UNESCO Intangible Cultural Phenomena, eight National Parks, and eleven Parks of Nature. There’s something for everyone, from taking part in numerous festivals to simply enjoying a relaxing or romantic vacation. Croatia has been named one of the 10 Best Wine Travel Destinations 2015 by Wine Enthusiast, so taking the wine routes and visiting the various vineyards is another way to explore the country.
Back in the 19th century, Brijuni Archipelago National Park in Istria was a popular vacation destination for the Viennese upper class and other wealthy European bourgeois and aristocrats. It also was President Tito’s summer residence when the former Yugoslavian government was in power. As possibly the most beautiful and romantic city on the west coast of Istria, just underneath the Lim canal, Rovinj should not be missed. Hotel Lone (www.designhotels.com/hotel_lone) is Croatia’s first Design Hotel, an Y-shaped building with 248 guestrooms carved into a wooded hillside overlooking the Adriatic, with sun-soaked terraces and three pools. This summer, the hotel and its sister property, Hotel Monte Mulini, launch Mulini Beach, a club exclusively for hotel guests, with open-air dining and beachside menus and bar service. For history buffs, visiting Pula is a must. Here visitors will find one of the best, well-preserved surviving Roman arenas in the world, constructed in 27 BC - 68 AD. This Spring, a major event is the opening of the rebranded Park Plaza Arena Pula (www.parkplaza.com/croatia) with 147 renovated rooms, a new wellness center and a fitness studio. Its restaurant serves Istrian dishes featuring locally-sourced farm-to-table ingredients.
Another important historic site in Istria is Euphrasian Basilica in Poreč, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, dating back to the 6th century and one of the best examples of early Byzantine art and architecture.
During a visit to Poreč, guests can stay at the 4-star Valamar Isabella Island Resort (www.valamar.com), a short boat ride from the town of Poreč. This resort spreads around a historic castle housing the resort’s 10 suites. The 347-room complex has more than 3,000 square feet of meeting space, several restaurants, landscaped gardens and a Blue Flag beach.
Since Istria is now considered a food and wine mecca, travelers should indulge in great local wines, especially the white varieties such as Malvasia, homemade pasta with truffles (don’t miss the white truffle season in October and November!), wild asparagus specialties in Spring, delicious seafood, and world-recognized olive oil.
Along the Croatian coast there is the Kvarner Riviera, located next to Istria, centered around the city of Rijeka, the busiest port on the Adriatic. The most famous resort in this area is Opatija which emerged as a popular holiday destination in the late 19th century. Lovran, Crikvenica, Kraljevica and Novi Vinodolski are also worth visiting. Ferry boats visit the islands of the Kvarner Riviera - Krk, Losinj, Cres and Rab.
The Mali Lošinj Tourist Board’s award-winning project entitled “The Fragrances and Tastes of Lošinj” aims at positioning the islands as a destination for aromatherapy and wellness by sponsoring programs focused on health and biodiversity. Lošinj’s five islands are a perfect match for such an initiative, with 1,200 different plant species and 150 miles of walking trails where guests can admire the various botanicals and inhale their fragrances. Properties represented by Losinj Hotels & Villas (www.losinj-hotels.com) offer herb and aroma-based health programs, spas with aromatic massages and even workshops on how to create botanical skin care products. The new Boutique Hotel Alhambra & Villa Augusta (www.alhambralosinj.com) opens in July; this five-star hotel includes a century-old Austro-Hungarian villa and mixes historic elegance with modern comfort and service.
Clients who are avid snorkelers will like the new underwater trail, the first in the Kvarner Gulf, a bay in the northern Adriatic between Istria and the mainland. The trail has 20 marked locations with photos and descriptions of resident plants and sea life. The trail is a unique way to experience the natural riches of Kvarner’s underwater world, gaining new perspective on an area known for its Caribbean-like beaches.
The UNESCO World Heritage Site star in Lika-Senj County and Karlovac County is Plitvice Lakes - among the top 5 attractions in Croatia. It is the oldest national park in Southeast Europe and the largest national park in Croatia. It’s famous for its 16 lakes arranged in cascades and their distinctive colors, ranging from azure to green grey or blue depending on the quantity of minerals or organisms in the water and the angle of sunlight.
Dalmatia offers much more than visits to Dubrovnik and Split. The Kornati Archipelago National Park in Northern Dalmatia has 140 islands, making it the densest archipelago in the Mediterranean. George Bernard Shaw said, “On the last day of creation God desired to crown his work, and thus created the Kornati islands out of tears, stars and breath.”
Zadar, a beautiful coastal city with origins from antiquity, was built on Roman urban principles and is home to an abundance of archeological treasures and monuments, dating back to the ancient medieval and Renaissance periods. Guests will enjoy cultural evenings listening to music in St. Donatus Church which has magnificent and excellent acoustics, taking a stroll on the main square Kalelagra - the longest and widest street, visiting the Cathedral of St. Anastasia and archeological museum, and seeing the iconic Sea Organ - the underwater architectural miracle that creates an amazing sound, so-called sea music, from the motion of waves passing through musical pipes.
The Cathedral of St. James in Šibenik is a must-see as it’s one of the most important Renaissance architectural monuments in the eastern Adriatic (15th and 16th century) and a UNESCO site.
The historic city of Trogir is the best-preserved Romanesque-Gothic complex in Central Europe and another
The city of Hvar on the island of Hvar, a new jet-set destination, is quickly gaining the reputation as a place to be seen. Book one of luxury boutique hotels such as Riva or Adriana, visit the Amfora Resort (www.suncanihvar.com), where clients can soak up the sun at Bonj luxury beach club or Soline beach, unwind with a glass of wine or fruity cocktail at Carpe Diem beach bar, and dine in one of the best restaurants such as Gariful, diVino, Giaxa or Passarola. The Hvar historical theater in the city center is the oldest public theatre in Europe, dating back to the beginning of the 17th century. For a more relaxing experience, visitors can ride a local boat to get to the Paklinski islands, specifically Palmižana beach. Not far from the city of Hvar is Stari Grad and the Stari Grad Plain, an agricultural landscape established by the ancient Greek colonists in the 4th century BC, and remains in use today. The ancient layout has been preserved by careful maintenance of the stone walls for over 24 centuries and it is a UNESCO site.
Hvar and Dalmatia are well known for great red wines made of Mali Plavac grape that is genetically identical to Zinfandel grapes, so guests should not miss a chance to do some wine tasting.
The island of Brač, lesser known but as scenic as Hvar, features beautiful bays and beaches (including the famous beach, Zlatni Rat in Bol) and one of the best stone masonry schools in the world. The stone masonry school in Pučišća recently celebrated its 100th anniversary. Brač stone is known for its quality and bright white color and has been quarried from the island since the Roman times. You’ll see it in the world’s most iconic buildings, from the White House in Washington, DC, to Budapest’s Parliament Building. To this day, the stone is worked in the same way as it was 2,000 years ago.
The island of Korčula, a magical place with the remains of massive medieval walls, is believed to be a hometown of Marco Polo. The Moreška Sword Dances event is a great way to experience a history of Korčula, a tradition stretching back almost 1,000 years.
Lastovo Archipelago and Nature Park consists of a group of 44 islets and reefs with beautiful flora and fauna. It’s also known for the Lastovo Music Festival in August with a primary focus on blues and jazz music, but recently it has been shifting into a music festival open to all urban and alternative music genres. Find more information at www.lmi.hr
Mljet, one of the most beautiful islands in Croatia is considered to be the island of Ogygia where the nymph Calypso held Odysseus for seven years. It is a National Park due its amazing flora and fauna, and two salty lakes rich with many seashells. Cycling or hiking is the best way to explore the island, and divers will fall in love with the island’s underwater treasures.
How deep is your love of fresh oysters?
Peljesac Peninsula is an off-the-beaten track paradise for foodies and wine lovers. Visitors to Mali Ston restaurants can prove their love of oysters and seafood and satisfy all of their food cravings while trying delicious wines like Dingač, Postup or Pošip. They can also visit sea salt pans and learn about its sea salt hand-harvesting method, dating back to the 14th century.
Active travelers can take a walk around the walls of Ston, built in the 14th and 15th century, along with its 40 towers (20 of which have survived) and five fortresses; the walls were built to protect the City of Ston and the Republic of Ragusa from conquerors. For windsurfing or kite surfing, a visit to Viganj is a must.
Not all of Croatia’s attractions are on its coast, and clients who are avid birders should hear about the exceptional birding destination in Baranja where the Drava and Danube rivers meet in the county’s far northeast corner. This vast floodplain and its lakes make up one of the largest wetlands in Europe, protected by the Kopački Rit Nature Park, where an impressive 293 bird species have been recorded. In January, the Hotel Lug (www.bts.hr) opened in Bilje, a quiet rural oasis where outdoor-loving clients will appreciate the rustic atmosphere created by custom-made wooden furniture. Rustic doesn’t mean they’ll be roughing it - the hotel has large-screen televisions in the rooms, high-speed Internet and laptop-sized safes.
While glamorous beaches and idyllic islands grab tourists’ attention, most visitors to Croatia will arrive through the capital city of Zagreb (www.zagreb-touristinfo.hr), and you should urge them to linger there to discover its European charms. In its Old-World streets, they’ll find cafes, street musicians, a lively jazz scene and non-stop summer festivals, including the International Folklore Festival in mid-July. One of the city’s most famous and oldest, the Hotel Regent Esplanade (www.esplanade.hr) recently won awards for the best city luxury hotel and the best historic luxury hotel, at the World Luxury Hotel Awards, known as the Oscars of the hotel industry.