Mr. Brian Westlake & friends, Canada

 

Croatia – September 2014

When planning our first visit to Croatia, we had only a general idea of what to expect, not much knowledge of the country or its people or its challenging history. All we knew is that we wanted to go there based upon what we had heard, but didn’t quite know where to start.

We live in Toronto, a large city with a number of Croatians living here, so we assumed it would be fairly easy to get a travel agent who specialized in Croatia. Instead, we found that the only agent we could find in Toronto engaged only in selling air tickets and car rentals for holidaying Croatian nationals, but not in planning a trip of the kind that Joyce and I and our travelling friends Barb and Graham Carver wanted.

Fortunately, our friends through Dr. Jack Toole had heard of Secret Dalmatia, a Croatian based travel agent, with whom we were then in touch by email and everything fell into place. I have sometimes questioned, whether travel agents add value in these days of the internet, but in the case of Secret Dalmatia, they not only added value, but made the trip a memorable experience. After the initial contact with the owner Alan, our planning was all done by Mirna about whom we cannot say enough good things.

Mirna knows her own country, speaks and writes perfect English (as we found many Croatians do) and is highly responsive. To our delight we got to meet Mirna in Dubrovnik at the end of our trip and to have lunch with her at her favourite local restaurant (one that we would never have found without her).

What we did expect was a beautiful country, with stunning views along the coast, and we carried a mental picture from travel literature of how beautiful Dubrovnik would be. What we had no idea about is how orderly and pleasing the country would be to visit. English is spoken everywhere, tourists are welcomed, but not harassed, and it is the cleanest country we have visited. We felt at ease at all times and without any security concerns – something to be appreciated these days.

We weren’t sure what cuisine to expect, but when I say we had the best meal I have ever had at the restaurant Peligrini in Sibenik this was certainly not our expectation. The 11-course meal with fine Croatian wine pairings for each course (over a four hour period) was truly exceptional. The balmy evening in a charming outdoor area under a full moon contributed to a magical evening.

Fortunately, we had our guide Lana and driver with us on this occasion as we would not have been able to drive. (We had drivers and guides suggested by Secret Dalmatia for all stages of our trip.)

We started by flying direct to Venice, as there are no direct flights to Croatia from Toronto. Our driver met us at the airport and took us to our first lodging in Istria (about four hours drive from Venice), a boutique Relais & Chateaux hotel with only four guest rooms. It is in the countryside in its own vineyard about five km from the nearest town – Bale. Because the food and their estate wine was so good at Hotel Meneghetti we had our dinners all three nights that we stayed at the hotel, rather than looking for a restaurant in town. For the level of quality, the prices were reasonable and the service excellent. Despite its remote location, it is a destination for some tourists and local residents for its fine kitchen. The hotel is situated on a large picturesque estate, complete with indoor and outdoor swimming pools and a restful atmosphere that was just right for us to adjust to Croatian time.

Our guide was Anamaria for the next two days in Pula (fifth largest Roman coliseum in the world and in good condition), Rovinj and then Buie in the north of Istria. I said she was the best guide we had ever had, only to find out that our next two guides - Lana in Split and Maris in Dubrovnik - were equally excellent and helpful in getting us at least to square one in appreciating the complex history of Croatia. We also had two informative wine tours in Istria, which boasts excellent wines that are reasonably priced,

From Istria to Split by car was about five and a half hours over some of the finest highways we have travelled. For a country with a population of 4.2 million people and a GDP recovering from the damage done in the 1991-95 war the road system is quite amazing. The coastal terrain requires endless bridges and tunnels (one over five km long).

In Split we stayed at a boutique three room hotel, 20 meters from the crossroads inside the third century walled palace of Roman Emperor Diocletian. As a UNESCO heritage site, it is a living monument with endless fascinating places and good food inside the four walls and beyond. Staying at this convenient small hotel Palace Augubio right in the centre of Split was perfect and we made the most of our three days there, with guide Lana for two of them. Secret Dalmatia had organized our excursion to have lunch in a private home in Kastela, an hour from Split. The proud homeowner, a gourmet cook, had prepared a Dalmatian Delicacies lunch with many local specialties and his own wine and many different fruit brandies. In the afternoon with our guide we visited the nearby island town of Trogir, a historic and charming place.

Next day our excursion from Split was the beautiful Krka Waterfalls and then on to Sibenik, another UNESCO site and the location of the Peligrini Restaurant that I referred to above.

After three full days in Split and environs, we boarded our 53-foot sailboat with Captain Alen and his wife and crewmate, Natalia. Our first port was in the island of Brac, where we docked in a marina in a small port town and Natalia made us a wonderful dinner of fresh seabass. Next day we were planning to sail to Hvar, the lavender island, but strong winds and choppy conditions after an hour at sea, meant our heading back to Brac. This time we moored at a different charming small port town in one of the many beautiful natural coves that dot the Dalmatian coast. Here we had the only rain of our trip and fortunately we were only steps from our boat to a traditional Croatian restaurant, where we sampled the roast lamb that comes from the island.

In Hvar the next day we only had a few hours for a visit to the picture-perfect town that has become a very popular tourist destination. We didn’t have time for a visit to the lavender fields for which the island is famous, but did have time to buy souvenir packets of lavender for gifts to take home. We met good Canadian friends by chance and they joined us for a pleasant leisurely lunch in one of the many restaurants along the front.

The seas had calmed down and we were able to make good time from Hvar to Korcula through the beautiful Adriatic waters and its many islands. We ate dinner aboard our boat again, having walked around the port area that we moored in. Of interest were the groves of cactus that were more reminiscent of Mexico than any image we had of Croatia.

Our next driver Frano picked us up at the wharf after a short sail and we set off by road to Dubrovnik. We got a good history lesson along the way from Frano and after a couple of hours of driving along spectacular coastal scenery we came to the oyster beds at Mali Ston Bay, where Croatia’s best oysters and mussels are cultivated. The tour to the oyster beds proved to be more interesting than anticipated. Oysters take three to four years to cultivate in enclosed areas in brackish water. If the oysters are not behind protective screens, they would all be eaten by the bream that are plentiful in the area. We stopped for lunch at an idyllic island setting where we got to sample the oysters – the best I have ever had – and a leisurely lunch over an enormous pot of mussels in white wine and garlic, washed down by plenty of local wine and topped off with the locally made cherry brandy. The perfect weather and lovely guide made our visit memorable.

A couple more hours on the road with a stop at historic Ston, which has the world’s third longest wall surrounding the quaint town that built its history and fortune on the salt trade. Salt in its day was a source of wealth that competed with gold in value and salt mining still remains the main industry of the town. Because of the unusually rainy summer that Croatia had had this year, the salt flats were flooded and could not be mined while we were there. Salt was still available for purchase and I hope that the Fleur du Sel that we purchased is worth the fairly steep tourist price that we paid.

Our arrival in Dubrovnik confirmed why this is one of Europe’s great travel destinations. The city sits at the edge of the Adriatic in another of these beautiful natural port settings. Its walls are an impressive feat of engineering, that have withstood centuries of conflict, most recently with the 1991 bombardment by the Serb controlled forces and National army, following Croatia’s vote to separate from the former Yugoslavia. It is easy to see why the Serb’s would like to control the Dalmatian coast and its access to the Adriatic and Mediterranean. The city has been amazingly well restored after the 1991-95 war. We understand that the restoration of this UNESCO heritage city took 10 years, but it has been worthwhile.

We stayed in an ideal location in the centre of the walled city, in a private apartment “The Poet’s House”, that Secret Croatia had found for us. The three-storey luxury flat was a fine way to end our trip. Lots of good restaurants in Dubrovnik meant the toughest part of the day was deciding which ones to select.

Our second day in Dubrovnik included a day long visit to Montenegro, with a guided visit to historic Kotor and a quick look at Porto Montenegro, which is being developed by Canadian Peter Munk as a yacht basin for the world’s super yachts. Unless you own a country, you couldn’t afford the yachts that we saw moored there. Our driver Bozo was particularly amiable and informative. He also was our driver on our departure to the Dubrovnik airport. As a happy coincidence we ran into our driver Frano and had a drink with him on our last day in Dubrovnik. The fact that we had such a good feeling in seeing them again speaks to the warm reception that we received in Croatia. Universally the people are friendly to tourists, speak surprisingly good English and generally made our trip a memorable one. It we were to go back again right now, there is not one part of our trip that we would change.

Our thanks again to Mirna and Secret Dalmatia for organizing such a great trip.

Brian Westlake