Where do you go if you want to experience Europe in the summer but don’t have piles of cash to burn? Similarly, where do you go in Europe when you want to eat really delicious food without having to stay in a dodgy backpacker place to balance the budget?
I was left pondering those exact questions one afternoon last year, when an email alert from Vietnam Airlines hipped me to a ridiculously cheap return flight to Paris. I had a bit of time to kill, but not enough money to spend the whole time in Paris. I was also going to be travelling in September, the month when most of the sunny Mediterranean destinations were winding down.
I was about to bail on the idea altogether when I stumbled on a little piece of paradise, otherwise known as Croatia.
Croatia benefits from a lengthy travel season that goes from late May to early October. It is also blessed with an incredible landscape that puts both the sea and mountains within reach, and allows active travellers to enjoy sunny (albeit, cooler) skies in September while still being able to swim, cycle and rock-climb up and down its amazing coastline. The country boasts 1,246 islands dotting their way up the Dalmatian Coast, only 67 of which are inhabited, making it ideal for sailing.
But if it’s food that you’re after, then you’ll be pleased to know that its northern neighbour, Italy, has heavily influenced Croatian cuisine. That means that pizza, pasta and antipasto are as ubiquitous as Coca-Cola, and thanks to a generous exchange rate, will set you back on average around VND200,000 a meal.
Months later, I stepped off my Croatian Airlines flight and into the Adriatic sunshine. With my savings burning a hole in my pocket and a list of places to visit, I began my Croatian adventure.
Here’s where I went.
I spent four days exploring Dubrovnik and could have easily spent a week here. The famous walled city boasts a fascinating history, ranging from the Ottoman occupation right up to the gruesome siege of 1991, when Yugoslavian forces, led by Slobodan Milosevic, launched a brutal attack on the city.
But history aside, it’s also an incredibly fun city to be in. When I wasn’t walking, I was eating. Platters of antipasto and grilled seafood were followed by countless scoops of creamy gelato (VND30,000/scoop). I also paid frequent trips to Buza, a fun cliff bar located outside the city wall and overlooking the Adriatic. Hot tip: it’s accessible only through a tiny hole in the city’s outer wall.
Brač was my first stop on a week-long sailing and cycling trip with Sail Croatia (prices start at VND10.5 million) that did a loop of Croatia’s most visited islands, including Mljet, Korcula and the Makarska Riviera.
Although Brač is the largest island in the Dalmatian territory, it boasts a population of only 12,000 people, and life there is laid-back and poetically simple.
Farming and fishing are the primary industries, dominated by family-run farms and marinas. For us, that meant visiting organic farms that grew their own olives, cured their own Dalmatian ham and conjured up mouthwatering feasts of slow-cooked meat and organically grown vegetables. In one word: heaven.
Hvar is Croatia’s answer to Ibiza, and it’s amazing. If ever I were to sell my belongings and go on sabbatical, this is where I would come. Considered one of the 10 most beautiful islands in the world, it is said to experience only three days of bad weather each year. It is also blessed with pristine pebble-stone beaches, sleepy Italian monasteries and a throbbing nightlife that makes it popular with young travellers. The waterfront promenade makes for an ideal spot to enjoy a reasonably-priced Aperol spritzer (around VND110,000) and watch the bronzed and the beautiful walk by.
Day trips to Montenegro run daily from Dubrovnik, and can be done cheaply by private car for around VND1 million. After a short stop at the border crossing, you’ll soon arrive at the old town of Kotor, a legendary walled city hidden behind the towering fjords of the Gulf of Kotor.
Within minutes of arriving, we managed to get lost in the beautiful cobblestone passages. The highlight, however, was climbing the 1,360 stairs to the 1,400m altitude fortress at the top of the city. Here, we had incredible views of the surrounding mountains and the magnificent stone buildings, poking up to the sky from the town below.
Getting There (and Around)
Air France and Vietnam Airlines travel direct to Paris from Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Prices can be as low as VND15 million return. Regular connecting flights to Dubrovnik or Split are available on British Airways and Croatian Airlines from around VND4.5 million.
Sail Croatia — sail-croatia.com — operates weekly sailing trips from the end of April to mid-October, ranging from its party-seeking Navigator cruise to the adrenalin-pumping sail-cycle tours. Those short on time can island-hop using the country’s reliable ferry service.
Buses travel regularly between the major cities of Zagreb, Split and Dubrovnik.