The only way to properly explore Plitvice (pronounced Plit-vitz-eh) is by foot. There are various hiking options available and the Croatia at the ticket office are only too happy to offer suggestions based on your time constraints. And if you’re worried about getting lost or sore legs, you can catch one of the shuttle buses that link the upper lakes with the lower ones.
We plump for the four-hour trek which includes a ferry ride across one of the larger lakes. But we needn’t have worried about getting our feet wet. The lakes are linked by a series of wooden walkways and bridges which allow us to stroll through stunning, seemingly endless vistas of waterfalls cascading into aquamarine pools, tall grasses swaying in the wind, and shoals of dark fish swimming beneath transparent waters.
The sound of water rushing and gurgling is all around us, and each corner we turn reveals a new arrangement of natural beauty.
Still it’s little wonder, as Plitvice represents a natural phenomenon called karst hydrography. Not to get overly scientific, this is the process whereby travertine or tufa, a porous carbonate rock, is formed when moss and plant life soak up calcium carbonate from the water. Over time this builds up like a sediment to form the sills and dolomite shelves which create barriers to the river that originally flowed through here, creating the magical waterworld we see today.
It also means that the landscape is never static, even as we walk amongst it now.
Plitvice is also a haven for wildlife. As we walk through the more forested areas we are serenaded by birdsong and frogs that sound remarkably like kookaburras. Deer, boar, rabbits, foxes and badgers also call Plitvice home. And that’s not all.
“Brown bear are among the animal types found here,” informs my guide book drily. The thought of coming face to face with a wild bear suddenly adds a certain frisson to our little excursion. Sadly, on further investigation we discover there is only one known bear left in the park, and he is endangered. We decide to christen him ‘Chucky’ and keep an eye out for him just in case.
It’s so tranquil here it comes as a shock to learn the first shots of the bloody, drawn-out Balkan conflict were fired here in 1991, when rebel Serbs murdered a Croatian policeman and razed the park’s facilities to the ground. Thankfully the actual parkland itself remained unscathed and the infrastructure was rebuilt in 1995 when the war ended.
You could easily lose a day or two here, but unfortunately our trip is over and it’s time to head for the coast. As for Chucky, we don’t see him. But that’s OK – I didn’t really fancy having my head torn off, thanks.
National parks aside, a trip to Croatia wouldn’t be the same without a visit to some of the country’s magnificent, sun-drenched islands. Here are some of the best for …
The desolate, lunar-landscaped island of Pag is becoming more famous for its rave culture than its sheep-milk cheese. In summer the town of Novalja and its surrounding beaches (Zrce in particular), are transformed into Croatia’s answer to Ibiza, with clubs hosting DJs such as Tiësto and Armand van Helden. For a more upmarket night out in chichi cocktail bars and clubs, check out fashionable Hvar.
Rab Town on Rab Island dates back to the 12th century and is a medieval must-see. Much of the architecture here was built under Venetian rule, and the cobbled streets are imbued with a palpable sense of history. During summer many of the churches host concerts and exhibitions. Rab is also home to the famous Kandarola nudist beach where King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson once swam in the raw.
People watching and being seen
Croatia’s poshest island Hvar is the sunniest place in the country, making it attractive to monied yachting folk and tourists in their thousands. The Island capital Hvar Town boasts swanky hotels and restaurants – the perfect place to soak up the sun in style.
The Adriatic island of Brac is the windsurfing capital of Croatia. Most of the action takes place at Zlatni Rat, on the south coast. The Island is also an ideal spot for scuba-diving, kayaking, mountain biking and hiking.
Escaping the tourist hordes
A mere boat ride away from Dubrovnik, Mljet is half national park, has acres of deserted beach and only one proper hotel. Likewise the undeveloped Cres has a network of eco-trails leading off into its wild, forested interior. For authenticity and nature also check out Vis: it’s great for local food and wine.
Dubrovnik or Split
With it’s functional seafront Split is a minger compared to Dubrovnik’s shiny marble streets and fancy buildings.
Bars such as the open-air Ghetto Bar which have sprung up in disused courtyards are typical of Split’s boho yet relaxed attitude to drinking.
A transport hub from way back, Split is the perfect jump-off spot for exploring nearby islands, while Dubrovnik is stuck right down in the skinny bit of the country which isn’t much use to anyone.
Since 1992 Hajduk Split have been League Champions six times. Poor GOŠK Dubrovnik have only managed three seasons in the top league.
Dubrovnik’s old town boasts the Pile gate, St Saviour Church and the Onofrio fountain. Split on the other hand only has Diocletian’s Palace, which isn’t even a palace but Roman ruins full of shops and restaurants.
Dubrovnik is beautiful and atmospheric but overrun with tourists. Split is ordinary looking but the locals are always up for a party.
» Alison Grinter travelled with Eastern Trekker (0845 257 8345). The three-day Mini Rhapsody Trek is £129.
Visit TNT’s Croatia travel guide.