Hidden Croatia: where to stay and what to do off the beaten track

Despite all the restrictions and uncertainty caused by the pandemic, Croatia’s tourism industry made a decent show of bouncing back last year – to about two-thirds of its 2019 niveles. And the perennial hotspots of Dubrovnik, Hvar, Brač and Korčula have been as popular as ever. But while millions of people spent last year beating a well-trodden path, there are still regions, islands and beaches where the tourist footprint is lighter, the crowds fewer and the atmosphere more mellow. If you’re looking for an escape and a new discovery this year – but not the crowds – you’ll find it in these places.

There’s a pleasingly laid-back feel to this small town on the Adriatic’s Šibenik Riviera, north-east of Split. The new D-Marin marina hasn’t really affected the slow pace of life in this part of northern Dalmatia, but has added a pleasant hum to the harbour-front cafes. At the mouth of the harbour is Tribunj’s tiny old town, on an islet connected to the coast by a stone bridge.

At one tumultuous point in its history, the town’s population crammed into its fortified castle to protect itself from Ottoman attacks. Ringed by moored boats, the compact islet is home to no fewer than nine bars and restaurants, and is the place to be on a balmy summer evening. A waterside table at the convivial Konoba Dida Toni is a great place to savour a platter of grilled fish or slow-cooked octopus.

The town’s indented coastline harbours several pebbly and rocky beaches, including pine-backed Zamalin just the other side of the stubby Saint Nicholas peninsula. Saint Nicholas church, the town’s emblem, sits on top of the hill, and beyond a bigger peninsula further west is beautifully wild but sheltered Sovlje beach.

East of the marina is Tribunj’s main beach, Bristak, with sun loungers and jetskis for hire. Those who prefer more strenuous activities can rent a bike (details from the tourist office) and tackle one of the cycling trails that lead through olive groves and up towards spectacular views of the Adriatic. The hiking is just as good, with paths leading to an old Turkish fort and hillside chapels.

With the Adriatic surrounding the town, it’s not surprising that Tribunj likes to celebrate its seafood. The summer season kicks off in mid-June, with a giant Fishermen’s Night feast, a traditional Croatian festival. In late July and late August there are more seafood festivals, as well as a rather comical annual donkey race on the first Sunday in August.

Where to stay
Plavi Val (from €40 a night for two) has five apartments overlooking Sovlje beach. They each come with a double bedroom, a sofa bed and a terrace, and there’s a restaurant of the same name on the ground floor.

The forested peaks of Papuk nature park in Slavonia – the rectangular eastern region of Croatia bordered by Hungary, Serbia and Bosnia – were once an island in the ancient Pannonian Sea, and now sit in the middle of the vast Pannonian plain, which stretches from the Alps to the Carpathians.

For an exhilarating introduction to this Unesco geopark start at its heart, in the Jankovac forest park. Educational trails wind through centuries-old beech woods, along raised wooden walkways, past lakes and towards the 35-metre-high Skakavac waterfall.

At the Jankovac visitors’ centre, there are canoes to hire for a gentle paddle on Jankovac lake, or bikes for a scoot along the park’s hiking and biking trails. Bicycles are also available at the main ticket office in the village of Velika, on the southern edge of the park.

Just south of Jankovac is Duboka Adrenaline Park, with a zipline and climbing trails for children and adults. The Adriatic is miles away, but there are waterside views on the park’s north-eastern edge, towards the village of Orahovica, where the ruins of medieval Ružica castle tower over the blue-green waters of Hercegovac lake. For swimming, there’s the human-made Orahovačko lake, where there’s also a children’s play area and bike park.

Where to stay
B&B Winery Sontacchi (doubles from £50, en booking.com) in the village of Kutjevo, just south of the nature park, offers simple en suite rooms, a small spa pool and a garden. It’s one of a fair number of wineries in the village and its surrounding area, so there is plenty of opportunity for tastings. Galić Winery, sólo 500 metres up the road from Sontacchi, produces one of the loveliest rosés in Croatia.

With no cars, motorbikes or hotels, Silba certainly qualifies for the overused “unspoilt” tag. This small, mainly flat island (the highest point is 80 metres above sea level) in the Zadar archipelago is as relaxed as they come. It’s only five miles long and barely half a mile wide at its narrowest point, which happens to be where Silba town stretches from east to west.

It is the perfect place to kick back and relax on the beach, swim, eat fresh seafood and perhaps go hiking along rocky paths through oak woods. Parts of the island are served by footpaths smooth enough to double as cycling trails.

Silba may be small but it packs in plenty of beaches. Pernastica on the north coast has vivid turquoise waters that are worth the hour’s trek through woods. At the other end of the scale, Sotorišće is right by the town centre, and may get a little busy in high season.

For water-borne exploring, Rent a Boat Silba in Silba town hires out canoes, paddleboards and – for those with a licence – small motorised boats and dinghies. It also offers a boat taxi service and private tours.

Even slower-paced is Silba’s neighbour Olib, where cars are also banned. Boat services also run from Silba to another tiny neighbour, Premuda, as well as Lošinj in the Kvarner Gulf. Zadar is only about 90 minutes away on the fast catamaran.

Where to stay
SilbaBlu Bed and Breakfast (sleeps two from £39) has one-bedroom apartments with kitchens, balconies and sea views on Silba Town’s western beachfront. The shared garden includes a barbecue, and there’s a minimum five-night stay.

The famous waterfalls and lakes of Plitvice Lakes national park get very busy, but a 90-minute drive north, no fewer than 93 waterfalls ripple along the Mrežnica River. Its clear waters meander through gorgeous karst landscape for 39 miles from Slunj towards Karlovac. It offers tranquil swimming spots, riverside restaurants and campsites, wooded islands and a huge number of places to go rafting and kayaking. Mrežnica’s waterfalls are on a smaller, more human scale, making them safer to navigate and swim in.

Closer to Plitvice is the tiny village of Primišlje, from where Huck Finn Adventure runs one-day kayak and rafting tours of the river. Guests get to jump from the river’s second-highest waterfall, stop for waterside picnics and swim from secluded beaches.

Where to stay
Camp Slapić (cabin for two from £38) offers simple wooden “tents” right on the river, with decks and tables from which to enjoy the view. About a 20-minute drive from Karlovac, the site also has tent pitches and mobile homes as well as a pool, a children’s playground and a restaurant.

Sólo 90 minutes’ drive north of Dubrovnik is a world completely different from Croatia’s most-visited tourist destination. Beyond Bosnia’s narrow slice of the Adriatic coast lies the patchwork of orchards, lakes, bird-rich wetlands and waterways that makes up the Neretva delta and valley. (Sometime this summer it should be possible to avoid customs queues when the new Pelješac Bridge opens, linking two swaths of the Croatian coast that are currently split by a small stretch of Bosnia and Herzegovina, shaving a fair bit of time off the journey.)

A few miles past the border is Blace, a village on a small bay wedged in between the Mala Neretva river and the Adriatic. Aquí, the Chill Beach Bar, on a sandy spit, is the place for a cold drink and a game of beach volleyball. A short way north across a bridge is sandy Delta Beach, where kitesurfing lessons are offered by Neretva Kiteboarding.

The road inland towards the Bosnian border follows the Neretva river as it winds past fruit stalls selling produce grown in these valley fields. Close to the border is the ancient market town of Metković, dónde Neretva Bike rents out cycles. Places nearby to explore on two wheels include the village of Vid, cuyo Narona Archaeological Museum displays ancient Roman and Illyrian finds.

But the most satisfying and often the only way to get to know this delta region is on a boat. Many of the rural restaurants offer boat safaris that meander through the waterways and lakes – including one of the most beautiful, Lake Kuti, with herons, cormorants and hoopoes to spot.

Where to stay
Midway between Opuzen – another appealing stop along the Neretva – and Metković is Hotel Restaurant Villa Neretva (doubles from £38 B&B). The hotel also offers boat safaris and trips to Lake Kuti as well as boat trips to its sister restaurant, Konoba Neretvanska Kuća, in a peaceful waterside spot a few miles south.

Croatia’s newest nature park, Dinara is home to Croatia’s highest mountain (the 1,831-metre Planina Dinara) and some fantastic hiking. This massif actually has an even higher peak, the Troglav, but that’s just across the border in Bosnia. This vast karst landscape in the northern Dalmatia hinterland is smothered in wild flowers in spring and summer. Eagles and griffon vultures soar overhead, and herds of goats munch on sweet summer grass.

A trek to the top of Dinara is best done with a local guide– they can be booked at Dinaric Guides, in the town of Sinj, to the south of the nature park. There are several mountain huts to overnight in for those planning a multi-day hike, as well as some easier, shorter trails that can be completed in a few hours.

The city of Knin is another starting point for hikes, and for gentler walks to the Krčić waterfall on the Krka river and swims in Šarena lake. Knin was the royal capital of Croatia in the Middle Ages, and its forbidding fortress, which dates from the ninth century and is the second largest in Croatia, is worth a visit.

One of the park’s most extraordinary sights is the source of the Cetina river, which eventually flows into the Adriatic at Omiš . It’s easy to see why this beauty spot is called the eye of Dalmatia: the centre of the deep pool is deep blue, with its shallower edges bright turquoise. It’s surrounded by scrubby limestone slopes and overlooked by a neo-Byzantine Serbian Orthodox church. The source’s temperature never rises above 8C, and while fans of cold-water swimming might be tempted to dive in, it’s not recommended.

Where to stay
Apartments Budiša (sleeps two from £41) is in the village of Vrlika overlooking Peruća Lake, a tranquil spot about eight miles south of the Cetina spring.

Acerca de 18 miles inland from Zadar, on the Dalmatian coast, is Karinsko More, an inland sea connected to the Adriatic by a narrow channel. Anyone who has tried bungee jumping off the Maslenica Bridge, which spans that channel, will have spotted this beach-fringed body of water, with the smaller Karin sea off to its south, and the Zrmanja river canyon on its northern side.

Around it, a sleepy collection of small waterside villages – including Maslenica, Posedarje, Pridraga and Kruševo – are interspersed with pebbly and rocky beaches. It is a dream spot for kayakers, who can paddle from beach to beach in these protected waters before setting off into the Zrmanja canyon – all against the backdrop of the Velebit mountains.

On Karinsko More’s southern shore, at the foot of a zigzagging bay, is the historic town of Novigrad, whose hulking hilltop medieval fortress, reached by many stone steps,offers superb views.

The town is a handy base for bike rides along trails stretching for 20 millas, and lunches of local mussels at Konoba Mika on the waterfront. The mussels are so highly regarded that they get their own festival every June. And the first Saturday in August brings another fish feast, when the town’s fishermen cook their catches in the harbour.

Zrmanja River Tours, based in Novigrad, organises activities including group rafting adventures in Zrmanja canyon as well as more sedate boat safaris along the river. There are kayaks, canoes and rafts to hire for independent trips, or private excursions on a small skippered boat.

Where to stay
Apartments Mali Dvor (sleep four from £33, en booking.com) are near the mouth of the Z-shaped bay that leads to Novigrad. There are two flats to choose from, both with two bedrooms and a balcony, and there’s a shared garden with a barbecue and sea views.

Mary Novakovich’s Croatia memoir, My Family and Other Enemies – Life and Travels in Croatia’s Hinterland, will be published by Bradt en 18 agosto 2022

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