Croatia: Destination of the week
This up-and-coming destination is cheaper than its counterparts in Western Europe but no less attractive in terms of beauty, affordability and sustainability.
Wed, Apr 11 2012 at 5:56 PM
LAND O' LAKES: UNESCO World Heritage Site Plitvice Lakes National Park has 16 freshwater lakes connected by streams and waterfalls and is surrounded by lush forests. (Photo: MuntyPix/Flickr)
Croatia occupies some of the most prime real estate, from a tourism and scenery perspective, in all of the Balkans. Its sliver-shaped coastal region on the Adriatic Sea has been drawing plugged-in travelers, budget-conscious vacationers and next-best-thing seekers for years. The country's inland heartland boasts mountains, forests and the flood plains of the famous Danube River. The capital, Zagreb, and the coastal towns of Dubrovnik and Split have become cosmopolitan places with big-city traits like buzzing nightlife, diverse food scenes and plenty of culture.
Eco-tourists have numerous options on Croatia's coastline and also in the expansive network of national parks and forests throughout the country. A wide array of small-scale, family-owned hotels, farmers markets and a growing green scene, as well as a strong nationwide public transportation system, make this a viable green destination. Planning a low-impact vacation is easy in what has become one of Europe's brightest up-and-coming tourist destinations.
Croatia has a full range of hotels and inns, with options including rustic campgrounds, small inns and large spa resorts.
Camping is possible throughout the country. Most campgrounds have extra amenities, with some offering showers, barbecue and cooking facilities, and electricity. Places like the Solaris Camping Beach Resort offer small rental “cabins” and extras like a wellness center and seawater swimming pool. Solaris is on the popular Dalmatian Coast. Other seaside spots, like Adriatic Camping, focus on providing a simpler tent-camping experience.
Croatia is growing as a tourist destination, but small, family-run establishments still dominate the hospitality scene. Many of these places are infused with a strong sense of history. Split's Hotel Park, for example, has a 100-year-long story and still retains its Mediterranean vibe and classic sense of style. It has been named one of Croatia's best small hotels on several occasions.
The Hotel and Spa Iadera, operated by Central European hospitality stalwart Falkensteiner, is a large resort complex, but one of the more overtly green venues in all of Croatia. Located near the coastal town of Zadar, it has some impressive eco-friendly traits. A state-of-the-art heating and cooling system relies on seawater, while a desalination and purification system converts that same seawater for use in the hotel. The purification process does not rely on any chemicals.
Agriculture is still a major part of life in Croatia. Locally grown goods are on display in farmers markets around the country. Two of the larger options for buying fresh produce are the Zagreb Farmers Market and the Dubrovnik Farmer's Market. Depending on the season, hungry tourists can find root vegetables, onions, berries, olives and other delectables in these markets. Virtually every town in the country has some sort of market operating at least one day per week.
A fledgling organic and vegetarian scene has become a small but noticeable part of the restaurant industry in Zagreb. One example of its green-eating movement is Vegehop, an eatery featuring a full menu of vegetarian and vegan dishes made with ingredients like greens, tofu and legumes. Restaurant Nova is another Zagreb hotspot. It boasts a menu of macrobiotic, organic meals. Art of Raw Food rounds out Zagreb's veg triple crown with a juice bar, salad bar and a menu of raw-food favorites.
Croatia features eight national parks and 10 nature preserves. Plitvice Lakes National Park is the headliner of the country’s natural spaces. Situated between Zagreb and the coast, it consists of 16 freshwater lakes connected by a series of streams and waterfalls and is surrounded by lush forests. Many visitors consider this one of Europe's most beautiful places, and the park is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Boardwalks and gravel trails weave through the entire park, with hikes of one hour to one day (or longer) possible. Those who want to trade a little green-ness for some comfort and convenience can use buses that travel between the lakes to see more of the park in less time. These buses, as well as boats that take cruises of the lakes, are free with paid entrance.
Dalmatia has become one of the most popular tourist regions in the Balkans, if not all of Eastern Europe. With a high number of attractions, it is possible to get a little sidetracked and perhaps miss the best of the region's sights. Companies like Dalmatia Trekking offer themed eco-tours that hit many of the highlights. Southern Sea Ventures offers kayaking tours that focus on Croatia's Adriatic waters. Adriatic Kayak Tours offers a similar menu of paddles, but is also willing to rent equipment to experienced water-lovers who want to explore on their own. Of course, sailing (including eco-friendly cruise options) is also on Dalmatia's menu.
Croatia's eastern region is largely rural and definitely doesn't enjoy the tourism profile of the coastal regions, but it is not without its charms when it comes to natural attractions. Kopacki Rit Nature Park covers an expansive wetland area. The park sits next to the Danube, and sections of the park can be toured by specially designed boat. Kopacki is home to over 40 species of fish as well as mammal residents such as otters, deer and wild boars. The park has a network of trails, and there is even an option to take a horse-powered tour of the park. Lonjsko Polje Nature Park is another area near the Danube that hosts a variety of wildlife. An especially high population of birds calls Lonjsko's vast flood plains home.
Krka National Park is a park with several large sets of waterfalls that tumble down its namesake river. Most people come for the photo opportunities created by the fast-moving waters. However, Krka is also a birding paradise, with more than 200 winged species calling the park's forests and waterways home.
Croatia's Adriatic Islands are great destinations for sun-seekers and people looking for a budget-friendly Mediterranean getaway. There are also some eco-centered attractions as well. The Blue World Institute of Marine Research and Conservation project runs three programs in the Adriatic, including dolphin and turtle conservation and research programs and a education-oriented venue called The Lošinj Marine Education Centre. Another environmental attraction is the Eco-Center on the island of Cres. The center offers volunteer experiences for people looking for a more hands-on, long-term vacation.
Croatia's transportation network has grown along with its profile as a tourist destination. An improving train system joins far-reaching bus and ferry services to create a useful and fairly modern transit infrastructure. It is definitely possible to get around Croatia without a car.
People traveling around the popular Adriatic Coast can use the national Jadrolinija ferry service. Ferries run between major towns and the islands that sit off the coastline. Boats also run between major coastal cities like Dubrovnik and Split, making Jadrolinija useful for more than getting to islands. Croatia's trains run between most major cities, making them a good option for getting from one region to another before setting out on bus to reach your exact destination. All major cities and most major towns have bus terminals. A dozen different operators provide service, with some offering long-haul trips and some focused on a specific region. Popular routes originating in Zagreb are usually served by more than one company. Seats are usually reserved, so it is a good idea for travelers intent on securing a window seat or not being stuck in the back of the bus to buy tickets in advance.
With diverse geography and a cosmopolitan vibe, Croatia has become one of Europe's new guard of destinations: cheaper than its Western European counterparts, but equally attractive according to most visitors. Eco-tourists will appreciate the wide range of small-scale sleeping options, a growing green-eating scene, a useful public transportation infrastructure, and a diverse set of natural attractions.
Want more vacation ideas? Check out more eco-friendly destinations.
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