Outdoor activities with a healthy dose of curiosity, brought to you by Laure Latham
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Croatia is everything you’ve heard and probably more. It’s beautiful, the water is clear, Dubrovnik is breathtaking and every other historical landmark is a Game of Thrones filming location (only slightly exaggerating). Thanks to the mild Mediterranean climate, there’s also oodles of things to do in Croatia with kids and the country counts lots of family-friendly hotels or resorts to choose from. If you don’t know where to start, here are a few ideas to plan your trip along the Dalmatian coast.
The fortified city of Dubrovnik, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is absolutely stunning and features on everyone’s list in Croatia. When we arrived at night after having a hard time to find parking for our rental car, we entered the old city on foot with our luggage and were immediately taken back in time. The street where our AirBnB was located was in fact narrow stairs following the natural relief of the coast down to the Adriatic Sea. Awesome!
We left our luggage in a quaint multi-storied flat and rushed to the restaurant 360 for dinner. Set inside the great walls of Dubrovnik itself, the restaurant provided a view of the port through the windows and we enjoyed some of the best food in Croatia, my girls being offered options outside the main menu. I would totally recommend this restaurant for a gourmet meal in spectacular setting.
It’s only when we got out that we appreciated the full architectural glory of Dubrovnik. At 10pm, the white marble Renaissance streets were out of this world beautiful and lit with elegant lanterns. It was hard to tell that the city had been heavily shelled in 1991. We only spent one day in Dubrovnik but didn’t stop from morning til sunset. These were my kids’ favorite activities.
Travel tip. The Old Town city streets can get extremely noisy at night with bars open late and many people out to get drunk. We learned that on the first night, as our flat was above an Irish bar, and decided to move out of Dubrovnik rather than suffer a second night of loud drunkards.
More than in any other city in Croatia, visiting Split felt like walking through an ancient museum, only people still live inside the museum walls. Set smack on the coast, Split is famous for its Diocletian’s Palace, a Roman palace the size of a city built for the emperor Diocletian (3rd century A.D.). You can’t visit it, but you’ll probably enter it anyway. That’s because the massive palace houses half of the city’s restaurants, bars and even residents in its white stone walls. The palace has become the city. If it sounds crazy, it’s because it is.
More recently, the palace doubled as Daenarys’ throne room and the place where she trained her dragons for the TV adaptation of Game of Thrones. Inside Split, you can also visit the Cathedral of St Domnius and walk around the narrow streets.
Travel tip. Split is a good spot to break the drive between Dubrovnik and Plitvice Lakes, but the city itself doesn’t have tons to see.
The crown jewel of Croatia’s national park system, Plitvice Lakes National Park is a World Heritage Site and the most extensive series of turquoise waterfalls and lakes you will ever see. For obvious reasons, the national park is as beautiful as it is popular and summer crowds can be a bit much.
Even so, my kids absolutely loved walking on the elevated boardwalks above the lakes and close to the waterfalls. We chose the longest route that was open in late April, as the national park is not completely open year-round due to flooded trails. As we walked pretty much all day from the opening of the park, we were very glad that we wore comfortable shoes and we could shorten the walk with an electric boat ride in the middle.
Travel tip. Start early and expect to spend half a day at least. Pack water and snacks for the kids, both of which you can purchase in the shops by the ticket counter.
Far from the southern sun-loving crowds, Zadar is a funky Roman city that serves as a great hub for unspoiled wilderness in the north of Croatia. Whether it’s swimming, hiking or climbing, the national parks around Zadar rank amongst some of the most beautiful in Croatia for good reason. They can also be reached easily by car or by boat, which makes Zadar a great place to stay in for a couple of days.
With my kids, we reached the city in the early afternoon and walked around Zadar’s historic centre as the sun was going down on the Dalmatian sea. It was the best time of day and locals were converging to the sea front with ice creams in hand.
On the port, we sat down on the marble steps of the wave organ, an art installation–not unlike San Francisco’s wave organ–that uses wind and waves to create unique sounds in pipes on the jetty. It was extremely cool and soon enough, my girls were skipping on the steps and crawling around to listen to a variety of sea sounds. To say that it’s a natural playground with a killer view isn’t far off the truth.
After sun down, the same jetty became host to a different kind of play with the Sun Salutation, a massive public circle on the harbor made of photovoltaic cells interspersed with LEDs that burst into light when the sun sets. It was possibly the coolest solar panel hopscotch installation ever and my kids had so much fun running around on the changing light displays that even at 10.30pm, they refused to leave.
While in Zadar, we visited two of the 3 surrounding national parks, Paklenica and the Kornati Islands, and decided to forego Krka as we had already visited Plitvice Lakes–by all accounts superior to Krka in the same waterfall park category.
Travel tip. There are very few hotels right in Zadar, but around Zadar, it’s family resort galore. Don’t hesitate to shop around.
A climbing mecca, Paklenica National Park is a karst canyon that features a variety of hiking trails, from the family-friendly walk to a mountain hut for lunch (2 hours), to the multi-day ridge traverse. As it’s karst (like most of the natural areas we saw in Croatia), it comes with a spattering of caves and refreshing swimming holes. The weather can be brutally hot in summer but if you care to venture a little from the entrance, you’ll find unspoilt wilderness with hardly any visitors. And that, in summer in Croatia, is a real luxury.
Travel tip: Head out in the morning when the temperatures are still cool(er). Don’t forget to pack water for your Paklenica adventures, as well as swimming gear.
Kornati Islands National Park is a fun day out cruising with the kids to remote islands part of an archipelago of 147 mostly inhabited islands and reefs in the Adriatic Sea. We booked our day tour through Bastion Hotel and were somewhat surprised to find a boat packed with partying young’uns drinking and smoking while loud music played on the deck. Not quite the nature experience I had anticipated, but whatever. We just retreated to the boat’s top level and that was much nicer.
Once on the island, we had a couple of hours to explore a gorgeous clifftop trail looking down on the sea, before coming down to a salt water lake in the middle of the main island. Like others, we went for a swim and as we still had some time before lunch, we walked a lovely trail on the water’s edge starting from the port. There, we could have found a dozen wonderful swim spots on the shore but were short on time.
Lunch on the boat was quite fun as the crew grilled seafood for everybody and served it with rice and veggies as sides. On the way back, we stopped at an island village where we found a cafe and sat down for cake and drinks.
Travel tip. Get as much info on your tour operator as there are many stories of people getting ripped off. Alternatively, hire a private boat for the day. And for the island, wear comfortable water shoes as there is no sand anywhere and karst is very sharp, even in the water.
For something different, whitewater rafting down the Cetina River makes a great day trip from Split for the whole family. For this beginner whitewater adventure, I packed my father and my girls and we took off from split after breakfast to reach our destination in the mountains. After getting into wetsuits and safety jackets, we all hopped onto a 10-person inflatable boat and took off for half-day tour.
The Cetina River offered a wonderful change of scenery from the coast, extremely green and quiet. Yet, it wasn’t all a piece of cake and featured a nice dose of water thrills. When we encountered a series of waterfalls, our guide steered the boat underneath and we all got a cold water shower (refreshing) as a result. Later, we manoeuvred through rocks and rapids and at one point, even had to duck on the boat floor to navigate under a fallen branch between an island and the river’s edge. Oh, and did I mention the wildlife and folk stories? During the trip, we spotted a couple of eagles in the sky and heard tales of people around the river. We even stopped to jump off a small cliff into the water and after my 10-year-old went, I thought ‘hey, why not?’ It turned out to be much taller than I thought. Eek! I jumped with my eyes closed and loved it, but didn’t do it again.
Travel Tip. Many tour operators offer a day out on the River Cetina, including minivan transfer. We booked ours through Dalmatian Villas, the guys we were renting an apartment from and it went very smoothly.
The tiny and maze-like city of Trogir is well worth a stop to walk through the medieval city with the kids. On foot, we admired the Venetian Renaissance architecture and headed for the magnificent St Lawrence Cathedral in the city center. Walking up the stairs in the tower was meant to be extraordinary so we went ahead. Climbing was fine but sweet Jesus, the way up to the bell-tower required steady legs and was certainly not for anyone afraid of heights. Spoiler: these were open stairs, as in, you felt like you’re slightly more outside than inside. I admit that I waited while my father and my girls went up. Later, we walked around Trogir and the impressive Fortress Kamerlengo which was, unfortunately, closed.
I’ll be honest, I may not have visited Klis Fortress without its Game of Thrones connection, but it ended up being a great place to visit with kids. Completely off the beaten path (it wasn’t even in our Lonely Planet guide), Klis Fortress was close to Split and easy to reach by car. It was hard to pass the city of Mereen, its tunnels and ramparts. Early in the morning, we used our GPS to find it as signs were scarce and parked in the small village, before following a stone path up the mountain.
Perched high on a rock, the derelict fortress completely towered over the valley floor and offered views in all directions. There, I realized the magic of CGI in turning a ruin into a living city. The fortress had a great history but had fallen into disrepair, and I was glad to read that filming money had been invested in building maintenance. My girls were intrigued by a small military museum (with period Ottoman war armor and weapons) but their favorite part was certainly climbing walls and exploring the nooks and crannies of (what must have been) a glorious royal castle in its heyday.
Travel tip. Watch your kids, there isn’t much in terms of health and safety and it’s steep.
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Another easy day trip from Split, the city of Solin features the remarkable Roman ruins of the ancient city of Salona. My girls are complete fans of Ancient Rome history, having read The Eagle of the Ninth (you can buy it here: US | UK) and most of the Roman Mysteries books (you can buy them here: US |UK). Solano was a rare opportunity to visit on foot a Roman city without the crowds and outside of Italy. Thanks to very detailed explanations, we knew the exact purpose of each building and, standing by a three-arched bridge, were even able to imagine what the city may have looked like.
Beyond the historical significance of the site, the amphitheater and the elaborately carved sarcophaguses, we loved that the city was surrounded by olive groves, orchards and dramatic cypress trees. It gave our visit a countryside feel that we had not expected. Had we been better organized, we would have done what locals do–picnic on tables and benches at the picnic spot by the entrance.
Travel tip. Salona is accessible from Split by bus (No. 1). If budget and time allow, hire a private guide to get a lively tour of the place, complete with fairytales and more.
What are you most looking forward to when visiting Croatia?