By Jennifer Ceaser
Credit “Game of Thrones” for putting Croatia on many tourists’ radars. Last year, more than 1 million visitors flocked to the ancient walled city of Dubrovnik, aka King’s Landing in the wildly successful HBO series—making it one of the most popular destinations in the country. But with 1,100 miles of coastline, 1,246 islands and eight national parks—plus a rapidly developing wine and food scene—Croatia is about much more than just a single city.
Native New Yorker Jay Ternavan, founder of JayWay Travel, which has been offering customized tours of the Balkans since 2006, has seen firsthand the spike in interest in this part of the world. We asked Ternavan what makes Croatia a great destination, what to explore beyond Dubrovnik, and some handy tips when visiting.
1. What can visitors expect to do in Croatia?
Croatia offers a little bit of everything, so it caters to every type of traveler. The country is full of breathtaking natural beauty, with rolling hills, mountains, 1,000-plus islands and a gorgeous coastline with crystal-clear blue waters. All this nature provides many opportunities for active experiences, including biking, hiking, kayaking, sailing and rafting. It also has a rich ancient history with several UNESCO World Heritage sites. And Croatia is definitely becoming a foodie destination: the local cuisine includes lots of seafood, fresh vegetables, a variety of grilled meats, tasty olive oils and a little-known wine culture that produces excellent local wines— but not in enough volume to make a dent on the world market, so they’re best sampled in the country.
2. Is the country safe?
A very important aspect about Croatia is that it is an extremely safe place to
travel. With all that’s going on in the world today, people are looking for locations where they can feel secure. Croatia has seen no terrorist activity, nor is it ever mentioned as a target like some of its Western European counterparts. Also, the people are very friendly and welcoming with a high level of English, so the tourist infrastructure is excellent.
3. Which cities do Americans typically like the most and why?
At the top of the list would have to be Dubrovnik, which has recently received an extra boost of popularity based on the appeal of “Game of Thrones.” Dubrovnik is easy to fall in love with: it looks like something straight out of a fairy tale or a medieval fantasy. The other destination we have found to be most popular with Americans would be the island of Hvar: It has both an easy-going vibe but also a bit of a reputation as the jet-set location of Croatia, so visitors are always curious what the buzz is all about—and they are never disappointed.
4. What is most surprising about Croatia to visitors?
Croatia is considered an “Eastern European” country, so many people expect to encounter a poor, uncivilized and backwards place where English is rarely spoken. I think they are shocked how comfortable and advanced a place it is. The level of English is often better here than in most Western European countries where I have traveled, so Croatians are very accustomed to tourists and prepared to cater to them.
5. What are some typically Croatian food and drink to try?
Be sure to order anything prepared “under the bell,” a method of cooking where they slow cook various meats or seafood—usually lamb and octopus—under a large, dome-like lid. You have to try the local wines; Croatia is famous for a red grape know as Plavac Mali, which is related to the variety Americans now know as Zinfandel; if you like strong, peppery red wines this should not be missed. To end any Croatia meal you have to try their local fruit liqueur know as Rakija, but be prepared as it certainly packs a punch.
6. Anything tourists should be prepared for?
For one thing it’s not “dirt cheap,” as people expect it to be based on the region. We would position it somewhere between Eastern and Western Europe, so it’s certainly more affordable than say, France or the UK. We also advise our guests to avoid the peak vacation time for Europeans, i.e., August, and instead travel a little off-peak. The weather in June and September is very pleasant—in fact much more so than in high summer. Also, plan around the cruise ship crowds, which can overwhelm the old towns of Dubrovnik and Split from mid-morning to mid-afternoon.
In practical terms, it often comes as a surprise to people that although Croatia is in the EU (since July 2013), it hasn’t yet switched to the euro and continues to use its own currency, the kuna. You can certainly pay in euros in some places, but the exchange rate won’t be in your favor. (One kuna is currently valued at 15 U.S. cents.)
7. What’s an up-and-coming region in the country?
There are always new destinations popping up throughout Croatia as the country becomes more developed and the tourist demand increases. However, the government has been very smart about managing this growth, and has not allowed mass building developments, which ensures the authentic feel of the country. The island of Vis, off the Dalmatian Coast, has grown in popularity in recent years; however it still remains a bit off the radar, as it is difficult to reach.
8. What do you see happening with tourism in Croatia?
I have been visiting Croatia for almost 14 years now and every year I am surprised with the increase in its popularity. Hotel and apartment owners are improving their accommodation offerings in order to keep up with the demands of international tourists. In the past the cuisine was always delicious, but without a lot of variety; I’ve noticed restaurant owners making an effort to put a new spin on classic dishes with excellent results. One of my favorite places in Rovinj, called Monte, even has a Michelin star, the country’s first. And Croatia continues to work on its infrastructure, making traveling around the country easier every year.
JayWay Travel has been in business for 11 years, offering customized tours of Croatia, as well as other Eastern and Central European countries. Local JayWay staff is based throughout these regions, providing local expertise and an extra layer of comfort and support to guests. An eight-day tour of Croatia’s Southern Dalmatian Coast (which includes Dubrovnik, Split and Hvar), without airfare or meals, starts at $950 per person in July.