Croatia...with Kids ( PART 1 of 2)
If you’re itching to go on a family vacation someplace a bit farther afield than the typical Stateside haunts, I’m sharing our week-long-ish itinerary from our trip Croatia this summer. It was an incredible vacation. I highly, highly recommend visiting Croatia if you haven’t been, and the best part is, it was a fantastic European destination to take our three girls, ages 13, 10 & 8. So if you’ve got kids, put it on the list.
Taking your kids to Croatia is a little like sneaking extra veggies into their meal. Like when you add a few more carrots and peas to that stir fry dish they all love, or tuck a couple of leaves of kale in the blender when making fruit smoothies. The coast and islands of Croatia in summer are a kids’ paradise, with crystal clear, warm, calm water and easy snorkeling opportunities at every turn. And pizza. Lots of opportunities to eat really good pizza, excellent french fries, and delicious homemade ice cream (more similar to gelato).
The kids are so happy they don’t even really realize how much they’re learning about history and culture and even globalization. You never feel like you’re nagging them to go into one more old church, or visit that ancient walled village nearby, or stop in at that mom-and-pop winery perched on a limestone cliff so their mom & dad can sample wine from grapes grown only on this particular slope in all of Croatia. Because the kids know that at the next turn in the road, after a little sightseeing, there will be one more seemingly hidden cove with amazingly blue water to swim in. Just make sure your swimsuits, towels, masks/goggles/snorkels, sunscreen & maybe most important of all, your water shoes, are at the ready at all times! (Packing tips at the end).
I used Booking.Com to book all our accommodations. All were privately owned Airbnb’s and the process was seamless. I was able to get in contact with all the owners via email before we left the US. And they texted with me when we were in Croatia for any details we might need to know upon arrival. They all spoke excellent English. Of the 4 places we stayed, 3 processed full payment before we arrived using my credit card (when you book you can check to see if they do it automatically with the card on file, or if you need to go in and manually pay with your card before you arrive). One place DID require cash payment upon arrival--they just weren’t set up for online transactions--so be sure to check before you go. ATM’s are plentiful throughout the country, but you just need to know what your bank’s daily limit is for withdrawals overseas to make sure you have enough to cover the Airbnb cost if they only take cash.
Day 1 Cavtat
We learned from our trip to Iceland last summer (you can read up on that itinerary here) not to plan much of anything for day 1. Everyone is wiped out, hungry, and cranky. We flew from Boston through Dublin overnight and landed at the airport outside Dubrovnik around lunchtime the following day. I’d planned for us to rent our car, get our bearings, and drive the short distance to the charming resort/beach town of Cavtat and basically veg out for the afternoon. Because I knew I wouldn’t have the bandwidth on day 1 to navigate finding a beach to swim at, Cavtat was the one place I booked an Airbnb with a pool. The girls could swim, we could relax, explore a little depending on how we all felt, and basically just regroup.
A Side Note on Airlines
I don’t recommend traveling on Aer Lingus. At all. I booked our flight on this airline because prices were good and I could use points for a couple of tickets. But, for a long flight with kids (and even for us grown ups), the service was thumbs down. They did serve a complimentary meal on the transatlantic portion of the flight, but the food was brutally bad. Terrible. Yuck. Made you feel sick. And, they charged for wine, beer & cocktails. I just really think a glass of wine should be complementary on a long-haul flight. Period. And I think that there should be snacks available throughout the flight like other airlines provide on these routes. But, worst of all, the second flight from Dublin to Dubrovnik (3-3.5 hrs) is considered a “short” flight. No food at all, AND they charge for every type of beverage except tap water (which they will get you, but only after an irritated sigh escapes their mouths). Well, when you’ve got kids who have just powered through a 6-hour overnight flight and then trekked through a pre-dawn, basically-closed airport to their connecting flight, it’s tough for them to stare down another 3 hours on the plane with no food and only some warm tap water given out begrudgingly by the flight attendants, and only when requested. So, my advice: Fly a different airline or pack your own food and ignore the rude service.
Renting a Car
Renting a car in Croatia was pretty straightforward. We searched for cars on Auto Europe. From there we found a list of cars available from various rental agencies on site at the airport. We rented through AvantCar and it worked out fine. Dubrovnik airport is small and very easy to navigate. A few things I’d recommend:
Only travel with carry on. This means you need less room in your car for luggage. Jump to the end of this post for more on packing tips.
Rent the absolute smallest car your family can possibly tolerate without killing each other. Our girls aren’t used to sitting 3 side-by-side in the car. At times, putting up with their constant bickering about who was squished and who was taking up too much leg room was a real bummer for all of us. BUT, the reality is, streets are ridiculously narrow in places and parking can be tight to say the least, so having a small car to maneuver is key.
Make sure you know whether you’re booking an automatic transmission or manual (if that matters to you!).
Make sure you know which type of fuel your car takes: diesel or regular. We made that mistake in Iceland and getting the regular gas drained from the diesel tank cost us $200. Bummer.
Before Leaving the Airport in Dubrovnik
Hit an ATM machine. There’s a bunch in the terminal. We used cash (or Kuna--as the local currency is known) much more in Croatia than we do at home for things like groceries, most meals out, daily ice cream excursions. It just was more expected that we’d have cash on us, and people seemed happiest when that’s how we paid. The one tough thing is that if you take out one large sum at a time to avoid bank conversion fees, etc. you end up with a lot of big bills that can be difficult to break since really, prices in Croatia are very reasonable once you’re there. 1USD = roughly 6 Kuna so I kind of just divided everything by six to get a sense of what something costs in the US. Sometimes if we had too large a bill, shop owners would seem a little annoyed with us.
Villa Alegria Cavtat: Beautiful accommodations. Perched above the harbor of Cavtat, the three units at Villa Alegria shared a pool with amazing views out over the Adriatic. Our unit was spacious, clean, comfortable and well-equipped. I almost felt bad we only stayed here one night because it was so nice, but it was also the most expensive of our accommodations. Very helpful host, Pero, who we texted easily with with any questions.
Restaurant Pick Near Cavtat
Pero recommended the same place Rick Steves recommended, Konoba Vinica Monkovic, about 10 miles from Cavtat in the countryside near the Montenegrin border. Pero graciously called the restaurant and made reservations for us and even put in our request for a traditional Peka meal. Rick Steves suggested putting this order in when you book your table. It’s a slow-simmered meat dish, served with roasted potatoes. And while it is tasty and kind of fun to try, it reminded me a lot of glorified pot roast. And, since it was 80* out, it seemed like an odd meal to be having. But, the rustic setting is lovely. Many tables are outside, on a wooded terrace next to the streams, set near the foot of the rugged limestone peaks. You really feel like you’re out in the country here, far from crowds, and I recommend visiting if you stay in Cavtat.
Day 2: Drive from Cavtat through the Peljasac Peninsula to Orebic. Ferry from Orebic to the Island of Korcula
With these kinds of trips, it seems like Day 2 is always a good day to really get going, see things, explore. Everyone is rested, and excited to see what’s out there, what’s different. So I planned our biggest driving day for today. All told, it’s about 3 hours from Cavtat north to the Peljasac Peninsula and all the way out the Peninsula to the ferry at Orebic. It’s a beautiful drive along the curvy, mountainous coastline (parts of it reminds me of a super narrow version of the Pacific Coast Highway back home). Break the drive up with a stop in the ancient walled city of Ston, at the base of the Peljasac Peninsula.
Ston: The Great Wall of Croatia
This town was definitely worth a stop. I hadn’t read up on this small walled city beforehand, but Pero recommended it as a good place to stop for lunch along the way, and I’m so glad he did. The walls (built in the 13th century...if I have my history right, and the second longest wall in the world) really are like a mini-Great Wall of China. The walls snake up ridiculously steep peaks and down the other side, causing us all to wonder how in the world they were constructed without modern technology. You can climb sections of it, and there are several quaint restaurants within the town. And of course, there are plenty of places to get ice cream. Our girls thought it was a very cool place to see, and so did we.
Ferry from Orebic to Korcula
Before the trip, I kind of wondered how the whole car ferry thing worked over in Croatia. I didn’t know if it was going to be like taking a car ferry to Nantucket in the summer (book months and months in advance, expect to pay a hefty sum), or if it was going to be easier (and cheaper) to figure out. Luckily, the short, 15-minute ferry from the town of Orebic to the island of Korcula, is easy to figure out and it cost around $30 one way (please don’t quote me on that--my Kuna exchange rate math is terrible!). We arrived, got in the line of cars, I got out and walked to the ticket counter (have kuna!), and bought our tickets. Then we boarded the ferry with the car about 15 minutes later. Easy. BUT, when we returned to Orebic from Korcula a few days later, we had to wait an hour for the ferry. So check the schedule ahead of time, just so you know what you’re getting into in case you’ve got places to be, people to see. Better yet, get on Korcula “Island Time” and just go with the flow.
his is the company running the car ferry: Jadrolinija Car Ferry.
Korcula (3 Nights)
One word: Amazing! If you’re looking to incorporate relaxation time into your Croatian vacation, I highly recommend making the laid back, historically-rich island of Korcula your stomping grounds for a few days. The scenery is breathtaking, the weather absolutely perfect, and the water unbelievably clear and inviting.
My favorite part, though, just might be the feeling while we were there that somehow I’d stepped back in time. Yes, there are the biggest yachts you ever did see right off shore. Zoro, our Airbnb host, told us that the mega-rich of the world, who want no part in paparazzi antics, often come to Korcula because it’s still fairly under the radar. In fact, just last summer the Prince of Qatar closed down the entire restaurant next to our Airbnb so he could enjoy lunch undisturbed (or so Zoro’s story goes…). But, despite evidence of extreme wealth, parts of the island seem very much still what it once was: small, ancient fishing villages nestled among pine forests and vineyards.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Mljet National Park
My biggest regret of the trip was not getting over to the island of Mljet. I can’t say much about it since we didn’t get to go there, but I will suggest to you how to make sure you get there. Try booking tickets far in advance to take the Krilo catamaran from Korcula town to Pomena (NOT to Sobra--from Pomena you can get to where you need to get by walking, from Sobra you need transport). For some reason I couldn’t figure out how to book them online from home before I even left on our trip, but that would’ve been ideal. Maybe I underestimated how busy it would be and just didn’t think to do it. Regardless, I wish that when we first reached the island of Korcula, I’d gone into the old town and directly to the Krilo Kiosk and booked our tickets. Instead, I stopped there the next morning and already the catamarans were booked for the days were were there.
If you are able to get to Mljet, you don’t take your car. That day, park your car on the roof of the large Tommy supermarket right above the old town (or take a cab into Korcula town). Then you can walk to and from the ferry terminal. Bring your swim gear for sure!
Accomodations on Korcula: Lumbarda
We love to get off the beaten track when we can. The village of Lumbarda at one end of the island of Korcula is just that. Still easy enough to get into the old town of Korcula for some sightseeing, but remote enough to feel like you’re away-away.
This was our whole family’s favorite place of the entire trip. There are several apartments you can select from. DON’T select the one we stayed in!! Now, I don’t mean to make it sound bad, it really wasn’t, it’s just that now that I’ve been there and know what there is to know, I would’ve requested a different one. Contact Zoro (you can do that through Booking.com) and ask about each of the units. My favorite was the top unit which has a beautiful balcony looking over the beach. But it’s a large unit with several bedrooms. There were two British families staying there together when we were there, so it was big enough to accommodate them. They loved it. They’d send their kids right over to the beach and just hang out on the veranda checking in on them once in a while. I know, you might be thinking, well, why not just go to the beach too. And you will for sure, because it’s the most inviting water to swim in you’ll ever see. But, while it’s a perfect beach for swimming--soft sand all the way out, shallow and calm, crystal clear---there’s only a small crescent of sand to sit on when you’re not in the water. So, if you have the veranda, you can walk over for a dip and then walk back and read or have lunch in the shade of your balcony.
Tiny food ants were a huge issue in the kitchen of the unit we stayed in in Lumbarda. You can’t leave anything out or the ants come knocking! It wasn’t as big an issue in the other places we stayed in Croatia, and I have a feeling it wasn’t even an issue in the other units here because the other families cooked in quite a bit. But for us it was a big nuisance--another reason to request a different unit!
This was the place that only accepts cash. Zoro is very accommodating and laid back, though, and we didn’t have to pay first thing. So no worries if you don’t have exactly what you need on you right away.
Other Perks about the Apartments Lumbarda Beach:
Pizzeria Torkul -Outstanding pizza restaurant directly next store with picnic tables and a yard area to eat and hang out in. Honestly, our best meals in the whole country (at least where we went) were at this restaurant. And they serve more than just pizza. The kids loved it too. The girls could eat and then go swimming, or they could stay at the beach and we’d just watch them from our table. I wish this place existed here at home. And the beer on tap is fantastic.
Konoba Feral - another restaurant basically next store too. They make their own wine in the vineyards above the town. This is the one the Prince of Qatar supposedly rented out for lunch. Andy and I ate there one night. I like the pizza place better.
Wine: I love good food and I love wine--especially trying lesser known wines I don’t typically see anywhere else. If you’re like me, then you’ll love Korcula (and the Peljasac peninsula). It’s wine growing region! And you can try wines you won’t ever find in the States. For one, the tiny village of Lumbarda--and I mean tiny--is known for the white wine Grk. The grapes grow only in this village’s unique climate. As in only, only. No where else in the world. To me, that’s just a wild and wonderful thing! My favorite Grk wine was from Bire (there’s a winery you can visit nearby, which we didn’t get a chance to do, but I wish I had).
Kayaks: Zoro has two 2-3 person kayaks in his driveway for guests to use. When I say 3 person, I mean two people with paddles and one kid sitting in the middle...I guess it could be a grown-up? There are life jackets in the little storage area, and most important, there is a dry bag! I so wish I’d known this when we kayaked out to a small island off-shore (about a 20 minute kayak with kids) so I could’ve taken pictures. I highly recommend you take advantage of the kayaks. Zoro and the British family upstairs suggested kayaking to this island--ask Zoro if you have any questions. Bring your camera in the dry bag. If you’ve got an underwater go-pro, bring that, and any snorkeling gear. AND do not forget your water shoes (and if you’re a sun-protection fanatic like me, wear your hat). The island is this small, deserted (except for other day trippers like us who paddle out to picnic or snorkel) limestone island with terrific snorkeling right off shore. You’ll want to take photos. The best part? On our paddle back we passed within 10 feet of a dolphin swimming nearby!! Major highlight!
Water Trampoline Park: O.k., I hate this kind of thing. BUT, on your way into the tiny town center of Lumbarda, you will pass this water trampoline park. And, guaranteed, your kids will ask you if they can play on it. Guaranteed. My suggestion, pay for it and let them do it once when they first ask. Let them get it out of their system. I bought a half-hour worth of time for them the first afternoon we arrived, they did it, enjoyed it, but then the real magic happened: They realized they liked our quiet little beach around the corner best, where they could snorkel, jump off the pier with local kids and with the friends they’d made with the British family upstairs, and kayak. Win, win.
In and Around Korcula
Moreska Korcula: Sword Dance If it’s taking place while you’re here, go see the traditional sword dance performance in Old Town Korcula one evening. It’s a cultural treat for you and the kids. Buy your tickets at the entrance right when it opens, then spend some time souvenir shopping at the vendors outside the city steps (and get some post-dinner ice cream of course!).
Getting into Old Town that evening: We decided to hop the water taxi that comes right into Lumbard. That was a fun way to see the smattering of small islands nearby, where people can get off and sunbathe and swim and eat for the day. To get home that evening, we took a regular car taxi
Eating in the Old Town: Eat beforehand at Konoba Aternina Beautiful setting and excellent food. The pasta in particular was fantastic. Enjoyed by the whole family!
Other Suggestions: Take a drive around the island and check out the coves and secluded beaches and other villages. Do some wine tasting. It’s just so beautiful here, there is a lot to take in.
IF you can get to Mljet, this is what I would do with my 3 days:
Day 1, aim to arrive early afternoon in Lumbarda so you can unwind, enjoy the water. Just do dinner at Pizzeria Torkul. Make sure you’ve made your reservations for Mljet!! (if you must, do the water trampoline park)
Day 2, walk into the village of Lumbarda, grab pastries at the small bakery in the square for breakfast. Kayak out to the island and snorkel. Take the water taxi into Korcula Old Town in the early evening, explore, get your tickets to the Moreska, eat at Konoba Aternina, enjoy the sword dance, then take a taxi back to Lumbarda.
Day 3, day trip to Mljet
Day 4, leisurely departure for the Peljesac Peninsula
Croatia Packing Essentials
Sunscreen--easily purchased in Croatia too, but if you have a type you love, bring some. We brought some super high SPF in carry-on size containers and then supplemented with more generic sunscreen when we arrived.
Swim shoes--These are a must! Most of the beaches are covered in limestone, which can be very difficult and painful to walk on. There can also be spiny sea urchins in the water and coral. Bring swim shoes, or just buy some when you get here if you want to travel light. We bought ours in Korcula. We also bought some inexpensive beach towels.
Snorkeling gear (or at least masks). These are expensive in Croatia--best to make room for this gear in your carry on.
Sun Hats/Sunglasses. Essential if you want sun protection. I have an enormous foldable hat that I pretty much wore everywhere (yes, I was like a tourist-version of The Man in the Yellow Hat--like in Curious George, or the Flying Nun, but I didn’t care).
A light-weight sweater. It can cool down more than you’d think when the sun sets.
Light weight, breathable clothing. It’s hot!
Sneakers are a good idea for walking the walls of Dubrovnik and Ston.
A tip on restaurants: It’ll serve you well if you keep to more of a “US dinner schedule” in Croatia. Get to a restaurant by 7 or even better a little before, and you should have an easy time getting a good table. Wait even 20 minutes later, and you’re going to run into crowds and a wait. It pays to go to eat early!
O.k., that’s all for Part 1. That’s all I can handle, and I’m sure that’s all you can handle too! Next week I’ll fill you in on my recs for the Peljasac Peninsula and Dubrovnik. Hope you found this information helpful in planning your trip so far! Comment or email if you have any questions I might be able to help you with.