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Croatian Magic: Plitvice, Zadar and its outlying islands

Not quite the 101 Dalmations but Dalmatia is stunning in its own way. This coastal region of Croatia stands out not only for its Italian-influenced towns but also for the hundreds of outlying islands that are often a short ferry ride away. I based myself in Zadar, however the true magic of my trip was getting lost while hiking through the nearby islands and Plitvice Lakes National Park. The photos below should be the only explanation required 😉

Zadar’s Old Town

Zadar Cathedral blends a number of different architectural periods, and its bell tower offers fabulous views of the city

If someone told you this was a town in Italy, you’d be easily convinced. Protruding into the Zadar Channel, this little peninsula has thousands of years of Zadar’s history packed in. The narrow marble streets and the ancient squares all bear traces to the city’s Roman, Venetian, Byzantine and Renaissance past. It won’t take you long to realise that enjoying a leisurely coffee al fresco is a culture that’s strongly part of the city’s rhythm, as is enjoying Maraska liqueur (made from the region’s maraschino cherries).

Walking through town you’re transported to the 2nd century BC with the old Roman Forum and Roman ruins randomly lying on the side of certain streets. Shortly after you’ll float through the 6th century when new walls were built to defend against Ottoman attack. And before long you’re back in the 21st century where 35 underwater pipes chime in a rather haunting melody with the waterfront currents at the Sea Organ. It’s even more hypnotic when illuminated after dark.

Lavender grows throughout Croatia’s coastal region where abundant sun and rain suit its needs just fine; you’ll find plenty in the little boutiques in Old Town with the aroma diffusing gently into the streets.
Zadar’s weird and wonderful Sea Organ
Sun Salutation – a light show after dark created by the same person who designed the Sea Organ (Nikola Bašić). It consists of glass plates that collect the sun’s energy during the day to produce a hypnotic display at night which is meant to represent the solar system.

Plitvice Lakes National Park

I stared down at the lake several hundred feet below at the Veliki Slap view point. I could have easily been fooled into thinking it was a painting.

In case you’re wondering, Plitvice Lakes is not complete wilderness. It’s not exactly an area where you’re trying to clear a path with a machete as you explore with no whiff of a human in a five mile radius. While the National Park is a deep woodland with deer, bears and birds, to aid exploration it has wooden walkways, a few cafes to refuel, ferries and a small train to help you move from one end to the other (and depending on when you visit, a fair number of people). However, there’ll certainly be times when you blink incredulously, ready to pinch yourself because you can’t believe what you’re seeing. Particularly when you are high above, looking at the lakes that stretch for miles, interconnected by a series of waterfalls.

Zadar’s outlying islands

Ugljan Island

While Zadar’s town centre can be quite busy in the peak summer months, Ugljan Island, a mere 25-minute boat ride away, is a different world altogether. Standing 265m high after a sweaty hike at the ancient fortress of St Michael, the sweeping sunset views of the archipelago is something I’ll never forget. And there wasn’t another soul in sight. Just hundreds and hundreds of olive trees (the island is named after the Croatian word for olive – ulje). 

St Michael’s Fortress – this centuries’ old fortress that has stood the test of time – is a 2 hour hike up the western end of Ugljan Island. Local legend has it that fairies built the fortress carrying stone blocks from the top of Kornat Island. Other medieval folklore says that this was a corridor for witches flying from southern Italy to Central Europe.

Mala Sabuša Beach on the western coast of Ugljan Island

Dugi Otok Island

Literally translating to mean Long Island, Dugi Otok is the largest island in the Zadar archipelago. Don’t make the same mistake I did if you’re without a car and jump on the ferry to Brbinj. After arriving I realised it’s quite a remote village with few facilities (two small restaurants pretty much sums it up) and just serves as the landing point for the ferry. Since I was on foot, I only had 4.5 hours to ensure I definitely made it back in time for the last ferry (or get stranded on the island…). I chose the 90 minute hike to Brbinjšćica Bay on the opposite side of the island.

As soon as I reached, ominous thunderclouds gathered, with lightning and thunder in the distance. Lady Luck was clearly on my side. My race back to find shelter was futile. I got thoroughly drenched, but isn’t that part of the fun? In sunnier weather I imagine the secluded bay would be much more radiant, and I’m told the nearby Blue Cave and Golubinka Sea Cave are worth exploring.

The next day, with the promise of sun and no rain, I hopped on the hour-long catamaran to Sali. Sali is a much more convenient option to explore Telašćica Nature Park at the southern end of Dugi Otok. Though still small, Sali is much larger than Brbinj, and has quite a few waterfront restaurants and cafes, together with a homely little library by the sea, open late into the night with jazz floating in the background.

The lady at Sali’s Information Centre was mildly shocked I chose not to get on the minibus that took you deep into the national park. I instead chose to hike about 12km each way! Reassuring her that I wanted to soak up the sun and scenery, she insisted I take the card of a taxi company. “Just in case you get tired, or change your mind, or are getting late for your ferry,” she said with a smile.

The weather forecast was clearly inaccurate since the grey ominous clouds were back and broke out into a fairly steady shower. Seeking shelter from the big droplets under some trees, I met four German ladies who were cycling towards the National Park, also seeking refuge. They too were surprised to hear I was walking the whole way. “Have I been a bit too crazy?” I began to think.

Three hours and thousands of olive and pine trees later, I finally reached Lake Mir – one of the park’s most beautiful salt water lakes, whose name means peace. “Quite apt, ” I thought as I stood and watched the reflections of the mountains on the lake’s still surface. Despite the grey clouds masking the sun, I knew the best part would be the view from the dramatic clifftop, 150m above sea level. Possibly not the wisest idea for someone with altophobia, but if you can calm the butterflies in your stomach, the view is worth it. Just be careful not to fall off the edge!


Transfers from the Airport to the City Centre

Departure times from the airport via Gaženica Port and main bus station to Zadar centre (Liburnska obala) were at 11:15, 12:00, 12:30, 13:00. One way tickets were ~25KN (~£2.9), baggage included

Useful links: Airport website, Bus Company website

Plitvice Lakes National Park

I went there on a day trip from Zadar (approx 2hr by bus each way; there were about 4 daily buses when I visited). The 0830am morning bus got me there by 1015am, and I took the 5pm bus back (~7hr in the National Park); tickets were ~€13 each way (getbybus).

Ugljan Island

Ugljan is long (24km) but only 4km at its widest point. The flat eastern side faces Zadar and is a bit more populated while the western coast is more wild, steep and uninhabited. The Jadrolinija ferry takes 25 minutes from Zadar and docks at Preko – the administrative centre of the island. After grabbing a coffee by the harbour, a hiking path will lead you up to St Michael’s fortress.

Dugi Otok Island

Jadrolinija ferries will take you to Brbinj in the north of the island to explore beaches like Sakarun. The large car ferries depart from the port at Gazenica which is slightly further away from Zadar’s Old Town and arrive at Brbinj on the island.  The G&V Ferries (running from the central city port Poluotok) will take you to Sali which is the better landing point to visit Telašćica Nature Park. Depending on the ferry, the journey can take anywhere between 50min – 1h30min (tickets are ~50-60KN). Beware that catamarans don’t run on very windy days (but the car ferry does).

Useful website for ferry schedules:

I visited Croatia in August / September 2020

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