Road Trip Time!
Borders opened at the end of June in Hungary, and our family was ready to break free from the pandemic rut. We had a fun trip planned to Croatia – spending a week on a rented boat with our family – bookended by the two beautiful National Parks. We wanted to hit up Plitvice on the way down to our marina destination in Šibenik, and Krka on the way back home. Our first “I’m on a boat!” experience is chronicled in a separate blog here. We also spent an overnight in Zagreb, something we hadn’t done before! Before we boarded the boat, we wanted to pick up a few craft beers from The Garden Brewery in Zagreb, a place we had ordered from a couple of times during the pandemic, but never visited in person. It’s a lovely place! Stopping in Zagreb, about 3 hours from home (minus the 45 minutes it took to cross the border) helped to break up the long drive.
The Garden Brewery
The Garden Brewery is a great little place that has around 20 types of beer to try, plus a great little eatery with delicious, fresh, natural foods. I love the people at breweries – they always seem in touch with their craft and the planet. It’s a good-feeling place to stop and grab a box from their fridge to go, or a beer and a bite to enjoy in their beer garden.
From there we went into town to where we were planning to stay for the evening, and went on walkabout around the old city center. Zagreb is a cute town, but probably nothing I long to return to any time soon. I’m glad we got to explore around a bit, and see the amazing market in the morning, but otherwise one day was enough to get my fill. We heard that Zagreb is awesome in the winter for Christmas markets, so maybe it’s worth another pass through during the holiday season!
Our favorite thing to eat in Croatia is the flaky pastry convenience food, burek! We made sure to snag some whenever we saw a bakery, as they’re great for breakfast, lunch or dinner! Mmmm burek. We especially love the potato burek, but the girls enjoy meat, and I like a Mexican chicken one if they have it. Sweet burek (apple cinnamon, chocolate) are also delicious! They’re a must have when in Croatia!
Plitvice Lakes National Park
Plitvice Lakes National Park lies in central Croatia, not far from the border of Bosnia-Herzegovina. It is a beautiful park with a series of waterfalls with meticulously maintained trails for visitors. There is no swimming in Plitvice, but because the wooden walkways are often right over the water, it feels as though you’re immersed in the experience.
Typically these parks are packed in the summer – I have heard shoulder to shoulder – so we felt lucky, again, to be visiting with perfect weather and fairly small crowds. I didn’t have a great concept of how big the park was or how long it would take to explore, so when we arrived it was surprising to see that it would take an entire day to try to see everything. The entrances to these parks are quite expensive (between $80-$100 for our family) so we wished we could take more time and do both the upper and lower hiking trails. But we didn’t have an entire day – only about 4-5 hours – so instead we opted to do a boat taxi to the start of the trails and hike all of the lower section of the park. It did not disappoint! In the photo to the left, we did Trail B. There was a nice variety of trails from winding wooden walkways to steps and steep paths as well as ample lookouts over the various lakes and waterfalls leading up to the “Great Waterfall” at the bottom of the lake. We saw water snakes, fish and tons of birds! There is a cave that we didn’t have time to explore, but it looked really cool. The lower trails were so wonderful that we highly recommend them! We don’t have anything to compare them to though, so next time we’ll have to check out the northern trails to be able to say which is more worthwhile! From other blogs I have read, it sounds like if you can’t do both the upper and lower trails, you can’t go wrong picking either one.
We parked at the 2nd parking area, which was dead center of the trails. We really didn’t have a clue what the best option was, but instead just went with the lot that was closest to us. If I had to do it all over again, I might park at parking area 1 so we are at one end, and then work our way to the other end, and then take the bus back. Either way it worked out fine because we didn’t have time to do the whole park anyway.
After parking and packing our waters, we made the long walk down to the lake to take the water taxi from P1, across to P2, and then onto another boat to take us to P3, where we began our Trail B loop. Once to P3, it took less than an hour to walk all the way along the winding wooden walkways to the great waterfall. The views were lovely, the water was stunning!
It was hot, Willow was about to fall asleep, and we still needed to drive the rest of the way to Šibenik, so we gave up on the idea that we could make it further than this one trail. But it was well worth the trip and now we have a better understanding of how it works in Plitvice! This view alone made it worth every step!
For the record, there are several eateries in Plitvice National Park. There are also plenty of places to grab water and souvenirs. Most people spoke English, but not everyone had a warm reception. Sometimes we felt like we were on our own to figure things out! For the most part, if you follow the movement of the people, you’ll end up somewhere spectacular!
Krka National Park
Compared to Plitvice, Krka was much more “user friendly,” and could be accomplished in 2-3 leisurely hours. The signs were easy to follow and from the moment we parked, it was clear where to go. Admittedly, I didn’t do my research on these parks (I was all planned out with the boat trip!) so we learned as we went. We walked down from parking to where the trail began at the red dot, but you can also take a bus down, wearing proper face covering. This is what we did on the way back. It was all a fairly easy walk, and once on the main trails, most of the wooden walkways were made accessible with ramps in any areas that had steps. On this map to the left, we began at the bottom red dot, hiked all along the path heading north and then west, and around to the second red dot where we swam (before they banned in 6 months later). Afterwards, we walked over the long bridge and back up lots of stairs to reach the original red dot. Easy peasy! At the parking lot area there are loads of eateries, facilities and shops. This place was a bit smaller but more built up for tourism compared to Plitvice. I appreciated being able to get in and get out seamlessly.
The inital walk was fairly flat, and it built up gradually to the big attraction – the main waterfall area. Every now and then there would be a lookout point where you could catch a glimpse of the great falls. We were so surprised that it wasn’t busy at all – until around the time we were leaving, just before noon time.
When we visited in mid 2020, swimming was still allowed at the main falls area. Now they have barriers and swimming is not allowed there. However, you can still swim at Stinice, Remetić – Pisak and downstream of Roški Slap. In our experience, swimming was kind of a free for all. Everyone who wants to swim just picks a spot to plunk down all their stuff, strip down or get changed, and climb your way into the water. I was SO surprised by the warm temperatures of the water in July. Watch out, the current can be swift as well!
[Remember this is NOT the spot to swim now – if you insist on swimming, head here instead, but it is away from the main trails, so plan accordingly.] The kids didn’t want to get in at first because a giant swan had floated into the little grotto we chose as our plunk down spot. I wasn’t afraid of the swan though, and got right in the water, SO excited by the rushing waterfall in front of us. I began walking out through the trees and the swan followed me. I turned around and laughed, and it swam right up to me and bit me on the leg! HA! That cheeky bugger! Then the KIDS laughed at ME! “SEE!? That’s why we didn’t want to get in!” I’m glad it happened to me and not them! haha! It swam away down the lake, so the kids finally joined me for a little swim – bottom line, beware of swans and respect wildlife!
After taking a whole mess of photos while the lake was still fairly empty, we all jumped in and swam around in the strong current, watching out for each other. It was fun to jump off the soft rocks and see which way we floated. It helps to be a good swimmer and to have water shoes, especially for walking and climbing in and out. We had brought a towel, but we also snagged one from the nearby souvenir stand (cash only!) as we love our Croatian towels! There were plenty of places to grab a snack or drink down by the swimming area as well as along the entire walk back up to the bus stop that takes you up the hill to the parking area. Today I recommend hiking these trails and enjoying the views – and if you want to swim, head up to Roški Slap after your hike for a quick, refreshing dip!
TIP: Be sure to walk to the far left side of the waterfall – there is this super cool grotto/cave area! I was amazed at the way the water had worn away the stones and roots of trees to reveal such a magical looking space!
On the way back up there were more lovely views to enjoy, and we all agreed this was our favorite of the two National Parks we were able to visit on this trip to Croatia.
After fresh juice and our last delicious bureks, we left Krka for Hungary, making only one stop at the Garden Brewery to stock up on IPA! The kids did fantastic on this trip. We did not bring iPads or any technology with us, and it was incredible how their little minds focused on the world around them and didn’t get “bored” as they usually would say if they’d just been in the car on their tablets. They deserve a big shout out for allowing us to continue to travel in this way, with such curiosity (great questions!) and creativity. I was so impressed by their adventurous spirits. This has all been such an awesome experience and we are not taking a moment for granted, especially in times like these, where nothing is predictable and no moment is guaranteed. And so, safely forward to go!