A Taste of Croatia & Slovenia

Posted by Teodora Antunovich on October 02, 2018

In August I had the pleasure of hosting a lovely small group of New Zealanders on our Tour & Cruise ‘A Taste of Croatia & Slovenia’. We designed a pure, authentic itinerary showcasing the best of Croatia and Slovenia.

Croatia Times Travel is a New Zealand owned and operated company with a Croatian heritage. We are truly passionate about Croatia and its surrounding destinations, sharing these with our customers and crafting extraordinary experiences for their travels.

The 3-week experience combined a two-week coach tour travelling from Zagreb to Split, followed by a one-week small ship cruise, finishing in Dubrovnik.

Our journey kicked off in Zagreb with a guided walking tour by our wonderful Tour Director, Vanja. A true born local, Vanja enthralled us with the best parts of the city. The short funicular ride joining the lower and upper town was delightful, but exploring the baroque city centre with Austro-Hungarian architecture was as much a highlight as Vanja’s stories. We spent the following afternoon in the Hrvatasko Zagorje region exploring Varaždin, famous for its 14th century castle. We nearly had the town to ourselves as we strolled the streets sampling domestic honey and brandy and enjoying delicacies in the town square.

Our visit to Slovenia was special. Staying in the centre of Ljubljana placed us in the heart of local culture with its infectiously lively atmosphere. Our hotel led into the main square of the city and the famous Dragon Bridge connecting to the medieval Old Town. Vibrant colours, music, market stalls, and a friendly mix of locals and tourists were right outside our door. A quiet evening at a picturesque bar on the river, sampling locally brewed beer and cocktails, was the perfect nightcap.

Lake Bled was another standout. Perfect weather highlighted incredible vistas of the Julian Alps framing the lake and island, coloured in dreamy blues and greens. The Pletna Boat ride to Bled Island gave us the opportunity to experience this transportation unique to Bled. As with Venetian gondolas, Pletna boats and their operation are a legacy handed down through family generations.

Returning to Croatia, we passed through the impressive subterranean underworld of the Postojna Caves, one of the largest karst caves in Europe. Opened in 1872, the complex infrastructure offers a fascinating subterranean paradise. We later visited one of the country’s most prestigious wineries in the Istria region to taste renowned Malvazija wine, local cheeses, salamis and olive oil, before arriving in Poreč for four glorious nights. Located on the coast of Istria, our hotel on the Riviera overlooked the gorgeous Adriatic Sea. Our stay was enriching as we engaged in all the region’s offerings, including its captivating history strongly influenced by Venetian, Roman and Austro-Hungarian predecessors.

Pula was next with its impressive Roman Amphitheatre and winding alleyways, followed by the gorgeous old fisherman’s town of Rovinj. The famous truffles at Motovun absolutely had to be tasted before heading to an Italian-style lunch in a traditional Istrian restaurant. We dined on delicacies including handmade fuži pasta with truffles, gnocchi with meat sauce, carpaccio of beef and zucchini, a sensational array of local desserts and regional wine. A local Olive Oil producer taught us the craft of olive oil tasting, before we had our first dip in the Adriatic Sea and relaxed at the beach. A sensational day was also spent exploring Venice.

En-route to the Plitvice Lakes, we enjoyed a night in Opatija, an ancient playground of  Austro-Hungarian nobility. After the diversity of history, landscapes and cuisine of other regions, it was refreshing to visit the National Park and appreciate its natural wonders. The following day we headed to the Dalmatia region for two nights in Zadar, famous for its Old Town of Roman, Venetian and Byzantine ruins and beautiful promenade. The latter is an award-winning urban space with Salutations to the Sun and Sea Organs. 

En-route to Split we stopped in Šibenik, home to a stunning UNESCO World Heritage Site - St James Cathedral. We spent our final evening of the tour dining on a splendid terrace overlooking the Split promenade and Old Town. Mediterranean influenced cuisine included a gorgeous tuna carpaccio, handmade gnocchi and beef grilled on a wood-fire barbeque.

Finally, we set sail on our Small Ship Cruise aboard MS Mama Marija, a sparkling new vessel for 2018. For the next seven days we blissfully cruised along the stunning Dalmatian coastline, Island Hopping from Trogir to Brač, Vis, Hvar, Mljet and Korčula before ending in Dubrovnik. Relaxing days onboard included swimming in beautiful bays before arriving to our overnight ports mid-afternoon. Exploring in the afternoon sunshine gave way to evenings dining in local restaurants and sauntering through alleyways, before catching richly-layered sunsets from the coast. It’s truly the best of both worlds - from mornings on azure seas to evening sunsets from different harbours, this dazzling cruise was the perfect end to a spectacular experience, never to be forgotten.

 

 

Top 5 Things To Do In Zagreb

Posted by Teodora Antunovich on October 01, 2018

1. Enjoy a drink and a spot of people-watching with the locals in Tkalčićeva Street

This charming pedestrian avenue has a long history - the streets used to be an ancient river separating the districts of Kaptol and Gradec. Colourful, quaint, and lined with boutiques, restaurants and cafes, it has the highest concentration of these venues in Croatia. Share a meal or a few drinks with friends at Oliver Twist or Melin, popular spots full of local people and good, affordable beer. Find a place with outdoor seating to enjoy a warm summer evening and people watching, or connecting with fellow travellers.

2. Find a Vincek bakery and indulge in your choice of cake or ice cream

It is rare to find a bakery with so much passion, cultural significance and charm in one place! The family-owned Vincek is the leading Croatian cakery brand, and it was the first to offer the famous Zagreb custard slices topped with whipped cream and high-quality chocolate. Using only the best local ingredients ensures the full Zagreb experience for your dessert. There are a few shops sprinkled around, so it’s easy to find one wherever you explore the city! Unique delicacies include pastries, cakes, fancy biscuits, chestnut puree, ice cream and more to order.

3. Discover the local festivals on offer

Dvorišta Festival, the festival of The Courtyards, is a ten-day unforgettable event. Travellers have a special opportunity to experience some of the beautiful palaces of the Zagreb’s Upper Town. You can also try new flavours with snacks, refreshing drinks and wonderful music artists. This event has won two prestigious awards for the most creative and innovative project in Croatian tourism.

Art Park, is located between Strossmayer Promenade and Tomićeva Street. This spot was transformed into an urban park and a vibrant open-air museum. Stop by to experience summer art, play ping-pong, listen to concerts, try yoga or drawing sessions, watch films, have a cold beverage or a local craft beer and just relax.

4. Visit Mirogoj cemetery

For those who love history and architecture, this is one of the most beautiful cemeteries in Europe. Located at the base of Mount Medvednica, it’s an easy 30 minute walk from the city centre, or a 10 minute drive. Designed in 1876 by Austrian-born architect Herman Bollé, the majestic arcade is topped by a string of cupolas. Explore the arcades, pavilions and tombs to feel the connecting generations of Zagreb and quiet beauty of the design.

5. Explore the city on foot

This is single handedly the best way to experience everything Zagreb has to offer, in every season. Simply exploring the gorgeous shop-lined streets beneath leafy trees (or freshly fallen snow) will lead you to discover some of the most charming spots. Keep an eye out for the iconic St Mark’s Church, try the view from Lotrščak Tower, pick up fresh produce from Dolac Markets, wander Tkalčićeva Street, or choose the perfect souvenir shopping on Ilica Street.

Self-Drive & Small Ship Cruise

Posted by Teodora Antunovich on July 02, 2018

Desa Posa from Croatia Times Travel discusses her most recent visit to Croatia where she Self-Drove and experienced its sensational Adriatic Coastline by Small Ship Cruise.

Have you ever thought about visiting Croatia? If not, after reading about my most recent travel experience I am certain you will be enticed to visit this stunning destination and even some of its surrounding countries.

After landing in Zagreb, we headed straight to our hotel for a much-needed shower and quick rest before setting off to explore this fascinating city. Zagreb is home to a mix of 18th and 19th century buildings with many charming parks, squares and city markets, and we found a lovely local restaurant for an evening meal and a few quiet drinks in the city centre. 

The following morning, we set off on our adventures following the Tailored Self-Drive Itinerary that Croatia Times Travel had prepared for us. We opted for our rental car to be delivered to our hotel and after setting the GPS we were off! Leaving the city behind, we travelled to Rastoke, an easy 1 hour and 30-minute drive along the motorway (110 kilometres). This 300-year-old small watermill village is located at a natural phenomenon where the Slunjčica River splits into several river branches, flowing across cascades into the Korana River. The village has grown around the river with many small waterfalls and is well-worth a stop en-route to Plitvice Lakes National Park.

After sightseeing and a coffee we made our way to our accommodation at the beautiful Plitvice Lakes National Park. This 295 sq-km forest reserve in central Croatia is known for a chain of 16 terraced lakes, connected by 92 cascading waterfalls that extend into a breathtaking limestone canyon. Walkways and hiking trails wind around and across the water, and an electric boat links the 12 upper and 4 lower lakes. The natural wonders of Plitvice exceeded all expectations!

Spending the night in Plitvice gave us more time to explore both the upper and lower lakes. You don’t have to be super fit, but with all the amazing scenery you need time to explore the natural phenomenon at leisure and to allow time to take plenty of photos. I highly recommend you take a sensible pair of walking shoes.

Next stop was Poreč. Driving into central Istria was a sight to behold with its many Tuscan influences. We took time to explore the back roads of Motovun and sample many truffle-influenced meals, including ice cream! We decided to spend a couple of nights in Poreč as our base. Day trips were the perfect way to visit various wineries, enjoy the local charm and partake in a wine or two! Istria offers a place for people looking for a mixture of history, culture & gourmet experiences.

The highlight of our trip was our Small Ship Cruise the Coastal Heritage Luxury Cruise on MS Stella Maris from Poreč to Dubrovnik. This is a new route for the 2018 season and the itinerary is more ‘off the beaten track’ and comprehensive than the traditional cruises from Split to Dubrovnik. The Stella Maris cruises the entire Croatian Coastline over a period of 7 nights.

Some highlights included stopping in Pula, Rovinj, Brijuni, Zadar and Dubrovnik just to name a few! That also included visits to two National Parks and two UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Mljet National Park is one of the most alluring and a definite favourite! The deep vegetation, crisp pine forests and dreamy turquoise and clear green saltwater lakes are exceptionally scenic. A new destination greeted us each day, with a walking tour by a local guide, enchanting us with their local knowledge and history of the region.

Meals were exceptional with 4-course lunches and dinners, so don’t expect to come home lighter! We ate some of the best, freshest seafood we’ve ever had. A vibrant mixture of Australians, Canadians, Americans and New Zealanders were on board, and the weather for early May was lovely.

After our cruise, we stayed an extra night in Dubrovnik so we could enjoy a full day visit to Mostar. We took a private tour with a driver, and the scenery was stunning as we entered Bosnia & Herzegovina. We also made time to stop at the Kravice Waterfalls, one of Europe’s most spectacular natural sights. These 25m cascades are described as a “Mini Niagara” and feature a natural pool at the base. Our driver suggested that we take a dip in the falls which was very refreshing. Finally we headed to Mostar with its Turkish influences, and of course the Stari Most, the famous reconstructed bridge and the perfect final photo opportunity.

I cannot believe how many incredible and unforgettable experiences we were able to enjoy on our trip. Our itinerary was tailored by Croatia Times Travel and we could not have done it without their expert guidance and care.

A Taste of Zagreb

Posted by Teodora Antunovich on August 06, 2017

Croatia is one of the most talked-about destinations of 2017. The hype of Game of Thrones and Dubrovnik’s Old Town shows no signs of slowing down, and for good reason! With its iconic fortified walls, it is a spectacular historic sight and not to be missed.

The Dalmatian islands are some of my favourites as well. Small Ship Cruising along the gorgeous Adriatic coastline, feeling sparkling sun on my skin, and jumping into impossibly blue water leaves me daydreaming all year!

Beyond those well-known destinations, another area of this speci­al country is gaining momentum - shining a spotlight on Croatia’s capital city of Zagreb.

This year, Zagreb was recognised as the number one must-visit destination in Europe by Lonely Planet. It was also voted as hosting the best Christmas Markets in Europe for the last 2 years running. No longer is Zagreb a fly-by-night location, it is officially the ultimate city-break. Offering culture, arts, food and endless incredible coffee which are the perfect combination for a trip.

Picturesque architecture surrounds you at every moment. A mix of tidy 18th and 19th century Austro-Hungarian buildings and interesting old socialist buildings are complemented by lush parks, lively squares and city markets.

As a landlocked city, you might think the locals leave for the coast all summer, but summertime in Zagreb is one of the liveliest times to visit. As you walk through the city (easily and best experienced by foot) you may find yourself mingling with the locals while enjoying many of the summer festivals on offer.

Approach the city’s main square, Ban Jelačić, and be amazed by a performance of traditional Croatian Folklore dancing and singing. Continue to Upper Town and Strossmayer Promenade for live music and theatre performances. Visit Art Park and sample a craft beer or cocktail as you walk through a sculpture exhibition, or even join in on a graffiti art workshop!

Zagreb is not only a city to be visited in the summer. The city is taking initiative to have it recognised as a year-round destination. Springtime is gorgeous - you can meander through historical parks and visit the stunning Botanical Gardens. Winter is pure magic at the famous Christmas Markets, as the city is blanketed in falling snow.

On my most recent visit to Zagreb, I wanted to experience the increasingly acclaimed food and drink scene. To make our visit special, we stayed at the historic and luxurious Esplanade Zagreb Hotel. This was the centre of Zagreb social life during the 1920’s. Special guests included travellers on the famous passenger train, the Orient Express, and icons like Elizabeth Taylor, Alfred Hitchcock and Queen Elizabeth II.

Today the Esplanade is considered a monument of the city and is still a social gathering point for travellers and locals to enjoy the 1925 Lounge & Cocktail Bar, Le Bistro Esplanade and the famous fine dining restaurant Zinfandel’s.

Dining at Zinfandel’s was a treat. Named after the grape, exported from Dalmatia to America in the early 19th century, the name represents the connecting of cultures at the restaurant. Zinfandel is now one of the most notable grape varieties of wines produced in Napa Valley, California, and the restaurant is proud to bear the name.

Our experience dining at Zinfandel’s was memorable from start to finish. Each dish showcased different flavours of the Croatian regions. Steamed potato dumplings, a Zagreb classic, were paired with a main of poached cuttlefish which is often served in a black risotto. This dish is traditionally served along the Adriatic coast, from Istria to Dalmatia. Our waiter and renowned sommelier recommended a divine Malvazija wine from Istria, to complete the flavours perfectly.

The next morning, we visited a local bakery to sample fresh pastries such as Burek, a delicious savoury meat or cheese pastry that you must try when visiting Croatia or the Balkan countries. This was followed by a leisurely fresh coffee in Tkalčićeva Street, which is lined with cafes and bars and frequented by the locals.

Later that evening we continued enjoying the theme of modern cuisine that Zagreb has to offer and headed to 50 A Burger & Champagne Bar. Similar to New Zealand, Croatia has embraced the popularity of good quality, memorable burgers. The menu payed homage to different regions of Croatia, offering burgers such as ‘Hvar,’ The Mediterranean’ and ‘Le Truffe.’ I was drawn to the Le Truffe, loaded with fresh truffles, truffle cheese and a truffle aioli. Truffles grown in the Istria region are a delicacy and a favourite of mine. They truly did not disappoint in this delicious burger form, and it’s an ideal way to top off the culinary experience.

There is no excuse not to include Zagreb on your itinerary when visiting Croatia! Emirates and Qatar now fly direct from their main hubs, which means only two flights to travel there from New Zealand. Plenty of European carriers also stop there regularly, so you can seek out affordable fares. Enjoy the full flavours of Croatia and make sure to experience this unique and delicious little city.

Experiencing the Divine Amalfi Coastline by Boat

Posted by Teodora Antunovich on August 06, 2017

To understand the true beauty of the Amalfi Coastline, you really must experience it for yourself. The breathtaking images cannot do this region justice! 

55km of “divine coast” is comprised of 13 towns: Amalfi, Atrani, Cetara, Conca dei Marini, Furore, Maiori, Minori, Positano, Praiaiano, Ravello, Scala, Tramonti and Vietri sul Mare. Each town has unique traditions but they are connected by a signature character. Charming little villas nestle in the countryside in hues of pastel and white. Situated against a backdrop of the most breathtaking cliffs, crisp blue sky and sparkling waves frame the coastline like a painting.

The absolute best way to travel through this wondrous destination is by boat. There is something so romantic and luxurious about viewing the Amalfi Coast by sea. During our stay in Positano, we joined two small-group boat tours, each with a different focus.

Departing from Positano, we cruised on a small speedboat to Capri island for the first tour. The small boat allowed us to pause along the way and explore little grottos. The water was refreshingly cool and clear for a swim, with plenty of time to dry off before arriving to Capri. Although the trip was supposed to include a visit to the famous Blue Cave (or Blue Grotto) we chose to forego the visit because of the long wait to get in. (This is often the case during a visit in high season.) To reach the blue cave, your tour boat must cue in a line, and once you reach the "top" you may enter the cave in a small rowboat. We had more fun exploring the small grottos on the tour!

The gondola ride up to Anacapri is a must-do! It is a trip for the brave - a single seat chairlift to the top of a mountain. Despite being afraid of heights, the solo ride up was worth it to see the spectacular view. The ride back down was a lot less scary than going up!

Our second boat tour focused on immersion in the true beauty and history of the Amalfi Coast. We had a chance to hear fascinating facts and stories from the guide, swim in more beautiful grottos and discover hidden beaches along the way. Spotting villas of celebrities, such as Sophia Loren, was a treat for anyone who loves spectacular design and luxury.

A day can’t be completed without a relaxed meal of local flavours, so we stopped at a beach club near Praiano. Lunch included a glass of Campania Region wine and spaghetti served with freshly caught lobster. Delicious!

Experiencing the Amalfi Coastline by boat allows you to see the towns in their most raw forms, and is my top recommended tour. You can truly appreciate the small fishing villages with their incredible villas, and learning history from a local as you cruise the coast is simply magic.