This post is part of a series of stories from my October 2021 travels in Croatia.
Click here for all posts.
Early in our planning, we found Split. Our plan was to hug the coast driving south to north — and to take the scenic route right on the water instead of the faster, less scenic toll road a few miles inland. (Hot tip! If you plan to road trip the Croatian coast – plan to drive south to north so you’re always on ‘the inside’ of the winding, coastal roads. This may turn out to be handy in a country that defines ‘two lane road’ a bit differently than you might be used to.)
About 3 hours from Dubrovnik, Split felt like a natural place to stop on our drive. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we took our time and stretched that 3ish hour drive to nearly double that.
Border Crossing: How about lunch in Bosnia?
If you look carefully at a map of southern Croatia, you’ll notice Bosnia and Herzegovina has a tiny slice of coastline so our drive north out of Dubrovnik meant a border crossing! The plan was to stop for lunch in a Bosnian town called Neum – which is nearly the only real stop in that Bosnian stretch from Croatian border to Croatian border. But hey! Why NOT lunch in Bosnia?
What we planned was a nice, quiet lunch on the water — a quick stop in Bosnia. What we found was an eerily quiet stretch of road with few signs of life. It was tough to tell which businesses were closed for the season — and which businesses may be closed permanently. The pandemic’s effect on tourism hit places like this particularly hard and many will take longer to bounce back — if they ever come back.
So our short time in Bosnia and Herzegovina was spent parking in an otherwise deserted public lot, walking to the handful of restaurants that popped up on Google maps (only to be met with empty dining rooms and CLOSED signs), then hightailing it back to the parking lot for fear our FREE parking would run out and we’d be stuck without correct change in a currency we didn’t even have in a country with no ATMs or open businesses to get change.
So – Bosnia was simultaneously completely deserted and a little frantic.
And we were still hungry.
So we continued north. We assumed that whole stretch of coastline is plenty busy during the summer months, but it was all quiet during the shoulder season — and we passed through town after closed-for-the-season town with no luck for food or gas. We finally saw a fueling station with an attendant so we pulled over for help fueling the car (harder than it looks!) and some hope of food options on the horizon. The sweet attendant knew very little English but we didn’t need words to convince him we needed help with the car, and we managed to charades ourselves to his assurance that a (sizable!) town called Makarska was just ahead – food options, for sure.
Our 3ish-hour drive from Dubrovnik to Split wasn’t going as smoothly as we’d hoped, but we did eventually find Makarska. And we did have that beautiful meal on the water. And we did stop and take in a gorgeous Croatian sunset from the banks of Makarska before finishing the drive to Split in the dark.
So what’s special about Split?
Split is one of those cities that people use as a home base for longer stays in Croatia, and it’s easy to see why. It was the biggest city we were in all week (Zagreb – the capital – is the largest in the country) and while there is no shortage of Croatian towns right on the Adriatic Sea – Split is a port to a series of islands popular with travelers. We didn’t explore Split itself too much beyond a nice dinner in old town when we arrived that first night. Otherwise, we used it as a home base, too — and a gateway to the islands.
It was really the only thing we booked before we flew out — a boat day! I love a good boat day, and it seemed only appropriate we see Croatia from the water. Depending on sources ranging from Wikipedia to one of our Uber drivers — there are somewhere between 78 and over 1200 islands claimed by Croatia. We saw dozens on our drive up the coast that week — and about five of them up close and personal on our boat tour from Split.
I’d been wanting to try Airbnb Experiences for ages, and this seemed like the perfect time — since many of the sizable tour companies were shutting things down for the season. Airbnb Experiences felt like the right place to find smaller, independent operators looking to take small groups out — even in the shoulder season.
Even with Airbnb Experiences though, we had two different last minute cancellations before we confirmed a tour and made plans to meet at the dock in Split to take the 5 Islands Tour with Mayer Charters. (Highly recommend!) Our tour guide, Lovre, explained we’d be heading out to sea with a first stop at the Blue Cave (Biševo Island), and then on to Vis, Hvar, and shorter stops and views at other islands in the area. The below isn’t 100% accurate… but this was our general route.
The Blue Cave
First things first. The Blue Cave. It’s one of those places that both makes for beautiful photos AND can never truly be captured with a camera.
We took a speed boat out to Biševo Island, but had to transfer to a small wooden boat in order to squeeze through the tiny opening to the cave.
See? TINY. Jenni and I were in the back of the boat next to our guide, and he physically reached up and moved our heads so we wouldn’t bump them on the opening. Not a lot of room for error. (Speaking of our guide – we never caught his name, but referred to him as Stefano for the rest of our trip. He was… memorable. One part tour guide, three parts entertainer. Fully committed to making us giggle with inappropriate jokes.)
The cave is flooded with blue light as a result of a unique combination of factors: sea water erodes the limestone sea bed and the sun — at the right time and angle — shines through a vault at the top of the cave and reflects off the white sea floor and through the water. It’s really striking to go from the sunny open sea – to the mystical blue cave. The whole cave is pretty tiny with only room for a few small wooden boats.
Most popular question within our little boat — can you swim in the cave? Our guide said they once could, but not anymore. As we all groaned in disappointment, one of the girls we’d just met on the boat muttered under her breath, “UNESCO ruins everything…” Indeed.
The Tour Continues: Breakfast in Komiža and the Most Beautiful Beach in Europe
After the Blue Cave, we stopped for coffee and late breakfast in a town called Komiža on the island of Vis. (Every available breakfast in Croatia is late. We got funny looks more than once when we asked about pre-9am food options.)
Komiža was a pretty charming stop – and we decided as we strolled around that we could’ve spent our entire week just here. What a chill, relaxed, quaint little town. Vis is one of the farthest inhabited islands off the mainland of Croatia and Komiža is known as the warmest town on the Adriatic. Summer nearly all year! Our guide told us on any given day there are more boats than people in Komiža – and I believe it. And this was in October! Can you imagine the energy here in the summer?!
Next stop – Stiniva Bay. It’s a little tough to tell from this photo below because our boat was too large to get close and there’s really no dock — but this is one of the most exclusive beaches in Europe. It’s most easily reached from inland so if you’re staying on Vis – put this on your list! Click this link for more images of Stiniva Bay – look at that aerial view! Gorgeous.
Our next stop was a quick one at a beautiful spot in the Pakleni Islands – which loosely translates to Hell’s Islands – just beyond our last big stop of the day, the island of Hvar. The Pakleni Islands are an archipelago that kinda hugs the western coast of Hvar. We didn’t spend much time here, and the island was quite remote. I feel like it’s possible no one lives there full-time. We stuck our feet in the warm Adriatic, took a potty break, and got back on the boat with Lovre – headed for Hvar.
A Personal Tour with Mr. Hvar: Sometimes It’s Better Not to Plan
Sometimes adventure finds YOU. I have believed that for years and it’s made for some truly memorable moments. Our last stop for the day — the island of Hvar — had unexpected adventure in store.
It started off easily enough, we got off the boat, made plans for a time to meet back for our ride back to the mainland, and our group fractured off to explore the town. Immediately, a small monument caught our eye and we discovered a little piece of True Crime! Right here on Hvar! The largest fingerprint in the world is a stone mosaic in this courtyard – in honor of Ivan Vučetić, Hvar native who first discovered that fingerprints are unique and unrepeatable.
We explored Hvar a bit, had some gelato, and tried to decide how to use the rest of our time on the island.
As we sat and ate gelato, Jenni started looking at real estate and Airbnb properties – just for fun. And she stumbled upon a really unique Airbnb that lets you stay in an old tower originally built as a windmill in 1761 but since restored and open as a one-of-a-kind rental.
It was far enough away that we decided to call a taxi.
A Google search for taxis in Hvar gave us 3 results. First number – no answer. Second number – no answer. We started to think the taxis were off for the season, but tried the 3rd number anyway.
And one dicey phone call and a dozen Whatsapp exchanges later, Mr. Kuzma of Kuzma Taxi finally found us and agreed to take us to ‘the tower’.
Once we were in the car and he got a sense of what we were doing on the island and how long we had to spend (about an hour at this point!) — he said, “I have a better idea. Do you want to go somewhere special?”
And off we went. Straight up a mountain.
On the drive, he gave us a history lesson of the island where his family has lived for generations (more than 1300 years!) and where he has driven a taxi and guided tours (taxi, boat, and on foot) for decades. His love for his home was unmistakable and he was excited to show us the best view in town. After stopping on the side of the road to pick us a sprig of lavender through the window, we continued up. The view only got more beautiful until finally he parked and we got out.
The sun was BRIGHT and right overhead, but the view of Hvar town was unmistakable. He pointed out all the highlights from our perch just a few meters from a fort built by Napoleon in 1812 during a short stint of French rule of this area. Today, the fort is an observatory, but we mostly just gawked at the view.
Mr. Hvar never ran out of stories. He told us about his family, tourism in the area over the past few decades, how they fared during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and he asked us about our travels. At one point, he seemed to remember we’d asked him to take us somewhere specific — and we’d come here instead. He paused, motioned to the view, and said, “sometimes, it’s better not to plan.”
Back to the Mainland
After a memorable adventure on Hvar — to top off a 10-hour multi-stop adventure of a day on the water — we settled in for the ride back to Split on the mainland.
We’d met new friends on the tour who recommended a great restaurant for dinner — so we dragged ourselves into town for a quick bite before collapsing into bed.
Dinner was a combination of a clunky language barrier, a grumpy waiter with STRONG feelings about what we should eat, incredible local Croatian wine, and truly delicious food.
Recommendations – if Split is on your list
Admittedly, we saw very little of Split proper. It’s a big town and we were focused on exploring smaller, more remote locations on this trip. But! Split is a perfect home base for trips out to the islands. Here are a few of the notes we captured for ‘next time’ and recommendations we shared with fellow travelers during the balance of our trip:
- Weather: I imagine Split and the islands are a completely different experience in the summer months — more crowded, more sunshine, more swimming. We were there in mid-October and the weather was gorgeous. A little chilly on the speed boat zipping around the Adriatic — but you see what we wore. We were plenty comfortable. It was too chilly to really swim — we probably missed that window by only a few weeks.
- Lodging: We used Airbnb in Split and there were tons of options. As we poked around, we noticed plenty of options on the islands, too – so if you’re looking to stay on Hvar or Vis, Airbnb is a great place to start for local charm. (Tip: We only considered Airbnb properties with private parking so we’d have a secure space for our rental car, AND we begged Enterprise for the absolute smallest car they could give us — and we still had to make our share of 42-point turns to get in and out of parking in Croatia. Our Airbnb in Split was a particularly memorable parking experience…)
- Food: Dinner in Split was a restaurant named Konoba Marjan. Highly recommend! On the islands, we popped in and out of street cafés for cappuccino, gelato, or pizza. Almost everyone in those little towns has a great view of the water so it was easy to choose.
- Tours: Mayer Charters operates out of Split and Trogir with day-long tours like ours, fishing expeditions, and probably plenty more. They were wonderful to make plans with and we felt good all day with our guide, Lovre. And, of course, Mr. Hvar on the island of Hvar. His name is Mr. Kuzma and we carried his card with us the rest of the week – knowing we could probably Whatsapp him for a reco anywhere in the country and he would come through! Ha! Kuzma Taxi & Transfer is on Facebook and Instagram, and online here.
This post is part of a series of stories from my October 2021 travels in Croatia.
Click here for all posts.