Tourists annually flood into Croatia for a number of reasons, but near the top of everyone’s list is to explore the breathtaking beaches, crystal clear water and pristine forests. Of Course, the best way to experience this natural beauty is to find activities that fully immerse yourself into the Croatian outdoors. However, it’s difficult to squeeze all of Croatia’s recreation destinations into one trip, so follow this guide to get the best recreation experience the country has to offer.
Rafting on the Cetina River
A guided rafting tour down the Cetina River lets you explore the forests, mountains and waterfalls that lie just beyond the Adriatic coast, all while staying active. The river is about an hour away from Split, but the winding drive along the Adriatic coastline offers some of the best views of Dalmatia’s towering mountains against the blue sea.
Breakfast is served at the rafting headquarters while riders are outfitted in life jackets, helmets and water shoes. Swimming is not required on the trip, but swimsuits and towels are highly recommended because water often finds its way into the rafts.
An experienced skipper goes over basic rafting strategy with the group before the rafts set sail on an 11 kilometer journey down the river. 11 kilometers may sound daunting to first time rafters, but skipper Pavel Vukasovic thinks this is a great river for beginners.
“This is a perfect river for family rafting, or rafting if you don’t have experience because it’s divided into two parts,” Vukasovic said. “The first part is easier and the second is more attractive, more dangerous, but it’s not all whitewater in all places.”
Mountains, cliffs and luscious forest engulf the river, but the clarity of the water is what struck me once our journey began. Even in some of the deepest parts of the river, fish and rocks on the river floor are visible like you’re at an aquarium. The water even tastes as pure as it looks, making for a nice refreshment along the three hour trip.
A majority of the 11 kilometer trip is relaxing and doesn’t require much work beyond paddling in the correct direction. Nonetheless, everyone in the raft needs to be paying attention to the skipper because the peacefully flowing river can turn into a rushing rapid in an instant.
“When you know what to do it’s not so dangerous,” skipper Ante Mimica said. “This is only a level two river and a couple of rapids here are level three.”
Near the halfway point of the trip rafters can either swim through a dark frigid cave or take a walking path around. Swimming through the extremely cold water and making my way out of the pitch-black cave was the most difficult part of the rafting trip, but easily the most memorable experience.
The rapids following the cave are bigger and require careful instruction from the skipper to successfully maneuver. But with everyone paddling in sync and in the right direction, the rapids are a breeze. However, my raft was not especially coordinated and often wound up spinning into rocks or trees on the riverbank. The skippers take their jobs seriously, but were happy to hop out and push our raft over a rock or fish us out of a bush.
Although rafting the Cetine is a bit of a workout, the experienced skippers make the trip easy and accessible to everyone. For tourists who want to stay on the water, but are looking for more of a challenge, windsurfing is perfect.
Windsurfing in the Adriatic Sea
For a week I stayed in the town of Podstrana on the Adriatic coast. Almost every afternoon the beach was full of people looking for relief from the sweltering midday sun. But on days when the wind picked up and waves rolled in, the beachgoers were replaced by dozens of windsurfers.
As surfers adjusted their rigs and darted off to sea, the sport looked as much challenging as it did fun. Fortunately for tourists looking to try this popular Croatian activity, the island of Brac is ideal for windsurfers of all skill sets. Located just 45 minutes from Split by ferry, the town of Bol on the Brac island is the best location for windsurfing in Croatia, according to bolcroatia.com.
There are three windsurfing centers in Bol, but bolcroatia.com recommends Big Blue Sport for beginner lessons and equipment rentals. If you’re traveling in the summer months, the best time for beginners to arrive is in the morning to catch Levenat winds. The Levanat winds are generally mild and good for learning, but in the afternoon they are replaced by Mistral winds. Mistral winds are much stronger than Levenat winds and more popular amongst experienced windsurfers.
Both Levenat and Mistral winds run along the shore of the picturesque Zlatni Rat, or Golden Horn Beach. So if you’re deciding whether or not to try windsurfing, the best place to get a feel for the sport and the environment is a spot on the beautiful beach.
If you decide windsurfing is not your thing, Bol is also home to some great hiking and even better views! The mountain peak Vidova Gora can be reached by car or by foot and is the highest point of all the Croatian islands. The peak offers spectacular views of the Zlatini Rat beach, the Adriatic Sea and neighboring islands.
The rivers and beaches of the Dalmatia region are excellent places to take advantage of world class scenery while staying active. But in the more temperate region of the country, Plitvice Lakes National Park proves that Croatian recreation does not have to be limited to the water sports.
Hiking Plitvice Lakes National Park
Opened in 1949, Plitvice Lakes National Park is the oldest national park in Croatia and an excellent place to stay fit while taking in the unparalleled beauty of the park. Among other things, the park is famous for the 16 cascading lakes and waterfalls that naturally formed through limestone over thousands of years.
The most popular time to hike around these picturesque turquoise lakes is in the summer, but the park is open to visitors all year round. Tour Leader Kristijan Kovačić recommends trying to see the park at different times of the year because it’s never the same experience.
“You can never get bored with this nature phenomenon,” Kovačić said. “It’s always something different, different leaf colors, different water colors and that is especially because Plitvice is a region of four seasons.”
With signs and maps throughout the park, hiking around Plitvice Lakes is fairly easy to accomplish on your own. However, going with a tour guide and getting informed about what you’re looking at is the best way to soak in the natural beauty of Plitvice Lakes.
“You have to leave space for people to experience everything for themselves, but when you give the right information at the right time, you open some new doors of knowledge and experience for this moment and this space,” Kovacic said.
There are eight different hiking trails to explore Plitvice Lakes, ranging from 3.5 to 18 kilometers. If you want to see the whole park, but aren’t up for a whole day of hiking, free ferries and shuttle busses are constantly running to ease travel through the park. This is the most visited park in Croatia so the best time to get a hike in during the summer would be in the morning or when the park is less busy during the spring and fall off-seasons.
If reading wasn’t enough to convince you that Croatia is a destination for recreation, watch this video to see what it’s like to raft the Cetina River, hike Plitvice Lakes and hear about the experience from those who know it best!