Croatia is open, time to explore beyond Old Town
Croatia, a hidden gem that until 18 months ago had been quickly gaining popularity as the next hot spot in the Mediterranean. Then covid (f***ing covid) put a big old wrench in the global tourism game and ground everything to a tragic halt. But now (and sporadically for the last year) Croatia has opened its borders to the world and in my case specifically folks from the USA. Safety measures are still in place but with either a PCR test or proof of a vaccine you can experience the amazing beauty and hospitality of Croatia today.
The ‘Pearl of the Adriatic’, Dubrovnik, is one of the most stunning and unique cities in the world. A classic medieval port city that has been involved in the rise and fall of everything from the Roman Empire to the Soviet Union. Old Town and the City Walls are the money maker for Dubrovnik and for good reason. Exploding out of the sea the tight, medieval streets allow for countless hours of exploring. Cafes, restaurants, shops, and homes are hidden around every corner and lead to a spectacular experience wandering for hours on end. HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ jumped on the stunning surroundings to shoot the majority of Kings Landing in the Old Town, so to say it’s straight out of a movie set is no understatement. But…Dubrovnik offers so much more than just its Old Town and at times people (this guy included on a previous trip) can become so hyper-focused on the Old Town that they miss the amazing bigger picture around them.
Kayak Around Lokrum
Lokrum Island is a large island that provides natural protection from the elements of the city. An old monastery in the past is now a nature reserve that allows for a relaxing break from the tight quarters of Old Town Dubrovnik. We decided to go with X-Adventures after meeting the owner Darko at Dodo Cafe on Sulic Beach (my personal choice for a swimming hole in the city). Our bartender/barista was quick to recommend his friend, Darko, as a guide. He was wheeling and dealing in a speedo and a cell phone across the patio and more than happy to book us for the next day, no deposit needed, just show up. We got there around 9 am, Darko was waiting in his speedo, still outgoing and kind. After a quick tutorial, we were in a two-person kayak and out to sea. The water was calm and the paddling was fairly easy. Darko stopped every 15 mins or so to explain a bit of Croatian history, culture, or his own personal stories that added a pretty amazing touch to the adventure.
It took us about an hour to get around Lokrum (taking the ferry to Lokrum for the day just missed this list) and we then made our way to Betina Cave Beach for a quick lunch break. Ham and cheese sandwiches and some snorkel masks were the perfect addition to a relaxing 30 min break in the cave. Just as we were about to leave Darko suggested some cliff jumping, which I was very happy to let myself get talked into. Although scrambling behind Darko up the side of some Croatian rock and then basically falling into the Adriatic might not sound amazing to most people, it’s a memory that I’ll be looking back on with a smile.
Back in the kayaks, we stopped at the mouth of the port of Old Town, another history lesson, and then a short paddle around the City Walls and we were back at the beach. All told, it took 3 hours and cost about $40 each, well worth it in every aspect.
This might be cheating a little bit as Cavtat is its own little town but it’s an amazing little town that is easy and cheap to get to. If you have an extra 4 hours at your disposal the journey is one I highly recommend. Located about 20 kilometers from Old Town (about 5 kilometers from the Dubrovnik airport), Cavtat is a quiet, picturesque town that’s a little bit slower pace than the already pretty chill lifestyle Dubrovnik. You can grab the 10 city bus from Dubrovnik for 25 kuna one way($4 USD) at the Cable Car Station above Old Town. Check the timetable, for the most part it comes by every hour on the hour and was an easy, fun 30 min ride along the coast. Once in town, we explored the old town of Cavtat before eventually jumping on the walking path that traces the outside of the peninsula that the town is located on. The landscape is dotted with pines and wildflowers, while the seascape is dotted with hundred million dollar yachts (the bay seems to be where the big boys go to drop anchor).
We stopped for fresh mussels and octopus salad at Rokotin restaurant and then a coffee on the promenade in town before jumping back on our bus to Dubrovnik.
Climb Mt. Srd (for the sunset)
Emphasis on climb here, you can take the cable car but come on, gotta get those steps in baby. Looking up at the mountain from Old Town, it doesn’t really seem possible that anything but a professional mountain climber can ascend the mountain, much less in under an hour. But I am no professional mountain climber and am proof that it is in fact possible. The switchbacks up are at a pretty gentle grade and allow for plenty of rest/picture stops along the way. When you get to the top you run smack into Fort Imperial, a Napoleonic fortress that has an intense history with the Seige of Dubrovnik in 1991. The view off the backside of the mountain was unexpected and stunning. A beautiful valley and mountain after mountain heading into Bosnia. Restaurant Panorama is at the cable car station up top but the real magic takes place west of the Fort. There you will find the setting sun and an amazing view of the Elpahiti Islands. Jump on the walk down fairly quickly after sunset and you should have plenty of light to get back to the bottom (30 mins on the way down). One side note is we couldn’t quite find the best way to get to the start of the climb without doing a little highway walking. We had a guardrail to separate us from the road for the most part and there might be a safer way, but Google maps haven’t quite figured that one out yet.
Relax at Sveti Jakov Beach
There are some great beaches throughout Dubrovnik, Banje is the most popular and centrally located, Sulic is a little more secluded and where you can run into our pal Darko. But Jakov beach is probably the nicest and also the calmest beach we found while we were exploring. Located directly across from Old Town port it takes a little under 30 mins to walk there from town (the stairs down allow for amazing views of the surrounding area). Once there, find a nice little spot on the pebble beach and get away from it all for a few hours. Entering the water was nice and easy (no sharp rocks, algae, etc). There's a small cafe on the beach for a refreshing drink or a little caffeine boost.
Get lunch and visit the farmers market of Lapad
Lapad is where the bus station, main port and most locals live, generally where day to day living takes place. Cool, hip neighborhoods and restaurants are all over the place and not an area of town to miss out on. It takes about 45 mins if you wanna walk it (and the views along the coast are worth it) or a quick jump on a city bus if you are looking for a faster route. The Gruz Market is open 7–12pm every day but Sunday (FYI, a decent amount of things are either closed or close early on Sunday in this predominately Catholic community). The market offers fresh fish, veggies, and little souvenirs, plus the experience of just walking through the stalls of a market in Croatia.
From there it's a 15 min walk to Pantarul Restaurant, a cool little spot that seems to be popping up on everyone's lists for Dubrovnik lately. We got the steak, tuna tartar, and some veggie spring rolls. Everything was fresh, delicious and the service was great. We got out of there for a little under $50 USD and it was well worth it.
Jet Ski to Blue Cave and Three Caves
You can’t take more than a few steps in Dubrovnik without seeing something telling you to get on over to the Blue Cave. We talked to a few guys in the Old Town harbor and settled on renting a jet ski for two hours for $200 USD. The rental group picked us up at our Airbnb and drove us over towards the main port by Lapad. From there we got a crash course in jet ski 101 and we were off. We had snorkels, life vests, a map, an anchor, and the wide-open Adriatic in front of us. We chose to book in the morning and glad we did, water was calm and the caves were empty. We were able to shoot over to Blue Cave in about 10 min and after getting our anchor set we jumped in and swam towards the small opening in the rock. The swim was easy and the cave was amazing! Lit up by the sun hitting the water just right through the small opening, the experience is something not to miss. We swam back out and jumped on our jet ski and zipped over to three caves (5 min ride). Swimming through them was even more beautiful in this guy's opinion. Crazy purple rock, cool sandy bottoms, and the ability to swim through the last cave to the sea on the other side, if the water isn’t too rough. We spent about 20 mins there and then shot over to the only natural sandy beach in Croatia, Sunj Beach(lot of rock beach going on in Croatia). A few mins there and we headed back to drop the jet ski under the Franjo Tudman Bridge over the Dubrovnik Port.
Croatia and Dubrovnik are wonderfully magical places that are hard to put into any sort of words that give them justice. The Old Town and City Walls of Dubrovnik belong and often appear on the big screen and don’t miss out on them if you are to visit. There is so much more to the City and the surrounding area and hopefully, if you have the time, you will be able to experience an entire community and culture that is unlike anything else on earth.