Why Your Next Flight Should be to Croatia

The town of Dubrovnik.

Croatia is a country not to be missed. The clear, turquoise waters of the Adriatic Sea are comparable to anything you would experience along the Côte d’Azur of France. The generous, proud people throughout the country are inspiring, especially since many of them were witnesses to a war that wreaked havoc to their economy and country not that long ago. Then there is the food. Oh the food. A delicious mix of fresh produce, olive oil, seafood and pasta. What’s not to like?

In recent years, the country has seen an increase in tourism. In part, thanks to both Dubrovnik and Split playing an important backdrop to many scenes in the hit series “Game of Thrones.” Yet, it still remains somewhat unknown as a must-see destination, especially for North Americans. Perhaps it is the long flight(s) that puts people off, but that is changing with more frequent and easier ways to get there. Especially now with direct flights from Philadelphia to Dubrovnik. So, even for Americans, there is really no excuse not to go.

A Little Bit About the History of Croatia

Geographically, Croatia has always been an important country ever since us humans decided trading and conquering lands was a thing. With its miles of coastline nestled between Italy, Turkey and Greece, what is now known as Croatia has always been important to those seeking access to trading routes and power in Europe and the Middle East.

Croatia’s history is long and filled with conquering forces. After Croatia was settled by ancient tribes the Greeks moved in, quickly realizing the area’s geographical importance for their expansion.

The Roman Empire spread to the area after that. Byzantine rule took over after, then the Ottoman Empire. Hungary and Austria laid claim to the region, then the Venetians. It later became part of Yugoslavia. The Croatian war for independence started in 1991 and ended in 1995.  In 2013, she became part of the European Union.

Cuisine

Needless to say, all this mixing of cultures created an incredible gastronomic experience. Delicious pasta and seafood dishes are found in most parts of Croatia, but especially along the coast.

Before describing just a few of the delicious Croatian dishes that I was lucky enough to try, let me talk about olive oil. Honestly, it is the best olive oil that I have ever tried. It is rich and hits you in the back of the throat. I would be quite happy finishing out my days just eating bread dipped Croatian olive oil, perhaps with some of their balsamic vinegar mixed in too from time to time.

Crni Rizot

One of the most famous Croatian dishes is a black risotto called Crni Rizot in Croatian. The risotto is colored by the squid ink that it is cooked in. It is rich and quite fishy, so you have to really like seafood to eat this one. Make sure not to smile too much after eating this dish unless you brush your teeth!

Soparnik, a typical Croatian flatbread.

Soparnik is a typical Croatian flatbread that is filled with Swiss chard or onions and topped with chopped garlic and olive oil. It is absolutely delicious. What I said earlier about just eating bread and olive oil? Well, I think I would be pretty happy just eating Soparnik for the rest of my life.

Typical Croatian cuisine.

Due to it’s geographical proximity to Italy, a lot of the desserts are similar to what we think are typical Italian ones, like cannolis, cured fruits and custard dishes.

Arancini, otherwise know as sugared orange or lemon peel, is very popular dessert and/or a pick-me-up snack.

For dessert,  try rozata,  a dessert native to the Dubrovnik area, which is similar to a custard or flan.

Geography

Croatia’s geography is diverse. Near the Bosnian and Herzegovina border, some of the mountains in the Dinaric Alps reach elevations of up to 6,000 feet (over 1800 metres). The flat lands of Slavonia are where the Danube, Drava, Kupa and Sava rivers cross the country. The coastline offers thousands of islands and inlets, perfect for cruising in and out of. Many parts of the shoreline rise dramatically from the vivid blue waters, where thousands of stone walls criss cross the landscape. It is incredible to look at those walls and think that they have been there for hundreds, and perhaps some cases, thousands of years.

Biodiversity

Zaton, near Dubrovnik.

Croatia has a wealth of flora and fauna, with new species discovered in recent years. The climate along the coast is mild and usually with plenty of sunshine. Unfortunately, when I was there, there was unusually high rainfall that lasted several days, but even in the rain, it was still beautiful. The waters along the coast offer tons of scuba and snorkeling spots. There are also many forests inland and thousands of caves to explore. In the winter, there are mountain ranges to ski, although from what I heard, many Croatians prefer to travel to Bosnia or Switzerland for ski trips.

The ancient wall surrounding Dubrovnik’s old city.

Economy

Croatia’s economy is considered a “high income economy” by the United Nations, although it is a relatively cheap country to visit for westerners. Tourism is an important sector of the economy, and has been since the end of the war in 1995. In recent years with the added fame of the Game of Thrones Series being filmed in Dubrovnik.

Tourism

Marine tourism, meaning boat charters and cruises, are especially popular. There are many beautiful islands to explore including Hvar, Vis and Bisevo, which has a famous, partially underwater cave that glows blue known as the blue grotto.

Hvar is an island that provides a little bit of everything. There are beautiful beaches, a vibrant nightlife, vineyards, olives and a history dating back to the ancient Greeks.

The town of Hvar is a popular holiday destination and offers great nightlife, beach clubs and shops. Stari Grad, on the other side of the island, offers a more historical experience as it is one of the oldest towns in Europe. Founded by the ancient Greeks in 384 BC, the town is located in at the head of a very protected bay. There are numerous restaurants to choose and a stroll around the harbor is an absolute must.

The town of Starigrad on the island of Hvar.

Korčula is the sixth largest island in Croatia and, it is alleged that the famous explorer, Marco Polo, was born on this island.

Its town is known as “Little Dubrovnik” because of its medieval buildings. A walk up a very narrow staircase in the city’s church will provide you with breathtaking views of the city surrounds and the channel between the island and the mainland.

Looking out from the bell tower of the old town of Korçula’s main church.

There are numerous restaurants and bars, especially along the waterfront.

Currency

The Croatian Kuna is the official Croatian currency. Although Croatia joined the European Union in 2013, there hasn’t been much movement toward switching to euros. There are .15USD to 1 Croatian Kunas and .13Euros to 1 Kuna.

Vivid blues and greens are typical of the waters along the Dalmatian coast.

Needless to say Croatia is a pretty cool place to visit with incredible places to visit, meals to eat and history to learn. Make the journey.

 

Amsterdam

What can I say about a city that has the Van Gogh Museum, The Ryksmuseum, the Red Light District and is tolerant of Marijuana???  I can only say one thing “watch out for the bicycles”.

This is a fascinating and very diverse city and many of the important and interesting sites are within easy walking distance from Central Station or the Dam Square area, but remember to “watch out for the bicycles”.

Because of the age of the city and the time when many of the homes and buildings were built there is very limited parking and fuel prices are very high, so most of the people ride bicycles everywhere.  There is a special lane which is red brick or red stone and you had better not walk in it or linger in it because the people on the two wheeled vehicles (some scooters and motorcycles along with the bicycles) will not stop.  Tourists who rent bicycles take their lives in their hands if they think they can keep up.

Amsterdam Bikes
Amsterdam Bikes

The city has something to offer to the tourist who is searching for culture; the tourist who wants to be involved or observe the permissive areas; and the traveler who just likes to see scenery.

The canals run through and ring the city.  There are canal boats for tours or tours with meals.  They do day and evening tours.  Make sure you sample the apple cake either on your canal tour or in a restaurant.

Both the Van Gogh and the Ryksmuseum were closed for a few years for renovation.  The Van Gogh has the best audio tour system that I have ever seen in any museum.  It doesn’t just explain about the art.  It also gives you some insight into the activities and processes that Van Gogh was involved in at the time the art was created.  The Ryksmuseum is a huge complex that is broken up in time periods.  It is impossible to really see either of these in one day.  You can get art overload.  Close to both of these museums is a new museum of modern art.

Anne Frank House
Anne Frank House

If you are not into art don’t miss the Ann Frank House or take a walking tour of the red light district at night.  You can go yourself or meet a former prostitute at the Red Light Museum for a guided tour.  There are also some really interesting tours of the diamond district factories and the Heineken Experience.  Amsterdam is also the home of the flower market and the Aalsmeer Flower Auction.

Many of the sites have Skip the Line tickets available so consider purchasing tickets from your travel professional before you travel. The lines can be very long. The tickets for the Ann Frank House should be pre-purchased.  They are not available until 60 days prior to your desired visit.

It is always a good idea to get suggestions from the staff at your hotel regarding where to eat or shop. Restaurants are plentiful and priced for every budget.  Tourist shops and Head Shops are everywhere.

You can get around Amsterdam by bus, trolley, and taxi or bicycle cab.  You also can buy Hop On Hop Off tickets that give you the opportunity to get a good feel for the city while you decide what you want explore further.  Hop On Hop Off is a good way to spend part of your first day while you stay awake and recover from your overnight flight.

Do yourself a favor and arrange a driver or shuttle service from Schipol to your hotel. After that long flight you do not want to have to take public transport or locate a taxi on your own to get to your hotel.  Seeing someone holding a sign with your name on it can bring a sigh of relief.

Amsterdam is a city that you should plan on staying at least 3 days.

Tauck Tulip Cruise

Tauck River Cruise Amsterdam to Brussels on MS Inspire April 7, 2014.

From the moment we boarded the brand new river boat (christened on April 3rd) MS Inspire in Amsterdam until the farewell dinner at the Hotel Amigo in Brussels Tauck  lived up to its reputation as a premier tour and river boat operator.

The boat has the largest cabins in the river cruise market including 300 square foot suites on deck 3 and loft cabins on deck 1.  The bathrooms in the cabins are roomy and appointed as well as any luxury hotel.  The showers are equipped with rain heads, hand held showers and shower seats.  The bath products are Molton-Brown. The sink is Villeroy and Boch.  Each cabin has a Nespresso machine and a mini bar which is stocked daily.

Tauck Tulip Cruise
Tauck Tulip Cruise – MS Inspire

Breakfast and lunch are available in both the main dining room and in a lighter version in Arthur’s.  Dinner is served in the main dining room and some nights they had a steak house concept in Arthur’s.  You could always order from the lite bites menu and have it delivered to your cabin or to a table in the Panorama Lounge. The food is varied and very interesting and they will accommodate any requests.

The boat has a small fitness area, a beauty salon, spa and massage room. On the sun deck they have a hot tub and a place to dine outdoors when the weather permits. There is also a small store.  Prices for the personal services and store items are lower than on any of the large ships I have been on.  My 50 minute massage cost only 52.50 euros and Heni, the Indonesian masseuse was as good as any masseuse I have used.

The main area for meeting is the Panorama Lounge.  This is a large comfortable room and the bartender was excellent..  He is aware of the demographic he is serving and knows the proper way to prepare every drink.  This lounge is where cocktail hour is held and where the Cruise Director and Tour Directors could give updates and discuss the next day’s activities.  After dinner there was music by a pianist with an exceptional repertoire.  One night the Cruise Director had us do a trivia battle of the sexes.

I must mention here that Tauck River Cruises are all inclusive.  There are no surprise charges or alternative tours with an additional fee.

Let me tell you about the little things that stood out during our trip from Amsterdam to Brussels.

  1. At the American WWII Cemetery at Magraten our tour directors gave everyone flowers to place on graves
  2. On one day we were to meet the boat at a dock after we finished our touring and shopping.  The boat was not there yet when we arrived in the vicinity so we all stopped at a sidewalk café and the tour directors paid the bill for everyone.
  3. In Nijmegen at the end of our walking tour we were introduced to herring Dutch style and invited to try it.  Again the tour directors paid the bill
  4. In Brussels we had about 3 hours from the time our walking tour ended until we could check into our hotel so the tour directors gave everyone 20 euros for lunch.

Warm hand towels and a refreshing beverage greeted us on every return to the boat.

All of the tours were well organized and in most cases they utilized local guides.  We had Vox listening tools so that we did not miss anything and the Vox fit into a charger in our cabin.

The tour to Aalsmeer to see the flower auction had a very early start (6:15 AM).  It was well worth getting up for.  This is something I would recommend to anyone going to Amsterdam.

Aalsmeer Flower Auction
Aalsmeer Flower Auction

We were very lucky that the Netherlands had had a mild winter, because of this we got to see the Keukenhof Gardens in full bloom.  This is an impressive place for anyone who enjoys beauty especially living beauty.

We had a private dinner at the Flanders Field Museum in Leper.  The dinner followed us  spending time viewing the exhibits after the museum was closed to the public.

The Delft Porcelain factory tour was enlightening.  It is now easier to know if a piece of Delft just comes from the city of Delft or is Delft style as opposed to being crafted at the Delft Porcelain Factory.

We had a lovely lunch in the wine cellar at Chateunappe.  The chateau is on the border of Belgium and the Netherlands.

A very interesting morning was spent doing a farm visit and a windmill visit. Another tour took us to the Delta Project which shows the way the North Sea is held back from being able to flood the Zeeland.

We got to visit art museums, war museums and the Red Star Museum which showed the transport of immigrants from the Netherlands to America.

These are just a few of the tours.  You can do them all or just select the ones you want and then walk around the cities that the boat is docked near.

Our Tour Directors were Joeri, Yener and Sofia. They are knowledgeable and interesting.

They let us know what we were going to see and the history behind it.

Fairmont Monte Carlo

The Fairmont Monte Carlo is a unique four-star resort property located in the heart of Monte Carlo.  The Fairmont has almost  600 rooms residences and suites, four restaurants and bars, and a shopping arcade and was built on land claimed from the sea.   This design and location make for a property that is contemporary yet traditional.

Fairmont Monte Carlo is a green/sustainable hotel with an outdoor pool, a steam room, a sauna, and a fitness facility. The onsite spa, Willow Stream Spa, offers 11 massage and treatment rooms and beauty services. Business amenities include a business center and meeting rooms for small groups. Fairmont Monte Carlo has 4 restaurants, features a daily buffet breakfast (surcharge), a bar/lounge, and a poolside bar, and room service is available 24 hours a day. The hotel has an onsite casino. Access to banking is provided. (. The hotel welcomes pets. This is a smoke-free property (fines may apply for violations).

Fairmont Monte Carlo Rooms
Fairmont Monte Carlo Rooms

Rooms are nicely appointed.  Our room had a tub/shower combination instead of a separate tub and shower which I expected at a Fairmont property.  Amenities featured in guestrooms include balconies, minibars, and CD players. Guestrooms have satellite television with premium TV channels and pay movies. Bathrooms feature bathroom phones, bathrobes, and slippers.

There is a display of beautiful expensive cars in front of the property.

Monte Carlo Monaco
Monte Carlo Monaco

Transportation can be an issue. We opted for a private car from the Nice airport and a taxi to the ship which was a good idea.  The ship was within walking distance, but with luggage, we needed a taxi.  The wait for a taxi was more than 30 minutes.

Fairmont Monte Carlo
Fairmont Monte Carlo

Well maintained and well situated the Fairmont is a good choice for cruises or travelers on land-based vacations.  One full touring day is adequate for those lacking deep pockets for world-class shopping or gaming.

Oasis of the Seas  

Oasis of the Seas

One of the world’s largest cruise ships makes an instant impression.  Everything is done in a big way.

The first thing I noticed was the efficient and smooth boarding process.  This is a ship that you can walk right on board and go to your cabin. Do not think that getting there early will give you an edge.  We arrived at 1:00 PM and there was no line and the cabins were ready.

Oasis of the Seas
Oasis of the Seas

Royal Caribbean wanted things to be special.  They took things from the Freedom and Voyager Class ships and incorporated them into this magnificent floating resort. One example is the ice rink plus there are 2 zip lines, 2 40’ rock climbing walls, 2 flow riders, a miniature golf course and a merry go round.  There is a pool on deck 6 aft at the AquaTheatre which hosts an acrobatic and diving show. These are just a few of the special things you can find on Oasis of the Seas.   Oasis has a large and well-equipped fitness center.  It also has a special walking and jogging track area around deck 5.  This is a separate space for those that want to get their exercise without having to dodge other passengers.

The ship has a maximum capacity of 6296 passengers.  This could mean lines and crowds, but it is very rare that you have to deal with either.  I also noticed that there were passengers of all ages.   Many were multi-generational families celebrating special occasions.  The ship does provide a large pool, whirlpool and relaxation area for passengers over 16 years of age.

Oasis of the Seas
Oasis of the Seas

The cabins are comfortable.  There is a decent amount of storage and a good sized closet.

Bedding is very comfortable.  The bathroom is just that—a medium-sized bathroom.

My cabin was a Central Park Balcony.  It did seem strange to be sitting on a balcony on a ship and not see the water.  Central Park is beautifully landscaped and a pleasure to look at.  The only drawback to Central Park is the music from the pool area during the day.

The other area with balconies that do not face the sea is Boardwalk.  The boardwalk is in the aft and has a very beachside atmosphere.  Boardwalk is more open to the air.

The entertainment is diverse and the venues are well laid out and comfortable.  Specialty dining restaurants offer diverse menus and excellent service.  You can book entertainment and specialty dining prior to boarding.  Please show up for your shows or dining if you have made reservations.  If you decide not to go please cancel your reservations.  We saw empty seats in the theatres and empty tables in the specialty restaurants because of no shows.

The piers for ships this size had to be custom built or can only accommodate one or two ships.  The pier in Nassau was not a different one, but the ones in St. Thomas and St Martin were ones I had never been docked at.