27/07/2012 08:21 BST | Updated 22/05/2015 06:12 BST

Holidays In Croatia: Take Your Family To Istria

You can see why everyone's been fighting over Istria for years.

The westernmost part of Croatia, Istria looks like Italy or Spain or the south of France – terracotta roofs and hot sun. But it's much greener. Pine trees shade miles of beautiful coastline. The sea is deep blue and so clear that you can see the fish swimming.

Back in the mists of time, the Romans came and built summer villas by the sea. Much later, the Venetians took over (Italian is the region's second language), followed by the Austrians.

But it was only when Yugoslavia broke up in the 1990s that Istria finally became part of the newly independent Croatia.

It's a brilliant place for a family holiday.

Istria has always been famous for its wine, olive oil and white truffles. A traditional local restaurant (called a konoba) will serve just about any fresh seafood you can think of – sardines, shark, crab, mussels and scallops.

But the Italian influence means that there's also a lot of food that children love – pasta, pizza and ice cream.

On top of all this, most people in Istria speak English (especially if they're under 35, as English is taught in school these days). They like the British. A favourite TV programme is Only Fools and Horses (with Croatian subtitles), and Tom Jones will be singing to fans in the Roman amphitheatre of Pula on 14 August.

You might think that all this would make Istria very expensive. But it isn't.

Of course you can spend a lot of money here – there are some luxurious hotels.

But even in high season, families with children should be able to find rooms and apartments in private houses that won't break the bank. In the north of Istria around Buzet, for example, a room might cost as little as £15 a night. (The local currency is the Croatian Kuna, and you get about nine Kuna for £1. But prices are often quoted in Euros, too.)

So if you head off to Istria this summer, where should you go? What will the children enjoy most?

Northern Istria

Head inland if you want beautiful countryside and cheaper prices. Not far from the border with Slovenia to the north is the ancient hilltop village of Buzet, which seems slightly astonished that everyone thinks it's so pretty. The local shop sells Istrian brandy flavoured with honey, herbs or miseltoe, and traditional dancing and music is celebrated in a festival on 11 August.

The area is well-known for outdoor activities – hang-gliding, paragliding, walking, cycling and horse-riding. Lovely Marija Berković runs the Valley of Horses riding school(Dolina Konja) which caters for everyone, from beginners to experienced riders (a ten-minute ride for a child costs just 5 Euros, while three hours' trekking costs 40 Euros per person). The chocolate-brown donkeys, the children's ponies and the sleek horses are all beautifully cared for and come running whenever Marija calls. (She's known as the horse whisperer round here.)

South of Buzet is Hum which, with its own mayor and just 20 inhabitants, claims to be the smallest town in the world. A local agency, Istriana Travel, can take you truffle-hunting or give the children a workshop painting traditional Istrian frescoes.

In and around Poreč

Poreč looks out on to a coast punctuated with hundreds of tiny islands (no one can quite agree how many, but it's probably about 1200). Twenty beaches in and around Poreč have Blue Flags, which means that the sea is very clean. It's shingle rather than sand, though, so children will need plastic sandals.

Sit in a café overlooking the port, and you can see just about every kind of boat you can imagine – yachts, sailing boats, fishing boats, rowing boats and pedal boats (many of which can be rented out). You can sail to Venice in about two-and-a-half hours.

The town itself is 2,000 years old. It's pedestrianised, so safe for children – and there's enough ice cream on sale to keep everyone happy. The basilica – a sixth-century church – is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Just down the coast from Poreč is the fishing town of Funtana, which is surrounded by several campsites. If your children are keen on bloodthirsty dinosaurs, visit the Funtana Dino Park(children 80 Kuna, about £8.50, and adults 100 Kuna, about £10) where giant replicas of T.rex and co give you baleful stares and angry roars. A magic show, children's zoo and playground are included in the price.

If you possibly can, head north of Poreč for Brtonigla. Here is the Konoba Astarea, which serves fish or lamb cooked right in the fire under a čripnjaor earthenware lid. Try sea bass served with layers of thinly sliced potatoes – utterly delicious. The set menu costs 25 Euros per person, drinks included.

Near Poreč on the Lanterna peninsula is the family-friendly hotel Valamar Club Tamaris.
Right on the beach overlooking the Adriatic, the hotel has three outdoor pools and numerous activities and clubs for children and teenagers, including trampolines, free bikes, a games room, tennis, diving and sailing.

The breakfast buffet is incredible – anything you could possibly want, from bacon and eggs to croissants and fresh pineapple. There's a special offer Family Fun Package, valid until 15 September, based on a family of four (which includes free entry to the Poreč Aquarium, Dinopark entrance tickets, buffet breakfast, lunch and dinner, a full programme of activities for all ages and a welcome fruit cocktail for all the family), from 122 Euros per room per night.

In and around Pula

Head further south from Poreč, past the amazing inlet called Lim Fiord and the fishing village of Rovinj, for the eco-art centre Eia.Set up by the charismatic Igor Drandić on land he inherited from his grandfather near Bale, Eia brings together people who want to live in harmony with nature.

Small houses are made of straw bales and recycled wood, electricity comes from solar power, and there are compost toilets. Showers use collected rainwater. You can camp here for just 6 Euros per person per night and children are very welcome (Igor is used to hosting groups of schoolchildren who come to study this energy-efficient way of life). Look out for the newly planted maze of lavender bushes.

On the coast, further south still, is the very pretty fishing village of Fazana with its brightly painted houses. In Roman times Fazana was a regional centre for making the clay pots called amphoras that were used to store wine and olive oil.

Today it's a family-friendly resort, with a campsite just ten minutes away, traditional restaurants like the Konoba Feral, and lots of activities for children, including the 'Search for Lost Treasure' – a discovery trail that guides them through the history of the village.

From Fazana, you can travel by boat to the Brijuni National Parkand visit the island that used to be the summer residence of President Tito of Yugoslavia. (In peak season – including boat transfer, guided tour, the tourist train and museum – this costs 210 Kuna, around £22.50 for adults, and 105 Kuna, around £11, for children.)

In its heyday, the island was filled with exotic animals like lions, tigers and giraffes and was visited by film stars like Elizabeth Taylor and Gina Lollobrigida. You can still see the dark green 1950s Cadillac that transported heads of state round the island.

These days the animals are fewer (and a bit less dangerous) – Istrian oxen called boskarin (with huge horns like upside-down handlebars), sheep, donkeys, goats, zebras, peacocks, and a talking cockatoo called Koki. There's one elephant, a female called Lanka who came as a gift from Indira Gandhi in the 1970s.

No one lives on the island any more, but there are hotels and private villas where you can stay. But be warned. A villa for four costs 7,800 Kuna (about £830) a day...

Right down near the southernmost tip of Istria is Pula, the largest town in Istria. The huge Roman amphitheatre rises up against the bright blue sky, astonishingly complete. It won't take a small boy much effort to imagine the crowds – it was built for 23,000 people – who came to watch the gladiators fight to the death.

Today the amphitheatre still hosts concerts and an annual film festival. (Apparently it was bursting at the seams for the latest Harry Potter.)

In the old town, ten minutes' walk from the amphitheatre, is the flea market, open on Saturdays in July and every day in August. Here you'll find everything from necklaces and coffee grinders to maps and swords (excitement for the boys again).

For a luxurious stay in Pula, the Park Plaza Histria (with two sea-water swimming pools and beautiful views over the Adriatic) has recently reopened, and costs from 250 Euros a night for two people, half board.

Don't leave this part of Istria without going to a restaurant called Batelina in the village of Banjole, south of Pula. You have to like fish, as the menu is based around that day's catch – conger eel, anchovies, red mullet, octopus, sardines, shark, bream and monkfish. The thick Istrian fish soup, called brudet, is served with polenta in the shape of a scallop shell.

But what's almost more amazing is that the chefs in Batelina produce the most incredible chocolate desserts. Try the hot chocolate pastry with chilli and olive oil. It's heaven. (The set menu costs 35 Euros per person, drinks included.)

The slogan of the Croatian Tourist Board is 'the Mediterranean as it once was'. Istria is as near to old-fashioned sun, sea and paddling as you can possibly get – with the added bonus of a bit of ancient history and some wonderful food and wine.

Getting there:

This summer, direct flights to Istria are offered by to Pula), Thomson (London Gatwick, Birmingham, or Manchester to Pula) and Ryanair (London Stansted to Pula). Croatia Airlines fly from London Heathrow and London Gatwick to Zagreb where you can get a connecting flight. For more information about child-friendly attractions, or to find accommodation, contact the Croatian Tourist Board.

Click on our gallery below for more of beautiful Croatia.