Croatia and I go way back. It's over thirty years since I first visited Cavtat, a small tourist resort in what was then Yugoslavia, and over the years I've watched as the country fell apart, only for Croatia to re-emerge as a vibrant, independent country. What keeps drawing me back is not just the stunning coastline or the dry, charming people, but the unique traditions and culture, which survive however many tourists visit.
A trip to Croatia is about more than just the beaches and the clear blues skies. Here are my eight top tips for really getting to know the country, and make your holiday really memorable.
Visit a National Park
Croatia may be famous for its island-dotted coastline, but inland there are some spectacularly beautiful natural parks to visit. Most famous is the Plitvice National Park - the largest in Croatia and a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1979. Around two hours drive inland from Split, 73,000 acres of unspoilt countryside are dotted with sixteen, jewel coloured lakes that step down through the hills, linked by tumbling waterfalls. A network of paths and boardwalks link the lakes; come prepared to walk! Closer to the coast, the Krka National Park (around one hour's drive from Split) has seven spectacular waterfalls linked by the sparkling Krka River.
Learn the Lingo
Well, not the entire language, obviously; not least because Croatian might be the most impenetrable language on the planet. But a cheery dobar dan (good morning) and regular use of hvala (thank you) will go a long way to endear you to your hosts. The odd molim (please) isn't a bad idea either.
Eat Crni Rizoto
If you're holidaying anywhere in Dalmatia - from the island of Rab all the way down the coast to the Bay of Kotor - you're bound to find Crni Rizoto on every restaurant menu - black risotto. It's basically squid risotto; the kicker is that the sauce is made from squid ink - thus the colour. Sounds revolting? It's actually delicious, thick and sticky and surprisingly tasty. For more squeamish diners, the other classic (and less scary) dish to try is Mussels Bouzzara - shell-on mussels in a spicy tomato sauce.
Go on a Wine Tour
Croatian wines may not be a frequent sight in your local branch of Waitrose, but this is because most vineyards are small and produce only enough wine to sell locally, or within Croatia. But there are some wonderful wines to try, particularly in Istria, which has its own Wine Road, bringing together over 80 different winemakers, with many vineyards offering tastings to visitors. In Konavle, the southernmost region of Croatia, close to Dubrovnik, a small train takes visitors to several of the wine producers that dot the region.
Learn a little history
Here comes the shameless plug; if you want to know more about the recent history of Croatia without ploughing through a dull guidebook, pick up a copy of The People We Were Before. The novel is set entirely in Croatia, and tells the story of a young boy growing up in pre-war Yugoslavia, and the tragic events that befall him and his family during the Croatian War of Independence in the early 1990's. Set in and around Dubrovnik, it gives an insight into what Croatians went through, just twenty-five years ago.
With a coastline flecked with over 1,000 islands, wherever you holiday in Croatia, one of the best ways to spend a day is to hop on a boat and indulge in a spot of island-hopping. From Dubrovnik, it's just twenty minutes to the beautiful, unpopulated island of Lokrum, or pretty Kolocep, while from Split it's easy to hop across to Hvar - Croatia's glitziest island - for a day trip. If you're staying in Istria, on the northern coast, the Birjuni Islands National Park is an easy trip from Pula.
Istria was part of Italy until the end of the Second World War, and that heritage is everywhere to be seen - particularly in the food. But the Croatian love of gelati extends throughout the country, so wherever you are you can indulge in lipsmacking, home-made ice-cream. In Dubrovnik, locals swear by Dolce Vita (Naljeskoviceva 1a), while in Rovinj, Gelateria Italia (Piazza Campitelli 60) is the top spot. If you're in Zagreb and happy to queue, drop by Vincek (Ilica 18), where the black chocolate is the answer to chocoholic's dreams.
Just don't take it home. One of those drinks that tastes fabulous on holiday (but will moulder away at the back of your drinks cupboard in the UK), Slivovicz belongs firmly in Croatia, where it slips down very nicely as an after-dinner tincture. Made from damson plums, it's available everywhere, but if you are offered the chance to try home-made Slivovicz, say yes - it tastes totally different. Just approach with caution; it's super-strong.
More info: croatia.hr