The dawn of a new year usually gets me thinking about all the places I have yet to go. This year, though, all I can think about is the most magical place I’ve yet been:
Croatia’s Plitvice Lakes National Park.
A sprawling meander alongside travertine lakes and glorious waterfalls, through lacy woods tufted with flowering plants, this European deep breath of a tourist attraction is so vivid, lush and crystal-clean, it can be a challenge to remember that the landscape is 100% real.
But hey, if you want to keep an eye out for the blue Na’vi of Avatar, by all means…knock yourselves out.
A national park since 1949 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979, Plitvice (pronounced pleet-wee-cheh) is still relatively new on the European tourist trail, but certainly not undiscovered. Set at the top of Croatia’s Adriatic region in a karsted mountain area, just two hours from the capital, Zagreb, the park is supplied with a steady stream of visitors each day.
But don’t let the idea of crowds stop you. The park offers plenty of nooks, crannies, bogs and bends where you can find yourselves utterly alone with some of the most spectacular scenery Earth has to offer.
Consider staying in the area for a couple of nights, as it takes two days to properly see the park. Around Plitvice you generally have a choice of camping, staying in unlovely dorms masquerading as hotels set near the park’s main entrance, or family-run B&Bs set in Swiss-style chalets, which often come with the option of a home-cooked meal in the evening.
I’d recommend the latter, and specifically my lodgings, the homey, basic Villa Lika, which I booked ahead of time through Booking.com. Sure, the beds were twins pushed together and the proprietress’ command of English was minimal, but Wi-Fi was free, smiles came easily, the local white wine was delightful, al fresco fish dinners were fresh-grilled and tasty, the view was a rolling hill of green, and you can have snuggles aplenty with the resident albino Shar-Pei.
To optimize your elbow room and sense of calm, it’s ideal to arrive early at the park (it opens at 8am), buy your tickets right away, and hop the park bus to the electric ferry. This ferry runs all day (every 15 minutes to half-hour) and takes you to both ends of Plitvice’s main lake; both Plitvice and yours truly recommend tackling these two routes one day at a time.
I mean, really — why rush headlong through paradise?
In spring, summer, and early autumn, even when it’s hot and muggy elsewhere, the air at Plitvice is soft and cool. In winter, much of the park stays open and is apparently a snowy wonderland.
No matter the season, the whole point of coming here is to go for a long and gentle walk, listening to the rush and roar of cascading water, and gawking your faces off at the near-ridiculous beauty around you.
Keep an eye out for birds, butterflies, plants and flowers. Especially the flowers.
And while you’d think that a gajillion and one waterfalls would eventually become boring and commonplace, they never do. Not ever.
The best reason I can think of to journey to Plitvice Lakes:
If you’ve ever needed to visualize a happy place to get yourselves through cubicle meltdown, back-to-back meeting overwhelm and deadline panic, then this, my friends…this is that happy place.
Take a deep breath of Croatia, and enjoy.