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Charming trips to Zagreb and beyond

ON A BUDGET

Coastal villages, Roman ruins and emerald lakes are just three reasons to visit Croatia. Oh, and the prices can't be beat.

August 14, 2005|Arthur Frommer | Special to The Times

ITS currency and expenses are among the cheapest in Western Europe. Its flowering Adriatic coastline is among the world's most scenic. And its coastal villages are a charming combination of Roman ruins, Venetian architecture and Austro-Hungarian excess. Add to this a variety of resort properties in various price ranges, and you have the reason Americans are choosing vacations in Croatia this year.

The chief attractions are its coastline and islands -- 1,240 miles of shoreline dotted with timeless fishing ports and 1,185 islands. Most visitors start their stays in the capital, Zagreb. And although it isn't a compelling town, you might take time to relax at a cafe amid decaying Beaux-Arts buildings, tour museums and take the funicular up onto Gradec, a leafy hilltop district of Baroque buildings, to see the modern sculptures in Ivan Mestrovic's former studio.

Later, you might join the locals for an evening pub crawl. (Be sure to stop at the 175-year-old tavern Pod Starim Krovovima at 9 Basaricekova.)

From Zagreb, you'll want to strike out west to the Istrian Peninsula, www.istra.hr. Its string of castle-topped fishing towns recalls the Italian Riviera before mass tourism. A bonus: The catch of the day costs $3 at dockside restaurants. The 6th century basilica in Porec glitters with golden mosaics, www.istra.com/porec. Rovinj, www.tzgrovinj.hr, is a compact town straight out of the Middle Ages. Pula, www.pulainfo.hr, is so Roman its forum still serves as the main square, and its arena is one of the world's best-preserved ancient amphitheaters.

The new highway that heads south from the capital to the Dalmatian Coast city of Split cuts the drive time from around seven hours to 3 1/2 ; another improvement is a high-speed rail link. Be sure to stop at Plitvice, one of the most beautiful national parks in Europe, a collection of 16 emerald lakes spilling into one another over waterfalls crisscrossed by boardwalks.

The historic center of Split, www.visitsplit.com, occupies the converted ruins of Roman Emperor Diocletian's 4th century palace; his mausoleum even became the city's cathedral. It's ironic, given that Diocletian was an avid persecutor of Christians.

At the southern end of the Dalmatian coast is beautiful Dubrovnik, www.tzdubrovnik.hr, a Renaissance city curling around a tiny harbor in a sea of red roofs atop 17th-century town houses and Baroque palaces.

The best way to get from Split to Dubrovnik is by ferry, www.jadrolinija.hr, threading Croatia's justly famous islands, and the best way to take that trip is slowly, over several days, pausing at an island or two along the way. The island of Hvar, www.hvar.hr, is draped in lavender fields and vineyards, and its main medieval town is fast becoming a hotspot celebrity resort for the likes of Steven Spielberg, Bill Gates and Princess Caroline of Monaco. Life on pine-forested Korcula, birthplace of Marco Polo, centers on an oversize fishing-village port and its glorious Gothic-Romanesque cathedral, www.korcula.net.

Although there are no direct flights to Croatia from the United States, you can fly to another European city and transfer on most European carriers; round-trip prices start about $1,200 from LAX. Hotels cost as much as 40% less than elsewhere in Western Europe, and Croatia's \o7sobe\f7 (private rooms for rent) go for $25 to $40 per double. They can be easily arranged through local tourist offices.

If you prefer to work through a travel agency or to book a vacation package or tour, try Gate1 Travel, which offers an 11-day tour of Croatia and Slovakia that visits Opatija, Split, Dubrovnik, Plitvice Lakes and Bled. Prices begin at about $1,100, double occupancy, including round-trip airfare from LAX. See Gate1 Travel, www.gate1travel.com, or call (800) 682-3333.

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