Picking the first international destination was tough in many ways – the timing to commit to one place, the limited choices, but then on the flip side the list of choices. Places high on the list that I was banking on – Vietnam, Canada, South Africa, Australia – were either not open to travelers or too unknown with COVID to travel to. I do not want to travel for the sake of travel – I want there to be something to discover and explore – which you could argue you can find in any destination – it is true – but I did not want to be an irresponsible tourist, especially during this pandemic recovery period.
So after searching the list of international places permitting USA vaccinated tourists, one spot stood out – Croatia. I remember watching the Anthony Bourdain episode of his discovery of this country and adding it to our travel list. It reminded us of Italy – wine, truffles, great food – but with a more coastal and Mediterranean vibe.
Now, Croatia is also known for those party boats around the islands and I was not at all interested in crossing those in the middle of the summer. Taking Bourdain’s lead, I found a more hidden part of Croatia to discover – the Istrian peninsula. I made a rough draft itinerary and while it was a good start, I found myself re-planning this trip a bit to give it purpose.
Croatia’s Istrian peninsula has everything we were looking for in a summer getaway for Kevin’s birthday with maintaining my COVID travel principles and being mindful, meaningful tourists. Everything is outdoors in Croatia, especially in the summertime – activities and restaurants are already built in as COVID friendly since it is all outside. We could rent a car and avoid public transportation (of which is pretty non-existent throughout the country). And most importantly, we would stay far away from the main tourist destinations of Split and Dubrovnik. We would get the outdoor adventure at a national park and kayaking in the Adriatic Sea, we would educate ourselves with a brand new wine region, and we would have our bellies full eating truffles and fresh caught seafood. Istria has a little bit of everything! Since we were flying in and out of Zagreb, we added a day to explore the city of Zagreb. This trip would combine the country side, the sea side, and the city side.
For more on what to expect and COVID travel when we visited, read this post – coming soon!
With a year of domestic travel under our belt during this pandemic, I was hoping we were prepared for this new adventure. Fingers crossed, bags packed, here we go.
Our travel day was definitiely one for the books – probably one of our top stressful travel experiences. While we did not miss our flights, there were moments were I was sure we would. These are the travel days that all that travel time ahead of your flight departure was made for – while most of the time we end up just sitting at the gate (or lounge, thanks Priority Pass), this was a “run through every part hoping the door is not closed”.
- The train to NY Penn Station was stopped fro 45 minutes in the middle of the tracks five minutes from the station. We could have walked faster! There was an issue with the switches that only permitted one track train in and out of one of the busiest train stations.
- The next hiccup was getting onto the Airtrain from the Long Island Railway – everywhere else the metro stations accept the phone payment. Not here! Kevin had to run back and get a Metro card.
- When we exited the Airtrain at our terminal, we were shocked how crowded it was – absolutely mobbed. Thank god we were able to print out boarding passes at the kiosk and had TSA precheck – waiting in that line would have resulted in a missed flight.
- We got onto the plane, we figured all the travel woes were over. Until we pulled back from the walkway and sat on the tar mat for almost two hours… just crazy!
- We ran off the plane and through the Amsterdam airport – our connection had two hours in between flights but with the delay we were under an hour. Luckily, we did not have to go through a boarder control check – still a bit baffled but that based on everything I read, but it did ensure we made it to the gate before the doors closed.
- Once we got onto that plane to Zagreb, I think it was the first time we relaxed – it did not matter if this flight was late.
After landing, we waited in a very long board control line where we were presented our travel declaration, COVID vaccination proof, and passports. It was fairly laid back – I expected more scrutiny, but we were allowed into an international country for the first time in 18 months.
We picked up our car rental from NOVA – a bight yellow Kia, not subtle whatsoever but it was comfy. And just like that we were off! I always download Google Maps of the destination in order to access maps and directions offline. Do not forget to pack car cable accessories like cigarette adapter, USB cables and audio jacks. All set up, we had a 3 hour drive to our first destination – Motovun.
The drive our was super scenic through the mountains – full of small towns, tunnels, and an occasional castle. The new terrain made the long drive go by fast and we even found a great rock radio station to keep up entertained. Croatia roadways are very good and they pay for it with a ton of tolls.
Motovun is located in the northern part of the Istrian peninsula where it is known for their truffles and their wine region. There are tons of small towns to chose from but Motovun was supposed to be one of the more scenic ones since it is perched on the top of a hill and is central for exploring this region. As we drove closer to Motovun, the area began to reveal itself – beautiful rolling hills of vines painted the surrounding land. And then Motovun appeared, high upon a hilltop looking all majestic. Needless to say, this was not a bad first stop on our first post-pandemic international trip.
And just like that, we were saying goodbye to Motovun. The timer here, while short, went by incredibly fast and I know we only scratched the surface of what this area has to offer.
Our next destination on this Croatia trip took us 45 minutes south to the seaside town of Rovinj (pronounced row-veen). Kevin really wanted an experience like Camogli for his birthday and this seemed to fit the bill perfectly. Romantic seaside town, water activities, seafood dining, and gelato. When we visited Motovun, it was clear Rovinj was a getaway favorite among locals.
Rovinj appeared to be a hub point for exploring all of Istria. I am happy we ended up staying in Motovun given how much there is to do there and provided a more relaxing experience. While we were sad to leave Motovun, we were excited to explore Rovinj.
The drive was very easy as we passed lots of farm land and small towns along the way. At a certain point, we turned a bend of the round about, the town of Rovinj appeared. It was a sort of fantasy seeing it in the distance with the sea in the background – this was going to be wonderful.
A 3 AM wake up call is not a brilliant vacation idea but I was hoping it was worth it. We had a three hour jounrry for a 7AM arrival time at one of the national parks so it had to be. It was tough because after last nights dinner at Konoba Batelina, I did not want to have a long drive at night to find a spot to sleep to shorten the drive in the morning – it would have just taken hours off from the first part of the night. We went to bed early and did our best. We woke up and started the drive.
One thing I feel compelled to document for my future memory – related to nothing – at construction areas, there is the creepy mannequin that waves a hazard flag.
Anyway, Kevin did an incredible job with the drive (thank you!), the last hour was really unfun with so many pin turns through mountainous countryside. We had gotten no sneak peek or indication of the park, even when we parked the car. Though I had seen pictures in my research, I had no idea what to expect. And what a surprise it was when we walked through into Plitvice Lakes National Park.
After a stunning morning, we were so happy with this choice and honestly the route we took through the park could not have been more perfect – highly recommend!
Our last and final stop was Zagreb before our flight home – I could not believe we were at this portion of the trip. Before reaching Zagreb, we stopped at the town of Karlovac to visit their museum, Muzej Domovinskog rata Karlovac – Turanj, to learn a bit about the war that took place in the 90s.
The last leg of the car ride into Zagreb was easy on the highways (no without one final toll – I wonder what the heck we paid in tolls on this trip), filled up the gas tank (I could not believe how expensive gas was here – to fill up the tank of our tiny car was close to $80 USD) and returned the car in downtown Zagreb (with the assurance the massive deposit would be reversed – update, it was!).
Being in the city was a bit daunting – it was so different than everything we did in the country side and sea side – to be back in a European concrete jungle was a bit much. This was clearly a working city not catered to tourists and that theme came up multiple times during our time in Zagreb – both in positive and in negative ways. It was refreshing and exciting to be back in a European city!
Read about our time in Zagreb (Day 6 through 8) here!
And with that concludes our first international post pandemic trip. I’d say it was a big success. We felt safe with COVID precautions the entire time which validated my reasoning for picking Croatia to begin with.
We were hopping our journey back to the USA would be better than leaving it. I would say overall it was much better but not without some moments to make me panic:
- COVID tests are required to enter the USA, regardless of vaccination status. As mentioned, Zagreb’s airport offers the service so that it would be convenient for tourists. Before we left, the website and an email correspondence I have with the airport indicated the start of COVID testing was at 0330AM every day. Since our flight was at 0630AM, a 0330AM arrival meant we have enough time to get the COVID tests done and wait for results, check into the flight, clear security and passport check, and then board the plane on time. We arrived at the airport at 0345AM and no one was at the COVID test counter – this was literally my exact fear (why I emailed the airport) and nightmare situation of us being unable to get home. I checked the website and magically in the week we were here the start time changed to 0430AM. Just a reminder that things are still constantly changing and to be checking constantly. Luckily once they opened it all worked out – I was happy to be at the front of the line as it extended quite long. It was also imperative because we could not use the kiosks to check in which forced us to wait in the counter line with everyone enormous luggage in order to get our boarding pass – but this was so they could check our COVID test results. So mild panic but it all worked out.
- Both flights home were smooth – no complaints!
- Entering the US: While we have Global Entry (best investment ever if you travel internationally), I assumed we would have more checks but nope! Once we were off the plane we were out of the airport in five minutes.
What an incredible trip! I was thrilled that all of the research, planning, and work paid off and rewarded us with such a warm welcome back to Europe. While we only scratched the surface of what Croatia has to offer, we were so impressed with the Istria Peninsula – you could easily fill over a week here!