One of Di’s must do adventures in Croatia was to explore the Plitvice National Park and in particular the Plitvice Lakes. For this reason we thought we would lash out and spend money on a tour rather than do-it-yourself-travel like we normally do, so we booked a tour from Zadar. The host of our apartment recommended his ‘friend’, who just happened to own a tour company to take us on the tour to the lakes. We had looked at several options including; pricing a local taxi driver to take us there, 90 minutes there and 90 minutes back and the driver would wait 3 hours for us, any longer and the cost went up. That would cost 60 Euros and we still had to pay the park entrance fee. We could have caught a local bus, but what we saved in money we lost in time, and then there is always the possibility we could not get on the bus we wanted. The bus would take two hours and the return cost for both of us would be 44 Euros and then park entry on top.
The tour was 60 Euros each, 120 Euros for the two of us or AUD$180. We were picked up at the apartment. There were 12 other tourists in the large and comfortable minivan. It took 90 minutes to get there and 90 minutes back. The price also included breakfast and lunch. The park entry fee was also included. We were dropped off back at the apartment. The tour departed at 8.30am and we arrived back at 6.30pm. We also had the most loveable tour guide for the day, Ann Marie. The park entry fee varies enormously depending on the season, we were there shoulder season and the cost was 16 Euros each – it rises significantly during the summer season.
We were picked up promptly at 8.30am (always a good sign) and met our multinational fellow tourists; there were British, Germans, Indians, Swedish, French, Irish, Taiwanese and us Australians. The drive up over the mountains surrounding Zadar is very special with outstanding views down to the ocean. About 15 minutes from the park we stopped for a delightful ham and cheese omelette, bread, and coffee breakfast at a small restaurant.
The Plitvice Park was established after the Second World War in 1949. The park is near the border to Bosnia. Our guide, Ann Marie, quoted us some staggering figures in regards to the Parks’ tourism. From 1949 when the park opened, it took until 2010, for the park to have its one millionth visitor. Yes, Tito and communism and the Bosnian War would impact on those figures. Since 2010, every year the park has had one million visitors, with 2017 reaching 1.3 million in the summer alone. Our guide said it was mayhem in the park in August and she believes tourist numbers need to be controlled.
There are 16 lakes in a two square kilometre area and these lakes cascade from one to the other – kind of like steps. Some of these cascades meander, whilst others fall as a waterfall. From the main entry there are options of getting around. All the lakes are connected by a wooden boardwalk or hiking trails, where we entered it was near the middle of the lakes and there are bus options to the top lake and then walk down to the bottom lake, or bus to the bottom lake and walk to the top lake, or a combination of the two. Ann Marie chose for us to walk up to the top lake, bus down to the middle, and then walk down to the bottom lake, where our minivan could pick us up – she claimed this way would be the least busy option and we got to see all 16 lakes.
Thus to get to the boardwalk from the middle part you catch a boat across the river – this is a short distance and takes a few minutes.
The boat and bus are all included in the park entry fee. You then start a leisurely stroll slightly uphill along the boardwalk – the walk is not difficult at all though.
We soon found ourselves among cascading streams of the clearest water imaginable.
The colour of the water has the most beautiful turquoise and teal and this was in contrast to the green, red, yellow and brown autumn leaves – the place is visually stunning.
The water was like glass and so still, when it was not cascading, and created wonderful mirror effects. The only drawback for me was the constant sound of running water plays havoc with my bladder!!!
Walking along the boardwalk we got to know our lovely fellow travellers better and travel tales flowed thick and fast. The weather was an immaculate 21 degrees Celsius and the sun shone dazzling in the clear blue skies, which all added to the multitude of colours surrounding us. It was nearly perfect.
In a ‘perfect world’ the 14 of us would have been able to casually stroll along and snap photos at will in complete comfort – the reality was that we kept getting engulfed with large, 50 plus in number, tourist groups. The boardwalk is wide enough to accommodate two people passing, but that means the two have to move towards the edge of the boardwalk, there are no railings to the boardwalk, so if you step incorrectly or trip, you may end up having a swim. Thus I understand that people want to walk in the middle of the boardwalk, but this means no one can pass without tempting fate at the boardwalk edge. Now I know I am no ‘spring chicken’, but a lot of the tourists were 70 years old plus, so walking was difficult for some of them. This meant there were huge ‘traffic’ snarls with the slow pace and the volume of people. This led to impatient walkers, at the rear, hurrying past people in front of them, there was pushing and shoving and at times I imagine it was like being in an All Black scrum! Ann Marie kept saying, ‘this is nothing, come in summer, you cannot move’.
This mass tourist issue brought about some discussion with us. The boardwalk is made of wood and is an absolute wonderful way to get around the lakes, but it is wood and will only take a certain weight load day after day. The water is crystal clear and you can see the bottom, but that is deceptive as to the depth. Ann Marie said in August 25,000 visitors per day is common – it concerns me the place is an accident waiting to happen!
Di is the hare and I am the tortoise – Di dodges around people and scampers off into the distance, I politely move in front of others when it is courteously safe to do so!!! Then someone from behind pushes past you BUT THEN stops right in front of you to take a photo – frustrating!!!!!
At each fork in the path Ann Marie made it clear we all had to wait for all 14 to catch up. Di would sit there and see all the people she so gracefully, manoeuvred passed, slowly trudge on by, whilst we waited for all of our group – she would then set off again at pace and would pass them all again – she was experiencing her own private Sisyphus moment (you know the Greek mythology guy who pushed the rock uphill each day only for it to return to the original spot the next day, and he did it all again, for eternity)!!!!
Having said this, the lakes are magnificent and the tourist numbers never really bothered me on this fine autumn day in October. It took a couple of hours to reach the top lake.
On the way some of the hiking trails were literally carpeted with wonderfully coloured autumn leaves. The top lake is the biggest lake and from there we caught the bus back to the middle where the boat was located. I also need to stress at this point the importance of bringing your own water as there are VERY FEW places inside the park to buy water – there are only a handful of small shops.
We then walked to the bottom lake. At one point on the way to the bottom lake the painfully slow pace of the congested boardwalks and paths, resulted in our guide sitting down and saying ‘we will sit here for ten minutes and just let all these people go’! She did not like the crowds let me tell you. The guide knew the large group were going to take the path all the way down, whereas we ‘younger’ and fitter adventurers could go through Supljara Cave.
Suplijara Cave is “a cave without a floor or a ceiling” – well sorry then, but by definition, it is not a cave!! Suplijara Cave is more a hole in the ground that takes you straight down to the river below. The decent is by a switchback type of path that cuts backward and forward around the hole. The Cave has some steep steps but is more awkward than physically difficult.
Once at the bottom we were back on the boardwalk and way in front of those walking down by the path.
These lower lakes are the best of the lot and the scenery is breathtaking in places. It also has the largest waterfall, at 78 metres, in this 16 lake area.
It was here though we walked head first into a large Chinese group – where would we be without these large Chinese groups to entertain us! Well, Eileen, the Irish lady, must have thought she was back in a Dublin pub, because she just barrelled right through the middle of these clueless Chinese. It was nearly like being in a bowling alley and Eileen was the bowling ball hurtling towards a strike of Chinese – it was lovely to watch – I, of course, joined her husband and followed along in her slipstream!!! Yes, the tune to Dexys Midnight Runners 1982 hit did go through my mind!!
We were in the park for five hours and the time did not lag in the slightest. We walked a long way, but it wasn’t at a fast pace, with most of the walking being on easy paths or the boardwalk. The Plitvice Lakes are some of the most stunning lakes in Europe. If you come to Croatia this area is a must visit.
We enjoyed meeting our new friends on the tour and they were all lovely people. On the way back we stopped for a very late lunch of grilled chicken, salad and potatoes – we also cracked open a few beers that were not part of tour price, no matter how hard we tried to convince Ann Marie otherwise.
The thing that really stood out, for me, at the lakes was the colour of the water. Not just the clarity of the water but the rich shades of blue and green. The shades of colour vary due to the quantity of minerals in the water. Fishing is prohibited in the park so you will see very large schools of large fish just dawdling near the surface, blissfully unaware that many beady eyes are silently imagining them frying away in garlic and lemon!!!
You can get to the Plitvice Lakes from Zagreb, Split and Dubrovnik, with Zadar (where we were) and Zagreb being the closest at about 150 kms away (the lakes are halfway between the two). Split is 280 kms and Dubrovnik is 460 kms away. Personally, I feel Zadar is worth a visit, as I enjoyed all this lovely seaside town had to offer. Thus a day trip to the lakes from Zadar is the best option and is not restricted due to the long distance you have to travel if you come from Split, and especially Dubrovnik.
I would recommend a smaller tour to the park with a dozen people or so. I was worried that if we caught public transport to the park there may not have been enough space on the bus, especially the return leg – no, you cannot book. Ann Marie was a charming and funny guide – the tour was great and the people we met were great fun.
The areas we attended, the 16 lakes, are what the majority of the tourists come for and spend an entire day doing it. The park, though, is vast and there are many more waterfalls, rivers, lakes, hiking trails, etc, to keep you entertained.
The adventure continues …………………………