Dobar Dan from Croatia

Dobar don (Hello!) from Croatia. This greeting works all over the former Yugoslavia, which for those of you who have asked, is where we are - across the Adriatic from Italy and right below Austria and Slovenia.

Croatia gained its independence in 1991 and is about to become part of the European Union, although it still uses its local currency, the kuna, rather than the euro. The war with the Serbs over who should occupy certain towns and cities ended 17 years ago. Memories still linger, of course. Take a ride through the countryside and see abandoned villages once occupied by Serbs and abandoned homes pock marked with bullet holes. But 21st-century is Croatia not only safe and peaceful, it's a bargain for travelers compared to Western Europe.

Tom and I last visited Croatia about nine years ago, and at that time, visited Dubrovnik as well as spending time in Bosnia. This is a short 10-day trip for us, so we had to make some hard choices: A short visit to Plitvice Lakes National Park, then onto Sibenik, a small town on the Dalmatian coast; the Roman city of Split; and finally Zagreb.

We usually like to start out in a major city, but we decided to save Zagreb until the end this time, and instead head directly from the airport to the bus station and onto a bus for a two-hour ride to Plitvice Lakes National Park. Maybe it was the special Hindu meal we ordered on Delta Airlines, but we arrived surprisingly un-jet-lagged, given the 13 hours of flying time from Seattle via Paris and the nine-hour time difference.

For some reason, the AC wasn't working on the bus, and Croatians consider breathing outside air while in a car or bus unhealthy, so everyone toughed it out with the windows closed. We spotted some nice little guesthouses along the way, but since we don't have a car, we reserved a room at one of the two hotels inside the park. The Hotel Bellevue is a big Communist-era place that looks as if it's set up mostly for tour groups, but it's quiet this time of year and a good value. So quiet, in fact, we could hear birds and frogs from our porch. After a walk and a dinner of fresh lake trout, veggies, salad, strudel and red wine, we were ready to explore.

Plitvice is a natural marvel with 16 terraced lakes, separated by natural limestone rock dams and connected by dozens of waterfalls, all accessible by a network of boardwalks and forested walking paths, electric lake boats and shuttle buses. Plitvice became Croatia's first national park in 1949 and it's the country's pride and joy for good reason. The guidebooks recommend spending a few hours here, but we spent most of a day walking about 6 miles, enjoying the sunny, mild weather and making lots of stops for pictures and taking in the views. Shuttle buses connect two major areas - the Upper Lakes and the Lower Lakes - so almost anyone in any kind of shape can get around and enjoy the hikes.

We met lots of Japanese, Koreans and Germans, but this was the end of a holiday week in Croatia, and from the looks of all the young people on the trails, Plitvice is popular with locals too. One group organized a sing-along on one of the lake boats- likely the Croatian equivalent of "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall." Everyone enjoys the park's picnic areas where vendors roast chicken and sausages on wood fires and the local Ozujsko beer.

Getting to our next stop - Sibinek, a medieval town on the Dalmatian coast - sounded like it might be be a challenge. Buses pass by Plitvice about a half-dozen times a day, but you can't buy a ticket or make a reservation, and word was if they're full, they pass right on by. We got to the bus stop about 45 minutes early along with a group of six Japanese. Lucky for us, the bus wasn't full and we all got on for a four-hour ride through the mountains and along the coast to Sibinek. There we checked into a beautiful $53 per night apartment in the Venetian old town rented out to us by Nina and Lucky, owners of the new Indigo Hostel next door. They named their hostel for the blue jeans that decorate the walls. Leave a pair, take a pair.

Next: Exploring Sibinek and Krka National Park

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