Although the tragic breakup of Yugoslavia yielded no victors, Croatia looks like it was shrewdly gerrymandered to get the lion's share of the region's natural splendors. The newly independent nation is oddly shaped like a long, skinny fork, with the entire left prong running along more than 1,100 miles of the Adriatic's dazzling eastern shore -- stippled with nearly a thousand verdant offshore islands, and buttressed from behind by the Dinaric Alps. Part of the ancient land of Illyricum, Croatia was occupied by the Roman Empire as early as 229 B.C., and it's still rich with ancient ruins -- Diocletian's third-century palace, in Split, being chief among them. Though much was lost to Serbian bombing during the early 1990s, many medieval towns remain in beautiful condition, such as the walled city of Dubrovnik. And Croatia's travel industry has quickly revived, finally availing its treasures to Western travelers, who were barred for decades by the Iron Curtain even before the more recent civil strife.
For American travelers, Croatia is still off the beaten track -- to the extent that it's hard to come by packages on major players like Expedia or Travelocity, and no US airline flies there directly. From Europe, you can fly into either Split, Dubrovnik, or the capital of Zagreb, which is by far the cheapest destination by air. At press time, Alitalia and Lufthansa were offering the best fares and service into the capital, respectively via Milan and either Frankfurt or Munich. For travel from roughly May 8 to May 15, round-trip airfare from New York JFK to Zagreb is $897, including taxes, on Alitalia, with a stop in Milan, from Orbitz (www.orbitz.com); from Chicago it's $979 total on Alitalia, with a stop in Milan, also via Orbitz; and it's $1,115 total from Los Angeles on Lufthansa, with a stop in Munich, from Mobissimo (www.mobissimo.com). From Zagreb, Croatia Airlines (www.croatiaairlines.hr) flies into Dubrovnik, Split, or Zadar. Round-trip from Zagreb to Dubrovnik, a 55-minute flight each way, is about $68 US. Croatia's bus system is also efficient and inexpensive. The best option for this destination, however, is to rent a car. The major international rental agencies have offices in Zagreb, and the coastal road along the Adriatic is often called one of the world's most beautiful drives.
On the ground, Croatia is one of Europe's more affordable destinations, but during peak summer months, when throngs of Europeans flock to some of the continent's best beaches, accommodations are more expensive than food and transportation. Very few Croatian hotels have listings on the major hotel search engines, but a good way to find your own lodgings is through Croatia-based Generalturist (www.generalturist.com). Prices are based on weekly stays, but they can be inexpensive. The cheapest digs in Dubrovnik, at the two-star Grand Hotel Park Annexe, are $383 a week. The recommended hotels -- the three-star Hotel Splendid and Grand Hotel Park -- are $770 and $555 respectively, for the week. See the website for details.
Gate 1 Travel's (tel. 800/682-3333; www.gate1travel.com) 11-day "Affordable Croatia and Slovenia" package is highly structured, with very limited fall and winter departures, but at $969, it's a steal. You'll cover a lot of ground by bus, with English-speaking guides narrating the scenery, and the lead price is good only for December 1 departures from New York. Featured cities -- where you'll spend the night, with free time on the ground -- are Opatija (at the four-star Grand), Split (at the three-star Marjan Hotel), Dubrovnik (at the 3-1/2-star Park Hotel), Plitvice Lakes (at the three-star Hotel Grabovac), and Bled (at the 3-1/2-star Hotel Jelovica). Highlights include the Bled Castle, Dubrovnik's Old Town, and Diocletian's Palace. The price includes bus transport between cities, applicable entrance fees, daily breakfast, and two dinners. Guided city tours are optional. For the complete itinerary, see the website. Departures on November 3 and 7 are $999, and October 20 departures are $1,199.
Gate 1's 13-day "Affordable Croatia and Italy" is virtually the same journey, but it begins and ends in Venice. Thirteen nights are $1,119 for December 1 departures only. In Italy, you'll stay at the four-star Ai Mori D'Oriente.
For all Gate 1 packages to Croatia, alternative departure cities and land-only prices are available , and April 29 is the purchase deadline. The totals quoted here include hotel taxes but not air taxes and fees between $50 and $250. See the website for further details.
Paul Laifer Tours (tel. 800/346-6314; www.laifertours.com) is running the best unescorted package deal to Croatia, with a stop in Austria. Laifer's 12-day air-hotel package in Zagreb, Dubrovnik, and Vienna is $1,939, good from now until May 31. (This package is significantly cheaper off-season; from January 2 to March 31 next year, it's $1,499. For the most part, rates climb steadily through summer: From June 1 to 18, it's $2,299; from June 19 to 30, it's $2,199; and during high season, from July 1 to August 31, it's $2,339.) The price includes round-trip airfare on Austrian Airlines from JFK; four days in Vienna, two in Zagreb, and four in Dubrovnik; air transport between cities; half-day, guided tours of each venue; and daily buffet breakfast. In Vienna, you'll stay in the four-star Albatross Hotel; the Zagreb hotel is the optimally located Hotel Dubrovnik; and in Dubrovnik, you'll stay in the three-star, seafront Lero Hotel, within walking distance of the walled city. Additional departures are available from Toronto and Montreal; call for details. Prices include hotel taxes but not airline fees and taxes of roughly $180 to $190.
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