The prosciutto- and arugula-laced sandwiches beckoned from the cafe displays at Venice’s shiny new Marco Polo Airport.
Despite my annual trips to Europe, I have never seen the storied canals and haunting architecture of this city. Still, my friend Vanessa and I settled for two frothy cappuccinos to go, trudged to the rental car hut and bid arrivederci to Venice.
We were headed to an all-inclusive family resort on the Adriatic Sea on Croatia’s Istrian Peninsula, a two-hour drive from the airport.
What was I thinking, bypassing one of the world’s greatest cities for a sleepy coastal resort?
I was thinking that Croatia — a spot still off the well-worn path for U.S. tourists — would be fascinating.
The itinerary wasn’t my design. I had been visiting Vanessa, who lives in Berlin, and she suggested we join her Austrian cousin and his family at the Valamar Club Tamaris, one of the low-key resorts to locate on Istria in the past decade. I welcomed the suggestion, intrigued by the country’s rich history, turbulent transformation and lingering mystery.
Croatia had been part of Yugoslavia, a corner of the world shielded from the West after World War II, until it declared independence in 1991. That move incited a siege by the Serb-controlled Yugoslav People’s Army, which sought to keep Croatia. A year later, some 20,000 lives had been lost. The Croatian infrastructure and economy suffered staggering losses. Traveling to Croatia felt like paying tribute to the survivors.
On our drive there, after passing the dusky Dolomites, we were lost in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia.
As unplanned detours often are, this one was a gift, assuaging any second thoughts about Venice with our first dazzling view of the deep blue Adriatic held by wooded green, rocky mountains. My friend and I have seen renowned landscapes together: Santa Barbara wine country, New York’s Central Park, Munich at Christmas, the Great Lakes in the summer. This staggering beauty stopped conversation: unadulterated water, mountains, skies that lift the heart and soak into the soul. We looked wide-eyed at each other and grinned.
With the help of an English-speaking gas station attendant, we eventually made our way into Croatia and to the resort.
Croatia occupies most of Istrian Peninsula, but shares the coast with Slovenia and Italy. Centuries of Italian and Austrian influence remains. Signs and menus in the area come in three languages: Croatian, Italian and German. During the drive, I recalled Minnesota’s late Gov. Rudy Perpich’s affinity for Croatia. Back in 1991 when he served as an economic adviser to the Yugoslavian Republic, which had broken away from the Soviet Union, Perpich envisioned the region as a tourist draw. Call him a visionary.
Europeans have discovered the area. Porec is a spring break hot spot for Brits. The coast is an easy drive for Austrians, including Vanessa’s cousin Sebastian and his wife, Rasha, who drove from Vienna with their young girls, Lili and Anna-Cecilia.
As we pulled up on the back side of the resort, we were greeted with awnings over rows of parked cars just off a gravel road. The rooms were unremarkable — until you opened the curtains. From our porch, we had that view again of visual peace: nothing but sea, sky and rocky hillside.
When I vacation, I am drawn to big cities where I might rent an apartment so I can do things at my own leisurely pace. I was nervous about the structure, rules and activities at an all-inclusive resort. I found instead freedom from planning and joy in doing nothing.
Valamar touts itself as an all-inclusive hotel for “light” family fun, with a set of six fenced trampolines, two swimming pools and bicycling boats. The most popular adult activity at the resort is tennis.
Our days, on the other hand, revolved around the resort’s meal plan.
We were slack-jawed at our first foray into the cavernous come-as-you-are, sit-where-you-choose cafeteria that we called the “mess hall.”
The options ranged from piles of sautéed squid and rotisserie meat to soups and stretch salad bars laden with pickled fish, beets and macaroni salads. The Europeans loaded up on red meat and fish. I succumbed to a narrow diet of Neapolitan pizza and pasta Bolognese.
We soon threw ourselves into the meal schedule and, like schoolkids, delighted in trying to subvert it. The cappuccino machine got shut down for the day at 10 a.m. The wine and beer spigots got shut off at 9 p.m. At first we mocked the lines of diners ferrying multiple glasses of wine to stock their tables before the deadline, then we participated. Rasha wrapped up snacks to smuggle out for the girls.
A jittery Sebastian confessed to me while poolside that he had consumed three double espressos at breakfast, “because I knew it would be shut down at lunch,” he said.
An open play area in the mess hall gave the restive children a diversion as we bellied up for our third and fourth trips to the buffet.
The adjacent bar was always open, but not crowded. I ventured there alone one night for a pre-dinner drink. Unlike Vanessa, Sebastian and Rasha, I speak only rudimentary German and no Croatian, the two main languages at the resort. The handsome bartender was baffled by my request for a vodka-tonic. I settled for vodka on the rocks with a twist.
At night the hotel and mess hall turned cozy, the unlit shoreline not visible through the resort’s window-lined walls. By day the water was a constant companion.
Unfortunately, the sea was much too cold for swimming during my spring visit. Only once did I see intrepid bathers wading in to their thighs. But every morning, I wandered down alone to the quiet shore, swaddled in fleece to nestle into an Adirondack chair, watch the sun rise over the Adriatic and take a nap.
As the day warmed, the action was poolside for a pre-lunch swim. For us, swimming meant taking turns tossing Lili and Anna-Cecilia as they squealed and giggled. The decks were always lined with bathers, but the pool was often empty enough for me to log leisurely laps.
Once when our conversation turned to food, Sebastian wondered what might be on the night’s dinner menu. Vanessa responded, “Eighty percent of what we had for lunch.”
True enough, Valamar wasn’t fancy, but we got all we needed to relax without demands on our time or pressure to participate. Valamar felt like a gorgeous summer camp and Croatia, a stripped-down version of Italy with the same stunning views, but not as many tourists.
The extent of our touring: a 30-minute ferry ride across the bay to the sleepy port city of Novigrad and a 15-minute drive into Porec, a cobblestoned city center with an ancient church, rickety bridges and sidewalk cafes. We didn’t stay long; we had to get back for dinner.
On our final day, I arranged for a sailboat excursion on one of the resort’s little sloops. We recruited a staff member for a one-hour jaunt in the bay. Lili and I skimmed our hands along the water as I privately yearned for a bigger boat, a stronger wind and a wilder ride farther out to sea.
But like the weekend, the excursion gave me enough, and I left craving more.
After we got through the Croatia-Slovenia border en route to Venice, Vanessa turned to me and said, “We have to promise each other we’ll go back soon.”
I knew what she meant; we both wanted more. Venice can wait. I will see it some day as it should be seen — in a laid-back season — or maybe I will just return to Croatia.