Croatian resort feels like summer camp

  • Article by: ROCHELLE OLSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 20, 2013 - 8:29 AM

On the Istrian Peninsula, an all-inclusive family resort smacks of summer camp, albeit with reminders of the country's history and gorgeous views of the Adriatic.

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A pebbly beach in quiet Novigrad, Croatia, on the Adriatic Sea.

Photo: Rochelle Olson , Star Tribune

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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.”

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