Making ordinary travel extraordinary

Everyone travels with a purpose in mind—business, relaxation, getting-away-from-it-all, education, sightseeing, culinary curiosity…well, the list goes on. Why do I travel? Maybe all the above, but there’s always needs to be a little more for me and it is that “little more” that makes things extraordinary.

This month, my husband and I took one week to experience the Dalmatian Coast in Croatia. I had read about its blue waters, dramatic cliffs, charming towns, and everything else that has made Croatia an international tourist destination.

But, we added two “little” conditions to our journey.

One was that we would backpack–-no suitcase, no hassle. My European experience never feels complete unless I put a pack on my back and wander around looking for a place to eat or sleep. A sense of liberation and youthfulness starts to wash over me the minute I roll my shirts and layer them in my backpack.

The second condition was that we will find a unique bar on every island to enjoy our traditional evening drink. (No, I am not promoting drinking …natural juices are also served in all Croatian bars.)

Our journey started in Dubrovnik. After soaking in the history, walking on the old city wall, experimenting with Croatian dishes, we headed for the

A cliff hanger

A cliff hanger

region’s most talked-about beach. We’re used to the beaches of Siesta Key, Florida, with white sand covering an area the size of four football fields. What we encountered was the size of a basketball court— and full of pebbles and stones. After the initial shock, we came to realize that the simple, elemental landscape created by the combination of rocks and sea was just as remarkable as any Florida beach. it was gorgeous!

Searching for our special place to have a drink, we found the Buza Bar, a small place that seemed to be hanging off a cliff. While it was relatively expensive, we knew that we were paying for that extraordinary view, not the drinks.

The next day, we took a ferry to Korcula island. As we expected, the ferry was filled with students from all around the world, mostly backpacking. We may have seemed out of place, but never felt so. We talked with young travelers and learned the island’s best bar sits atop one of the fort towers. “But you have to climb through a small hole in the ceiling using a temporary ladder,” they advised us. Getting to Massimo proved to be quite an adventure, but once on top of the tower, we loved sipping our mojitos as the beat of loud music surrounded us and an invigorating wind blew through our hair.

The next stay was in Hvar, Croatia’s most popular island. We rented a scooter, and we decided to disappear into the mountains. It was hot and humid as we left, but the skies darkened. Soon, there was thunder, lightning and cold, with absolutely no shelter in sight. By the time we found a village (if you can call five houses a village), we were soaking wet. It was fun, nonetheless.

The recommended bar for this area was Carpe Diem, located not on the shore but a nearby private island. The operating hours, we were informed, ran from midnight to 6 a.m. Really? Six in the morning? What a concept!

After Hvar and Stari Grad, we boarded a catamaran to get to Split, with its dazzling Diocletian’s Palace, built in the 3rd century. The huge palace (once the retirement home for the emperor) has now been converted into a vibrant urban space with shops, restaurant and rental apartments. We stayed there with our room window opening to the largest square within the palace. That night, I kept my window open and, despite the sounds coming from below, I slept better than usual. I realized why. My childhood was filled with urban noises – rickshaw-pullers arguing, vendors selling vegetables, trains whistling by, and street dogs barking at passing cars. You can change as much as you want, but you can never take the childhood out of your system. How comforting!

Our bar of choice in Split was situated on the steps of palatial ruins. Luxor sets up cushions and wooden boards and serves you drinks as you watch curious visitors raise their eyes to look at the bell tower, the cathedral or the treasury.

We took the local bus back to Dubrovnik so we could admire the coast from the landside. We could have rented a car, but that would spoil the backpacking mood. The trip took us through Bosnia, with its tight border security. Bosnia has a slim, 24-kilometer wedge of coastline that bisects Croatia. It was interesting to see the incredible density of hotels and restaurants squeezed along that Bosnian coastline. I suppose when you have such limited space, you use every inch of it.

Ice chamber

Ice chamber

On our last day in Dubrovnik, we were looking for another unique experience when we noticed a sign for Ice Bar. Yes, it sounded kind of touristy, but we were tourists after all, weren’t we? Upon entering, we were given parkas and led to an ice chamber where everything—table, chair, bar stool, glasses and decorations–was carved from ice. Frosty blue light danced and soft music played. We sipped our drinks and chatted with the bartender, just like in any other bar. After 30 bone-chilling minutes—that’s all we could take—we left. Brrrr!

After exploring every type of pebble beach, experimenting with all kinds of Adriatic and Mediterranean dishes and visiting with happy Croatians, we said good-bye. As an educator, I believe my strongest memory from this very memorable journey was how excited the young people became every time we told them that we taught at the University of Houston. In their eyes, a university professor was revered and college education was an important goal to pursue in their lives. Hearing that was as thrilling as any of the adventures we experienced during this wonderful trip.

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