croatia Plitvice LakesWhile most North American visitors to Croatia explore the Dalmatian islands and the country's coastal cities by cruise ship, there are many travel destinations inland.

At the top of the list is Plitvice Lakes National Park, the oldest national park in Southeast Europe.

The 73,350-acre nature reserve in the mountainous central region of Croatia, near the border of Bosnia and Herzegovina, was founded in 1949 when the area was part of Yugoslavia.

Plitvice Lakes was named a Unesco World Heritage site in 1979 for its natural wonders, but it's the simple beauty of nature that leaves visitors with the deepest impression.

Each year more than a million visitors, mostly from Europe and Asia, explore the park's numerous waterfalls and 16 interlinked lakes via five miles of dirt trails and wooden walkways. Many of the paths are wheelchair-accessible.

A ticket is required to enter the park with discounts for visitors with an International Student Identity Card (ticket offices are located at the park's entrances). To preserve the pristine nature of the water, swimming is not allowed in the park.

The lakes, formed by natural dams of travertine, are renowned for their distinctive colors that constantly change depending on the quantity of minerals and organisms in the water and the angle of the sunlight.

The surrounding forests of beech and fir trees are home to a wide variety of animals, including European brown bears, wolves, lynx and 126 species of birds.

Visit the Plitvice Lakes National Park site at np-plitvicka-jezera.hr/en.

How to get there, where to stay

Plitvice Lakes became a major tourist attraction in the late-19th century, with the first hotel being built there in 1896 to support the influx of visitors.

Today's top hotel choices for international travelers are the Hotel Jezero and the Hotel Plitvice.

Hotel Jezero is situated a short distance from the national park's largest lake, Kozjak.

The hotel has 229 rooms, including two handicapped-accessible rooms. All rooms are equipped with satellite TVs, telephones and Internet connections and washrooms with either a bath or shower. The majority of rooms are equipped with a minibar.

Additional features include a bar, a restaurant, a whirlpool, Finnish and Turkish steam baths, a hair salon and meeting rooms.

Next to the Hotel Jezero is the 51-room Hotel Plitvice. All rooms have satellite TV, minibars and direct telephone lines. The hotel has a restaurant and a lobby bar.

Information on both hotels can be found on the national park's website.

Tour operators with Croatian mainland itineraries that visit Plitvice Lakes National Park include Adriatic Tours (www.adriatictours.com), Kompas Holidays (www.kompas.net), Adriatic Luxury Journeys (www.adriaticluxury.com) and CIE Tours (www.cietours.com).

The New York-based Croatia Travel Agency (www.croatiatravel.com) focuses on the country that bears its name.

Visit the Croatian National Tourist Board website at http://croatia.hr/en-gb/homepage.

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