Like many destinations in transition, Croatia inspires plenty of misconceptions in the minds of would-be visitors. According to Wanda Radetti, owner of Tasteful Croatian Journeys in New York, clients often express anxiety about the safety of the destination, the quality of food and accommodations and the ability of locals to speak English. The good news, Radetti said, is that agents can give an unequivocal thumbs-up on all counts.
"The level of sophistication [in terms of the tourism infrastructure] is misconstrued," said Radetti, whose boutique company operates as a tour operator and supplier specializing in Croatia.
That said, the evolution of the country into a bona fide tourism destination has its downside for clients who expect a disproportionately cheap vacation, the way Spain used to draw bargain hunters away from France and Italy decades ago. Those disparities between vacation costs in European countries have, for the most part, disappeared as the world has become smaller, Radetti said, adding, "A five-star hotel is a five-star hotel" and will be priced accordingly.
Acknowledging that access to the country from the U.S. isn't easy (although connecting flights are increasingly available from a number of European gateways, including London, Frankfurt and Rome), Radetti recommended that agents resist the urge to book their clients in and out of the same city.
Instead, she suggested a route that begins in one destination, such as Dubrovnik, and departs from another, such as Trieste or Zagreb, in order to give visitors the most variety and in-depth experience.
An ideal 10-day itinerary for first-timers could start in Dubrovnik, for example, with an overnight in a hotel overlooking the Dubrovnik Riviera; a private, guided three-hour tour of the walled old city; and a day trip to neighboring country Montenegro, which Radetti said is fascinating but not quite ready for its close-up in terms of overnight stays.
Visitors frequently ask to island-hop -- Croatia boasts some 1,000 islands off its coast -- but the process of getting around by ferry is not particularly user-friendly, especially for travelers lugging suitcases. A better itinerary suggestion is to travel north to the Peljesac Peninsula, which exudes an island ambience but is connected to the mainland and accessible by car. The peninsula, known for its beaches and fine wines, boasts one of the most charming towns on the Dalmatian coast: Ston, a village surrounded by one of the longest fortified medieval stone walls in Europe.
Visitors can climb part of the wall, dine in local restaurants and sample the oysters for which the region is known. The Orebic beaches in this area are popular with Europeans and offer fine sand, family-friendly waves and a host of services.
From here, visitors can take a 15-minute ferry ride for a day trip to Korcula Island, said to be the birthplace of Marco Polo. The explorer's birthplace and museum are open within the medieval walled city on the island.
Also available in the Orebic beach area are sailboat rentals, wine tastings at local vineyards (reputed to be the source of the zinfandel grape) and visits to a family-friendly farm that produces mule milk.
Travelers can then move via ferry and land toward Split, with a stop in Makarska, a mountain village with scenic views of the Adriatic. Here the ambience is both traditional, with fishermen coming in with their day's catch, and modern, with cafes and shops along the promenade.
Guidebooks tend to overlook Split, but according to Radetti, the city is especially worth visiting for its Imperial palace, built by Roman emperor Diocletian and which is on the Unesco World Heritage List. The castle, in addition to being the setting for summer festivals and concerts, offers a lively selection of hotels and other services within its walls.
Continuing north, visitors can stop in Sibenik, a small town on the sea with a harbor, historical piazza and cathedral, before moving on to Istria, an increasingly well-known region that, because of its location on the borders with Slovenia and Italy, benefits from Germanic, Slavic and Italian cultural influences. Fans of Tuscany will notice a similarity in the hill towns, vineyards and highly evolved culinary scene.
One of the most popular stops in Istria is Opatija, which features restored seaside villas, a half-mile coastal promenade and such attractions and activities as festivals, hikes, summer theater and a casino.
Istria's biggest city is Pula, which boasts a Roman amphitheater built by emperor Flavius in the first century, and visitors can also check out the statue of James Joyce, who lived in the town in the early 20th century, as well as the Pula Film Festival, one of Europe's oldest.
Rovinj is another favorite Istria town, thanks to narrow, cobbled streets, its picturesque architecture -- especially St. Euphemia Cathedral, with its 200-foot-high church tower -- and its lively art, cafe and restaurant scenes.
Trieste, Italy, makes a logical last stop on the itinerary, especially for travelers looking to combine their Croatia tour with a visit to Venice. One of the most famous of this seaside city's attractions is the Piazza Unita d'Itali in the central square.
An alternative last stop is Zagreb, once a stop on the Orient Express.
Tasteful Croatian Journeys, a division of Honeybee Productions and a Conde Nast Traveler-Croatia World Top Destination Specialist since 2006, sells packages and FITs net or on a 10% commission. For more, go to www.visitcroatia.com.
This report appeared in the June 14 issue of Travel Weekly.