Tuesday, August 23, 2016

A Bucket List-Worthy Adventure At Plitvice Lakes

Why you need to add Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia to your bucket list now!

Is this real life?

The lullaby of rushing cascades filled the air, while a kaleidoscope of emerald trees and turquoise waters delighted the senses. Through the roar of the waterfalls above me, I felt entirely at peace as rogue droplets splashed my face. Lost in reverie, the sublime beauty of this enchanted forest lead me to wonder if it were all just a dream.

Though it looks like a scene from a wooded fairytale, Croatia's resplendent Plitvice Lakes National Park is anything but a figment of the imagination. A most impressive feat of nature, Plitvice Lakes is the ultimate bucket list-worthy adventure.

A bucket list-worthy adventure at Plitvice Lakes, Croatia
A bucket list-worthy adventure at Plitvice Lakes, Croatia
A bucket list-worthy adventure at Plitvice Lakes, Croatia

Plitvice Paradise

Nestled in the mountainous Lika-Senj County separating continental Croatia from the southern coast, sixteen cascading lakes create an otherworldly oasis. The terraced lakes beget a series of majestic waterfalls, highlighted by pools of clear jewel-tone water. Narrow hiking trails, boardwalks and electric boats guide you through the lush maze of tranquil lakes and rushing cataracts.

The water gets its dazzling color from the sun reflecting upon the minerals and vegetation in the water. While it may seem tempting to jump in, you'll receive a hefty fine for diving into the waters of this protected UNESCO World Heritage Site. The park is also home to a diverse array of flora and fauna, making it a mecca for biologists, botanists and nature enthusiasts. That said, it doesn't take a scientist to appreciate the complex beauty of this ecological wonder.

A bucket list-worthy adventure at Plitvice Lakes, Croatia
A bucket list-worthy adventure at Plitvice Lakes, Croatia
A bucket list-worthy adventure at Plitvice Lakes, Croatia

Practical Tips

Just a two-hour drive from Zagreb, Plitvice Lakes National Park makes for a convenient stop on the way to the Dalmatian Coast. If you don't have a rental car, the park is also accessible by bus. While it's possible to see the entirety of the park in several hours, shutterbugs should allow more time to linger. Hours of operation and ticket prices can be found here.

While the park offers a limited selection of overpriced meals, your best bet is to pack a lunch. Wear comfortable walking shoes, but adorning full hiking gear isn't necessary. Since the crowds are in full-force come summertime, consider spending the night in a nearby hotel and visiting the park in the morning before the swarms of tourists arrive.

And please, I beg of you, don't bring a selfie stick.

A bucket list-worthy adventure at Plitvice Lakes, Croatia
A bucket list-worthy adventure at Plitvice Lakes, Croatia


Is Plitvice Lakes already on your bucket list?
(If not, what more do I need to do to convince you?!)


Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Discovering Continental Croatia

Discovering the highlights of continental Croatia | Adelante

Often overlooked for the glamour of the Dalmatian Coast, continental Croatia abounds with charms that are not to be missed. From the vibrant capital of Zagreb to the lush rolling hills of Zagorje, countless hidden gems are sprinkled throughout this underrated region.

Compared to the Mediterranean vibes of its coastal counterparts, continental Croatia boasts a distinctly central European flair. In turn, fewer tourists flock to the charismatic inland region. While its darling villages, medieval castles and impressive cuisine deserve a larger fan club, the smaller crowds allow for a more authentic taste of Croatia.

Though Croatia's coastal treasures are magical in their own right, it's worth getting off the beaten path to discover the highlights of continental Croatia.


ZAGREB

Zagreb | Discovering Continental Croatia

Croatia's quirky capital has become a vibrant hub of culture, arts and gastronomy. Surrounded by striking architecture reminiscent of the Austro-Hungarian empire, one may feel transported to nearby central European capitals, such as Budapest or Vienna. While some of its aesthetics may be similar, Zagreb playfully upholds a distinct personality.

From colorful street art to offbeat galleries, such as the Museum of Broken Relationships, there's no shortage of things to do in Zagreb. Explore the upper town, admire the picturesque cathedrals, indulge in the café culture, or experience the nightlife on Tkalčićeva Street. For some of capital's best cuisine, head to Vinodol for the roasted lamb and a phenomenal selection of wine.

Zagreb | Discovering Continental Croatia
Zagreb | Discovering Continental Croatia
Zagreb | Discovering Continental Croatia


After experiencing Zagreb's lively and unconventional charms, take a day trip to the lush Zagorje region, stopping at:


TRAKOŠĆAN CASTLE

Trakoscan Castle | Discovering Continental Croatia

Hidden in the hills of Zagorje, medieval Trakošćan Castle commands the countryside. Built as a fortress in the late 13th century and later inhabited by nobility, this historic manor functioned as a private residence until the state claimed the land in 1944.

The castle is adorned with historic furniture, decorations, weapons and photography displays. Among the well-preserved rooms, the antiquated kitchen is perhaps the most intriguing. Though the castle is not as opulent as other European palaces, Trakošćan gives a unique glimpse into the lives of Croatian aristocracy.

IMG_3668-9
Trakoscan Castle | Discovering Continental Croatia

VARAŽDIN

Varazdin | Discovering Continental Croatia

Straight out of a fairytale, the delightful village of Varaždin has all of the medieval charm of Prague without any of the crowds. Formerly the capital of Croatia, Varaždin is home to a majestic castle, an impressive array of museums and palaces, and a parade of pastel buildings.

With its quaint cobblestone streets, whimsical Baroque architecture and bright bursts of color, one can't help but wonder, "Where are the hordes of tourists?" While Varaždin's lack of crowds may initally come as a surprise, it is a decidedly refreshing change of pace.

The town itself is so darling, you halfway expect the locals to burst into song. If Trakošćan Castle didn't already make you feel like royalty, wandering the streets of Varaždin will surely turn Zagorje into a real life Disney movie.

Varazdin | Discovering Continental Croatia
Varazdin | Discovering Continental Croatia

RESTORAN BEDEM

Bedem, Varazdin | Discovering Continental Croatia

Named one of the Top 10 restaurants in Croatia, Bedem is the crown jewel of Varaždin. Two distinguished Croatian chefs have come together to establish this gastronomic gem, which is nestled just behind Varaždin's castle. Using fresh and local ingredients, Bedem serves some of the highest quality creations in continental Croatia.

Here I indulged on a five-course meal that was arguably one of the best dining experiences of my life. Every dish was bursting with flavor, and the chefs went above and beyond to accommodate my gluten-free needs. Out of all the incredible meals I devoured in Croatia, my feast at Bedem was surely the most memorable.

Bedem, Varazdin | Discovering Continental Croatia
Bedem, Varazdin | Discovering Continental Croatia
Bedem, Varazdin | Discovering Continental Croatia


Just a two-hour drive from Zagreb, you can also find the sublime natural wonders of Plitvice Lakes National Park


Is Croatia on your bucket list?
If so, would you venture inland?


Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Making the Most of a Weekend Stopover in Iceland

How to make the most of a weekend stopover in Iceland

By now, most savvy travelers have heard about the incredible Icelandair stopover deal. Through this ingenious bargain, Icelandair grants passengers an extended layover in Iceland for up to seven nights for no additional airfare.

Given its geographic position, Iceland is a convenient stepping stone between Europe and North America. I found the logistics to be especially favorable, considering a flight from Reykjavík to Seattle cuts a transatlantic journey in half. While it would normally take me about 16 hours to fly home via New York or Philadelphia, a direct journey from Reykjavík takes less than eight hours.

After taking advantage of this stellar deal, I can admit that it most certainly lives up to the hype. I immediately regretted not booking a longer stay. Only planning a weekend getaway vastly limited my opportunities, and I found myself wishing that I had taken advantage of Icelandair's full seven day deal. (But hindsight is 20/20, especially when you're on a tight budget!)

Given the short amount of time I had in Iceland, I nailed down my weekend itinerary to four main activities. While Reykjavík's 20.5 hours of sunlight per day helped me accomplish it all, it was difficult to prioritize so many bucket list adventures. While I'm sure I'll be back again someday (I made a promise to myself that I'd come back for the puffins!), I'm still satisfied with how I organized a weekend's worth of excursions. Here's how I made the most of a weekend stopover in Iceland:


Downtown Reykjavík

Reykjavík: Making the most of a weekend stopover in Iceland

Colorful, quirky Reykjavík deserves at least one full day. It's possible to cut corners, but soaking up the city's vibrant personality requires ample time for exploring. Start your journey at the stately Hallgrímskirkja church. Commanding the skyline of downtown Reykjavík, the design of Hallgrímskirkja was inspired by Iceland's basalt lava flows. Take the elevator up to the top for the capital's most sublime panoramas.

Reykjavík: Making the most of a weekend stopover in Iceland
Hallgrímskirkja church

Leave plenty of time to wander down Laugavegur, the city's main shopping street. This animated boulevard boasts a colorful array of restaurants, coffee shops, sleek boutiques and Icelandic specialty shops. Since Iceland is known for their quality wool, I picked up some cozy knitted socks for the rest of the weekend's adventures.

Be sure to also check out the picturesque Perlan, Tjörnin pond, Harpa concert hall and charming old harbor. Some of my favorite moments in Reykjavík were spent strolling along the waterfront past the iconic Sun Voyager (Sólfar) statue. 

Reykjavík: Making the most of a weekend stopover in Iceland
Lively Laugavegur, the main shopping drag
Reykjavík: Making the most of a weekend stopover in Iceland
A classic view of Reykjavík from Hallgrímskirkja church

The Golden Circle

Golden Circle: Making the most of a weekend stopover in Iceland
Þingvellir National Park's otherworldly landscape

No trip to Iceland is complete without visiting the arresting scenery of the Golden Circle. Comprised of the gargantuan Gullfoss waterfall, bubbling Geysir hot springs and scenic Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park, the Golden Circle is understandably one of the country's most famous tourist attractions. Since I had no desire to rent a car by myself, I turned to Arctic Adventures to help me see it all.

Golden Circle: Making the most of a weekend stopover in Iceland
Gullfoss, one of Iceland's largest and most popular waterfalls

Iceland's striking landscape often made me feel as if I were on a different planet. Thingvellir National Park, where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates slowly drift away from one another, is decidedly out of this world. Iceland's first parliament was founded here, and it's also one of the many
Game of Thrones filming locations.

Golden Circle: Making the most of a weekend stopover in Iceland
How many Game of Thrones filming locations must I visit before I have to start watching the show?
Golden Circle: Making the most of a weekend stopover in Iceland

Snorkeling in the Silfra Fissure

Snorkeling in Iceland's Silfra fissure

Located in Thingvellir National Park, the Silfra fissure is where two continents rip apart. Thanks to Arctic Adventures, we were able to snorkel between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. This crack between the continents is filled with glacier water clear enough to see down to 100 meters!

The water gets its pristine qualities from being filtered through underground lava for 30-100 years. Due to its extreme visibility, the Silfra fissure is widely regarded as one of the best dive sites in the world.

Since the glacial water is near freezing, we bundled up in bulky dry suits that protected us from the extreme temperatures. While submerging my face in the water was initially alarming, I went numb several seconds later. The current leisurely carried us down the fissure as we marveled at its unique underwater beauty.

Snorkeling in Iceland's Silfra fissure
Our waterproof dry suits were surprisingly hard to maneuver in!
Snorkeling in Iceland's Silfra fissure
The Silfra fissure is the only place in the world where you can snorkel between two tectonic plates
Snorkeling in Iceland's Silfra fissure

The Blue Lagoon

The Blue Lagoon: Making the most of a weekend stopover in Iceland
Soaking in the silky waters of the Blue Lagoon was the perfect way to de-stress

Did you know that the Blue Lagoon isn't actually blue? The lagoon gets its milky turquoise color from the sun reflecting upon the silica in the water. The water itself is actually white! In the summer, blossoming algae can also give the water a subtle green tint.

Seeing as the Blue Lagoon has been at the top of my bucket list for years, I was willing to pay the outrageous fee to enter. But while I thought I was getting a 50€ deal online, my reservation and transportation costs totaled to 82€. You win some, you lose some.

Be sure to book your reservation online in advance, and note that the "standard" entrance package does not include use of a towel. In the lagoon, there is a station for free silica mud masks and a swim-up bar. All you have to do is scan your wristband, and you'll automatically be charged for whatever purchases you make inside the lagoon.

The Blue Lagoon: Making the most of a weekend stopover in Iceland

Reykjavík Excursions offers hourly bus transfers to the Blue Lagoon from downtown Reykjavík or Keflavík Airport. The Blue Lagoon is 47 km from Reykjavík, and only 23 km from KEF Airport. To maximize time on your stopover, I highly recommend visiting the Blue Lagoon going to or from KEF Airport.

Because I was in the process of moving from Madrid to Seattle (and therefore hauling three year's worth of luggage with me), I opted to do this excursion separately. After seeing how close the airport and Blue Lagoon actually are, I realized that I could have saved ample time and money by combining the two trips.

The Blue Lagoon: Making the most of a weekend stopover in Iceland
Cheesin' with my mud mask and disposable camera. (Perhaps it's time to invest in a GoPro...)

Iceland effortlessly stole my heart, and I'm already anxious to return someday. Like I said, I have to come back for the puffins!! Thankfully, Reykjavík is just a hop, skip and a jump away from Seattle compared to other transatlantic flights. You can bet that I'll be taking advantage of another Icelandair stopover next time I get the chance!


Have you ever done a stopover in Iceland?
How did you make the most of your time?