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Prime Spots Dot the Dalmatian Coast

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Sunday, January 13, 2008

WHO: Cora Yanacek, 57, of Falls Church.

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DREAM TRIP: Croatia's Dalmatian Coast.

BACKGROUND: "Are you ready for a challenge?" e-mailed Yanacek, a Washington lawyer. She wants to explore Croatia's Dalmatian Coast in May but hasn't been able to decide on the best approach: Stay at one resort and use that as a base? Travel by bus along the coast? Take a cruise? She'll be traveling by herself and needs to stay under $2,000, including airfare.

OUR SUGGESTIONS: The bad news is that there's no way Yanacek can see the whole Dalmatian Coast properly in a week: There are simply too many ancient walled cities, achingly picturesque islands, UNESCO World Heritage Sites and miles of exquisite coastline to explore. The good news is that there are lots of ancient walled cities, achingly picturesque islands, UNESCO World Heritage Sites and miles of exquisite coastline to explore. She should zero in on four or five locations and spend a couple of days in each. As for the rest of it, well, she'll just have to go back.

Yanacek has chosen a great time to visit Croatia: In May, the weather should be nice, the summer hordes won't have descended, and the ferries along the coast will have picked up their schedules a bit from winter. (Full schedules don't resume till June.)

DAY 1: Fly from Washington to Dubrovnik. It's not easy getting to Croatia (no direct flights from D.C., not to mention nonstops), and it ain't cheap: The best price we found -- $1,050 round trip, including all taxes -- was through Croatia Travel Agency in New York (800-662-7628, http://www.croatiatravel.com). It's pretty much a full 24 hours of flying, with connections in London and Zagreb, the Croatian capital. But push on, because Dubrovnik, a stunningly beautiful medieval city, will make you forget your jet lag and is a perfect place to start your explorations of the coast.

DAYS 2-3: In Dubrovnik, don't miss the centuries-old Dominican and Franciscan monasteries and Rector's Palace (museums attached to each), any and all cathedrals and the 15th-century Jewish synagogue, the second-oldest synagogue in Europe. And, of course, walk the ancient city walls for unparalleled views of the rooftops and sea. But be sure to save plenty of time for simply sitting at an outdoor cafe on the Stradun (a.k.a. Placa), the walled city's main drag: The people-watching is sublime.

There aren't a ton of lodging options in Dubrovnik (or in the whole country, for that matter); choices tend to range from overpriced Communist-era monoliths to humble B&Bs. One exception: Hotel Stari Grad (4 Od Sigurate, 011-385-20-322-244, http://www.hotelstarigrad.com), an elegant yet affordable boutique hotel in a renovated mansion within the city walls with just eight rooms and a rooftop terrace overlooking the city. A single room starts at $178 in May and includes breakfast.

A B&B is a much more affordable option. Even if you're a hotel person, consider staying in a private room, or soba. Locals will approach you with "Sobe" ("Rooms") signs at ferry, bus and train stations, but it's safer to rent from a travel agency: There's a slight markup, but the places are vetted and rates are still eminently affordable, usually around $40 to $55 a night. Concrete behemoth with no character for $150 a night, or charming room with shared bath overlooking the Adriatic for $40? Pretty much a no-brainer.

Lots of choices at dinnertime: Fresh seafood places are everywhere. Lokanda Peskarija (Na Ponti, on the Old Town harbor) has great shrimp and fish dinners for about $15, and you can sit outside in nice weather, with neighborhood cats cruising for a handout. Orhan (1 Tabakarije), also on the harbor, is fancier, with fresh fish dinners at about $45, including wine.

DAYS 4-5: Take a ferry to Korcula, one of the many delectable islands off the Croatian coast, and spend a couple of days decompressing from city life. Croatia's main ferry company, Jadrolinija ( http://www.jadrolinija.hr), doesn't operate every day in May, but you can take a bus-ferry combo from the Dubrovnik bus station (Autobusni Kolodvor-Dubrovnik, http://www.libertasdubrovnik.hr/voznired.swf) for about $15. Once on the island, prepare to be dazzled: It's a miniature Dubrovnik, complete with medieval city walls, cathedrals and white marble streets. The city is laid out in a fishbone pattern, with streets radiating off the backbone like ribs -- designed that way to either catch the breezes or cut down on the wind, depending on whom you talk to. Other great island options: Hvar, Mljet, Brac, Vis.

Again, simply wander around the island for dining options. Gajeta (11a Kraljeviceva), with outdoor tables overlooking the sea, is especially appealing at night, with a grilled fish dinner running about $25.

Here and for the rest of your trip, stay with locals in private rooms.

DAYS 6-7: Continue up the coast to Split , another don't-miss city. Regular ferry service doesn't resume till June, but you can catch a Krilo catamaran (it leaves at 6 a.m., sorry; tickets from Marco Polo Tours, 011-385-20-715-400). Split may disappoint at first glance -- it's a working city, not a shimmery showplace like Dubrovnik -- but it offers a fascinating glimpse of the way Croatians live, and it's the site of some of the most amazing Roman ruins on the planet, Diocletian's Palace. Those ruins are hopping, too, with a maze of stores, cafes and apartments within the palace walls. Also check out the vibrant Riva seaside promenade, where locals romp day and night. If you have time, consider a day trip to the medieval island village of Trogir, across the bay; catch a bus from the main station.

DAY 8: Okay, so it's not on the coast. But Croatia Travel chief exec Boris Miketic says you simply can't visit Croatia without stopping at Plitvice Lakes National Park on your way back to Zagreb. "It's something that everybody raves about, an unbelievable cascade of waterfalls and lakes. I've gone there twice in the last year." Take the bus from Split, about two hours (see http://www.ak-split.hr/EN/vozni.red/VozniRedOdlazaka.aspx for a schedule). Don't miss traditional roasted lamb dishes at Licka Kuca restaurant in the woods; dinner is about $20. Then take the bus from Plitvice to Zagreb and spend the night in the capital, because you've got an early flight the next morning. There are lots of hotel choices in Zagreb, but not many you'd call moderate. One exception: the appealing, centrally located Hotel Ilica (102 Ilica, http://www.hotel-ilica.hr), with singles starting at about $80, including breakfast.

DAY 9: Fly to London, then home to Dulles. Spend all that connecting time planning your trip to Hvar, Zadar, Istria and all the other coastal destinations you couldn't squeeze in this time.

SPLURGE: Dubrovnik's Pucic Palace (1 Oc Puca, http://www.thepucicpalace.com) is a five-star hotel in the heart of the Old Town with antique-filled rooms, a rooftop terrace restaurant and all the amenities. About $550 a night.

COST: Airfare from Washington to Dubrovnik is $1,050. Bus and ferry trips run about $55, lodging about $600, museums and guides about $125. Total, not including food, tips and incidentals: $1,830. Okay, so you won't eat much.

-- K.C. Summers


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