This summer we flew from Amsterdam to Dubrovnik with one overweight suitcase crammed with a tent, two mattresses, a gas stove, bedding, a change of clothes and a trusty ANWB road map. No plans. No guidebook. Just a two-week Fiat Panda rental and enough time to re-train ourselves in the art of relaxation. And what a country it was!
Our road map had little tent symbols all over it, signalling campgrounds. We took this as a good sign. But we quickly discovered that not all camps are created equal and not all offer the kind of quiet, natural tent camping experience that we were looking for. But we managed to find a few gems! As a way to remember them for our next trip to Croatia (hopefully soon!) and also to help anyone who might be planning a similar trip themselves, here are six wonderful campsites in Croatia that we would happily go back to:
(Located in Molunat, the southern-most village in Croatia, 15-20€/night)
Driving down the dusty road at the end of the long coastal highway, we felt like we were driving to the edge of the world. The road emptied into a small, rocky cove full of fishing boats. The last harbor in Croatia before Montenegro. We had seen on our road map that there were two campgrounds down there, but it seemed too remote to believe. Against all logic, we emailed to see if they were open. No reply. So we drove all the way there to find out and ended up at Autocamp Marinaro, a one-star camping on the sea with no Wifi and only the amenities that you really need. The showers were clean and each site had been lovingly shaded with grape vines and screens against the sun. That night, we feasted on scampi, sardines and anchovies and fed the fish heads to the cats.
(near Plocé, in the agricultural valley on Highway 8, €18-25/night)
Of all of the places that we camped, this was the only one on a freshwater lake. And it was definitely one of our favorites. Diving into the cool spring water in the hottest hour of the afternoon was heavenly. This small campground in the backyard of the owner’s house has perfectly maintained facilities (shower, laundry, sinks) and plenty of shade. The owner, who never stops trimming, watering, and chiseling away at his building projects, is bursting with joie-de-vivre. We rented his kayak and paddled across the lake to a small waterfall where you can drink the ice-cold water out of the stream. A little boy and his grandpa eagerly filled our water bottles as if it were the medicine that would cure whatever we got. We bought wine from plastic vats in a neighbor’s cellar and watched the European Championship at the local bar.
(located in Duga Resa, village near Karlovac, on the Mreznica River, €25-27/night)
We left the coast and headed inland toward Zagreb. The high cliffs from the seaside give way to rolling hills and farmhouses, abandoned barns that still bear the scars of war, farm stands selling sheep cheese and honey, tractors blocking traffic and fields of corn and bright yellow colza. Though the camping options are much more limited off the coast, we managed to find “The Best Camping in Croatia” in Duga Resa on the Mreznica River. Whether it really was “the best” is disputable, but it was definitely a nice one. We were greeted by a retired mechanic who did not actually work at the campground, but who eagerly chatted with us in German (or something like German) as we set up our tent. He would have stayed and talked all afternoon if we hadn’t insisted on renting a canoe to paddle down the river. The current was strong and we were clumsy canoeing partners. We returned the boat after 15 minutes and they didn’t charge us.
(located in Krvavica, Makarska Riviera on the Adriatic Sea, €20-25/night)
In a region overrun with noisy sun seekers and party boats, this small family campground stands for all of the nostalgic reasons that we still go camping. Since it is not directly on the sea (but a mere 100 m. away!) and the steep windy road down from the highway is treacherous for heavy loads, it doesn’t attract big caravans. Yet, of all the of the campgrounds that we stayed at, this one offered the most amenities: a bar with hot coffee and cold beers for 1€, bathrooms and showers with hair dryers and even a curling iron (?!), a giant refrigerator with baskets for each campsite, and bread service in the morning. We stayed here early on in our trip and again at the end for one night when we couldn’t find a good camping. The owners welcomed us back like old friends and we told them that after all of the dirty, crowded campsites we had seen that day, theirs was a wonderful oasis.
(near Ston, at the ferry harbor to the Island of Mljet, €25-27/night)
After spending our first night in Dubrovnik, this was our first campground. Actually, it was the first campground that we found, and it was perfect. It’s actually an olive orchard that generates a little extra income off of campers in the summer time. At night it was dead quiet, only the plops of green olives dropping from the trees. The campsite opened directly to the beach (one of the only sand beaches we found in Croatia), which had a small cafe and a stand selling ice cream and corn-on-the-cob. We stayed for two nights only because we were eager to get a move on, but we would have gladly lingered a bit longer.
(Located in Novigrad, about an hour inland from Sibenik, €22-25/night)
If it sounds like it was easy to just stumble on these beautiful campsites, it wasn’t. At least not all of the time. One day in particular, we were driving up the coast between Split and Sibenik in despair. There were hundreds of campsites, and all of them terrible. By terrible, I mean crowded, shadeless parking lots full of caravans with grumbling generators, shouting sun-burnt people, fussy children and barking dogs. It was getting late and we still hadn’t found anywhere to sleep, so we turned off the coast and took our chances on a campground a bit inland: Adriasol. What a gem it was! Located on a secluded inlet at the edge of Novigrad, a village that was once a resort town for aristocrats during the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Aside from a few campers, there were no tourists, no souvenir shops, no beach rentals. During the day, we swam and waited out the heat from our shady corner plot. And in the golden evening hours, we went into the village and watched the same scenes from the evening before unfold like clockwork. The men gathered to play jeu de boules, the children set off for the forest on their bikes, the same old woman shuffled by with her dog, a mother pulled in the laundry hanging from the balcony, a man popped popcorn in his stand on the boulevard, a waiter pulled up a bag of mussels chilling at the bottom of the lake for dinner, and on and on. Night after night. We were endlessly charmed by this place, even more so because of the struggle it took to find it.
Places that tent campers should avoid:
On the coastal road from Split to Sibenik, there are lots of campgrounds, but most of them are not suited to nature-loving tent campers (at least not in high season!). This is an area to avoid – particularly around Trogir. It’s a pity because Trogir is supposed to be a beautiful World Heritage site, but we were not able to appreciate it with all of the crowds. There is an innocent-looking little island across from the city gates called Okrung Donji, covered in little tent symbols on the map. Seemed worth a look. Tired, hungry, and overheated we battled through the bottleneck traffic over the bridge determined to give the campsites a fair chance. We nearly wrecked our car trying to get to them and when we finally got there we found nothing but caravans packed in like sardines and shrimp-like Europeans roasting on a tiny, treeless rock beach. Surely it was once a lovely natural place, but it’s been ruined by “holiday makers”.
On our way South from Zagreb, we decided head back down on the coastal highway from Senj to Zadar. A beautiful route for sure with magnificent views of sea and sky, but also an exhausting one to drive. Endless hair pin turns, ups and downs and few places to stop. Compared to the South (Dubrovnik area), it’s also extremely dry and rocky. There are a few campgrounds, but they seemed to offer very little shelter from the Croatian sun.