Croatia’s Adriatic Highway
The Adriatic Highway stretches nearly 400 miles along Croatia’s coast and provides a front-row seat for 1,185 islands, an embarrassment of cultural riches and slow food prowess.
My first brush with Croatia came 20 years ago on the Jadranska Magistrala, or Adriatic Highway, which hugs the country’s shoreline from Rijeka, in the north, to the border with Montenegro. It passes nearly 1,200 islands, endless vineyards, UNESCO sites, national parks and olive groves. But I knew none of this at the time. I was just cruising the sea.
On that initial drive, the two-lane ribbon of road – part of the E65 roadway funneling into the smaller D8 – unfurled beneath my rented, yellow Fiat as I drove between the Dinaric Alps, a string of jagged limestone cliffs teetering above me on one side, and the sea below on the other. Zen-filled open roads, extending to the horizon, would suddenly give way to white-knuckle hairpins and crawling along in first gear as a rainbow of sailboats appeared on the rocky beach below.
In those nascent days as a travel journalist, my sophomoric goal was to choose one of the many secluded villages and hole up in a writer’s bungalow. There I would craft something special to stagger my nonexistent editors. Salty fishermen sitting in the sun mending nets while puffing cigarettes would be a bonus.
Perhaps skiffs would be scattered along a pebble beach, the deep-blue Adriatic slapping at their weathered sterns. I knew I was in the right place when I had to slow to a snail’s pace behind a man, rope in hand, coaxing along his donkey loaded with baskets of grapes.
There were fishermen, by the way. And twice each day I joined the procession of villagers filling jugs with fresh spring water that flowed from a pipe sticking out of a rock wall. During those communal moments, I learned of secret beaches, caves, and where to go for activities I had, until then, not associated with the recently independent country.
Not much has changed, for me, over the past two decades. Every year I use the Adriatic Highway both for business, as a journalist, and for pleasure. But Croatia is no longer a secret. In many ways, the Eastern European country’s popularity makes this road of slow discovery even more special.
These days, as time-pressed tourists rush to reach their must-see spots, those with a slower pace in mind, travelers in search of authentic adventure, know better.
“Driving along this highway – or even better, riding on a motorbike – is a great way to experience the diversity of Croatia,” says Veselka Huljic, the general manager of & Adventure. The Split-based adventure tourism operator offers trips and excursions that include activities such as sea kayaking, hiking and cycling, but specializes in tailor-made tours. “You can’t really get to know the depth of this country until you travel without a schedule,” Huljic says. “Stop as you please along the coast, take in amazing views of the sea, and hop onto islands to experience culture, the parks, the incredible food and wine. At this speed the country starts to feel like yours.”
Over the years, the Adriatic Highway has become the ultimate insider reference tool for me as I learned about the country’s angles and traditions. It would also be a surefire suggestion for the continuous stream of visiting friends and family.
For instance, the highway provides access to five national parks, which each open a window into the character of the coast. Northern Velebit National Park, with sweeping sea views, is a jumping-off spot for long-distance hikers heading into the Velebit mountains, part of the trans-Balkan Via Dinarica trail running from Slovenia to Macedonia. Paklenica National Park, a confluence of sheer canyons, is a famous climbing destination. Krka National Park takes visitors to some of the continent’s most beautiful waterfalls. And the islandbased Kornati and Mljet National Parks give travelers a sense of the coast’s hallmark remoteness.
There are four UNESCO World Heritage along the highway: the Cathedral of St. James in Šibenik, the historic town of
Trogir, the Diocletian’s Palace in Split, and Dubrovnik’s walled Old City. Each offers an insight into the timeline of the Adriatic. And this doesn’t even include the Roman and Hellenic ruins strewn along the route with such nonchalance that it’s common to pass by people milling about atop ancient blocks. The city of Zadar, for example, acts as an open-air museum with the original Roman forum and streets still in daily use.
For those who have heard that Croatia is a gastronomic wonderland, the Jadranska Magistrala is as much a progressive dinner as it is a road trip. The island of Pag, in the coastal region of Northern Dalmatia, is Croatia’s sheep’s milk cheese capital and specializes in a sort – paški sir – that is flavored by the salty grasses and herbs the animals graze upon.
The road then passes through the village of Posedarje, known for its pršut (dry-cured ham). Farther south, travelers wheel past the Pelješac Peninsula, where driversturned-diners pair oysters, pulled directly from the bay moments earlier, with some of the region’s best red wine, from a local variety called plavac mali.
Two decades ago, the tastes and the images and the notebooks filled with illegible chicken scratch stayed with me long after I pulled off the Adriatic Highway and returned the yellow Fiat rental. I can’t remember if I sold a single magazine story from the trip. I know, for certain, that it was the beginning of my life as a writer. More importantly, the drive changed me forever as a traveler.
START: RIJEKA END: DUBROVNIK DISTANCE: 368 MILES