Plitvice Lakes National Park in central Croatia – a must-see

Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia has 16 lakes and covers 183 square miles

Plitvice Lakes National Park in central Croatia – a must-see

Once I saw photographs of how impossibly beautiful Plitvice Lakes National Park in central Croatia was, I knew I had to see it for myself. It is a UNESCO world heritage site and Croatia’s largest and oldest park, created in 1949.

Four years ago, I had flown into Split and enjoyed a bike tour among the islands near Split and saw park photos. This year I flew into Zagreb and immediately headed to "Plitvice Jezera," where I stayed in the Hotel Jezero, a short walk from Entrance 2 (of two) to the national park.

Driving straight from the airport to the hotel along the curvy scenic route from Karlovac took about two to two-and-a-half hours. A short time before arrival at the hotel, I had passed Licka Kuca, a national restaurant on the way to my destination. Licka Kuca is so designated because it serves nationally-recognized Croatian dishes.

Needing sustenance, I parked at the restaurant site and had to take a ticket in order to park. Upon inquiry, I learned if I ate at the restaurant I could enjoy three hours of free parking, which was near Entrance 1 to the park. A plan was hatching. I could enjoy a fine meal of Croatian specialties and then head to the pedestrian overpass to the national park’s Entrance 1. My goal of seeing the park was coming to fruition.

The park was busy. Under a canopy of lush trees, tourists wandered. The word must be out about its beauty. Numerous tour guides seemed to be leading guests. Later, I learned Croatia is popular among South Koreans. A television show in that country about backpacking in Croatia created a travel boon. According to Time Out/Croatia, 46,000 South Koreans traveled to Croatia in the first half of 2014. Their compatriots were back again en masse, from the looks of it!

I, solo, could slither through the groups and make my own way. I looked at the park map and picked a path. I started to descend but I had taken only a few steps before I came upon an obvious scenic overlook. In the distance was an aquamarine lake, topped by a network of wooden pathways – without handrails. Out came the camera and a series of attempts to capture the breathtaking beauty began. It was late afternoon and the sun wasn’t in a great spot for photography but it was tough to take a "bad photo" while surrounded by so much beauty.

After descending a gently sloping trail, a series of wooden boards clearly made from felled trees created a path over the water and reeds. Due to the karst geology, the water is clear in the park’s 16 lakes but reflects an aqua blue. Abundant trout swam in schools and ranged from as long as a finger to a foot long. There is no swimming and no fishing in the lakes in order to keep the water as pristine as possible, so the trout were safe!

Colors in the park are similar to the aquamarine ocean colors along the coral reefs off the coast of the Florida Keys, with which I am familiar. But, the towering beech, spruce and fir trees and plethora of unfamiliar wildflowers confirmed I was in a continental climate. While encounters with lynx, wild cats, brown bear, wolves and deer were possible, I did not see any on either of the two days I visited the park.

There are 1,267 species of plants, 321 species of butterflies, 161 species of birds, 21 species of bats and more than 50 mammals in the park. There also are 75 endemic plants and 55 different orchid species. It is a wondrous abundance of nature in all its forms.

There are a couple strategies for seeing the park. With paid entry, boats can take visitors from one side of the park to the other for free. Additionally, there are buses that shuttle people complimentarily between three stations on the park’s roadside edge. If one plans to see the entire park, they will be spending most of the day, especially if walking the trails is in the plan. There are options for having lunch or ice cream or coffee in the park, but the second day I went back – essentially spending two partial visits there (my strategy) – there were lines for everything… shuttle boats, food, drinks and bathrooms by mid-day. If you go in July or August, go early or go late. Mid-day, you will be swamped with companions. Entry fees, like the amount of people in the park, rise in July and August as well.

I walked to the park's largest falls, Veliki Slap, enjoying the anticipation of seeing the 78-meter falls for myself. They create a mist that wafts cool refreshing droplets on visitors. They are astonishing and warrant a restful pause. For most, they warrant photos as well.

According to park information, cycling, rowing and skiing are possible activities to enjoy within the boundaries of the park; thus, planning for several days of park visits may be desired.

Regarding dining at Licka Kuca, it is open April through October, and you might want to try one of their specialties such as spit-roasted lamb, pan-fried trout stuffed with cheese and mushrooms served with polenta, or the Licka juha sausage stew. Fruit strudels or nut rolls may help top off the meal. Wine and beer are available. The dark wood beams used in construction make the building resemble a ski lodge or log cabin while lighter woods complement the décor.

Regarding lodging, there is everything from camping outside the park to hotels. Trafalgar Tours, like me, was staying at Hotel Jezero, I noticed. Hotel Jezero has 200 rooms, a pool, spa, gift shop and gym. The buffet breakfast offers an array of eggs, fruit, vegetables, yogurt, cereals, breads and sweet rolls, as well as beverages. A short walk down a hotel path leads one to Entrance 2 of the park, negating any worry about parking fees.

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