Words: Lisa Bowman
I’ve lived in Sri Lanka for the last three years and you’d think a tropical island would be a great place to spend a pandemic – but after 18 intense months since my last UK visit, I was desperate to see my family and friends on the other island I call home. There was just one obstacle – Sri Lanka is on the UK’s red travel list. Which means 11 days in £2,285 hotel quarantine. I work for an NGO so just don’t have that sort of money – plus I know my mental health would be in tatters being cooped up. So, I spent two days researching which green country I could legally (and responsibly) spend 11 days in to ‘cleanse’ myself of my red status, and sail through the borders into the UK.
Before you depart…
It’s a jungle out there in terms of finding up-to-date information, so I recommend heading straight for Re-open EU, which will give you current and correct advice on the measures in place for the European country you’re heading to. Croatia was one of the few I could easily get into from Sri Lanka, and it was green for the UK, so it ticked all the boxes. Flights in and out of Zagreb were cheap so I snapped them up and started getting excited about being on British soil again – I could almost taste the that Greggs vegan sausage roll in my mouth.
FYI, if coming from outside the UK like I was, it’s important to check the Covid requirements of your airline, destination country and – crucially – your departure airport. I found out quite last minute that I needed a PCR test just to enter Colombo’s Bandaranaike airport (I didn’t need one to enter Croatia as I’m fully vaxxed). That could have been a disaster.
I flew from Colombo to Croatia’s capital city Zagreb, via Istanbul. I transited through Istanbul at 4am the next day, and because Turkey is red list, this added another day on to my Croatia ‘quarantine’, as the UK government includes countries you transfer in. Don’t be caught out by this. The day you land in your ‘quarantine’ country counts as day zero. To be safe, I left Croatia on day 11.
Where to stay in Zagreb
Landing in Croatia after a 20-hour journey, we needed some luxury, so booked into Zagreb’s beautiful 5-star Esplanade hotel for the first couple of nights. It first opened in 1925 to cater for passengers from the Orient Express, and you can tell the walls have seen history (take a peek into the ballroom if you can – it’s exquisite). We stayed in a deluxe suite, which had a separate living room – perfect for jetlagged travellers if one of you wakes early and doesn’t want to disturb the other. The big bath, fluffy robes and deliciously scented L’Occitane toiletries were more than welcome after our long flight. We found hotel staff attentive without being stuffy – it really does feel like luxury for all.
On our first morning, keen to shake off the jetlag, I laced up my trainers and went for a run around the city – which proved foolish thanks to the many crossings you inevitably have to stop at. Thankfully, the lovely Andrea from the Esplanade then told me her favourite places to run. These included: Dubravkin Put (a little wooded area in the city centre), the Sava river, and the beautiful Maksimir park (a huge forest and the oldest park in Zagreb, a taxi or tram ride away).
Breakfast at the Esplanade is a la carte and all dietary requirements are catered for – vegans, there are plant-based milks for coffee and both savoury and sweet food options, as well as gluten-free alternatives. We had an incredible dinner at the Esplanade’s restaurant Zinfandel’s on our first night – I let them know in advance that I was vegan and was presented with unbelievably amazing food. Executive chef Ana Grgić became the first woman to head up the Esplanade’s kitchen in 2012, and has since created an award-winning menu – it’s bloody delicious. Enjoy your courses paired with local wines, if you fancy a tipple (you deserve it). We had afternoon tea on the hotel’s sun-drenched Oleander terrace, and I was pleasantly surprised by the vegan options after being previously disappointed by a terrible vegan tea at a 5-star hotel in Colombo. Shangri-La, take note.
Things to do in Zagreb
Zagreb caters for all culture palettes, especially my low brow one. The Museum of Hangovers was a hoot, founded by 24-year-old friends Rino and Roberta a couple of years ago, after discussing funny drunk stories. It’s now a small (but worthy) collection of objects from such stories, sent in by borderline alcoholics the world over. Grab a beer and have a giggle.
The Museum of Broken Relationships was an emotional rollercoaster, showcasing artefacts and funny/gut-wrenching stories from failed relationships, be they with lovers, family members or…gluten. The Zagreb 80s Museum was also a good time.
Zagreb card, which offers free entry to multiple attractions, as well as tram rides. Getting around Zagreb is easy, via tram, Uber or the Cammeo taxi app (your best and cheapest bet for taxis in larger places around the island). You can pre-book airport taxis with Cammeo for a set price.
The weather in Zagreb was beautiful so after much exploring, we grabbed a picnic and jumped in an Uber to Jarun lake, a peaceful spot in the southwest of the city, where you can do water sports like canoeing or SUP, or just throw a blanket down and chill/swim.
We very quickly fell in love with Zagreb – the city was quiet thanks to the majority of the country holidaying down on the Dalmatian coast, but it was a transition we were thankful for, coming from sleepy Sri Lanka. The city is the perfect size to explore, with beautiful architecture and quaint, pretty buildings at every turn. Dolac market was fun to wander around, with vendors selling everything from local produce to cane furniture and souvenirs. Make sure you check out the Grič tunnel, a spooky pedestrian tunnel once used as a bomb shelter in World War II.
How to make the most of your visit to Croatia
After a few days in the city, we were keen for some more nature, so jumped on a two-hour coach to Plitvice Lakes (Get By Bus was our ticket go-to) to spend a ‘wellbeing getaway’ at the beautiful Kamp Korana, a campsite on the Korana River. Our package included two nights bed and breakfast in a wooden cabin with a shared bathroom, two yoga classes, a forest bathing session, and tickets to Plitvice Lakes National Park, the oldest and largest national park in Croatia. Yoga was led by teacher Nana, who runs Jnana studio in Zagreb, and practiced outdoors in nature, which was bliss. While our bus didn’t get us to the camp in time for the forest bathing, we sat down with forest therapy guide Darko Vukelic, who talked us though the process. “I’m just the guide, it’s the forest that heals,” he explained, clearly incredibly passionate about what he does. First developed in Japan in the 80s, forest bathing is the practice of becoming one with nature, and entering a state of total relaxation of body and mind. To be honest, it sounded exactly what we needed, so I’m gutted we missed it.
Luckily, for those of us without a car, a shuttle bus is provided from the campsite to the lakes. There are multiple trails around the national park, ranging from an hour and a half to eight hours. Bring snacks and a rain jacket – the heavens opened as soon as we got there. To be honest, I could have spent a lot longer in this part of the country, there’s loads of hiking and cycle routes, as well as the stunning lakes themselves.
After Plitvice, it was time to hit the coast. The Dalmatian coast was all booked booked up, so we hopped on a six hour coach to Pula, getting a taxi down to Banjole, a village in southern Istria. We stayed at the peaceful Apartments Sofia, in a cute little bungalow within walking distance of a small pebble beach. Banjole was great but seemed quite family-oriented, so we headed to Opatija, a much busier resort town a couple of hours away on the Adriatic sea. Most places were booked up (can you tell we did this last minute?), but we managed to grab a sea-view room at Hotel Istra – Liburnia. The room was overpriced and the breakfast buffet terrible for vegans, but the location was great – in front of the beach and just a few steps to sun loungers and the sea. Croatia isn’t known for its sandy beaches but to be honest, lounging like a lizard on concrete with a cheap Aperol spritz in hand was pretty damn great – no sand in your bits is always a win. When you’re sick of swimming, there’s a beautiful coastal walk – the Lungomare – stretching 12km from Lovran to Volosko, taking in tiny beaches, seafront restaurants and historical villas you wish you lived in.
After all our time on buses, we were keen to get back to the relative familiarity of Zagreb, which already felt like a home away from home. Croatian food is pretty meat-heavy, so carnivores are well catered for at every turn but as vegan food was pretty lacking outside Zagreb, I came back feeling hungry. Luckily, the capital is great for vegans – check out the 100% organic Zrno Bio Bistro for healthy offerings, Submarine for gourmet burgers with epic vegan options (the sliders are great), and Bio&Bio organic grocery store for loads of grab-and-go options. (This is a chain so they’re dotted around the country.) There are loads of options available on Wolt delivery app if you can’t be bothered to leave your hotel room.
If you fancy a drink, Roots is a juice bar by day and cocktail bar by night, sat at the bottom of Zagreb funicular (one of the shortest funicular rides in the world, fact fans!). The bar is always busy, so best to make a reservation. Café Bar A’e has a great terrace with beautiful views across the city.
Our final two nights were spent in the Westin, which was a great spot in the centre of town. The hotel is a bit of an eyesore on the outside but makes up for it with its interiors. We stayed in a deluxe room on the 12th floor, which had an amazing view of the city. It was comfy, with everything you need from a hotel -you can even hire sports kit to use in their gym, which saves on packing, especially when adhering to a low cost airlines’ strict luggage policies. The buffet breakfast was excellent, catering for all dietary requirements – there’s even Prosecco to make mimosas! It was comforting to see that masks were required around the buffet area (which were provided if you’d left yours in your room).
After just a short stay, I was smitten with Zagreb – and not just because Aperol spritz was cheap (£4.50? Yes please!). It’s easy to see why it’s become popular with digital nomads, especially since Croatia’s 2021 introduction of the 12 month digital nomad permit for non-EU citizens. It’s a great base to live, work and explore Croatia and there are loads of cute and affordable little Airbnbs if you want to save money. I for one will definitely be back.
NB. At the time of publication, Croatia is on the green list for the UK.
If you’re heading back to the UK, government travel advice at time of writing is that you will need a PCR test within 72 hours of landing. Pre-order a test to do on, or before day two of your return (I booked with ZAVA for £69 – search for a provider here), and fill in a passenger locator form in the 48 before you arrive in the UK.