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Family travel: Dalmatia’s top spot

Hike, bike, climb, raft, kayak, zip-line or wild swim — there are many ways to explore the picturesque waterfall-studded mountains and river-rich national parks along Croatia’s Dalmatian coast. Just don’t expect to spend much time in dry clothes

Family travel: Dalmatia’s top spot
Krka National Park. Image: Getty

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We seem to be kayaking into a tempest. A bank of black clouds is fast swallowing the morning’s sun and, despite the fact that we packed up our shore-side picnic with the swiftness only weather-beleaguered Brits can muster, we’ve still not beaten the rain. It’s coming down in a squall, with golf-ball-size splots bouncing off the sea and obscuring any sense of direction. “Come into the coast!” bellows our guide, Jasmina, over the tumult. At nearly 6ft, this Amazonian woman
— also a volunteer fire fighter — is the very definition of capable. She and fellow guide, Mario (another six-footer) comprise the kind of team you put your trust in within minutes.

Our group of seven kayakers paddle into shore where Jasmina ropes us together. We wait out the worst of the rain before heading back into open water. The almost-landlocked Novigrad Sea — over which our hotel, Castrum Novum, sits an hour’s paddle away — is devoid of its usual lake-like calm, meaning progress is two lumpy lengths forward, one back. One kayak even manages to capsize, despite being tethered to another. Meanwhile, my daughter, Ella (nine) — sheltered under a cosy pile of lifejackets — has somehow managed to fall asleep. She wakes, oblivious, as we pull into shore and the sun comes out.

This is the first activity in a week of watery fun that even the occasional downfall couldn’t spoil. The disparate ages of the children in our group — three families with kids ranging from Ella’s age up to 17 — means the first day sees them cautiously circling one another before firmly banding together. The older girls quickly claim Ella as their charge, and she eventually shyly bonds with the closest in age, a doe-eyed 13-year-old called Josh, leaving me and the other parents to take in the scenery.

And what scenery. Each day reveals a host of must-photograph panoramas that leave smartphone storage groaning, among them the iridescent, emerald pools of the Krka National Park’s vast Skradinski Buk waterfalls. Right now, these resemble giant cauldrons of minestrone — such is the number of peak-season holidaymakers bobbing about. But above them, the misty white cascades are spectacular, draping wedding dress-like flounces along the cliffs.

The mountain bike route we follow into the park is equally stunning, with peaceful, pine-scented sandy tracks and perfect river valley views. Further along the Krka River a potentially ‘boring’ visit to the 14th-century Visovac Monastery — in the middle of a lake — is enlivened by historic tales of the monks under siege and the chance to boat back over water so mirror-clear that sky and mountains move beneath us as if the world is inverted.

Pretty backdrops abound but this is a landscape that throws up challenges, too. At Paklenica National Park, Ella and I attempt what feels like a near-vertical rock climb along a chasm-like karst canyon, above which our group then hikes two hours through ground-level cloud. Both activities leave us thrilled beyond measure, if rather wobbly legged. Our efforts are rewarded with the most hospitable of lunches at a family-run, mountain-top restaurant. Our hosts serve up a hearty beef stew, the mother simultaneously delivering hot chocolate and towel-drying Ella’s rain-wet hair.

I find myself utterly moved by such extended family-like affection. On our ‘rest’ day, most of the group recovers on the beach, reuniting with our guides for dinner, where Ella almost rugby tackles Mario to the floor with a bear hug, yelping, “I’ve missed you!”, leaving this gentle giant of a man suddenly with “dust” in his eyes. The Castrum Novum also treats us as a clan, delivering extra portions of pasta and asking genuinely interested questions about our day’s sporting trials and triumphs. These included zip-lining some 9,200ft up in the Omis Dinara mountains — a highlight for Ella, who just about makes the minimum height requirement. Here, eight wires take us at speeds of up to 40mph down to the river valley floor, during two hours of scream-if-you-want-go-faster fun.

But it’s back afloat for our final day: a kayak safari six miles through the gentle rapids of the Zrmanja River. We picnic at a ‘secret’ waterfall, taking a plunge into lung-bustingly chilly, jade-green waters, pristine enough to fill our drinking bottles with. The boys bicker over who’s paddling properly while the girls bellow out show tunes — Lloyd Webber’s finest echoing off the vast canyon walls. And we all take a 9ft leap over a rocky rapid, inflatable kayaks taking the bumps with fairground ease. Eight days in soggy neoprene, and we’ve rarely been happier.

Essentials

Who: National Geographic Traveller’s associate editor, Sarah Barrell, and daughter Ella (nine).
Best for: Ages eight and over.
Lows: “Are we there yet?” A frequent refrain on the long drives between sights. Remedied by seating Ella next to her new ‘big girl’ friends.
Need to know: Drives between activities take up to two hours. If you have a car-sick or easily bored child, pack accordingly. Equipment/clothes for activities is provided but a pair of water shoes (very cheap at coastal resorts) or Crocs-style footwear will come in very handy.
How to do it: A seven-night Adventure on the Croatian Adriatic with Activities Abroad costs from £973 per adult and from £950 per child (July/August departures), based on four sharing, including return flights (London and regional departures) to Split, transfers, most meals and guided activities.
Alternative: Take an Activities Abroad all-action tour of Malta and the beach-blessed neighbouring island of Gozo, with activities and adventures that cater to younger travellers (recommended for those aged six upwards).


Published in the Winter 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller Family (UK)