My idea of a great coast and a good swim is firmly rooted in my childhood experience of the Adriatic Sea that embraces the long and varied line of Croatian coastline. Jumping into the slick, crystal water and swimming with ease any which way, undisturbed by violent currents, thundering waves or, indeed, dangerous sea creatures is my idea of bliss. Shady trees scattered just a few metres from the sea and pine-scented breeze afforded welcome respite from the heat and, as children, we would spend entire days alternating between the glorious tame waters and verdant beach, playing with rocks, balls and cards, then sleeping off the summer fatigue on a blanket under a tree, before repeating it all over again until dinner.
So, when years back my travels took me to Australia, it’s much lauded beaches did little for me. Frankly, all that body surfing in the breaking waves and ‘watch out for the shark’ business left me anxious and exhausted. Shadeless expanses of sand had me running for dear life covered in long sleeve shirts and 50+ factor. In the end, I demanded to be taken to a so-called Granny Beach, a still and mostly shallow pool of water sheltered by a reef and frequented, you’ve guessed it, by grannies and small children.
Now, much has changed in this world of ours since I was a skinny ginger kid with pigtails but Croatian coast sustained its remarkable qualities throughout time. Having travelled there with my son many times since he was a baby, I came to appreciate the tame and safe environment and amicable, laid back attitude of Croatians when it comes to children.
It is not easy to reconcile the needs of adults with those of children on a holiday. So, to be able to relax with your coffee or a glass of wine, enjoy a swim, a meal or a concert and know that your children are perfectly safe just messing around, making friends, swimming or running between the tables is a gift you cannot buy. In Croatia, there is still prevalent that old-time attitude whereby it takes a village to raise a child and people will regard your kids as their own – gifting them a cookie or a smile and making sure that all is well.
In the balmy summer evenings life takes place outside and kids mingle freely among the terraces or on the seaside promenade and beachfronts, while adults exchange stories of the day. It is refreshing and liberating not to be thought of as a bad parent because your kids are still up after dark and sharing what in the modern Anglo-Saxon culture has become an exclusively adult world. And the fact that many Croatian islands and town centres enforce a no-car policy makes another great worry obsolete.
Apart from a safe environment, the children also need something to do and this is where Croatia’s made a considerable progress. Whereas in my time the best you could get was a sandolina beach canoe or visit to a beach disco playing last year’s hits, today’s families have a myriad of activities to choose from, even at those more remote destinations on the Croatian coast.
Many of these centre on the Croatian natural assets, so cycling, hiking, snorkelling and rafting feature highly as activities for families and visitors of all ages. Due to Croatia’s manageable size and varied terrain, it is possible to climb a mountain, visit a cave and have a swim in a single day. Some of the Croatia’s most spectacular national parks are near or on the coastline – Brijuni, Kornati and Mljet islands and Plitvice Lakes are among them. But even if you don’t venture on a major family activity adventure it is easy to access sports such as cycling, volleyball, basketball, tennis and the ubiquitous football or to find a swimming or diving class that is suitable for all ages.
Of the man-made attractions, the Istria’s Dino Park and two aqua parks in Poreč and Brtonigla are the more spectacular, but many tourist destinations now have great adventure playgrounds on or near the beach that are safe, free and often lighted in the evenings, as well as mini discos, trampolines and old fashioned fun parks, all great especially for those with younger kids that need to be tired out before turning in.
Croatia is still a country of strong family values and culture and much of its life fits with and around family life, so perhaps this is the reason why families find these lands so comfortable and easy when they visit. Then again, it could be the ice cream, the panacea for all family holiday ills. In Croatia, ice cream is cheap, excellent and it’s everywhere. And if you see a red-faced woman elaborating to a 5-year old on the value and necessity of civilised behaviour through clenched teeth, make mine a vanilla. Please.