A bewitching combination of crystal clear water, beautiful architecture, glamorous history, beautiful art, and delicious food make Opatija a firm favorite among the European community.
Travel Destinations

This Croatian coastal town by the Adriatic Sea can be your next summer escape

Once the playground of powerful men and women, Opatija charms with safaris, seafood, and even a dinosaur. 
Julie Boschi | Jan 28 2019

My last summer trip to Europe was literally sizzling. Extreme heat warnings have been issued, and the temperature went past 40 degrees Celsius. Eleven countries were affected, including Italy, where we have been staying since June. We sought refuge in the slightly cooler temperature of the Apennine Mountains instead of the planned trip to the southern part of Italy. When my husband Gabriele announced that we are driving to Croatia for a week by the sea, he was met with less enthusiasm than expected simply because we did not want to leave our cool, darkened rooms behind stone walls. The trip was a five-hour drive from Bologna, passing through Slovenia, and finally hitting the resort town of Opatija. Baking under the heat of the sun did not sound fun at all. But, as you would have predicted by now, Croatia is every bit as breathtaking as the the travel books and blogs say. And the trip? Definitely worth it!

Historically important in Croatia and Opatija, Remisens Premium Hotel Kvarner was the first hotel built along the Adriatic coast. Remisens Premium Hotel Kvarner is considered the beginning of the tourism tradition in the area and has hosted famous guests like Austrian emperor Franz Joseph I and dancer Isadora Duncan.

Opatija, a tiny resort town nicknamed “Pearl of the Adriatic,” would not be the first area that would pop into your mind when you mention Croatia. There is Dubrovnik, Zagreb, Hvar, and on and on. The town’s modern history began with the construction of Villa Angiolina manor in 1844 by a wealthy merchant, Iginio Scarpa. He used it as a summer residence and named it after his late wife. Opatija is where the story of Croatian tourism began, all because of this villa. Presently, this villa serves as the museum of Croatian tourism as well as an event venue for weddings, concerts, and parties.

Directly facing the Adriatic Sea, the terrace of Hotel Kvarner is one of the most beautiful spots to enjoy a leisurely breakfast.

By 1889, the town was known as a health resort town and had the first hotel in the Adriatic, Kvarner Hotel, opened to accommodate the influx of famous guests. Members of Austrian, German, Swedish, and Romanian royalty were regular visitors, as well as members of high society. Not far behind were famous authors (James Joyce), composers, dancers (Isadora Duncan), and artists. It was the place to be seen.

Our first view of the stunning coast was from the top of Remisens Premium Hotel Ambassador. This hotel is one of the few modern buildings in the town, towering over one corner of the coast.

Remisens Premium Hotel and Villas tower over one side of the Lungomare with its outdoor and indoor pool, spa, and private beach. It provides a sweeping view of the bay, yacht club, and the town itself.

The most recommended activity and the best way to get acquainted with the town is to take a walk down the coastal promenade named after Franz Joseph I, but best known as the Lungomare. This scenic footpath connects the whole town from one end to another, and is 106 years old. The path becomes a lesson in local history as it weaves through the beaches and coves, Angiolina Park, beach clubs, monuments, and plaques, sculptures, and local trees and plants. We walked along the path daily, traversing it at least twice in a day, each walk memorable in its own distinct way.

Coves, pebble beaches, and beach clubs are full of sun worshippers, young and old. Restaurants and cafes are all easily accessible for a cool drink or a quick lunch. We especially enjoyed the breakfast buffet of the historic Hotel Kvarner, more decadent than the usual breakfast fare, with caviar and champagne. Another favorite stop was Caffe Wagner housed in Hotel Milenij. The apple strudel is a firm favorite and the terrace is perfect for a nightcap.

Isabella at Caffe Wagner housed in Milenji Hotel. Enjoy their delicious pastries and the outdoor terrace with its view of the sea and Lungomare. The apple strudel is a must-try.

The stunning sea view is a show-stopper but turning your head the other way also gives a different kind of visual treat, with beautiful villas with Belle Epoque architecture, statues like the iconic Maiden with a Seagull set on rocks jutting out into the sea, and Madonna del Mare which originally stood where the Maiden is now. A gilded replica is now next to the parish church of St. Jacob.

The statue of Maiden with Seagull by Zvonko Car is a symbol, not only of Opatija, but the entire Kvarner region. Featured in every postcard of Opatij, it stood in place of the Madonna del Mare when the latter became damaged by the sea and wind.

St. Jacob’s Church was built as a colony of Benedictine monks and is the origin of the name Opatija, which translates into “abbey.” To this day, Italians call this town Abbazia. I especially enjoy the sound of the bells ringing during the day. The parks of St. Jacob and Park Angiolina are filled with plants and winding pathways, perfect on a sunny afternoon. The Juraj Matija Sporer art pavilion exhibits works of top artists and is not to be missed.

Our chosen spot was the Lido Bevanda Beach Club, which has access to the Lido beach and is directly across the beautiful and historic Kvarner Hotel. All around us, sun worshippers were sipping drinks, eating, reading, and chatting quietly. It was easy to let one day melt into the next one, lulled by the heat of the sun, the fragrant sea breeze and the general sound of various languages spoken all around us. Not intrusive or jarring, just a new melody we immediately got used to.

Lido Bevanda Beach Club with direct access to the bay was our personal favorite because of its great view, excellent service and facilities.

This town was built so people can enjoy lounging around all day without any guilt, and we quickly decided that we liked this philosophy. After all, we come from a tropical country famous for celebrating the beach life. We knew how to do this perfectly. Our day started with a leisurely breakfast of the best local cheeses, bread, and sausages. Having a full breakfast allowed us to lounge longer until we got hungry mid-afternoon, at which time we would snack on seafood, pizza, and some salad. Afternoons are for dips in the crystal clear and strangely sweet-tasting water, and for taking naps.

There is no shortage of excellent restaurants in Opatija, but being there at the height of tourist season forced us to choose well and plan ahead. Our initiation to the wonderful seafood of Croatia was dinner at the Yacht Club where we feasted on grilled and baked fish, and shellfish. But one discovery which we could not get enough of is the baccala spread, a creamy mash of cod which is at once both delicate and flavorful. We also wanted a traditional meal of grilled meats and sausages so we drove to the nearby city of Rijeka. Tavern Tarsa is popular with the locals and the menu is extensive and each dish is listed with its matching historical background. We feasted on mounds of grilled beef, lamb, and sausages, fish and hearty grilled vegetables. Traditional Croatian dishes are full of flavor, delicious and satisfying, designed to fill one after a hard day’s work.

Picturesque harbor of Fazana as seen from the Brijuni ferry boat. Fazana is a small fishing village which is the take off point for Brujini Island. • Ruins of St. Mary’s Church which was built by the Knights Templar in the 13th century.

But our Italian friends whose parents had the foresight to purchase an apartment years ago and have been coming to this town since they were little would not let us be and insisted that we take a drive to the town of Fazana, the jump-off point for the Brijuni National Park.

One of the jewels of Istria, the Brijuni Islands is comprised of two larger islands, Veli and Mali Brijuni, and 12 other islets. We spent the day at the largest island, Veli. Brijuni, inhabited since the prehistoric period, enjoyed by the Romans and the Byzantines, became a fortress. At one time, it became part of Italy. In 1947, it became the official summer residence of Josip Broz Tito, who was president of Yugoslavia until his death. During this time, villas were built, parks and forests renewed, and ruins restored and preserved. It was visited by the most prominent statesmen and played host to historical political meetings at that time. Movie stars such as Elizabeth Taylor and Sophia Loren were regular guests, making the islands a favorite of the political and social set.

Walking along the coast of Istria, Brijuni Island inside the dinosaur park. The island has more than 200 dinosaur footprints discovered in four sites.

The Brijuni ferry boat crosses the Fazana channel to reach the park. Hotel Neptune, as well as some of the buildings, is already visible as the ferry nears the island. There are many ways of exploring the park. There is the train tour, and bicycles are for rent, as well as golf carts. We opted for golf carts as we preferred to explore on our own. Our five-year-old immediately asked to see the animals, so we headed for the safari park. The pathways are paved and lined with helpful signs so it was relatively easy to explore. The ride itself allows you to see the stunning coast, each corner revealing more of the spectacular rugged coastline and the beautiful sparkling water. We immediately understood why so many people were enamored of this island. It is breathtaking, with its raw and unspoiled beauty in spite of its popularity among locals and European tourists.

The safari park was deserted when we arrived, an automatic gate is the only form of security between the animals and the rest of the island. Zebras, horses, ostriches, llamas, camels, and rams enjoy open fields with just a simple wooden fence between us and them. We got up close and personal with the animals, feeding and petting them. Lanka, one of the two elephants given by Indira Gandhi, has his own place and was happily playing with the water jet under the heat of the sun. Do not expect lions and tigers, but what they had in the safari was enough to make our daughter happy.

A statue of this dinosaur first comes into view while walking a narrow and pathway covered by a canopy of trees causing a split second of panic among first time guest including us. A few meters away from this statue are the well-preserved footprints imbedded in the limestones. Our five-year-old, Lucia, was so thrilled to put her foot inside these gigantic footprints. The 200 plus footprints in the island are often mention in archaeological studies.

Next stop was the dinosaur park adjacent to the safari park. Over 200 dinosaur footprints were discovered in four sites on the island, made by Cretaceous-period dinosaurs. We already spotted some of the footprints as soon as we embarked, but of course, we cannot miss this Croatian Jurassic Park. The automatic gate swings open and we walked under a canopy of trees, a small pathway leading to the sea at the end. It was a little bit eerie because it was so quiet. Right by the shore, at the end of the footpath, is a huge statue of a dinosaur, so realistic that we all got scared for a spilt second even if we knew it was just a statue. We had a grand time looking for the footprints, which were clearly seen on the limestone. Again, the coast is stunning and deserted, giving us the pleasure of taking photos without the usual tourist crowd. Naturally, we posed with Mr. Dino, half terrified that it will come to life!

The rest of the day was spent exploring the Byzantine Castrum ruins, Roman villa, and bath ruins and St. Mary's Basilica. All over the island are beautiful century-old oak and olive trees, peacocks, and deer roaming freely, fearlessly approaching our golf cart whenever we stopped. Hidden in clumps of trees are gates leading towards the private villas, available for lease. We saw people playing golf, enjoying the children's playground, and doing their own activities in this paradise. They said the island was full, but we did not feel it at all. We chose a spot close to the front of the island and swam in the ocean until the sun set. A satisfying day indeed, it left us wanting to spend more time there.

Click on the image below for slideshow

A fortified Byzantine Castrum (530-778 A.D.) on Brijuni Island an area of one hectare in Dobrika Bay at the western shore. It has a beautiful sea view and an ancient and huge Nom Oak tree by the entrance. Its ruins have a peaceful quality to it, and we spent a long time walking up and down and around the stones in silence. 

The statue of Maiden with the Seagull by Zvonko Car at night. 

Entrance of Officine del Pesce, an excellent seafood restaurant in Fazana. 

Local restaurants, fine dining places and everything in between served the most delicious seafood, perfectly grilled meats and fresh vegetables. Seafood, local cheeses, and sausages should not be missed. 

Local restaurants, fine dining places and everything in between served the most delicious seafood, perfectly grilled meats and fresh vegetables. Seafood, local cheeses, and sausages should not be missed. 

Local restaurants, fine dining places and everything in between served the most delicious seafood, perfectly grilled meats and fresh vegetables. Seafood, local cheeses, and sausages should not be missed. 

Ruins of St. Mary’s Church which was built by the Knights Templar in the 13th century. 

Houses in the little town of Fazana are saturated with beautiful colors making a walk along the tiny streets and around little piazzas a delight. 

I walked along this seaside promenade every single day of our stay in Opatija, never tiring of what Lungomare had to offer. This is the single, most important must do when visiting this beautiful town. 

Terrace of Hotel Kvarner. 

View of the sea from Lungomare where yachts dot the coastline. 

The largest sculpture in the town is done by the delicate hands of Marija Ujević Galetović. The statue is Miroslav Krieza, Croatia’s greatest writer of the 20th century. 

The statue of the boatman of Opatija called barjakol was made by another female sculptor, Tatjana Kostanjevic. His extended arm curls around the body and many “naughty” photos were shot there. 

The statue of Isadora Duncan, widely acclaimed ballet dancer and frequent visitor, who passed away too soon. The statue shows her in mid-dance, surrounded by the Opatija palms. 

Statue of the musician Jan Kubelik represented by a violinist with an invisible violin bow right in front of a grandstand. 

Symbol of the town: Maiden with the Seagull, located on a rock. She is easily on the most photographed sight in Opatija. 

The gilded Madonna del Mare who used to stand where the Maiden with the Seagull is standing now. 

Thirteen stone balls by local sculptor Ljubo de Kaina. Feel free to sit on one and watch the sea and passersby. 

The next couple of days were spent back in Opatija, this time, under the cloudy skies. The town was still charming and still had so many things we had yet to sample, such as plays and concerts in the open theater, as well as organized parties at the beach. We also swore to ourselves that we would eat more, stay one night per historic hotel and swim in each cove and beach when we come back. Opatija captured our hearts completely, just like all the other visitors who came before us.

 

This story originally came out in Metro Society’s November 2017 issue. For more information on Opatija, go to VisitOpatija.net.