In a rare beach vacation, Ryan and I took advantage of a short flight for the long weekend to go to Pula, Croatia to get some sun before the fall really sets in up north. In true RyanAir fashion, we bought some $50 round trip tickets and took off late Sunday night for Istria, the region in northern Croatia.
We stayed in Horizont Golden Rocks Resort. By the time we arrived Sunday night, the sun had already set. We explored our sparse room and spent a few minutes out on our “park view” balcony. I pointed through the trees to what looked like a sparkle of water, excited that we could see the sea. Then we headed to bed.
We woke up early the next day and the first thing I did was to head back to the balcony, where I was pleasantly surprised by more than just a glimmer of water. Just beyond the pine trees we had a water view in all directions.
After brushing our teeth we followed a path along the water towards a very blocky, white group of buildings perched on the edge of rugged rocks and stunning blue water. We walked up to the balcony for the hotel’s buffet breakfast and started our day with some coffee, eggs, pastries, and fruit. Then our day was spent lounging on some rocks, soaking up the sun and jumping into the water. Besides the pain in our feet from the rough, rocky shore, it was pure bliss. Blue sky, warm sun, and crystal clear waters were all we could ask for. We topped it off with some pizza and wine for lunch, which put us in a great mood for our next stop.
Around 3:00 p.m., we freshened up before taking a 30 minute walk along the coastline. Our destination was a little hut along a cove where we met a group of 6 others – 2 Italians, 2 French women, and 2 Americans – for our three hour tour. After a quick introduction, our guide gave us our paddles and we headed down to the water. Ryan and I climbed into our two person sea kayak and we were off.
It was a little rough at first – one of us wanted to paddle like the Hulk and one of us just wanted to do it the right way – but we found our stride and spent 30 minutes kayaking along the coast. We stopped outside a very popular hang out point just beyond a campground. At that point, our host gave us a few instructions and then kayaked through a small opening in the rock wall and disappeared. We were told to wait a few seconds and then follow him in.
We let the three other kayaks go first and then dodged some cliff jumpers to follow our leader into the dark. We turned the corner into pitch black but a second later we saw the illuminated interior of a cave. Paddling further, we saw a hidden stone beach, lit by some flashlights.
Our host, born and raised in Pula, told us that he used to go to this cave when he was a kid. On hot summer days, he and his friends would line the walls of the cave with candles “so that it looked like a cathedral” and play cards. Now tourists had started to find today but we had the place all to ourselves. (Okay, I suppose we were tourists but we were with a local … doesn’t count then!) He pulled some water and beer out of a cooler that had been in our kayak and, after a bit of refreshment, told us to put on some snorkeling masks.
We followed him out of the dark and back into the light of the day. Then he led us up the cliff to a spot 30 feet above the water and asked who wanted to jump. Ryan and I hopped in line and took the plunge. It was long enough that I had time to scream twice on the way down and had water up my nose for an hour but ryan loved it and went back up for more. After his second jump, our guide led the group over to the side of the jump zone and told us all to stand on a rock.
We could see how excited he was to share the joys of his childhood with us. Next, he dove down to the sea floor and came up with two spiked balls in his hands. Carefully, he placed the sea urchins in our hands. He explained that sea urchins only live where the water is incredibly clear so it was a good sign. We watched as the urchins moved each of their legs in our hands and then he tossed them back.
Our tour ended with a (somewhat forced) underwater photo shoot. And no, we weren’t the most awkward group! After that, we had some final beers while floating on the water, watching the sun go down. Our guide told us about the buildings, which had been constructed in what had been Yugoslavia, about Istria and its beauty, about the arrival of tourists and hundred year old fortresses lining the coast from what had been the Austrian-Hungarian empire. Then we started the 30 minute paddle back to shore.
We said good bye to the group and took the walk back in the fading light. We made it home in time for Ryan to finish our leftover pizza and to try some Istrian wine. We were pretty exhausted after the paddling so we headed to bed early, excited for another day of relaxing.
The next day, we woke up and had some coffee on our little balcony, marveling at the stillness of the early-morning sea. We had another buffet breakfast and headed straight down for the same place we had been comfortably seated earlier.
Our spot was up against a rock wall with a relatively flat space to lay and a great lookout over the water. A few steps took us down to the water whenever we got too warm. I dove in right away and went for my longest swim. Ryan floated along and then we headed back up to lay in the sun. The time passed much the same as the day before – making plans and enjoying the views. I was a bit more hesitant on the rocks now that I knew that what I thought were balls of moss were actually hundreds of black, potentially-painful sea urchins. But I was plenty adventurous about diving in and trying to chase the fish around in the water.
After a few more dives and with the water starting to get choppier, Ryan and I decided to sit on the rocky shoreline half in the water to keep cool. After on particularly strong wave, I felt what I thought was a rock bumping against my leg. I looked down to move it but saw something that caused me to shriek instead. A 3 foot long eel was bumping his nose against my thigh. I lifted myself out of the water enough for him to slither past Ryan and disappear into the dark rocks below us.
That was all the water time I needed then so we headed up to our rocky outlook and spent some more time in the sun. As the day got hotter, we were about to go back in the water. As we stood, we saw what looked like a brown plastic bag floating by. We argued about if it was trash or not before finally deciding that it was, in fact, a jellyfish. I was considerably freaked out now, after having spent a blissfully unaware day floating in the water. We still went in a few times, although I was always on high alert for urchins, eels, and jellyfish.
Fortunately, there was only one aquatic-related injury of the day. Two twenty-something men were standing on the edge, looking at the jellyfish. One friend pushed the other in 3 feet behind the jellyfish. He promptly exited the water but took the opportunity to push his friend directly on top of the jellyfish. Karma, I tell ya. That guy escaped with a 1 inch red mark on his ankle and a lot of anger at his friend. (He later pushed him off an 6 foot cliff into the water. Safe to say, I’m glad I’m not their friend).
After plenty of sun, we went back to clean the salt off our skin before calling an Uber to take us into town. The 7 minute ride took us directly to Alighieri, a highly-recommended Istrian restaurant. With service much quicker than we’ve gotten accustomed to in Germany, we had some white Istrian wine alongside some black cuttlefish risotto (the winner), monkfish with local truffle, and octopus arms with pumpkin gnocchi. We ended the night with some baklava and a quick Uber ride back to watch the sun set over the Adriatic Sea.
We weren’t ready for our seaside adventure to end when Monday rolled around. We woke up early again and enjoyed the calm of the water from the rocks before a quick breakfast on our balcony. We checked out of our room by 10:00 AM and left our luggage to spend some more time exploring the resort before our 10:00 PM flight.
We started with a quick walk around one of the fortresses our guide mentioned, which was fenced off and crumbling on the resort grounds. Then we found a nice overlook and spent a few hours enjoying the shade and the views before a quick lunch at the resort restaurant. We couldn’t believe the stunning views, even after 3 days, and got a kick out of watching a school of fish swim around from 30 feet above.
Then we finally said good bye to Horizont and made our way to the city. We took a quick walk around the Amphitheater, one of the best preserved roman theaters in the world. It was the only one that still has three levels of architecture and has been in use for over 2,000 years. It also had great views out to the water so we enjoyed those from the shade before taking a quick walk around the city. It wasn’t very big and we were also carrying all our luggage on our backs in the hot sun so we decided to cut the walk short and head to the thing I had been most excited to see in the city – the Olive Oil Museum.
They kindly let us stow our bags in a closet and then Ryan and I spent 2 hours on the whole experience. We learned about the 2,000 year history of olive oil in the region and the production process. We were then called into a tasting room by a guide who took us through a tasting of 8 different oils. It started with 2 basic Istrian oils in comparison to a market brand “extra virgin” olive oil. We learned the requirements for the classification and the different methods for producing each. We then tasted 5 premium olive oils, each choosing our favorites, before getting a surprise dessert – a fresh cheese with honey, fig, mint, and some oil.
All the while, we chatted with our guide. We learned about her background. She was a concert violinist who had moved to Pula after studying music in Vienna for four years. She was working on getting further certifications before moving back to Vienna. In the meantime, she filled her time telling naive tourists like us about olive oil – something she knows quite a lot about since her grandparents made their own olive oil!
Needless to say, Ryan is ready to chuck our fake olive oil when we get home. We were prevented from buying any by our impending flight but we took down the names of our favorites and planned our future order from the shop. We were starting to get tired but still had hours before our flight. We killed some time by sitting by the harbor, then getting some dinner at a place called Hook and Cook. Ryan had a “Shrimptilla” – shrimp with veggies in a tortilla – and I had a tuna steak burger to really enjoy the last of the seafood.
Then, with not much left to do with everything strapped to our backs, we headed out to the airport extra early. I typed this up as we watched the sun set outside the airport. We stopped by the duty free store to see if there was any olive oil to take home. (There was!) We checked in with our families and strategized how we would function with very little sleep after the late night trip home. Even with the impending exhaustion, we were already eager for the next trip. We started planning as the plan took off and we waved good bye to the sunny Croatian coast, grateful for another long weekend adventure.