The Croatian city of Zadar was once a Roman settlement
It was golden hour on the Dalmatian coast, and as the sun sank toward the Adriatic, I could hear the sea singing to me. Not as some whimsical fancy of my imagination, you understand. The big blue was literally serenading me – and no, I wasn’t under the influence of one too many happy-hour cocktails. My family and I were in the Croatian city of Zadar, once a Roman settlement and now home to one of the quirkiest seaside attractions I’ve ever encountered: the sea organ. Picture, if you can, an enormous wave-powered harmonica, playing away in a key of sea major. The mechanics are hidden below the waterline, in steps cut into the old town’s promenade.
These conceal a labyrinth of pipes playing ocean-powered music which ebbs and flows in time with the tide. (Top parenting tip: if you’re travelling with gullible kids, do tell them in advance about the famous Invisible Busker Of Croatia.They’ll see the funny side, I swear.) Charming as the sea organ is, it’s actually just the warm-up act for Zadar’s nightly headliner.
A few feet away is the Monument To The Sun, a solar-powered “dancefloor” that fires up after sunset and treats onlookers to a groovy, rainbow-coloured light show.You might not expect to find modern eccentricities in a beautiful old place like Zadar, but the city is very much a historic pick ‘n’ mix. Its walls date from its days as aVenetian stronghold but within you’ll find everything from Byzantine churches to Roman relics.
My husband Ian and I paused to admire the old Forum while our children, Connor, 10, and Cara, nine, pelted for the market stalls and swooned over the Beanie Boos. Heathens. To burn off some energy before lunch, we walked around the peninsula on which the Old Town sits, then caught our breath over the catch of the day at 2Ribara (2ribara.com).The seafood platter for two was so colossal, we feared fishing quotas had been breached.
Having blown the diet, it was time to blow the mind. Our next stop was The Museum Of Illusions (zadar.muzejiluzija.com), a fun place packed with tricks of the eye. The kids couldn’t get enough of The Vortex, a stationary tunnel which creates a weird sensation of spinning and tipping. (‘Just how mummy felt on New Year’s Eve,’ smirked Ian.) He was quickly cut down to size by a room which appeared to turn him into a midget. Another room with giggle-inducing, lopsided surfaces created an even more remarkable illusion – of two kids who actually get on.
Steps hide a wave-powered ‘harmonica’
Monument To The Sun
Our fractious pair found more common ground at Club Funimation Falkensteiner Borik. It’s a large family resort on Zadar’s outskirts, scoring highly for its all-inclusive buffet, pools, waterslide, free bike hire, all-day burger bar and excellent kids club, run by a giant owl called Falky. Suffice to say, they had a hoot.
While the kids were splashing in their favourite pool, with its water jets and sliding door between indoor and outdoor sections, I crept off to the hotel spa.This adults-only area is as vast as it is peaceful, with serene rows of loungers, dimly-lit steam and sauna rooms and al fresco Jacuzzi. I didn’t rush back.
There was a nice, typically Dalmatian pebble beach outside the hotel gates but just 20 minutes north, we found a shoreline that, at a squint, looked more Caribbean than Croatian. Queen’s Beach is accessed via a boardwalk, which takes you down to a golden sandbank, studded with straw parasols and surrounded by clear shallows, perfect for paddling and crabbing.
Across the waters of the lagoon we could see Nin, an island town linked to the mainland by two stone bridges. This is Croatia’s oldest royal town and well worth the effort of navigating some interesting local road construction to park up outside the walls and explore.
We spent a sunny hour or two strolling the cobbled streets, visiting the ruins of the Roman temple and pretending to be invading soldiers at the city gate.
Another day we drove south to Maskovica Han (maskovicahan.hr), an impressive complex built in traditional Ottoman style. Not what you expect in the Croatian countryside. This 17th century curiosity was meant to be a summer house for a then-admiral of the Turkish fleet, until a fall-out with the Sultan cut short more than just his building project.
Writer Lynne Hyland
These days it’s an upmarket hotel and restaurant with the sort of tranquil vibe that suggests it’s one to revisit minus kids. For now, we were happy to enjoy lunch in its atmospheric dining hall, converted from the former mosque.
Maskovica Han sits near the vast shores of Lake Vrana, one of the many inland beauty spots in Dalmatia, and we’d been dazzled by flashes of blue on our drive.
Perhaps, I suggested, we could stop for a closer look? The kids howled in protest; they had their eyes on an altogether different attraction.
Fun Park Biograd (funparkbiograd.com) was the one they’d been looking forward to since grabbing a fistful of leaflets at the airport, and it certainly delivered on tweenage kicks.
There’s a lot packed into its compact site, from the new Atlantis flume and 4D virtual cinema to a loop-the-loop coaster and a big wheel with views for miles.
”There you go mummy, you can see that lake from here,” Cara shrugged, as our pod reached the summit.
We did finally get our day by the water though, on a sailing trip to the local islands. Zadar is a handy launch pad for boat excursions, whether you fancy sandy Saharun beach on Dugi Otok, or a scenic slalom through the islets of Kornati National Park.
Take a sailing boat excursion around the beach-beautiful island of Dugi Otok
We spent a day on Barba Ive (terratravel.hr), a tourist boat with the added bonus of a huge friendly Newfoundland as the ship’s dog.
Presumably he’s nifty at sea rescue but the only time the kids went overboard was when it came to petting the poor pooch. While they were busy fussing the dog, Ian and I watched the world gliding by en route to Telascica bay.
After docking, we climbed to the cliff-top viewpoint, then headed to the nature reserve’s salt lake for a picnic on warm, flat rocks by the shore.
Our journey back was broken up with an ice-cream stop at Ugljan, then we were bound for Zadar and sailing west into the sunset.
As our boat rounded the Old Town peninsula, I could swear its wake added a few power chords to the sea organ’s evening symphony.
Just my imagination? Perhaps. But one thing’s certain – our week in Dalmatia had hit all the right notes.
easyJet flies from Gatwick and Luton to Zadar, Croatia, from £143 return easyjet.com; Ryanair from Stansted and Manchester from £132 return ryanair.com.
Family rooms on all-inclusive basis at the Falkensteiner Club Funimation Borik hotel in Zadar start at €253 a night high season/€172 a night low season. borik.falkensteiner.com Tourist info: croatia.hr