Spring in Opatija, a Child and Family Heaven

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Opatija, the birthplace of tourism in Croatia, has a reputation for wellness and catering to the older tourist. But it is also a fine venue for a family break,. TCN reports on April 8, 2017. 

The longer I stay in Croatia, the most surprised I get, and the more I realise that the stereotypes that I have are often so far from the reality that I wonder where I got them from in the first place.

Take Opatija. In my head, The Grand Old Dame of Croatian tourism, and the destination where it all began back in 1844 with Ignacio Scarpa and his Villa Angiolina, named after his late wife.

When the railroad from Ljubljana connected to Opatija and beyond in 1873, the coast became much more accessible to the rich of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and the town became known as a destination for wellness, a reputation that it continues to have today.  

After 15 years of living on Hvar, we relocated to rural Varazdin County three months ago, partly for work and partly for a lifestyle change. It has been fun to explore the numerous attractions in the region each weekend, but for a family birthday, we thought we would head to the coast,and Opatija looked an interesting Spring destination. And so it proved.

I took to Facebook to ask for recommendations for family things to do, and among the numerous responses I received, was this one;

“I can’t think of a more inappropriate place in Croatia to take kids for a holiday. There is nothing there for kids at all.”

A challenge then.  

And off we went, a family of explorers, off to discover this non-child friendly destination, which around the time of our visit was reporting an upsurge in young visitors.

And no matter how old you were, you couldn’t help but notice that this town was GORGEOUS! So much history and heritage and fine period buildings, it was a job to stroll around – for all ages. 

And there she was – The Grand Old Dame herself. What would young Scarpa have said back in 1844 if he had known how Croatia, Full of Life today had been spawned from his tentative first tourism steps?

 

Such an historic building deserves to be seen in the best possible light, so here is a better shot from the Opatija Tourist Board.  

So much charm and attention to detail wherever you turned. A delightful miniature of the nearby church. 

One of the highlights of Opatija of course is its coastal promenade, or Lungomare, a delightful 12km public waterfront walkway, which is the place to see and be seen. As a way to exercise and catch up with neighbours, there can be few locations to match it. Dress code – optional, although some people approach their walk in society with fine style. 

All beaches in Croatia are public, although some villas and hotels try and make sections private,and I really liked this aspect of Opatija – a whole walkway – and a very pretty one – available for the people. 

It is a promenade that one takes at one’s own pace, and there are plenty of opportunities to rest and catch up with friends. And what a setting to do so!

Kids attraction number one, after they had recovered from the views in our hotel (many thanks Hoteli Milenij – amazing!), were the parks. Beautifully manicured, and a real treasure hunt for the little ones, as we basked in the beauty of such a stunning collection of nature and heritage in a waterfront setting. 

All kinds of arboretum heaven to explore, and we spent more than an hour looking at various aspects of the global tree collection, before we dragged the kids off to the next part of the programme, much to their reluctance. 

Although it doesn’t compare to the finest beaches in the region, this newly opened beach in downtown Opatija was an additional attraction which had my daughters begging me for permission to jump in. As it was mid-March, we compromised on the hotel pool, which kept them entertained for well over an hour.

And a chance for Dad to rest a little, although they were keen to see what the adults only pool was like downstairs, which had bridges and all sorts of exciting features. That is one of the things I liked about the Milenji Hoteli – they catered for families, but also had an eye out for the needs of hotel guests who were without kids.  

Not only are Milenij Hoteli the biggest hospitality show in town, they also have their own private little quarter, having acquired several properties over the years. All wonderful period buildings, lovingly restored and oozing luxury and quality. The effect of this ‘private’ quarter adds a little exclusivity, as well as a little class. World-class conference facilities were lurking behind some of the walls, but you would never know, as everything was authentically preserved from the outside. 

And outside provided some clues about rather interesting previous residents, such as this chap, Mr E=MC2 himself. Indeed, if you listen to the Opatija Tourist Board, Einstein was not alone, and other famous visitors in eras gone by included “the archduke Ferdinand, empress Maria Anna, Austrian heirs Stephanie and Rudolph, Austrian emperor Franz Joseph, German emperor Wilhelm, Swedish-Norwegian King Oscar II, Romanian royal couple Karol and Elizabeta, composers Gustav Mahler and Giovanni Puccini, author James Joyce, Nobel prize winner Henryk Sienkiewicz, Russian novelist Anton Pavlovich Chekhov, and popular dancer Isadora Duncan who found inspiration for her dance moves from Opatija’s palm trees.”

But when it came to recommendations for the kids in Opatija, there was only one recommendation, and it was to be found in this building, also in that gorgeous Milenij quarter – Hotel Continental.

Home to… 

Chocolate World!

In the basement of the hotel was a treasure trove of chocolate delights, as well as an interactive presentation of the chocolate-making process. Nothing was more popular than the chocolate stress relief feature. Simply look at the appetising and welcoming chocolate block, then take out all your stress on the chocolate by smashing it with a hammer into smaller chunks, which can then be placed in a box for you to take home. 

A little of the action in this video above. 

Opatija has a chocolate festival every year, and a rather talented chocolate artisr from Italy has already achieved cult status with works of art like this. 

Some of the attention to detail on various exhibits is breathtaking.

And a poorly photographed masterpiece recreation of the hotel itself, starting with a block of 200kg of chocolate, which was shaved down to 150kg of this chocolate hotel perfection. I didn’t find out what happened to the other 50kg…

And when the chocolate fountain was turned on, there was no shortage of young volunteers to dip their cookies into the choice of flowing white and dark chocolate. 

And although chocolate basement was focused on chocolate, there were many other goodies to check out. 

All stylishly presented. 

It was one of the lasting impressions of Milenij Quarter – a well-organised, superbly-presented slice of Croatia, in an idyllic location. 

Stylish in the basement, stylish on the ground floor. I adored the open-plan design of Hotel Continental, which managed to successfully combine a juiceand Champagne bar, delicatessan, beer bar, cafe and delightful shop offering traditional specialities. A truly wonderful space and ambience. 

We stayed at The Grand Hotel Cvijeta, a waterfront 4-star slice of heaven, whose restaurant offered something I have never seen before in Croatia, and yet something so simple. In a country of some fabulous gourmet variety as Croatia, it is REALLY hard to experience the cuisine from another region. How many Slavonian restaurants are there in Split, or Istrian ones in Zagreb, for example? And yet here, in this waterfront hotel restaurant, a culinary programme organised on a weekly basis, with alternate days representing no less than six different regions. Each week, every week. And often with live music from the region as well. A fantastic idea, and a great opportunity for guests to experience the whole of Croatian cuisine in just one week. 

And while Opatija itself is a delight, so too are its neighbours. Rijeka is close by, and across the bridge, the island of Krk, or head out in a boat to Cres or Losinj. But just a few kilometres in the other direction brings you to Istria. Take the picturesque mountain road high above Opatija through Ucka Nature Park for stunning views of the Adriatic behind, or if time is against you, the Ucka Tunnel is a very short drive to Istrian heaven. 

Just 40 minutes from Opatija is one of the great destinations in Istria – officially the smallest town in the world – Hum.

“Is it really the smallest town in the world, Daddy? It certainly is the cutest. Can we run off and explore?” And off they ran, for Hum is as safe as they come, with a population of between 17 and 30 people, depending on who you speak to. 

I saw them occasionally darting in among the quaint stone buildings, and smiled to myself. Being a parent is such a privilege, and when you have the very finest of Croatia at your disposal, it is not hard to keep the little ones entertained. 

There she is, the smallest town in the world, an essential addition to your relaxing stay in Opatija. 

On the drive home, the kids were noticeably quiet, and I asked if all was ok.

“Oh yes Daddy. We had such a good weekend, and we have decided to start our own website, called Total Fun For Kids. We are just writing down our ideas.”

For more information about Milenij Hoteli, click here

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