Travelling to the Island of Unije, Croatia
And how to save money when flying to Europe
There are two restaurants on the island, about 100 meters apart. Plus one ice cream parlor, a grocery store, one bakery that makes only one type of bread, a post office, and billions of stars. You fall in love with the sky there. Add the scent of the sea salt and lavender and your journey becomes magical. It’s called Unije. There are 75 people living there year-round. It’s located on the north of the Croatian part of the Adriatic Sea, or Jadran, as it’s called by Croatians. How to get there might be, more or less, complicated. For people from this side of the pond, the best way would be to fly to Zagreb, capital city of Croatia. From there, take a bus to Rijeka and then a catamaran to Unije.
It seems “Norwegian Air” is the hot airline for traveling to Croatia. It has unbeatable prices to reach my native country when comparing to…everybody else that flies out there. For my son – who was 11 at the time of flight, in June 2015 – and me, the roundtrip from JFK via Copenhagen to Zagreb costed $1,852 and change for both of us. Now, that’s the price you get if you purchase a ticket at the European site of the Norwegian Air website. Click on ‘Other Countries’ link, next to the European Union flag, where prices are listed in euros. You may notice the same ticket will cost you about $200 more if bought on the US page of the Norwegian Air website.
For example, a roundtrip ticket to Croatia from July 1st to, let’s say July 20th 2016, will cost you $1,127.00 if purchased on the US website of the Norwegian Air website. Same flight, from JFK to Zagreb, on same days costs $927.00 if purchased on the “Other Countries” link. If you want to dig a bit further, click on domestic site of the Norwegian Air, first on the top of the list of countries, where prices are shown in Norwegian Krone. There, booking the same flight will costs $892. It’s a great way to save money when traveling to Europe. This is, to my knowledge, an exception and exclusively a Norwegian Air ‘thing’. There is no difference in cost between the US site vs. Euro site, in, for example, Alitalia’s website. My bet is it must have something to do with it being an airline partner, whereas Norwegian Air currently does not partner with another airline.
For example, a roundtrip ticket to Croatia from July 1st to, let’s say July 20th 2016, will cost you $1,127.00 if purchased on the US website of the Norwegian Air website. Same flight, from JFK to Zagreb, on same days costs $927.00 if purchased on the “Other Countries” link. If you want to dig a bit further, click on domestic site of the Norwegian Air, first on the top of the list of countries, where prices are shown in Norwegian Krone. There, booking the same flight will costs $892. It’s a great way to save money when traveling to Europe.
No surprise then that both flights, to and from, were completely packed. Good thing this is a Dreamliner — The Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Norwegian Air is a low-cost carrier so be prepared because all you get for your ticket is a spot on the Dreamliner and free entertainment. Everything else requires additional costs, including food, water, earplugs, blanket, and…this can be important…seats. It costs to choose seats. No biggie if that’s not important for you but, if you travel with someone, especially with your child, you want sit together. If you do not reserve (pay) for the seats, the Norwegian Air will assign available seats on the day of travel. That necessity costs $42 per person flying intercontinental; for two of us, that raises the cost $84. Same thing for a return trip. Thus an additional $84. Plus 2 times $23 to reserve seats for an inter-european flight, in my case to Pula, Croatia. Summa summarum, the total cost for both of us is $2,376.80 if the tickets were bought online on the US site of the Norwegian Air website. Again, total cost for the same flight purchased on the Euro site cost $1921.12. That’s $400 of saving. It’s a great way to fly if you go by yourself or don’t absolutely sit next to your travel partner. One more thing. If planning to check luggage, do so, at the latest, one day before your departure time. It costs 33 euros ($36.50) per bag. Within 24 hours into the departure, the on-line checking is no longer allowed. At the airport, a fee for one checked bag costs $100. I made the mistake of not checking our luggage earlier. The best option is to just take a carry-on, which is free of charge. The Dreamliner has spacious bins, you should not have a problem squeezing yours in.
There is a stopover in Copenhagen. The layover there is almost 6 hours. Now, let me tell you something: The 6 hours between flights actually makes this trip even more interesting. The airport in Copenhagen is 20 minutes from downtown, and perfectly connected via metro. A one way ticket costs 36 Danish Krone ($5.30). If not in the mood to spent 6 hours on the airport (with lots of shops, bars, and restaurants) a short train ride to this beautiful city might be a good idea. Copenhagen Central Station, a gorgeous building, is located just across from Tivoli, the oldest amusement park in the World.
The flight to Zagreb arrives around 9pm. That meant staying in Zagreb overnight. We slept in nearby Hotel Pleso (clean and a kind staff), then took off toward Pula refreshed the next morning. It takes one hour and thirty minutes by car to reach Rijeka, Croatia’s largest harbour. The boat to Unije departs at 5pm. But first stop was my hometown of Pula. An ancient city on the Adriatic full of Romans’ evidence on every step, with the biggest being Arena, a 2000 years old roman colosseum. Finally, after a 9 year absence, I arrived to see my parents.
From Pula we took a bus to Rijeka, a one hour thirty minutes bus ride along the east cost of Istria, a Croatian peninsula with a couple nicknames. Besides being called ‘Little Tuscany’, the nickname “Terra Magica” is, I think, ideal for this beautiful strip of land.
We reached Unije by the sleek and very comfortable catamaran Krilo. For three of us (my partner meeting up with us the night before) it cost 165 kunas ($24) one way.
With two stops it took about 2 hours 45 minutes to get to Unije from Rijeka. The Adriatic was a bit mad that day my friend. At one point, the crew announced not daring to dock in Unije due to choppy waves. Krilo was, by the way, handling the stormy and boiling sea really well. Fortunately, the weather completely shifted as we got closer to Unije, and our captain managed to park his boat like a glove.
Camping is not allowed on the island. Nudism is, but only outside of the village. There is a sign that shows where the FKK, a universal acronym for feel free to be nude, is not allowed.
There are no hotels. Private accommodation only. We found ours via Airbnb. It was perfect. There are newer, more luxurious places on the island, but this one, called “Blu shutters Island Cottage” was just right, a real cottage in full sense of term. It was made not to attract visitors, but to accommodate owners’ needs. In the winter they live there. It was exactly as I imagined it when thinking what I want of lodging.
A gently worn out apartment that fully deserves a cozy attribute. Comfortable beds, nice and clean shower with better water pressure than my apartment in NYC, an air conditioner, functional kitchen with dishwasher, a wonderful terrace where you can spend all day and feel satisfied, wifi, and amazing hosts. It’s located two minutes from the beach. To reach a post office where you can change dollars into kunas, it takes 30 seconds. Grocery store is about 200 feet away. Everything you need is in a radius of a two minutes by walk from our apartment. The www.otok-unije.com provides useful info about the island and can be of assistance in finding housing.
June or September are great times to visit the island. Less crowds, and less expensive tickets and lodging. Temperatures of both air and water is good enough, although beginning of June can be a bit cooler and the water temperature not ideal — it will take few minutes for your body temperature to adjust.
Our evening ritual, every day, consisted of fishing from the main pier. The taste of the fish shared with loved ones minutes after being caught has a sacred sensation attached to the pleasure of eating it. Leftover bread, mixed with breadcrumbs and flour, and wet just enough to make a dough, was the only bite we used. It worked. We did not catch anything spectacular, small fish called Bukva, but man, that had the sweetest taste in the world. Time spent on islands has a stronger effect on relaxing than the same time on the continent, even compared to the places by the sea. I am talking about small, tiny islands where you can feel you are surrounded by the sea. It’s different than being on a larger piece of land. Time moves slower on islands, one day of vacation there feels like two on the continent.
The taste palate of an American, born and raised in the Midwest, will have a different preference than from elsewhere in the world. Let’s use my 12 year old son Luka as an example. We went to an ice cream parlour and bought one scoop of chocolate. He did not like it all. I ate it. We walked to the next one (this was before arriving in Unije, in Fazana, small town near Pula) and tried the chocolate again. Nope. I ate it again. We stopped experimenting with ice cream parlours on the mainland. The one in Unije also did not fit my son’s taste. (Eventually, “Snjeguljica” (Snow White) by Ledo became his favorite). In the beginning, food was a problem for him, too. Adjusting to different tastes, everything he tried he did not like it. For example, langoustine is my favorite seafood. Luka could not stand it. Until few tries. And then, he was asking for it every night. Langoustine happens to be one of the most expensive items on the menu on probably every restaurant in Croatia. If not the most expensive. It costs about $40 per portion of around 400 grams (0.9 pounds). It’s a delicacy. One perhaps should not consume delicacies every day. And me, being 9 years away from my homeland, was craving for langoustine. Langoustine. Just the name sounds gastronomically noble. The real scampi. Grilling is the best way to prepare them. Smaller pieces are perfect to make buzara, a stew made with seafood. As I said it before, after getting hooked on the taste of it, Luka now wanted it every day. Couldn’t afford it.
There, on the island with 75 people that live there for the entire year, I fully realized how addicted I am, and my son, and my partner Donna, to internet, to little gadgets where all the world is accessible. A trip like this could be a good way for internet detoxication. Not an easy task, at least it was not for us.
One of the fourteen nights spent on the island, we went star watching. On clear nights, Zeljko and friends, all locals, carry a 60 pound telescope to the top of the island, just near where an old chapel sits alone. There, for the first time in our lives, we saw Saturn with its rings. And a crystal-clear closeups of the craters on the Moon. Simply walking across the island was, besides swimming and fishing, another activity we enjoyed. Waking up at 5 am one morning to reach the other side of the island for a sunrise was thoroughly worth it.
Our host Ana knows herbs. Besides an herbal garden in her backyard, full of lavender, sage and oregano, she occasionally brought us herbs found on the island. If you are interested in herbs and aromatherapy, Unije is a good place to explore. Nearby Mali Losinj, a larger island, is famous for its aromatic garden and abundance of medicinal herbs. Unije is just a smaller version of it. I had an ear infection while on the island. Few drops of squeezed “house keeper”, a small plant with a fatty leaves, was a remedy. It looks like aloe vera. It worked to sooth the pain.
On our way back we took a different direction. Instead of going to Rijeka, we decided to go to Pula, by the sea and the air. First, we boarded Premuda towards the nearest, and much bigger, island Mali Losinj. Premuda was built in 1952. It smells so good. The sound of the diesel, the look and feel of red painted wood, occasional smell of cigarettes, surrounded by ‘big blue’ from top to bottom creates a magnificent way to travel. The crew that operates Premuda are smooth operators.
There, on Mali Losinj, we boarded a seaplane that took off from the asphalt. Oh, by the way, there is an airport on Unije. It seems to be operational only occasionally, for air-taxis but I didn’t explore if it works or not any further. It just didn’t feel family-friendly enough for me. Mali Losinj still does not have a license to allow the European Coastal Airlines (ECA) to operate in the harbour. ECA specializes in connecting the places along and across the Adriatic Sea. Near the airport Mali Losinj there is a restaurant called “El Paso”. After about 20 minutes of a one-million-dollar view flight (the seaplane with a crew of two flies about 300 meters above the sea level) we landed on the sea surface in the harbor of Pula. My hometown.