Get off the beaten path in Europe

On his first post pandemic trip, Wolf Paunic discovered there’s no place like home.

“I decided to go back to my roots, to revisit and emotionally re-live a selection of my most favourite places in the two very trendy and inspiring European countries: Croatia and Montenegro,” the president of Trafalgar, Costsaver and Brendan Vacations Canada tells Travel Courier. “I realized how much the pandemic changed my own travel pattern; in the super hectic pre-pandemic world, I was looking to add new countries and places of renown, as if I was trying to complete a task. Post-pandemic, I realized I enjoyed soaking in every moment of my travel: enjoying a landscape, taking a leisurely walk, deepening my understanding of the local history and people. Really enjoying slow travel.”

Although the coast of Croatia is increasingly popular for Canadians looking to soak up the vast diversity of landscapes from the North (Istria) to the South (Dalmatia), Paunic says there’s lots to see and discover that’s not as well known.

“The city of Opatija in Kvarner region was developed by Austro-Hungarian entrepreneurs who wanted to create their own Riviera, easily accessible by train from Vienna,” he says. “And so, Opatija grew into a spellbinding, old-world European resort, inclusive of a 14km long Lungomare promenade along the sea named after the famous emperor Franz Josef. A walk not to be missed, especially at sunset.”

Next to Opatija, there is the small historical fishing town of Volosko, which he describes as a precursor to its better-known neighbour.

“Old stone houses hugging the bay, with a small port, cute cafes and several excellent seafood restaurants, one of which has achieved Michelin star fame,” he says. “A total of three streets, two beaches and a starting point to the beautiful Lungomare promenade, Volosko is an oasis of tranquility, a place to improve one’s windsurfing skills and a treasure trove of traditional architecture surrounded by the greenery the Gulf of Kvarner is famous for.”

A Trafalgar itinerary to consider for clients looking to have these experiences is the 11 day Best of Croatia and Slovenia tour from Zagreb to Dubrovnik. 

Meanwhile, Paunic says Montenegro is known for having a dynamic combination of mountain chains with peaks close to 3,000 m., and “a beautiful coast dotted with historical fishing towns and modern resorts.”

“On the coast, the city of Kotor, often compared to Dubrovnik in Croatia, attracts the most attention, for its walls, churches, small piazzas and quaint cafes. One needs at least a day of relaxed exploration to soak in the beaty of Kotor, which guests can discover with a Local Specialist on Trafalgar’s Balkan Delight tour,” he says. “Yet my favourite, and lesser-known sites among international travellers, of historical and literary interest is mountain Lovcen, with a mausoleum dedicated to the founder of the Montenegrin state independent of the Ottoman Empire, Petar II Petrovic – Njegos, Prince-Bishop, poet and philosopher. In order to visit my favourite poet and philosopher, I enjoyed driving a manual transmission Renault Megane along one of the most dangerous (and scenic) roads in the world: from Kotor to Cetinje, a narrow serpentine road with stunning views of the Bay of Kotor.”

While Ireland is home to many world famous landmarks and attractions such as the picturesque Cliffs of Moher, Jonathan Sargeant says his homeland boasts some equally breathtaking views that aren’t as renowned.

“Slieve League cliffs are almost 600 metres tall and are by far the highest in Ireland and one of the highest in Europe,” says the sales manager for Royal Irish Tours. “They are located in Donegal in Ireland’s Northwest. They are really off-the-beaten track and a wonderful place for hikers, bikers or those who want a more rural Irish experience.”

To enjoy a night in St. David’s, he suggests RIT’s Elegant Wales eight-day driving holiday.

Another hidden gem travellers can discover is St. David’s in Pembrokeshire, Wales.

“It is the smallest city in terms of residents in the UK with a population of about 2,000 people. To be considered a city in the UK, you must have a cathedral, and St. David’s Cathedral is one of the finest in the UK, hidden in a valley on the river Alun. It is also the resting place of Wales Patron Saint,” he says. “We stayed a night here on a fam in 2019 in the beautiful boutique hotel, Twr y Felin, and it was definitely a highlight of the trip. Despite having city status, it is really just a quaint little village with a couple of great local pubs and restaurants.”

Clients can visit Slieve League cliffs on the Town & Country driving holiday.

Picture the beauty of British Columbia but combined with some remarkable castles and you’ll get a sense for why Erin Rogers, Global Purpose Specialist at G Adventures, is drawn to Slovenia.

“It’s far off the tourist path, yet easy to access from most major European gateways. More than half the country is protected by forest (making it a hiker’s dream destination) and there is a growing craft beer scene in the capital, Ljubljana, as well as plenty of delicious local wines.”

For a unique European experience, she suggests hiking up to a medieval castle and taking a rowboat to a church on an island in the middle of Lake Bled for a lunch of craft beer, cheese and baguettes.

“At a time that travellers are looking for ‘bigger spaces and fewer faces’ Slovenia really fits the bill,” she says, adding that she recommends the Explore Slovenia Hiking the Julian Alps itinerary. “Starting and finishing in Bled, travellers will trek the majestic Julian Alps on this centre–based trip, exploring Triglav National Park and visiting local villages for beer, honey and cheese tastings.”

Stephanie Bishop, managing director of the Globus family of brands, says their line of Undiscovered tours in Italy, the Mediterranean, Great Britain and the United States are all about bringing travellers to unexpected destinations.

“On our Hidden Treasures of Southern Italy tour, for instance, we take travellers to Alberobello – a small town in the Apulia region of Southern Italy and UNESCO World Heritage Site famous for its trullos,” she explains. “These stone huts are unique to the area – thanks to an edict made in the 1400s, requiring residents to build dry dwellings without using mortars. It’s fascinating to see history preserved in the shape of the trulli. Europe is full of character and the trullos of Alberobello are no exception.”

For a unique way to experience Iceland, Erin Rogers suggests visiting during the less busy winter months.

“Don’t let the name fool you, Iceland isn’t all that ice-y in the winter months. Temperatures are pretty mild with an average of 3C for December to February. That’s warm compared to some places in Canada,” she says. “What you’ll experience in winter is the incredible hospitality of Icelanders, the beauty of frozen waterfalls and the warmth of delicious Viking-inspired cuisine.”

Iceland is easy to get to from most major Canadian gateways — and the trip takes a mere five and a half hours from Toronto. 

“It’s also a country with a low population who have done an excellent job at managing the challenges of the pandemic,” she adds. “I’ve been four times and would happily return annually to experience the art, culture and beauty of the landscape.”

For clients looking to experience a winter wonderland in Iceland, she recommends G Adventures’ Iceland Northern Lights & Golden Circle.

“Iceland’s otherworldly aura seems to heighten in the winter months when viewing of the Northern Lights is at its peak and the contrast between the cool, crisp air and its steaming geothermic hot springs heightens,” she says. “Couple that with hiking through Þingvellir National Park, meeting the famous Icelandic horse, exploring lava caves, and chasing waterfalls, and it’s a spectacular winter adventure like no other.”

On Collette’s Explorations tour of The Azores, travellers have the opportunity to overnight in areas such as Facial, Terceira, and Pico Islands.

“They are much less visited than the main island of Sao Miguel,” notes Ana Rooney, Director of Product Design at Collette. “Terceira Island is most known to Americans because of an American air base located on site but very few know about the extinct volcanos along with the unbelievable culture and nature views.”

For a unique way to see the stunning scenery of Greece, G Adventures’ Erin Rogers invites travellers to soak up the views while sailing the Greek Islands.

“G Adventures’ sailboats have a capacity of eight travellers, which makes this the ultimate tour to book for a group of friends or family travelling together,” she says. “It’s a casual way to see the islands which means travellers can BYOB (hello Ouzo afternoons!) and let the CEO Skipper take care of logistics. Listen to how CEO Skipper Scott describes the experience and tell me you’re not ready to pack your bags.”

On the 10-day Sailing Greece yacht adventure travellers will set sail aboard 15m (52 ft) yachts visiting islands like Santorini and Mykonos, with time for hiking, snorkelling, and relaxing.

“Introduce clients to sailing with G Adventures and we promise to continue putting together more destinations for them to experience this style of adventure and create repeat travellers for life. In addition to Greece, travellers can sail in Croatia, Montenegro, Italy and Slovenia, Cuba, the BVIs, St Lucia, Thailand and Sri Lanka,” she says.

Although seeing the mesmerizing St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice is on many travellers’ bucket lists, Michelle Palma has a way to do it that goes beyond the obvious.

“A most exquisite experience is attending a private opening, after-hours,” says the President for Uniworld Boutique River Cruises Canada. “Exclusive to Uniworld guests, they will have access to the basilica in the evening sans crowds with a Local Historian. Seated in the centre of the St. Mark’s, they’ll learn the incredible history from an expert and enjoy a special light show on the hand-painted gold ceilings.”

As part of this experience, travellers will be brought down to the crypt and see where St. Mark is entombed.

“They can also walk up to the main altar and behind to see the crown jewel, iconic Pala d’Oro, which is a Byzantine panel of gold embedded with hundreds of gems,” she says. “This elevated experience is made special by having the entire basilica to themselves, and I highly recommend going with Uniworld to avoid long lineups, crowding inside and truly soak up the incredible scene of St. Mark’s Basilica.”

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