I’ve never seen the appeal of camping. Of course, in the past I had to do it, for festival glory, but waking up with a stranger rummaging in your tent, your wallet that you’d used as a tiny pillow missing, or even the majority of your tent missing as the rain pours on your face, are not things I would include on a holiday wish list.
My biggest fear about camping (aside from the above, and maybe the toilet issue) is that I’ll get run over while I sleep. Like really. Camping is hazardous.
On the other hand, I’ve never really understood glamping either, until now.
We flew early from Stansted to Pula, arriving in Pomer, Southern Istria, at Croatia’s first glamping destination, Arena One 99. A selection of 199 cabin-like ‘tents’ on a tree covered hillside, overlooking the Adriatic Sea. Peace and quiet, blue water, blue sky.
Arena One 99 doesn’t allow cars on site (my concerns, eased) so along with our luggage we were delivered to our tents on electric golf carts (unfortunately, I wasn’t allowed to drive). It didn’t take long to settle in. I could live like this. A self-contained space, double bed downstairs, double bed upstairs (a tent with an upstairs?!), a dining table, full kitchen, bathroom (with Elemis toiletries), and a flat screen tele and air-con unit above the bed. There’s even an app you can download and use to request anything else you need. If there’s anything else you need.
Croatia is known for its truffles, extra virgin olive oil, wine and honey, along with the fresh seafood, fish and meats. For lovers of quality, unadulterated food, this is the place. The extra virgin olive oil is like nothing I’ve ever tasted – a peppery hit in the back of the throat, strong and rich, and apparently suggested (for the health benefits) as the first thing you consume in the day.
We drank Medica grappa, a sweet honey liqueur. Strong, but deliciously easy to drink (something to note, before you get carried away!)
After an amazing lunch of chicken with celery and gherkin in a yoghurt sauce, roasted vegetables, fresh seared tuna, cured meats and truffle cheese dipped in honey, we headed to the beach. It took about a minute to get there.
The water was clear, the beach was stony, and I was a wobbling, giggling, whinging weirdo! It’s been a long time since I’ve swum in the sea (2002, Greece, underestimated distance to island from boat, do not want to relive that again) and whilst children charged in and snorkelled nearby, I was still nervous. I did swim, not far, and mostly round in circles, but I swam, and the water was beautiful and healing. (I’m not being a hippy. It did absolute wonders for my eczema).
In the evening we headed over to the Park Plaza Belvedere, in Medulin, for dinner. We tasted some of Croatia’s finest wines: the award winning Kozlovic, a crisp white wine of the golden valley area, and Teran, a dry red wine from the family winery of Franc Arman, which was rich and sooty, unusual, like the dust of an oak fire.
As the rain began to fall and the thunder rumbled in the sky, we moved inside for shelter. The light was a little dim, so I took my meat out in the rain to photograph for you, because I am loyal like that.
We had a wonderful evening, lots of delicious food, and great company. Back at my tent I slept really well, once I’d managed to tune out of the weird repetitive digital alarm-like sound, that I could hear, (and once Lynsey had stopped whatsapping to make sure everyone else could hear it and there wasn’t a bomb about to go off in her tent!)
We ate breakfast in Pula, at the Park Plaza Arena. Rice pudding. Plum dumpling. This is my new life now. Don’t expect me to come home.
In Fazana we boarded a boat for Brijuni Islands National Park. A set of 14 islands, the largest one contains, amongst other things, hotels, a golf course, café, gift shop, museums, a church, Roman ruins, a small safari park, and a dinosaur’s footprint. Visitors get to tour the island on a land train.
Covered in Bay, Myrtle, Strawberry, and Holme Oak trees (the guide described these as ‘like an umbrella, or a mushroom’), the island was former President Tito’s summer residence. A communist leader for 30 years from the end of the second world war, until his death in 1980, Tito used to drive around the island in his Cadillac Eldorado (you can too if you want to pay over £300 for 30 minutes) from his grand house, to his zoo, past his Shetland Ponies, a gift from Queen Elizabeth II, as he smoked cigars in his smart suits and entertained government leaders and film stars alike.
We drove through the park; on the right, some sheep and local goats, on the left, ‘the so cute baby zebra’, and then we reached a stop, for the viewing of Lanka. The lonely elephant. A gift, to Tito and to his elephant Soni, both from Indira Gandhi in the early 1970s. Soni died in 2010, and Lanka, now almost 50 years old, lives alone in a compound on the island. I’d dreamt I might get to see her, to look in her eyes and see she was well, maybe even get a cuddle, but I am full of dreams, and the reality is that when the crowd arrived, and people started calling ‘Lanka, Lanka,’ she retreated and hid behind a wall. As the land train left I saw her come out and watch us drive away.
I asked, and apparently, she’s too old to be moved, crossing the water is too unsafe. Perhaps she’s too old to be sedated? I’ve read that African elephants can live to 60-70 years, and I feel sad to think she might have to spend another 10 or 20 years alone, with nothing of interest to do. I think elephants can feel heartbreak. In the wild, or even in a zoo, she’d have had a herd to comfort her.
Many other animals were given to President Tito as gifts for his collection, and those that died were stuffed and displayed in one of the islands museums. Waste not want not.
We drove past the abandoned zoo, rusty bars on lion and bear enclosures, nature forcing its way through the concrete walls, and past the 4th Century olive tree, split straight down the middle during a storm in the 1980s, still bearing crops every year.
Land train tour over, we headed inside (past the Cadillac Eldorado in its special bus shelter shroud) to view the exhibition of taxidermy, and then Tito’s Museum, a vast collection of images of the President, in dapper dress, always, lavishly entertaining film stars, dignitaries and notable statesman.
In Fazana we ate lunch at Stara Konoba, right on the marina, watching the boats (when we could take our eyes off the puddings).
Back at Arena One 99 we headed uphill to the wellness centre. In amongst the trees we discovered a platform for yoga and meditation, hot tubs and a sauna, and tipis for therapeutic treatments. I opted for an ‘innovative wellness technology’ – a candle massage. My scent of choice? Spearmint. I was slightly apprehensive, I’m often allergic to things, but I needn’t have worried, the combination of the Adriatic Sea salt and the organic candle wax has been the best thing to ever happen to my unhappy skin.
The massage was relaxing, I was just lying there being dozy, listening to the gently repetitive music, when I heard a noise. ‘What was that?!’I thought, with utter surprise. Then I realised what it was. It was Dijana, the therapist, asking me to turn over. I was so zonked out, I’d forgotten she even existed!
An hour later I emerged from the tipi, like a butterfly from a cocoon (or something like that) and headed down to the beach. Whilst the others paddle boarded, (at one point I thought Lynsey might be heading out to sea, never to be seen again) I made friends on the shore with a small dancing crab.
Beachside, we ate dinner. Mushroom panacotta with rich peppery extra virgin olive oil, Ox stroganoff with gnocchi, beef with purée celery and spinach, cheesecake. The sun set, a warm and comforting glow across the horizon.
Over dinner we discussed the strange digital noise we’d all heard the night before. ‘It’s an animal!’ Dario told us, and while I was busy thinking ‘yeah right, nice try!’ he produced an image on his phone of the Sivi Cuk – little owl. This dear little creature makes the most manmade sound, a little ‘beep’ noise, perfectly timed.
That night I listened. Beep… bomp, beep… bomp, beep… bomp – there were two owls talking!
In the morning we headed into Pula to visit the Roman Amphitheatre. It’s the sixth largest in world, and back in the gladiator days it held 23,000 people (and a bunch of lions and panthers). It’s a vast space, built during the 1st Century, and I was amazed to hear that it had actually had a massive roof, made from sails and masts, for use in bad weather. A lot of the seating materials had been dismantled through the ages, but in the 1930s the Italians decided to repair and use the space as a venue, and in the 1950s a film festival started here.
We wandered around the city, admiring the Austrian and Italian architecture, heading for the cool shade when we could find it, then through the Arch of the Sergii and into the old town. We worked our way uphill for a view over the city and the 19th Century Uljanik shipyard, one of the world’s oldest working docks, and where, at night, the cranes are lit up beautifully, in an artwork, Lighting Giants, designed by Dean Skira.
Beside a fountain, in the centre of the town, we ate lunch at Bistro Alighieri, before heading back to Pula, to the park, to the paddleboards and the stony beach.
Our last night in Croatia, we headed over to the yacht club at the Park Plaza Histria, in Pula. Outside, on the terrace, we watched the sun set over the Adriatic Sea. Pastel tones, soft clouds, warm air, no dolphins, not tonight.
Drinks in the city at the Shipyard Pub, a visit to see the Lighting Giants, and then back to our tents. Our last night, too soon.
Not long after I’d drifted off, I was woken by the crack of thunder. Bright lightening flashed through the canvas walls as heavy rain poured down, thunder rumbling across the sky, shaking the ground. And, just above my head, above the canvas roof, in the tree, a little ‘beep… beep’ sought shelter from the storm.
I was a guest of PPHE Hotel Group. With the greatest thanks to Ben Frith, Dario Mijatovic and Arena One 99 for making this trip possible. As always, my opinions are my own (and my ability to eat truffle cheese dipped in honey, a skill I’m willing to perfect).