Shrine and dine | 

GAA legend Pat Spillane ventured to Croatia to experience the food, sun and Medjugorje

Pat Spillane enjoys the Makarska sunshine

Pat with his wife Rosario

Pat with his wife Rosario exploring the pretty town

Pat visiting the Blue Cross in Medjugorje

Pat with tour guide Frank Mackin

Makarska boasts pure waters and unspoiled beauty

Pat SpillaneSunday World

GAA legend Pat Spillane ventured out of his comfort zone to Croatia to experience the food, sun and his bucket list destination, Medjugorje

Sunway has this exact all-inclusive and fully guided 7-night trip to Croatia, including Dubrovnik, Split and Medjugorje, available for May 10 or October 4, 2023, priced €949pp.

The fully guided element is optional, so you can enjoy the holiday at your own leisure. The beauty of Sunway trips is that all the little things are taken care of by the experts.

LIKE most Irish people, I am a creature of habit when it comes to holidays. I don’t like going outside my comfort zone and sampling new experiences.

Pat with his wife Rosario

Prior to Covid-19, I went to the same destination and the same apartment for my break in the sun every year.

Sure, there was a Groundhog Day feeling about it. But I was happy.

Maybe because I’m getting older, I broke with tradition this year and opted for a new holiday experience.

I wasn’t interested in going around the world in 80 days or spending a week hopping from place to place in some exotic country. Instead, I opted for an eight-day Sunway Holidays break to Croatia, which was expertly put together by Frank Mackin, a 45-year veteran of the holiday business.

A couple of things piqued my interest. I had never been to Croatia, though I had heard a lot of good things about it. The itinerary was a lovely compromise — four days to relax, interspersed with day trips to Dubrovnik, Split and Medjugorje, plus a cruise around the islands in the Adriatic Sea. Better still, none of these day tours were compulsory.

We flew direct from Dublin to Zadar and stayed in Makarska, a small port town on Croatia’s Dalmatian coast, better known locally as the Makarska Riviera.

I had never heard of either Zadar or Makarska, and I resisted the temptation to look them up on Google before travelling. So, this was an adventure into the unknown.

The direct flight from Dublin to Zadar took a mere two hours and 50 minutes. Zadar Airport is slightly bigger than Kerry Airport. Less than 10 minutes after landing, we were through immigration and reunited with our luggage.

Soon afterwards, we boarded a coach destined for Makarska. Then came the bad news: Frank, our guide, announced the night journey would take two hours.

As my long-suffering wife Rosario will testify, I immediately got cranky. Had I a choice, I would have headed straight back to the airport and flown home. In the event, I slept for most of the bus journey.

Pat visiting the Blue Cross in Medjugorje

My mood was transformed early the next morning when I opened the curtains in our bedroom. I was stunned by the panoramic views from the window of Hotel Park. It was a view to die for — the flat, calm Adriatic sea was lapping just yards from my front window.

In the distance was Mount Biokovo topped by Sveti Jure, the third-highest peak in Croatia. At first glance, it seemed that the mountain dropped vertically to the edge of the town.

Little did I realise then that we would be travelling on the hairpin roads leading up to the peak a few days later.

I was on a high from that moment on, and my mood never dipped for the rest of the holiday. Rosario and I agreed that outside Ireland, we had never seen such a stunningly beautiful place.

A two-hour drive from the more established tourism destinations in Croatia, Makarska is off the beaten path. All this means it has more appeal. It has a population of just under 14,000 and is built on a sheltered 600m-long strip between the Adriatic Sea and Mount Biokovo. The old town centres on Kacic Square. Ferries connect the port to nearby islands, and there is a nature reserve nearby.

So what made this holiday so special?

As I alluded to already, the big bonus is that Makarska is not your run-of-mill seaside tourism resort. It couldn’t be more different. There is nothing false about it. It is spotless, quiet, tranquil and friendly.

There are no loud, gaudy bars populated by fellows beating bodhrans or filled with giant screens showing obscure English soccer matches or episodes of EastEnders.

I didn’t see a single television. In fact, there were no bars as we know them — rather, there are cafes situated all along the promenade which serve food and drink.

Rosario and I both love sea swimming and we take daily dips in Kenmare Bay during the summer in Ireland. We found the sea swimming equivalent of Shangri-La yards from the front door of our hotel.

There is little tidal activity in the Adriatic Sea and the water is reputed to be the cleanest in Europe outside Gozo in Malta. The water is so blue it looks like a picture from a postcard.

This is not an optical illusion — due to the absence of nutrients, the top layer of water is able to scatter the sunlight, which highlights the blue colouring. The locals say that the water is as calm as oil, and it’s not an idle boast.

Makarska boasts pure waters and unspoiled beauty

Watching the sunset in Makarska was another highlight. The sky is filled with a kaleidoscope of vibrant colours for up to an hour before the sinking sun casts a pink hue over the surrounding mountains. Sipping a beer while watching the sun go down became an evening ritual.

Speaking of beer, I enjoy a few pints in the evening. But I’m always fearful that the local brew will not be up to scratch. I once spent a week in Tunisia, where the beer on sale was a local brew which tasted awful.

No such fears in Croatia. I sampled Karlowvaca, a locally brewed beer which contains no chemicals. It went down very well.

We opted out of the trip to Dubrovnik because the temperature was in the high 30s, but we travelled to both Split and Medjugorje. I’m a spiritual person, so a visit to the Medjugorje shrine was also on my bucket list. I felt privileged to attend mass in the shrine and visit the Blue Cross, where the Blessed Virgin appeared to six local children in 1981.

The coach trip through the mountains to Medjugorje was spectacular, to put it mildly. We’ve all experienced what it’s like to drive the Ring of Kerry, the Ring of Beara, or the coast of Antrim. But this was on a different scale. Not for the faint of heart, but definitely worth it.

Hotel Park, where we stayed, is what I would describe as a proper 4-star hotel. Prices here, as well as throughout Croatia, were very reasonable compared to Ireland.

A cocktail costs €5, a pint of beer costs €3-4, and a meal for two, including drinks, costs less than €60. All the food was locally sourced, fresh and delicious.

What I liked about Makarska is that it is a favourite holiday location for Croatians. Indeed, the prime minister of Croatia stays in the same hotel on his holidays.

The bottom line is that I couldn’t praise it enough and I will definitely return. If Carlsberg did holidays, then Sunway’s Makarska would be the destination.

Whisper it quietly: get there before it is discovered and the masses arrive. I’m glad I left my comfort zone to experience it.

Travel factfile

CROATIA

See sunway.ie

■ Sunway has this exact all-inclusive and fully guided 7-night trip to Croatia, including Dubrovnik, Split and Medjugorje, available for May 10 or October 4, 2023, priced €949pp. ■ The fully guided element is optional, so you can enjoy the holiday at your own leisure. ■ The beauty of Sunway trips is that all the little things are taken care of by the experts.

Late deals

■ TROPICAL SKY’S THE LIMIT MOST of the Christmas in the sun deals are now gone, so it is time to start looking forward to 2023. Traditional travel agents have loads of deals at the moment, but this Tropical Sky offer is definitely worth a look.

Seven nights B&B on the Croatian island of Sipan awaits you for the paltry sum of €619pp. Stay in the four-star Hotel Bozica situated just 20m from the sea. Prices include flights from Dublin and private transfers too. The beauty of this is that it is valid from May 1 to October 31 next year. See tropicalsky.ie.

■ G IS FOR GETAWAY

THE g Hotel in Galway has a lovely pre-Christmas offer at the moment that is amazing value.

The plush five-star hotel is well known for its unique Christmas atmosphere, so why not enjoy the magic of the Galway Christmas markets with a one-night festive getaway, staying in a luxury guestroom with fresh-to-order breakfast the next morning? Complimentary parking is included, as well as a complimentary shuttle bus to the Christmas markets in Eyre Square. Incredibly, it’s from €189 for two sharing. To book your festive getaway, visit theghotel.ie or call 091 865200.

More Travel

Latest Podcast

Latest News