An easy-going place, with a range of accommodation types to suit everyone’s tastes.
So this was our first holiday as a family of 5! I’d been desperate to go somewhere this year, especially while baby Stanley is still in the (wonderful!) non-moving phase. But, the combination of massive renovations at home, and being faced with school-holiday prices for the first time, oh and being knackered from having a baby and 5-year old twins (!), all made a trip out of the UK feel very unlikely. This still didn’t stop me from having a wee look at what might be achievable…
The May half term felt like a good time to give something a try, if we could afford it. And thanks to our school being closed for the European elections, followed by an inset day, we were able to take advantage of heading off before the masses. Using trusty old skyscanner, I did a broad search to see which european flights had reasonable prices from Stansted for our dates, and Pula in the northern Croatian region of Istria came up surprisingly cheap. The flights were with Jet2 and not only were they a good price, amazingly they also departed at reasonable times of day (9am out, 1pm return) AND only took 2hrs 15 mins. Win!
Pula had already been in my head thanks to some recent articles in the Telegraph and Stylist magazine. It certainly sounded like we would be spoilt there for beautiful coastlines and pretty towns. And just that week, a travel blogger I follow on instagram (@howmanyholidays) had also booked to go. So all fingers were pointing me to Pula!
As we would be hiring a giant car (for 3 car seats – aargh!), I was keen to split the week and stay in 2 different parts of Istria, and in 2 different kinds of accomodation. This is normal for us – we have always liked moving around, and having different ‘stages’ to our holidays. And Istria isn’t a large region, so the driving felt reasonable. I had read about Arena One 99 Glamping (near Pula) a while back and was determined to stay there as it looked ace, and their giant safari-style tents would be a great novelty for the the twins. I momentarily got lost down a rabbit-hole of checking other glamping sites in Istria as there seems to be a huge array of them – it’s definitely an area for camping-lovers! But I stuck to my guns and booked us into Arena One 99 for our first 3 days.
The second half of the holiday was a bit harder as I was very much out of my accomodation-booking-comfort-zone… Airbnb is my go-to, and I will always prefer to stay in a holiday home, but all the nicest looking homes I found for our dates had no pool or very little outdoor space which I felt was a must for the kids on this trip. Instead, I decided to test the water with booking a self-catering option at a larger resort. This isn’t something we’ve done before, but I thought it was worth giving it a whirl to see if it was any easier now we are a family of 5. I used booking.com, and once again got completely lost down a rabbit-hole of very similar looking apartments and villas up and down the coastline. I looked at places in Umag but decided this was too far north seeing as we’d need to drive back to the airport quite early. I had heard that Rovinj was beautiful but decided against staying here as I didn’t think the cobbled streets and heritage-sites would be of interest to the kids. So that brought me to Porec (pronounced Porr-itch) which is a smaller town than Pula or Rovinj, but the surrounding area has an abundance of larger resorts, restaurants and parks. Here, I booked Apartments Park Plava Laguna, for 4 nights.
Pula, and Arena One 99 Glamping
Arena One 99 is a new-ish glamping-site which is part of the Arena One chain of camping and mobile home sites across Croatia. It was a 15 minute drive from Pula airport. 15 minutes!!! I don’t think I’ve ever experienced such an easy airport commute in my life! So we were checked-in to our beachfront tent and down by the water in no time.
We opted for a two bedroom tent (sleeps 4 + 2 in the top bunks) and they supplied us a cot and highchair for free. There was plenty of space for us all and even though none of the bedrooms had doors, the layout worked well and you still felt you had privacy.
We are seasoned campers and have taken our big blue dome tent to many UK-sites, so glamping already felt like a big step-up on the luxury-o-meter for us. But my god, this place is barely even glamping! The tents are more like cabins than actual tents. And asides from the sleeping under canvas and a slight chill in the air in the morning, there was nothing that made me feel like I was really camping. I say that in a good way as it was a massive treat for us, and it made it easy to be there with the baby. But, the cost is probably comparable to many of the mobile home sites in the area, so you may prefer to spend your money on actual walls and doors. It suited us though 🙂
The tent itself offered; free wifi (the coverage across the whole site is excellent), all linen and towels, AC/heating, a huge master bed and full-sized bunk beds, bathroom toiletries, hairdryer, safe, fully stocked kitchen (except for an electric kettle, but there was a coffee machine, hob and microwave so you could heat water in other ways), recycling, tv, and a private deck with furniture. And it was most unexpected to find that the tents are cleaned every day (beds made, towels changed, bins emptied).
The weather was great so we spent a few chilled-out days taking advantage of outdoor-living and the amenities on site. The twins were kept entertained by the activities in the kids teepee area, and they did lots of paddling in the pristine waters around the sites’ beaches (bring/buy beach shoes as it’s stones everywhere). We enjoyed some snippets of downtime on the sun loungers and at the beach bar where the draught beer was very tasty. And the baby did lots of snoozing while we strolled around the site with the buggy, which has fairly easy terrain for the most part, although there’s a few steep hills. The site also offers some watersports and cycling, as well as local day tours, but we didn’t do any of these. We were there to relax!
We didn’t eat at any of the on-site restaurants (of which there are 3). They all looked very stylish, but we felt we would find better meals in the towns. The on-site supermarket is handy, but very small, expensive and seemed to close quite early in the day. You are better driving to Lidl or Plodine supermarkets which are 5 mins away. We made some easy meals in the tent, but mostly we drove into nearby Medulin for dinner. There we sampled Salt and Pepper which was bloody excellent – the grilled fish and spicy squid were all immense (the twins gobbled most of it). And local Italian restaurant Pizzeria da Giovanni was delicious and very kid-friendly.
The icing on the cake of our visit to Arena One 99, was the free (yes, free!) use of their hot tubs and sauna. They have a very well-equipped spa and wellness area located at the top of the site under teepees and canvas shades. It really is picture-perfect. While massages and treatments need to be paid for, all we needed to do was book in advance to have use of the hot tub for an hour. The kids absolutely loved it, as did we. And my husband (the sauna obsessive!), said that it was the best sauna he’s ever had!
All in all, a great 3 days. So far so good…
Upon leaving we made a brief visit to Pula town as I wanted the boys to see the Roman amphitheatre. I wouldn’t say they were blown away it, but one of them was at least mildly impressed (*thumbs up*). We didn’t go in as it would have been a pain in the arse with the buggy. We had a short stroll around the rest of the town so I could scratch my market-itch, but Pula’s city market was pretty poor on a Sunday. We left after a picnic in a park near the harbour. I wouldn’t rush back to the town – the appeal in this area (for us anyway) was more the coastline around the peninsula.
Porec, Rovinj, and Apartments Park Plava Laguna
I was dubious about the next apartments. Partly because the glamping had been so good, but mainly because I didn’t get that little flutter of ‘knowing’ it was the right place to book which is so familiar to me when using airbnb or home2go. I was in new territory here!
I’ll be honest up-front that the Apartments Park Plava Laguna was not a place for us. Pluses were; it was immaculately clean, the beds were fricking huge, everything felt quite new, and the self-catering units are very well kitted out. But, the apartments just felt like little concrete boxes to me, the resort itself was a bit soulless, and the immediate area isn’t that pretty (the beach wasn’t even accessible when we visited). It confirmed to me (not that I needed it confirming!) that I will always prefer holiday homes, airbnb’s, and quirky camping/self-catering places for their vibe, their roughness, and unique charms. These are the details I remember and appreciate – not if there is a laundry service or mini bar!
Unfortunately the weather on this leg of the trip took a turn for the worst as well. It was a shame as this meant we made little use of the hotel’s many pools, although it did force us to use the kids club a bit (along with every other family at the resort, so it was basically hell!). And I’d say that Istria is really lacking in indoor options for young kids. We tried a wet walk around Porec and gelato-based bribes, but this was cut short by me losing my wallet, and a tyre puncture – that was a BAD day! We also visited the nearby Baredine caves although husband and baby hung out in the cafe as it was too slippery to go down there safely with the baby carrier (in our opinion anyway, although I did see a few other people doing this). So I ventured down with the twins, keen for them to see something new, but I really struggled to get them up and down the ladders and steps safely. Some of the other tourists kindly helped me though. The caves were great to see, and the boys loved the pink cave salamanders. It took me back to my old family holidays where my dad used to drag us around caves, mountains and rocks, until he conceded that our teenage strops were too much to deal with so we were better left by the pool!
During a sunny spell we did take a lovely trip Rovinj, only 40 mins drive from Porec (it’s about the same from Pula, too). What a stunning town! With the centuries’ old buildings clinging to the shoreline, the cobbled streets in the old town (hard on the buggy, but worth it!), and the colourful architecture. I would recommend Rovinj to anyone who only has a couple of days to spend in the region. It has a perfect little mix of the Roman influence the area is famous for, along with shops and restaurants you could easily spend all afternoon in (if you don’t have kids with you…!). And there are tonnes of boat trips to nearby islands too. The twins were kept entertained by spotting all the different coloured doors, and looking for ‘pirate ships’ (tourist boats!) on the horizon as we walked around the coast path. I really loved it here, and was gutted our accomodation wasn’t closer-by.
So while I may not have got the second part of the trip quite right, it has spurred me on to find places and accomodation with the right mix of child-friendliness, but also with the essence of personal charm and local-intelligence – these are what make trips the most memorable for us.
If I went again…
I’d go back to Arena One 99 in a heartbeat. But I would avoid Porec and the resorts in this area. I’m sure they come into their own during the summer months, but this scene just wasn’t for us. I would rather stay at one of the many mobile home parks in Istria that are located right on the beach. Or, I would book this airbnb in Rovinj – entire house, 2 bedrooms, use of courtyard and hot-tub – which (had it been available) would’ve been great for our rainy days as it’s close to the town to pop out for lunch, and we could’ve splashed in the hot-tub in between the downpours!
And I’d maybe go for longer and do more of a tour around Croatia, as well as neighbouring Italy or Slovenia. I’d love to hire an RV as we saw lots driving around and we’re desperate to try a European campervan trip at some point 🙂
Would I recommend going to Istria, Croatia?
Yes. I would say definitely go if you are in the mood for a bit of a travel-around-holiday. It’s an easy-going place, with a range of accommodation types to suit everyone’s tastes. And it ticks many boxes – picturesque towns (Rovinj), historical monuments (Pula), excellent regional cuisine and pretty beaches (most places) And while we didn’t go there, I hear Rabac on the east-coast of the region, is well worth a visit too..
Despite the rain, we had a great week and it’s a huge relief to have broken the seal on holiday-ing as a 5! We learned a lot for next time 🙂
- Friendly people. Kind to kids, and very helpful with speaking English.
- Green and lush. The combination of forest meets the sea in the south of the region is particularly wonderful.
- Some beautiful coastline with crystal clear waters.
- Vineyards and olive groves everywhere. It’s hard to believe you’re not in Tuscany at times!
- Tonnes of restaurants serving an array of delicious italian food and fresh seafood.
- Rovinj is beautiful. If you’re going to visit the region without a car, or only have a couple of days, then stay here. It was the best place we visited by far and you could spend many days sampling all the lovely restaurants and taking boat trips.
- Loads of great glamping-style parks to choose from. If you’re new to camping/glamping/static caravans and don’t want to brave the UK temperatures for your first time, then Istria (particularly Arena One 99) is for you.
- Great if you love outdoor activities e.g. cycling, sailing, hiking, water sports
- The weather is probably not as good as the south of Croatia (Dubrovnik), or other parts of Europe in Spring.
- More expensive than I thought it would be. Might have been a bad time for the £??
- While most supermarkets did have some baby food, there was never a huge selection. So definitely bring some supplies with you. And bring enough nappies for the duration of your visit if you can. I didn’t to save bag weight, but they were so expensive that I wish I’d left a few pairs of shoes at home to make space!
- While Pula does have some incredible Roman monuments, the rest of the town is quite small and can be seen in a day, so don’t plan to spend a whole week in this area only.
- The town of Porec wasn’t that interesting. It’s conveniently close to the bigger resorts so you can escape your hotel and go to town to eat, but we wouldn’t stay around here again.
- We struggled to keep the kids entertained when it rained as the main attractions for kids are outdoor-based e.g. water parks. So unless you visit during the peak summer months, you may want to book accommodation that has an indoor pool option.
Our flights + 2 accomodations (both of which were 4*) + car hire, cost approximately £1750 (for 2 adults, 2 kids, and 1 baby). This worked out ever so slightly cheaper than a comparable package deal I found on Jet2holidays.com which used the same flights and included 7 nights stay in a self catering apartment (also 4*) and transfers, but with NO car hire. So booking this holiday bit-by-bit, definitely worked out more effective for us.