It didn’t occur to us that bringing two kids under the age of 6 on a six hour hike is, in all likelihood, a preposterous – and potentially dangerous – idea until we arrived in Rastoke, which was half-hour away from our ultimate destination.
“Hurry up! ” I called, as Ari stopped to play with a twig / rock / leaf by the gravel footpath for the 20th time. It was only a short walk but we’ve made little progress thanks to our boys, whose natural inquisitiveness would’ve been welcome under different circumstances ie. not training for a six-hour hike.
Meanwhile, my other son has made off without us, drawn like magnet by the sound of the flowing river several hundred meters ahead of us.
“Be careful!” I yelled, breaking the No. 1 Rule of every enlightened New Age parenting guidebook as Mika – who can float as well as a ten-tonne boulder – ventured too close to the riverbank. “Be careful PLEASE!”
There. I didn’t just recite the BANNED PHRASE, I begged it. And I could feel other passersby exchanging uncomfortable glances as I played the insufferable helicopter parent.
What the heck were we doing here?
What the heck was I thinking?
My children and the small, pretty watermill village of Rastoke however, was oblivious to my despair. Unseen birds twittered with glee in nearby trees. The blue-green water churned out an ageless, elemental tune as it cascaded over rocks. It has travelled all the way from Plitvice, to wind up here, in a village of 50 people who lived in wooden houses connected by quaint little bridges.
Mini Plitvice, as it has come to be known, is a lovely area to unwind but barely registers as a blip on the tourism radar.
We cut our practice short to have lunch in Petro, an alfresco restaurant with views of Rastoke’s many peaceful tributaries and waterfalls. Service was brusque but the tourists did not seem to mind. People came here for the village’s famous river trout and local delicacies like bear.
My inner Indiana Jones would’ve tried bear if it wasn’t highly endangered in many parts of Europe – there are only 50 bears left in the national park itself – so I settled for the crowd favorite instead.
The food, a whole trout grilled with olive oil and a sprinkle of salt and served with a side of grilled veggies, would’ve been lovely had my boys not attempted to kill themselves by leaning over a very low ledge to feed some stale bread to the farmed fishes.
It was late when we arrived at our accommodation, Apartmani Buric, operated by a lovely family a 10 minutes drive from the national park.
Our host, Zivan, and his two dogs came out to greet us like long, lost family, and we were shown to our gorgeous, well-thought out room, with a massive balcony where one can sip wine or – in our case – stuff our faces with nana’s chow mien while watching the sun setting over the distant hills.
This tranquil scenery before us however, also served as a backdrop to one of the most significant events in Croatian history: this area was once used as a military frontier in the Yugoslav War. From 1991 to 1995, Plitvice and the surrounding region was occupied by the Serbs, who turned the hotels into barracks, and most Croatians here were evacuated to the coastline to live as refugees.
There was no evidence of suffering or bloodshed when we took the hotel bikes out for a spin – only plenty of farmhouses along a small country lane dotted by wildflowers.
It was the boys’ first encounter with dandelions and they were as smitten with those as I am with Channing Tatum. They also became quick pals with another little boy called Lukas, whose parents owned the neighboring chalet that came with its own outdoor hot tub.
While the first hotel in Plitvice was built in 1896, family-run businesses like these didn’t exist until fairly recently, when honest, hardworking Croatians like Zivan returned after the civil war to eke a living out of tourism – he even cooks for you for a fee.
Our dinner of roast meat and potatoes was delicious and hearty, but what was supposed to be an early night in spiraled into a drinking fiesta when we met a couple from Hong Kong who chugged wine like they were at an all-you-can-drink competition – not exactly an ideal situation to be in when you’re planning to wake up early for an all day hike with kids.
Thankfully, we managed to get an early start at the Lower Lakes the next day. The chatter of the morning crowds vanished as we came face-to-face with the world-famous waterfalls of Plitvice, hemmed in by an aquamarine expanse of forests and lakes.
Nothing prepares you for the majesty of it all – not even the #nofilter pictures and videos on Instagram. Here, Mother Nature flaunts herself like Queen Beyonce, and neither the endless train of tourists traipsing across the wooden boardwalks below nor the selfie sticks they are holding could cramp her style.
(Warning: an onslaught of waterfall images coming right up.)
It was then that an idea came to me.
“This is faerie land. Let’s stick together and see how many faeries we can find.”
Spurred on by a new sense of purposefulness, my boys magically morphed into the World’s Best Behaved Children because they were afraid of scaring away these mythical beings. We passed tour groups, as well as gurgling cascades both big and small.
There were more than 90 waterfalls in Plitvice but the king of these, called Veliki Slap (or Great Waterfall), plummet from a limestone cliff that’s higher than a 20-story building, spraying ice-cold water on tourists who venture too close.
The park was teeming with life too: bigger creatures like wolves, lynx, otters and wild boars were in hiding today but tiny frogs languishing on driftwood croaked rhapsodies of praise to Mother Nature while trout and duck in glassy lakes in different shades of green swam up to say hi. We were extremely fortunate – for the past several weeks, tourists had to be turned away at the gates because the boardwalks were submerged in these very lakes after months of heavy downpour.
My little white lie worked like a charm: we easily made it to the halfway point without a word of complain from the kids. In this communal area filled with hungry tourists queuing up for its public restrooms or locally-sourced trout in its only restaurant, we plonked onto the public benches and refueled with nana’s rendang.
After our little picnic, we took an electric-powered shuttle boat to the Upper Lakes, where more spectacular scenery awaited us. Since swimming is strictly prohibited, we cooled off with ice cream instead.
Our six hour walk finally came to an end, but not before the kids spotted what they’ve been hoping to see since the start of the hike.
“Mommy, look! A FAIRY!”
And there, with its long, slender legs and swift, graceful movements, was a water skipper, oblivious to the fact that it has made the children’s day.
Apartmani Buric A small but incredibly well-run family establishment with its own playground and bikes. Rooms are spacious and come with a comfortable king-sized bed (extra beds can be arranged), a balcony and a kitchen. Breakfast and dinner must be booked in advance. Requests are always met with a smile. $$
- Rastoke is about a half an hour away from the park and makes for a good lunch detour. You can also hop across the border to Bosnia.
- The park has limited the number of visitors entering the park each hour of each day. If your date and time of visit is confirmed, you may buy your tickets online at least one day in advance (https://np-plitvicka-jezera.hr/en/plan-your-visit/price-list/). Otherwise, it’s best to arrive early at the gates (about 7am) to buy your tickets, even if you do plan to start your walk later in the day.
- It is recommended that you park your car at Gate 1 at the Lower Lakes and start from there, and end at the Upper Lakes, where you can take a complimentary shuttle back. That way, you can take in the fantastic scenery without subjecting yourself to a strenuous hike.
- You can get multi day park tickets but a one day ticket was good enough for us. Refer to the park map for the different walks you can do. The 4 hour loop introduces you to the blockbuster of sights that Plitvice has to offer – we accomplished that in 6 hours with 2 kids. Be sure to factor in your lunch stop. Longer walks are only recommended for hardcore hikers.
- Plitvice is on most tour group itineraries. Be prepared to jostle for space with tourists, unless you enter very early or very late in the day. This minor niggle, however, did not diminish our experience, and we still had some peaceful stretches to ourselves even though we started our hike at 9am.
- There is one rest area with toilets and restaurant, located in the middle of the park where the boats are, and it can be busy. You can also bring your own food like we did, to minimize queueing time.
- Strollers are not recommended as most of the walk is done on uneven planks. Bring a baby carrier if your child is below 3 because certain sections have no safety barriers to prevent your little one from falling in. Kids, however, are sure to have a grand time walking amongst waterfalls! I know mine did – and he wanted to do it all over again! Good luck!
- Many people spend only one night in the park. We booked a lovely hotel and spent two lovely nights there without any regrets.