“ Address: Lopar 488 / 51281 Rab / Croatia „
Camping...right. I always hated the idea of camping, and it took until my thirtieth year before I spent a night in a tent. My childhood didn't help - my parents aren't exactly "Outdoor Types". My one experience camping as a kid involved a three hour drive, another hour of bad-tempered fumbling to put the tent up, then a long enough look inside for us all to say "Sod that!" before packing up and driving home again.
Being a grown up and a self-confessed city lover, I also developed my own prejudices against camping, campers & camp sites - unappealing images of nippy showers in communal blocks on dewy mornings, and Dads in Speedos flipping burgers for their bored wives and irritating kids always sprung to mind.
Living abroad has changed my attitude somewhat, to such an extent that this year I was actually looking forward to my holiday camping in Croatia...
The Location & Getting There -
Lopar is not that easy to get to, situated at the base of a sprout-like peninsula blooming out into the strait between the island of Rab and the Croatian mainland.
Rab is accessed by car ferry from the small port of Jablanac, which is around 120km from Rijeka and 260km from Split, along the winding roads along Croatia's coast. Traffic can also be quite heavy during the high season, especially where the roads go in and out of resorts along the way. Once at Jablanac, you can expect a queue waiting to get on the ferry.
Once dropped off on the southern tip of Rab, there's another 20-30 minute drive to Lopar at the opposite end of the island.
We faced an even longer journey, taking the bus from Zagreb. This leaves the capital from the main bus station (Autobusni Kolodvor) and is scheduled for around a four and a half hour ride. Tickets cost 390KN (approx. 45 pounds) one way, which was more than we were expecting, plus an extra 14KN to put two bags in.
Finally Got There - First Impressions -
Autocamp San Marino is situated in the southernmost bay of the Lopar Peninsula, in an area monopolised by the Imperial Hotels group, to an extent it's hard to tell whether there was an indigenous population before they arrived.
The camp site itself runs right up against the promenade of Rajska Plaza (Paradise Beach), which makes the long journey worthwhile. Paradise Beach is a gorgeous stretch of golden sand that sweeps round in a crescent from the cliffs in the south to the marina in the north. Sheltered by hills, the beach looks out across the bay to the smoky blue ridges running along the Croatia's mountainous coastline. The water is crystal clear, warm, and shallow to around 500m from the shore.Imperial has a hotel complex to the north near the marina, and the camp site in the south, and sandwiched in the middle is a small plaza with a few restaurants, souvenir shops, amusements and bars.
The camp itself couldn't be any closer to being on the beach, and the plots at the front are on sand, although the majority of the site is situated in the leafy respite of tall poplar trees, but never more than 200m from the promenade.
There are plots available for camping, motor homes, and caravans - the bulk of the campers we saw had set up vast fortresses for themselves to chill out in on their holiday, and seemed to have brought the whole contents of their homes with them.
Also available to rent are caravans and static chalet-like holiday homes. Amenities are fairly basic, but provide all you should need - there are newsagents, a bakery, greengrocers, butchers, a mini-market and a couple of restaurants.
The camp is firmly family oriented, and there's plenty of play areas for the kids, as well as the sandy beach and shallow, calm water. The vast majority of the holidaymakers visiting San Marino are Germans and Austrians, with a fair few Hungarians. There's also a smattering of Poles, Czechs, Italians, Slovenians and Croatians - as far as we could tell, we were the only Brits staying there.
This was perhaps a good thing - while there were plenty of Dads-in-Speedos to satisfy my camping stereotype, all the kids running about seemed astonishingly quiet and well-behaved, apart from one little turd who tried hosing me down with his water pistol as I walked along the prom.
Although I don't speak German, I heard nothing that could be the equivalent on the red-faced, apoplectic English parent screaming: "ASHLEY!!! Get here NOW!", something once so familiar from the Co-Ops, buses and council estates of my home town Ipswich.
Amenities & Shops -
The reception handily offer safety deposit boxes at 8KN per day, and internet terminals at a rather stiff 10KN (about a pound) for fifteen minutes. Their rates operate on a sliding scale, all the way up to a whopping 500KN (around 50 quid) for a two week internet pass.
Toilet blocks appear every 100m or so along the camp's length, which are regularly cleaned by the ladies apparently stationed there on 24hr duty. The showers are in cubicles to offer privacy, and there's also refrigeration boxes for rent, and a place to do your washing up.
The mini market is reasonably well stocked, with all the bare necessities, along with a decent booze aisle, camping equipment, toiletries, and a small deli counter. Helpfully, for the likes of myself & partner holidaying Bear Grylls-style with no electricity or refrigeration, things like milk and butter are available in single serve portions. Cards are accepted - there's an ATM five minutes from the camp entrance, but none on the site itself.
The bakery offers fresh bread each morning, plus cakes, pastries and croissants, the butchers has plenty of cuts ready for the barbecue. Plenty of fresh, healthy looking fruit and veg is available from the greengrocers.
There are a couple of newsagents selling cigarettes, sweets, postcards, smutty mags, comic books and newspapers - although all the papers available are in German, Italian or Croatian.
Another stand sells all the essentials for a beach holiday - buckets & spades, inflatable dolphins, sun cream, shades, hats, sarongs, beach towels, snorkels, etc. There is also a shelf reserved for all the tat you might want - jewelery boxes decorated with seashells, anchor-shaped barometers, picture frames with "Croatia" written on them, all that lovely stuff.
Eating & Drinking -
All the restaurants in the San Marino area offer virtually the same menu - you can expect pizzas, salads, steaks, seafood and a few local specialities, such as Cevapcici - small sausages made from lightly spiced, minced pork.
The best place for a bite within the confines of the camp is Buffet Mel on the seafront, opposite the beach volleyball court. The decor is basic, but makes up for it with a lively atmosphere, great view across the beach and bay, and excellent fresh calamari.
There is also the Restoran San Marino, the largest and therefore emptiest restaurant on the site. It has a slightly larger range to chose from, prepared in a clean, open kitchen, but suffers from a dreary, cold interior and a dreary, hot terrace.
The third choice is also on the beach, the "Tri Jablan" (Three Poplars), a bustling bar restaurant with plastic garden furniture, but unfortunately they only have menus in German, Italian and Croatian.
For a drink, there is "Caffe Ice Bar", a quiet, relaxed outdoor terrace with even more relaxed staff. On the plus side, they serve the cheapest beer around (16kn Karlovacko) in frosted mugs, as well as coffees, ice creams and cocktails.
Outside the camp and all the way around the bay, and around the corner into the next cove are several other restaurants offering virtually the same menu; the only real variation seems to be one man selling grilled chickens, and another place advertising "the best kebab in San Marino."
If you're here for nightlife, then you've come to the wrong place. There are a couple of bars which offer a bit of music and a more up tempo vibe, but if you want a party, you'd better bring your own. It's a family resort, and people are content to go for a bite to eat and a few drinks in the evening, then stroll home along the beach.
The one disco we found looked like it had been downgraded from a strip joint to draw in some more punters, but the only people in there around midnight were the barman and the DJ. We didn't hang around to see if things picked up later on...
Activities & Things to Do -
Apart from Beach stuff, eating, drinking, relaxing and sleeping, there isn't a huge amount to see or do in San Marino. The Imperial's "Animation Team" - think Butlins Red Coats, without the coats and with a surlier attitude - try their best to keep people busy. Activities range from the Aqua-aerobics each morning from ten in the shallows opposite Buffet Mel, to welcome parties, karaoke parties, folk song, and Miss San Marino competitions. All the evening events take place on the terrace of the hotel, and there were no Knobbly Knees competitions scheduled at time of writing.
The tourist information office and various stands around the plaza offer island-hopping, sightseeing tours by boat. However, if you like the idea of getting around the islands by sea, my recommendation is to hire a boat from one of the stands just off the beach.
It'll cost you 500KN (almost 60 quid) for a day's hire, and for your money you get a small craft with outboard motor which will seat about six, an anchor, some life jackets, and a small awning to hide from the sun under. You also get the freedom to go wherever you want, and it's excellent fun to be out on the beautiful deep blue water, pulling into bays and wading ashore for a beer.
In a day, we managed to make it all the way around the peninsular, in and out of various bays, before stopping for refreshments at a beach shack in Lopar's northern most harbour, then visited Sv Grgur and Goli Otok ("Croatia's Alcatraz") on the way back.
If you take up this option, a couple of words of warning - take plenty of sun cream and a hat, because there's no escaping the sun when you're out there on the water.
Be careful when motoring into bays - most of them are sandy bottomed, but we got over-confident when chugging into Saramic bay. We saw much bigger boats much further in, and the bottom looked sandy, so thought we had plenty of room. Suddenly, a huge rocky outcrop lurched up from the sea bed, and we were going too fast to stop, and ended up running aground. Luckily, we managed to get free of the rocks with only a chunk knocked out of one of our propeller blades, and made a hasty, shame-faced retreat around the cove.
Lopar is an excellent place for a relaxing summer holiday, especially for families or couples looking for a quiet break. Despite my original reservations about camping, sleeping outside on the floor and all that unappealing stuff, I returned home from my break more refreshed and relaxed than I've been for many years. Highly recommended.
(This review originally appeared on Ciao! under my username Midwinter.)