Zadar to Dubrovnik, 434km; total 5,569km
Most dads get goosebumps of pride watching their kids score a goal, rock a recital or (in the Yukon) take down their first moose.
All Heron and Sitka had to do was jump off a cliff.
“Just ahead here, we have for you a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to dive from a 40-metre ledge,” announced our whitewater guide Dario, straight-faced until we caught on to his joke.
Why would you jump from that insane height only one time - ohhhh!
We were paddling down the raucous Cetina River in the jungle-like forest south of Split, with another adventure-hungry family of four from Utah (we’ve noticed that Americans tend to tell you the state they’re from rather than the country). Over the past 90 minutes we’d rambled through some intense rapids, dove into a frigid meltwater pool in a pitch-black cave, then spelunked our way out. We’d flipped into the river and floated downstream on our backs for a bit, wide-eyed looking for the water snakes that we’d seen from the boat but that Dario swore were not “usually” in this part of the river.
Then came the cliff-diving portion of this particularly well-constructed, entertaining four-hour whitewater tour by Rafting Pirate - an impressive little operation run by a couple who enjoy sharing their love of the river. The rocky ledge was only five metres above the surprisingly deep river - as opposed to those 40-metre cliffs that Dario joked about - but still a daunting leap once you’re standing with your toes over the edge. One fellow from another boat froze looking down, then returned to safety, and again several times before finally taking the plunge to great cheers from the group.
Ed, of course, darted straight up the path and vaulted off the cliff with his usual less-than-graceful gusto. The cameraman missed the first few seconds and only caught the top of a balding head and a hand plugging nostrils just before impact.
Then it was Heron’s turn. Since he was five, he’s watched his dad jump off railway bridges in BC and harbour platforms in New Zealand into (safe) waters below, swearing he’d never do something like that. Joce always liked that reaction - but this time was different.
“As long as other people have done it first, and a local assures us it’s safe,” has been Mom’s refrain whenever Dad elects to partake in this daredevil pastime - a curious passion for a guy who’s typically averse to any activity involving loss-of-control and potential for general hurt.
So when the local guides rowed us ashore and gave the green light, then the majority of rafters crept up to the ledge (including another early teen who was among the first to leap), suddenly Dad peered up floating in the gorgeous cliff-lined river and saw Son standing there perched for the plunge. Without a second thought, Heron sprung off the rock - much more gracefully than Ed, it must be said - and splashed victoriously into the depths. Up he popped, huge grin on his face.
“Can I do that again?”
Minutes later, Sitka was slightly more hesitant at the edge, but still took the daring leap - much to the surprise and cheers of the whole group.
“Did I love it? Yeah. Would I do it again? I don’t think so.”
Croatia will do that to you: every day along this sun-drenched, diverse coastline there’s something extraordinary to see or do. One morning in Porec we stood in a third-century basilica dating from times when Christians were forced to commune in secret. The next, we came across a dazzlingly intact Roman gladiator stadium in Pula - in some ways more complete than the Colosseum in Rome. (In keeping with Croatia’s laidback national demeanour, another set of Roman ruins in Split isn’t cordoned off - it’s open for climbing over, picnicking on and even hosting regular summer concerts.)
In Zadar, we watched the sunset with hundreds of others while listening to the eerie harmonies of the famous Sea Organ that converts the Adriatic’s waves to cathedral-like music. It was artist Nikola Bašić’s very premise to turn the bland post-war concrete harbour into something magical - and he soon added a solar-powered light show emanating from a 10,000-bulb disco floor nearby to complement the organ’s notes.
On the island of Cres (where we bike-hike-swim triathloned to the fairy-tale “blue cave” we mentioned last week), we saw a billboard for a camp resort that summed up the Croatian experience - and our family travel philosophy:
Once in a lifetime, every day.
This remarkable nation with the fantastic coastline (in the true sense of the word - it’s a dream-like tropical paradise for outdoor lovers) has emerged from a rough history - ancient and recent - to value and cherish every day. The geography lends itself well to this live-to-the-fullest mentality, with beaches and mountains harmonious neighbours. It’s just the right place to lose sight of the bigger picture and find yourself in the moment. For the first time maybe ever, Ed has forgotten what day of the week it is just about every morning.
For our world-wandering foursome, the driver of extraordinary is undoubtedly Jocelyn, who uncannily spots uniquely and superbly cool shit, then insists that we give it a go - often regardless of ever-present bike-tour time constraints. Most times, it’s not something she’s even personally keen on, but knows will be a forever memory for one of her beloved boys (that ancient basilica, for example, was for history-geek Ed).
Every time, we all hem and haw, unsure we can fit in yet another exceptional experience when we still have groceries to get. Every time, she is absolutely right: our favourite-part-of-the-day sessions each evening are truly epic.
For Joce, it’s simple things that bring big smiles. Just before we crossed the border to Bosnia-Hercegovina (country number 11 of our Europe Epic) for an overnight in astoundingly gorgeous Neum, we passed a series of roadside fruit stands with funky fountains cooling big jugs of juice.
“Mom’s gonna love it if we stop here!” Heron shouted to Ed at the front of the pack.
“I was so hoping you guys would pull over!” confirmed our Director of Awesomeness as Ivan the local farmer popped a jug of freshly squeezed apricot juice (do you squeeze an apricot?), then another of strawberry juice as we learned about the agricultural life on the Croatian coast. The authentic interactions (and quirky, fresh local products) are what Joce raises as her favourite bike-tour parts.
That, sea kayaking and snorkeling - both of which we arranged for a gloriously sunny, hot afternoon in Dubrovnik - our last stop in Hrvatska. Teo, our bronzed and buff paddling guide led us to a secluded beach away from the (enthralling, marble-floored and narrow-staircases-everywhere) hectic old town and offered several floating history lessons on the now-bustling tourist destination’s long-ago glory, recent struggles with civil war and contemporary place as a go-to film and TV location (we even stumbled upon a live shoot for a Bollywood movie with two apparently famous Indian actors dancing and falling in love), plus celebrity getaway. Anywhere cool enough for Game of Thrones, Beyoncé and Cristiano Ronaldo has to be cool enough for four Canadian bike bums, right?
Indeed, the farther south we pedal, the more dramatic the scenery becomes as the mountains creep closer to the sea. Just after the boys’ cliff jump on the Cetina River, we switchbacked 500m up toward the clouds (if there were any clouds in this sunny nirvana), then crested over to the most majestic panorama of sea and island we’d ever seen. Then we rode down along the cliff side, setting sun shining on the waters below - like California’s Big Sur with Renaissance-era walled forts and medieval castles every so often.
We’re sad to leave Croatia, but psyched to discover what awaits as we pedal farther south to Montenegro and Albania - two new unfamiliar nations (with vastly different languages) we can’t wait to know. Riding our bikes together, getting lost in the moment, sharing experiences in places we will likely never see again - we’re building family memories so vivid that we’ll carry them and re-share them again and again. And even when we return to our routines back home, we’ll look for the extraordinary wherever we can find it.
After all, once-in-a-lifetime can happen any day.