The Magic of Virtuoso’s “Hottest Destination of the Year!”

By Valentina O'Kane, Protravel International Luxury Travel Agent

At this year’s Virtuoso Travel Week in Las Vegas, Slovenia was pronounced, “the Hottest Destination of the Year.” I was born and raised in Slovenia, and from an early age the beauty and friendliness of my home country instilled in me a passion for travel, the outdoors, mountains, the sea, amazing food, and the “simple life.”

One of the most picturesque and friendly countries in the world, Slovenia combines all the reasons tourists flock to Europe in a small, relaxing, affordable, and under-crowded package. Slovenia might be tiny in size, but it has very large aspirations for its luxury “boutique” tourism industry.

Just a two-hour drive from the Venice airport, it is only an hour by plane from Rome, Munich, Frankfurt, and Dubrovnik. Slovenia is conveniently situated at the top of the Adriatic Sea and is the perfect jumping off point for and extended vacation experiences in Italy, Austria, Hungary, and the beautiful coastline of Croatia. I recently returned home for a short vacation getaway, and quick visit with family and friends. I have been going home for years, but this trip was destined to be different, as the newest hottest destination, I decided to chronical some awesome and personal favorite “must-do’s” for anyone thinking about traveling to, “My Slovenia.”

 

Day 1: "Emona” the Roman City – Ljubljana

I arrived home to the city where I grew up, Ljubljana. It is the capital and cultural center of Slovenia. This is the perfect starting point for touring the country; everything to see and do is within two hours of Ljubljana. It is an ancient city full of history, culture, and art – its laid-back café scene, classic art-nouveau architecture, and fine dining make it a perfect place to relax, get over your jet-lag, and start soaking in the unique culture of Slovenia. Ljubljana has quite a few high-end hotels at the doorstep of its historical center. I spend a morning walking the “old town” and visiting the famous open-air market for farm-fresh shopping and snacking necessities; it is also a good place to pick up some “Slovenia-unique” souvenirs.

Ouside the market, I take the funicular up to the Ljubljana Castle for lunch at Restaurant Strelec to enjoy amazing food and a spectacular view over the city. I prefer walking down from the castle, as taking the ancient stairs and narrow alleys is a great way to burn off a few calories. Ljubljana is an amazing place to explore on foot and the shopping experience is less crowded, less expensive, and just as good as any European capital. Ljubljana is also loaded with a myriad of options from fine-art galleries, craft-beer selections, unique outdoor dining options, and incredible music and concerts. Later in the evening, a meet-up with friends for dinner at AS Aperitivo and a few drinks to follow as we café-hop along the Ljubljana River. It is a perfect way to relax, unwind, people-watch the night away, and possibly make some new friends in the process! If it is summer, and Friday night, stop by the open market in the evening for the “Outdoor Kitchen.” It runs from May-September and is an fresh-air “Taste of Ljubljana” – the best food in all of Ljubljana in one compact little package!

 

Day 2: Moooove Over to Velika Planina

Since it looks like it’s going to be a gorgeous day I grab the kids and we head to Velika Planina which is only a short 30-minute drive out of Ljubljana. Velika Planina is accessible by cable car and is the site of one of Europe's few surviving high-mountain herding villages, where the traditional Alpine herding culture is still alive. Each year in the middle of June, the local herdsmen bring their cattle to Velika Planina . They move into cute little herding huts and stay there throughout the summer to take care of the grazing cattle. Cows roam free on Velika Planina and my kids absolutely loved it.

After a short walk from the cable car down to the village, it’s time for a traditional herdsmen's mid-morning meal consisting of soured milk and žganci – an unusual, but yummy, dish of boiled flour, shredded and sprinkled with melted fat. Some more cows-chasing, a visit to the museum (actually in one of the cottages) and the Chapel of St. Mary of the Snows and we head back uphill.

Since the kids started to get low on energy, we stop at Zeleni Rob guesthouse for their well-known, and might I add amazingly delicious, štruklji rolls with cottage cheese filling. This is one of my favorite Slovenian dishes, so I always get some to take home with me. After a long day in the fresh air, my husband and I decide to leave the kids at home and enjoy a romantic dinner at JB Restaurant, where Chef Janez Bratovž whips up amazingly fresh dishes landing him on the top-100 World’s Best Restaurants list.

Day 3: The “Slovenian Riviera”

It is an easy drive from Ljubljana to the Adriatic Coast and the Slovenian Riviera . I always spend time on the coast when I am home; a family tradition going back many years. Slovenia’s coastline may be short, only 28-miles, but the region and its three major cultural centers – Piran, Portoroz, and Koper – are awash with culture and adventure. The 700-year-old custom of harvesting sea-salt along the Slovenian coastline is little known to tourists, but alive and well, and the salt is world renowned. I recommend you leave some room in your carry-on for a couple bags…we did!

The ancient Venetian town of Piran is the next stop on this trip – a “little Dubrovnik” on the coast occupying a narrow strip of land jutting into the Adriatic. Surrounded by fortress walls and lookouts, there is no better place for admiring a 180-degree idyllic panorama of Slovenia’s Riviera. I love the feel of Piran’s cramped and narrow medieval streets and plazas and I’m immediately transported back to a different time in history. You can always head a few kilometers down the coast from Piran to the livelier town of Portoroz. I don’t gamble, but they have been throwing the dice therefor nearly a century and you can test your luck any of the three hotel casinos. I, on the other hand, am there for a spa day! I visit the Lepa Vida Thalasso Spa for a wellness experience of “Thalasso-Therapy” with Adriatic sea salt. Thalasso-Therapy is the medical use of seawater as a form of wellness treatment. I always leave Portoroz with mind, body, and soul reinvigorated. I recommend an overnight in Portoroz at the Kempinski Palace.

Day 4: The Slovenia Wine Region

Another new day and the theme of today is wine! Is there a better way to follow up a spa day on the coast? From the coast, we travel 45-minutes north along the Italian border with Slovenia and reach another “hidden gem” of Slovenia – the Goriška Brda wine region. I spend a day here, but a wine aficionado can make an entire vacation out of just this area. Slovenia is a country of amazing wines valued for their remarkably natural tastes; winning numerous international awards – I have to brag – and Goriška Brda is home to the finest. Unlike other wine regions in the United States or Europe, the “boutique” nature, and farm-like atmosphere, make the wine-tasting experience more like visiting old friends and family – which we are actually doing. Just a warning: expect to be invited to stay for lunch or dinner.

The last stop of the day was Gredič Castle for a private wine tasting and gourmet dinner – the cuisine is a blend of classic Slovene and Italian! After dinner we head out of Brda northwest another 40-minutes along the emerald hued Soča River Valley (you have never seen anything like it) towards the small towns of Tolmin, Kobarid, and Bovec. I have to recommend my favorite quiet-and-romantic retreat high in the mountains overlooking the River Valley – Nebesa (Heaven); only about 40-minutes northwest of the Brda region, bring extra breath because this place will take yours away!

 

Day 5-6: Adventure and History in the Soča River Valley

My husband and I head down into the valley to meet back up with the family. The Soča Valley is an outdoor adventures playground of epic proportion. My sister and her family live in Tolmin, so we have built-in tour guides. Don’t worry, the locals are happy to show off everything the area has to offer! I recommend this part of Slovenia if you, like me, enjoy hiking, paragliding, white water rafting, horseback riding, mountain biking, fly-fishing, and so much more! If you are like my husband, and love history, the Soča Valley was the backdrop of some of the most horrific fighting during World War One. In Kobarid, originally called Caporetto, you can find one of the finest WWI museums dedicated to remembering the “Italian Front,” and here you can arrange battlefield tours and historical hikes through the trenches and high mountain caves of this once tragic, but now scenic landscape.

 

Day 7: UNESCO Site Seeing in Karst Region

 Having had our fill of wine, prosciutto, and outdoor adventures we head back towards Ljubljana with a quick stop on the way in Lipica, home of the European Lipizzaner Horse Stud Farm. The history is closely intertwined with the Austro-Hungarian Empire, dating back to the 16th Century. Lipica is the oldest European stud farm continuously breeding one of the oldest cultural horse breeds. I enjoy visiting the horses up close, and the grounds of the farm are spectacular.

Next, a quick snack and a 30-minute drive to Postojna Caves (Jama) and Predjama Castle (Grad); both nominated to be on the list of UNESCO-protected sites. Exploring the limestone passages and tunnels is an experience for everyone in the family to enjoy. We have toured the caves many times, but each visit brings a new and never-before-seen astonishing variety of limestone features. A few kilometers from the cave is the “impregnable medieval marvel,” of Predjama Castle. Perched high up on a 123-meter cliff for over 800 years, Predjama sits directly behind the largest cave in the world and is connected by a network of secret tunnels that ancient knights would use to raid and plunder the surrounding countryside. It is an easy day for the family, wonderful pictures, and unique family-friendly exploration, both above-and-under ground, making dinner and drinks back in Ljubljana all that more enjoyable! If you feel more adventurous visit Skocjanske jame (Škocjan Caves); on the UNESCO’s list of natural and cultural world heritage sites since 1986. Together with the underground river, they represent one of the longest karst underground wetlands in Europe. The vast caverns and underwater rivers are just breathtaking!

 

Day 8: To the Alps and Lake Bled

The end of my vacation involves a return to where we were married – Lake Bled, just a short 45-minute drive from Ljubljana. Nestled in the valley of the Triglav (“three peaks”) mountain range lie pristine mountain lakes Lake Bled and Lake Bohinj. In the summertime Bled is great for a stroll,swimming and sunbathing. Bled is a perfect centerpiece for a destination Slovenian wedding, or honeymoon escape. We rented a rowboat and headed to the island church to show the kids where we were married. You must go to the church and ring the bell inside for luck. If you don’t want to row, you can take a traditional Pletna to the island and back for a small charge, although rowing makes for a good workout!

Once back on shore, we end the day with a visit the medieval Bled Castle for the best views overlooking the Lake. If you want to spend a night and are up for a real adventure, then book a tree house at the Garden Village to sleep high in the treetops! We ran out of time, but I promised my kids we would spend a few nights there next summer, I cannot wait to blog about it! Visiting Bled was a terrific end to a whirlwind tour through my home, My sLOVEnia!

View of kids jumping into Lake Bled during luxury family vacation to Slovenia

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