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Kotor, Montenegro's Most Breathtaking Views

...and I do mean breathtaking in two very literal ways.

But first, let's back it up a minute and talk about making our way to Kotor in the first place. Short story: it was hell. Long story: we didn't buy bus tickets from Dubrovnik to Kotor in advance, and the bus to the bus station was delayed, and then the station didn't accept credit cards, and it was SO crowded and overwhelming, and so so hot, and this girl was not a happy camper.

UNTIL. This:
I know I keep on saying this about roadtrips in the Balkans, but you guys, I think this takes the trophy for Most Stunning Drive Ever.

It took a couple of hours longer than usual to make it through the border, but once we reached the Bay of Kotor... well, I don't have any words. I was in a state of shock, paralyzed by idyllic snapshots like the one above. Through all of the twists and turns along the bay, we had a front row seat to mountain peaks rising dramatically in the perimeter, hugging the edges of the bluish-green waters. 

This drive was bookended by us being hot MESSES, for sure - see: the situation above first of all. Second of all, there's only one road into the center of Kotor, so we were stuck in one-lane traffic for the last hour. Then, we were all hungry, tired, and pissed at each other (traveling! with! friends! so! fun!!!!) and seething at the injustice of it all as we dragged our suitcases to our Airbnb, red-faced and sweaty. Like a mirage, our host Gordana emerged in sky-high wedges, a crop top, with the prettiest blonde hair, all smiles and warm greetings. We were quite the juxtaposition, I'll tell ya!
That night, the plan was to wander over to Old Town - only a 5 minute walk away - and hit up the top-rated restaurant on TripAdvisor, then take it easy at the apartment.

Except that we didn't realize that the restaurant was closed for good. We walked around in circles for much too long, getting hangrier and hangrier by the minute. Finally, calling it as a loss, we sat down at the first restaurant we saw along the water and ordered the first things we saw on the menu. I'm not even exaggerating right now - the waiter couldn't even put down the appetizer before we inhaled it. He literally just picked up the plate again and took it away. That's also the closest I've ever come to vomiting from over-eating, I shoveled down my entire plate of pasta so fast that I almost choked.
That is all to say - even in the most beautiful of circumstances while traveling, you'll still hit  plenty of roadblocks. But I'll take it!

The next day was so much lovelier.

Alarms rang extra early, and we headed over to Old Town once again.
Old Town Kotor is very similar to Old Town Dubrovnik - a little less polished, a little smaller, a little sleepier, but no less enchanting. We ordered takeaway coffees from a corner store, and then...

it was time to hike!

Hidden Gems in Old Town Dubrovnik

When folks come to me for Dubrovnik recommendations, I first assault their eardrums with too many enthusiastic exclamations. Never one to play it cool, that's me.

But I quickly take it down eight notches and do my best to temper expectations.

Not because Dubrovnik isn't gloriously beautiful and not because it isn't the medieval town of your dreams with its terracotta roofs and water as electrifyingly blue as Chris Pine's eyes. But because it's the sunny, beachy medieval town of everyone's dreams. In the last decade, Dubrovnik has experienced a tourism boom that continues to skyrocket, largely thanks to Game of Thrones fans and Pinterest browsers.

For many, this is their first impression of this little town:
Feeling a bit claustrophobic?

I got you.

After a three-week stay in 2015 plus 4 more wonderful days the following year, Cassandra and I feel that we are well-equipped with tips & tricks on navigating Dubrovnik. Our tactic:

Swimming in Dubrovnik's Blue Cave: Island Hopping, Part II

There are a few things you should keep in mind as you read about how this particular sequence of events unfolded.

First, Dubrovnik is generally on the sunnier side.

Second, we just so happened to hit rainy season on our visit, and the forecast looked bleak. Because boat excursions are canceled in the event of thunderstorms, I obsessively refreshed my weather app every few hours in the days leading up to the adventure. We would remind each other to pause and collectively send all of our positive energy to the weather gods (sounds ridiculous, but we were desperate).

Somehow that worked! For the most part, the weather icon remained firmly as an angry lightning bolt - up until the morning of, when it transformed into a slightly more forgiving gray cloud. Go time!
Because it started lightly drizzling when we headed out, our captain recommended against visiting the Blue Cave first. For the most spectacular conditions, you want the sun high up in the sky so that its light hits the cave straight on. If the sun isn't feelin' it, then we'd skip the Blue Cave.

The sun decided to make an appearance when we were admiring Sipan's rustic charm - and then it really showed off once we were laying out like beached whales on the hot, soft sands of Lopud's Sunj Beach. We falsely believed that once the sun came out, it wouldn't be going anywhere; and so when the sky subtly darkened, we reluctantly dragged ourselves away from paradise and made a break for our waiting vessel.

We raced over to the Blue Cave - music blasting, seawater drenching us as Loren expertly cut through the deep blue sea. Once there, we suddenly froze.

The Quarter Life Crisis

I'm sitting here, an hour away from 25*, chuckling because: 

1) I discovered twenty minutes ago that we have access to the Disney Channel, and am legitimately finding this Wizards of Waverly Place episode to be hysterical. God, I miss the Golden Age of the Disney Channel.

2) Yesterday, we started off my birthday celebration with Andre in blue Solo cups and ended it with frozen burritos. At what age do these become unacceptable?
This year, the birthday tradition for our little squad has been for the rest of the group to plan a day of small surprises and activities with the birthday girl in mind.

For Hanna's birthday, we drove to Tomales Bay to purchase a sack of 70 oysters and then we picnicked at Stinson Beach with cevapi, a selection of pies, and YouTube oyster-shucking videos. I still need to share pictures from this day with you guys because it was THE BEST.

Cassandra's birthday started out with an indulgent brunch at Absinthe where we ordered far too many goodies, a peek at the Civic Center - her very favorite building in San Francisco - then a detour to the batting cages, and finally an afternoon enjoying the sunshine down at Stanford with cupcakes and coffee with Bailey's.

Leah's... well Leah's still a baby for another month, so I'll get back to you on this one.

BUT MINE.

Cassandra and Hanna ignored my cries for more sleep, blasted The Greatest Showman songs from two different sources, wafted the scent of cinnamon rolls baking in the oven into my room, and placed a giant (yes, blue Solo) cup of mimosa in my hand.

I'm up, I'm here for this.

Once Leah showed up, we filled up water bottles with more mimosas and ran out into the street...

...only to be confronted by cops who playfully called out, "what's in those containers?!" 

Perhaps it was the mustaches or the birthday hats or the sunshine, but they declined to interrogate us any further and sent us off with a laugh.
Our first stop was Flora Grubb Gardens, a plant nursery / Instagram hotspot with an espresso bar. Here's the killer though: this spot is like 15 minutes away from my place... and I've never even heard about it! Truly impressive move by my friends because I really don't do much else with my time except search for cutesy spots like this one around town.

I made them go around the table and tell me all the things they love most about me as we enjoyed our coffees - I'm definitely the low-maintenance friend if you couldn't tell.

Once I was satisfied with their answers, we proceeded to wander around the property, taking pictures to my heart's content.

Why can't it be my birthday every day.

Island Hopping Around Dubrovnik's Elafiti Islands, Part I

As if tasting oysters plucked straight from the sea wasn't already the most blissful experience of all time, the very next day we had a boat come pick us up for a private island-hopping tour around the Elafiti Islands - an archipelago of thirteen islands northwest of Dubrovnik (aaand thank you Google!).

I don't think I've ever had two dreamier days in a row!

Of the thirteen islands, Koločep, Lopud and Šipan are the ones that are permanently inhabited and always ready for visitors. You can easily access these three islands via public ferry from Dubrovnik orrrrr you can splurge and hire a private boat, if you're feeling particularly bougie like we evidently did (but trust me, we were living beyond our means at this time).

Cassandra and I rose extra early and parked ourselves on the beach we lived by the year before, with a cappuccino and bijela kava respectively. We savored the familiar surroundings and milky coffees peacefully, and then headed back to rouse the girls for another day of adventuring.
Essentials in hand - a GoPro, an inflatable donut float that I insisted on purchasing back in California and that took up quite a bit of precious luggage space, and not much else - and after a very long trek to our meeting point, we came upon our captain Loren from Dubrovnik Explore. He dove into a proposed itinerary for the day - he'd steer us towards each of the three main islands. We can skip the ones that don't peak our interest, extend our time in the ones that do, or just swim in the middle of the Adriatic Sea if that's what we really wanted.

Whatever goes! That's the beauty of having a boat all to ourselves!

With that knowledge, we set off.
Giggling, we enjoyed the wind whipping our hair every which way, the sea spraying gently onto our arms. There was no sun yet in sight, but the water was beautiful albeit on the rocky side.

Not too long after we first boarded, our boat ventured to the outskirts of Koločep, the smallest of the three islands. But because we felt that we hadn't yet spent enough time on the boat quite yet, we decided to pass on this particular island for now.

"So be it," Loren nodded. "We can swing by later for you guys to swim in the Blue Cave if the sun comes out."
And so, Loren slowed us to a leisurely pace and allowed us to lounge happily.

Our first real stop was the Sudjuradj village of the second and largest of the three islands, Šipan. Loren dropped us off at the docks and then waved us towards the main village square, telling us to take our time and fetch him when we were ready to leave the island.
To start, we were behaving a bit like four lost turkeys... stepping around in circles, directionless and confused. But then we perked up, spotting some prime photo spots: 
So we preened... 

And we preened...
... and then, we called it a wrap.
I can't imagine why.

Next, we spotted a small sign for wine-tasting pointing down a narrow pathway. Sold! 
We didn't ever end up finding the wine, but instead - something a little stronger caught our eye:

Brandy!

Home-made brandy, that is. A local couple had quite the spread on the side of the pathway, right in front of their home: liquers made in-house, with their own fruits - it was like a lemonade stand for adults. For samples, the woman hands you generous pours, babbling on in very broken English and very insistent Croatian.

It was some strong stuff, let me tell you. Too strong for us, but not for this hilarious Polish couple we ran into. The husband was a huge charmer, the woman was no-nonsense and together they made the best comedy roadshow. They had us laughing until our stomachs hurt from the second we met them. The Polish woman was also throwing back shots of brandy like nobody's business, much to our amusement.

We purchased a bottle of olive oil from the Croatian family, and then hurried back to find Loren. 
At this point, we were ravenous - having had nothing all day except coffee for Cassandra and me.

There weren't many restaurants in the small village - perhaps two actual restaurants, a cafe, and a corner store. We didn't want to spend a lot of time cooped up inside and really wanted to get back on the water, so we popped our heads in to the cafe and asked if they had any sandwiches or food "to go." But the concept of takeaway food is a strange one in Croatia - where the lifestyle dictates that food and drink is meant to be relished slowly and fully appreciated - never to be rushed through.

But the owners of the cafe took pity on these flustered, hungry Americans and dug around in their kitchen, emerging with a baguette for us to squirrel away for the rest of the journey.

And by "squirrel away," I mean tear apart immediately and dunk into our newly purchased olive oil the second we were back on the boat. It was delectable, so much so that I recall a certain someone drank the leftover oil after we ran out of bread.
Our next island was my personal favorite: Lopud.

Do you see why?! This place is heaven. 
Boats dock at Lopud Bay, which is where the main strip of town is located as well.

But!

Waiting on the other end of the island? Which you can only access by a 10-minute buggy ride? (By buggy, I mean golf cart but doesn't buggy just sound so much more island-esque?)
Sunj Beach, quite possibly the most enchanting beach I've ever seen.

As the beach came within view when we were speeding down the rocky path on the buggy, it was like peeking into another world: ombre waters from the clearest of waters to the deepest of blues, green mountains rising from the periphery, sailboats swaying hypnotizingly off in the distance. The sand was devastatingly soft, though quite hot. We threw our things down, and scampered off to play in the water: 
Perfection.

After a luxurious dip in the sea, we retreated to the shore and did what we do best for the rest of the afternoon: 
Cake naps by the ocean, completely losing any concept of time. 
Enjoying paradise is quite hard work I'll have you know, but someone's gotta do it!

Once we felt the sun start to fade and the air turn cooler, we rose from our snooze with a jolt: we had to make it to the Blue Cave before the sun decides to peace out for real! With that, we found a buggy to shuttle us back to the other side of the island.
... did we make it to the Blue Cave in time?

... did I almost die?

... am I dead and talking to you from the beyond now?

Stay tuned for these answers and more in Part 2!
--

If you're planning a trip to Dubrovnik, I highly recommend... getting out of Dubrovnik. Let me explain. I love that town with a passion, but the crowds and heat are no joke. My advice is to explore Old Town for a day or two at the most, and then book excursions for the rest of your stay. We used Dubrovnik Explore for this treat of a day - this is 100% not sponsored - and they were by far the most cost-friendly choice! Please reach out to me if you have any questions about this!