Do not miss Dubrovnik! We spent one day there, as part of a longer cruise. I had no expectations, knew nothing of it and frankly, had not much interest in this port. But we figured we'd go to the old town and walk around for a bit. I was stunned. It was, and remains, the most beautiful place I've ever seen. The streets are paved in marble, the view of the Adriatic from the top of the city walls (as well as the view over the red tiled roofs) will stop your heart. Just sitting in an outdoor cafe while watching people walk the narrow streets will have you drunk with beauty.
You are in for a treat on many levels. First, this entire area seems far more "foreign" than most of Europe. Which is to say, I guess, that it is a bit less Americanized. That said, you've chosen the most heavily visited (often with good reason) for your focus. May I suggest broadening your trip a bit? (Conessfion: my wife and I were married in Bled, many years ago, courtesy of the (then) Yugoslac government. I was working for Time, etc etc.) That bias notwithstanding, consider including Slovenia in your itinerary. Two towns to consider are Bled, where Tito had his summer home on Lake Bled, and Lubijana--that's not quite the right spelling-=-which is a really charming college town on a river. At least one hotel in Bled is in a castle, a real, many-stepped tower room with balcony can be yours. Yes, I would go to Dubrovnik, but do some research on where to stay and eat. A good and totally free experience is to walk along the walls of the old fortress which encircles part of the city. The thumping you here is kids playing basketball. And Dubrovnik, with its old square, really does have a deeply historic feel. When in Dubrovnik see if there is a tour to Bosnia/Herzgovenia, war ravaged, but the famous bridge in Mostar has been restored and puportedly is (nearly) as poetically beautiful as the original. A place you should look into is Sveti Stefan. It was an old fishing village on a tiny islet off the coast of either southern Coratia or northen Montenegro. Then the government took the entire place over and turned it into the area's most interesting hotel, at once nearby and remote in feeling. (It is now connected to the mainland by a very short bridge.It has (or had, the last time I checked) a casino, and a very good Italianish restaurant set atop the walls of the village and looking out over the Adriatic toward Italy. In fact, Italians come over for a day or a wekend by hydrofoil, which explains the necessarily good restaurant The entire fishing village is now a hotel with charming individual rooms in stone "huts" with flower-filled window boxes. The "huts" have modern facilities and offer a high level of service. You should consider renting a car as you will be sharing costs, but note that roads are mostly 2-lane though not particularly bad. I would avoid Belgrade, a not very appealing city. In Croatia I feel somewhat the same about Zagreb, which is proud of its cemetary --interesting in an odd sort of way--and is home to a group of local folk artists of the naif school. Croatia is also home (I believe) to a dish called struckli which is eggs, cream and pure heaven. Lots of places will offer it and you might want to sample them all.
Of course, a lot of the choices you will make depend upon where you fly into, where you are coming from, your personal whims and tastes, and all the othere stuff that makes every traveller an individual searching for his/her own experience. A bit more than other places, you need to do some research to ensure you make the right travel choices. Oh, yes. One other option is a cruise fronm Split to and through various islands off the coast. But that's often for people a bit older than you, or backpacvkers. The islands are lovely, but you appear to be interested in a fairly energetic itinerary. Finally, I should point out that i last visited the area a sone 7-8 years ago. But change in these parts is rarely sudden, though in general, don't expect the sophistication of other parts of Europe. Though the people are certainly friendly. The languages--Serbo-Croatian, Slovenian--are incomprehensible.
If I can help in any other way, please do let me know.
In a very premature appeal, I'll be looking for a villa/vacation home and sailboat to rent in Dubrovnik and then off the Croatian coast to house 5 families (couples plus a few young children) sometime in 2008. Has anyone done this? Any recommendations? Do you think Dubrovnik is the best location in Croatia for such an excursion? Also, where is the best sailing hub? My friends and I have been throwing this idea around for years as the perfect family-style vacation spot but we really don't even know where to begin. Any recommendations would be much appreciated.
My wife and I spent two weeks in Croatia traveling with a group of friends in 2006. I was so blown away by Croatia that I built a blog to detail my travels and document my photos from the trip: www.croatiatravelblog.com.
Do not miss Hvar, it is absolute paradise. You'll also want to visit Trogir near Spit and the Island of Korchula, Marco Polo's Birthplace.