Going to the Med during a one-week half-term holiday can be the travel equivalent of getting drinks in the interval at the theatre: a lot of pushing and queuing for an all-too-brief pleasure. Further reducing the available time in the location, we opted to travel by train. Our oldest, Alex, was working; Phoebe, the youngest, was on a school trip; middle son David, blissfully released from sibling torments, was accompanied by his mate Patrick. The boys wanted beaches, rivers, go-karting, lizard-hunting and pizzas. We'd heard about a huge and glorious campsite in Istria, the triangular, formerly Italian, peninsula at the top end of the Adriatic. It looked perfect.
Having hitchhiked through Yugoslavia as a teenager, I remembered green hills above a turquoise sea and huge mugs of beer. But how to get there by train? We looked at the map and then took to Google Earth and floated over the Adriatic. Twinkling beguilingly on the left was Venice. That was it, our solution: Waterloo to Venice by train, a spin round the motorway though Italy and Slovenia, five days exploring Istria, and then back to Venice for a 24-hour express city break before the train home. A bit of a rush, perhaps, but at least it was our rush, and we'd spend no more than five minutes each way queueing or filing through security checks.
Once installed in our sleeping carriage from Paris to Venice, busily carving up baguettes and popping open the red, we slipped into a deep state of contentment, the boys enmeshed in iPod leads, Teresa and I dreaming over the scudding landscape about suitable places to live in a second life.
With train travel you slowly accumulate a sense of foreignness – loud Italian voices breaking our sleep when we stopped in Milan, then whiffs of a sort of herbs-and-diesel in the pre-dawn. We pulled into Mestre station, the mainland station across the lagoon from Venice, in the glare of an Adriatic morning. Minutes later, we headed east in the hire car, a nippy, bafflingly affordable and fuel-efficient Alfa Romeo.
Early afternoon: it was baking hot and we were in Croatia. There's usually a chirpy naffness about mobile homes, but ours was definitely upwardly mobile – new, air-conditioned and thoughtfully designed, with a snug double bedroom and room enough to swing a cat in the kitchen-living area. The boys were based at the other end, next to a shower room that wouldn't disgrace the average studio flat. At the front was a wooden deck, where we ate our breakfast under a canopy of sun-dappled oak trees, warbling with birdsong. Below, the vast acreage of Lanternacamp spread across the densely wooded slopes of a shingle-fringed peninsula jutting into the Adriatic, halfway down the west coast of Istria. Shops, swimming pools, markets, bars and restaurants speckle this holiday community.
If we'd been confined to the campsite, we would hardly have suffered, but Croatia turned out to have so much to offer that we used the site as a sleeping base only, returning after forays into Istria, and beyond, that yielded fresh discoveries every day.
In five days we ticked all the boxes on everyone's list in an adventure that took in the whole peninsula. Many of the roads are fast and smooth – though the Istrian "motorway", with its elaborate junctions, turned out to be a two-lane highway, prone to bottlenecks – but the signposting is hectic and sporadic. Moments of great confidence were often followed by lulls of bewilderment as we segued from a tarmac road into somebody's front yard, or turned a bend on a country lane and drove straight into a field – albeit one with a faint track running across it that rejoined another road five minutes later.
Accompanied by the incessantly voluble presenters of Radio Pula ("Rrraadio Pooolah!"), we eventually found the karting track, where the boys took delight in causing their own bottlenecks for the leathered-up local speed kings.
We discovered the blissful ravine at Kotli, pummelled by rushing water, miles from anywhere, where the boys and I scampered over the rocks, and tracked down exquisite orange-bellied toads and tiny water snakes amid clouds of butterflies.
We found a nearby hostelry, a place so friendly, family-run and flower-bedecked that it could only be called a hostelry, for a leisurely lunch of spicy soup, mushroom omelettes and ragged-edged ham sandwiches.
Map unravelled, the four of us peering around for signs, we arrived at the impossibly quaint hill town of Motovun in time for a beer festival. A rock band played over-amped covers of Green Day songs in the cobbled square and we ate venison stew by the ramparts.
Then we hit Istria's big town, Pula, and explored the amphitheatre, before deciding that the Colosseum in Rome is the only amphitheatre you need to explore. We retreated to Istria's southernmost tip for an afternoon on a sheltered beach in the glorious pine and grassland of Kamenjak National Park. This was followed by a thunderous downpour that saw us slapping through the slick streets of Rovinj – an Italianate jewel even in a deluge – hunting for an eatery recommended by our guide book: Sergio's superb pizzeria, which made it all worthwhile.
We loved the food in Croatia, and the hospitality, both of them a blend of central European and Italian, with large plates of excellent seafood, huge tasty pizzas, and roadside pig-roast restaurants with competing, live-action adverts (porker revolving on spit displayed by cheerily beckoning waiter). We never paid more than £40 for a meal; those big mugs of beer are still de rigueur; and the surprisingly good Istrian red wine – £2 a litre from roadside stalls – is a bonus.
The boys hankered after river rafting, but all the trips were fully booked. So we were drawn, by way of a watery alternative, to Plitvice National Park, half-way across the country in the mountains of central Croatia. After a switchback route over the coastal range we emerged into a wide, fertile valley of fields, streams and walnut trees, and began to see evidence of the war in burned-out and bullet-strafed houses.
The official line is that refugees are free to re-occupy their homes, but in many cases the blackened hulks look like a restoration job too far. The relics don't seem to have dented the spirit of free enterprise, though – signs for "Zimmer/Camarre/Sobe/Rooms" were up everywhere, usually with a table of honey and fruit brandies nearby.
Plitvice, although crowded, was like paradise. Set in a moist and magical forest of beech and fir, a five-mile string of 16 jewel-like lakes, as clear as glass, are linked by spuming waterfalls and delightfully casual wooden walkways and steps. You can climb up, as lines of elderly, panting Israeli and Romanian tourists seemed to be doing, or take the shuttle bus to the top and walk down. The set-up is just far enough outside the health-and-safety zone to be agreeably tantalising to kids ("If that guy did have a heart attack, would he just fall in and drown?"). Shame you can't swim, but the geological process that keeps the water so pure would apparently be halted by the intrusion. We finished the day back on the sparkling Adriatic, at the charming Opatija yacht club bistro with a rich risotto and a wonderful Istrian white, Malvazija Pilato.
Leaving Istria a day early gave us a full 24 hours in Venice. We spent the night cossetted in the remarkably good-value opulence of the Hotel Bologna, across from Mestre station, then took the train to the waterfront for the best deal in the city – a ¿5 (£3.50) water-bus trip along the world's most fantastic boulevard of water, the Grand Canal, through the city centre to St Mark's Square. It was a suitable day's amble back alongside the alley-like canals and through quiet squares to where we'd started, packing in photos, galleries, churches and a delicious, if tiny, lunch that had us craving Croatian cuisine. Venice is too beautiful, too overwhelming and much too expensive to rush, but it's not a bad place to top and tail a camping trip with.
The overnight rail journey between London and Venice via Paris – in a six-berth couchette – starts from £111 return per person through Rail Europe (08705 84 88 48; www.raileurope.co.uk). See www.seat61.com/italy.htm for details about departures, journey times and on-board facilities.
Europcar (0845 758 5375; www.europcar.co.uk) allows its rental cars to be driven over the border into Croatia. One week's hire starts from £213, starting from and returning to Venice.
Keycamp (0870 428 9450; www.keycamp.co.uk) offers a 12-night stay for two adults and up to four children in a Villanova mobile home at Lanternacamp, Porec from £309. Train travel, car hire and fly drive packages are not included, but are available at a supplement. Four-night stays start at £153, accommodation-only.
As part of Keycamp's commitment to the environment, customers can now offset any carbon emissions that have been created by their transport choices with Climate Care (www.climatecare.org).
Hotel Bologna, via Piave 214, Venice (00 39 041 931 000; www.hotelbologna.com) has luxurious double rooms starting from €130 (£65), including breakfast.
Croatian National Tourist Board: 020-8563 7979; www.croatia.hrReuse content