This is a guest post by Susan Guillory of The Unexplorer.

When I told people that I was going to stay in a villa in Croatia with 23 people, their eyes popped out of their heads.

“Why?” they’d ask.

My response was that I was saying yes to new opportunities. My oldest friend, Rachel, takes vacations with friends from college, their spouses, their parents, and various and extraneous people like me (I brought a friend, Rose, from California for support, too). So I’d agreed to stay in a house filled with Wisconsinites, most of whom I’d never met.

I don’t usually travel on a shoestring budget these days, nor do I indulge in $300-a-night hotel rooms. Still, the value I got on this trip, which centered primarily around Split and its environs, was fantastic for what I paid. Here’s how you can live large without spending much in Croatia.

Rent a(n Affordable) Villa

The house itself was the clincher for why I agreed to travel with so many strangers. Villa GG, as it’s called, is unique in that it can house 22 (well, we stretched it to 24). Most villas in the area accommodate about 8. When people looked at photos of the place, they assumed I was ballin’ to be able to afford it.

But here’s the thing about staying with a large group of people, especially in an affordable country like Croatia: economies of scale make it really cheap. I paid less than $400 for the entire week! I shared a bedroom with Rose, but we had a huge bathroom just for us, a kitchen on every floor, three balconies overlooking the ocean, and an ample pool.

Try to get that deal in LA.

Did I mention we had laundry service throughout the week?

The house was situated on a steep hill in Podstrana, 15 minutes away from the bigger town of Split. Perhaps if it were closer to town it would have cost more, but this was the perfect opportunity to sample luxury living without paying for the privilege.

Eat and Drink Well

Croatia is the most affordable European country I’ve visited. Though they’re part of the European Union, they still use their money, the kuna, at least for a few more years. As of this writing, 6.59 kuna is worth a dollar. You don’t have to be a high roller to eat and drink really well for cheap in Croatia.

Pasta figures prominently into the cuisine, being so close to Italy. Black ink risotto (colored by squid ink) is a local classic. But the real gem is fresh-caught seafood. Fried or grilled, the fish is served whole, with a side of vegetables.

As you might imagine, vacationing with a group of people from Wisconsin, a state that “boasts” 10 of the top 20 drunkest cities in America, alcohol was imbibed a few times. Nowhere is it cheaper than in Croatia. At a restaurant, a generous pour of wine might cost $3. At the grocery store, a 2-liter (yes, 2-liter!) bottle of beer is $2.

We dined on the beach—literally in the sand—and enjoyed fresh ingredients and a few adult beverages, and I think I spent under $20 for most meals.

Splurge for the Right Opportunities

I’d declined the option for the concierge package, which included several noteworthy meals at top restaurants in the area, as well as a few other excursions. But when I had the opportunity to add on a boat trip on our last day, I decided it was worth the $150.

And I’m glad I went.

We divided the group among three boats and took off on the high seas. Croatia has 1,244 islands, with 48 of them inhabitable. We didn’t hit nearly so many but did visit Brač, Korčula, and Hvar. Brač was a quick stop: we had an hour to walk around the tiny harbor town, snap photos, and buy a few souvenirs.

After that, we stopped to swim and snorkel. The waters along the Dalmatian coast are turquoise gems. So clear. I donned a snorkel mask and happily looked for strange fish. It made me laugh to see a group of adults, none younger than late 30s, jumping into the water and splashing one another like children. That’s what vacations do if they’re great. Turn us into carefree kids.

Our swim made us ravenous, so we headed to the island of Korčula, where we were in for a real treat: a meal at Konoba Mareta. I’d never arrived at a restaurant by boat before. It was an interesting experience: there was no dock, so a small boat had to come get us from ours, making several trips to accommodate our large party.

The menu was already set, and we feasted on octopus salad, grilled meats, and potatoes five ways. Heaven.

While I could have used a boat siesta, we moved on to Hvar, which had a fairly large city to explore. We were given a few hours to meander, and that’s what we did. Rose and I opted not to mount the hill to see the fortress that overlooked the city and the sea because it was so damn hot, but we had fun wandering down narrow alleyways, popping into shops, and stopping to cool down with an Aperol spritz.

 

On the boat ride home, we were all quiet, contemplating not only the magical day at sea but also the most wonderful week in Croatia. If this is how the 2% lives, I want in! Until then, I’ll find ways to experience budget luxury like I did on this trip.