Just a two-hour drive from the capital, Zagreb, the 300-plus miles skirt a pristine shoreline past national parks, weathered peaks, and nearly undisturbed medieval towns and villages. It's also the jumping-off point for the 1,185 islands that hug the coast all the way into Montenegro, Croatia's foe in the brutal 1990s conflict and Europe's newest independent nation (now home to an upstart adventure scene, thanks in part to the Bond film Casino Royale). A ten-day roll from Zagreb to Dubrovnik, with a side trip to sample Montenegro's marvels, proves that balkanization can be a thing worth striving for.
The Adriatic Highway, a well-maintained two-laner signposted as the E65, makes a Balkan coast expedition easy. Keep your headlights on day and night (it's the law) and have your passport handy. Homestays are an option here (look for signs marked sobe, "rooms"), and small hotels abound. The drive is a do-it-yourself adventure, but reputable local outfitters can guide the action along the way. Fly into Zagreb and rent a car at the airport. Fly out of Dubrovnik at Croatia's southern tip.
Mountain Biking--Taste the Singletrack
This region, tucked between Croatia and Italy, has been called the new Tuscany for its vineyards, wild game and olive oil. But its medieval villages, dense woods and riverside trails are gaining ground on Europe's mountain biking scene. Base camp is in the walled hilltop town of Motovun at boutique Hotel Kastel, a 17th-century palace with grand valley views and a post-ride sauna and whirlpool. In the surrounding countryside, paved and gravel loops roll through sleepy hamlets, among fig and olive groves, and into cool oak forests. One 32-mile circuit climbs past the source of the River Mirna and makes multiple thousand-foot ascents before bombing back down to the village of Buzet--Croatia's truffle central, where local eateries serve up the delicacy on everything from pasta to steak to ice cream.
DO: Visit bike-istra.com for recommended circuits. Univest bike shop, in the Istrian town of Labin, can provide wheels ($30 a day; +385 (0)98 420 504; email@example.com).
SLEEP: Hotel Kastel ($62; hotel-kastel-motovun.hr)
Badland Trekking--March a Massif
Northern Velebit National Park
The 90-mile Velebit Massif is the last jagged gasp of the Alps as they taper off down the Balkan Peninsula. A 14-mile hut-to-hut trek in secluded Northern Velebit National Park navigates a badland of wind- and water-sculpted karst pits (the deepest one drops 4,500 feet). Summits here top out near 5,500 feet but offer towering views of the Adriatic. The Zavizan hut, five miles in from the Gornja Klada trailhead, is the first of three on the circuit--and the only one staffed (and stocked with coffee and beer). If the weather glowers, pop into bare-bones Rossijeva shelter at mile ten before the final descent to the coastal town of Jablanac, where you can easily hitch a ride back to your car.
DO: Northern Velebit National Park trek ($6 for a three-day pass)
SLEEP: Spartan in-park mountain huts ($20; bring a sleeping bag; np-sjeverni-velebit.hr)
Island Seclusion--Play in the Parks
Paklenica and Kornati National Parks
The 23,722 acres of canyon-framed Paklenica National Park have over 90 miles of trails and a cache of stalagmite- and stalactite-studded caves. But the park's 400 climbing routes, ranging from 5.4 to 5.14, are what draw an international speed-climbing competition each year. After a heart-pounding scramble above the sea, boat out for solitude on the islands of Kornati National Park--the densest archipelago in the Mediterranean, with 140 islets (nearly all uninhabited) of bleached karst cliffs, olive groves and the occasional sheep. Check in to a secluded island cottage--accessible only by boat--and dive, sail, paddle or fish in the surrounding waters.
DO: Climbing in Paklenica ($16 for a three-day permit; paklenica.hr)
SLEEP: Kornati Islands cottages ($148 for four people; murter-kornati.com)