Travel

This Tiny Country Is the Green Heart of Europe

From black-water hot springs to underground glacier rivers to mountain waterfalls.

Marco Bottigelli/Moment/Getty Images
Marco Bottigelli/Moment/Getty Images
Marco Bottigelli/Moment/Getty Images

As anyone who’s ever seen Planet Earth likely knows, it’s harder to find large swaths of untouched nature in Europe than on other continents. There are plenty of cute towns and bustling cities, sure-but vast wilderness, not so much. That’s why any patch of nature is precious; and in this arena, Slovenia particularly shines.

Nicknamed “the green heart of Europe,” Slovenia is packed with pristine outdoors concentrated in a small area. It may be a tiny country, but it’s full of forests, canyons, marine reserves, lakes, and rivers. After the Dutch nonprofit Green Destinations recognized Slovenia as a green hotspot in 2016, the status has grown into a stamp of pride, and now over 40 percent of its territory is protected land.

For visitors, that means beauty, escape, relaxation, and adventure. Stretching from the Alps to the warm coasts of the Mediterranean, you’ll find salt pan mud baths, thermal pools, rock climbing, canyoning, kayaking, and hiking. Here’s how to immerse yourself in Europe’s green heart.

Happy Moments/Shutterstock
Happy Moments/Shutterstock
Happy Moments/Shutterstock

Trek to waterfalls and peat bogs

Triglav National Park is Slovenia’s largest protected natural reserve, and it’s full of magnificent views of the Julian Alps, goat-grazing valleys, millenary trees, pristine brooks, and blue lakes that reflect the sky. Trekking trails unwind through the Pokljuka spruce tree forest, an area on top of the Karst plateau dotted with glacier fossils and peat bogs. Locals swear that spending one day here regenerates body and mind.

Other park paths lead to the mesmerizing, 170-feet-high Pericnik waterfall. Once you walk around the cascades, you can continue onwards to the even taller Savica waterfall (at 255 feet), which gushes out of the rock from two openings, making it a double spectacle.

Within the park are also deep canyons that were once carved by rivers, such as the Tolmin and the Great Soča gorge. The latter ends in a tropical-like, blue-curaçao-coloured pool. It’s freezing, but if you like an ice-cold refresher, take a plunge.

Feel good studio/Shutterstock
Feel good studio/Shutterstock
Feel good studio/Shutterstock

Boat or bellyak on lakes and rivers

The rivers in Slovenia zig-zag across the land, creating fascinating gorges, tumbling waterfalls, deep pools, and even underground caves with subterranean glacier streams. These waters are ideal for adventuring.

The Soça Valley is the first natural water park to check out, with its emerald-blue rivers and rapids of varying difficulty levels, ideal for both kayaking and rafting. Or head to the Savinja River, where you can glide down a ravine surrounded by ragged mountain peaks. For an easy day of drifting, check out Bled Lake, where you can enjoy relaxing boat rides on calm water surrounding the idyllic town of Bled.

If you want a more exciting experience, the Sava river is ideal for canyoning down natural slides, jumping into pools, and going tubing. You can also choose to bellyak, which consists in lying facedown on a board and using your arms as paddles.

The Skocjan Caves Park offers a different kind of guided tour. This UNESCO World Heritage site features the world’s deepest subterranean river canyon, where the Reka River dips underground. Here you’ll find a maze of tunnels and rock arches covered in stalactites, almost looking like a work of art.

Ziga Plahutar/ E+/Getty Images
Ziga Plahutar/ E+/Getty Images
Ziga Plahutar/ E+/Getty Images

Climb up rocks like a mountain goat

Many Slovenes are so skilled at rock climbing, they affectionately call each other “goats.” Considering all the mountains spanning the country, many learn how to cling to steep, rugged cliffs from a young age. Here, climbing is more than a sport, it’s a philosophy that cleanses body and mind. So it’s no surprise that there are 113 open-air, natural sites to choose from to scale vertical heights.

Half of the country’s climbs are located in Karst Edge, a huge limestone plateau dating back to prehistoric times that overlooks the sea. That means you can stretch your muscles and work on your tan at the same time. This rock climbing paradise has routes and crags of various levels of difficulty.

If you’re looking for intensity, in the Granski Gora region, the steep mountains above the village of Dovje have tough climbs over a beautiful view of the fluorescent-green Vrata valley. But don’t fret if you’re a beginner; the via ferratas offer more secured climbing trails, like the one above Lake Bohinj.

TERME 3000 - Moravske Toplice
TERME 3000 – Moravske Toplice
TERME 3000 – Moravske Toplice

Soak in black mineral water

If you’re more into relaxing, indulge in some self-pampering at the many cozy hot baths and thermal water centres set in stunning natural surroundings. These open-air spas offer tailored therapeutic programs in bubbly pools, salt pans, and forest streams.

Step into a centuries-old, pitch-black pool at the Moravci springs. It might look creepy at first, but the mineral-rich waters here will soothe your aching bones and make you feel reborn. The pool’s dark colour is due to a rich concentration of underground minerals, and the water temperature, at 98 degrees fahrenheit, is the warmest natural thermal pool in Europe.

Terme Krka on the coast features seawater baths, sea mud wraps, and sea salt peelings. Cover yourself in nutritive salt pan mud at the Lepa Vida Thalasso Spa, where guests are offered traditional sea water treatments in a unique natural setting surrounded by prehistoric salines.

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Silvia Marchetti is a contributor for Thrillist.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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