A while ago Matthew Morrison reached out to us as he and his family were doing an extraordinary thing, they were traveling around Europe during the COVID pandemic. Naturally, we wanted to hear their story.

We will be posting a multi-part series of their adventures, we hope their stories give everyone some happy vibes during this time of global aviation meltdown.

The Story begins


We are a family of 4 from Arizona who have been given the opportunity to travel during this pandemic. I am a pilot for a major US airline (I can let you know which one if you need it) who volunteered for time off with reduced pay to prevent future furloughs of our pilots. Our two children Parker, 13, and McKenzie, 11, have been in online school like most kids since this pandemic hit us in March. They can log in to school anywhere there is a Wi-Fi connection. My wife Brooke has been a busy stay at home mom, so with me out of work and the kids not having to go to school physically; we decided to “escape the bubble” and leave Arizona behind to travel with this rare chance in a lifetime! For the first time in our lives, we had no ties or obligations to stay at home. It took a while for the realization of this opportunity to hit us, but eventually, it landed.

The opportunity is bittersweet, with all the hardship going on in the world, the pandemic, dipping economies, and an unstable work environment for many, including myself. But Brooke and I wanted our family to focus on this opportunity’s positivity, live in the now, and experience a new adventure. We brainstormed initially on what to do…rent a cabin in the mountains in Arizona, rent an Rv and travel the west coast, maybe go back to Hawaii. But most of those things, we had already done, so my wife mentioned why not look at traveling to other countries. We wanted to “world school” our kids and give them the opportunity to experience new cultures, new places and to broaden their outlook on the world. So then our excitement looked on a grander scale, but it wasn’t easy. The irony within this lifetime opportunity was, most of the world is off-limits to Americans due to Covid! We spent hours researching countries online via travel blogs and US embassy websites with the hopes of them opening up for tourism toward the end of summer, only to be let down numerous times. We initially focused on Hawaii, Bali, Portugal, Australia, and Asia. But as our goal of leaving in September came closer, countries on our list still had not opened to Americans. We had hopes on Bali opening Sept. 1st but were let down when their government announced staying closed until 2021.

Planning


At some point in late August, my wife had stumbled across Croatia being open to Americans. Neither of us knew much about the country. I was honestly skeptical and brushed it off at first only from my ignorance, haha. Boy, was I wrong! Brooke was persistent and made me watch several Youtube videos on Croatia, and I was immediately hooked. I saw mild weather in the fall, amazing beaches and coastlines, great history and culture, and looked really affordable compared to the rest of Europe. Most of the EU is still closed to Americans, but since Croatia was not part of the Schengen Union, they could set their own regulations, thus welcoming tourism! So, Croatia, it was! We picked cities we wanted to visit and came up with a very loose itinerary. Our plan was to start in the capital of Zagreb and then move on to the coast from there. I would book AirBnB’s for 3-4 days initially, and if we liked a destination, we would stay longer.

We have a strong network of friends and family back in Arizona, and when we discussed our plans to travel, most were excited for us and our freedom to do so. However, we are still in the middle of the pandemic, and we did strike up some concerns and skepticism. We fully discussed the risk and consequences of traveling during this time. Our kids obviously mean more to us than anything. Brooke and I would never want to put them in any intentional harm’s way, so that was a point of contention before our trip. Throughout this whole pandemic, we have been cautious but open-minded. We got all caught up in the media the first few months initially, but during the summer decided we would try to live our lives as normal as possible while trying to be covid aware. That meant moving forward with our lives and our travel plans. There are folks today who still think we are not doing the right thing, but we are okay with our decision.

The trip begins


The excitement built as the trip got closer; we buttoned up our house in Arizona, had our neighbors look after it for us, and said goodbye to our dog as we dropped her off with my parents. I bought us all travel backpacks, and we tried to pack as light as we could. Brooke preferred a larger suitcase, but I said, we’re going to Europe; we need backpacks, right, haha! We left Phoenix and flew to LAX on Sept. 10th. During our travel planning, we had to research different routes for getting to Croatia. Many countries would not let you out of customs, so if we missed our connecting flight for whatever reason, we would be stranded inside the terminal. We heard folks getting thru Amsterdam and Frankfurt but didn’t want to risk the hassle. So, we chose LAX to Istanbul, Turkey is also an open country to Americans, so we could at least get a hotel if needed, and then IST to Zagreb, Croatia. We used StaffTravel to check loads, and one benefit of traveling now internationally is that loads are not full! The flight to Istanbul and then to Zagreb on Turkish Airlines had several seats available. So, we booked our ID90 Zed fares! We boarded Turkish Airlines, which was surprisingly mostly full, and took off on our 13-hour flight. We had to wear masks the entire flight, which was difficult, but we got through it.

The airline gave us a nice sanitization pack with wipes and sanitizer and masks when we boarded. We had a quick and seamless connection in Istanbul and then had another 2-hour flight to Zagreb. Twenty-nine hours after leaving Phoenix, we were in Croatia! One requirement for entering Croatia was arriving with a negative PCR Covid test no older than 48 hours, which was kind of tight with the travel time. We got the test as late as we could the evening before we left at an urgent care and got our negative results emailed to us en route about 16 hours later. There was a weighted risk and some anxiety there for me in case, for some reason, one of us tested positive, and we were already on our way, but that’s the way it had to be with the time constraint. We had some health forms to fill out and a Croatian entry form and made it through customs with minimal hassle.

Croatia


Once we stepped out of the airport terminal into the cool evening air, we could not believe that we were finally in Croatia! A great thing about Croatia is almost everyone speaks English. I always try to learn a bit of the language before we travel, but it was a relief when our Uber driver showed up and spoke English very well. I booked an Airbnb in Zagreb for four days to get us settled, and in case we had to quarantine if our covid test results did not show up in time. Our apartment in Zagreb was great, very modern, updated, clean, and in a central location where we could walk to most of the main sights and attractions. It was a great start to our journey!

Croatia continued to impress us, starting with Zagreb. As we walked about town, we immediately realized we were immune to the politics and media firestorm going on back home with the upcoming election and other tension spreading across the US. Zagreb was buzzing with life at an almost pre-pandemic state. The streets were busy; cafes, restaurants, shops, and museums were open and full of people. People were relaxed and welcoming, living their lives as normal. As we entered restaurants and shops, the locals were very welcoming and surprised at times to hear our accent and even more surprised when they found out we were from America. We enjoyed walking the streets, viewing the different architecture, having coffee at café’s, and eating local dishes at restaurants. Our kids were already enjoying new experiences each day. One of the coolest things we experienced in Zagreb was a Sunday street bazaar we stumbled across. There was a large antique and farmer’s market, and the streets were blocked off with vendors, live music, food, and entertainment. The streets were packed with people enjoying the great weather that day. There was no worry of a pandemic. People were enjoying themselves normally, something we hadn’t experienced in several months back home. Zagreb was a great introduction to our time abroad; we likened it to the New York City of Croatia.

Our family loves beaches and the ocean, one of the draws for us to Croatia. So next on our journey was Split. We rented a car and made the 4-hour drive from Zagreb to the coast. We rented another apartment within a 5-minute walk to Bacvice beach. The weather was still warm and sunny, and we enjoyed our first dip in the Adriatic Sea. The water is a little saltier than the beaches we’d been to around the US, but the water was so clear! Some of the clearest water we have ever swum in. We enjoyed several beach days in Split. We could literally dine in a beachside café and then run and jump off the promenade into the sea. We saw the locals do this, so of course, the kids and I had to do the same! Everyone is drawn to the water around the coast, wherever there was access, and whenever they could, it seemed like the locals would come down to swim and enjoy the sea. We definitely did. Our kids felt very comfortable in the water; the beaches were set up nicely with roped off areas for swimming, clear warm water, and no threats from sharks, jellyfish, etc. One difference with the beaches in Croatia is that most beaches are made of little pebbles, which can be tough on the feet, so the kids always wore water shoes.

The other draw to Split was the old town and Diocletian’s Palace. We walked the 1700-year-old streets and were in awe at the preserved architecture and art around the old city mixed with the modern-day shops and restaurants. We all learned about the Roman Emperor Diocletian and how Rome influenced this region.

After several days in Split, we headed to the island of Brac and the town of Bol. We immediately fell in love with this charming little island town an hour ferry ride from Split. We could walk along the coastal promenade to some of Croatia’s best beaches from the center of town! We visited Zlatni Rat (Golden Horn), the most popular beach in Croatia. We were amazed at the beauty along the coast. It reminded us of the Big Island of Hawaii, with its laid-back vibe, amazing coastline, and small-town feel. We enjoyed walking to and exploring a new beach every day. Our 3-day stay here turned into nine days, and we really felt like this was a home away from home. Unfortunately, the season was coming to an end. With the lack of tourism due to the pandemic, local businesses and restaurants began closing, which was fine for us because we enjoyed cooking and dinners in our apartment. However, we wanted to continue to some other destinations before they shut down as well. We all agreed that Bol was a place we could all come back to and live for a while.

After Bol, we took a local boat taxi on a 30-minute ride across the sea to the popular island of Hvar. We stayed in Hvar town, another small town with a coastline promenade, harbor, and old fortress looking down from above. The draw here is the nightlife, the several tiny surrounding islands, and the beautiful beaches and coastline. However, due to the pandemic, most of the beach clubs and restaurants were completely shut down. It was disheartening to see businesses and restaurants that should have been packed with tourists vacant and empty. Several were still open but soon closing for the lack of business. But even more so, the locals were happy to see us and were very accommodating.

Everyone told us that while we were in Hvar, if we didn’t rent a boat and visit the surrounding islands, it was like going to Paris and not seeing the Eiffel Tower. So, on a sunny morning, I spoke to a local with a boat who told us to meet him a few hours later at the harbor. Details were a little vague due to the language barrier. Still, we were all excited to go on an amazing sail around the islands! When we showed up, to our surprise, he had only a small wooden boat slightly larger than a dingy with a single outboard motor! I chuckled but was up for the adventure. Brooke was thinking differently and wondered, is this the boat that is going to take us to the larger boat? Haha! We all expected something grander, maybe a sailboat or big catamaran, but this turned into another memorable experience. So, after we boarded the little wooden boat, Pero gave me some quick instructions, and a map pointed at another island off in the distance and said, “have fun, see you at the end of the day!” That was it! Pero left us with his boat and went on his way. We were off to charter these islands we knew nothing about all by ourselves! I designated Parker as my first mate, and we motored out of the harbor and across the Adriatic in our little boat. We waved a little sheepishly as we passed the large sailboats, catamarans, and one of the biggest yachts we had ever seen. Fortunately, we were able to navigate well enough and had an amazing day visiting two different islands. We pulled into one harbor, tied up our boat on the dock, had lunch at a café on the beach, and then went for a swim in one of the calmest, clearest beaches we had ever been to. And we were the only ones there! We motored back at the end of the day through some excitingly choppy water but made it back successfully. That day turned out to be one of the most memorable experiences we have had in Croatia!

After a short four days in Hvar, we packed up again and took the last ferry of the season to Dubrovnik! It was a scenic 3-hour ferry ride through more of the islands off the coast of Croatia. We rented an apartment inside the walls of the old town Dubrovnik and couldn’t be happier with the location. We were in the heart of the old town, surrounded by all the history and culture outside our door. Walking through the narrow streets and alleys gave us the true feeling that we were living within an old fortified city. Our days in Dubrovnik were spent visiting museums, art galleries and learning about the history of the old city. It was surprising to all of us that only 30 years ago, when Brooke and I were in high school, the city was under attack by the Serbs as Yugoslavia fell. We learned more about the details of the attack on the city and the battle in the war museum. The pictures of the city streets burning, buildings, and ancient roman structures all around Dubrovnik being shelled by mortars was surreal. Especially since we were now walking those same streets and by those same buildings which looked like nothing had ever happened to them. Parker loves history. Learning about the rise of Croatia post-Yugoslavia from the communist rule was very interesting for him, even more so while presently residing here. This was fascinating for all of us, standing in a former battle zone, which today flourished with pristine streets, modern shops, Michelin-rated restaurants, and Game of Thrones sets around almost every corner. We took in everything around Dubrovnik that we could, beaches, of course, cable car rides up to Srd Hill for panoramic views and a trip to Lokrum island just off the coast.

Croatia is one of the safest and welcoming countries we’ve traveled to. We walked almost everywhere, day and night. Croatians are very friendly and trusting of friends and strangers. Kids played in the streets every day, walked to and from school on their own, and hung out in parks with friends. This was good for Parker and McKenzie to see and experience, because unfortunately, back at home, it seems that those everyday experiences for my kids are fading. We have a pretty tight leash on our kids back at home, barely letting them out of our sight, driving them to and from school mostly, and always watching and checking on where they are, even its in our own safe neighborhood.

Additionally, life has been very sheltered for the last few months back home due to the pandemic. However, in Croatia, we could live our lives cautiously, at an almost pre-pandemic state. For example, Parker likes to bike ride every morning back home around a trail in our neighborhood. We had been in the charming island town of Bol a couple of days, and we were comfortable with him renting a bike to ride around by himself. When we rented the bike, the shop owner was very relaxed and let us take the bike for five days without a deposit or payment upfront; he simply said, just pay me when you bring it back! We queried about a bike lock to secure the bike at night, and the owner chuckled and told us it wasn’t needed there. All around town, people left their bikes unlocked, keys in scooters, and everything was always left untouched by others. I made sure Parker was comfortable with his way around the small town of Bol and knew how to get back to our apartment. He carried his phone for emergencies, but every morning he went on his hour-long bike ride by himself as he did in our neighborhood back home. It was liberating and adventurous for Parker and never did Brooke and I think before we left the US, we’d be letting him do that in any foreign country. An experience he talks about now and will remember for a while.

Along with being welcoming and friendly, we have learned the people of Croatia are resilient and proud. Many of the places we traveled have been hit hard by the pandemic like the rest of the world. Restaurants, tourist attractions, and shops are empty. Yet every day, we would see the shops and restaurants open and set up their place settings on all their tables in hopes of patrons. Everywhere we went, the customer service was great, from the cab driver, Airbnb hosts, waiters, etc. everyone was proud to be at work and proud of their country. We’ve learned a lot about the history, culture, customs and have seen firsthand how another country is living and moving forward with positivity during this pandemic. We loved our time in Croatia and have all developed a deep fondness for the country.

About us


Matthew – 45 years old. Born in Honolulu, Hawaii. My father was in the Air Force, so we moved around quite a bit when growing up. We lived mostly around the US, but we also lived for 3 years in Australia. I was used to traveling from an early age and have continued to enjoy traveling throughout my life. I went to college in Arizona, where I met Brooke one summer. Post-college, I entered the Air Force and went to flight school. I was a fighter pilot in the Air Force and flew F-16’s for 20 years. I served during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in the early 2000s. In the last 10 years in the military, I was in the reserves where I worked part-time as an F-16 instructor pilot. I retired from the military reserves in 2018. While in the military reserves, I got hired on to a major U.S. airline in 2007. I’ve been with the airline for 13 years and am currently a Captain. Our industry has been crushed by the pandemic, and many of my peers at other airlines are being furloughed and without jobs. I have enjoyed traveling my whole life since I was a child and throughout my military and commercial pilot career. I am very grateful for this opportunity in such unprecedented times!

Brooke – 40 years old. Grew up in Prescott, Arizona. She took many trips as a child and has always loved to travel as well. She went to college in Arizona, and post-college worked as an event planner until our son was born. Today, she enjoys volunteering at school and raising our two kids as a full-time mother. We have traveled together around the US, Korea, Thailand, New Zealand, France, and Costa Rica. We take frequent trips back to Hawaii to visit my family. Brooke loves adventure and experiencing new places also. Brooke is an avid kayaker and skier.

Parker – 13 years old. Born in Phoenix. Loves the outdoors, biking, camping, theatre, and playing video games with friends. He has recently developed a growing interest in history.

McKenzie – 11 years old. Born in Phoenix. Loves dance, theatre, gymnastics, and acting. Also looks forward to outdoor activities such as camping and kayaking. A complete lover of dogs, cats, and all animals!

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