When the former Yugoslavia started to come unglued in the early 1990s, Slovenia was the first one out the door. They hit the ground running and have never looked back.

Even when it was still part of Yugoslavia, Slovenia was the most prosperous of the "republics" and was already experimenting with democratic reforms and cultural and economic freedoms unheard of in other Communist countries. The population had a reputation for industriousness and the neat, well-tended farms in an Alpine setting reminded one more of Austria than the rest of Yugoslavia. In the late 1980s, as Slobodan Milošović was using Serbian nationalism to obtain ever-increasing power for himself and Serbia, Slovenia quietly set the stage for independence. It secretly amassed an arsenal of weapons. On December 23, 1990, 88% of the population voted in favor of independence and secession from Yugoslavia. Six months later, on June 25, 1991, the small nation formally declared itself independent. Two days later, war erupted with the Yugoslav People's Army. But it was over almost before it began. The Slovenes proved to be a well-armed, well-organized and formidable adversary. Milošović had no appetite for waging war to retain a country where less than 2% of the population were ethnic Serbs (as opposed to Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia where he encouraged ethnic Serb populations to carve out areas for themselves). Ten days and 67 deaths later, the war was over and Slovenia was soon recognized by others as an independent nation.

Since independence, Slovenia has been a continuing success story. Tourism rapidly developed – though, surprisingly, many people still don't seem to know about this gem of a country – as did the rest of the economy. In 2004, Slovenia joined NATO and was admitted to the European Union, the only one of the ten new members to have an economy that already permitted it to join in the common currency (although it did not actually go on the Euro until January 1, 2007).

For the traveler, Slovenia is a wonderful blend of Alpine scenery, Austrian efficiency and Italian food. It's hard to beat that combination! Ljubljana, the capital, is a small but wonderful city, with a scenic old town, grand Baroque churches and a lively area of restaurants, outdoor cafés and shops along the river. The northwest part of the country is set in the spectacular Julian Alps, and Bled and its beautiful lake were already a popular resort area for European aristocracy more than a century ago.

Southwest of Ljubljana lies the Karst (Kras) region, the highlight of which is surely the Škocjan Caves, a monumental network of underground caves that is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. I am not typically one to seek out caves, but I am glad I saw these – they are truly unbelievable (though, unfortunately, photography is not permitted inside so there are no photos here of the caves' grandeur). Slovenia even has a short coastline on the Adriatic Sea, but I didn't have time to see this part of the country.

Many people I talk to don't realize that Slovenia is an independent country or that it is not some sort of backward or war-torn area. Others seem to confuse it with Slovakia. Perhaps Slovenia does have something of an identity crisis, but it won't last much longer. Nearby Austrians and Italians, plus younger travelers from around Europe, have already discovered the country's charms. It won't be long before the rest of world catches up!