More than 1,000 idyllic islands line this stunning stretch of Adriatic coast
May 16, 2004
The Sunday Times
More than 1,000 idyllic islands line this stunning stretch of Adriatic coast — which one is right for your summer escape? Andrew Thomas presents the best
Picture this: you’re sipping a cappuccino on the sunbaked wooden deck of a ferry steaming between idyllic islands. A pair of dolphins chase at the stern, and two yachts — their blue and white sails puffed out pompously — race towards your wash. Otherwise, the water is as smooth as a satin sheet. The Seychelles? Southeast Asia? Absolutely not. The ship is called Dubrovnik, and this is island- hopping Croatian-style.
Croatia has attracted all manner of tags and accolades recently, from “the new Greece” to “the post-war paradise”. Believe the hype. The country’s islands are about to hit the big time — again. Before war tore up the Balkans, Yugoslavia welcomed more Brits and Irish than anywhere except Spain. When the country split, Croatia won the lion’s share of the coast, and today, tourism is its most important industry. About 150,000 of us holidayed there in 2003, and this year there will be more direct flights from Britain than ever before.
Aside from Dubrovnik, it’s the islands that people come for: 1,185 of them in all, speckling the Adriatic coastline like green ink flicked across a turquoise page. Just 66 are inhabited. There are three main clusters: the northern Kvarner group, including Krk, Cres and Rab; the central islands, notably the Kornati archipelago; and the popular, easy-access southern Dalmatian group between Split and Dubrovnik.
While harder to pigeonhole than others in the Med, the islands are starting to develop their own characters. Here is our choice of 10 of the best.
Unless otherwise stated, all package prices are per person, based on two sharing, and include flights from London. A wide range of regional departures is available — for further details, see Getting to your island or ask your tour operator
The activity island After Goran Ivanisevic won Wimbledon in 2001, 300,000 Croatians turned out to welcome him home. Even today, a mere mention of the former champion’s name elicits a wistful look from his countrymen. Tennis is big in Croatia, and on Brac, a hive of offshore activity holidays, and Goran’s summer home, it is biggest of all.
A largish, oval island, Brac has a pine-fringed coast and an arid interior. Farming has always been hard here, and for many years the island’s biggest export was its white stone: Washington’s White House was one beneficiary.
People visit Brac, though, not for its rock-strewn interior, but for its wonderfully accessible coast. Goran chose the island because it is close to his home town of Split — and with hourly ferries from there and regular flights from Zagreb, Brac is the best-connected of all the central Dalmatian islands. It’s hugely popular with weekending Croats in search of a quick burst of sporting R&R. Given the island’s popularity with mainland city-dwellers — people who like other people — it is unsurprising that a single town has become the focal point for Brac’s fun. Bol is on Brac’s southern shore and offers plenty of sporting diversions.
Every May, the town’s tennis centre hosts a pre-Wimbledon tournament; and at other times, its 22 clay courts are open for hire. “Centre court” costs £6 an hour — then you just need to find 2,000 friends to cheer from the stands (for free).
Bol is also a popular windsurfing centre: reliable breezes mean the island attracts surfers from across Europe. Four-day courses with Orca-Sport (00 385-98 286600, www.orca-sport.com) cost £75. Diving, too, is an attraction — there are some excellent caves close to shore (21 635367, www.nautic-center-bol.com).
Brac is the highest island in the Croatian Adriatic, and a two-hour uphill climb will bring you to the Vidova Gora peak, with stunning views back towards the mainland and south over Hvar and Vis.
King of coves here is the postcard- perfect Zlatni Rat, a mile from the centre of Bol. A spit of land juts into the sea like a curving horn, and there’s a double- triangle wedge of trees and pebble-beach. Zlatni Rat gets packed in summer, but remains the place to relax after a day living life to the max.
Staying: Hotel Kastil (21 635995, www.kastil.hr; doubles from £36) has lovely rooms, all with sea views. Or to book rooms in guesthouses and private homes, try Bol Tours (21 635694, www.bondtours.com)
Eating: Jandranka (21 635434, £9pp) is good for seafood and exceptionally friendly service. Or try the consistently popular Konoba Gust (21 635911, £14).
Nightlife: Faces nightclub (21 321006), on the hill above town, is owned by a famous Croatian footballer and each night hosts 2,000 hedonists dancing alfresco.
Sample package: Bond Tours (01372 745300, www.bondtours.com) has a week at the Hotel Kastil, half-board, from £399.
The sandy island Sand is in short supply in Croatia. Most beaches are pebble, shingle or — in extreme cases — concrete. Coming across the real deal, as you do on Rab, is quite a thrill.
This island is shaped like a lobster, and its long, barren “body” is a desolate place, whipped by the bura wind and almost devoid of life. The island’s west-facing head and claws, though, more than make up for it. It is here, in the most sheltered part of the island, that you’ll find Rab’s greenery, its most attractive town and that precious sand.
The beaches to head for are those around San Marino, on the Lopar peninsula. Otherwise known as “Paradise Beach” — yes, sand is that unusual — the main bay is just about big enough to cope with the summer crowds.
Beyond the beach lies the island’s main settlement, Rab town, and it is one of the Adriatic’s best. Its Great Bell Tower looks like the crow’s-nest of a grounded ocean liner, while the medieval town is crammed onto the deck below — all romanesque towers, shuttered houses and streets so worn they shine. Rab town occupies a peninsula: on the port side is a busy marina; on the starboard, an urban beach. Altogether it’s an exquisite place: think San Gimignano overlooking Mon-aco harbour.
The town is also the place to bag a boat trip (£15). At 9.30am, vessels leave the marina, taking tourists to otherwise inaccessible coves or to visit Goli Otok — once a prison island for those who fell out of favour with Tito’s regime.
Staying: the best hotel in town is Hotel Istra (00 385-51 724276), overlooking the marina: £30pp, B&B. The Dragica Pansion (51 775420), set just back from the beach on the Lopar peninsula, is also a good choice: £20, B&B. For private rooms on the island, try Katurbo (51 724495, www.katurbo.hr)
Eating: for seafood — especially mussels — you’ll struggle to beat Labarint (£15 for two courses, including wine).
Nightlife: for sundowners, it has to be the Banova Vila bar, on Rab town’s western promenade. It even has its own water-polo court just offshore.
Sample package: Hidden Croatia (020 7736 6066, www.hiddencroatia.com) has a week, half-board, at the Padova Hotel in Rab town from £429 in July.
The flashy island Most ports smell of fish. Hvar’s smells of lavender. This is where the rich and beautiful come to play and the rest of the world comes to watch. Approaching from the water, the island is like a long and especially creamy cake, topped by a confection of rippled hills. Once ashore, it’s the colours that hit you.
Most of the year, Hvar is covered in verdant greens — heathers and firs — but in spring and early summer they give way to the rich purple lavender for which the island is famed. With beauty comes success. Hvar town, a renaissance settlement that is easily the island’s most attractive base, is packed in summer. Increasingly, though, that’s the appeal: it’s the crowds that people come here to see. Every other man wears the uniform of the off-duty movie star: deep tan, white shirt and shades. Every other woman has a tight bikini and a bandanna. And if you’re not wearing Armani, you may well be an Armani: Giorgio visited last year.
The town even has a dedicated mooring — a catwalk, really — for the super-yachts. Boats with names like Cool Runnings and Star Rising are there to be ogled, their cleats twinkling seductively.
The best beaches are on the Pakleni Otoci islands, just offshore. Those without their own clipper can either take a water taxi (£3) or hire a small motorboat for a day (£35). There are lovely beaches on the islands of Marinkovac and Sveti Klement, too.
Staying: arriving by yacht, you can moor either on the town catwalk or in the marina at Palmizana, on the nearby island of Sveti Klement. Even without your own boat, Palmizana is a good option. Meneghello Guesthouse (00 385-21 717270, www.palmizana.hr) has lovely stone cottages overlooking a sandy bay (£25pp per night). A water taxi shuttles back and forth to Hvar, so you needn’t miss out on the nightlife.
In Hvar town, private rooms are the best option. The Fontana agency (21 742133, www.happyhvar.com) will reserve one for you.
Eating: Pape’s has a terrace that looks out over the harbour, and serves superb langoustines. Or try Palaca Paladini (21 742104), set in a garden of orange trees and serving great fish and a dish called “vegetarian pleasure” — which it really is. Both restaurants will set you back about £15pp, with wine.
Nightlife: Carpe Diem, right on the harbour, is the place to be seen. By day it is frequented by the kind of people who can make reading a paper look cool; at night, the bar is transformed by a heaving throng of cocktail- swigging yachties.
Sample package: Bond Tours (01372 745300, www.bondtours.com) has a week in the Hotel Palace in Hvar town from £499.
The romantic island Locals claim that Marco Polo came from their island. It’s clearly rubbish. If the explorer had been born on Korcula, he would never have left. Thirty miles long but never more than five miles wide, Korcula is similar in size to nearby Hvar, and yet the temperaments of the two islands could not be more different. People go to Hvar to party and show off; couples come to Korcula to hide away.
The island is one to fall in love with and on. Korcula town — a mass of Venetian streets all leading to the cathedral that tops the town — is stunning. It’s a mini Dubrovnik, all towers, bells and city walls. Approaching from the sea, it’s love at first sight.
Outside the town, two features mark Korcula apart: the hills and valleys of the interior, and the coves. The cliffs of the island’s southern coast have more indents than a magician’s saw.
The only sandy beaches are at Lumbarda, on the island’s eastern tip. For lovers, though, a better option is to hire a scooter (£18 a day) and head for one of the secluded bays on the southern side of the island. Pupnatska Luka — a horseshoe-shaped bay backed by forests and cliffs — is as romantic as Croatia gets.
Staying: Hotel Korcula (00 385-20 711078, £60-£80 for a double) is a good bet and gets the evening sun. In Pupnatska Luka, Sime Unkovic (20 717038) has three simple rooms (£10pp).
Eating: in Korcula town, Planjak (20 711015), by the port, has a large outdoor area and excellent seafood at good prices (£8pp). Adio Mare (20 711253), near the cathedral square, is pricey but does good meat and fish (£15pp).
Nightlife: Buffet Massimo bar has taken over three levels of an ancient defensive tower at the tip of the Korcula town peninsula. A pulley system whizzes cocktails to the roof terrace.
Sample package: Holiday Options (0870 420 8386, www.holidayoptions.co.uk) has a week staying in the Bon Repos Apartments in Korcula town from £339, including boat transfers from Dubrovnik.
The untouched island Mljet is an island for the senses — it looks, smells and sounds beautiful and feels like one of the most tranquil places on earth. With more than two-thirds of the island covered with forests, Mljet is probably the greenest of all the Croatian islands. It is certainly the least developed of those covered in this survey; most roads are dirt tracks and tourism remains a minor industry.
The most attractive area is the national park encompassing the entire western flank of the island. There, in the midst of a hilly forest are two saltwater lakes — Malo and Veliko Jezero. In the middle of Veliko is a tiny island within an island, itself home to a 12th-century Benedictine monastery. Like Russian dolls, Mljet is one delight after another.
The island looks like the sort of place that should be absolutely silent. It isn’t, thanks to the clicking of cicadas. As for the smell, the scent of pine in the forests is so strong that you miss it on returning to the sea.
Most people visit Mljet on a day trip from Dubrovnik (an hour and a half away) or Korcula. That’s time enough for a taste of the island — a kayak paddle across to the monastery or a cycle around one of the lakes (£2 an hour for either) — but to really appreciate Mljet, it’s worth staying. When the day-trippers leave, the island is at peace.
Staying: Mljet’s only hotel, the friendly Hotel Odisej (00 385- 20 744022, www.hotelodisej.hr), is in Pomena, which overlooks a beautiful bay on the island’s western tip (£30-£45pp in high season). Otherwise, there are private rooms in the hamlets of Polace, the main harbour for the park, and, right opposite the monastery, Babine Kuce. Call the Mljet tourist office (20 744086) to reserve one.
Eating: in Babine Kuce, and right on the shore of Veliko Jezero, Mali Rey has a tank from which you select your own fish.
Sample package: Holiday Options (0870 420 8386, www.holidayoptions.co.uk) has a week, half-board, at the Hotel Odisej from £339, including transfers from Dubrovnik.
The family island As an all-round island — water slides and beach for the kids, sunshine and good wine for the parents — Krk is hard to beat. Because it is the only island that you can fly to direct from the UK (Rijeka airport is actually on Krk) and is linked to the mainland by a bridge, it’s also the easiest to reach.
The largest of Croatia’s islands, Krk can be broadly divided into two. The northern and western parts of the island are high, barren and windswept. The sheltered areas nearest the southern coast have the island’s forests and the best of its beaches.
Baska, a well-developed sweep of beach on Krk’s southern shore, is the best base. There are activities galore — with its shops, ice cream and watersports, it’s the closest that anywhere on a Croatian island feels to a west European resort.
Staying: private rooms and apartments in Baska can be arranged through a local agency (ww.tz-baska.hr, 00 385-51 656801). Hotel Corinthia (51 656111) is a sprawling place, but good value at £30pp in high season.
Eating: in Vrbnik, Nada (51 857065) serves good local food and has a clifftop bar terrace that almost topples into the sea.
Nightlife: there’s not much to choose between the bars along the front in Baska — but there are plenty of them. Malinska, on the island’s north coast, has some pleasant places alongside a pretty harbour.
Sample package: Hidden Croatia (020 7736 6066, www.hiddencroatia.com) has a week in a choice of self-catering accommodation from £330 in July, including transfers.
The laid-back island On Vis town’s harbourside, an unnamed restaurant sells fish. Just fish, wine and bread, unadorned by potatoes, salad or any other frippery. It’s simple food on a simple island.
Shaped like an arrowhead, with a high, rugged and green interior and a craggy coast, Vis, the furthest inhabited island from the Croatian mainland, has a laid-back air and an infectious charm. During the second world war, the island’s position — a quarter of the way to Italy — meant it was a site of great strategic importance. Tito directed his anti-Nazi campaign from the island, and key members of the British high command came to Vis for secret talks and skinny dips. Sixty years on, the cave from which Tito directed operations is the only evidence of the island’s former fame.
After the war, Tito left and most islanders followed suit — all over Vis there are shells of buildings, bombed by sheer neglect. The whole island has an eerie but bewitching otherness to it. With deserted bays — Stoncica in the northeast is exquisite — and some good hilly walks, it’s an island for those really wanting to get away from it all. Except, that is, in August, when it’s invaded by Italians and best avoided by you.
Staying: for rooms and apartments in Vis town or quieter Komiza, try Darlic Travel (00 385-21 717205, www.darlic-travel.hr). Unusually, it has details of whole-house rentals — many set in their own bays. The best hotel in Vis town is Hotel Paula (21 711362, www.hinet.hr/paula-hotel). Its premier suite, with private Jacuzzi and roof terrace, costs from £60.
Eating: the unnamed fish buffet restaurant is right next to the Ionios agency on the harbourfront in Vis town. In Komiza, Jastozera is famous for lobster, but pricey (£20pp).
Nightlife: Peronospora Blues, at the eastern end of Vis town, is a funky place with art on the walls and chairs made of stone.
Sample package: Croatian Affair (020 7385 7111, www.croatianaffair.com) has a week, B&B, at Hotel Paula from £515.
The island for naturists and naturalists Two types travel to Cres (pronounced “Sir-ress”): those keen to see flora and fauna laid bare, and those wanting to bare all themselves. It is the cliffs that set this very long and relatively thin island apart: at the northern end, it all but topples into the sea; further south, near where a small bridge joins it to the less interesting island of Losinj, the landscape is flatter and more wooded.
The naturalists come for the vultures. Huge, white-headed, majestic birds, griffon vultures are a common sight thanks to the efforts of the Caput Insulae Ecological Centre in the hilltown of Beli (00 385-51 840 525, www.caput-insulae.com; free). Take a clifftop walk, or drive down the high road that swings between the east and west of the island, and you’re likely to see groups of them, ominously circling overhead.
The whole of Cres has a wild feel. Trek around the dramatic settlement of Lubenice for a landscape like Pembrokeshire’s. The beach directly below — a 45-minute walk down, an hour-long clamber back up — has the clear water and aquatic life of an aquarium.
Further south is one of the Croatian islands’ biggest nudist camps. Everything’s the same, but totally different. Nobody has anything on.
Staying: if naturism is your bag, you can camp at Baldarin (51 235646), or near the other nudist beach just outside Cres town (Camp Kovacine: 51 571423). Otherwise, rooms and apartments are available in town through Cres Anka Agency (51 571161), which also handles reservations for the lovely, non-nudist beachside camp site near the fishing village of Valun.
Eating: after trekking to see vultures, you’ll appreciate the grilled fish and meat at Gostionica Beli (51 840515; £15pp).
Nightlife: Cres town is good for a low-key drink — bars encircle the small harbour.
Sample package: Simply Croatia (020 8541 2214, www.simply-travel.com) has a week, self-catering, at Marija’s Apartments in Cres town from £460pp.
The surreal island Riding a bike while being chased through a safari park by two ostriches and a donkey may not sound like a barrel of laughs, but it certainly ranks as one of the stranger experiences the Croatian islands have to offer. Veli Brijun, the largest of the islands in the Brijuni National Park, was for 30 years Tito’s home and official base. Today, it is one of the strangest places imaginable.
A small and very flat island, easily cycled around in a day, Brijuni has a very different feel from the others in our top 10. For a start, there’s the landscape. With well-tended parks full of deer and Roman ruins, the island feels like one of London’s Royal Parks would if it were dropped in the Adriatic. In the early 1900s, this familiarity made the island one of Europe’s premier resorts — James Joyce visited, as did Archduke Franz Ferdinand, shortly before he inadvertently started the first world war.
As headquarters of Marshal Tito’s communist regime, the island again found itself centre stage from the late 1940s. Today, the island is a holiday destination once more, but it’s a strange one. Where else boasts fossilised dinosaur footprints, giant empty greenhouses and a pigeon aviary? Even the photographic exhibition (behind Hotel Karmen; free) is a strange record of Tito’s eclectic guests — Fidel Castro, Ho Chi Minh, Gadaffi and the Queen.
There are more straight- forward pursuits: it has bicycle hire (£2.50 per hour), golf, tennis and pleasant shingle beaches, but it is for its history and sheer bizarreness that the island is worth the trip.
Staying: Veli Brijun can be visited as a day trip from the Istrian Peninsula (boats leave regularly from Fazana on the mainland; £1.50 return), or you can stay at one of the hotels on the quayside, such as Karmen (00 385-52 525807, www.np-brijuni.hr; doubles from £50). Or try Croatian Villas (020 8368 9978, www.croatianvillas.com).
Sample package: the island is more of a day-trip than a week-long destination. Plenty of big operators offer packages to the nearby Istrian Peninsula, from where it’s easy to get to Fazana. For example, Thomson Holidays (0870 550 2555, www.thomson.co.uk) has seven nights at the Istra Hotel in Rovinj, on the peninsula, for £409 in June.
The sailor’s islands Flat, barren, and all but lifeless — like giant, scrappy bits of white-and-green moon rock sprinkled in the sea — there is something serenely beautiful about the Kornati archipelago. If Armageddon could ever be a positive event, it would look and feel like Kornati.
Stark the Kornati archipelago may be, but with 147 islands — 87 of them in a national marine park covering just 30 square miles — the area is a sailor’s dream. In summer there is considerably more activity on the water than on the land.
Staying: landlubbers steer clear. You’re best off dropping anchor from your liveaboard yacht.
Sample package: Sunsail (0870 777 0313, www.sunsail.com) has a week on a 30ft yacht, sailing around the archipelago as part of a flotilla; from £840pp in June.
Andrew Thomas travelled as a guest of Hidden Croatia and the Croatian National Tourist Board
... and the winner is?
FOR SHEER beauty and tranquillity, Mljet is a close runner, but its lack of accommodation lets it down. Hvar, beautiful and buzzing, also makes the top three. But it’s Korcula that takes the honours. It’s got the lot: a lovely town and some stunning quiet bays, on an island easily accessible from either Split or Dubrovnik. Best of all, it’s midway between both the runners-up. Stay on Korcula and visit all three.
Getting to your island
There are more flights to Croatia this year than ever before, and prices have fallen considerably — many seats cost less than £100 outside high season. The choice of whether to go charter or scheduled largely depends on where you want to fly from and on what dates, as prices are similar for both.
Scheduled flights: Croatia Airlines (020 8563 0022, www.croatiaairlines.hr) flies from Gatwick to Dubrovnik, Pula and Split, from £200; from Manchester to Dubrovnik, Pula and Split, from £229; and from Heathrow to Zagreb and Rijeka, from £200. British Airways (0870 850 9850, www.ba.com) flies to Dubrovnik from Gatwick from £98. In Ireland, Aer Lingus (0818 365000, www.aerlingus.com) flies from Dublin, from €249.
Charter flights: Hidden Croatia (020 7736 6066, www.hiddencroatia.com) has flights from Stansted to Rijeka (July and August only), Split and Dubrovnik, from £120. Holiday Options (0870 420 8386, www.holidayoptions.co.uk) has flights from Norwich, Manchester, Bristol, Glasgow and Birmingham, from £99; and Thomson Holidays (0870 550 2555, www.thomson.co.uk) has seat-only flights from Manchester (from £189) and Gatwick (from £159) to Pula. Or try Flightline (0800 541541, www.flightline.co.uk) or Charter Flight Centre (020 7854 8434, www.charterflights.co.uk).
The third way: the no-frills carriers haven’t reached Croatia yet, but an alternative is to fly to Italy first. For example, Ryanair (0871 246 0000, www.ryanair.com) flies from Stansted to Ancona (from £35), from where there are fast ferries or hydrofoils to Zadar, Split, Vis, Hvar and Korcula. Journey times are from 4hr 30min, and prices start at £60 return, booked through Viamare (020 7431 4560, www.viamare.com).
There are dozens of regular inter-island ferry services, which operate like local buses and are best enjoyed independently. Tickets can be bought at the harbour on the day — but get there early at the height of summer. The main operator is the state-run Jadrolinija: visit www.jadrolinija.hr for details.
The best jumping-off point for the islands is Split, with services at least twice daily to Brac, Hvar, Vis and Korcula; Dubrovnik is best for Mljet and other southern islands; while Zadar is the easiest port from which to reach Kornati. For foot passengers, the ferries are cheap — about £2-£6 for most journeys.
Tour operators can combine a week on the mainland with a week on an island. For example, Hidden Croatia (020 7736 6066, www.hiddencroatia.com) has one week, half-board, on Hvar and one on Brac from £699pp, including flights, transfers and ferry travel between the islands.
Another way to hop is on a flotilla holiday.
Sailing Holidays (020 8459 8787, www.sailingholidays.com) has a week’s sailing trip from £395pp (based on six sharing), calling at Vis, Korcula and Hvar, and including flights from Heathrow to Split and transfers. Or try Adriatic Holidays (01865 516577, www.adriaticholidaysonline.com), Neilson (0870 333 3356, www.neilson.co.uk), or Sunsail (0870 777 0313, www.sunsail.com).
TRAVELLING ON THE ISLANDS
There are reasonable bus services on all but Brijuni and the Kornati islands. Hiring a car is only useful on the northern islands of Cres, Krk and Rab. Holiday Autos (0870 400 0099, www.holidayautos.co.uk) has one week’s inclusive hire, picking up at Rijeka airport, from £176.
Contact the Croatian National Tourist Board on 020 8563 7979, or visit www.croatia.hr.