Take the route less travelled and explore some of Eastern Europe’s lesser-known Adriatic jewels. By Rob McFarland.
Given the attention lavished on celebrity hotspots Hvar and Vis, you’d be forgiven for thinking they’re the only islands worth visiting in Croatia. In fact, the country has more than 1000 scattered along its 1800 kilometres of coastline, including an archipelago in the Kvarner Bay region of the northern Adriatic. The obvious appeal of these lesser-known gems is that they attract fewer visitors and therefore offer a more authentic experience. One of the best ways to explore them is via an island-hopping bike trip with an operator such as UTracks or Butterfield & Robinson. Despite their proximity to one another, the islands all have intriguingly different personalities and attractions. Here are five of the best.
Thanks to its temperate climate and abundance of therapeutic herbs, Lošinj became a wellness retreat favoured by wealthy royals in the 19th century. It’s a legacy that has left its coastline peppered with imposing summer villas, some of which have been turned into upmarket resorts. With more than 250 kilometres of trails, it’s ideally suited for exploring by bicycle. A ride between its two pastel-hued fishing villages, Veli Lošinj and Mali Lošinj, passes idyllic coves.
This large and sparsely populated island has a rugged coastline of soaring cliffs, secluded coves and historic hilltop towns. Its northern half is covered with dense forest and is a good place to spot the island’s rare and endangered griffon vulture. The main settlements are Cres Town, which has an attractive café-lined fishing harbour, and the elevated medieval fort town of Lubenice.
Krk doesn’t have the picture-postcard appeal of some of its more attractive neighbours but it’s a popular starting point because of the toll bridge that links the island to the mainland. It has a scattering of good beaches (the one at Baška is the best) and historic churches. The impressive Krk Cathedral, parts of which date to the fifth century, is in Krk Town and the Church of St Lucy, just outside Baška, is where scholars discovered the 12th-century Baška tablet. It’s thought to be the oldest known document containing the name Croatia in the Croatian language.
This 22-kilometre-long island features pine-fringed beaches in the south and windswept karst cliffs in the north. The Lopar peninsula has the best beaches, while the town of Rab is a delightful maze of ancient stone streets dominated by four elegant belltowers. Be sure to sample Rabska torta, a citrusy almond cake first made as a gift for the pope in 1177; the original recipe remains a closely guarded secret.
Because of the bura, a bitterly cold north-easterly wind that comes whistling off the mainland, Pag’s interior is hauntingly barren. It’s hard to believe that anything could grow here but at the vast Olive Gardens of Lun there are about 80,000 olive trees, some more than 1000 years old. The island is also famous for paški sir, a crumbly, salty cheese made from sheep’s milk.