Islands have long been considered places of mystery and romance, little worlds apart, floating in an endless blue of sea and sky, where things are done differently. The Croatian islands are no exception and make for a truly blissful summer escape – each with its own identity, eccentricities and proud, hospitable locals keen to share their unique histories and traditions.
The islands offer an altogether slower pace of life, as well as translucent sea, laid-back (mainly pebble) beaches and wondrous sunsets. Historically, most of the islands came under Venetian rule (1420-1797), which had a profound influence on their architecture and cuisine. Venice used the noble port towns of Hvar, Korcula and Rab to service its galleys sailing East, bringing wealth, craftsmanship and a wider world view to these apparently remote enclaves.
So rather than limiting yourself to one island, why not try hopping between them? Over the past decade, in addition to the inexpensive Jadrolinija ferries, the islands have seen the addition of fast summer catamaran connections, as well as some lovely boutique hotels and restaurants serving contemporary fare based on Adriatic seafood and local, seasonal produce.
The best months to island-hop in Croatia are June and September, promising warm, sunny weather, ideal for hiking, cycling and swimming; as well as fewer crowds and slightly lower prices – though the country is a fantastic destination year round.
On top of that, the islands are big on adventure sports – whether you are a beginner or a seasoned thrill seeker – making them great places to try sea-kayaking, wind-surfing, scuba diving, mountain biking and hiking. Add to that a growing number of rustic agrotourism centres, offering a glimpse of rural life, with wine tours, olive oil tasting and home cooking, and you have a recipe for success.
Of course, you could spend months exploring and not do it all, but Croatia’s islands – well connected and punctuated by airports – are easy to break into manageable chunks. Choose just one of the steps for a long-weekend break, or connect them and build your trip into a week-long holiday.
As locals say, “pomalo” (take it easy) – island hopping is the superlative slow travel experience. Go with the flow.
Four nights: Rijeka – Krk – Rab
Day 1 (Krk)
Somewhat confusingly, Rijeka airport (rijeka-airport.hr) is, in fact, not in the mainland town but on the island of Krk itself (krk.hr), from which you’ll take a bus or taxi to Baska on Krk’s south coast (if you’re already on the mainland, take the bus from Rijeka to Baska – which runs three times daily, takes 2hr 10min and costs £10, arriva.com.hr).
With its long pebble beach curving round a deep bay, Baska (visitbaska.hr) is the nicest place to stay. From here you can walk the fascinating Baska Glagolitic Alphabet Trail (experiencekrk.com) through the Baska Valley, marked by 34 stone sculptures, each representing a letter in the Glagolitic alphabet – the oldest Slavic script, a predecessor of Cyrillic. Along the trail, in the Romanesque Church of St Lucy in Jurandvor, you can see a replica of the Baska Tablet, a 12th-century stone carved with Glagolitic script (the original is now in Zagreb). Afterwards, back in Baska, have a sunset swim before dinner.
The following day, head to Krk Town (tz-krk.hr), to see its 12th-century Romanesque Cathedral and the sturdy medieval Frankopan Castle. Have lunch at waterside Konoba Sime (facebook.com/KonobaSime), to taste the local delicacy, sweet pink succulent Kvarner shrimp. The owner is a fisherman who catches them himself, so they’re about as fresh as it gets. Try them as creamy shrimp soup, or with local surlice pasta, or cooked in olive oil, garlic, white wine, tomato and basil, as shrimp buzara. In fact, the island of Krk is a prime foodie destination – it hosts two annual food festivals celebrating seasonal specialities, one in spring and one in autumn.
Next, head to the tiny hilltown of Vrbnik, set amid lush vineyards, on Krk’s east coast. Vrbnik is renowned for its light white summery wine, Zlahtina, and its narrow alleys conceal plenty of places where you can taste it – try Wine House Ivan Katunar (kucavina-ivankatunar.com) or Nada (nada-vrbnik.hr).
Stay: Heritage Hotel Forza (00 385 99 322 0055; hotelforza.hr) in Baska has doubles from £210 per night in high season.
Day 3 (Rab)
From Valbiska on Krk, take the ferry to Lopar peninsular on Rab’s north coast (four ferries daily, jadrolinija.hr; 1hr 20min; £4), home to the long sandy Paradise Beach – much loved by families, with warm, shallow sea and peddle boats, jet skis and beach volley. There’s even an annual Sand Sculpture Festival in June.
But make medieval-walled Rab Town your base (rab-visit.com). Built on a small rocky peninsula, its four bell-towers create an iconic skyline. Exploration of its paved alleys and stone stairways reveals Romanesque churches and noble houses with Venetian-Gothic windows and internal courtyards hosting old-fashioned seafood restaurants. Scramble up the steep wooden ladders of the former-cathedral bell-tower to be rewarded by superb views over Rab’s terracotta rooftops, then call at Vilma (rabskatorta.com) to taste delicious Rabska torta, an almond-based cake created by Benedictine nuns to honour the Pope’s visit in 1177. At sunset, descend to the promenade below Rab’s south walls, for an aperitif at waterside Banova Villa (facebook.com/BanovaVillaBeachBa).
Next day, you might paddle round the extraordinary sandy coves of Lopar Peninsular with Sea Kayak Croatia (seakayak.hr), or hire a bike at the hotel and peddle through the Dundo holm-oak forests on Kalifront peninsular. If that doesn’t take your fancy, you might hike the Premuziceva path (allow two hours going up) from Rab Town up to rustic Restoran Kamenjak for panoramic views over the glistening Adriatic and a feast of local roast lamb. Before leaving, visit family-run eco-centre Natura Rab (natura-rab.hr) to buy organic sage honey with propolis and anti-aging immortelle face cream in Barbat.
Stay: Family-friendly Valamar Padova (00 385 52 465 000; valamar.com) has double rooms from £306 in high season.
Fly home: Return to Rijeka by ferry, which runs an early-morning catamaran from Krk Town back to Rijeka (jadrolinija.hr; 1hr 45min; £7).
Carry on: Take the afternoon catamaran from Rab Town to Novalja on Pag (jadrolinija.hr; 45 min; £5).
Two nights: Pag – Zadar – Split
Day 5: Pag
Otherworldly and ethereal, Pag is wild, rocky and windswept. Forgo Novalja and head for the main settlement, 15th-century Pag Town. For centuries, Pag’s considerable wealth was based on its saltpans – before refrigeration, fish and meat were preserved in salt, which was reputedly worth its weight in gold. Today, Solana Pag (solana-pag.hr) is still Croatia’s biggest salt producer, and plans to run guided tours of its vast saltpans (for information, contact the welcoming and efficient Pag Tourist Board via tzgpag.hr). Mineral-rich fleur de sel, harvested by hand from the saltpans, makes a fine gift to bring home.
Next, take a wander round car-free Pag Town, founded in 1443 and originally fortified with nine towers. It centres on a splendid main square overlooked by the Church of the Assumption, the Rector’s Palace and the splendid Pag Lace Gallery, well worth a visit, as – together with lace from Hvar and Lepoglav – Pag lace is on the Unesco list of Intangible Cultural Heritage. As the afternoon wears on, walk up to the earlier hillside settlement of Old Pag, largely dismantled in the 15th century and its stone used to build the new town, though its proud Romanesque church remains defiant.
For Croatians, Pag is synonymous with Paski sir, a delicious dry salty cheese made from the milk of Pag’s hardy sheep, which do well on its scanty pastures. Now PDO (protected designation of origin), the largest producer is the original co-operative, Paska Sirana (paskasirana.com) in Pag Town, where there’s a kiosk out front selling the cheese, though you’ll also find it on many local restaurant menus.
The following day, don good hiking boots and a small rucksack with plenty of water, and set out to hike Pag’s rocky trails, managed by Pag Outdoor (pag-outdoor.com). Leading through extraordinary limestone karst landscapes, often described as “moonlike” and speckled with wild sage, they take you to tumbledown churches, a lighthouse, a Byzantine fortress and several beaches. Views are sublime and outstandingly photogenic, and if you’re lucky you might spot Pag’s resilient sheep and rare griffon vultures. On return to town, dine at Konoba Bodulo, which serves authentic local fare in a vine-draped courtyard.
Fly home: Pag is joined to the mainland by a bridge, so next day you can take the local bus from Pag Town south to Zadar, then proceed from Zadar to Split, either by motorway or the scenic (but slow) coastal road.
Four nights: Brac – Hvar
Day 7 (Brac)
Bol is the absolute star here – it’s undeniably touristy, but with its spectacular beaches and excellent adventure sports facilities, everything it does, it does well. Begin with a stroll down the two-kilometre pine-shaded promenade to Zlatni Rat beach for a swim. Giving onto turquoise waters, this fine pebble spit changes shape, depending on the wind. It gets madly busy, but as the sun begins setting, many bathers pack up, leaving it enchantingly serene.
Next morning, head to Borak beach, close to Zlatni rat. Here you can either take a windsurfing class or hire a SUP (standup paddleboard) from Big Blue (bigbluesport.com). Bol’s extraordinary winds, ranging from the gentle levant in the morning, to the potentially gusty mistral in the afternoon, create conditions ideal for both surfing beginners and professionals, depending on the time of day.
Behind Bol rise the rugged heights of Vidova Gora, at 2552ft, the highest peak on all the Croatian islands. Big Blue also hires mountain bikes and e-bikes, so in the afternoon you can peddle to the peak for fantastic views down onto the Adriatic and surrounding islands.
Next morning, take a half-day trip to the 16th-century Blaca Hermitage. You’ll need to catch a boat down to Blaca bay, then hike up a 2km rocky canyon, to find this mysterious complex of old stone buildings, hidden from view from the sea. The monks took refuge from the Ottoman Turks here, living from farming and bee-keeping, and set up Brac’s first school. The last monk passed away in 1963.
While in Bol, art lovers should also pop into the Deskovic Gallery, near the harbour. It’s named after 20th-century sculptor Branislav Deskovic, who was born on Brac and sculpted animals in bronze. It also displays the works by local artists inspired by Dalmatia’s rugged landscapes and vibrant colours, such as Ignat Job.
Stay: Villa Giardino Heritage Hotel (00 385 21 635 900; villagiardinobol.com) in Bol has double rooms from £273 in high season.
Day 9 (Hvar)
The afternoon catamaran from Bol (jadrolinija.hr; 50 min; £12) delivers you to trendy Hvar Town (visithvar.hr) just as yachters begin mooring up to overnight on the palm-lined seafront promenade. With its elegant Venetian-era architecture, including a vast main square overlooked by a Baroque cathedral, and a proud hilltop castle, it really is pretty as a picture.
It’s also home to some of Croatia’s top hotels – fresh for summer 2022 are the recently-renovated Riva Marina Hvar, plus the new Beach Bay Hvar and Hotel Moeesy. Start with a swim and massage at Beach Club Hvar (beachhvar.com) in a turquoise bay, rimmed by a 1920’s white stone colonnade and day-bed four-posters (reservations essential) on wooden decks. After supper, watch a film below the stars at Hvar’s lovely open-air summer cinema, or drink cocktails at Ka Lavanda (kalavanda.com).
On your second day, catch the local bus to Stari Grad (visit-stari-grad.com). At first glance there’s little to see, but make the 20-minute walk to Hora Hvar (facebook.com/horahvar) agrotourism, and they’ll explain how today’s “field parcels” are still those demarcated by Ancient Greeks settlers in the fourth-century BC. Apparently 73 families arrived and divided the land into 73 plots – today the dry stone walls that define the fields follow the same boundaries, and the fertile red soil, rich in minerals and iron, produces the same crops. Have lunch here – taste Hora Hvar’s seasonal salad, homemade cheese and salami, delicious olive oil and Bogdanusa white wine, unique to Hvar.
Stay: Riva Marina Hvar Hotel (00 385 21 750 100; suncanihvar.com) has double rooms from £339 in high season.
Fly home: Return to Split with the Krilo catamaran (three daily) from Hvar Town to Split (krilo.hr; 50min; £14).
Two nights: Korcula
Day 11 (Korcula)
If you’re going to splash out on one ultra-luxurious hotel, Korcula Town (visitkorcula.eu) is the place to do it. Here, the Lesic Dimitri Palace has a Michelin-starred restaurant and five residences, with interiors inspired by the Silk Route travels of Marco Polo, who was reputedly born in Korcula. Wander the cobbled alleys and stone stairways of the old town, occupying a fortified peninsular, to see the Marco Polo House (currently under renovation but due to reopen in August 2022) and the 15th-century Cathedral with its ornately sculpted limestone portal and rose window.
If you’re lucky enough to be in Korcula on either a Monday or Thursday evening, reserve tickets for a 9pm performance of the Moreska, a spectacular mediaeval sword dance, telling the tale of two knights who compete for the hand of a fair maiden.
Next day, take a private guided “Swim & Wine” tour with Korcula Outdoor (korcula-outdoor.com) to learn about the island’s esteemed white varieties, Grk and Posip, with lunch at a local agrotourism included. Along the way, your guide will regale you with stories of Korcula’s history and you’ll swim in turquoise sea at a lesser visited south-coast beach.
Alternatively, go it alone and take the local bus across the island, through the fertile interior clad with vineyards, to Vela Luka (tzvelaluka.hr). Here, in the company of an archaeologist, you can visit Vela Spila (velaspila.hr), a spectacular cave inhabited since prehistoric times, and afterwards see the work-in-progress Luka Mosaic Path (facebook.com/lukamozaika), which curves around Vela Luka’s deep bay and claims to be the world’s longest mosaic footpath.
Stay: Lesic Dimitri Palace (00 385 20 715 560; ldpalace.com) has residences from £429 in high season.
Fly home: Proceed to Dubrovnik on the morning catamaran from Korcula Town (krilo.hr; 1hr 45min; £17).
Carry on: Catch the Krilo morning catamaran from Korčula Town to Pomena on Mljet (krilo.hr; 30min, £11).
Day 13 (Mljet )
Here you’re ideally located to explore the verdant pine forests and two interconnected turquoise salt-water lakes of Mljet National Park (np-mljet.hr). Hire a bike and cycle the full 5½-mile perimeter of the larger lake, stopping for a boat transfer to the tiny St Mary’s islet, capped by an abandoned 12th-century Benedictine Monastery and Romanesque church. Strict and insular, the Benedictine monks ruled the entire island from 1151 to 1808, subjecting locals to harsh feudal rule. They also prohibited the building of permanent settlements, and even now, Mljet, below, still has no proper towns.
The following day, join an organised boat trip to Odysseus cave, off Mljet’s south coast. According to hearsay, Homer’s fabled hero was seduced by the nymph Calypso, and held hostage here for seven years. Arriving from the sea, you can either enter the cave by a small boat or swim, passing through a (rather spooky) tunnel. The best time to visit is around noon, when the interior cavern is bathed in iridescent turquoise light. But beware of nymphs and mythical seafarers and don’t linger too long – tomorrow morning, after breakfast, the Krilo catamaran will whizz you from Pomena to Dubrovnik, concluding your epic island-hopping adventures.
Stay: Hotel Odisej (00 385 2030 0300; adriaticluxuryhotels.com) in Pomena has double rooms from £102 in high season.
Fly home: Take the late-afternoon catamaran from Polace to Dubrovnik (1hr 40min, £9; tp-line.hr).
For further information, visit the excellent Croatian National Tourist Board website at croatia.hr.
10 Dubrovnik highlights
Almost every island-hopper will be thinking about the possibility of adding on a stay in Dubrovnik. Don’t just use this exquisite Dalmatian city as a start or end point – stay for a while for an extraordinary city break.
Walk the city walls
It’s an obvious place to start, but you’d kick yourself if you missed the chance to walk the 1.75 mile-long medieval and Renaissance walls that encircle the Old Town. Get captivating glimpses of Dubrovnik daily life – tiny gardens, rooftop terraces, school playgrounds – as well as its sturdy stone towers and mesmerising views of the Adriatic.
The details: wallsofdubrovnik.com; adult admission £29.
Visit the Red History Museum
Mixing an element of kitsch with deadly seriousness about the reality of life in Tito’s Yugoslavia, the Red History Museum takes you on an interactive journey through the decades from 1945 to the 1980s, when Yugoslavia began to fall apart. It’s entertaining and thought-provoking, and the adjoining café and cultural space show how the neighbourhood of Gruz has become Dubrovnik’s trendiest in the past few years.
The details: redhistorymuseum.com; £6.
Take a hike to Park Orsula
You’ll get some of the best views of Dubrovnik from this clifftop park south of the Old Town. Hugging the hillside is an atmospheric stone amphitheatre, where summertime concerts take place from around the middle of June to the end of August. Time your hike – about 40 minutes from the Ploce Gate – for sunset and the vistas will be quite extraordinary.
Go to the beach
You don’t have to walk far to dive into the clear blue waters of the Adriatic. Just south of the Old Town is Banje beach, with fabulous views of the city walls and a restaurant and DJ sets if you want to join the night-time party. It’s quieter further south at Sveti Jakob beach (worth the 20-minute) hike, or hire a kayak from Sulić beach just beyond Pile Gate near Fort Lovrijenac. Strike out further north for the family-friendly Lapad Beach and the beaches along the Babin Kuk peninsula. Dubrovnik’s beaches are pebbly, so you might want to bring swimming shoes.
Get lost in the Old Town
Dubrovnik’s Unesco-listed Old Town is a marvel of marble car-free streets, narrow lanes and stepped alleyways blended with handsome Renaissance and baroque palaces. Stradun, the marble main thoroughfare, qualifies as one of the world’s most dazzling high streets, topped and tailed by the 14th-century Franciscan monastery and the 16th-century Sponza Palace. Catch a classical concert in the 15th-century gothic-Renaissance Rector’s Palace during the summertime Dubrovnik Festival, or visit the palace’s fascinating Cultural History Museum.
The details: dumus.hr, Rector’s Palace admission from £11.
Ride the Dubrovnik Cable Car
It’s hard to beat the views of Dubrovnik when you ride the cable car 405m to the top of Mount Srd. It takes only four minutes – and you’re very welcome to hike up the zigzagging path for about 50 minutes if you want to save the cash. However you reach the summit, you’ll have the Old Town’s terracotta rooftops to gaze upon, as well as the Adriatic coastline and surrounding mountains of the Dinaric Alps. Stop for a drink at the Panoramic restaurant before heading back down.
The details: dubrovnikcablecar.com, adult round trip from £22, one-way from £12.50.
Take a boat to Lokrum
This tiny island – less than a 15-minute boat ride from the Old Town’s port, and only about a mile long – is quite another world from the busy streets of Dubrovnik. Bring a picnic as you explore Lokrum’s Napoleonic fort, botanical garden, Benedictine monastery and pine-shaded paths past olive groves and the island’s resident peacocks. Have a swim in one of its rocky beaches or in the inland saltwater lagoon, and if you’re a Game of Thrones fan, you can sit in the actual Iron Throne used in the HBO series
The details: lokrum.hr, adult return boat fare from £22.
Go to market
If you’re staying in or near the Old Town, you’ll want to drop by the daily morning market in Gundulić Square beside the cathedral. But, just beside the ferry port at Gruž is Dubrovnik’s larger food market, with local fish, meat, fruit and veg – and in a handy spot to pick up picnic provisions if you’re taking a day trip to one of the nearby islands.
Visit War Photo Limited
This evocative, compelling gallery created by the New Zealander photojournalist Wade Goddard showcases the work of the world’s war photographers. It’s not just the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia that are displayed in this gallery just off the Stradun, but also of others in recent history.
The details: Warphotoltd.com, adult admission from £8.
Go to Fort Lovrijenac
If you’ve bought a ticket for the city walls, you’ll automatically get free entrance into the hulking 14th-century Fort Lovrijenac, which stands guard over the Pile Gate. Climb its 165 steps to snap one of the most popular views of Dubrovnik’s Old Town, and come in the summer for its annual production of Hamlet.
The details: tzdubrovnik.hr. Admission included with the city walls if used within three days. Otherwise from £6.
By Mary Novakovich