My father used to tell me that he grew up in a fairyland, a place where dolphins frolicked in clear aqua seas, where children played freely on cobblestoned streets, where cypresses and olive trees tufted thousands of tiny islands. It was only when he took me, at the age of 10, to Croatia's Dalmatian coast that I discovered he was talking about a real place. The islands of his youth had barely changed since he emigrated to America in 1964. I remember drawing water from the well to heat for my bath, and picking limes with my grandmother in the garden, using her skirt as a basket.
I've been back several times, and recently returned to get an adult perspective on my recollections—and my father's. I made my base the island of Pag, our ancestral home, and took day trips by boat throughout the Kvarner gulf, essentially the northern third of Croatia's Adriatic coast. The region still seems preserved in amber, a place belonging to a simpler, quieter era.
The landscape of Pag is like the surface of the moon. Its east side, made up of bleached and porous white stone, is virtually devoid of animal or plant life. As a child, my father would clamber over this eerie terrain to watch the sun rise from behind the Velebit mountains on the mainland, creating a kaleidoscope of colors. I do the same on my trips back.
Pag is an irregularly shaped island about 39 miles long; over the millennia the Adriatic has carved its perimeter into dozens of caves, grottoes, and tiny beaches, some accessible only by boat. I love to swim in the hundreds of uninhabited inlets near Metajna, a town on the eastern part of the island. The water is turquoise, and sea horses play in the tall sea grass: it's like bathing in a meadow. Just past the town is a konoba—a small family restaurant serving grilled seafood and meat—called Kanjon. A father and his sons built it entirely by hand, from the wood furniture to the steps that lead down to the sea. Nearby is Caska, one of Pag's first villages, founded in Roman times. An earthquake sank most of it about 900 years ago, but you can still see its watery remains, and for the past 50 years the sea has been graciously returning some of the ancient wall to the shore. There's a hip konoba on the beach called 3 Suns, whose proprietor, Davor Skunca, speaks perfect English and plays tapes of everything from Lou Reed to Ella Fitzgerald, with Croatian folk music to fill in any gaps.
The town of Pag was built in 1443 as a fortified settlement for the Venetians, who had muscled in to take over the island's lucrative salt trade. The center is a tight grid of streets surrounding a marble-paved square. In summer, the outdoor cafés come to life and old ladies in dark dresses sit in the alleys outside their houses, making traditional Pag lace (paski cipka) on black cylinders. Pag is also known for its sheep's-milk cheese, paski sir, which owes its sharp yet delicate flavor to the sage that grows all over the island, seasoned by salt breezes.
Novalja, where my family still lives, is a popular town for young people, and in July and August it hums virtually around the clock. Outdoor cafés pepper the shoreline, serving Dalmatian and Istrian cuisine: grilled fish, shellfish, and lamb cooked with pungent olive oil, garlic, onions, tomatoes, white wine, and vodka.