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.
West of Pag is the island of Losinj, whose main towns, Veli Losinj and Mali Losinj, suffer something of an identity crisis: veli means "big," but it's actually the smaller of the two; Mali (small) is more populous. Approaching Veli Losinj, I was struck by the joyous abundance of color. Tiny stucco buildings are lined up in rows like a rainbow of toy soldiers; even the sailboats in the harbor are painted playful yellows, peaches, pinks, and blues. Up close, the whimsical colors become even more riotous, each house competing with its neighbors.
Mali Losinj is busier, its buildings still colorful but more subdued. I visited on the day school let out for the summer, and got to watch the customary Croatian end-of-the-academic-year ritual: pushing your classmates into the sea. The kids laughed and splashed, schoolbooks bobbing around them like rubber ducks. Mali Losinj—well touristed in the summer months—contains a trove of villas built by sea captains in the late 19th century, when the town was at the peak of its prosperity. I climbed to the highest point, where my reward was an old white-brick church surrounded by a black-and-white-tiled patio and a perfect view of Mali Losinj and the Kvarner gulf beyond.
Rab, the main town of the island of the same name, reminds me of a miniaturized and bejeweled Dubrovnik, encased in the remains of a fourth-century stone fortress. It sits well above the Adriatic and has a multitude of Escheresque staircases that dissect the narrow cobbled streets. When I took a swim along the rocky shore, I could gaze back at the series of campaniles towering above me—Rab's trademark skyline. The four Romanesque bell towers line one street, Gornja Ulica, and date from the 12th to the 17th centuries.
Although Rab's waterfront has cafés and restaurants that cater to tourists, there's more authentic fare to be found off the beaten path. Riva Restaurant, a homey konoba, is built right into the old city wall, providing a quiet niche in which to enjoy the catch of the day—sardines when I visited. There is also the Pension Bratomil, a beautiful stone house overlooking the sea. After an elderly man there insisted that I looked familiar, we discovered that he knew my father and uncles. Nostalgia filled him with generosity, and he invited me back to his house for lunch.
Near the Istrian town of Pula—famous for its classical amphitheater, one of the best preserved in the world—is this group of 14 islands, now a national park. The Romans colonized the Brijuni Islands in 177 B.C., turning them into summer getaways for wealthy citizens. In 1893, an Austrian industrialist developed them as a resort. After World War II they became the official summer residence of Yugoslav president Tito and were closed to the public. It wasn't until 1998 that overnight guests were once again welcomed.
Veli Brijun, the main island, more closely resembles the Masai Mara than it does the rest of the Dalmatian coast. Deer, antelope, and the occasional zebra or peacock—gifts presented to Tito by other heads of state—roam its savanna-like plains. There are ruins at every turn, so you can take a swim, then dry off while sitting on a fallen Roman column. There are no security guards or floodlights, and after the last ferry leaves for the mainland, there's just you, history, a handful of hotels, and, fortunately, bicycles. I took one out to visit the remains of a Byzantine castle, guided by the full moon. Deer acted as the only guards, gazing curiously at the intruder.
I thought about castles, and history, and fairy tales. And I realized that when my father described his native country as a dreamland, he was being modest.
During July and August, peak season on the Adriatic, beaches are packed and cafés lively. Consider traveling in June or September, when hotels are less crowded.
Most of the islands in this region have simple accommodations—a few unassuming hotels, family-run inns, and rooms or apartments for rent. It's easy to base yourself in a central port town, such as Zadar or Pag, and take day trips to the other islands using scheduled ferries (which should be booked well in advance during high season) or private boats.
The Croatian National Tourist Board (800/829-4416; www.htz.hr) is a good resource for planning itineraries and researching accommodations.
Hotel Pagus 1 Ante Starcevica, Pag; 385-23/611-310, fax 385-23/611-101; doubles from $50. This 70-room hotel is directly on the beach, just off Pag town's promenade.
Pension Skunca Lunjski Put, Novalja; 385-53/661-584; doubles from $31. A 10-minute stroll from the center of Novalja, this guesthouse has three apartments, all with balconies. The proprietors (relatives of the author) make their own olive oil, wine, and grappa.
Hotel Loza 1 Loza Trg, Novalja; 385-53/661-313, fax 385-53/661-326; doubles from $47. You'll forgive the limited amenities at this old-fashioned property if you get a room with a view of the harbor.
Kanjon Metajna; 385-98/785-505; lunch for two $12. A 15-minute drive from Novalja (follow the hand-painted signs).
3 Suns Caska beach; 385-53/661-339; dinner for two $15. Davor Skunca's konoba; dinner at sunset is recommended.
Hotel Kredo 5 Promenade Dr. Alfred Edler von Malussi-Montsole, Srebrna Uvala; 385-51/233-595; www.kre-do.hr; doubles from $40. A pink 19th-century residence converted to a 10-room hotel, on Silver Bay near Mali Losinj. It has a private beach and full amenities.
Bratomil Apartments 7 Gornja Ul., Rab; 385-51/724-688, fax 385-51/218-583; email@example.com; doubles from $34. This unpretentious old stone guesthouse sits above the sea, in the heart of Rab town.
Hotel International Rab; 385-51/724-266, fax 385-51/724-206; doubles from $49. A large, popular property on the harbor.
Hotel Imperial 2 Barakovic, Rab; 385-51/724-522, fax 385-51/724-126; doubles from $60. Another popular place, in a park some distance from the center of town.
Hotel Neptun-Istra and Hotel Karmen Brijuni National Park, Veli Brijun; 385-52/525-100, fax 385-52/212-110; www.np-brijuni.hr; doubles from $84 and $94. Both are right on the water, surrounded by pines, and have comfortable rooms and modern facilities.