How to spend 10 days exploring the Croatian islands

How to spend 10 days exploring the Croatian islands

Published February 1, 2024

This article was produced by National Geographic Traveller (UK).

Flying over Croatia’s coastline gives glimpses of its 1,244 islands and islets, scattered along a misshapen shore; some smothered in holm oak and Aleppo pines, others a barren moonscape of scrubby limestone and pebbly coves, all in vivid contrast to the blue-green of the Adriatic Sea. Fewer than 50 islands are permanently inhabited, many revealing the rich legacy of those who came before — ancient Illyrians, Greeks and Romans, Venetians, Habsburgs and Italians. The Venetian-style towns — like Korčula and Hvar — consist of creamy stone townhouses with green shutters and terracotta rooftops, where bijou baroque cathedrals command attention in cafe-filled squares. Croatia’s myriad of influences is evident in its cuisine, too — a combination of Italian, Austrian, Hungarian and Balkan flavours. 

Days 1-2: Rab and Lošinj

These two Kvarner Gulf neighbours encapsulate the huge variety of Croatia’s islands. Start in Rab Town, where the distinctive skyline of four medieval and Renaissance belfries crowns a clutch of Venetian palaces and stone houses in narrow marble lanes. In a land of pebbly and rocky beaches, tiny Rab has nearly two dozen sandy beaches, most of which sweep along the wide bays of the Lopar peninsula. Then, sail south-east to Lošinj, where 19th-century Habsburg nobility built lavish palaces and emperor Franz Joseph I was immediately seduced by the constant fragrance of wild herbs. After swimming in the sheltered waters of Čikat Bay, stroll along the harbours of Mali Lošinj and Veli Lošinj past wealthy sea captains’ Italianate houses. 

Days 3-4: Dugi Otok & Kornati National Park

Dugi Otok certainly suits its name, ‘Long Island’ — a thin, 28-mile strip of land in the Zadar Archipelago that’s dotted with sleepy fishing villages and pebbly beaches. Head south to the biggest port, Sali, to explore Telašćica Nature Park — the island’s claw-shaped southern end with six islets and 25 coves surrounded by olive groves and oak forests. Then, sail through neighbouring Kornati National Park; the 89 islands and islets of the archipelago have a stark, compelling beauty. There’s scrubby karst with some olive groves, a few fishermen’s cottages, flocks of sheep but no actual permanent settlements. Dock in summer to find rustic waterside cafes serving grilled fish.   

Days 5-6: Hvar

Party-goers turned Hvar Town into Croatia’s Ibiza some years ago, which calls for careful timing if you’re planning on visiting. First thing in the morning is a good time to wander round St Stephen’s Square and pop into the baroque St Stephen’s Cathedral. From here, take the uphill path to the 16th-century Fortica Fortress — locally known as Španjola. It’s here that the classic photograph of Hvar Town — a sea of terracotta rooftops framed by the Adriatic, with the Pakleni islands just beyond — was taken. On the northern side of the island, Stari Grad has much of the same charm but a fraction of the crowds. Just outside the town, walk through the broad expanse of the UNESCO-listed Stari Grad Plain, where ancient Greeks planted vineyards and olive groves some 2,000 years ago.

Days 7-8: Brač & Vis

Brač, Dalmatia’s largest island, also has Croatia’s most photographed beach — the uniquely V-shaped Zlatni Rat. But while crowds flock to the beach and its nearest town, Bol, head for the quieter side of Brač in villages such as Milna, which sits in a deep harbour on the west coast. At the opposite end of the island, Sumartin is pleasingly laid-back, despite being the ferry port for trips to the mainland’s Makarska Riviera. Even with a surge in popularity after standing in for Greece in the 2018 Mamma Mia! sequel, little Vis is still pleasantly remote. Amble along the town’s mile-long seafront that runs between Prirovo and Grandovac beaches, passing pale stone houses and Vis Kino, a summertime outdoor cinema at the water’s edge. Then, hop on the bus to even quieter Komiža, handy for boat trips to the wondrous Blue Cave on Biševo Island.  

Days 9-10: Korčula & Mljet

Sitting on its own thumb-shaped peninsula, its marble alleyways fanning out in the pattern of a fish skeleton, Korčula Town is a must see. It’s the ideal place for exploring shiny Venetian lanes, cobbled squares and the waterfront route that circles the town. If you like your wine dry and white, the fishing village of Lumbard, almost four miles away, is home to a handful of family-run wineries producing the moreish nectar known as grk. When you arrive in Mljet, it’s clear to see why it’s Croatia’s greenest island. More than a third of it is taken up by Mljet National Park, whose lush landscapes include two saltwater lakes and hiking and cycling trails shaded by oaks and pines. Take the little boat that chugs across the larger of the two lakes to St Mary’s Island and explore the 12th-century Benedictine monastery. 

Published in the Cruise guide, distributed with the Jan/Feb 2024 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK).

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