For eight months of the year, little taxi boats chug out of Dubrovnik’s Old Port bound for Lokrum. Its green interior beckoning across the water from Dubrovnik’s seafront bars and high-end hotels, Lokrum is home to peacocks, palms and rare subtropical plants, but no human residents. Benedictine monks, Napoleon’s troops and Habsburg royalty all lived here in the past, with varying tragic outcomes. What’s left, apart from the odd ruined fort, are the natural features Richard the Lionheart might have seen when shipwrecked here in 1192: secluded beaches, coves and a saltwater lake.
To get from Dalmatia’s main port to its most happening island–and get there in a hurry–the only affordable option is the one-hour scoot over the Adriatic by catamaran. Leaving from the smaller port in Split by the main Riva embankment and arriving right into Hvar town harbour lined with buzzy terrace bars, the Jadrolinija service runs twice a day year-round, even on December 24 and 25.
Perhaps the most underrated islands in Croatia, the Elafiti archipelago lies off the coast of Dubrovnik. In season, tourist boats hop to all three main islands in one day, sticking to a strict timetable and providing a fish picnic on board. These are advertised at the Old Port, the departure point near Dubrovnik’s main square. Alternatively, and far cheaper, scheduled Jadrolinija boats leave three times a day from the larger harbour at Gruž. The nearest island, bucolic Koločep, is sparsely populated, while Lopud offers sandy beaches and promenade walks. Šipan contains Roman remains, elegant villas and top-quality restaurants.
Brijuni may only be 15 minutes from the mainland, but it’s a different world over there. Both a national park and a historical anomaly, Brijuni was the favoured haunt of post-war leader Tito, who invited heads of state to his island idyll. The menagerie he unwittingly created – the exotic animals gifts from India, Africa and elsewhere – are now a major attraction, along with the Roman ruins, dinosaur footprints and Tito museum. The national park runs the regular boat transfers from the pretty fishing village of Fažana, near Pula.
Lesser-known than the far busier off-shore destinations around Split and Dubrovnik, the islands near Zadar are becoming ever more popular with Croatians, happy to find a spare table in a restaurant with ease. One such island is Iž. Set between Ugljan and Dugi Otok, Iž is home to some 600 locals who make their living from fishing, olive growing and ceramic making. It has beaches, too, and a scattering of traditional taverns in the main town of Veli Iž, where the morning catamaran arrives, an hour’s journey from Zadar.
Twice a day (four times in high season) a Jadrolinija ferry glides between Valbiska and Lopar. Connecting Croatia’s largest island of Krk, location of Rijeka airport, with the historic getaway of Rab, this route takes fascinating coastline, uninhabited but for the pheasants and vultures of Plavnik and the spooky sight of Sveti Grgur, a women’s prison in Communist times. One hour and 20 minutes later, you’ll arrive in Lopar, a beach-lined resort on the northern tip of Rab, mobbed in summer, yours to explore in winter.
All year round, a boat leaves early in the morning from the busy port of Mali Lošinj for Susak, an idiosyncratic island on the far south-western edge of the archipelago in the Kvarner Bay. Settled by the Ancient Greeks and Romans, Susak spent 25 years under Mussolini and the few older locals remaining speak Italian. Visitors come here for the fresh fish, sourced from the plentiful grounds, and the beaches of fine sand. The daily boat returns mid-afternoon, allowing you time for lunch, before the two-and-a-half-hour journey back to Mali Lošinj.
An hour-and-a-quarter from Split, Šolta has yet to take off in the way that Brač or Hvar have done. Sailing connections remain frequent, though, four or five times a day according to season. Boats come in to the main town of Rogač, where there is plentiful evidence of the island’s olive oil, wine and fruit production. On the far western tip, the new marina and high-end hotel at Maslinica have done little to change the overall atmosphere of tranquil relaxation.
Two sailing services run from the historic Dalmatian town of Šibenik to coral-lined Zlarin but you won’t be able to take your vehicle across. Cars are banned on the island, a verdant paradise of pines, coves and sandy beaches. Locals make jewellery from red coral, fish and cultivate figs – the island doesn’t even have a hotel. Only 25 minutes by boat, Zlarin feels a world away.