The sea is crystal clear, the scenery beautiful and the food fantastic - Tina Walsh reckons Croatia's northern coast is a step better than the Med
Why should I go?
Because northern Croatia (the Istrian Peninsular and the Kvarner islands) is still wonderfully laidback and unspoiled, despite all the column inches the country has garnered in recent years. Unlike Dalmatia, further south, this feels like somewhere the tourists have yet to discover, even though there was a steady stream of visitors until the war of the early 1990s scared them off. But they’re gradually returning – and why wouldn’t they?
Thanks to former Venetian rule, many of the towns and villages look decidedly Italian and you couldn’t find an Irish pub or 'fish ‘n' chips' sign if your life depended on it. If you prefer the passeggiata to the pub, it’s just as much of a ritual here as in Italy, but it comes without all the puffing and preening and you can step out safe in the knowledge that not everyone will be so much more gorgeous than you.
What do I do?
You sit and watch the world go by in Mali Losinj, a buzzing little harbour town on the island of Losinj, smart enough to give most of the Mediterranean competition a run for its money. While away a few hours watching flunkies hose down an enormous yacht, with a large glass of chilled Prosek (a honey-coloured dessert wine) in hand.
The Losinj archipelago in the northern Adriatic is home to around 120 bottlenose dolphins and you can take a small boat out from the village of Veli Losinj (possibly even prettier than big sister Mali Losinj) to cruise alongside them. The Blue World Institute undertakes research and conservation projects in the area and staff at the visitor centre can tell you which local excursion agencies to use.
Foodies and wine buffs should head to the east coast of Krk and the medieval town of Vrbnik. Set high on a cliff, it contains old churches, narrow cobbled streets and cute little restaurants galore. Try a glass of Zlahtina, billed as Croatia’s best white wine, at Nada restaurant and winery. To savour the view while you imbibe, walk up to the small stone promontory, which is decked out with chairs and umbrellas.
For total peace and quiet, (plus walking, trekking and mountain biking) visit the Caput Insulae Eco Centre on the island of Cres, one of the largest and least developed in Croatia. The centre was set up in 1993 to save the the griffon vulture from extinction. Today, there are around 140 vultures on the island, as well as 31 species of reptile and 1,500 types of plants.
There’s also an eight-mile “eco trail”, which takes in a complete Roman bridge and the fascinating hilltop town of Beli, deserted (save for 20 people) after World War II, when its inhabitants left in search of a better life in the New World.
Where do I stay?
Hotel Apoksiomen (doubles from £95 B&B) in Mali Losinj was once a grand villa that’s been refurbished to cheerful effect as a boutique hotel and is slap bang in the middle of all the cafes, restaurants and ice cream parlours you could want.
Hotel Zvonimir (doubles from £60 B&B) in the pretty, unassuming resort of Baska, is large, comfortable and modern and right on the beach (albeit a pebbly one – Croatia doesn’t have much in the way of sandy beaches). The health spa opposite offers just about every beauty treatment you can get in the UK, except maybe eyelash tints at £4 a pop.
Where do I eat?
The restaurant at the chic Hotel Valsabbion in Pula is consistently voted one of Croatia’s best by gastronomes and critics alike. Dishes, which “fuse Italian and Istrian cooking”, include sea urchin, black truffles and Istrian sausages and there’s a 200-strong wine list. Celebrity endorsement comes in the shape of Jeremy Irons, Bernie Ecclestone and Naomi Campbell, plus Sting and Mick Hucknall, who head here when they’re performing at the nearby Roman amphitheatre.
For a relaxing dinner à deux, head for the Cigale restaurant in Cikat Bay, just outside Mali Losinj. There’s nothing much more to do here than enjoy the nautical decor and the view over the lake as you work your way through a feast of fresh bream, langoustine and lobster. Wash it all down with a refreshing sorbetto (lemon ice cream, vodka and champagne).
How do I get there?
Croatia Airlines flies to Pula and Rijeka on the island of Krk from Heathrow and Gatwick, and to Pula from Manchester; easyJet flies to Rijeka from Luton and Bristol.
Ferries operate between Pula on the Istrian Peninsular and the islands of Krk, Cres and Losinj.