Rab: the happy isle

by John.MacDonald

Don't be put off by first impressions - the ferry port on Rab may not be a thing of beauty, but the rest of this Croatian holiday island is altogether lovelier

The panorama of desolation that greets disembarking travellers at the small ferry port of Mišnjak, on the southeast corner of Rab, has them reaching for mobile phones and threatening travel agents with litigation. On this part of the Croatian holiday island, the north wind lays up salt deposits that inhibit the growth of all but the hardiest and dowdiest of plants.
Heading inland, though, hearts are soon lifted, as the barren landscape is replaced by holm oaks, century cacti and palm trees. Small secluded coves pepper the coastline, their solitude, sandy beaches and crystal clear waters affording perfect bathing opportunities - no wonder the island has a long tradition of naturism. In 1936, when Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson visited the island ,they were reported to have indulged in nude bathing at Kandarola Bay. However, after an exhaustive search, no photographic evidence could be found!
The main town on the island is Rab itself, a town of two halves. Modern residential Rab accounts for almost half of the island’s population of 10,000 souls, but it is the Old Town that is the jewel in this Adriatic crown. Built over Roman remains and on the western side of the harbour, the Old Town is a separate entity, with its unique skyline of four bell towers. To the east is the holm-oak-forested Komrčar Park, which acts as a buffer, keeping the modern Rab at arm's length.
The Old Town of Rab is spotless, as if purged by some huge nocturnal pressure washer. A confluence of tiny streets loosely aligned to the three main thoroughfares host many small shops, restaurants and bars, and hand-made jewellery is sold from stalls that spring up around Sv Kristofor (St Christopher) Square at nightfall.
Croatia is rich in legend and Rab is no exception. One interesting local legend concerns a youth named Kalifont, who fell in love with the Shepherdess of Draga. It's not the usual tale of unrequited love - instead, his love was so much requited that the gods banished Kalifont to the oak forests, which he was doomed to walk until he became assimilated with the trees. His forlorn arboreal likeness now sits in St Christpher Square, staring fixedly at a fountain bearing the likeness of the amorous young shepherdess.
It is not necessary to speak Croatian on the island but a working knowledge of German would be a distinct advantage - Germans visitors make up over 40 per cent of all tourists, while guests from the British Isles are heaped in the two per cent of also-rans. Consequently, many restaurants cater for German tastes, especially those situated around the main squares. This is a pity, as the local cuisine is an integral part of the Rab experience: seafood from the clear Adriatic, grilled meats with delicious piquant sauces, cured hams that can rival any of the Iberian varieties and sheep’s cheese complemented by fresh black olives that is a superb way to round off any meal. So don’t settle on the more obvious eating houses - don walking boots and rummage through the small back streets. Go where the locals eat and you will receive wonderful food and a warm welcome. 
One rather interesting association with the island is the familiar St Christopher, not only the patron saint of travellers but also the guardian of Rab. In the catacomb of St Justine’s church a small collection of relics is held, including the skull of our industrious saint. It appears that when the island was under siege from the Normans, St Christopher saved it by turning the arrows of the invaders onto themselves. 
Away from the main town, resorts such as Banjol, Barbat and Lopar to the north offer a variety of activities including bathing (costumes optional), walking and cycling. The terrain ranges from the flat to the mountainous, so bicycle paths reflect this, from the easy-going to the just plain silly. Diving is well catered for, as you would expect with the crystal clear water.
A small flotilla of craft offer boat trips around Rab and to the adjacent islands, and it is pleasant to walk by the harbour after a few drinks in the evening, reading the boats' billboards and selecting your trip for the next morning. It is advisable not to have too much to drink though, lest you find yourself as a cabin boy on a tramp steamer headed for Montevideo!
Hotel Imperial  ( Hotel Padova, Carolina Hotel and Hotel Eva) are up to a good standard although geared to German tastes. Imperial Hotels also operate apartments, bungalows and campsites. 
The Ros Maris is in the heart of the Old Town and convenient for bars, nightclubs and the catamaran service to the island of Krk and Rijeka Airport.
Food and drink
There are many restaurants in the old town centred on Trg Svetog Kristofora (St Christopher Square). Again, these are mainly geared to German tastes although there is a sprinkling of Italian cuisine. Eating at the Imperial Hotels is always good for traditional Rab cuisine including pag cheese, which is a hard cheese but so full of flavour. Another local delicacy is the sweet Rab cake, available all over the island.
For an excellent and authentic meal, try the restaurant Santa Maria at D. Dokule 6, in the Old Town of Rab at the end of Srednja  Ulica (Middle Street) Tel. +385 51 724 196.
Getting there
The Jablanac ferry from the mainland takes about 10 minutes and runs every 20 minutes during the summer.
A catamaran service runs twice a day (subject to sea conditions) from Krk, the island where Rijeka Airport is situated.
The nearest airports are Rijeka and Zadar. Ryanair fly from Stansted to Zadar; Croatian Airlines service Rijeka from Heathrow. Airport transfers can be arranged via the hotels.