Quaint buildings, a crisp blue sky and docked boats add up to a postcard-perfect… (John Henderson )
Reporting from the Kvarner Islands, Croatia — I'm walking along a stretch of the Adriatic Sea that reminds me of another time, another hemisphere. It's not the forest of pine trees that offers shade along the seawall on a poster-perfect 70-degree day. It's not the little docked boats bobbing up and down or the donkey braying in the distance, competing with birds for the lone sound in the air.
No, it's the water.
At this spot on the Adriatic, where the sea starts to run out of room and the curvature of Eastern and Central Europe begins, it's turquoise, more brilliant than the cloudless sky above.
As a very fit woman jogs by and a middle-aged woman in a shawl picks up a tiny piece of rubbish, I remember the last time I saw the sea this turquoise: French Polynesia.
I'm an unabashed lover of Eastern Europe. I'm captivated by its journey from the shadows of the Iron Curtain to the comforts of Westernization. But I never thought I'd compare any square kilometer of Eastern Europe to Tahiti.
I'm in Croatia, hopping around a collection of islands that few Americans visit and whose name even fewer can pronounce. The Kvarner Islands (pronounced var-NAIR) hang off northwestern Croatia like leaves falling peacefully from a tree.
They were once part of the Roman Empire. They served as a camping stop for Caesar. Italian dictator Benito Mussolini once controlled some of these islands.
For five days in May, I saw these isles as they mostly always have been. I sat at quiet, small medieval harbors and prowled narrow, maze-like alleyways right out of ancient Rome. I ate grilled meats and fresh fish from centuries-old recipes.
I journeyed from the capital of Zagreb through four islands and back for all of $160. I rented rooms in people's homes for as low as $35 a night. I ate delicious local dishes of homemade pasta and goulash for $11.
Welcome to island life — Croatian style.
By the sea
The meandering seawall I'm following on the island of Losinj (low-SHEEN) leads me two miles from the town of Mali Losinj, the biggest town in the Kvarners, to the village of Veli Losinj, so cute and tiny that it could have served as a landscape for Renaissance painters.
The small harbor at Veli Losinj is lined with small buildings of red and green and orange and yellow. From my seat at the dockside Gostionica Marina restaurant, I can see fish darting around, chasing my flung pieces of homemade bread. My waiter says they're a member of the bass family.
Mirko Coianovic is tall and distinguished with white hair and a Fu Manchu. He moved to Losinj in 1969 after growing up in Serbia.
"This is a nice place to live," says Coianovic, after serving me a plate of passable pasta Bolognese. "It's clean water. Lots of woods. It's green."
Inside the restaurant, I see a picture of Losinj in the 19th century. The island is as barren as an African savanna. Seeing me stare, Coianovic volunteers, "[Austrian Emperor] Franz Josef built a home here and there were no woods. He had 50,000 trees planted."
Since then, Croatia has had many face-lifts, from Mussolini's fascism to Josip Tito's communism to a bloody fight for independence in the early '90s. The Homeland War, in which native Serbs claimed part of Croatia as their own, left many rural areas of the country devastated.
However, this tiny corner of Croatia seems like a different world in more ways than one.
"If we didn't have TV or radio," Coianovic tells me, "we wouldn't know a war was going on."
Keep in mind that the Croatian islands are not a secret. Southern isles off Dubrovnik such as Hvar and Lokrum have catered to tourists since Tito left a door slightly ajar to the West.
Touring the Kvarner Islands is as easy as reading a bus schedule. A 200-kuna (about $37) ticket puts me on a modern, air-conditioned bus for a four-hour journey from Zagreb to the Adriatic. I accept the bus driver's effusive apology for charging $1.30 a bag when I see the spectacular scenery. After driving past concrete communist-era apartment blocks on the edge of town, I quickly find myself in deep forests sprinkled with red-tiled cottages. We pass a cow-crossing sign and sheep grazing in fields.
I spot one beautiful white house overlooking the sea. It reminds me of when Croatia was, along with neighboring Slovenia, the richest of the old Yugoslavian republics. I see no poverty. None. Even Rijeka, Croatia's biggest port, has a rakish charm to it.
To reach Krk Island, I never leave the bus. A 500-foot-long bridge connects it to the mainland, which makes island hopping here similar to hopscotch. The nearby islands of Cres and Losinj are separated by a wooden bridge exactly 10 feet long.
Only once, from Cres to Rab Island, did I need to buy a ferry ticket.
Accommodations were my biggest surprise. My first island hotel is the Hotel Drazica, a four star on Krk that I found on the Internet for less than $90 a night for a double room with a balcony overlooking the Adriatic.