Imagine a hidden saltwater lake. Some of the steepest cliffs to leap out of the Adriatic. One of Europe’s safest natural ports – a sapphire bay dotted with 19 islets and islands. This is Telašćica Nature Park.
Croatia’s Dalmatian coastline is rightly reputed as one of the most beautiful in the world. Spotted with islands (although the ‘spots’ are not where its name comes from), it is not only a sailing paradise but a delight for history buffs and nature lovers too. And with one of Europe’s best beaches thrown into the equation, you could rightly ask why it isn’t a more popular holiday destination.
The Croatian mainland’s popularity with holidaymakers, in fact, has been growing for years. The famous walled city of Dubrovnik has been put firmly on many people’s to-do list by ‘Game of Thrones’, but difficult access and an enclosed layout can make it crowded in the summer. Other historic towns have their fair share of attention too: Split’s massive EDM festival is due back next summer. But it was from the more tranquil town of Zadar I set out on a passenger ferry, headed for the ‘long island’ of Dugi Otok.
I’d spent the previous day exploring Zadar, the oldest continuously inhabited town in Croatia, which has been beautifully restored since the Croatian War of Independence (1991-1995) when land connections with Zagreb were severed and shelling damaged homes and public buildings. Although you can still see sobering bullet marks in places, the sun glares on white marble and a unique ‘sea organ’ plays music from wave forms and tubes below the water.
Overnight I’d been welcomed into a bed and breakfast run by a couple who had returned to Zadar after the war, determined to help rebuild their homeland. Now, Zadar’s defensive walls were disappearing behind the 9am ferry. I stretched my legs out on deck and began to look forward to the next step.
On Dugi Otok, I was due to stay in a stone house, with no electricity or fresh water supply, only a well. The shower would run off solar heating. The garden was mainly dry grass and sticky prickles. Other accommodation is available, so then, what was the appeal? Imagine a hidden saltwater lake. Some of the steepest cliffs to leap out of the Adriatic. And one of Europe’s safest natural ports – a sapphire bay dotted with 19 islets and islands. My chosen residence would be a base for exploring Telašćica Nature Park, although does a park which is two-thirds water ever really have a ‘base’?
That first afternoon, I unpacked in the house and walked the short dusty driveway to the sea. I swam. The water was so cool and inviting that I stayed in, I kept going, crossing the bay, waving nervously at small passing motorboats, to finally sit on rocks on the other side and catch my breath, before swimming back. It must have been nearly a kilometre’s impromptu ‘dip’.
Evening saw a barbecue then deep sleep on the verandah, under one of the purest night skies I’ve ever witnessed. The next day I nosed into the well under the house and discovered dozens of frogs staring back up at me. After breakfast (no, I didn’t eat any frogs), it was time to head over to Lake Mir.
This saltwater lake in a karst depression is filled through underground cracks and limestone channels fed by the sea, from which it is separated by only a narrow strip of rock. Evaporation gives it medicinal levels of salinity and its shallow depth makes it exquisitely warm in summer. Surrounded by fragrant pine, olive and fig trees, the walk around its shores is idyllic. You may pass a Dalmatian donkey, relieved from its duties as a pack animal by its protected status. You can also scramble up to the top of the cliffs at the lakeside and give yourself a fright peering over the sheer edge, where others have built tiny ‘cairns’ to mark their passage. Seen from above, Lake Mir’s proximity to the sea is bizarre. It glides from iridescent green to deeper turquoise, while the neighbouring Adriatic glitters. When you clamber back down and splash your feet in Mir’s healing waters, it’s easy to forget the endemic Kajman eels coiling below.
That night I ate at a small restaurant on the shore while yacht masts gently clinked close by. The next few days were spent choosing between activities. Caves such as Vlakno may call you, to reveal the secret of the 11,000-year-old full human skeleton discovered within. How about snorkelling? Or sunbathing on the white sands of Sukaran, often described as Europe’s most perfect beach, family friendly yet remote and stunning enough to rival any Indian Ocean getaway.
During my trip, I also made time for lazing at the house with the frogs. I wandered through the village of Sali to buy fish at a stall and drank cocktails at the water’s edge. I visited Fort Grpašćak, a former Austro-Hungarian military observatory with breath-taking views over the 161-metre-high ‘stene’ or cliffs. Look out for the peregrine falcons and grey hawks overhead, and the dolphins out at sea saluting you before you leave.