8 secret islands of Croatia
From lonesome lighthouses to roaming elephants, a luxury yacht vacation in Croatia’s secluded islands can still be packed with surprises, say Tristan Rutherford and Kathryn Tomasetti
Croatia’s islands have not always been accessible. Bickering Austrian and Venetian overlords left Gothic towers and soaring campaniles across Dalmatia – then prohibited strangers from sailing in. Some top secret escapes remained off limits until the past few decades, such as the Brijuni Islands, which used to be a presidential retreat, and Lastovo, which was a Yugoslav submarine base. Even tiny Vis was only opened to the public in 1989.
The tourism bug has now bitten Croatia hard – one in every six euros the nation makes comes from its travel sector. Today, Vis has a daily ferry to the mainland and a host of A-list habitués. Fortunately, the country has 1,200 other islands, islets and tiny havens in the middle of the sea to explore. The only requirements are a private yacht, a tube of suncream and a pair of swimming trunks.
Location: An isolated speck in the centre of the Adriatic
Off the radar rating: 5/5
Palagruža takes its name from the Greek word pèlagos, meaning sea. It resides in its own Adriatic bubble of infinite blue, as far as you can get from the Croatian mainland. Whether you feel envious of, or sorry for, the island’s lighthouse keeper is a matter of opinion. Either way he welcomes sailors – and the occasional paying guest – into his airily capacious tower on the island’s 90 metre summit. As Palagruža marks Croatia’s southernmost point a unique microclimate pervades, with the nation’s lowest rainfall (just 30cm a year) and wind direction changing multiple times a day. The waters are teeming with sea life and fishermen often flock to the area.
A geographical fluke forced Palagruža and Mala (Little) Palagruža – and another dozen or so rocky specks – to rise from the Adriatic seabed. Before GPS, sailors would easily miss them. The captain should call the lighthouse on Channel 16 for mooring details and embarkation directions to the shingle beach.
Location: Royal favourite nestled behind the Istria peninsula
Off the radar rating: 2/5
This former Venetian outpost had an unanticipated 15 minutes of fame in 1936 when the new King Edward VIII visited on board 91 metre Nahlin, which he had chartered for a spin around the Adriatic with his married lover Wallis Simpson. “The royals sashayed along our island’s quays in white suits,” says island tourism chief Luka Perčinić. Edward and Wallis then took a tender to Kvarner beach on Rab’s southern shore. Daring Simpson reportedly stripped off, causing the world’s first royal skinny dip sensation.
Rab’s 150 kilometres of hiking and biking trails, which criss-cross the bucolic interior, are recommended, as is a prior call to the harbourmaster, who in 2016 hosted his busiest ever superyacht season.
Location: Historic hidden archipelago in the Adriatic
Off the radar rating: 5/5
Off limits to foreigners until the late 1980s, Lastovo remains delightfully isolated. An archipelago of 46 islets, it claims just 800 year-round residents. Little wonder that its main island was used as a base for Yugoslav submarines during socialist times. History lovers can drop anchor among the idyllic inlets of Lastovo’s western coast to hunt down the remaining concrete pens, and the brave can go snorkelling with underwater torches.
North of here, translucent waters ripple over a mosaic of multicoloured pebbles and call out for exploration by paddleboard. Stretch your sea legs along the 200 kilometres of paths that meander around the islands. Then, come nightfall, Lastovo’s clear skies make for some of the finest stargazing in Europe.