By Nic Tarter
Twenty years ago, Croatia was a traveler’s secret. Dubrovnik, Dalmatia, Zadar, to many, these sounded like names from a Tolkien novel. But to insiders, these were untrodden Adriatic wonderlands. Medieval castles chiseled into limestone cliffs above an angry, white-foamed sea were theirs to explore alone. Beer was cheap, food was authentic, and locals were happy to see an unfamiliar face. The Dalmatian Coast seemed too good to be true.
Things have since changed, but you should still give it a chance. Talk to some locals about where they go to get away from the crowds. What village is off the tourist circuit, tucked in a cove, accessible only by boat? What other medieval castle, covered in vines and without a twenty-euro entrance fee, is hiding in the hills? There has to be an island somewhere in the Adriatic that has slipped through the cracks of the tourist trail. Well, dear reader, lucky for you I found the right person who pointed me in the right direction, south of the Istrian Peninsula to Croatia’s hidden gem: Veli Losinj, population 1,000.
Located in Kvarner Bay on the island of Losinj, the “Island of Vitality,” Veli Losinj is a quiet village south of the bigger town of Mali Losinj. Those of you who remember your introductory Croatian vocabulary from that week-long Rosetta Stone kick you had during the first year of the pandemic know that these names are clearly mixed up, as mali means “small” and veli means “big.” The explanation for these misnomers is that Veli Losinj came into existence first as an important fishing port, but Mali Losinj ended up developing faster and has now taken over the distinction as the bigger town, only no one bothered to change the names. An inessential fact, but a fun one nonetheless.
“Island of Vitality,” however, is no misnomer. Blue flags adorn almost every beach on the mountainous garden island, and a paved walking path almost two miles long connects Mali Losinj to Veli Losinj, taking you underneath a canopy of aromatic one-hundred-year-old pine trees. Locals ride side by side on bikes, announcing their presence with a gentle bell. The same white-haired joggers you saw in the morning float on their backs with bottlenose dolphins in the afternoon. And from sunrise to sunset, couples as old as the trees make the round-trip trek to keep their legs limber and their hearts happy. Spend a lifetime here, and it’s possible you’ll get two.
How to Get to Veli Losinj
As beautiful and serene as Veli Losinj is, it’s a wonder why it’s not at the top of most travelers’ Croatian island-hopping list. It’s not a difficult place to get to, after all. Multiple daily ferries from Rijeka, Zadar, and Pula glide along the silky bay and drop you off right at the port in Mali Losinj (croatiaferries.com) in as little as two hours. If you rented a car, or are exploring the Balkans in your campervan, there’s a road from Rijeka to Krk, followed by a car ferry to Cres and a 30-foot bridge over the narrow Osor strait, making arriving by land a pleasant possibility as well. And finally, in non-pandemic times, the airport has direct flights from Zagreb, Venice, and for those of you living in Switzerland, Lugano.
However, the ferry is the most popular way, which is maybe why most travelers never make it to Losinj—there are too many beautiful islands en route that you hit first. No one can be blamed for disembarking at Rab, Pag, Olib, or Dugi Otok, believing they have discovered the most beautiful island of them all. But, even if you do fall for the premature island trick, be sure to keep Losinj in your sights, as it may end up being your favorite by far.
If all goes as planned, you will arrive by ferry at the port in Mali Losinj. Find a cafe and sit under the shade of an umbrella with an espresso and watch barefoot blue-and-white-striped sailors run along the sunny decks of polished mahogany yachts floating in emerald water. Locals walk by with grocery bags full of fresh fruit and vegetables; an old man shuffles to the post office to send a letter to his daughter on the mainland; an Italian song plays on a radio from the windowsill above. You will be tempted to knock on the door of the guest house next door and ask if you can stay for a week, because how can it get better than this?
But it does get better. Pay your tab and get moving. Walk south along the marina until you find the path that leads to Veli. Don’t even think about hailing a taxi (this isn’t the island of lethargy), because the walk you’re about to take is on par with Cinque Terre or Capri. In minutes you’ll find yourself a world away from the bustle of the port, strolling serenely along the shaded esplanade, stopping as often as desired at the many benches to drink in the view. Depending on the depth of the coves, the water alternates between cyan and turquoise to cerulean and navy blue. If you want to test the waters before you’ve even reached the town, you won’t be the first, but chances are you’ll have the place to yourself.
Where to Stay in Veli Losinj
Eventually, you’ll have to dry off and get back to walking, and before long, you’ll arrive at the edge of Veli Losinj. Resorts, apartments, beach bars and restaurants, and even a large swimming pool welcome you. High above the water now, continue on until you round the point and catch a view of the port of Veli Losinj. The picturesque scene looks as if an Italian baroque artist was commissioned to paint the ideal village at the edge of a perfect marina, complete with fishing boats, a medieval Venetian watchtower, a 17th-century stone church, and a row of three-story, red-tile-roofed abodes, each a different color. Pink, red, yellow, tan, green, blue, turquoise, gray, and white dance in the water’s reflection reminding one of Nyhavn in Copenhagen, except the water is warm and the sky is clear. In five minutes, you’ll be at a cafe table with a glass of wine in your hand and a plate of mussels on the way (Konoba Mandrac is a good choice; mains from $12).
There are plenty of hotels to choose from right at the port, and it wouldn’t be a bad idea to stay there. Restaurants, bars, cafes, gelaterias, shops, boat tours, all of these are only steps away. However, it is better to venture farther into the town and find a quiet guesthouse that won’t vibrate with the twice-daily bells of St. Anthony’s church. The first time you hear them, you may duck under the table fearing an earthquake, or worse, the Ottomans have returned to take back the island. However, a few roads deeper in the town and the bells will regain their charm (one-bedroom apartments on Airbnb run anywhere from $50 to $100 a night).
Things to Do in Veli Losinj
Settled now into your stone-arched, sunny garden home, you’ll be enjoying the serenity of your covered porch with a good book, the calming tweets of birds emanating from the bougainvillea, when suddenly you’ll wonder if you’re doing it all wrong. “Shouldn’t I be on a tour or something?” you ask yourself anxiously. Well, if you ask me, I say you should stay right where you are. Better yet, make a cup of tea and then get back to your book. This trip to Veli Losinj isn’t about doing much of anything.
But before you say that you didn’t travel three hours by bus to Zadar to take a two-hour ferry to an island to walk two miles with a suitcase just to drink tea and read a book, I will say that there is plenty to do in Veli Losinj, only there is no pressure to do any of it. Go with the flow of the village and plan your day around the sun. Stroll along the cobblestone lanes and peruse the markets in the morning, stopping as often as you’d like for a snack and a cup of coffee (try local favorite, ). Rent a bicycle and ride to the tiny fisherman’s port, Luka Rovenska, for a plate of prsut (wood-smoked prosciutto) at Restaurant Mol and then continue on to St. Nicholas Church, built in the 1300s at the base of St. John’s hill. If you’re up to it, hike along the trail to St. Ivan Church at the top of the mountain for an incredible view of Losinj and surrounding islands and then beeline for the aquamarine cove you spotted on the west side of the island for a cool dip and a cooler drink at Restoran Balvanida.
If you have an itch for a tour, Dolphin Watching Adriatic will scratch it (three hours; $50), or visit the Tower Museum ($5 entrance) to learn about Veli Losinj’s maritime history and to catch a bird’s-eye view of the village. For those who want to really feel the vitality coursing through their veins, ride your bike or take the local bus 13 miles north to Nerezine and hike to the top of the 2,000-foot Televrin mountain and try to spot the Italian coastline over the immense blue sea. Or, you know, just stick with your book, but read it from a lounge chair in the Mediterranean sun while waves crash at your feet. There’s no better way to live your life than that.
Best Time to Visit Veli Losinj
Any seasoned traveler knows that the summer months are the busiest and most expensive time to visit Europe. Croatia is not an exception. Aim for May or late September into October for the best experience. Beaches are empty, ferries are running, guest houses are cheap, restaurants are open, flowers are in bloom, the water is warm, and most importantly, the sun is shining. Don’t wait too long to see Veli Losinj for yourself. Who knows how many people are reading this article right now? The secret is out.
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