Croatia — or at least its southern coast — seems to have a postcard waiting to happen around almost every corner. Azure waters shimmer resplendently in cove after scenic cove; the scraggly coastline is fringed with verdant trees; and the Adriatic’s many islands beckon the traveler with the promise of serene escape from everyday worries.
The Croatian government lays claim to more than 1,200 islands scattered throughout the Adriatic, though “island” may be too strong a term for most of them. At least half are mere rock outcrops, and some are classified as “rocks awash,” meaning that they are submerged some of the time. Excluding all the rocks and islets, there are still several dozen islands that are worth visiting, some for their well-preserved ancient cities and others for their beaches and coves.
A few islands enjoy protection as national parks, including Mljet, which we visited on a day trip from Dubrovnik, and which was easily one of the high points of our two-week stay in Croatia. After two and a half days of flawless weather, we awoke to leaden skies and watched in disbelief as storm clouds gathered overhead. Fortunately, the rain that accompanied us on our hour-long drive ended just as we arrived in Ston, the small town that lies a few kilometers from the Mljet ferry dock.
Ston is noteworthy for several reasons. First, it is enclosed by more than five kilometers of stone walls, which extend improbably up a steep mountainside and were erected to protect Ston’s salt flats at a time when salt was worth more than its weight in gold. Our driver-cum-guide tried to tell us that Ston’s fortifications were second only to the Great Wall of China in length, but this struck us as a dubious claim, and a little subsequent fact-checking revealed that there are several walls – in Britain, in India, in Iran – that dwarf the one in Ston, impressive though it is. The salt flats — Ston’s second claim to fame — are still operational and continue to produce high-quality sea salt that is harvested by hand, just as it was centuries ago. The city’s last distinction, and the one we were most excited about, is its oyster and mussel farms, which produce such quality fare that Lonely Planet ranks Ston’s oysters as one of Croatia’s can’t-miss highlights, a recommendation we heartily endorse.
Disembarking the ferry in Mljet, we headed first to the island’s southern tip to visit the beautiful sandy beach at Saplunara. Sand is the one thing Croatia’s coastline lacks. Most of the beaches we saw or visited were rocky, though this did not seem to detract from their popularity; in and around Dubrovnik, especially, virtually every pebble that gave access to the warm waters of the Adriatic Sea was occupied by a sun-worshipping vacationer. Saplunara was a real treat — because it was both sandy and relatively unoccupied — but we did not linger, staying just long enough to cool off with a good swim and let Munchkin flail around in the water, before retracing our route and continuing on to the national park on the north side of the island.
In addition to a web of trails, which we did not get to explore, the park’s main draw is a pair of lakes that have been connected by a man-made channel. Originally, these were fresh-water lakes, but they grew stagnant, attracting malaria-carrying mosquitos. Canals were dug to connect the lakes to the sea, solving the problem. There is a small island in one corner of the big lake — an island within an island — with the remains of an old stone church and a restaurant, where we stopped for lunch. We spent the rest of our time by the shore of the smaller lake before returning on the last ferry back to the mainland as the sun set into the sea.