The islands along the Dalmatian coast may get all the ink, but there are plenty of reasons to head to Losinj and the Kvarner Gulf next – wild beaches hidden down dirt roads, fantastic seaside lunches where your fish is caught right in front of your table and twinkling café-lined marinas filled with gelato shops and bobbing boats. Losinj’s charm lies in its low-key natural beauty and the warmth of its people.
“I think this is a shortcut.” Famous last words, spoken by my husband who led the three of us in search of the parking lot where we’d left our car outside the old town walls just before dinner. By now it was well after 11pm as we wound through the dark twisting streets of Veli Losinj lit only by a sky full of stars. I lagged behind with my 2 year old son Jake as he chased a stray cat and tried his best not to trip over his toddler size 7s while navigating the uneven cobblestone streets when suddenly I heard my husband speaking to someone in English about 50 feet ahead. A couple enjoying a nightcap on their rooftop called down to us, “Where are you from?” We learned that they were once in fact sort of neighbors of ours in Manhattan – transplanted in Losinj from Queens. “Do you have family on the island?” Nope. “How did you end up here?”
Good question. Despite having a fairly strong predominantly European tourist trade, Losinj – pronounced “low-sheen” – is still an under-the-radar destination for many, and especially little known to Americans; we encountered zero during our stay. The five star hotels and hip little shops have yet to arrive in this part of the Adriatic; most people come to “the island of vitality” as it’s known for its excellent beaches, great seafood, camping and hiking opportunities. We spent 4 days exploring as many hidden corners, coves and inlets as possible (on Losinj as well as Cres — the two islands are connected by bridge) and couldn’t help but feel like we had just stumbled on Croatia’s next big destination — a paradise still undiscovered by the masses, but not for long. We dug deep during our short stay in search of the best the island has to offer. Here is a round up of our favorite spots:
Mali Lošinj is the largest settlement on the island, and a great town to base in. We scoped out a few different accommodation options before checking into the lovely Mare Mare Suites – a rust-red historic townhouse that’s been converted into a boutique hotel with individually styled rooms, occupying a prime position at the northern end of Mali Losinj’s horseshoe-shaped marina. The top-floor maritime-themed Captain’s Suite was perfect for us, outfitted with old naval charts, a vintage telescope and globe, wooden ceiling beams and a lighthouse mural on the wall.
In the evenings, the lively harbor fills with live music and countless al fresco dining options. It’s a literal playground for kids too — with bouncy castles, giant trampolines and popcorn vendors set up along the promenade. We loved stopping into shops like newly opened Gitana Nova — which offers a carefully curated selection of wines from Kvarner, Istria and Dalmatia alongside Croatian specialty products like Oleum Viride extra virgin olive oil and whole summer truffles from our friends at Natura Tartufi in Buzet — and looking out on the waterfront from our table at Bocca Vera with a great Tartufo pie and a bottle of Teran. For a special dinner, it’s worth the trek a little further into town to find low-lit Porto, an excellent restaurant with simple yet refined seafood dishes, great pastas and warm service.
Quiet and cute with a cluster of Easter-egg colored buildings wrapped around its tiny harbor, Veli Losinj reminded us of one of the towns in the Cinque Terre – the Croatian equivalent of a Manarola or a Vernazza. Enclosed within its pedestrian-only city walls you’ll find a bakery, some shops and cafes and a charming playground up the steps behind the church. You’ll also find a fantastic and very busy travel agency here called Turist — Lilli was enthusiastic, professional and informative; she gave us an overview of the entire island, a stack full of maps and pointed out her favorite spots.
From Veli Losinj’s harbor, keep walking along the coast for about 15 minutes to reach Rovenska. The path leads all the way around to a pristine pebbly beach with graduated shades of blue and good facilities (some lounge-chairs and umbrellas, a café where you can grab a few bottles of water or a couple of Karlovačkos.) This is one of the more easily accessible beaches we visited — no off-roading required – and definitely worth an afternoon. Backtrack to Bora Bar for lunch, one of three seaside restaurants you’ll pass on the way to the beach, where Italian-born chef Marco Sasso serves some of the best food we had on our entire trip. A self proclaimed “Tartufferia,” truffles are the order of the day here — we loved the tuna carpaccio with celery root and truffles and the homemade ravioli covered in (what else) more truffles.
I’ve heard that only 85 people live in Valun, and I believe it. A great place to devote a whole day, the small fishermen’s village of Valun is impossibly picturesque. Here you’ll find two perfect pebbly beaches with crystal clear water separated by a harbor full of restaurants, coffee bars and gelato shops. Gostionica San Marco sits on the edge of the sea – we could have lingered over our plates of grilled octopus, seafood spaghetti and bottle of Malvasia all day, if not for our 2 year old itching to get back to the beach. Valun was in fact so relaxing that we misplaced our car keys at one point – leaving us initially panicked in that “what do you do if you lose your rental car keys in another country” sort of way, but then kind of excited at the idea of possibly having to spend a night in this very special spot. Alas, we celebrated the key recovery over a sunset espresso and some banana chocolate gelato before heading back to Mali Losinj for the night, rounding out a perfect day.
Zabodarski (pictured above)
You’ll need to do a little off-roading to get to Zabodarski Beach, located in Artatore near the island’s small airport. The setting is stunning – a mostly pebbly, partly sandy beach surrounded by a thick green forest of towering pines. Peaceful and secluded, there are no facilities and unsurprisingly, not many other people around. To find Zabodarski — grab a map, follow the signs near the airport and in about 15 minutes on unpaved roads, you’ll reach a shady area with a few parked cars; from there it’s just a short walk through the forest to your own private beach.
Consider Zabodarski a warm up — finding Meli Beach is an adventure in itself. Located on the south side of the island of Cres near Ustrine, Meli is only accessible by a 15 minute off-road drive on dirt roads followed by a 25 minute hike through fields and forests — so bring your own water and bring your own shade. A little effort pays off big here and those who make the journey are rewarded with a real beauty. White sand and shallow water, the kind of beach you’re more likely to find in the Caribbean than in Croatia. Off the main road from Osor to Belej, you will see a sign on the left towards Ustrine. Turn right, down the unmarked road and you will eventually see signs for Plat, the petite village of Srem, and finally the place to park your car and begin the hike. Enjoy, and thank us later!
There are a few ways to arrive in Losinj. We took the 20 minute Jadrolinja car ferry from Brestova (near Rijecka) on the mainland. GPS will not recognize Brestova — the postage-stamp sized town is made up of only a ferry dock (with a beautiful stretch of beach to jump in while you wait) and a small casual rest-stop restaurant. Punch in Plomin and follow the signs from there, and be sure to arrive at least 30 min early, as cars start lining up. From Porozina on the island of Cres, it’s a one lane road all the way to Losinj.
Mare Mare Suites
Address: Riva Losinjskih Kapetana 36, 51550 Mali Losinj
Phone: +385 (0) 51 232-010
Address: Rovenska 3, 51551 Veli Losinj
Phone: + 385 (0)51 867 544
Address: Priko 23, Mali Losinj
Address: Riva Lošinjskih Captain 10, 51550 Mali Lošinj
Phone: +385 (0) 51 238 511
Address: Sveti Martin 58, Mali Losinj
Phone: +385 (0)51 231 956