Richard Powell takes a trip around Croatia's Kvarner Gulf archipelago, on a cycling holiday with a twist aboard a floating hotel...
The view from the plane offers an island panoramic
Flying in along Croatia's Dalmatian coastline offers a tantalizing preview of the sprawl of islands below, where I would soon be sailing, cycling and swimming on a week-long island-hopping mini-cruise.
The taxi from Zadar airport, 10 kilometers from the center, sped through parched countryside to the coast, showing both the sun kissed terrain and shoreline we would soon be trekking across by bike.
Arriving into the city's harbor area, I marveled at its gleaming white footbridge that joined the two halves of the town together, which would light up spectacularly as night fell.
Having unpacked in my cabin, it was time to join the others at the dining table on the back of the 28 mile long Prvi Odisej and introduce myself. This al-fresco communal hub would be where we'd eat all our meals together if we weren't seeking out island cuisine on land.
In case of rain or wind at sea, we could retreat to the boat's cosy indoor lounge, which also offered an internet connection and more importantly, a beer fridge.
The only thing that might draw us in from the deck at this time of year though, would be the changeable bora wind: a side-effect of the "wind tunnel" we would be sailing through. While largely offering a welcome cool breeze in the summer months, it can pipe up later in the year owing to the jagged silhouette of the Velebit Mountain chain on one side and a thousand tiny islands making up a fragmented landmass, on the other.
Every bay the boat docks in is charmingly unique
Gales on the open seas would do little to phase our captain, however. A Dutchman named Bernard, he reassured us he had once sailed single-handedly across the Atlantic.
Thankfully though, this trip would include a skipper, a sailor and a cook. The latter got to work as soon as we sat down, serving up a welcoming dinner of meaty white grouper fish wrapped in bacon with green salad and potatoes.
I'd been looking at the city's great medieval wall that ran the length of the harbor throughout the meal, and as soon as I'd finished, I disembarked to explore what was behind it.
Finding a passage through it into the town proper, I discovered a buzzing free-for-all where locals and visitors shopped, drank and socialized along polished marble pavements, with ancient-looking churches on every corner.
There were some great shops in this area, too. A nondescript storage room off one of the well-beaten footpaths had been transformed into a temporary antiques shop, selling everything from authentic suits of armor and cannons, to First World War sabres. Further along, a street vendor sold bottles of her own bootleg liquor made of local Maraschino cherries: a real Dalmatian staple, and a great gift to take back home.
We had a guided tour of this magnificent place the next day, where we would discover a plethora of Roman ruins alongside 11th Century signposts written in Glagolitic, the oldest known Slavic alphabet from the 9th Century.
You'll be saddling up and off before long
More modern marvels have appeared in the city since, such as the port's "sea organ": a giant experimental instrument that creates music from submerged tubes as the waves lap against them. This grand installation was a world first when it appeared in 2005, courtesy of architect Nikola Basic who was rewarded for it with the European Prize for Urban Public Space.
It was this very spot, the guide tells us, that inspired the legendary director Alfred Hitchcock to proclaim, "Zadar has the most beautiful sunset in the world," when he visited in 1964.
I was quickly growing attached to Zadar too, but before we knew it, it was time to set sail from the mainland for our first island: Silba.
Here, we landed at the tiny Port Žalic where we climbed ashore to find the village there all but empty. But as the sun sank, the entire island became lit by a bewitching blanket of stars in silent darkness.
Many of the visitors that normally flocked to these parts had already gone home towards the end of the season, leaving us to drink at a bar with only couple of locals for company while we tried to pick out constellations from the heavenly light show above.
Next morning, we set sail for Lošinj, our first cycling destination, and soon after unloading the bikes at its picture-postcard-pretty harbor, we were pedaling through forests full of pine, agave and tamarisk trees. Long stretches of beach in-between catered to groups from families on caravan holidays to the Freikörperkultur (FKK) lot, where enthusiasts could represent the Free Body Culture movement in all their natural glory.
Octopus salad is a delicious island favorite
The island's rich cultural heritage could be seen everywhere you cared to look, with monasteries, basilicas and remnants from ancient times spread all over. One of the most important archaeological finds of the region -- a bronze statue of Apoksiomen, an athlete from around the 2nd Century B.C. -- was found on the sea bed here in 1999.
Roman settlers began to inhabit Lošinj around 1280 A.D., naming it "Apsorrus." Their legacy left a number of ancient hill-forts, which still stand today around the port of Mali Lošinj.
The island is better known today for its medical qualities, having been proclaimed a climatic health resort by the Austrian-Hungarian monarchy in 1885. Ever since, it has been a top destination for treating respiratory tract problems and allergies, bringing visitors from around the world.
Reaching the beautiful fishing village of Veli Lošinj, dominated by a huge church and a bay of shimmering turquoise water as clear as glass, we stopped for a tour of the The Lošinj Aromatic Garden where the proprietors made their own mirto, a liqueur made by infusing myrtle berries with alcohol and honey: perfect for a midday pick-me-up.
Lunch at our restaurant in town served up a divine octopus salad with anchovies, rocket, tomatoes and feta cheese. I admit some bias here, as I still rank an octopus salad I ate on the Dalmatian coast some years before as being the best meal of my life.
Another couple of hours of cycling later, and I was happy to be back on the boat, diving off the bow into the harbor and paddling away my aches from arriving on a biking holiday without having spent nearly enough time in the gym, beforehand.
Roman ruins abound, offering a window to the past
The next morning we were off again. This time to the island of Rab, where we had a tour of the sprawling Roman ruins that were almost certainly visited by King Edward VIII and the wife he abdicated the throne to marry, when they holidayed here together in 1936.
The restaurant here served a typical local dish of white bogue fish and a mush of potato and asparagus, before the island's signature dessert dish of Krokant cake, a moist baked almond treat.
When we left to continue our bike trek along the promenade, the sun was still baking -- with a typically deep-blue, cloudless sky overhead. We pushed on through the countryside and up the town's surrounding hills.
It was heavy-going under the conditions, and I did begin to think our host, who was setting the pace, may once have fancied himself as a Tour de France contender.
But Bernard knew all the best places to go, and by the end of a scenic climb to the top of a cliff that overlooked the harbor and our boat, miles below, we were nursing cold beers taking in the panoramic from the bar's balcony.
From here we could see the whole outlay of the town's original medieval walls and whitewashed Romanesque bell towers, surrounded by neatly-manicured parks. We could also make out a very popular port-side bathing spot, which we all made a bee-line for as soon as we got back down to sea-level, for some well-earned cooling off.
The cycle routes run through town and country
In the morning, we sailed on to Pag: a long, salt-rich island battled over for centuries by Croatians, Hungarians and Venetians vying to control the local trade in "white gold": a commodity that was as valuable back then as oil is today.
Its segmented town sits on a hilltop near the salt-pans, where a guide showed us around the remains of its Franciscan monastery. There was also a famous church, built in 1392 by a sculptor from Abruzzo. Italian development in the area continued into the next century, with the beautiful "New Town" being designed entirely by Venetian, Giorgio da Sebenico in 1403.
Today, this industrious Croatian island is more famous for being home to some of most skilled lace makers in the world, earning it recognition from UNESCO.
A visit to the town's otherwise rather bland salt museum was brightened up by its impossibly pretty curator: an unashamedly common trait among the girls of the Adriatic islands.
We cycled on through the countryside along ancient stonewalls leading out of the town, laid by its original inhabitants to protect them from the fierce Bora winds.
Continuing along the narrowing peninsula, the landscape took on an almost Middle Eastern quality of being desolate and arid, before reaching the island's vast salt basin plains, and eventually the sea again.
Sunsets and sailing: Relax on island time
Here, the boat picked us up from Novalja -- the main port area in the north of the island -- which is also home to the infamous Zrće Beach: one of the biggest summer party destinations in Europe.
While this area is known for drawing world-class DJs and thousands of wild revelers in July and August, there was no such party going on when we passed through, and though the night-life varied from island-to-island over the course of the week; the most reliable source of revelry was always going to be found back in Zadar.
Fortunately, that was our final destination on this last Friday night, and once we'd docked, Bernard and I decided to see how many of its bars and clubs we could get around, after having dinner, as a send-off.
Despite nursing a criminal hangover the next morning while packing early to clear the cabin for the next brave cyclist, I still had a half-day before it was time to fly out.
I knew at this point I had unmistakably caught the island bug over my week-long mini-cruise, opting for a quick ferry trip over to Ošljak: one of the closest islands to Zadar.
A path that runs right around this mini-island led me through protected woodland, hidden coves, rocky beaches, a lighthouse and even the ruins of ancient windmills from the 16th Century, allowing me to see almost the entire place in just a couple of hours, without getting lost.
Taking a break from its beaten track, and finding myself on a deserted beach without trunks or towel, I seized the opportunity to try some FKK for myself, and jumped into the sea one last time.
As I splashed about, taking in Zadar across the channel, and my new little island paradise off the beach, I vowed I would be back again next summer to see how many more of its 1,200 islands I could tick off the list.