Scattered like pebbles to the west of Murter lie the ninety or so islands of the Kornati archipelago, grouped around the 35km-long island of Kornat. A national park since 1980, the Kornati archipelago comprises a distinctively harsh and bare environment, almost devoid of life. The islands range in colour from stony white to pale ochre, mottled with patches of pale green sage. They were once covered in forest until it was burned down to make pasture for sheep, who proceeded to eat everything in sight. The dry-stone walls used to pen them in are still visible, although the sheep themselves – save for a few wild descendants – are no more.
The islands were originally owned by the nobles of Zadar, who allowed the peasants of Murter to raise flocks and grow olives on them in return for a share in the cheese and oil thus produced. When the Zadar nobility fell on hard times in the nineteenth century, the islands were sold to the Murterians – and their descendants, the Kurnatari, remain owners of most of the Kornati to this day. Despite the number of stone cottages scattered over the islands (Vruje, on Kornat, is the biggest single settlement with fifty houses), most Kurnatari actually live in Murter nowadays – returning to the islands for a few months in the summer, when they come to relax, fish, or take advantage of the growing opportunities offered by tourism. The popularity of the Kornati with the international yachting fraternity is having a profound impact on the archipelago’s development, with shoreline restaurants serving top-quality seafood springing up in every available cove. There’s a fully equipped yachting marina on the island of Piškera, on the western side of the archipelago, and an even bigger one on the island of Žut, which lies just outside the park boundaries to the east. With clear waters and relatively untouched ecology, the Kornati can also be a spectacular place for scuba diving.