The small, often bare islands of northern Dalmatia – sometimes called the Zadar archipelago – see much less in the way of mass tourism than those in the south, and their unspoilt, largely rural nature provides them with bags of off-the-beaten-track allure. The northern end of the archipelago is full of semi-abandoned islands boasting beautiful bays and lush inland scenery, although few other than Silba possess significant tourist facilities. Silba’s near-neighbour Olib is worth considering as a day-trip if not necessarily a lengthy stay. Densely inhabited Ugljan, directly opposite Zadar, is almost a suburb of the city, and it is the long and barren Dugi otok, on the far side of Ugljan, that offers most in the way of stunning scenery. It is here that you will find the beautiful Telašćica Bay – the archipelago’s most celebrated natural beauty spot.
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For connoisseurs of soothingly unspoilt islands with no traffic and no hotels, kidney-shaped Silba is as perfect as they come. Not only are there no cars on the island, an unofficial ban on bicycles from mid-July to late August serves to preserve the island’s pedestrian pace. Strolling along maquis-lined country lanes in search of wild beaches is the only adrenalin sport you are likely to encounter here.
Eight kilometres in length and only 1km wide at its narrowest point, Silba probably gets its name from the Latin word silva (wood) and is still covered with trees (notably crnika or Mediterranean black oak), giving it an atmosphere quite different from that of its scrub-covered neighbours. The island’s one settlement, Silba Town, has an air of relaxed luxury, its palm-shaded stone houses and their walled gardens serving as reminders of the island’s erstwhile commercial wealth, when sailing ships from Silba dominated the carrying trade between Dalmatia and Venice – only to be put out of business by the steam-powered vessels of the nineteenth century. During the 1970s Silba attracted a significant slice of both Croatia and Slovenia’s post-hippy, pre-punk intelligentsia, who camped wild on the southern part of the island. Nowadays a permanent population of about three hundred is swelled tenfold in summer, when weekenders from Zadar and independent travellers from all over Croatia come to enjoy the island’s uniquely relaxing rural atmosphere.
With a catamaran operating daily between Silba and Zadar it’s possible to fit one of the other islands of the northern archipelago into a trip of one day or longer. One of the most rewarding of these is Olib, another small, car-free place offering unspoilt nature and an unhurried pace of life. In the twentieth century it was traditional for Olib families to emigrate to New Jersey, and you will encounter older locals speaking English with a pronounced North American drawl. A handful of local families offer accommodation, so it’s feasible to stay here if you plan in advance, although most people limit themselves to a day on the beach.
Olib’s main settlement is much more of a scattered rural village than a compact town, with long distances between family houses and only a church belfry to tell you where the centre might be. Beside the church is an impressively rugged latemedieval tower, built to provide refuge from raiding pirates. Beyond the church, a signed path leads to Slatinica Bay, some fifteen minutes’ walk between dry-stone-walled olive groves, where you will find a broad crescent of shingle and a shallow, sandy-floored bay.
- Dugi otok