With its mountainous coastal backdrop, scattering of tawny islands and giddyingly translucent waters, the Croatian Adriatic offers one of the most compelling seascapes in Europe. Indeed it’s something of an island-hopper’s paradise, with a veritable shoal of ferries providing the opportunity to stride up the gangplank, sprawl on the sun deck and soak up the maritime scenery. Considering a trip? Here's what you need to know about island-hopping in Croatia.
Where should I start?
Where you start largely depends on which airport you fly into. The mid-Dalmatian city of Split receives the largest number of incoming flights and is also the Adriatic Sea’s largest ferry port, serving the ever-popular islands of Šolta, Hvar, Brač, Korčula and Vis.
The two other entry points are the northern city of Rijeka, providing access to a varied group of islands in the Kvarner Gulf; and the north Dalmatian port of Zadar, with its own group of laid-back island getaways.
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What's the best way to get around?
Car ferries run by state company Jadrolinija serve the main islands, providing public transport for the locals as well as sustaining island tourism.
Faster and slightly more expensive than the ferries, passenger-only catamarans run by both Jadrolinija and Krilo Jet whizz across the water to a selection of destinations.
Back in summer 2015, a fleet of seaplanes run by European Coastal Airlines started flying from Pula, Rijeka and Split to Lošinj, Hvar, Korčula and Lastovo, adding significantly to the number of itineraries on offer.
Hvar © Xenia Chowaniec / Shutterstock
When should I go?
It is possible to island-hop all year round, although sailings to particular islands might be limited to one a day in winter. Wait until the summer timetables come into effect (usually June–Sept) to take advantage of the full range of options.
Note that some routes (such as the Veli Lošinj-Zadar ferry or the Split-Hvar-Dubrovnik catamaran) only run in summer.
July and August can be very hot indeed – perfect for splashing around in the Adriatic, but potentially exhausting if you are indulging in urban sightseeing, not to mention hiking or cycling.
Some of the catamaran sailings can sell out in high season, raising the chances of you getting stranded at least once during your trip.
Costs are also at their highest in midsummer, when accommodation prices go through the roof. Travel in late spring or early autumn and you’ll get better value all round.
Mljet National Park © OPIS Zagreb / Shutterstock
What does the classic island circuit look like?
The most popular island-hopping itinerary is from Split to Dubrovnik via Brač, Hvar and Korčula. This allows you to see the very best of Dalmatia and is relatively easy to do.
There are numerous ferries from Split to Supetar on Brač, from where you can cross the island to visit the fabulous (but over-popular) Zlatni rat beach at Bol. A daily catamaran sails from Bol to Jelsa on Hvar, from where regular buses will take you to Hvar Town and its compulsive mixture of Renaissance architecture and cocktail-fuelled nights.
There’s a daily catamaran service from Hvar Town to Korčula, where another seductive blend of past glory and present-day hedonism awaits. From here, you can choose between a catamaran or bus ride to Dubrovnik, which makes for a suitably spectacular climax to your trip.
Brač Island, Croatia © xbrchx / Shutterstock
And beyond that?
The only problem with the classic island circuit is that it can sometimes seem like an oversubscribed exercise in box-ticking – and you really need to give each island time in order to get the most out of the experience.
Consider a side-trip to sleepy, understated Šolta, the nearest island to Split, with its dry-stone-walled olive groves and picture-perfect harbour villages, Maslinica and Stomorska.
Once on Brač, avoid Zlatni rat and make for less-hyped beaches like Lovrečina Bay, or the rocky shores around bike-friendly Sutivan.
On Hvar, don’t just stick to the main town but find time for the equally historic but decidedly more mellow Stari Grad.
It’s a shame to go to Korčula without visiting Proizd, the famously alluring rocky islet just off the port of Vela Luka.
Stari Grad on Hvar's waterfront © xbrchx / Shutterstock
Very much an independent traveller’s favourite due to the relative lack of package hotels, Vis is the kind of island that attracts superlatives, whether on account of its rugged scenery, stunning beaches, individual cuisine, or its increasingly cool reputation for offshore bohemia.
However Vis is also notoriously difficult to island-hop, with Tuesday morning’s catamaran service to Hvar Town the only link to a nearby island. All other ferry transport goes through Split, meaning that you have to track back to the mainland before travelling onwards. Providing you study the timetable carefully, the diversion to Vis will be well worth the effort.
Is it worth journeying north?
In short, yes. The islands of the northern Adriatic can be just as rewarding as those of the south. Catamaran services from Rijeka allow you to sample some highly individual, under-touristed islands, alongside increasingly sophisticated Lošinj, the rising star of Adriatic chic.
The uniquely sandy island of Susak ought to be your first stop, followed by bustling Mali Lošinj with its sleek spa hotels and palm-fringed promenades. From here you can travel on to Silba, a snoozy Shangri-la of independent travel where cars and even bicycles are banned.
From Silba, head south by catamaran or ferry to the historic port of Zadar (gateway to another group of low-key islands), or return to Lošinj, where one of European Coastal Airlines’ seaplanes will whisk you down the coast to Split, ready to start your island-hopping adventures all over again.
Explore more of Croatia with The Rough Guide to Croatia.