Squeezed between the Istrian peninsula to the north and Dalmatia to the south, the Kvarner Gulf brings together many of the Croatian coast’s most enticing features: grizzled coastal hills and mountains, an archipelago of ochre-grey islands and fishing villages with narrow alleys and gardens groaning under the weight of subtropical plants. The Kvarner island of Rab boasts sandy beaches of almost Caribbean proportions, and the range of rocky and pebbly coves on offer elsewhere will have Adriatic-beach enthusiasts scouring their brains in search of superlatives.
Croatia’s largest port and centre of the Kvarner’s transport network, Rijeka is a prosperous and cultured city brimming with hedonistic energy and a busy gateway to the islands that crowd the gulf to the south. Of these, Krk is the most accessible, connected to the mainland by a road bridge just half an hour’s drive from Rijeka; the islands farther out – Lošinj, Rab and Cres – are only accessible by ferry and have a correspondingly rural, laid-back feel. Each has its fair share of historic towns, along with some gorgeous coves and beaches – especially the sandy ones at Baška on Krk and Lopar on Rab. Although lush and green on their western flanks, islands like Rab and Pag are hauntingly bare when seen from the mainland, the result of deforestation during the Venetian period, when local timber was used to feed the shipyards of Venice; the fierce northeasterly wind known as the bura has prevented anything from growing there again.
Back on the mainland, the Habsburg-era villas of Opatija and Lovran preserve an evocative flavour of the belle époque. The southern part of the Kvarner coastline is dominated by the stark and majestic Velebit mountains, a huge chain that comprises both the Northern Velebit and Paklenica national parks at opposite ends of the range.