The Four Corners of Kvarner : For a Glimpse of the Mediterranean "As It Was," the Northern Adriatic Islands of Cres, Krk, Rab, and Pag Are a Good Place to Start

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The Croatian islands that lie at the top of the Adriatic are popular vacation spots for natives, but they are yet to be discovered by the world. Their unfamiliarity is probably due to many factors, not the least being their relative inaccessibility. This could be a blessing in disguise, as these islands are almost untouched, some say much like the Mediterranean as it was before mass tourism left its mark around the basin.

Cres, Rab, Pag, and Krk are the four main islands of the tourist region of Croatia called Kvarner. This area is not limited to the archipelago of islands I visited; it includes an arc of fishing villages and cities along the mainland coast from Brestova, about twenty-five miles south of Rijeka, to just north of Senj. Ulka mountain and the Ci_arija range separate Kvarner from the neighboring tourist region of Istria.

The word Kvarner is derived from the Latin quaternarius, which refers to the four cardinal points on a map. In this case, some sources say, it means that the waters of the region can be approached from all four directions: north, south, east, and west.

Like their southern cousins Korcula and Hvar, these islands are composed of limestone. Their streets are paved with this smooth, light-colored, and sometimes slippery stone, and it is also the primary building material for waterfronts, churches, and many dwellings. The four islands have another commonality: their main towns have the same name as the islands themselves. I quickly found out that this oddity, if not properly explained, can be a bit confusing when trying to chronicle one's travels. I also found out that looks can be deceiveing. Sun-splashed vistas can look warm, but after Labor Day cool temperatures coupled with a stiff breeze made me occasionally grab for my jacket.

Krk is the main jumping-off point for Cres, with regular ferries all day long, but there is also daily service from Rijeka. Although local officials have high expectations for tourism, they are not really geared up for it, which leaves much to improve, especially accommodations. One of the only places to stay on Cres is the Hotel Kimen, a postcommunist hotel with no shower curtains. Hence, a traveler must be a bit of an adventurer to settle for the lack of amenities and occasional surly service--and might be wise to make it a day-trip.

Steep and inaccessible parts of Cres' eastern coast are home to the white-headed vulture, or Gyps fulvus, which can usually be seen soaring high above the island as you approach from the sea. The northern town of Beli, whose ancient name was Caput Insulae, or "head of the island," has a small ecomuseum dedicated to this bird, but it is really not worth the long ride unless you are also interested in visiting the nearby Tramuntana forest preserve. One worthy stop is a roadside stand on the way to Beli run by a young Cresian couple who sell sage honey.

Oddly, Cres has no aboveground streams, so the main source of drinking water is a lake in the middle of the island. Northern towns must resort to collecting rainwater. Beli's forty-something inhabitants have refined the art of water collection, with sophisticated gutters and spouts on all the houses channeling the flow into a local cistern system.

The town of Cres has a nice waterfront with a few good restaurants and a Franciscan monastery with a collection of antique stone containers once used to store some of the island's bounteous olive oil production. Again, the town offers little in the way of accommodations. Home stays are possible, but be prepared for the unexpected--such as bed-and-breakfasts that don't offer breakfast.

A spot in the middle of the island boasts the oldest known Glagolitic, or proto-Croatian, writing tablet. The "tablet" was actually a headstone discovered in the cemetery of the St. Mark's church outside the small town of Valun. Today, only replicas are on view at the cemetery and in Valun itself. …