'Untouched nature of beautiful islands', promises the website of Brijuni National Park. 'Beautiful' is an understatement, and 'untouched' far from the truth: it’s precisely the human touch present in this landscape for millennia that makes it captivating.
Arriving at the Veli ('Great') Brijun port after a 15-minute ferry ride from the pastel-hued town of Fažana across the bay, your first encounter with the long history of the islands will be a look at Neptun and Istra hotels and the delicate boathouse protruding into the sea. Columned balconies, Secession-era arches and ornaments, midcentury furniture and elegantly clad waiters all call to mind the grandeur of the resort’s Habsburg-era origins. Much of the charm is owed to the authenticity of what you see, rather than the kind of contrived nostalgia aesthetic that can overwhelm. It almost makes you grateful that none of the successive governments’ promises for a major revamp to the resort materialised. The hotel staff, in fact, boast that many guests request one of the rooms without air-conditioning, to immerse themselves fully in the holiday spirit of the early 1900s. With or without air-conditioning, as you sip your Aperol Spritz, you are part of a tradition started by Austro-Hungarian aristocrats and Venetian socialites who flocked to Brijuni to enjoy the sea and the cocktails, to play tennis, polo and golf, but mostly not to do very much at all.
These days most visitors from mainland Istria to Veli Brijun don’t stay overnight, and many opt for a tour on the little sightseeing train before rushing on. With plenty to explore in the national park over a couple of days, you’ll be much better off renting a bike or a golf cart, if you keenly feel the summer inertia. Take spontaneous turns as you spot ancient olive trees, follow birdsong from the ornithological reservation or run into herds of deer or mouflon amidst the meadows lined with fragrant cypresses. The turn-of-the-century belvedere is worth finding to appreciate its design; the views along the way are no less memorable than the structure itself. Many of the roads not to miss are in the island’s interior, the most renowned of which is the pine alley not far behind Hotel Neptun, the enormous trees casting shadows over the tennis courts (equipment is available to rent).
Fun as it is on the tennis courts, we all know that in the summer heat, we’re really here for the beach. Saluga is the most well-known, but for a more solitary experience and the palette of blue that the Adriatic offers at its clearest, head for Rankun, the pebbly cove just past Villa Dubravka. A tiny, irresistible beach a little out of way, known as Berta, is another highlight, but one of the most remarkably unique swimming spots anywhere is in Verige Bay, hugged by an ancient Roman villa. Built in 1st century AD, the complex was replete with worldly and spiritual luxuries including thermal baths and temples — one devoted to Neptune and another, fittingly, to Venus, the goddess of beauty. Forget the sandy beach: the stone quay on the northern side of the bay, once busy with commerce, is the place to spread a towel and alternate between sunbathing and cooling off in the spotless, aquamarine sea.
One of Brijuni’s greatest delights is that you can enjoy a striking heritage site like this without queues, crowds or restrictions. Other archaeological points of interest include the 5th-century St. Mary’s Basilica and the nearby Byzantine settlement, itself right next to Brijunka, one of many villas Josip Broz Tito built on the island to host visiting heads of states and movie stars (and to use as his own summer residence while he was Yugoslavia’s president from 1953 to 1980). There is sadly no public access to the sites where the likes of Queen Elizabeth and Sophia Loren once danced and Che Guevara enjoyed a cigar with Tito. The charismatic leader’s most curious legacy on Brijuni is very much open to the public: the quaint safari park in the north of the island, populated with exotic animals the Yugoslav dictator received as gifts. The ice cream served by the always-smiling gentleman at Cafe Sonny and Lanka (named after the elephant couple gifted to Tito by Indira Gandhi) and the accompanying arias make a well-deserved afternoon break at the far end of the safari park.
Dedicate an evening to Ulysses Theatre on the smaller Mali Brijun, a ten-minute boat ride from the main island. The plays staged here, often going on till the wee hours, have been put on by such acclaimed actors and directors as Rade Šerbedžija, Lenka Udovički, Ralph Fiennes and the late Tomaž Pandur. The secluded Austro-Hungarian fort that is home to the open-air theatre feels otherworldly at sunset, an impression amplified by the masterful, minimal stage designs. Combined, they might just evoke in you that famous catharsis of ancient Greek tragedies, but Ulysses is just as strong with contemporary plays. If you’ve done a little too much sunbathing to care for an evening of thespian arts, you can enjoy Ulysses Theatre’s diverse musical offerings. Since most spectators join from the Istrian mainland, a second, smaller boat will usually be ready after the performance for the cheerful theatre crowd. Hop on and be amazed by the Milky Way at its most expansive as the captain navigates gently to avoid the deer crossing between the islands.