One of the largest but least developed of Croatia’s islands, the relatively untouched gem of Cres contains 400sq km of rugged wilderness, an estimated 80 breeding pairs of the rare griffon vultures and only 3,000 full-time human residents. There are a couple of resort settlements, but not much else in the way of luxury vacations. For more sophistication, take a room in ancient Cres town; for wilderness, get a campsite in the hills. Either way, you can expect a simpler and quieter time than many of Kvarner’s other resorts.
Cres is long enough to have two distinct landscapes, verdant in the north, known as Tramuntana, barren to the south. The north contains the two settlements of Beli – home to the Caput Insulae Eco Centre, which works to protect rare resident birds – and the commercial centre of Cres town. There, fishing boats bob in the café-lined harbour, behind which serpentine, car-free streets weave between attractively austere and fading pastel buildings.
Cres town dates back at least a couple of millennia, and the island itself has been inhabited since the Palaeolithic era. It was successively ruled by Romans, Byzantines and the first independent Croatians around 822. The Venetians took over the island for about 400 years, beginning around the tenth century, and put up the older remaining landmarks in Cres town. Of particular note is the Church of Our Lady of Snow, in the heart of town, dating from the 16th century with a bell tower from the 18th.
If you continue west from Cres town harbour, you reach the Lungomare seaside promenade that leads to the town’s pebbly beach. In the opposite direction you get to the town marina, and beyond that to a beautiful natural seaside walk along the wide bay of Cres town.
The southern part of Cres island has the former regional capital of Osor. As a major trading port, ‘Apsorus’ was the largest Roman town on the Croatian Adriatic after Pula. Since then, Osor has been in decline, although its Archaelogical Museum (open 10am-1pm, 7-11pm Tue-Sun, 10kn) shows that medieval Osor was still sizeable.
In between north and south are the ancient villages of Lubenice and Valun, both with nice beaches; and Martinščica, a small tourist development centred around a 16th century monastery and a good pebbly beach. The 4,000-year-old settlement of Lubenice is home to 20 ageing souls and crumbling stone buildings, including a Romanesque chapel used as storage space. On the jagged coast, a series of secluded pebble coves are reached by a steep footpath leading through the underbrush. Nearby Valun is a charming fishing village whose parish church contains the Valun Tablet. Its inscription from the 11th century is an early example of the ancient local tongue of Glagolitic.
In the middle of the island, freshwater Lake Vrana, its surface above sea level, its depths below the sea bottom, supplies both Cres and Lošinj, and is strictly off-limits to visitors. Porozina at the northern tip is the main point of entry from the little port of Brestova, on the Istria-Kvarner border. While you're on the island, be sure to sample some of the famous Cres olive oil. You'll probably end up bringing some back home with you.