Sheltered by soaring mountains, the Kvarner Gulf has long been loved by visitors attracted to the mild climate and cobalt waters, and those in search of more than just beach appeal. In the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the wealthy built holiday homes here, bestowing places like Rijeka and Opatija with a rich legacy of stately Habsburg-era architecture. From both of these neighbouring towns you can easily connect to hiking trails inside the protected forests of Učka Nature Park and Risnjak National Park.
The islands of Cres, Lošinj, Krk and Rab all have highly atmospheric old port towns and stretches of unspoilt coastline dotted with remote coves for superb swimming. Wildlife puts in an appearance, too: Cres has an important griffon-vulture population, Lošinj has a marine centre devoted to preserving the Adriatic's dolphins and turtles, while bears (though elusive) may be sighted in both Učka and Risnjak.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Kvarner.
High on a hill above the city, this semiruined 13th-century fortress offers magnificent vistas from its bastions and ramparts, looking down the Rječina River valley to the docks, the Adriatic and the distant island of Krk. The present structure was built by the Frankopan dukes of Krk, but its latest facelift was in 1824, when Irish-born count Laval Nugent, a commander in the Austrian army, bought the castle and had it restored in a romantic neoclassical Biedermeier design.
For one of Krk's best beaches, head south of Punat on the lonely road to Stara Baška. It’s a superlative drive, through steep, parched hills and lunar scenery. Stara Baška itself is a run-of-the-mill tourist sprawl of holiday homes and caravan parks, but 500m before the first campsite there's a series of gorgeous pebble-and-sand coves with wonderful swimming. Park on the road and then walk down one of the rocky paths for five minutes to get to the coast.
Dating from the 12th century, this is Rab’s tallest bell tower and one of the most beautiful on the entire Croatian coast. The 26m edifice is topped with an octagonal pyramid surrounded by a Romanesque balustrade, and features a cross with five small globes and reliquaries of several saints. Climb up the very steep wooden staircase for glorious views over old-town rooftops and sea. You'll emerge right by the chiming mechanism itself.
A companion piece to the practical conservation work of Blue World, this enlightening attraction aims to educate locals and visitors about the marine environment and the threats it's facing. Inside this swanky modern centre there's a highly informative video (in a variety of languages), the vertebrae of an 11m fin whale (a baby) and some multimedia displays, including an acoustic room where you can hear dolphin-click communications.
One of Croatia's best beaches, this sickle of fine sand hems Lopar's southern flank and is the biggest attraction in these parts. Backed by all sorts of attractions, from minigolf to ice-cream parlours, this is the ideal spot for a family holiday. The beach hardly shelves as it goes out into the warm Adriatic, and a small offshore island makes for a great swimming or kayaking destination.
One of Kvarner’s most remote and beautiful beaches, this secluded cove is accessed by following a steep path through the scrub. The 45-minute descent is a breeze, but coming back up is more of a challenge (you might want to take a taxi boat from Valun or Cres).
If you only want to hit one beach, drive 5km to the turn-off for Krivica. It’s a 30-minute descent from the parking area to this idyllic, sheltered bay, which is ringed by pine trees. The water is emerald tinged and superb for swimming.
Sahara Beach is a popular nudist spot in a gorgeous but shallow bay. Look for the signpost pointing off the main road before you reach Paradise Beach; it's a 1.8km (half-hour) walk from here, or you can drive along the narrow lane and walk for 15 minutes from the parking area.
An archetypal Adriatic beach – secluded, wonderfully quiet and strewn with pebbles – 130m below the pretty village of Beli.