Touring the Kvarner Islands is as easy as reading a bus schedule. A 200-kuna (about $37) ticket puts me on a modern, air-conditioned bus for a four-hour journey from Zagreb to the Adriatic. I accept the bus driver's effusive apology for charging $1.30 a bag when I see the spectacular scenery. After driving past concrete communist-era apartment blocks on the edge of town, I quickly find myself in deep forests sprinkled with red-tiled cottages. We pass a cow-crossing sign and sheep grazing in fields.
To reach Krk Island, I never leave the bus. A 500-foot-long bridge connects it to the mainland, which makes island hopping here similar to hopscotch. The nearby islands of Cres and Losinj are separated by a wooden bridge exactly 10 feet long.
Only once, from Cres to Rab Island, did I need to buy a ferry ticket.
Accommodations were my biggest surprise. My first island hotel is the Hotel Drazica, a four star on Krk that I found on the Internet for less than $90 a night for a double room with a balcony overlooking the Adriatic.
I needn't have bothered booking ahead. If you want to feel as if you're the first tourists to discover a wonderful European secret, come to the Kvarner Islands in May. I saw no other tourists. I occasionally heard German and once, British English. I met a couple from Canada and saw a visiting school group from Italy. That's about it.
These islands do have a tourist season, however. One restaurant owner on Krk, which features a 114-mile coastline, tells me: "In July, this looks like Little Italy." But in May, it looks like Croatia, as it always has.
Thus, accommodations are a snap. Many Kvarner islanders rent spare rooms to tourists. As I am walking along Cres' charming harbor, an old man in a weathered sport coat sees me and my roller bag. He rests his head on his two hands pressed together and raises his eyebrows curiously, as if to ask, "Need a room?"
He takes me up a staircase to a simple room with a double bed and a dresser. He wants $28. I go to the empty tourist office on the water and the nice woman finds a better room.
For less than $35, I have a fully equipped kitchen, TV, a large bedroom with a view of the harbor and an upstairs spare bedroom with bath. Feeling the salt air as it comes in through the open window makes for a fitful sleep.
Communication isn't a problem. Upon Croatian independence in 1991, English classes in school became mandatory at age 7, and American television shows are shown with subtitles. Pretty much anyone under the age of 40 is conversant in English. That becomes quite handy when I'm escaping a rare rainy day by hanging out in what must be the smallest bar in Europe.
Trinity Pub on Krk Island is the size of a large walk-in closet. On the waterfront next to a wall dating to the 1st century BC, it has four tables just big enough to rest my excellent Ozujsko beer. Dino Durakovic, the hulking, bald-domed 30ish owner, is a native of Krk (Say "Kirk" without the "I").
He gripes about corruption in Croatian politics and rude Italian tourists, but he won't leave Krk anytime soon.
"The peace, the relaxation," he says. "The sea, nature, Old Town. It's quiet."
Very quiet. I spend my first day doing the Kvarner Island thing. I explore the twisting, narrow alleys that lead to tiny groceries displaying local fruits, an old man's jewelry shop and a pretty woman standing on the cobblestones selling homemade Croatian brandy. In Krk's 16th century main square, I see fat, lazy cats sleeping in the sun under a towering clock tower built during Venetian rule 200 years earlier.
I ask Durakovic why these beautiful islands are so empty in May. He suggests I take a swim. Then he smiles. I never get close. On my walk, I see a young German couple trying to muster up the courage to jump into the glass-calm sea.
I dip my hand in the water, and it quickly becomes numb. Picture Lake Tahoe in March. A Boston couple, she of Croatian descent who frequently visits here, tell me that by August the water reaches the warmth of Santa Monica Bay.
Instead, I stroll secluded beaches covered in small, fine stones and finish my journey at another quiet harbor. On Rab Island, used by the Venetians to give plague refugees new lives in the 15th century, I'm being stared at by two whole grilled mackerel, sprinkled with locally made olive oil in the shadow of a 2,000-year-old Roman wall.
Croatia came in from the cold a long time ago. Yet you don't need warm water to be in an island idyll.