I'm walking along a stretch of the Adriatic Sea that reminds me of another time, another hemisphere. It's not the forest of pine trees that offers shade along the seawall on a poster-perfect 70-degree day. It's not the little docked boats bobbing up and down or the donkey braying in the distance, competing with birds for the lone sound in the air.
No, it's the water.
At this spot on the Adriatic, where the sea starts to run out of room and the curvature of Eastern and Central Europe begins, it's turquoise, more brilliant than the cloudless sky above.
As a very fit woman jogs by and a middle-aged woman in a shawl picks up a tiny piece of rubbish, I remember the last time I saw the sea this turquoise: French Polynesia.
I'm an unabashed lover of Eastern Europe. I'm captivated by its journey from the shadows of the Iron Curtain to the comforts of Westernization. But I never thought I'd compare any square kilometer of Eastern Europe to Tahiti.
I'm in Croatia, hopping around a collection of islands that few Americans visit and whose name even fewer can pronounce. The Kvarner Islands (pronounced var-NAIR) hang off northwestern Croatia like leaves falling peacefully from a tree.
They were once part of the Roman Empire. They served as a camping stop for Caesar. Italian dictator Benito Mussolini once controlled some of these islands.
For five days in May, I saw these isles as they mostly always have been. I sat at quiet, small medieval harbors and prowled narrow, maze-like alleyways right out of ancient Rome. I ate grilled meats and fresh fish from centuries-old recipes.
I journeyed from the capital of Zagreb through four islands and back for all of $160. I rented rooms in people's homes for as low as $35 a night. I ate delicious local dishes of homemade pasta and goulash for $11.
Welcome to island life — Croatian style.
By the sea
The meandering seawall I'm following on the island of Losinj (low-SHEEN) leads me two miles from the town of Mali Losinj, the biggest town in the Kvarners, to the village of Veli Losinj, so cute and tiny that it could have served as a landscape for Renaissance painters.
The small harbor at Veli Losinj is lined with small buildings of red and green and orange and yellow. From my seat at the dockside Gostionica Marina restaurant, I can see fish darting around, chasing my flung pieces of homemade bread. My waiter says they're a member of the bass family.
Mirko Coianovic is tall and distinguished with white hair and a Fu Manchu. He moved to Losinj in 1969 after growing up in Serbia.
"This is a nice place to live," says Coianovic, after serving me a plate of passable pasta Bolognese. "It's clean water. Lots of woods. It's green."
Inside the restaurant, I see a picture of Losinj in the 19th century. The island is as barren as an African savanna. Seeing me stare, Coianovic volunteers, "[Austrian Emperor] Franz Josef built a home here and there were no woods. He had 50,000 trees planted."
Since then, Croatia has had many face-lifts, from Mussolini's fascism to Josip Tito's communism to a bloody fight for independence in the early '90s. The Homeland War, in which native Serbs claimed part of Croatia as their own, left many rural areas of the country devastated.
However, this tiny corner of Croatia seems like a different world in more ways than one.
"If we didn't have TV or radio," Coianovic tells me, "we wouldn't know a war was going on."
Keep in mind that the Croatian islands are not a secret. Southern isles off Dubrovnik such as Hvar and Lokrum have catered to tourists since Tito left a door slightly ajar to the West.
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.
I spot one beautiful white house overlooking the sea. It reminds me of when Croatia was, along with neighboring Slovenia, the richest of the old Yugoslavian republics. I see no poverty. None. Even Rijeka, Croatia's biggest port, has a rakish charm to it.
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.