It doesn't take much exposure to Croatia's islands to develop a serious addiction: the colours, sounds and scents all seem that much more intense than on the mainland. The difficulty comes when you try to select a favourite from among the 1,244 (if you count every rock and islet) that are scattered, confetti-like, down Croatia's lengthy Adriatic coastline. The 50 or so that are permanently inhabited have their own very individual personalities: tiny Susak in the north is composed of compacted sand, like an inhabited dune; Pag has been scoured of vegetation by sheep and the Bura wind; Mljet in the south is lush and forested.
The tourist development that followed the Balkan War has, on the whole, avoided large-scale all-inclusive resorts and although the more popular islands such as Hvar, Brac and Korcula are crowded in July and August, there's usually a secluded cove, a crumbling stone village or an unpretentious supper of fresh fish waiting to be discovered off the beaten track. And added flights to Rijeka airport have improved ease of access to the lovely islands of the Kvarner Gulf.
Thanks to their historical strategic importance, the islands have been left with some impressive Greek and Roman remains, such as the archaeological bronzes discovered off Mali Losinj and amphoras off Hvar. The Middle Ages saw the powerful Venetian Empire taking advantage of the islands' natural harbours to build fortified towns whose beautiful architecture can still be appreciated in the capitals of Rab , Hvar, Korcula and Cres.
Vying with these for the attention of visitors are a plethora of largely unspoilt natural delights. At the top of any must-see list is the Blue Cave of Bisevo, a spectacular play of light on water which is accessed by boat from the nearby island of Vis. On the oak-forested northern hills of Cres, the sight of a soaring griffon vulture provides a dramatic moment, while off Korcula the clear, clean water shelters outcrops of gorgeous red coral. The best beaches, always a subject of lively local debate, would certainly include Telascica Bay on the island of Dugi Otok, the pebble promontory of Zlatni Rat on Brac, and Krk island's sandy Baska beach.
So which do you choose? For a one-centre holiday, head for the larger and more populous islands, where the infrastructure is developed and ferry connections enable you to make day trips to neighbouring isles. From north to south, Krk, Cres, Mali Losinj, Rab, Hvar, Brac and Korcula fall into this category. They all have a combination of beaches, beguiling towns, plenty of restaurants and interiors with ancient villages.
If you want to do some serious island hopping, it's worth concentrating on well-connected groups of islands, for example Krk, Rab and Pag, or Brac, Hvar and Vis. For long-distance island hopping, use the coastal ferry which from June to September makes two return voyages a week between Rijeka and Dubrovnik, calling on the way at Split and the islands of Hvar, Korcula and Mljet. Ticket prices for the 24-hour voyage, operated by Jadrolinija, start at €34 (00 385 51 666 111; jadrolinija.hr )
A sailing holiday is an ideal way to see some of the more remote islands, such as the Kornati. Sail Dalmatia (0800 124 4176; saildalmatia.com) offers a week's sailing aboard the Vila Vrgada, a traditional sailing boat which sleeps eight in four ensuite cabins. A week in July for a party of eight costs €8,200, with full crew, private chef and watersports. It includes half board and transfers but excludes flights to Zadar or Split. The same company also provides the ultimate in romantic weekend packages – a visit by motor cruiser from Split to the diminutive and perfectly heart-shaped island of Galesjnak. But it will cost €10,000.
Many islands cater for particular interests: on Mljet and northern Cres you'll find unspoilt nature, Brac is good for watersports, and the scattered archipelago of 130 largely uninhabited Kornati islands lures divers. The little island of Vis, which for many years was out of bounds as a military base, has gained a reputation for gastronomy; Rab is known for its round-the-clock partying; and if you feel up to joining the beautiful people, then Hvar attracts more than its fair share of celebs on luxury yachts.
Although the dreary old hotels from the days of Yugoslavia have been renovated and some new ones opened on the more popular islands, a large proportion of visitor accommodation is provided by rented rooms, called sobe, and flats (apartmani). In the high season, booking is advisable, with the Croatian National Tourist Office (020-8563 7979, croatia.hr) a good starting point.
Among the UK holiday operators who provide hotel packages to the Croatian Islands are Balkan Holidays (0845 520 1260; balkanholidays.co.uk), who offer a week in the three-star Hotel Croatia in Hvar, with easyJet flights from Gatwick to Split on 14 July, for £843 per person half-board. As part of its "Love Croatia" programme, Essentially Prestige (01425 480400; prestigeholidays.co.uk) has a week's B&B at the ornate four-star Hotel Arbiana, in Rab's stunning old town. Cost for departures in September start from £668 per person, with flights from Heathrow with Croatia Airlines and transfers.
You can dip your toe into island life with a day-return from the mainland. Dubrovnik is the jumping-off point for the 20-minute trip to the lovely little island of Lopud, which has shady, wooded walks, fine beaches (one of them naturist) and a ruined fortress to visit. A return journey by taxi boat from Dubrovnik's old port costs 40 kuna (£5). An enjoyable excursion from Split is to little Solta, an hour away by ferry (return ticket 66 kuna/£8) which tends to be uncrowded even in high summer: Swim or snorkel in one of its 24 bays, eat lunch in the fishing village of Maslinica and climb the hill, Vela Straza, for great views over neighbouring islands.