Croatia: Elysian Archipelago

Croatia's Kornati islands are a wonderful if wild corner of paradise - as David Shukman and his family found out on a tranquil adventure there
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The Independent Online
We were sitting in the noonday heat at the tiny Adriatic port of Murter on the coast of Croatia and our young children were getting restless. The fisherman who was meant to take us to a cottage on a remote island in the Kornati archipelago had wandered off into the town several hours before. His boat was an alarmingly old vessel which seemed far too small to ferry us and all the provisions needed for a week's stay in a house without electricity or running water. The longer we were left on the dockside the more worried we became.

We were cut off from the world of travel agents, credit cards and complaint hotlines. The whole idea of an adventurous holiday amid the sparkling waters of a little-known marine national park - described by the Lonely Planet guide as "beautiful" but also "uninhabited" - was quickly losing its appeal. The children demanded ice creams, the hot wind picked up and there was still no sign of the boatman. My wife started talking about Cornwall.

Croatia is not usually this difficult for holidaymakers. Tourists, numbering up to 10 million a year before the war, are now streaming back. Our ferry from Italy was dominated by flashy types from Milan and Bologna whose BMWs were towing huge speedboats. Whenever we drove along the dangerously narrow coastal road, it was heavy with cars and caravans from Germany, Austria and Poland, though none from Britain.

Most visitors, booking their holidays through agencies, end up in apartment blocks or hotels in the more famous resorts such as Dubrovnik. We wanted something different - perhaps the Croatian equivalent of a French gite but with its own beach. It was arranged with the help of a Croatian friend, and it had all the usual uncertainties of DIY travel. Hence our long wait on the dockside.

In the end, our fisherman returned and, with the ancient diesel engine chugging noisily, we picked our way through the first of more than 100 islands making up the Kornati archipelago.

It turned out that our rugged helmsman and host, Predrag Juraga, was from one of 130 families who jointly own the Kornati islands. The original masters, the Venetians, lost so much trade to pirates in the maze of rocky islets that, in the mid-19th century, they sold the whole archipelago. With the onset of Communism in Yugoslavia, the fishing families were allowed to retain ownership because the islands were too barren to make a profit. The result, reinforced by status as a national park, is that this striking seascape is entirely free of development or pollution. Most visitors have to sleep aboard their yachts. Our cottage was one of only a few dozen in the whole archipelago.

The house was in a pretty bay shaded by a dense collection of plum and fig trees, with olive groves stretching up the dusty hillside behind it. A small jetty and shingle beach lay a few yards in front. Paths had been laid over the roughest stones. Bottled gas powered a fridge. A well of deliciously cool water was close at hand. And, to the delight of our youngest children, Predrag and his cousins had constructed a sea-water swimming pool.

Once the boat's engine had stopped, our ears adjusted to the gentle lapping of the waves and the utter tranquillity of the scene. Our only neighbours were a Croat couple, Zlatko and Vishnya, on holiday from Zagreb. The nearest other houses - a small huddle of them - were several hundred yards away. And when darkness fell, we could count only two distant lights amid the islands around us. The gentle night-air carried the voice of a fisherman from half-a-mile away. We felt the thrill of being in a wonderful if wild corner of paradise.

Most striking were the extraordinary clarity and colour of the sea and the abundant and beautiful marine life. Snorkelling became a passion for all of us, with the youngest children gazing through the plastic window of our Lilo, especially when Zlatko involved us in his attempts at fishing. Harpooning yielded more than enough for barbecues over olivewood, while overnight we snared a four-foot eel-like fish which ended up in a superb stew. As Zlatko and I swam back with this heavy catch, dawn broke and flights of duck skimmed over the mirrored surface of the water. I realised with pleasure that it was a Monday morning and that I had spent nearly two hours in the sea without feeling cold. I grinned so much that my mask flooded.

Each day seemed more restful than the last. The weather remained hot. My wife scoured the seabed for silver shells and starfish. We collected mussels and clams and even tried poor-man's caviar - the bright orange eggs of sea urchins. From the orchard around the house, the children picked tiny figs and plums. We dined outdoors by candlelight, drinking fruity local wines and marvelling at the lack of insects. Even the washing-up, at an outside sink with a breathtaking view of the bay, had its attractions.

Predrag came to collect us all too soon. His boat now seemed sturdy and welcoming. As we set off for the mainland very early the next day, we watched the Kornati islands change from a silvery-grey to a pale orange while the moon sank and the sun rose. Specks of phosphorescence danced on the dark-blue ripples. The three-hour journey, like the week, passed in a flash.

David Shukman, the BBC's Europe Correspondent, crossed from Ancona, in Italy, to Zadar, in Croatia, with Jadrolinija Ferries. It cost pounds 237.20 each way for two cabins plus pounds 30 each way for the car. Tickets through Dalmatian & Istrian Travel (0181-749 5255). Rent for the cottage was pounds 45 per day all-inclusive. Arrangements were made through Aida Gracin of Mistral Travel in Sibenik (00 385 22 336578).

Croatia Airlines (0181-563 0022) flies daily from Heathrow to Zagreb, with connections to Dubrovnik and Split. There are also direct flights to Split from Heathrow on Saturday, from Stansted on Wednesdays and from Gatwick on Thursdays. In June, Croatia Airlines has a pounds 275 return fare to Split. British Airways (0345 222111) flies daily except Mondays from Gatwick to Zagreb, and has a World Offer fare of pounds 226 return which must be booked by 10 June for travel in June.

Several tour operators offer inclusive holidays in Croatia; more details from the Croatia National Tourist Office, 2 The Lanchesters, 162-164 Fulham Palace Road, London W6 9ER (018 563 7979).