Slavic secret: Solta is steeped in history and rich in beauty

In travel, as in life, you should never confuse quantity with quality. Yet the amount of space that guidebooks assign to a particular location can provide a useful indication of a destination's relative merit. Lonely Planet's volume on Croatia devotes just 16 lines to the bulky chunk of limestone that comprises the Adriatic island of Solta – the same modest space as assigned to cinemas in Dubrovnik. The Rough Guide is more generous in its coverage, with nearly a page on Solta, but nightclubs in Zagreb enjoy a much higher word count.

Solta is overlooked, in two senses. Other islands strung along Croatia's Dalmatian coast seize more attention from visitors keen on the multiple pleasures of sun and sea, sophistication and simplicity that this archipelago delivers: Hvar, Brac and Korcula are far better known. And in the other meaning, anyone fortunate enough to be idling along the Riva in Split can look over to Solta.

The Riva is the imperial promenade that stretches the length of the city centre, and comprises the all-man's-land between the walls of Diocletian's Palace and Split harbour. It is thick with unspoken invitations to rest, order a beer and contemplate the glorious fragments of Croatia scattered offshore.

The water lapped. I sipped. The sun drifted west to bestow its late-afternoon warmth on assorted Italian cities – and provided Solta with a flattering, back-lit glow.

Could it be that Solta is a non-hidden gem, unaccountably given the shortest of shrift by everyone from holidaymakers to guidebook writers? Or is it, as they rarely say in guidebooks, simply not worth the detour? The way to find out: make the 10-mile trip across to Solta on the first ferry out next morning.

Further proof of Solta's invisibility appeared the following day when I went to the port. Split is the maritime crossroads of the Adriatic. The staff at the harbour are unfailingly polite and keen to oblige, but united in their ignorance of whence the boat to Solta might depart. I trailed back, forth and between the jetties, soon acquiring the over-encumbered and disconsolate appearance of an émigré seeking a new life in some distant continent, rather than a holidaymaker in search of a half-hour hop to the nearest island.

Eventually, having eliminated all the other possibilities, I was left with an improbably small vessel moored gallingly close to where I had started the search. The captain seemed intent on testing the design limits of the elderly catamaran. We took off like an errant torpedo, and Solta arrived implausibly quickly.

On islands, as in life, first appearances can be deceptive. Solta's port, Rogac, has all the appeal of a lightly used motorway service station: a confusion of concrete punctuated by snack opportunities. You can understand why a hard-pressed writer might opt to take their chances with Captain Insensible on the inbound voyage and go in search of more intense Dalmatian pleasures. But a better choice is between the two buses that await the handful of new arrivals. One announces its destination as Stomorska, the coastal town at the east of the island; the other is aiming for the far west to the mirror-image town, Maslinica.

As soon as the catamaran has disgorged, the buses' weary engines and gearboxes grumble into life. They form a convoy of two on the only road out, clambering uphill. Close to Solta's highest point you reach the island's capital, Grohote. It has the unkempt and forlorn air that normally befits a town at the end of a long cul-de-sac – which is odd since it earned its administrative role through being the island's mandatory crossroads between anywhere and anywhere.

The summit of the island is a breathless scamper away. At this point you are 700ft above the Adriatic, yet only one mile from the sea – which tells you plenty about the crumpled geography of Solta.

The island measures 12 miles by three. The shore to the south comprises a sunburnt serration of outcrops and sheer drops: lovely to contemplate, but hopeless for habitation by anything more sentient than the cicadas that sizzle like static through the day.

For signs of life, and for one of Solta's few accommodation options, follow the sun's trajectory to the west and descend through the pine-clad slopes to Maslinica. Stout stone cottages topped in terracotta flank a narrow harbour in which boats bob and jostle for space. Palms punctuate the promenade – and remind the passer-by that Solta shares the same latitude as the Côte d'Azur, but not the same crowds.

The closest you can find to a throng in Maslinica is the taverna at the head of the harbour, which acts as a community centre. But dominating this postcard-perfect scene is an 18th-century fortress – with more in common with, say, a Scottish baronial castle than something that would keep a determined foe at bay. During the decades of state socialism with Marshall Tito in charge of a united Yugoslavia, the property functioned as a hotel aimed predominantly at rich Germans. It has recently been resurrected as a hotel for even richer Germans (other wealthy nationalities welcome). Peek into the cool, echoing public areas; then, for a more extensive and less expensive place to stay, follow the Slavs along the coast.

Once west of Italy or south of Austria, the average Brit's grasp of geography gets shaky. Budapest and Bucharest often get muddled, even though the capitals of Hungary and Romania are hundreds of miles apart. We can also be cavalier with entire countries: eight days ago on Radio 4's Today programme, the sports reporter talked about Italy's "3-2 defeat to Slovenia", and seconds later announced "Slovenia will now face Holland". The victorious nation was, in fact, Slovakia (Slovenia being the only team that England managed to beat).

You can mention this amusing incident to your fellow residents at the Eastern Bloc fun palace concealed in a cove on the north shore of Solta that rejoices in the name of Necujam. The discerning clientele will certainly include plenty of Slovenes and Slovaks.

When Tito kept a tight grip on his seething federation, Solta comprised a domestic holiday for sea-starved Slovenes, Serbs and Macedonians. The holiday complex at Necujam was built in the early Eighties to accommodate them, as well as their ideological soul-mates from elsewhere on the "wrong" side of the Iron Curtain.

Slovakia now finds itself on the "right" side of the EU Curtain, and its citizens enjoy the same access to Mallorca and the Algarve as we do. But finding a cheap-and-cheerful resort only 300 miles due south of Slovakia, with scented pines, a well-stocked mini-market and a pool the size of a Bratislava suburb, is evidently a hard habit to break: SK number plates (signifying Slovakian-registered cars) are at least as numerous as SLO-vene vehicles.

Just in case your Croatian is as rusty as an old Yugo saloon that has been parked on the Dalmatian shore, the resort's name of Necujam translates as "I cannot hear". The Footprint guide to Croatia speculates that the epithet derives from the original Latin name of Vallis Surda, meaning "deaf cove". It further speculates that the shape of the shoreline makes communication from one bay to the next a tricky business. (Incidentally, this guidebook sums up Solta as "rather desolate and somewhat neglected"; the shrieks and splashes from the pool told a different story.)

I arrived in the middle of August and without a booking, but the receptionist found a clean, comfortable chalet with a fridge and TV. She could have named almost any price she wished, given the absence of competition: the £40 a night was, as they say on the Today programme, very much at the lower end of market expectations.

Necujam proved blissfully undemanding. A pebbly beach, the best Solta can manage, invites visitors to paddle about in search of sea life. Tracks on either side of the bay lead to headlands with impressive views back across to Split, and the limestone range that rises behind the city. The western headland sports a bar that offers gentle competition to the one in the "complex".

Culture in Necujam begins and ends with a stone house where, it is said, the Croatian national poet, Marko Marulic, wrote Judita. To save you looking him, and her, up on Wikipedia: he was a nobleman who, five centuries ago, created a racy epic poem based on the Old Testament widow, Judith.

The roots of human existence on Solta extend almost as deep into the past. Emperor Diocletian, a Dalmatian who came to rule the V CRoman Empire late in the third century AD, regarded the island as a good place to exile the ideologically suspect. He also instituted fish farming in the coves, to help feed the legions who looked after his most resplendent of retirement homes, Diocletian's Palace in Split.

Solta grew to support a substantial population. Head uphill from Necujam (there is no alternative route, except out to sea) and you reach Gornje Selo – a picturesque village that seems frozen in time. Eternal Dalmatia, indeed.

Each medieval stone house was built from the island's milky limestone, the stones streaked with seams like melted butter. The shutters that defend against the bleaching summer sun and wild winter storms are colour-coordinated with the surroundings: the pale turquoise of an Adriatic dawn predominates. The spectrum is broadened by a profusion of flowers clambering over high stone walls.

So, what do the locals do all day? Watch the olives grow. The closest that Solta comes to anything hi-tech, and a proper tourist attraction, is the Olynthia olive-oil mill on the outskirts of "town". Olynthia may sound a made-up name, but it is – you are assured – what the Greeks called the island.

The oils are enhanced with wild rosemary and garlic, and sold in 21st-century air-travel-friendly phials holding only 100ml of the precious fluid.

The 19th century was cruel to Solta: olive trees and vines were destroyed by disease, and many islanders emigrated to Western Australia; today, you can find Solta Park in a southern suburb of Perth. I wondered how many Dalmatian-Australians returned to their roots during the northern-hemisphere summer. I had not met any so far, and there was only one other settlement on the island to investigate. I oriented myself to the east and headed for Stomorska.

The name of this pretty harbour village translates as "100 Seas". There appeared to be barely more than a dozen people in town. No Australians, and only the odd stray dog – forget 101 Dalmatians. Yet the location had a filmic quality about it, like a movie in slow motion. As the cicadas chirruped a soundtrack, an old lady waddled along and the waiter patiently poured another beer.

Solta is a millionaire's playground with a distinct absence of millionaires. But get there quick, because the rich folk are on their way. A London-based architect, Richard Hwyel Evans, is planning to create the world's first rotating hotel on the shore in Solta, to open as early as 2012. You can see the logic: to build such an innovative property demands plenty of spare land and a 360-degree panorama that justifies the circuit.

Take a spin around Solta before the crowds arrive. It's all about quality, not quantity.

Getting there

* Fly to Split, which is accessible from the UK on Croatia Airlines (020-8563 0022; croatiaairlines.hr ) from Heathrow and Gatwick; easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyjet.com ) from Gatwick, Stansted and Bristol; WizzAir (0906 959 0002; wizzair.com ) from Luton; Flybe (0871 700 2000; flybe.com ) from Birmingham and Southampton; and Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com ) from Manchester and Newcastle.

* From Split airport Croatia Airlines buses meet all inbound flights and leave about half-an-hour after the scheduled arrival time, taking around 40 minutes to Split's airport bus terminal, close to the harbour.

* To reach Solta from Split, there are catamarans to Rogac from the quay adjacent to the SEM kiosk, close to the customs house. Car ferries are operated by Jadrolinja ( jadrolinija.hr ) five times a day in summer.

Dalmatian hotspots: Island gems

* Brac is a picturesque patchwork of olive groves and lemon trees. It is also home to a white limestone, which is still quarried and was used in the palazzi of Venice and the White House in Washington. The main town is Supertar, but the pretty town of Bol on the other side of the island is quieter.

* The nearby island of Hvar has been described as one of the world's most idyllic islands. In the summer, it is awash with the heady scent of lavender that seems to grow almost everywhere. In the 13th century Hvar was governed by the Venetian doge. The main town of the same name owes much to Italian influences and is centred around a beautiful Baroque-style harbour.

* Korcula is a short ferry ride from the Peljesac peninsula and is covered by a thick blanket of coniferous forest. The island is also reputedly the birthplace of the explorer Marco Polo and is full of vineyard terraces and pretty villages. The Illyrians, Greeks and Romans settled on Korcula and left palaces fashioned by local stonemasons.

* The Kornati Islands comprise a small archipelago of 147 uninhabited dots in the Adriatic, and constitute a protected national park. The island of Vis near Hvar is furthest from the mainland of all the inhabited islands and can claim to be the Croatian equivalent of Capri, minus the prices and the crowds. It even boasts a blue grotto, the Modra Spilja on the neighbouring small island of Bisevo. During the Second World War Tito set up his headquarters in a cave on Vis.

* Mljet, in the south, is home to the largest pine forest in the Adriatic, large salt-water lakes and a national park. According to legend, Mljet was visited by Ulysses, who stayed there with the nymph Calypso.

* Lastovo, the furthest island off southern Dalmatia, is home to the traditional Poklad Festival, celebrated on the island for four centuries. On the Monday and Tuesday before Lent, a puppet is taken through the streets and burned in an elaborate ceremony to mark the narrow escape the island had from Catalan pirates.

* If splendid isolation is what you crave, Palagruza is almost halfway between Croatia and Italy. The lighthouse, built in 1875, is the largest on the Adriatic.

Aoife O'Riordain

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