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 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.
The islands have also 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 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 also make day trips to neighbouring isles. From north to south, Krk, Cres, Mali Losinj, Rab, Brac, Hvar and Korcula fall into this category. They all have a combination of beaches, beguiling towns and plenty of restaurants.
Other 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.
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 for enquiries. Among the UK holiday operators who provide hotel packages to the Croatian islands are Balkan Holidays (0845 520 1260; balkanholidays.co.uk), which offers 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. Alternatively, as part of its "Love Croatia" programme, Essentially Prestige (01425 480400; prestigeholidays.co.uk) has a week's B&B at the four-star Hotel Arbiana, part of Rab's stunning old town. Prices in September start from £668 per person, including flights from Heathrow with Croatia Airlines and transfers.
Food and drink
Trojiscina is Susak's dry rose wine and is well worth seeking out, as is Korcula's excellent white, called Posip. The shrimps (skampi) of the Kvarner gulf are considered the tastiest of the area and are often served in a risotto. Among the fish on offer is the delicious dentex (zubatac) while local specialities include Hvar's excellent fish stew (gregada)
Most meat and fish dishes are grilled and accompanied by a mash of chard and potatoes called blitva, although it's well worth trying the Dalmatian method "ispod peke" in which dishes are slow-roasted, vegetables and all, under a bell-shaped cover. If one island's cuisine should be singled out it's that of Vis. At the Pojoda restaurant in Kut (00 385 21 711 575) the signature dish is pojorski bronzinic (pictured), in which squid lentils and barley are combined to great effect, and made even better by a local, white Vugava wine.
Day trips from the mainland
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, right, 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 a seafood lunch in the fishing village of Maslinica and climb the 230m hill, Vela Straza, for great views over neighbouring islands.
It's worth concentrating on well-connected groups of islands, such as 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 the more remote islands, such as the Kornati. Sail Dalmatia (0800 124 4176; saildalmatia.com) offers a week's sailing aboard the Vila Vrgada, which sleeps eight in four ensuite cabins. A week in July for eight costs €8,800, with full crew, chef and watersports. It includes half board but excludes flights to Zadar or Split. Sail Dalmatia also offers the ultimate in romantic breaks – a visit to the heart-shaped island of Galesjnak, for €10,000.
Rijeka, busy making the change from industrial port to modern European city, is the gateway to the Kvarner Gulf and its clutch of varied islands. The most populous, which is connected to the mainland by a bridge, is Krk (pronounced Kirk). It is also home to Rijeka airport, served by Croatia Airlines (020-8745 4683; croatiaairlines.com) from Heathrow and Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) from Stansted. A noted producer of wine and olive oil, Krk's most prized holiday feature is its fine – but in summer, very crowded – beach at Baska.
A half-hour ferry ride south of Krk, and accessible by bus from Rijeka, are the twin islands of Cres and Mali Losinj. Joined by a bridge, they are both long and thin, with attractive, eponymous harbour towns. Their satellite islands, interconnected by ferry, are the tiny and tranquil trio of Ilovik, Susak and Unije.
East of Krk and connected to it by ferry (as well as from the mainland port of Jablanac ) is eye-catching Rab, with a verdant central valley and a sequence of stunning sandy beaches near Lopar at its northern end. Its architectural jewel is Rab Town, an airy port with a Venetian-influenced old town. Its neighbour Pag, the most arid of these islands, is like a huge pumice stone and noted for an incongruous mix of lace-making, ewe's-milk cheese and 24-hour summer partying, based around the beach of Zrce. The best hotel, situated in a vineyard outside Novalja, is the boutique-style Boskinac. Doubles with breakfast start at 949 kuna/£118 (00 385 53 66 35 00; boskinac.com). A road bridge connects Pag to the mainland, 40km from the city of Zadar.
Ryanair flies from Stansted to Zadar airport, which is also the most convenient gateway to the wild, and mainly uninhabited, islands of the Kornati archipelago.
Dubrovnik provides the access to the car-free Elafiti Islands such as Lopud, and to the larger and more developed Korcula and Mljet, which you can also reach by ferry from Split. Korcula, reputedly Marco Polo's birthplace, has a bit of everything: an appealing main town, great beaches, notably at Lumbarda, and a well-wooded interior with stone-built villages and vineyards. Thomson Holidays (0871 231 4691; thomson.co.uk) offers week-long holidays in self-catering apartments 10 minutes' drive from Korcula town, starting at £592 per person, including flights from Gatwick and car hire.
Mljet, the greenest of all the islands, has been declared a national park for its unique forest habitat, centred on two lagoons. A day trip from Dubrovnik on the Nona Ana catamaran (50 kuna/£6 each way) gives you time to explore the park on foot or bike. The park entrance fee is 90 kuna (£11).
Fly to Dubrovnik from Gatwick with BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com), easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyjet. com) or Thomson (0871 231 4787; thomsonfly.com), or from Luton with Wizz Air (0906 959 0002; wizzair.com). Thomson and Flybe (0871 700 2000; flybe.com) also operate from Manchester and Birmingham while Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com) flies from Belfast, Leeds-Bradford, Edinburgh and Manchester, and bmibaby (0871 224 0224; bmibaby.com) from East Midlands.