By Mary Novakovich, journalist for The Times
Featured in The Times on August 24, 2023. Copy written by Mary Novakovich.
I’ve travelled all over Croatia — and this tiny island is its best spot
Sandy beaches, stirring ruins and a buzzing food scene — here’s why Rab knocks spots off the rest of the country
Even with a clumsy wooden fork and a plate made out of bread, my grilled mackerel easily came off the bone. No wonder — it was in the sea barely an hour earlier. Behind the stone wall where I was sitting by Rab Town’s beach, the setting sun was glowing over the 11th-century monastery of St Andrew and the tallest of Rab’s four belfries above the ramparts.
Rab offers exactly what you want on a Croatian Adriatic holiday over a manageable 33 sq m: the chance to spend balmy nights eating delicious grilled squid on a restaurant terrace (average price £11) and to hike through oak forests, kayak in clear waters or take in some of the island’s rich history during the day.
Although I’ve been visiting Croatia for decades and come several times a year, it had been 19 years since I last visited Rab. My mistake. Even after the 2.5-hour drive from Zadar airport and the 15-minute ferry journey, I wondered why it had taken me so long to return. I also wondered where all the British tourists were among the Germans, Italians and Slovenes who make up the majority. While other European tourists have long taken Rab to their hearts, Brits were few and far between. Perhaps Sunvil’s new programme of Croatian holidays — I was on one of them — would change that.
Rab Town was my base, and its beauty knocked me sideways. Wedged into a thin peninsula topped with Komrcar Park’s fragrant woods, the old town’s narrow lanes of stone houses had the sort of architecture you find in dozens of Croatian towns — Korcula, Trogir, Hvar, Rovinj, to name a few — where the Venetians ruled for various periods between the 14th and 18th centuries. But as my guide Natali Mravic explained, they were among many to leave their mark.
“First it was the Illyrians 350 years before Christ, then the Romans in the 1st century. It was Byzantine for a while, and we were also ruled by Croatian kings,” she told me. We were standing beside the 12th-century Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which holds the relics of St Christopher. The 15th-century bell tower is the most beautiful of the four that make Rab’s skyline of terracotta rooftops look like a stately sailing ship.
We explored the atmospheric ruins of the basilica of St John the Evangelist with its 7th-century columns and 13th-century bell tower. Beyond was Ljetno Kino, a summertime open-air cinema where the Rab Film Festival pitches up every August. Along the waterfront, where the broad Municipium Arba Square buzzed with bars, is the Renaissance Duke’s Palace — now the town hall. A wide stone staircase crowns the town’s largest square, St Christopher’s, where craft stalls mingle with café terraces. We were getting hungry, so Natali reeled off a list of restaurants. “Labirint is very good. So is Konoba Rab if you want peka — meat cooked slowly under a bell. Though you have to order it a day in advance. Astoria and Santa Maria are good too.” So were the mussels cooked in a garlicky wine “buzara” sauce on the pretty upstairs terrace at Labirint (mains from £13).
Time to hit the beach. In a country where pebbly and rocky beaches are the norm, Rab manages to squeeze in 22 sandy beaches — many on the Lopar peninsula, 15 minutes’ drive away. Closer to home is Rab Town beach, which is rocky and, this late in the afternoon, busy with people lazing on the seafront promenade that goes on for nearly a mile to the next beach, Skver. When it’s high season in Rab, you need to get to the beach early. Still, I managed a swim before we settled in the rustic, pine-shaded beach bar, Banova Villa, which rents sunbeds on a gravelly beach area for £8.50 a day (on Facebook).
To the west is the thickly forested Kalifront peninsula and its indented southern coast packed with pebbly coves. It was in Kalifront’s Kandarola Bay that Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson reportedly jumped naked off a boat in 1936, setting a naturism trend in Croatia that’s been faithfully followed (at least by German tourists) ever since. Apart from the coves around Suha Punta and Hotel Carolina, many of Kalifront’s beaches are accessible only on foot or by boat. If I hadn’t been recovering from a ski injury, I would have happily hiked along rocky footpaths to reach them. Instead, Tona from Taxi Boat Calypso was set to take us the next morning to two of the best, Cifnata and Dundo.
The weather had other ideas — the wind picked up and, seeing my disappointment, Tona suggested sheltered Pudarica instead. We motored along the Barbat channel between uninhabited Dolin island and Rab’s mainland, where sandstone cliffs hold sandy coves and give off heady scents of pine and helichrysum. Tona dropped anchor before Pudarica’s beach and I plunged into the sea, its sandy bottom clearly visible.
Tona was also full of good suggestions for lunch. As we returned towards Rab Town’s marina, he pointed out the Restoran Perla in the village of Banjol close to Padova III beach. Then he mentioned Gozinka, tucked between two fat fingers of the Kalifront peninsula’s southern coastline (mains from £10). Good man, I thought as I sat on Gozinka’s broad waterside terrace and ate a big plate of whitebait with a side order of blitva, one of my favourite Croatian dishes. Croatian chefs work a bit of magic on ingredients as humble as chard, garlic and mushy potatoes. It’s the taste of the Adriatic for me. And the view of the little harbour in front surrounded by fragrant pines was an added bonus, even if I couldn’t tackle the rocky footpath that led to a little beach through the pine woods. Next time.
A pattern was set: heading out early to a beach, a languid lunch, an afternoon swim at our elegant Hotel Arbiana, then dinner in the old town — lamb peka at Konoba Rab (mains from £10.50), fried anchovies at Sanpjer (mains from £10.50), squid-ink risotto at Santa Maria (mains from £7). All superb, but the most memorable was the hilltop Restaurant Kamenjak, named after Rab’s highest point a 15-minute hike away. The sunset, the spectacular view over the island and the cuttlefish goulash were worth the rather hair-raising journey (mains from £13).
Rab’s star sandy beach is Rajska (Paradise) in Lopar, but we chose its smaller, less crowded neighbour, Livacina, and a very good pizza lunch at the Sunset Beach Bar (pizzas from £8).
Even though Livacina steadily filled up throughout the day, there was a more intimate feel here. The shallows went on for many metres before the pale blue water turned a deeper colour, giving small children endless thrills as they splashed about. It brought back a memory of my previous trip to Rab all those years ago, when I was on a hiking holiday and went to the naturists’ favourite beach, Sahara, reached either by boat or, as I did, by a walk through the woods. There had not been another soul in this gorgeous bay whose curves almost met in the middle.
Lopar is the departure point for boat trips to one of Rab’s darker sights: the ruins of the brutal island prison on Goli Otok created by Yugoslavia’s President Tito in 1948 to silence his pro-Stalin opponents. It was both sobering and compelling to see the dilapidated barracks and prison blocks, their windows long smashed, their floors left to rot. For £2.50 you can enter the Kino where a short film (in Croatian) tells the history of the prison amid artworks painted by former prisoners. In the early 1950s inmates were used as prison labour to build a memorial on Rab to the people who died at the hands of the Italian fascists in a camp on the island during the Second World War.
As if to lighten the mood, a pod of dolphins appeared on our return journey, gracefully gliding in and out of the water as we watched, entranced. The skipper slowed the boat so we could marvel at this joyful spectacle.
They call Rab “the happy island” — not some marketing slogan, but from its Roman name of Felix Arba. Felix — happy and/or lucky. In my case, both.
Mary Novakovich was a guest of Rab Tourist Board (rab-visit.com), Kvarner Tourist Board (kvarner.hr) and Sunvil, which has seven nights’ B&B at Hotel Arbiana on Rab from £1,046.50pp, including flights to Rijeka and private transfers (sunvil.co.uk).
Mary Novakovich’s My Family and Other Enemies: Life and Travels in Croatia’s Hinterland was shortlisted for the 2023 Edward Stanford Travel Book of the Year award.