Kieran Walsh
The Croatian islands are a nice place to chill out, away from the crowds, guaranteed good weather in September and off-peak months, not too hot. When you say Croatia, many say Dubrovnik or Split. Young people go to the party island of Pag that is nearby or Hvar.
After a trip to Zagreb, a few years back we were recommended Rab, where many from Zagreb go for weekends or vacations.
It was a 3-hour drive excluding the short ferry and waiting time from Zag airport.
Rab has nice beaches, forestry, and a medieval town, so has much to offer everybody. Getting there from Ireland is not too simple, however, which means that for people not on Continental Europe it takes more effort to get there but is worthwhile.
We went via Zagreb with Croatia Airlines, but Zadar – also Krk Island (Rijeka airport) and Pula – are now serviced by Ryanair directly also.
A catamaran links Zadar over two hours, mainly from June to September, and also a ferry to mainland less than 20 minutes for the road to Rijeka via Senj and onto Zagreb, takes about 3 hours.
The main ferry arrives at Misnjak going from Stinica. The other one is from Valbiska on Krk to Lopar on Rab.
We stayed in the main town of Rab, which dates back to medieval times. The Romans were here for centuries then followed by the Venetians and later Austria Hungary, even Napoleon’s troops had a brief time here in the early 1800s. The Austrians would get this region after the Treaty of Vienna till World War I, when Italy would reign until WWII, independence would follow, all would leave their mark. There would be military installations given the port’s status along the Adriatic.
The island of Rab has many good places to go in the evening, great to get boat trips or do a day trip to parts of the island. Bicycles and electric bikes are popular ways to get around.
We did a boat tour around one day to explore the island with a local and then did a bike tour another afternoon via a forest great in the warm sun with shelter to a local beach.
Another day a local man, Marko and his Zagreb partner, Jelena, took us to see the sunset from a high point on the island and dinner after in a nice restaurant with great views of the island and surrounds. Glad to be not driving that mountain road. You can go by taxi/transfer service or even on foot during the day.
Kayaking was another activity among visitors and boat rental also possible.
Our kayak man Yogi was especially helpful. He gave us some background to the island as a local. This was just one of his jobs. He, like many, does room rentals. He also had a hobby doing forestry, which he carried out in winter months.
Yogi was also a fan of Irish music and there was a local Croatian band called Belfast Food that sang Irish songs in Croatian language and were really popular. He, like many other Croatians, admired Ireland for its independent success, its good organisation and economy. Many Croatian friends of his go there and would like corruption and other problems to be solved in his country and emulate the success of Ireland. This was a frequent story we heard.
The boat tour man also rented rooms for 40-50 euro a night depending on the season, it seems that many have two jobs. The tour guide for Rab, Natali, was also involved in room rental and her husband had a market stall. They are certainly entrepreneurial in the tourism season.
Tramore was like that back in the 70s, now less so. Maybe room rentals are needed again, given the accommodation shortage last summer.
We loved the island of Rab and in the evening, there was a wide choice to eat out, not too expensive, and even kebab take outs if you did not like formal dining. Fish is great here on the island, no shortage.
Try Rab old town’s middle street and lower street for eating options and adjacent alleys like the ones for Konoba. Santa Maria was a very historical one. A good pizza option in the old town is San Marco.
Near the new shopping centre was a good family run restaurant called Velum, which was well recommended. Also some good bars too with nice music or a dine in a garden tranquility if that is your wish.
Later in the evening people gathered at the Old Town Bar and Celestina for good contemporary rock music and some oldies too. One of the staff worked in Porterhouse, Dublin pre-Covid and had happy times there and now is on Happy Island.
Due to Covid things closed at midnight and all was very orderly, no loud shouting as people were respectful.
Lots of sailors come here to the marina too and you will hear some English-speaking accents form them or French/ Italian too. We did hear some Germans sing old sea shanty songs one night at the Moderato bar on the harbour square. Sailors were nearly all men getting time out.
Most tourists come from Germany, Austria or neighbouring lands like Italy, Slovenia, Hungary or Czech Republic. Some Dutch come too and enjoy camping on the many camp sites in the area. Very few package tours as airports are a distance away.
The food culture represents those nearby countries and quality is good, a mix of Italian, Austrian and Balkan foods. You will get great fish and pasta, octopus is a popular dish and dorado or bream as we call it, bass too, lamb kebabs, etc.
Wine such as a grasevina white is light and like a riesling and Malvasia which is white from Istria. Also, Posip white from Korcula Island, Plavac and Plavac Mali from Dalmatia or Teran from Istria for reds. Most reds are from the coast and most whites from the continental part. Croatian wines are good quality and worth trying. Teranino is a local wine aperitif like port and is red, about 15 proof in alcohol.
Beer is widely drunk. Karlovac is the local Croatia one, named after the inland city. Also a good Slovenian one sampled was Lasko, it was nice too. Some craft IPAs are starting also on the island.
Munich beer is also possible. Food wise it is good quality and even though close to Greece it has more variety than Greece and more on a par with Italy, their cultures are similar.
We found the locals friendly with a good knowledge. It does not suffer from over tourism.
If you want to buy things to bring home, there are some good quality craft shops. One sold the Teranino wine liquor.
Daniel the wood carver has a great craft shop near Celestina’s bar. Buy fresh natural authentic sponges plus other crafts inspired by the sea. Coral jewellery and beads are popular, lots of stalls near main square.
Daniel also does day or charter trips on his boat and can be rented for a family of 4-6 for €2500 a week and with food plus owner and captain, Daniel, you can explore the nearby islands, sailing too if wind permits.
There is a large marina where boats can be rented in Rab, 4 marinas in total around the island.
Great beaches and forests to see near the town, walks and cycles to take for exploring the town. The tree covered park is a great place to go for shade from the midday sun, many national parks on the island too can be reached by bike.
The local legend is that God spent 6 days working and on the 7th day he created Rab island for leisure, said guide Natalie for the town. There are no poisonous snakes or venomous, dangerous animals, apart from boars in the woods. As the devil said, the place is too perfect. Even royalty comes here. English dethroned King Edward and Wallis swam on a nude beach back in the late thirties at Kandarola say the locals. Try the family pebble beach nearby, where there is also a good beach bar for food we are told.
Cifnata is the best beach, said the guide and Lopar/San Marino area has good beaches in the north island area.
St. Marin is the patron saint. He was a miracle maker and stone mason by trade. There are fine old churches dedicated to him.
The island was on a Venetian trading route and traders dealt in fish, salt and silk from the east, even mulberries worms were here so the island became well off and built nice churches and buildings in medieval times.
The 4 Bell towers are the symbol and you can climb these towers and get a perspective of here and other islands. Many trees here and farming is good with veg and fruit growing.
The island’s patron saint is Christopher. The Normans were here and laid siege but without success and 9 May is victory day like in WW II.
In normal years they have a medieval festival in late July, jazz festival in September and movies on the beach in August.
Natalie said the island is free spirited and in the seventies hippies came here with their UK Djs and music and even had the first gay pub in this part of Croatia. Some of that sense of freedom is still there among the locals, who have an open-minded approach and welcome people. Yogi, our kayak friend, says they love their island and would not live anywhere else and proudly says he would live as long as possible and die in Rab.
Best time to visit is May, June and September, July and August are hot. In winter the strong bora wind from the mainland mountains will cut you said Yogi. October is also good and off peak prices are cheaper.
Tourism office will help with accommodation, guides and booking boats and other activities.
Places to stay
Valamar hotels have many options. The Imperial is the big 4 star one but there are smaller lower star ones too.
Carolina of Valamar hotels has a great resort option on other side of island.
Arbiana, a 4-star boutique hotel in the port is also recommended. Excellent breakfasts, where we stayed. At the mid-range, lots of room and B&B options. Many visitors come by car from Austria/ Germany and choose this, deals at about 100 euro a night, book early for best deals.
The island is very clean, low crime and is very much a safe place, not a party island like nearby Pag, but a place to chill and are now even promoting health spas. The town has old seaweed baths like Tramore, closed for years but they hope to revive them.
Getting there
Car Ferry from mainland Stinica to Misnjak, also from North via Krk island linked to mainland. Here the ferry leaves from Valbiska to Lopar in the North. lots of sandy beaches near Lopar and San Marino and is a 20 minutes’ drive to town of Rab. Rab has less frequent passenger only ferries to Rijeka and Losinj and to Pag island.
Catamaran going from Rab to Rijeka in the mornings all year, every day (coming back in the afternoons).
Catamaran going from Zadar to Rab in June – September, four times a week, but you need to check before the next season starts.
Croatia Airlines fly to Zagreb directly from Dublin and there are long distance buses to Rab, 7-8 hours including ferries. We liked the airline, but bring snacks on board, with Covid restrictions
Ryanair go to Zadar, which is linked to Pag with ferries direct to Rab in the season.
Places to eat
Santa Maria
Konoba Riva, sea fish at Kandarola, Sanpjer, San Marco pizzeria.,