The Kvarner Gulf – the large, deep bay which separates the Istrian peninsula to the north from Dalmatia to the south – is the first view of the coast for many visitors, as the main road from Zagreb sweeps down to the Adriatic at Rijeka. It's a region which brings together many of the features which make the coast so enticing: grizzled coastal hills and mountains, an archipelago of ochre-grey islands, and fishing villages with narrow alleys and gardens groaning under the weight of subtropical plants.

Croatia's largest port and the area's economic and political centre, Rijeka is more of a transit point than a destination in itself, and most people push straight on to the islands that crowd the gulf to the south. Krk is the most accessible of these, connected to the mainland by a road bridge just half an hour's drive from Rijeka, though the islands further out – Lošinj, Rab and most of all Cres – feel more removed from the urban bustle. Each has its fair share of historic towns, whose shuttered, Italianate houses recall long centuries of Venetian rule, along with some gorgeous coves and beaches – especially the sandy ones at Basks on Krk and Lopar on Rab. Although lush and green on their western flanks, the islands are hauntingly bare when seen from the mainland, the result of deforestation during theVenetian period, when local timber was used to feed the shipyards of Venice; the fierce northeasterly wind known as the Bura has prevented anything from growing there again. This denuded landscape is particularly evident on the most southerly of the Kvarner islands, Pag, with its bare, stony hills.

The coast of the mainland which flanks the gulf was traditionally known as the Hrvatsko primorje (literally, "Croatian littoral") to distinguish it from the Adriatic islands and Dalmatia – largely because it never fell under Venetian control. Because of its proximity to Habsburg central Europe this stretch of the Adriatic shoreline was the first to develop as a tourist destination, with Opatija, Crikvenica and Novi Vinodolski emerging in the late nineteenth century as swish winter health resorts patronized by the Viennese upper crust. They're fairly bland tourist centres nowadays, although Opatija and neighbouring Lovran preserve something of the spirit of the belle epoque. The southern part of the Kvarner coastline is dominated by the stark and majestic Velebit mountains, which can be seen at their best in the Paklenica National Park at the southern end of the range.

Getting around the region is straightforward, with buses zooming up and down the Magistrala, the main coastal road, at regular intervals. Rijeka, very much the hub of the transport system, is the main departure point for buses to the islands.


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