Beating down on the lunar landscape, shimmering across the Adriatic, the sunshine on Croatia’s island of Pag makes the world seem ever-bright. Time on the Pag syncs with the idyllic sway of the sea and the long road stretches through rocks, vineyards and groves to reveal an island of wholesome delights.
We ventured to Pag in search of sheep’s cheese and wine, which is apparently a bit of an odd pursuit on the island best known for partying, salt and lace. But the island’s reputation for quality local produce was well exceeded as our two day adventure on Pag offered thousand-year-old olive trees, road-side stalls for honey, rakija and cheese, a vineyard dining experience that mesmerised my senses, and gleaming beach coves bounded by fruiting fig trees.
To make our happy wanderings possible, we rented a sunny convertible Volkswagen bug from a guy on the side of the road… as you do in Croatia.
The first thing that struck me about Pag was the barren landscape, the space emptied of trees. I soon learnt that Pag was stripped of woodland by those nifty Venetians, who once ruled on the island and used its wood to build much of the floating city we adore today. The absence of forests, and the patchy low shrubs hardened by stiff salt air, created an unearthly feel; a sense that this unashamedly unique part of the world is perhaps not of this world at all.
Driving north-east from Novalja, towards the tip of the skinny peninsular, our first random stop leaped beyond all expectations. Potočnica is a quiet series of bumpy little streets snaking along the rocky coast where terraced villas and resorts extend to private beaches. Without a map or clue of where to go, we followed the unsealed road down the hill to a dead-end parking lot and took one of the many little trails to the shore.
After a brief battle with the coastal growth, we were presented with the picture of summer bliss – sparkling turquoise waters and secluded beaches, free from crowds. Needless to stay, our intended quick dip became a multi-hour basking session, interrupted only to dive into the sea and swim a few laps around the nearby buoy.
The need for food was the only thing that could drag us from our cove. Continuing our drive along the peninsula to the little town of Tovarnele, on the tip of the island, where we indulged in grilled fish, crispy chips and cool white wine.
Retracing the road back, into the town of Lun, we found fields of white stones and ancient olive trees that were twisted with time. On a whim, we took another dirt road towards the sea and found ourselves again in the tepid water, watching boats speed by on the horizon.
The next bug-hop was barely 1000 metres as we stopped for olive oil, honey and rakija sold by a shirtless man named Thomas, who sells his father’s produce in front of the family home. Then, driving only 50 metres further, we stopped for wheels of sheep’s cheese, fresh figs and home-made sausages.
Equal to the joy of stopping for home-made treats was the steady plod of our rent-a-bug along the sweeping island roads. With lookouts scattered between destinations, we made our eventual way back through Novalja and along the western road that skirts the inner island sea. Cliffs and sandy hills rise dramatically from the water on that stunning coastal road, offering picture-perfect views on the way to Metajna.
At the end of that road, we putted into the village, drawing curious eyes from the residents who were out enjoying the afternoon sun. A small walk along the tiny marina, and a quick swim in the glassy sea, filled a happy hour and then we were back in the bug to enjoy the last of Pag’s daylight from the road.
Our second morning on Pag was an early one, fuelled with an excitement to see more of the sunny island. We found ourselves back at Potočnica for an early swim, before making our way to a much-anticipated lunch at Boškinac Winery. Treating ourselves to the degustation menu with matching wines at the homestead amongst olive groves and vineyards was a true delight. Our slow, luxurious lunch of local lamb, honey, cheese and fruits with wines of the house and region was one of the best meals I’ve ever enjoyed and left me longing for more time to do it all over again.
As we boarded the bus back to mainland Zadar, I was filled with a light sense of achievement, a feeling that we’d discovered a real Croatian gem among the many island possibilities offered by the Adriatic.
Tricks for designing your Pag adventure:
Be prepared to hire a vehicle to see the island, be it a scooter or car or cab. There is a regular bus between Zadar, the town of Pag and the town of Novalja, but no public transport that extends down the narrow north-eastern stretch of the island, past Novalja, or around the land-looped sea shore towards Metajna. We were quoted a couple hundred Kunas per scooter for 24hrs (although it’s all negotiable) and paid 500 Kunas to hire the bug for 24 hours.
The Zadar – Pag – Novalja bus is run by Antonio Tours in and out of the Novalja and Zadar bus stations. You can buy tickets from the driver, or from the Antonio Tours office in Novalja. The 1.5 hour one-way trip costs 75 Kunas per person including one undercarriage piece of luggage. If you don’t have luggage, it’s 50 Kunas one way.
If you’ve missed the bus and don’t want to wait, take a taxi. We paid 300 Kunas (split between three) for the one-way taxi ride from Zadar to Novalja. The fare was apparently ‘fixed’ (i.e. if you had more people, you’d split the same price) and included luggage. Negotiate with the taxi drivers who mill about the stations seeking fares.
Stay right in the middle of Novalja for a party, and anywhere else for a quiet stay. We stayed on the edge of Novalja, away from the crowds, which proved a lovely place to explore from. I thought of Novalja as being a bit like a mini, Croatian, Surfer’s Paradise (in Queensland, Australia): in the town centre, it has the same seedy party vibe, throngs of souvenir shops and streets upon streets of beat-booming bars by the water. In contrast, the town of Pag is known for its quiet guesthouses and more relaxed vibe, but is a fair distance from the eastern side of the island.
Allow for a generous food budget on Pag, not because it is particularly pricey (with the exception of Boskinac Winery), but because you’ll never want to stop tasting. From road-side stalls we bought small bottles of rakija for 20 Kunas each, jars of honey for 40 Kunas and small bottles of oil for 30 Kunas. Sheep’s cheese is generally sold by the wheel from small producers, meaning you either need a group, a extraordinarily large appetite for cheese, or to make a trip to the town supermarket, where it is sold by the slice.