Croatia's lighthouse archipelago, by Tristan Rutherford
The Times, April 2018
My wife calls it ‘lighthouse porn’. My browsing history is a sad middle-aged miasma of lonely lighthouses basking in splendid isolation. Croatia provides my best fantasy fix. Its 1,300 islands and fjord-fractured shore are dotted with 50 working lighthouses. Uniquely, most towers have attached accommodation once used by visiting meteorologists and marine inspectors. These properties now form the country’s most in-demand accommodation, with rustic lighthouse lodgings from £100 per night, up to boutique family sleeps for £500.
You don’t need a map to find Savudrija lighthouse. It rises 36m skyward on a teardrop of coast that drips into the Adriatic. My family are warmly welcomed by keeper Mario. His forefathers tended the lighthouse for five generations, through the ages of coal, oil, gas and electricity. That Mario speaks dialectal Italian is testament that this polyglot coast has been governed by five foreign powers in the last century alone. When Savudrija was inaugurated by Austrian Emperor Francis I in 1818, it guided ships into Trieste (now in Italy) past Portorož (now in Slovenia), towns that twinkle on the horizon a short drive away.
The situation is paradisiacal. We pass through steel doors set in 70cm-thick walls into a lighthouse courtyard ablaze with rampant rosemary. This sheltered quad – sun-drenched in summer but guarded from terrific bora winds in winter – is the domain of Mario’s pet rabbit and his son, who scrutinises his English homework on a table under the tower. Outside our family room with simple kitchen is a prodigious vegetable patch. More isolated lighthouse keepers would go without contact for months on end. Each would grow their greens, make their own wine, then pair both with the seafood larder that surrounds each tower along Croatia’s endless coast.
With a young family in tow, I’ve chosen Savudrija and two other mainland lighthouses for their relative accessibility. I say relative; this one lives down a dirt track with a bucolic campground next door, a scouting expedition hut down the road, and a handful of fish shacks along the shore. The restaurant within walking distance, Lanterna, offers a no-need-to-check-the-prices seafood menu. We bag fish soups, squid spaghetti, octopus salad, sautéed chard, four desserts, a litre of white wine and brandy chasers for £25 all in.
The eatery’s walls are plastered with photos of my favourite three island lighthouses. Oh my days! Most of them, Savudrija included, can be now booked online through Airbnb plus a variety of other portals. There’s Sušac with its own tiny beach, reached by a 45-minute boat ride from Korčula. Plus Veli Rat lighthouse, which guards the 140 gems of the Kornati Islands National Park. And best of all Palagruža, a castle-like affair three hours by speedboat from the mainland, built to showcase Austrian naval power. The original lamp from 1875 still guides ships through the channel midway between Croatia and Italy. On a clear day you can see both countries.
We bed down as the cactus flowers in our courtyard close. Staying in a lighthouse ushers an earthy sense of being. Sea breezes and swirling water soothe the senses, encouraging guests to turn in early. Distractions are few. At midnight I awake to check the children and sneak gingerly to the shore. High above, Savudrija’s beam sweeps like an ethereal turbine, casting a propeller of light miles over the inky sea. At dawn we’re swimming on a Blue Flag coast that shelves from emerald to sapphire to navy blue.
Another day, another lighthouse. We nose the hire car through the Istrian peninsula’s patchwork of vineyards, cherry orchards and olive groves. Tourists abound at Restaurant Viking when we stop to munch the famed oysters of the Lim Fjord. (Venetian loverboy Casanova was a fan.) With new flights from BA, plus seasonal links from Jet2, easyJet and TUI, passenger numbers at nearby Pula Airport leapt 20% last year. The number of visiting Brits is up 25% in Croatia as a whole. We’re lucky to score a night at the ultra-luxury Valamar Lighthouse on the raggedly edge of Rt Zub, or Cape Tooth. At a standard rate of £430 per night it contains three Breton chic bedrooms decked with crisp linen. “Beats glamping,” says my wife.
The lighthouse’s stone and white wood interior is like a hip Cornish villa. If Virginia Woolf set a novel here she’d have to mention the bottles of Croatian Prosecco-type sparkling wine in our mega fridge. Every room bar the kitchen (which has a grand dining table for 10) looks out onto an ever-changing vista: seagulls, sailboats, a passing battleship. The children’s best section is the ancient stone dining terrace, which predates the (fully automated) lighthouse structure above that was built in 1872. The seafront is blessed with ladders into the water, plus rock pools and – every young boys’ dream – a battered Austro-Hungarian gunnery.
That night I wake again. A brisk breeze means I have to shoulder open the double layers of steel doors to get outside. The whoop-whoop blades of light spin over a choppy 270° seascape from Cape Tooth’s eastern edge. Warm sea air blends with a fragrant fug from the sage garden planted by long forgotten lighthouse keeper. It’s truly magical. Better still, this lighthouse sits within the grounds of the Valamar Tamaris Resort. The following days we take full advantage of the free Kids Club, free bike hire, sailing courses, minigolfs, swimming pools and shuttle boat to the former Venetian town of Novigrad.
Before flying home we drive to the southern tip of Istria where green fields fracture like fractals into topaz sea. Here sits the boutique lighthouse of Marlera, renovated by young couple Slaven and Tijana, which is also available on Airbnb. Oak beams blend with whitewashed furniture to lend a Provençal air to this edge-of-the-world delight. Unsurprisingly, the couple laugh off my attempts to stay the night. A movie is being shot inside at present, after which the three-bedroom property is fully booked by paying guests until November. Not to worry – as long as my wife doesn’t snip my Internet connection. Marlera lighthouse is in my favourites bar, to fantasise over another day.
Read Tristan and Kathryn's travel writing about Croatia here.