Majestic scenery and natural diversity characterize the Kvarner region: the mainland is dominated by a tiny stretch of coast backed by high-rising mountains, while some of the largest Croatian islands fill the heart of Kvarner Bay. Hike the wild Gorski Kotar Mountains, explore Krk Island on two wheels, beach-hop on the island of Cres, enjoy the mild climate and abundant vegetation of Lošinj, and experience the best of Croatian cuisine along the Opatija Riviera.
The Kvarner Gulf is a large, deep bay with the Istrian peninsula to the north and Dalmatia to the south. Four major islands, Cres, Krk, Lošinj, and Rab, along with numerous smaller specks of land, fill the heart of the bay and can be viewed from the gentle resort towns strung around the coastal arc. The lush, rolling hills of this coastal strip wind their way around the gulf from Opatija. East of Rijeka, the scenic Magistrala costal highway cuts into the solid rock of the foothills on its way to the southern tip of Croatia.
The wild Gorski Kotar mountain district is on the mainland northeast of Rijeka. Across the narrow range sits the inland part of Primorsko-goranska županija (Primorje–Gorski Kotar county), a region of small towns and thick forests that you pass through if you're traveling overland to Zagreb. Although the entire northern stretch of the Croatian coast exhibits a strong Italian influence, thanks to centuries of control from across the Adriatic, most of the mainland resorts developed during Habsburg rule. Robust and sophisticated Austro-Hungarian architecture and infrastructure predominate in these towns.
In contrast, the islands tend toward the cozier, less aspirational features of Italy. Dwellings are simpler, often of stone, and set in less geometric layouts.
Krk, entered via a short bridge from the eastern shore of the gulf region, reflects the mainland's arid nature more than its brethren. On Cres, the northern stretches are a twisted knot of forest peaks and rocky crags, while gentler, cultivated slopes appear toward the center. Pine forests marching down to the shores provide welcome shade in the middle of the day. On the island's central part, hollows have filled up to make freshwater lakes that provide the island's drinking water, counterbalancing the salty sea that licks at the land just a hill crest away. At the foot of Cres, a hop across a narrow stretch of the Adriatic brings you to Lošinj. This lush oasis owes much of its charm to the gardens and villas that were built here during the seafaring heydays of the 19th century. As you approach from the north, the silhouette of Rab resembles the humped back of a diving sea monster. The high north of the island is dry and barren, almost a desert of rock and scrub, whereas the lower southern hemisphere is lush and fertile.