Croatia's coast doesn't so much mean an end to land, as it does a point where the land begins to trickle out. The islands continue for miles, breaking up the Adriatic into a series of channels and spaces. It’s a watery place, with rough stone edges and remote specks and ridges. The only real way to get around is by boat, which is how we got from Zadar – on the edge of the sea – up to Lošinj island.
It’s a monotonous journey, but a pleasant one. We boarded at nine in the morning and drove off the boat in Mali Lošinj at three in the afternoon. The coasts of the mainland and of the islands slipped by slowly, none much unlike any other. A handful of other voyagers joined us, some getting off before us, some getting on at stops along the way. Two decks, painted blinding white, were mostly empty because of the intensity of the sun, but the inside of the boat was quiet too. It’s a lonely, less-traveled route.
A constant, low-frequency hum was the only real noise below deck – the sound of the engine churning. The Adriatic was flat and calm, and the only change in the reverberations came when the ship ground into reverse as we neared a port. The only other persistent noises: a slight clattering of the coffee cups, piled high on the cafeteria bar, and the voice of the cook, who sang and yelled with a great deal of energy. He made a meal for the crew, served at noon, that smelled tantalizing – only sparsely-filled sandwiches were available to the passengers. The sandwiches sat in seran wrap behind glass at the bar. A bowl of bananas was apparently meant for someone else; the bartender told us that they weren’t for sale.
There were three stops along the way. The ports were small and sparsely populated, little more than a concrete dock jutting out from a sleepy island. What I will remember most is the clarity of the water. Without the churning of the ship’s wake, it was nearly transparent. Looking down from the deck, it was possible to imagine that the rocks beneath the surface were only tinted a light aquamarine and not underwater at all. These outer islands were surrounded by the clearest seawater I have ever seen.
A flurry of activity erupted in the hold at every stop. Though few passengers boarded or got off, locals swarmed on board. They stacked and carried away crates of produce and cardboard boxes, picking up shipments from other ports and sending goods and packages onward along the route. This seemed to be the more important function of the boat – not to bring cars with foreign license plates to distant locales, but to supply the inhabitants of far-flung places with a link to the mainland. Jadrolinija, the giant among Croatian ferry companies, is state owned and not overly concerned with profits. It exists because the people on the islands need a connection, not because people are clamoring to travel this way.
Between stops, very little happened. When someone got up to go on deck, or when the cook changed his song, everyone noticed. People came back below into the air conditioning almost gasping from the heat and sun.
As we approached Mali Lošinj, the last stop on the line, a restless excitement came over the passengers. In the sixth hour of our voyage, the uniformity of water, sun and movement had begun to devolve into tedium. Everyone was glad when the port came into view; no one lingered long on deck before assembling at the cars.
We’ve taken a number of shorter ferries on our trip, including a few here in Croatia, but never one that felt like a journey in itself. Driving off, we felt less that we'd been on a boat for six hours - more that the land had slipped away for an interminable amount of time and we had just found it again.