Can you remember the best breaths of air of your life? Maybe not. The intake of oxygen is typically the business of the subconscious, forgotten until the participating machinery is jarred out of rhythm. By an illness, for example, like tuberculosis.
In 1895, in his 30s, a tuberculosis-ridden Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary spent six weeks on a wisp of pine-covered rock in the Adriatic Sea. Built into his diagnosis was the gravity of the context; as a force of devastation in Europe, tuberculosis was near its peak in the 1890s (immunization came about in 1906), and countermeasures were taken seriously. And so the Archduke and his ailing lungs were shuttled 80 kilometers off what is now the Croatian coast, to Losinj. As an empire that stretched from Italy to Ukraine awaited him, he drew slow breaths of herbaceous, piney, salty air on this tiny island growing in legend as a place of healing.
Why this air? Why this island? More than a century later, guests of the Hotel Bellevue—the five-star retreat at the bed of Losinj’s Ćikat Bay—are halfway to an answer by the time they’ve checked in.
In 2017 these guests arrive carrying the weight of more contemporary maladies, by way of a 35-minute private flight from Zagreb (coordinated by the Bellevue) or a slower-going trip by car/ferry (from Rijeka or Valbiska). On both journeys, the stresses of city living are gradually elbowed out by the blue-green-white drama of seaside Croatia, and later, the Losinj-Cres archipelago. By the time I took my welcome drink at the Bellevue in October of this year, the rattle of cars and trains, the puffing of exhaust, the urban aesthetic in whole—all had faded out, left to their corrosive devices back in Zagreb and further back in New York. Embracing me were the colors and soundscapes of life at the Adriatic’s edge: crystal-clear waters lapping against weathered rocks; towering green pines dancing in a slight wind; the silent synthesis of sea and sky blues along the horizon.
The same embrace beckoned long ago to the Romans, who dug into it a shipping channel (separating it from neighbor Cres); to wealthy ship captains, who built into it estates and fine churches; and to Austro-Hungarian nobility, who ordered to it further investment and later botanists and curious doctors in residence.
No snakes! There are no venomous snakes on Losinj, which makes it the only such island in the Adriatic.
Today’s Losinj—which includes some deftly applied modern luxuries—beckons German and Italian travelers back each spring, summer and fall. For loyalists of the boutique Alhambra and the private villas Hortensia and Mirasol (all part of the Bellevue hotel family), the draws are the same: the immaculate waters, through which you can see to the rocky bottom even in darkness; the feasts of fresh fish and lamb slow-cooked peka-style; and glassy glides by sailboat through neighboring islands. Also: the Bellevue’s spa, this winter awarded again, and blissful 15-minute walks to town. On Losinj, the default cleansing power of a luxury vacation overlaps with the sort of stuff that has time and again left man in awe of nature.
Today’s air, too, swirls sweet and detoxifying as it always has. The notes of some 1,200 herbs growing on the island—like lavender, sage, rosemary, and mertle (a local symbol of love)—lend their essential oils to a cocktail of oxygen already rich in pine oils and sea salt. Pollution is kept at bay by ferocious coastal winds, and more than 250,000 pine trees slow-churn it all in Cikat Bay alone.
On Croatian wind: As I was told by Romano (below) in the stunning cliffside town of Lubenice, a bura is a strong, cleansing wind blowing in from the north. A yugo blows in moisture from the south. Both have been measured above 200km/h (125mph).
Inside the oldest of Losinj’s pines lies the story of the island’s rise as an “island of vitality.” In the late 19th century, it was Ambroz Haračić—a tireless Austro-Hungarian botanist—that first turned noble heads toward the idea, and it was his Lošinj Society for Afforestation and Embelishment that set to planting pines and other emboldening vegetation across the island. As written by Rory Ross in his nice Losinj write-up for The Independent, “By some calculus of sunshine, humidity, temperature and latitude, Haračić revealed [Losinj as] the healthiest climate in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As soon as word reached Emperor Franz Josef, His Serene Highness was packing his bucket, spade and mistress. Several weeks later, the Emperor returned to Vienna detoxed and fit.”
Behind Haračić’s lead, Losinj interest blossomed in Austria-Hungary. In 1895, the Austro-Hungarian Ministry of Health designated the town of Veli Lošinj—long adored by sea captains—an official “climatic health resort.” In that same year, it was entrusted to save the life of the young Archduke Franz Ferdinand.
Archduke Ferdinand returned in 1895 to the mainland to live another two decades, die by assassination in Sarajevo and indirectly set in motion an unprecedented war. The island of Losinj, meanwhile—the place of his salvation—continues to incubate life at its fullest despite a WWI-related lull in visitation (and the breakup in 1918 of Austria-Hungary). It is still ebullient, still running over with the stuff of life. The sun still pours over it 2,600 hours of shine each year and supports the health of big, bright oranges and lemons in the summer.
Go to Losinj, and breathe it in. Beyond that:
What to eat and drink
The food is fabulously on brand, in the sense that is always fresh and often from the sea. With a stay at the Bellevue, you can choose a Dine Around (“DA,” below) option and walk off premises for meals as you like. Here’s a fuller slate of restaurants to eat at, including from the Dine Around:
- Alfred Keller, Cikat Bay (DA) — Likely the best restaurant on Losinj. The in-house restaurant of the Alhambra has been awarded an impressive 15/20 points by Gault & Millau, which is something of a Michelin equal in Europe. If you like sparkling wine, the Movia sparking wine uncorked (underwater…) over dinner was the best I’ve ever had. The menu is fresh as of 3pm each day, but you should always hope the lobster ravioli with sage-butter sauce is on it.
- Veli žal, Mali Losinj (DA) — The spread of starters—and notably the same-day shrimp with pepper—was exceptional. The main of peka goat (a few months old) slow-cooked with potato, eggplant and vegetables was one of the best things I’ve eaten this year.
- Borik, Mali Losinj (DA) — One of the most spectacular settings for food on an island spilling over with them, Borik is a stroll out on the rocks, into the sun and light breezes of peak Losinj. Borik, also, means “wood of the pine.”
- Lanterna, Cikat Bay (DA) — Sat beside a Cikat Bay lighthouse (lanterna) is Lanterna, which is a beautiful 20-minute walk along the bay from the Bellevue. Fresh seafood and wine maybe ten feet from the water.
- Boca Verra, Mali Losinj — Italian food just beside the Apoxyomenos Museum in Mali Losinj. Recommended by a friendly member of the museum staff.
- Aperitifs — Try these whenever you can, in their infinite iterations. Punch up your meals with rounds of alcohols imbued by the fruits of Losinj: pine, honey, rosemary, lavender, and more—before dinner, with dinner, with lunch, after lunch…
A local remedy from Sandra of The Scented Garden: Losinj’s characteristic herbs remain a fixture of life on the island, employed in diets and remedies for aches and ills. For example: milk, sage and honey for sore throats. For better days and digestive help, a spoonful of olive oil, honey and lemon in the morning.
What to do
Take it slow:
- Swim in the Adriatic — The water in Croatia is remarkable. Go swimming in it, by way of some elegant, stone-cut points of egress along the Cikat Bay waterline. I suggest a homemade scoop from the Bellevue’s waterside gelato stand as you air-dry in the sun.
- Hit the spa at the Hotel Bellevue — In its spa perhaps most effectively, the Hotel Bellevue builds upon the island-wide emphasis on healing. Just this month it was awarded “Best Destination Spa” by Johansens (a Condé Nast luxury travel mag). If you like, you can build your stay around a customizable spa program of between three and 14 days.
- Visit the Apoxyomenos Museum in Mali Losinj — A really fantastic and to-the-point museum that’s fresh off a redesign. The centerpiece—which you wind toward up five colored-by-theme floors—is one of antiquity’s all-time greatest survivors: the 2,000-year-old statue of Apoxyomenos, which was discovered by a Belgium scuba diver off Losinj in 1996.
- Drink the water — Perhaps this is a stretch, but the fact is that the taps and faucets of Losinj and Cres pull water from a magnesium-rich lake with no identifiable connection to the sea. Eels move between the two—they know that much—but their route is for legend’s sake unclear. The locals I spoke with love this. There’s even a saying, by way of an expat masseuse who moved to Losinj after his first summer: “If you try the water on Losinj, you will come back.”
Where to stay
At the Hotel Bellevue, you can book a health package or just go to watch the sunsets and sleep well. Standard rates start at $230/night. Nearby, at different price points, the Hotel Aurora ($122/night) and Boutique Hotel Alhambra ($359/night) open their doors to the same Losinj air.