Mljet's background is laced with legends, but its present is a real-life experience of nature and history at their best. There is proof that ancient Greeks were familiar with Mljet, an island they called Melita, or "honey," for the swarms of bees they found there. But except for amphorae in the sea off Mljet, there is no tangible evidence that the Greeks ever settled there. However, later settlers -- Romans, Byzantines, Avars, Slavs -- did leave traces of their time on Mljet; the area around Polace boasts several sites with ruins from the 1st through the 6th centuries, including a 5th-century Roman palace and some fortifications.
Today the western side of Mljet is a national park known as a "green island" because Mljet is heavily wooded (more than 70% of the island is covered with forests). Its centerpieces are the two saltwater lakes. Water in these lakes is warm: 77°F (25°C) for Malo Jezero and 82° to 86°F (28°-30°C) for Veliko Jezero. The lakes' high saline concentration is said to have healing properties, especially for skin diseases and rheumatism. The smaller lake actually was a swamp until the 12th century, when Benedictine monks who built a monastery on St. Mary's Islet on Veliko Jezero dug a channel between Malo Jezero and the larger lake, which is connected to the sea by a canal.
The 12th-century monastery and its Church of St. Mary have gone through several incarnations since they were built, including a stint as a hotel during Tito's administration. The 1991 war ended that phase, leaving the monastery and church vacant and neglected. However, there are signs that the church and monastery are being renovated; according to a Mljet tour guide, the Benedictines plan to once again use its monastery and church by 2008.
The monastery is closed to visitors, but the tiny Church of St. Mary is open, though there isn't much to see. St. Mary is single nave and mostly empty. Small engraved stones in the foyer floor mark graves where the monks were buried standing up.
Mljet and Mljet National Park are easily reached from Dubrovnik and other nearby islands and points on the mainland. Excursion and car ferries run here from Trstenik on the Peljesac Peninsula. Atlas (8am-6pm) runs excursions from Orebic that depart via water taxi from the dock across from the tourist office on Trg Mimballa; the boat also picks up people at the Orsan hotel farther up the beach. The daylong excursion costs 270kn ($47) per person. The fee includes admission to the park.
The water taxi takes you to Korcula, where you pick up the boat to Mljet. The ride to Mljet from Korcula takes an hour and 40 minutes, so you spend half a day just getting there and back. The excursion boat, which is like a crowded bus on water, disgorges passengers at Pomena, Mljet's center of tourism. Mljet is a very low-key island with just the one hotel and several apartments for rent. It only seems crowded when you dock at Pomena because everyone congregates around the Odisej hotel, which is on the marina.
You can pick up a cold drink at the Odisej Hotel and then walk just short of a mile to boats that will take you to St. Mary's Island on Veliko Jezero. There you can poke around in the 12th-century Benedictine monastery or swim in the saltwater lakes, which are very warm. Malo Jezero, the smaller of the two lakes, has a small beach, but access to Veliko Jezero is off a small rock ledge. Boats between St. Mary's and Pomena leave every hour.
Magical Mljet -- Mljet is awash in legends and folklore. The most oft-told story is the legend of Homer's hero Odysseus, whose ship supposedly was blown ashore at Mljet, where he was enchanted by the nymph Calypso and kept in her cave for 7 years.
Another legend says that St. Paul stayed on Mljet during one of his trips spreading Christianity. As with many legends, this one is based on a kernel of truth. According to historians, St. Paul was shipwrecked off the island of Melita and there is a debate as to whether Melita refers to Mljet or Malta. Nonetheless, St. Paul is held in high esteem by the residents of Mljet.
Part reality, and perhaps part exaggeration, is the story of Mljet's relationship with snakes and boars. According to records, Mljet once was overpopulated with poisonous snakes, and in 1911 experts brought in mongooses to get rid of them. The little critters eliminated the snakes but created another problem by killing the island's rabbits and chickens, too. Currently, the island has a problem with wild boars, which prowl the forests. The boars supposedly swam 8km (5 miles) across the sea to Mljet years ago during a fire in their former habitat.