60km (36 miles) N of Zadar; 240km (150 miles) W of Zagreb
When you approach Pag Island on the ferry from mainland Prizna south of Senj, you'd never guess that it is home to one of the biggest party beaches in Europe. At first glance it looks as if you're headed for a landing on Mars rather than a sojourn on an island awash with nouveau riche villas, condominiums, and a pedigree that goes back to the Roman Empire.
It's difficult to imagine that anything could survive for long on Pag's barren terrain, which appears to be either entirely karst (limestone) or dry dust, but the island once was covered with lush forests. Agriculture thrived on Pag when the Romans settled here in the 1st century, and during the next 1,300 years or so, not much disturbed Pag’s flora, not even the Slav invasion in the 7th century or Pag’s fights over its prized salt fields.
In the 15th century, however, the rulers of Venice and Zadar were in competition for the island and its natural resources. Venice won when it took control of most of Dalmatia in 1409, including Pag and Zadar. Some might say that Pag lost, because once the Venetians had control they used the island's vast tracts of timber as their private lumber yard and stripped the island of its trees to build ships. The hat trick of Venetian deforestation, grazing sheep, and the fierce northwestern wind (bura) that frequently hammers the Kvarner and northern Dalmatian coast so traumatized the environment that it has never recovered.
The Venetians engrossed themselves in building, and by the mid-15th century the salt trade on Pag had grown so much that the island’s Old Town could no longer handle the population or the business. Consequently, the Venetian administrators hired Juraj Dalmatinac to design a new city, which became Pag Town.
Sheep breeding and salt production always have been and still are mainstays of Pag's economy, but it is tourism that now contributes the biggest chunk of revenue to the island. Thanks to that trend, Pag recently has been the site of a building boom that is driving development of other commerce on the island. While tourism is increasing, Pag remains mostly undiscovered and underrated, making it a good vacation opportunity for the knowledgeable traveler.
Pag Island is 60km (36 miles) long and 10km (6 miles) wide at its broadest point. Most of the island’s eastern side is barren, or covered with a grid of freehand rock walls that delineate property lines and keep sheep from wandering from one patch of scrub grass to another. However, on the northwest end of the island, from Śmuni to Lun, olive trees and other vegetation have taken root in large fertile sections.
Pag Island is not densely populated—yet. In fact, most of the time, visitor numbers for Pag’s waters and beaches are low, and for rent signs are numerous. The exception is the time from July 15 to August 15, when it seems half of Europe’s 20-somethings descend on the island, fill its rooms and apartments, and take over its beaches for wild, scantily clad, nonstop partying.
But most of the year, Pag is a quiet island whose permanent residents produce and promote four products for which the island has become famous—cheese, lamb, lace, and salt. The cheese is known as Paški sir, and it is reminiscent of Parmesan, though a bit saltier. It is sold throughout the island by both commercial and home-based producers and usually served sliced and drizzled with olive oil. Paški sir is exported to Croatia’s larger population centers, where it goes for a much higher price than it does on Pag.
The second is Paški lamb. Pag is home to many herds of sheep, the meat prized for its high quality and unique flavor, a result of the salt-infused air the lambs breathe, and their diet of scrub grass and local herbs that grow wild in the rocky soil. The combination creates lamb that has a singular taste sought after by Croatian gourmets.
The art of making Paški lace is a tradition that has been preserved and nurtured on Pag. Once you see real Pag lace, which is incredibly intricate, you’ll be able to tell imitations from the genuine article.
Finally, there is the salt once fought over by would-be conquerors. Pag's salt pans are still in production, mostly in the island’s central valley. Pag salt is commonplace in Croatian supermarkets, and it is exported as well. Many of the island’s souvenir shops sell decorative bottles of pebble-size Pag salt as an inexpensive souvenir.
It's a shame that "the season" on Pag isn't longer than the traditional mid-July to mid-August rush because the climate is still warm in spring and fall, and the island offers lively nightlife, crystal-clear azure water for swimming, and quaint attractions.