28 Jul BBC – Travel – Croatia’s pristine isle of wellness
From the first day I set foot on Lošinj, a sense of wellbeing washed over me. When I close my eyes, I can still imagine breathing in the island’s fresh sea air laced with the aroma of pine, strolling on snaking coastal promenades, listening to waves break over the rocks. I recall the sensation of swimming in the crystal-clear Adriatic Sea and basking on the beach under the strong Mediterranean sun, a film of salt coating my skin. The island’s intense aromatic herbs will be forever imprinted on my olfactory memory; sage, immortelle, myrtle, laurel and rosemary filling my lungs.
Lošinj, an island located in Croatia’s Kvarner Bay in the northern Adriatic Sea, has a long history of wellness. Kvarner Bay is one of the mildest Adriatic regions due to the Učka mountain range, which protects the coast and islands from cold northerly winds. This special microclimate is known today as the “Kvarner effect”, which offers natural healing: around 2,600 hours of annual sunshine, high air quality and pressure, therapeutic aerosols from the sea air and the high salt concentrations of the Adriatic Sea make this Croatian island a prime restorative environment.
Ambroz Haračić, a 19th-Century botanist and Lošinj native, determined through his research on the position and conditions of the island that it had the healthiest climate in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Opatija, a coastal town on Kvarner Bay, was officially recognised as a royal health resort within the Empire in 1889 and designated a kurort (natural health spa). This German word indicates that a region is ideal for medical treatments related to wellbeing and wellness due to natural remedies existing within the area’s soil, water or climate.
In 1892, the Austro-Hungarian government declared Lošinj’s towns of Mali and Veli Lošinj “climate spas”, and Lošinj became an isle of wellness for its unique healing properties, deemed particularly suitable for those with respiratory issues and allergies.
“The island of Lošinj is a perfect place for people with respiratory problems because of the unique combination of clean air at optimum humidity and temperature saturated with particles of sea salt and essential oils,” said Irena Dlaka, a Lošinj historical expert. “This natural healing aerosol soothes and dilates the bronchi, dissolves mucus and facilitates coughing, cleanses the lungs and improves lung function.”
“The use of natural healing agents of the island of Lošinj in pulmonary rehabilitation has a long tradition (since 1885) and is still recommended today by experts of the Croatian Respiratory Society of the Croatian Medical Association,” she added.
Lošinj was a magnet for royals: Archduke Charles Stefan, one of the richest Habsburgs and an important member of the imperial family, was one of the first to gravitate to the island in 1885 in search of a place where he could comfortably spend winters. Members of the imperial family and the imperial court followed. “For all of them, Lošinj was a ‘space of freedom’, where they could enjoy peace away from the eyes of the public and tedious protocols,” Dlaka said.
In 1903, the therapy institute Kuranstalt dr. Simonitsch opened in Veli Lošinj, and was among the first medical institutions in the Adriatic to use seawater-based thalassotherapy when treating patients. “Studies have shown that the mineral composition of the Adriatic Sea is 7-14% higher than that of average seawater because the waters that flow to the sea are rich in minerals,” Dlaka said.
This pure and highly saline seawater was used for various medical ailments. “Patients were offered cold and hot seawater baths, and sun and air baths,” Dlaka said. “Today, we know that the composition of seawater is very similar to human blood plasma, and that in addition to salt, it contains a number of valuable trace elements and microorganisms. In addition to relieving respiratory diseases and helping speed recovery after illness, seawater reduces tension and stress, treats and relieves many skin problems and hormonal disorders [and] helps with arthritis and rheumatism.”
Dlaka says the institute, which operated until its nationalisation in 1947, was popular among citizens, not only royals, throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Among its famous guests was the von Trapp family (1933), whose story inspired the iconic film, The Sound of Music.
The island of Lošinj is a perfect place for people with respiratory problems
Lošinj’s unspoilt beauty goes far beyond its shores, however. Old pine growth and native Mediterranean herbs create soothing alfresco aromatherapy while walking, jogging, hiking or biking on the more than 250km of trails that crisscross its rugged, wild terrain. More than a century ago, Haračić determined that around 1,100 plant species and 230 species of medicinal herbs grow on this idyllic island and surrounding islets, and, according to Dlaka, many of these are still used in traditional medicine today.
Dalmatian sage (kadulja in Croatian, or kuš in Lošinj dialect) is used for the treatment of respiratory diseases and as a herb in domestic cuisine. “In the time of my grandma, dry sage leaves were put at the fireplace to better the quality of the air in the room,” said Sandra Nicolich, creator of Miomirisni otočki vrt (“Garden of Fine Scents”), a half-hectare herbal garden that showcases the island’s herbal bounty. Immortelle (smilje in Croatian, or magriž in Lošinj dialect) was used in old times as an all-purpose disinfectant and insect repellent. According to Nicolich, women on Lošinj used to gather immortelle and found their hands rejuvenated, which led them to create a balm for their skin; today, immortelle is used in a variety of anti-ageing skincare products.
“Most of the herbs of Lošinj are also found on other Adriatic islands, but people say that Lošinj species smell the loveliest,” she said.
Today, visitors can take a guided tour of Miomirisni otočki vrt, created by Nicolich in 2003. Walking through this colourful sanctuary is a balm for the soul, where vibrant plants and fragrances are enhanced by a striking view of Valdarke Bay, one of the most picturesque bays on the island.
Visitors can also taste the island’s herbs by sampling homemade myrtle (mirta or mrča) liqueur; rich in vitamin C and iron, the liqueur diminishes anxiety and improves mood, says Nicolich. According to old beliefs, travarica, a local herbal spirit, purportedly aids in digestion, relieves muscle pain and also disinfects wounds. Nicolich sells an exclusive Lošinj Herbal Brandy, infused with 15 indigenous herbs – a signature combination that is a “secret of ours,” she said – while her Lošinj tea is made from a blend of sage, wild rose and eucalyptus leaves.
With Lošinj’s long tradition of wellness, spas are essential to experiencing the calming island environs. Guests can experience treatments using natural herbal products at Boutique Hotel Alhambra & Villa Augusta, a historical complex bathed in terracotta and golden hues situated near tranquil Čikat Bay in Mali Lošinj.
Alhambra’s Cube Spa has an indoor heated seawater pool and a variety of treatments that feature the island’s herbal offerings. Massages are available with aromatic oils produced locally on Lošinj and other islands in the Kvarner archipelago: for tension, nerves and related mood swings, the spa uses a mix of orange, lavender and mint essential oils; to fight fatigue, exhaustion and low energy, they employ a blend of lavender, bergamot, cypress, clary sage and myrtle essential oils.
Essential oils promote emotional, physical and spiritual well-being
To learn about the different plants on the island, hotel guests can take a two-hour aroma workshop, where they choose and pick plants to make their own aromatic oils to use for massage treatments in spa garden cabanas – and take home their own natural body and face products as a souvenir. For those who have taken too much sun, an organic “After Sun Care” treatment uses aloe vera from surrounding gardens, which cools, soothes and accelerates the self-healing process in sun-damaged skin.
Cube Spa also offers treatments featuring Mirta natural cosmetics, made with 100% natural ingredients and based on the medicinal herbs and essential oils characteristic to the Lošinj archipelago. Founder Mirta Lozančić was inspired by the fragrances and medicinal plants of the island and sources the majority of the herbs locally – including immortelle, featured in her popular Immortelle Face Cream, which stimulates regeneration and helps prevent wrinkles.
Lozančić said essential oils are highly concentrated extracts of a plant’s roots, leaves, flowers, seeds and fruit, that can be 70 to 100 times stronger than the actual plants. “Essential oils promote emotional, physical and spiritual well-being,” she said. “[They] are the life force of a plant inside a bottle.
Years on, I can recall the potent essential oils blend used in my massage at Cube Spa, inhaling therapeutic aromatherapy and sinking into serenity under the hands of the skilled massage therapist. As a remembrance, I took some of Lozančić’s products home to New York City; until the jars were empty, I was transported again and again back to the island.
BBC Travel’s Well World is a global take on wellness that explores different ways that cultures the world over strive for a healthy lifestyle.
If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter called “The Essential List”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Worklife and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.