“Do you want to hire a bicycle?” asks the woman balancing a small car-sized bundle of twigs on her shoulder.
“No thanks, we prefer to walk,” I reply, feeling slightly culpable that our chosen mode of exploration of the Mljet National Park is depriving her of her small slice of the benefits of tourism. Cycling appears to be the transportation of choice in Polace, regimented rows of cycles standing ready outside every other doorway of the picturesque, coastal hamlet.
We pause to photograph a fence heavy with the purple heads of pasiflora, each one busy with its own community of beetles, bugs and butterflies, and a tethered goat who had earlier almost strangled himself attempting to head butt me on my way into the village.
“He is my goat,” the woman with the twigs informs us. “I have another one in the other field.” She jerks her head towards a small clearing in the forest behind her. “I don’t know what I will do with him now. There is no-one here any more and I am too old to keep working so hard.”
Her children are grown, she tells us, and have left Mljet to live in Australia and Germany, far off places where work is not dependant on the season and a trickle of passing trade. She points to the row of pretty stone cottages standing in overgrown gardens to our left.
“All empty, everyone has moved away” she says. “No-one to maintain them any more. I don’t know what will happen.”
The irony of Mljet’s attraction as a de-stress destination for overworked executives is not lost on us as we make vague conciliatory noises about the rising popularity of Croatia, and head back into the forest, more guilty than ever that we’re walkers and not cyclists.
Ascending through the forest of Aleppo pines, holm oak and ash, glimpses of the teal and turquoise waters of the lake tantalise until we emerge at the peak of Montokuc where views open up across the endless Adriatic on one side and to the shimmering Mljetski Channel and the Peljesac peninsula on the other. From here, the stone in the throat beauty of Mljet is all too evident, its impossibly clear sea studded with tiny satellite islands; its oscillating canopy of forest and its limestone cliffs.
Descending back towards the lake, the spiky purple heads of thistles line our path and gently sway in the breeze, each one occupied by several bugs and butterflies enjoying the fairground ride. I’ve never seen so many insects. With every footfall we disturb clouds of tiny butterflies and moths that settle onto my T shirt. I’m a walking nature reserve. As just about every purple flower we’ve seen has been adorned by them, I can only assume Mljet’s insects are drawn towards the violet section of the colour wheel and my pink T shirt seems to qualify.
We arrive lakeside and drop down onto the narrow path that skirts the water, arriving at the jetty just in time to catch the little ferry which takes us across the lake to the island of SV Marija. Disembarking and settling at a lakeside table beneath the pines to peruse the menu, I try to get my head around our Inception-like location of being on an island, on an island. I wonder if we should have explored the ruined monastery and the island before deciding to have lunch, in case there isn’t enough time before the ferry returns in just under two hours. I needn’t have worried, the family who disembarked with us and chose to explore first have returned by the time our sandwich arrives, their full circuit having taken somewhere in the region of 15 minutes.
For the next hour or so we sip our beers by the waterside, stroll the island – twice – and drink in the soundtrack of crickets, the antics of lizards and the never ending flypast of Brimstone butterflies, beetles and dragonflies. When the ferryman arrives, we glide across the lake to Mali Most and retrace our path back to Pomena and the island’s only hotel, Odisej.
With 90% of Mljet covered in forest and one third given over to the protected area of the National Park, its 850 human inhabitants are far outnumbered by the birds, bees and butterflies, not to mention the lizards, hedgehogs, snakes, deer and boar. On our four and a half hour walk we only saw other visitors around the lakeside paths with not another soul to disturb the beauty and tranquility of the higher ground of the forest. A veritable garden of Eden, the pace of life on Mljet is dictated only by the length of the shadows and your chosen mode of transport, be it foot, canoe, kayak, boat or bicycle. Come to think of it, why not give them all a go and enjoy a guilt-free, slow sojourn in paradise.
Andrea (Andy) Montgomery is a freelance travel writer and co-owner of Buzz Trips and The Real Tenerife series of travel websites. Published in The Telegraph, The Independent, Wexas Traveller, Thomas Cook Travel Magazine, EasyJet Traveller Magazine, you can read her latest content on Google+