TRAVEL REVIEW: Island-hopping on two wheels

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BRITAIN has fallen head over handlebars for cycling.

The moment Bradley Wiggins - a name which many of us were unfamiliar with before last summer - crossed the finish line in Paris and became the first Brit to win the Tour de France, something in the national consciousness changed. Suddenly, two wheels were better than four, cycle lanes bulged with bike fans and wearing lycra was no longer confined to those with the lithest of limbs.

Our passion grew with every medal which Team GB athletes clinched in the London 2012 velodrome.

But could this love of cycling ever run deep enough to persuade holidaymakers to ditch the usual sun, sea and sand in favour of physical exertion?

Despite having spent 10 years in the bike-less wilderness, I decided to put it to the test on an island-hopping cruise around Croatia.

Fellow Europeans have been a fan of bike-centred holidays for years - perhaps affording some explanation as to why the German women always seem to have much sturdier thighs at the poolsides of Spanish hotels. And fellow passengers aboard my Katarina Line cruise ship, there for a four-day holiday took me around the magnificent Kvarner coastline, did indeed hail from Deutschland.

With miles of bountiful woodlands and rocky hills alongside stretches of sandy shore meeting with the sparkling blue of the Adriatic Sea, Croatia is the ideal location for this type of trip. The autumn climate - sunny but not stifling, breezy but warm - was perfect for island hopping between Krk, Rab and Pag aboard a luxury liner complete with a kitchen, dining room, a roof terrace and en-suite cabins.

All that I had to do was step up to the saddle. Staff from the cruise ship equipped me with my own mountain bike and a helmet before the moment of truth - mounting my new mode of transport for our first cycle ride of the trip.

The first trip got off to a rocky start due to the loss of my sense of balance. Ten minutes in, I had wobbled into a roadside barrier.

“Stop laughing, I thought the Germans weren’t supposed to have a sense of humour!” I yelled. Whoever invented the phrase ‘it’s as easy as riding a bike’ must have been on more drugs than Lance Armstrong.

After the initial hiccup, I steadied myself and began to enjoy the feeling of the wind in my helmet, the sound of woodland life gushing through my ears as I whizzed past. I got the same adrenaline rush and enjoyment I did the first time I felt my Dad release his hand from the small of my back and watched me wobble to the end of our back street unaided.

Our rides meandered through roads, soared along harbours and led us through rocky land and forests, a steady stream of cyclists under the warm Croatian sun. There were short breaks which allowed the party to rehydrate and soak up our surroundings before heading off again.

While docked at each port, you are given chance to explore the island during slots of free time.

Despite rediscovering a love of cycling, I was only to happy to revert to two legs to potter around the beautiful Krk, with its cobbled streets, and hidden delights such as an age-old stone-built cafe-bar where an historic sacrificial altar (now free of any blood or animal carcass, might I add) makes for a striking centrepiece amid fashionable music and punters.

When on Krk, a meal at one of the seafront restaurants is a must. The sea bass I was served was the freshest fish I’ve ever tasted, so flavourful it was marinated with just a light drizzle of olive oil. Croatian wine - crisp, fruity and aromatic - was the perfect accompaniment.

There will be some people who will always believe that exercise is the antithesis of a relaxing break, but for me physical exertion during the day made me enjoy the kicking-back time all the more. It was as if each bead of sweat made the wine served with the seafood more satisfying by the sip.

Next morning our boat set sail on the short journey to the island of Rab, where the rich medieval history of the town was ever-present in the walls which encircle it. Small but perfectly formed it offers a wealth of things to do for locals and visitors alike. There’s the outdoor cinema and ice cream stands with every flavour imaginable on every corner.

But it was rich heritage evident in the stone-built structures, quaint alley ways and the beautiful bell tower of St Christopher, which offers breathtaking views over the rooftops and out on to the glistening sea, which made me savour every second spent there.

Rab felt Romanesque in parts, particularly the celestial beauty on display at the monastery of Benedictine nuns. Discovering that it was under Venetian rule between 1409 to 1797 served to confirm suspicions that traces of Italian influence are present in its architecture.

Visitors should note, however, that parts of Rab are favoured by naturists. I discovered this a little too late after being ordered to get my kit off or go away by an angry Angela Merkel lookalike after stopping off at a hidden lagoon mid-cycle ride.

Walking around each of the old towns it struck me just how much more of more of a place you can see if you take two wheels. Forget open-top buses, the only mode of transportation which allows you to soak up the true beauty of these islands is the humble bicycle.

It’s unlikely I’ll be donning lycra to make my morning commute, but I am itching to get back on the saddle.

Whether I am as keen after a soaking in rainy Sheffield as opposed to the sun-kissed isles of Croatia remains to be seen.