Hundreds of uninhabited islands lie quietly under the night sky, their silhouettes illuminated by the cosmos. When the sun rises, triumphant sails open to the wind, carrying aquatic voyagers to small marinas: the gateways to Kornati islands’ barren landscapes, where adventure is at its simplest.
Among them is the island of Zut, a nautical retreat amid Croatia’s Kornati archipelago. Like its brethren islands, the land of Zut is preserved and protected under law, barring considerable infrastructure, running water, and electrical grids. Aside from a few stone dwellings dotting the coastline, Zut is mostly deserted. However, Krešimir Mudronja, owner of Restaurant Festa, has created a bustling sanctuary mingling archaic heritage with high-end dining to attract 15,000 visitors annually.
“The odds were stacked against us, but we pulled through and created a tourist destination out of an isolated and uninhabited island,” says Mudronja as he reflects on the beginnings of Festa. As seafaring vessels glide into ACI Marina on the northeast coast of Zut, a 10-foot “FESTA” sign towers over inflatable jumping castles and sunbathers. The cove, a delightfully unexpected sign of life, is a compilation of beachside pleasures that nod to Mudronja’s family and the generations that preceded.
Accessible only by boat, the island of Zut floats quietly off the ridge of Kornati National Park, a sprawling archipelago in the Adriatic’s Dalmatian region. Approximately 150 privately owned isles welcome maritime excursions that hark to yesteryear, when mainlanders used wooden lateen sailboats to transfer vegetation and livestock to and from the coastal towns of Murter, Zadar, and Sibenik. Mudronja spent his childhood visiting his grandparents on Zut, learning about the ecology of the land, lessons that are echoed in every aspect of Festa.
“Spending time with them was the last chance to really grapple with the old ways in which people used to live and think,” he remembers. “I used those times to connect with this epic land that was a result of centuries of labor done by the hands of my ancestors. Everything on the island is family owned and went through years of conservation processes. That is the best homage we could have given to everyone that came before us.”
In 1993, during the Croatian war for independence, Mudronja’s father uprooted from Murter and constructed a stone house at Zut’s marina. His beachside terrace, shaded by cypress trees, became a modest restaurant where he served Italian soldiers passing through. Under the same roof, which seemingly acts as both museum and restaurant, nautical artifacts and family heirlooms help recall deep-rooted history. Brac stone once used as storage and preservation basins for olive oil have been brilliantly repurposed as decor: large tables, a lobster aquarium, flower pots, and cases displaying souvenirs and honey for purchase.
The menu is a symbiosis of old and new in which fresh-caught lobster, octopus, bluefish, and Kornati lamb are prepared with herbs and plants found on Zut. “We use everything we can forage on the island, such as spices, olives, figs for dessert, and a few ingredients for cocktails in our lounge bar by the sea.” Olive oil, made from an indigenous tree called oblica, “is native to the land and as such is defined by the untouched, isolated nature of the islands.” Other resources are brought in from Murter or fishermen, crab hunters, and suppliers scattered throughout the Adriatic.
Mudronja and his team of 40 reside in lodging behind the restaurant. “The employees live on the island like us, our family. At moments it can be poetic and romantic, and at moments it can get hard and isolating, and that’s why we need to stick together.” To adhere to the environmental standards of the islands, Mudronja uses solar collectors for electricity, a desalinizator that converts 18,500 liters of ocean water into fresh drinking water every day, and a waste-water purifier to ensure Festa is completely autonomous.
But guests seldom notice the herculean undertaking of steering this secluded ship. “They love isolation, adventure, and unspoiled nature, and what makes their arrival special is that they come into our house, into our home.”
Festa Looks Forward
New projects must comply with the preservation of land and, for Mudronja’s personal sake, customs from his lineage. Recently he launched Festa Days, a food festival honoring tradition, the zero-waste and plastic-free policies of the restaurant, and the region’s gastronomical splendors.
Over the span of three days, beloved Croatian and Michelin-starred chefs showcase the native bluefish, an often overlooked species that Mudronja wants to revive through a “new experience and new encounter” and, of course, by using only accruements found on Zut.
His vision board for Festa is filled with ideas: an olive oil refinery, a polyvalent sports field, grounds for traditional games and mini tournaments, and a heliport to transport guests from their yachts.
Reserve a spot at the marina by contacting Restaurant Festa directly. Mudronja is available to assist with renting a boat or finding transportation to Festa. You can dock for daily or overnight relaxation or rest your sea legs in a newly outfitted glamping tent nestled into the family’s olive groves.
“The way we conserve our traditions and pass them down to our children makes a real impact on what we do, and it reflects on every satisfied guest that comes to Zut,” Mudronja says. “We have always approached all of our projects on Zut with extreme passion and were guided by emotions, and that’s the way we’ll keep on doing everything.”
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