Odysseus spent seven years as love slave to Calypso on Mljet -- so one island legend claims -- on his way home from the Trojan War. That seems like a long time, especially for his wife, Penelope . But after a few days here, the ship- wreck story sounds to me like an alibi. It's easy to imagine that Odysseus might willingly have let himself be lured to the island and persuaded to spend seven years with a sea nymph.
When my intended guide, Nikolina, fell ill (suspiciously, as it was her birthday), her friend Marijana -- a school teacher with brilliant red hair and an irresistible laugh -- agreed to show me the island of her birth. ("Although everyone," she admitted, "is actually born in Dubrovnik.") After meeting at a café in central Mljet, we set out by car for her favorite haunt, Odysseus' Cave, a site seldom visited by tourists. Locals come to picnic and swim during the summer months, when the Adriatic Sea is warm. Marijana first visited the spot when she was 10; her fondest memories of island life include long afternoons at the cliffside hideaway, sunning on the stones and daring the waves with her friends.
As we motor along its spine, the island -- 22 miles long and averaging less than 2 miles wide -- narrows to a ridge where we can see both coasts at once. Green islets adorn the coastline, and pines carpet the hills. Mljet National Park comprises about one-third of the island , laced with trails that surround two lakes. The Great Lake even has its own tiny islet, and from that oasis rises a serene Benedictine church and monastery surrounded by poppies and herb gardens. But all of Mljet feels like an oasis; it's hard to believe it's just an hour by fast boat from the crowds of Dubrovnik.
The absence of cultivation on Mljet seems almost surreal. The other Dalmatian isles are covered with vineyards and olive groves, and few areas are devoid of human habitation. But Mljet, the Honey Isle, probably looks a lot like it did when Odysseus washed ashore here three millenniums ago.
Babino Polje, Marijana's village, appears on our right, a simple hamlet of small, white houses. I ask if it was dull to grow up in such a place.
"Not at all," she shrugs.
"But what did you do as a teenager?"
"Nobody's here as a teenager," Marijana laughs. "There are boarding houses in Dubrovnik where we stay when we're in high school."
We stop at Babino Polje to collect her bathing suit. Homes rise up the ridge, and dogs yap as we navigate the small yards.
"After Zeus forced Calypso to free Odysseus," Marijana explains, "she grew old and heartbroken. She died here on Mljet. We call her 'Babine,' which means 'grandmother' -- and my town is named for her fields."
She leads me into an old olive mill to meet the town's best fisherman, Ivan. He looks like a sweet, dried apple with appliqué eyebrows. An ancient press sits in the center of the room.
"Olives were stuffed into woven rope collars called rijeca," Ivan explains in a gravelly voice, "and squeezed beneath this stone." I notice that a carving in the lintel says that the building dates from the 1880s.
"But it hasn't been in use for more than 40 years," says Marijana as Ivan chuckles and nods. The last time he saw olive oil flowing beneath that stone, he was in his early 30s.
It's a steep hike from Babino Polje down to the rocky coast, through fields shimmering with white and purple flowers. After 15 minutes we arrive at the edge of a cenote -- a vast, circular gap in the earth. This was once a cave, but the roof has fallen away -- exposing the waves churning at least 70 feet below us.
"The sea is deep here," Marijana says as we pick our way around the sinkhole and down a stone path leading to the ocean. "I prefer such wild countryside. I saw a shark here once."
There's an entrance at sea level; when the ocean is calm, one can swim into the cave and emerge in the cenote. Today, though, a heavy swell smashes against the jagged rocks. Leaning out as far as I dare, I peer around the cliff and into the prison that held one of the world's greatest mariners for seven years. Do I spy a glint of gold, or is it just a starfish stuck to the cave wall? Is that a frayed rope dancing on the swell -- or the tail of a sea nymph? I suspect there are still plenty of mysteries here on Mljet. Marijana shakes her head at my conjectures, laughing her captivating laugh. For a moment, I'm convinced she's the modern avatar of Odysseus' naiad.
The cave has a magnetic allure, but the sun is falling and there is more of Mljet for me to see. We hike back up to the road and drive east to Saplunara . This is where the island ends. In this area one fi nds Mljet's only sand beaches. The empty crescents here embrace calm, shallow bays. Except for a rowboat and a rustic stone house nearly hidden in a grove of trees, the area seems deliciously remote.
As we approach the stone house -- hoping to beg a glass of water -- a swarthy man materializes on the porch. Thick white hair erupts beneath his shirt collar. To my surprise, he greets Marijana with delight. "Do you know him?" I ask.
"Of course! This is Piter, Nikolina's father."
No sooner has Piter invited us in for a taste of the home-brewed Croatian liqueur called rakija than a small red car pulls up. It's the birthday girl herself. Nikolina hops out, looking quite well -- though a bit flustered to see us.
I sincerely hope that Odysseus' years here ended this well -- sitting around a rough wooden table, drinking honey wine with Calypso and her friends as a hirsute Poseidon played nostalgic songs on a battered red accordion -- a last, indelible memory of Mljet to bring back to the bustle of Ithaca.