"This is wonderful," declares Andrew, gleefully. "You actually look forward to going up a hill." Thanks to our Bosch-powered e-bikes, this long, snaking climb on the island of Cres is a piece of cake. We still have to pedal, but an electric motor provides welcome additional propulsion. It feels uncannily like when I was learning to ride and my Dad would push me from behind.
Unfortunately, we have several purists in the group who wouldn't ride an e-bike if you paid them. Which, of course, is their prerogative but it does create a problem. What is the proper etiquette when you effortlessly overtake someone labouring up a hill under the midday sun? A wave? A smile? An empathetic "I-feel-your-pain" grimace?
Thankfully, it's not a big issue because the majority of guests on this uTracks island hopping trip in Croatia have opted to use them too. Some have even brought their own.
Given the amount of attention lavished on Hvar, Vis and Korcula, you'd be forgiven for thinking they're the only islands worth visiting in Croatia. In fact, the country has more than 1200 scattered along its 1800-kilometre coastline and for the next seven days we'll be exploring a selection in the Kvarner Bay region of the northern Adriatic.
Unfortunately, this part of the country is susceptible to two strong winds – the Bura, a bitterly cold north-easterly that comes whistling off the mountains, and the Yugo, a humid, energy-sapping southerly that brings rough seas.
Today, we have the Yugo, which is making this morning's ride to a 300-metre-high lookout all the more taxing. Well, for those without e-bikes, at least.
Most of the trees on Cres were cut down by the Venetians for shipbuilding so the terrain is rocky and barren with just a few hardy shrubs and olive trees poking through the red-tinged soil. As we snake up the back of the island, we pass through fragrant clouds of thyme and skirt dramatic drop offs that plunge hundreds of metres to the sea.
After cycling through a small village of shuttered stone houses, we reach the lookout and bask in a sweeping view of the Adriatic. On the horizon is the island of Krk, where we started the trip yesterday, and in the opposite direction Losinj, where we're heading next. High above us a griffon vulture soars above the hillside, its wingtips splayed like fingers.
We arrive back at the boat to find waves crashing over pontoons and fishing boats straining at their moorings. We were supposed to sail to Losinj this afternoon but instead the captain decides to stay here overnight. These itinerary changes are common (they've happened during the last nine trips); the rationale being it's better to have a pleasant night in port waiting for the weather to pass than battle for hours through rough seas.
Thankfully, our well-appointed three-deck cruiser, Andela Lora, is a most agreeable place to hang out. This trip is classified as a "deluxe" departure, so the cabins are airconditioned with comfortable double beds, good storage space and en suite showers. There's an elegant wood-panelled lounge and dining room, a spacious outdoor seating area and a large sundeck.
Meals are served family-style and the food is an unexpected treat. Tonight's dinner is minestrone soup, a Greek salad and a hearty serving of veal with mashed potato and rice. Dessert is a coconut covered sponge that looks uncannily like a lamington, but which Croats amusingly call "Hairy Cake".
Servings are enormous and it soon becomes clear that the week's biggest challenge will be expending enough calories to justify such extravagant meals, particularly when the e-bike is doing most of the work.
There are two local guides on board, Josip and Marko, who brief us throughout the day and lead the rides. Apart from me and an Australian couple, all the other guests are from Germany, Austria or Switzerland, so the briefings are done in German by Josip and translated into English by Marko. Most of the time this works OK, but occasionally I feel we're missing something when Marko translates a five-minute "nicht"-filled monologue into, "Lunch is at 1pm".
After dinner Josip gives a candid talk about the region's tumultuous history and his experience during the Bosnian War. Ninety per cent of the buildings in his hometown in Bosnia were destroyed so when he was a teenager his parents paid a people smuggler 3000 euros to escort him to Dusseldorf to live with his brother. The smuggler got him across the border but abandoned him in Stuttgart. Despite not speaking any German, he managed to find his brother and build a life for himself.
It's a heart-wrenching tale made all the more poignant given the current European refugee crisis and the thousands of Syrians seeking refuge in Germany.
By the following afternoon the Yugo has eased so we set sail for Losinj, an island that was popular in the early 1900s as a health resort for wealthy Europeans. We moor up in Mali Losinj, an attractive port with a sweeping quay flanked by pastel-hued shops and restaurants.
We do two cycles here, my favourite being a delightful jaunt around the island's rocky coastline to Veli Losinj. En route we pass a succession of secluded bays and beaches before finishing in the town's compact stone-walled harbour. We have free time to explore so I find the local tourist information office and ask if there's anything specific I should see. "Not really," says the staff member. "Just walk and enjoy." She inhales deeply. "The air here is excellent."
The next day we sail to the island of Pag, where the boat drops us off before continuing to the fishing village of Lun, where we'll meet it for lunch.
We spend the morning cycling along a straight, undulating road lined with limestone dry walls. Once again, the terrain is hauntingly barren, a rock-littered landscape punctuated by a smattering of shrubs and sheep.
One thing that does grow well here is olive trees and we call into the Olive Gardens of Lun, a vast estate containing more than 80,000 trees. Many are more than a thousand years old, their trunks twisted and gnarled from centuries battling with the Bura.
After a hearty lunch and a cooling swim off the back of the boat, we push on to the island of Rab and dock at its eponymous capital. A guided tour with Josip and Marko reveals a delightful maze of narrow stone alleyways and an atmospheric old town with four impressive bell towers and a 14th-century monastery still run by Benedictine nuns.
We stop at a restaurant and Josip organises samples of one of the island's delicacies: Rabska torte. Originally made by the nuns as a gift for the Pope in the 11th century, the exact recipe of this delicious, citrusy pastry is still a closely guarded secret.
We also try Pag's signature export, a tangy, three-month-aged sheep's cheese. I enjoy it, but the Swiss in the group, who know a thing or two about cheese, aren't impressed. "I wouldn't even use it for raclette," declares one sniffily.
On our way back to Krk, we make a sobering stop at Goli Otok (Naked Island), which was used by Yugoslav leader Tito as a high-security prison from 1949-1988. Josip paints a picture of unbearable brutality – prisoners standing over seeds all day to shade them from the scorching sun; people being forced to incriminate friends and family members; prisoners beating each other to death with rocks. Apparently, the island used to have a sign that read: "We're building Naked Island. Naked Island is building us."
The following day we awake to blue skies and set off on our final cycle of the trip – a 28-kilometre ride up to a splendid viewpoint and then back to the port of Omisalj where our journey began. All is going swimmingly until I notice my e-bike's battery indicator is only showing two bars. Others are in a similar predicament and it transpires the batteries didn't charge overnight. Eight kilometres from home, just as we enter a particularly testing set of hills, I lose power entirely.
Suddenly, the roles are reversed, and those not on e-bikes have to decide on the proper etiquette for passing someone whose battery has run out. They settle for a smug smile.
Emirates flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Zagreb via Dubai, emirates.com
uTrack's eight-day guided Kvarner Bay trip costs from $1990 ($2250 for a "deluxe" departure) and includes bike hire, accommodation and most meals. E-bikes are an additional $120. See utracks.com
The writer was a guest of uTracks.
Five more bike'n'boat adventures
• Berlin to the Baltic Sea – explore northern Germany's picturesque countryside as you cruise by barge from Berlin through Poland to the Baltic Sea, utracks.com
• Coastal Vietnam – this two-week trip packs in many of Vietnam's highlights, including scenic Ha Long Bay, World Heritage-listed Hoi An and the meandering waterways of the Mekong Delta, islandhopping.com
• The Ionian Islands – visit the homeland of the mythical king Odysseus and explore the spectacular caves of Melissani on this eight-day trip around Greece's idyllic Ionians, utracks.com
• Provence - highlights of this seven-day romp from Avignon to Aigues-Mortes include the vineyards of Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Europe's best preserved Roman aqueduct, the Pont du Gard, biketours.com
• Scotland's West Coast – look out for red deer, otters and eagles as you bike and sail along the Caledonian Canal, past Ben Nevis and through Neptune's Staircase, the longest chain of locks in Britain, utracks.com