It’s early evening in a sleepy Mediterranean fishing village.
The late September sun is dipping towards the low hills that all but enclose this tranquil bay, sending ripples of bronze and vermilion across the water. A soft murmur of conversation from a waterside café pauses like a held breath as a small fishing boat drifts into view and its crew of two pull up a longline that drips with glistening mussels. Silhouetted against the dark-red sunset, the men seem like actors in some ancient shadow play, salvaging a princess’s necklace from the deep.
This moment of pure magic might be set in Sicily or on a remote Greek island. But it’s not. The scene is playing out on the Bay of Kotor in Montenegro – a rising travel destination that’s making a virtue of its compact size, low profile and tendency to prompt the question, “Where?”
The answer to that is easy. Head south from Dubrovnik, in Croatia, and you soon enter Montenegrin territory, which continues for about 300 kilometres along the Mediterranean shoreline to the border of Albania.
Achieving full independence in 2006, the small Balkan state has just 622,000 inhabitants – about one-eighth of the population of Sydney. But its pristine coast and ruggedly beautiful interior have seen visitor numbers almost double in the past 10 years, with 1.56 million foreign arrivals in 2016. That’s just a start in a country where tourism is forecast to account for more than half of all investment by 2027.
Montenegro is still on a luxury-travel learning curve, though. There are already islands of excellence but the patchy infrastructure (roads, for example, can be slow and challenging), combined with language issues and a developing service culture, means it’s well worth travelling with a destination specialist such as Lightfoot Travel, which has been organising bespoke trips to the country for several years.
Montenegro’s totalitarian past as the smallest member of the Yugoslav federation is still on show with a few heritage monuments, such as the stern Njegoš Mausoleum, the resting place of 19th-century prince-bishop and poet Petar II Petrović Njegoš. His attempts to unite the southern Slavs allowed the regime to tout him as a historic precursor to Yugoslav supremo General Tito.
It’s the view from this mountain-perched tomb in Lovćen National Park that’s the real attraction. From the top, most of Montenegro is laid out in a sweeping diorama, from Lake Skadar, where rare Dalmatian pelicans – one of the world’s largest freshwater birds – nest on floating rafts of matted reeds, to the distant bulk of the Durmitor massif. Behind the latter is one of Montenegro’s great adventure spots, the Tara River Canyon, a spectacular 80-kilometre-long whitewater rafters’ paradise.
But for all its inland draws, it’s the coast and the transparent azure sea that has put Montenegro firmly on the international travel radar. Luxury marina Porto Montenegro – a cool enclave of oligarchs’ yachts, stylish hotels, wine bars and residences – is just one of a cluster of waterside developments that, according to The New York Times, is breathing “new life, economically and ecologically, into coastal zones that suffered degradation and neglect in the traumatic years of Yugoslavia’s disintegration”.
Other up-and-coming destinations include Luštica Bay, where Singapore-based GHM Hotels will unveil the 110-room Chedi Luštica Bay in 2018, and Portonovi, which will see the One&Only Resorts brand sail into Europe for the first time with a 140-room offering that promises to become “the elite new destination in Europe”.
Most locals view such developments – powered by overseas investors – with scepticism. They’re good for jobs, sure, but these havens of global luxury are about as Montenegrin as the Bond movie Casino Royale, in which high-stakes poker scenes, though ostensibly set in the Balkan country, were filmed in the Czech Republic.
What is utterly Montenegrin – and unmissable – is Kotor Bay (also known locally as Boka Bay), the stretch of water around which the three new marinas cluster. Often referred to as a fjord, this swooningly scenic harbour consists of four smaller inlets divided by straits – one narrow enough for a chain to be stretched across it to deter pirates of the past. So calm is the surface of this mountain-girt reach, so seemingly unconnected to the open sea, that it looks like a Montenegrin Lake Como.
This, and its sheltered deep-water location, attracts up to 450 cruise ships a year to dock outside Kotor town. But don’t let that deter you from visiting the handsome walled city that is a charming blend of Italian elegance (it was ruled by the Venetian Republic for almost four centuries until 1797) and laid-back Balkan café culture. The climb up 1300 steps to the ruined fortress of San Giovanni, with its Google Earth-like views of the bay, is the one must-do; afterwards, tuck into a bowl of riblja čorba, a simple but delicious fish soup, at family-run restaurant Cesarica (375 Stari Grad, Kotor; +382 69 049 733).
Directly opposite narrow Verige Strait, Perast is a charmed shoreline of pale honey-hued towers, chapels and ancient townhouses, some crumbling and some restored. Once one of the most important Venetian towns on the Adriatic, it now has a population of 150 and a primary school serving just four children. Small ferries hop across from here to the island church of Our Lady of the Rocks, with its touching collection of mementos left by sailors who found shelter from storms in this gentle bay.
It’s Dobrota, a lovely meander between Perast and Kotor, that really encapsulates the spirit of the bay and of a nation whose favourite phrase is samo polako (take it easy). Here, lakeside boutique hotel and yoga retreat Palazzo Radomiri is the best option for accommodation. A restored 18th-century captain’s house, it’s a refined, stone-floored refuge with
a small pool and a delicious magnolia-shaded garden, where you can dine on local specialties or sip a glass of wine from one of Montenegro’s upcoming producers.
A short walk south, past fishing boats pulled up onto shingle beaches, relaxed restaurant Konoba Portun (Dobrota 168, Kotor; +382 68 086101) has a scenic terrace on the water’s edge and serves fresh local seafood dishes; don’t miss the saffron and prawn risotto.
There’s one other coastal highlight of Montenegro that’s simply too good to miss. If you’ve seen one travel-magazine photo of the young Balkan republic, it’s probably a view of Sveti Stefan, a tiny island just off the shore, where red-roofed fishermen’s houses seemingly grow from the rock they’re built on. Now connected to the mainland via a pedestrian causeway, the island first established a luxury hotel in the Tito era – communist Yugoslavia was by no means averse to the glamour
(and the dollars) of guests such as Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor. Restored by Aman Resorts after a period of decline, the Aman Sveti Stefan, with its elegant and cultured take on Mediterranean resort life, is now the ultimate word in old-school luxury in a destination poised between brash new yacht-set glitz and relaxed Balkan charm.
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