Montenegro: The Mediterranean's New Hot Spot
The beautiful Balkan nation of Montenegro is positioning itself as the Mediterranean’s new hot spot.
It was lunchtime when I arrived in Perast, a picturesque old Venetian village at the entrance to Montenegro’s deep and placid Boka Bay, a scenic 45-minute drive from the Croatian border. Before checking in to my hotel, I walked down to the village through narrow alleyways, past churches and recently restored Baroque palaces, and found a few simple places to eat. I chose the one with no customers and a gently smoking grill sitting next to the road. A middle-aged man sitting at a table on the terrace stood up and smiled when I walked in. As an occasional boat sailed lazily past, I enjoyed a plate of grilled prawns, a salad of fresh greens and scallions and a bottle of Niksic, the thirst-slaking, pilsner-style beer named after Montenegro’s second-largest city. They were the freshest, tastiest prawns I’d ever eaten.
Afterward I headed back to the Hotel Per Astra, which has to be one of the most gorgeously situated properties on the entire Adriatic. It would be worth a trip here just to sit on the patio next to the small pool, drink in hand, gazing across the bay at the chapels on the magical, tiny islands of St. George and Our Lady of the Rock (manmade more than 500 years ago). That evening the pool was all mine, and I swam in it as the sun went down behind the mountains, before retiring to my room. The comforts at the two-year-old Per Astra (soft pillows and crisp cotton sheets on contemporary four-poster beds and powerful, hot showers), while standard in most tourist destinations, are things a traveler in Montenegro could only have dreamed of just over a decade ago, when I first came here as a correspondent for the New York daily Newsday, covering the war in neighboring Kosovo.
But Montenegro, having shaken off the tarnish of its ties to Serbia during the long conflicts that embroiled Yugoslavia’s former republics, is embarking on a new era as Europe’s latest hot travel spot. That’s certainly the story Montenegro’s government and tourism cheerleaders are eager to tell. Often compared with Croatia, its neighbor to the north, this country of 650,000, which is roughly the size of Connecticut, offers unspoiled glacial lakes and alpine peaks, ancient walled towns and a remarkable coastline that’s rapidly being discovered by global tourists as well as opportunistic developers. Indeed, the biggest news in Montenegro is the rebirth of Sveti Stefan, a 15th-century fishermen’s village and 1960s hotspot that Amanresorts is resurrecting as an ultraglamorous destination.
This was the Montenegro I’d come to see. Though I’d traveled here on a number of occasions as a reporter tracking down war criminals—and even spent a few days enjoying the beaches and seaside cafés—this was my first opportunity to really explore the country in its new incarnation. So in the morning, after a breakfast of croissants and cappuccino (a far cry from the typical drowned-in-fat, overcooked eggs I’d remembered), I set out down the coast with Jovo Martinovic, a native Montenegrin who has been my translator, colleague and good friend for more than ten years.
Especially for visitors who fly into Montenegro’s capital, Podgorica, it’s worth making the trip north into the wilds of the beautiful, barren “black” mountains that give this proud little Balkan nation its name. There one finds thrills such as white-water rafting and skiing as well as gentle hikes around lakes as placid as any in the Alps. But a lot of visitors come to Montenegro and, understandably, never leave its stunning coast, which stretches some 182 miles from the Croatian border down to Albania. The first major town along the coastal road, after Perast, is Kotor, whose Venetian-built walls scale the mountain cliffs rising behind it. Kotor definitely merits a day trip to wander the narrow streets of its well-preserved old town (a unesco World Heritage site). But after buying some delicious dried figs from one of the market stalls facing the bay, we continued on.
Our next stop was Tivat, where Porto Montenegro, an ambitious, $780 million, Monte Carlo–like marina project, is taking shape on the site of the former Yugoslav Navy shipyard. The developers, who include Canadian and Russian billionaires Peter Munk and Oleg Deripaska, as well as Bernard Arnault and Lord Jacob and Nathaniel Rothschild, are promoting this community of luxury apartments, restaurants, a hotel and berths for mega-yachts as the Mediterranean’s new elite enclave. At the moment the project, which is being built in phases, features one completed residential complex and 185 slips for boats up to 325 feet long. Two vast yachts were moored there when we visited—just a hint of what’s to come.