Where is there to go now that is only a few hours flight from London, still pretty unexploited, yet guarantees beautiful landscapes and is at the cusp of becoming the next global luxury destination? Somewhere fresh and exciting, that combines the old world European style and luxury, yet still provides a little adventure?
Montenegro’s history is diverse, complicated and like most of Europe a tale of battles won and lost. Following the collapse of the Roman empire, they were dominated by the Austrian and Ottoman empires that ruled all the neighbouring countries. They were part of the millennium long struggle against the Ottoman empire and Turkish rule, but managed to retain some small amount of independence, pretty much due to cunning political manoeuvres and a talent for warfare much outstripping their meagre population. They suffered huge casualties in World War 1 fighting against Austria-Hungary very early on, and then against the Italians and Germans in World War 2. Once part of Yugoslavia they declared their independence on June the 3rd 2006 and are now looking to write the next chapter of their history themselves.
They speak Montenegrin, which make sense, with a small population of around 630,000, a mix of every nationality in the region, with a smattering of Italians mainly in Koto. The Montenegrins themselves are tall and big into basketball, pun intended, second only to the Dutch as the tallest nation in the world. They receive over 1,6 million visitors each year, and when you look at the geography it soon becomes obvious why. They have one of the most beautiful bays on the Adriatic, more like a fjord. A large amount of investment is pouring into the country aiming to make it an elite tourist destination. It boasts many great beaches and the mountains are a mere two hours away with some great snow skiing. You can ski down the mountain in the morning, have a long lunch at one of the vineyards, followed by water skiing in the bay as the sun sets. Sounds like heaven to me.
Montenegro, or Black Mountain, not only has a brilliant name that will soon become a byword for great food, glamorous celebrities and luxury hotels, it is now about to become one of the foremost destinations for luxury yachts and even superyachts. Azmont Investments are developing a supremely luxurious new marina and living environment, aimed at an elite clientele seeking the very best location to bring their yachts, friends, business and family. The Portonovi Montenegro Marina is being built at an idyllic location, at the entrance to Boka Bay, with a 240 berth marina and 290 premium residences. All designed by the leading international companies, such as Winch Designs and Harrods and boasting Europe’s first One&Only resort and Espace Chenot Health Wellness Spa.
This is a bold and exciting venture in Montenegro will bring fresh investment to the area and provide a welcome boost to the economy. For the yacht owning clientele this will become the latest and greatest destination to visit all year round. I would call it daring, but there appears to be little risk involved here. Every important piece of this vast puzzle seems to have been covered. It is in one of the most beautiful locations in the world, it boasts the finest builders and designers of international renown, the bay is relatively undeveloped, well served by excellent cuisine, and there are numerous places of outstanding beauty to visit, many of great historical interest. It is a short sail from the elite yachting destinations in France, Italy, Spain and Greece and only three hours flight from the UK, less from mainland Europe.
I was staying at the Palmon Bay Hotel and Spa in Igalo, with a view out on the whole Bay of Kotor, all the way over to Tivat on the other side. It’s a great location, but anywhere along this scenic inland sea is a perfect base to visit the whole of Montenegro. You could spend your entire trip out on the water or visiting the different beaches, but to get a real feel for the country I would recommend travelling widely as the region is still unspoilt and full of wonderful treasures to discover. On the way in from the airport we stopped off at the Savina Vineyard, owned by successful businessman Zoran Obradović and his wife, for a few olives, hors d’oeuvres and a small personal wine tasting. The winery is set on the side of the hills overlooking the bay, with a magnificent terrace view. We sat at the wooden tables in the sunshine and sampled the new reds and whites, while Zoran described them with great knowledge and passion. The wines are very good as you would expect from this region, which has been growing wines for as long as the French and the Italians. Both the Merlot and the Cabernet Sauvignon are excellent and can be found at the very best restaurants in Montenegro, London and New York.
That evening we toured the old town of Herceg Novi, which reminded me of a mixture of Gassin in the South of France and Lake Garda, with lovely old churches, restaurants and bars overlooking the bay. We dined at the seafood restaurant Konoba Feral, overlooking the little marina. A small owner run restaurant on two floors, a stone entrance and a picturesque roman ships decor. The food is fresh, plentiful and the service is very friendly. The grilled squid is exquisite and the Rakija or fruit brandy goes down a treat and enlivens an already happy atmosphere. By the way “cheers” is “Živjeli” in Montenegrin.
The next morning I took advantage of the hotel pool to swim a few laps before meeting up with friends behind the hotel where our Fjord 48 motor yacht was waiting to take us on a complete tour of Boca Bay. The Fjord is the ideal yacht to tour the Adriatic, perfect for sunbathing whilst cruising along, fast enough at 40 knots to keep it fun and nimble enough to get to any of the lovely inlets with ease. I love the design and it is stable enough for the queasiest landlubber. We even took the boat into one of the four decaying and unused submarine tunnels that were used to hide the Italian boats from the allies during the war. These are imposing cement tubes cut into the waterside cliffs around the bay have a lot of atmosphere, redolent with history. There are numerous old forts dotted about these little island hilltops that were used to hold prisoners of war, very much reminiscent of the Count of Monte Cristo, with natural barriers preventing any escape, thick ancient stone walls, treacherous rocks, surrounded by open sea, crisscrossed with strong currents.
We cruised past the new Portonovi Montenegro Marina, impressed by the low key footprint of the buildings, clearly designed to blend into the landscape, maintaining historical building traditions and materials. Located half way into the Bay of Kotor, so the yachts berthed at the marina would be well protected in all weathers and ideally centrally located to enjoy all the different offerings from around the entire bay. The low, tile roofed apartments look out over a magnificent unspoiled bay view, curtailed only by the scenic and pristine hills on the opposite side. The apartments and beaches along the marina are all sun facing for that perfect sunset moment at the end of the day. Portonovi Montenegro is set to become the next luxury marina to rival St Tropez, but with even greater surroundings and opportunities.
The bay cruise is unmissable, there are so many different small towns, beaches, islands, marinas and sights to see. The most memorable island is Our Lady Of The Rocks, a quaint oval islet, built by fisherman throwing rocks into the sea overtime as they passed, still a tradition now, dominated by a single church dedicated to the Madonna and child. The first church there dates back to 1452 and the paintings are world famous, particularly the tapestry that was embroidered by Jacinta Kunić Mijović who used gold and silver fibres, including her own hair whilst waiting 25 years for her lover to return. There is something magical in alighting at such a fairytale spot in a stylish yacht and if you are lucky enough to find it deserted, it is a haven of tranquility and peace with 360 degree views of the bay and mountains around it.
Just opposite is Perast which sits between the hill of St. Ilija and the Bay of Kotor. It boasts much of the oldest architecture and a staggering 19 churches for a population of only 269, measured in 2011. It is a trip back in history, and you can sit out on the terrace overlooking the islets at The Hotel Conte, which is well worth a stop. Deep at the end of the bay is Kotor itself with its own little marina nestled between the two adjacent mountains. We dined at the Galion restaurant for lunch, with its glass fronted pier that puts you right out over the water, admiring the sailing boats as they floated in and out of the harbour. The atmosphere and seafood at the Galion are excellent, the perfect place to gain the strength required for our march up the mountain to St John’s Fortress. This is a hike of over 1300 steps up the fortress walls, ramparts, gates and church shrines and if you are fit will take about half an hour. The steps are loose and there are no railings, it is pretty steep at times, and all the better for all these things, for it is a genuine climb, without having been developed for tourism. The best time to go would be to catch the sunset at the top, plus cooler for the climb up (and down). The view over Kotor Bay and the mountains is breath taking.
That evening we dined at the Stari Milini restaurant in Dobrota, just outside Kotor. It is an old water mill used for making flour and the setting is old world charm, with its ancient bridge across the river Ljuta that powers the huge ancient wooden wheel. It is reminiscent of a medieval Alice in Wonderland garden overlooking the Adriatic sea and it is renowned for its fine cuisine and great wine selection. The decor inside is large round wooden tables, a mixture of Italian and Swiss decor common to the region with a fusion of mountain and sea which characterises the food too. Both the meat and the fish were succulent and well accompanied by wine from the local vineyard we had visited the day before. Not to mention a few Rakijas, purely for medicinal purposes and to aid sleep as we had seen so many wonderful and exciting new places. The people of Montenegro are very hospitable and do expect you to do justice to the food and wine that is offered, so do always try to finish up as it is impolite to leave anything.
Next morning we set off for Lovćen, the mountain national park, which has impressive twin peaks, the tallest rises to almost 1800m (just under 6000ft) and the vista is jaw dropping. In a little over two hours we reached the Petar Petrović Njegoš’s Mausoleum, the tomb built to honour the warrior poet king and his wife who fought ferociously against the Ottoman empire and is widely admired in Montenegro. His texts are still read and abound with tales of glorious battles and his warrior philosophy. The tomb itself is absolutely magnificent and should be included in any bucket list of extraordinary places to see in the world. It is built entirely covering this tiny peak right at the top of the mountain and is accessible only by climbing vertical steps up to a neighbouring peak, then walking across an extremely narrow windswept path atop of the connecting crest. There are no barriers, and the fall is vertical. It is straight out of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and this view puts it right up there as absolutely unmissable. The king’s tomb would make Lara Croft insanely happy and the statues of Njegoš and his wife are imposing and majestic. There is a 360 view of the mountains, the national park, Kotor bay and the Adriatic sea, you could spend days there just taking it in and still not have enough time to do it justice.
Our next stop was the old royal capital of Montenegro, Cetinje, at the bottom of the Lovćen mountain. This town was often attacked by both the Venetians and the Ottomans but it is the official home of the president of Montenegro and its culture heritage. The palace there extends over a wide area with ancient fortifications and the town is dominated by a wide paved main street with cafe, bars, shops and restaurants. The people are mostly farmers and we lunched at one of the local restaurants where the owner and his family not only cooked and served, but grew and bred everything on the menu themselves and even made the wine on their farm. The food was authentic local cuisine, lamb, pork, steak, sausages, chicken, local fish and farm vegetables. During the meal a wedding party celebrated upstairs in the private rooms while the father of the bride fired a few celebratory rounds outside in the front garden (an old tradition), watched with fond amusement by the bride and groom.
We then made our way back to the coast to Sveti Stefan Island, an isthmus with a five star Aman resort perched between two beaches, like inverted eyebrows, with some lovely cafe’s and restaurants. Particularly family friendly with playgrounds and terraces overlooking the beaches so you could dine and watch the kids playing happily in the granulated sand on Kings Beach. Queen’s Beach next door has the superior architecture and exclusive villas and its own spa. The Aman resort itself has over 50 rooms and villas with eight grand suites and was formerly the playground for the rich and famous from the 60’s to the 80’s and has recently been beautifully remodelled by the Aman group in 2009. It where the Count of Monte Cristo would reside once he’d escaped and made his money and was looking to impress, a tiny picturesque island fortress paradise with the Adriatic as a moat.
Montenegro reminds me of Spain and Italy in the 70’s before the tourists got there. A place where great new travel legends and adventures can be created. Set to become the next elite luxury destination for the yachting and sailing crowd. So get there before everyone else and do make sure to see all the sites. Very few countries have so many exceptional things to do and see in such a small space. This is the chance to experience a beautiful country before it becomes too commercial, before railings are put up and the sites are turned from genuine historic locations into more easily digested tourist destinations. Experience the full luxury of this shiny new marina, invest early in an apartment or bag a mooring for your yacht.