At the birth of our planet, the most beautiful encounter between land and sea must have been on the Montenegrin coast.” That’s what Lord Byron had to say of Montenegro, but I didn’t need an English writer – however famous and aristocratic he was – to tell me that. I grew up in Belgrade, and we would visit my grandparents in Montenegro every summer. Although I now live in California, I still sometimes wake up and realize I’ve spent the night in Montenegro.
When I heard that Canadian millionaire Peter Munk was building Porto Montenegro, a deluxe megaresort at the very border between land and sea, I decided to take a detour from a family trip to go back there – to see what has changed, and what remains from those long ago stays. It was with a mix of anticipation and anxiety that I decided to revisit the past: Had the rosy hues of nostalgia coloured my memories? But I wanted – I needed – to see it. I also hoped I’d be able to show my seven-year-old son some remaining childhood haunts.
My grandparents lived in Tivat, a town that was slow and comfortable during the last decade of Yugoslavia. While tourists were drawn to the sprawling beaches of nearby Budva and the UNESCO-protected Venetian architecture of Kotor, we enjoyed a simple lifestyle. The sea was invariably calm, oleanders perfumed the air and the same old women at the farmer’s market offered a a reliable selection of smoky prosciutto and sweet figs. It seemed that little ever would change there but, nearly two decades later, I found big things happening in the heart of Tivat.
Munk’s resort, Porto Montenegro, has been built right near Tivat’s centre, and aims to transform the area into the Monte Carlo of Adriatic. The first yacht berths at this Venetian-style nautical village opened in 2009, and the attached five-star hotel, owned by Regent, started taking guests in August. But Porto Montenegro is not the lone luxurious addition to the coast. About 34 kilometres south, the picturesque fishing peninsula of Sveti Stefan has morphed into the Aman Resort. Above the busy beaches of Becici and Budva, infinity pools and cutting-edge spas tart up aged hotels.
I started our visit in Old Town Budva, which used to be a hot spot of activity – and, turns out, still is.
Bars and restaurants range from two-table establishments in tiny niches to vast venues spreading onto the square in front of the town gates, lining up by the shoreline and continuing further into the valley. At the traditional waterfront restaurant Jadran, the delicious sea bass lived up to my expectations. Outside, pedestrians flowed along the narrow promenade, while visiting yachts squeezed local fishing boats. According to a lively, young waitress, the Top Hill Discotheque – with a capacity of 5,000 people – is packed most evenings. But clubbing wasn’t high on my list.
Returning to the quiet shores nearby was. On the boat ride to the Bay of Kotor (Boka Kotorska), the only sounds came from seagulls flying over rocky cliffs and twinkling coves, occasionally following us into hidden caves. I was preparing to tell my son about my childhood summers in Boka Kotorska, but I fell silent – and so did he. At the entrance to the bay, wilderness still surrounds the beautiful beach of Zanjice and the island of Mamula. The quaint village of Rose, which locals adore for its remoteness from main tourist roads, still has no new hotels. It was almost all like I remembered it.
Deeper in Boka, the architecture in the old towns of Perast and Kotor has changed little since Venetian times. The protective walls of Kotor climb up the mountain Lovcen, fortified by towers and citadels, and topped by San Giovanni Castel, reachable by about 1,400 stairs. Within the walls, the impressive St. Tryphon’s Cathedral holds a treasury of paintings and relics, some dating from the 12th century. On the other side of town, a striking iconostasis in dark wood and silver brass decorates the quiet, incense-scented St. Nikola Orthodox church. All those eyes! The quietness of our tour was broken only when a megacruiseship stopped at the Port of Kotor and the tourists overran the Square of Arms.
Perhaps the most picturesque site in Boka is Our Lady of the Rocks, one of two islets across the shore from Perast. On our visit, boat traffic seemed denser than in the past, but that awe I felt as a girl returned as soon as I stepped onto this tiny stretch of white limestone surrounded by turquoise sea. Inside the 17th-century church we admired baroque art; from the dock we enjoyed stunning views of Perast’s historic palaces, framed by calm waters and ragged mountaintops.
While that stop felt like an immersion in the golden days of the Venetian Republic, a quick sail through the narrow Verige Strait took us to the 20th century. On our way toward Tivat, we passed the humungous repair docks of the Adriatic Shipyard Bijela. In the Yugoslav period, the military built another eyesore here: the naval base Arsenal. All that is left of it is a sole military crane. I never liked to look at that base, but it seemed important that some reminder of what preceded Porto Montenegro exist.
As the captain prepared to dock, we gazed at hundreds of neatly lined up yachts, including some with multiple, jacuzzi-equipped decks. The polished residences of Porto Montenegro shone in the sun, and the place did somewhat resemble Monte Carlo. But the town of Tivat was also visible on the other side of the crane, with its simple stone houses and palm-lined promenade.
The main dock of Porto Montenegro features equally mature palms, recently imported from Uruguay yet obviously thriving. Passersby seemed not to take note of the surroundings, as if the place was neither new nor glamorous. While the exclusive Lido Complex has already hosted million-dollar parties, the popular Al Posto Giusto restaurant still caters to a wide range of visitors with affordable menus.
It is early days yet, but Porto Montenegro seems to have achieved the near-impossible: attract and cater to a jet-setting clientele in a setting that is integrated well with the local community. Lord Byron would be pleased the magical interaction between land and sea that is the essence of Montenegro has so far been preserved.
Sailing out of Porto Montenegro, my son asked to take the helm of the boat, and the captain agreed. After all, we were in one of the least used bays of the Mediterranean; a bay that, precisely for these reasons, is now home to some of the world’s most extravagant super-yachts. On future visits, the traffic might be too much for a young boy to navigate, but this time the bay was all ours.
IF YOU GO
You can reach Montenegro by air through three international airports: Podgorica, Tivat and Cilipi (located near Dubrovnik, in the Republic of Croatia). Connecting flights to Podgorica are available at many major European hubs, including Rome, Frankfurt and London. Several other flights to Podgorica or Tivat connect through Belgrade.
WHAT TO SEE
Our Lady of the Rocks: This picturesque islet, in the heart of Boka Kotorska, is easily reachable by frequent boats from Perast and Kotor. perast.com
Maritime Museum of Montenegro: A large collection of paintings, maps, old weapons and ship models showcases local nautical history. museummaritimum.com
St. Tryphon’s Cathedral: This impressive church was built in Romanesque style in 12th century, and later updated with Baroque bell towers.
St. Lucas’s Church: Small in scale, but huge in significance, St. Lucas’s Church has served both Catholic and Orthodox residents of Kotor, with dual altars between 1657 and 1812.
Blue Grotto (Plava Spilja): In this popular water cave on Lustica Peninsula, the light reflection on the water creates striking shades of blue. Join a boat tour from Herceg Novi, or navigate your way to 42˚22.43’N,
Sveti Stefan Beach: This spectacular stretch of pink sand connects the tiny peninsula of Sveti Stefan to the mainland.
WHERE TO STAY
Regent Porto Montenegro: This new, five-star resort, with 51 rooms and 35 suites, is situated in Adriatic’s most luxurious marina. From $240 (€170) a night. regenthotels.com
Splendid Conference and Spa Resort: On the beautiful Becici Beach, this modern resort includes a large indoor/outdoor pool complex, connected to the beach on one end and the spa on the other. From $180 (€128). montenegrostars.com
Aman Sveti Stefan: This hotel on a private peninsula has a history of celebrity guests, including Orson Welles, Elizabeth Taylor and Sophia Loren. It was reopened in 2009 after a full remodel. From $1,086 (€772). amanresorts.com
WHERE TO EAT
Jadran: Fish restaurant owned by the family Niklanovic, with 37 years of tradition. It offers lovely views of the Budva coastline and old town. restaurantjadran.com
Stari Mlini: Traditional cuisine served at the site of an old mill, where river Ljuta flows into Boka Kotorska, near the town of Dobrota. starimlini.com
Porto Montenegro Village: Broad range of restaurants includes international favourites, from Italy to Japan, alongside with classic Montenegrin fare. portomontenegro.com