Montenegro: jewel of the Adriatic

Old Town Perast - Archive National Tourism Organisation of Montenegro
Old Town Perast - Archive National Tourism Organisation of Montenegro

Europe’s Adriatic coastline is frequented by travellers to Italy and Croatia, yet the small country of Montenegro, with its centuries of history, exquisite landscapes, and burgeoning luxury scene, is well worth visiting.

If, like me, you have the fortune of clear skies and a window seat when arriving by plane into Montenegro, you’re likely to be instantly mesmerised. While superlatives like ‘breathtaking’, ‘stunning’, and ‘spectacular’ tend to be used liberally when describing scenery, it’s difficult to exaggerate the arresting impact of this Balkan nation, defined by towering mountains that meet sparkling Adriatic waters.

It’s an initial feeling of awe that I find myself revisiting frequently during the four days I spend exploring the coastal towns of Herceg Novi, Tivat, and Kotor, each brimming with outstanding natural beauty, history, culture, and luxury.

Montenegro, bordered by Croatia, Albania, Kosovo, Serbia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, is a small nation, with a coastline stretching 295 kilometres (slightly greater than the distance between Sydney and Canberra) and a population of around 620,000. Its turbulent history has been shaped by numerous influences, including the Venetian, Ottoman, and Austro-Hungarian empires. In 2006, a referendum led to independence from Serbia.

What is evident when visiting Montenegro is that this history, both ancient and modern, has had a distinct impact on its architecture, culture, traditions, religion, and language — making it a fascinating destination at every turn.

Authentic Experiences

Winding along the hairpin bends of the Bay of Kotor — the road around which, at times, is too narrow for two cars to pass one another — imposing limestone mountains almost look as though they have been intricately sketched: their soft, powdery tones contrast with their rugged formations and the clear, almost still, waters of the bay. I spot locals sitting outside a café on the waterfront, and I ponder whether it might be one of the world’s most majestic backdrops against which to sip a morning coffee.

As we travel further, I notice a structure that appears as though it is perched impossibly high on a jagged mountainside. I learn that it’s a fortress dating to the 15th century, under which the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Old Town of Kotor lies, with its labyrinthine, pedestrianised cobbled streets, churches, and centuries-old Venetian-style buildings, many with a beguiling tale to tell. Active travellers can ascend some 1300-plus steps for a closer look at the fortress and panoramic vistas of Kotor.

The terracotta roofs of Perast lie about 12 kilometres further around the bay. The small town, with its grand Venetian palaces and maritime heritage, is the launchpad from which to visit Gospa od Škrpjela or ‘Our Lady of the Rocks’, a manmade island on which a chapel was built in the 17th century. A short boat ride affords views of its neighbouring islet, Sveti Đorđe (St. George), with its Benedictine monastery, dotted with cypress trees.

Arriving at Our Lady of the Rocks, I’m told the story of sailors who came across a portrait of the Virgin Mary sitting precariously on a rock in the 15th century. They honoured it by placing rocks on the site of the discovery following each voyage they safely returned from, with an islet eventually emerging from the water — a tradition continued each July during Fašinada, where locals gather in boats to toss rocks around the island. The chapel’s exterior belies what’s inside — stepping through the doors, I encounter vibrant paintings by Baroque artists, an intricately sculpted marble altar, and votives cast from silver lining the walls. In the adjoining museum, an early 19th century tapestry woven by Perast local, Jacinta Kunić, was crafted over 25 years as she awaited her husband’s return from sea. Intricately embroidered in gold and silver thread, it also features strands of her own hair.

Closer to the border with Croatia, the municipality of Herceg Novi is home to a charming old town with cobbled steps leading to quaint squares, and churches with large bell towers. A short drive into the mountains, I find myself in the small, almost entirely abandoned village of Žlijebi. Feeling as though I’ve stepped back in time, I notice its unique houses, constructed from flagstone extracted and carved in the village quarry. Local man, Nikola Sikimić, grew up in Žlijebi and is preserving this special place for visitors through a truly authentic hospitality experience at restaurant Konoba Sikimić.

I’m welcomed with sweet, soft donuts and homemade rakia infused with walnuts, before embarking on a short tour of the village, including inside Nikola’s family home, which has been staged to offer a glimpse of life in Žlijebi. Back at the restaurant, I’m shown how my meal, a succulent veal stew with potatoes, is cooked traditionally in an iron pan covered with hot embers. I sit down in a rustic dining room to a generous assortment of salads, cheeses, prosciutto, olives, and bread. What is remarkable is that everything has been made by Nikola on the restaurant grounds — produce is harvested from the garden, he ages his own cheeses, and cures his own meats.

After lunch, I head down the road to view the Church of St. Nikola, perched on the side of the mountain with panoramic views of Boka Bay — fitting, I think to myself, that the church carries the same name as the man who is working to keep the traditions of this village alive.

Where to stay

One&Only Portonovi

Montenegro’s most discerning accommodation, and Europe’s first One&Only resort, overlooks the tranquil waters of Boka Bay in the marina-lined precinct of Portonovi. Ultra-luxury in every aspect, the 24.25ha property was designed to recall the region’s Venetian heritage, with stately colonnades, terracotta tiled roofs, and manicured gardens dotted with serene swimming pools. Private beaches, a 4000m2 Chenot Espace wellness destination, and three culinary outlets are available for guests staying in the 123 rooms, suites, and villas; each of which is magnificently appointed with floor-to-ceiling windows and terraces to make the most of the surrounding natural beauty. I particularly enjoy the generous ensuite of my room, with a bathtub topped with cushions to create a relaxing daybed — the perfect spot to ruminate, with views of the bay and surrounding mountains.

Regent Porto Montenegro

Regent’s expansive waterfront hotel, in Tivat’s luxurious Porto Montenegro, offers a stay in the lap of luxury, fronted by berthed superyachts, and surrounded by high-end boutiques and restaurants. The 175 rooms and suites have been designed for guests to feel as though they are onboard a luxury yacht, with glossy teak furnishings, striped fabrics, and nautical details such as rope and billowing, sail-like fabrics. I have an exceptional lunch at seafood-centric restaurant, Murano, which I enjoy alfresco overlooking the marina. A serene spa is equipped with a hammam, relaxation room, sauna, steam room, and indoor pool. I sleep soundly following an evening massage that remedies my stiff shoulders and sends me into a zen-like state of relaxation.

Hyatt Regency Kotor Bay Resort

This sprawling spa resort on Kotor Bay has recently joined the Hyatt Hotels portfolio, which has expanded it to offer 205 contemporary rooms and suites. Its six dining venues include Blue, a Mediterranean-style restaurant overlooking the bay, and Hedonist Rooftop, serving modern tasting menus of Balkan specialties. The spa features a sauna (with porthole windows offering water and mountain views), steam room, and indoor pool, while advanced aesthetic treatments can be experienced at the Vrmac Health and Wellbeing Retreat de ‘MAR. Book a waterfront room for the best views of the bay.

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