Stunning views, pristine beaches and luxury resorts - all for a fraction of the cost of its better-known neighbours. Get yourself to Montenegro.
Perhaps you’ve already got a passport bursting with stamps earned during the height of European summer. One that conjures up memories of cookie-cutter towns, coastlines packed with lobster-red Brits and waterfront restaurants whose prices bear no relation to their actual value.
So, you might wonder why Montenegro is worth the effort.
Well, we’re here to tell you it is. This is a tiny country where the mountains meet the sea, where the peaks are reminiscent of Yosemite – only without a McDonald’s in sight – and where the waters are implausibly blue – only without a Maldives-style island tax to go with them.
Skip Dubrovnik. It’s too polished. But do fly into Dubrovnik. Then grab the car, snake your way down the far southern border between Croatia and Montenegro, wait patiently and enter.
In the Bay of Kotor, where the fjords give way to the Mediterranean, it won’t take you long to realise why the medieval town is UNESCO-protected. It’s stupidly pretty, and has the requisite food and booze to keep you staring at it for hours at a time.
If you’re used to Croatia, something will immediately catch your eye – Montenegro can look a bit shabby. But you’ll be quick to learn that this developmental phase is its greatest asset.
There are no backpackers flogging you Game of Thrones tours and kayak rides (if you’re not familiar with this, count yourself lucky).
In place of dodgy plates of fish-and-chips at fine dining prices, you’ll find day-caught seafood, masterfully prepared and offered for as little as $20 a plate.
Plus, there are also hardly any tourists. Western ones, anyway. You will bump into an abundance of Russians instead – because it seems the shady dealings of a certain commander-in-chief isn’t the only secret they have been sitting on lately.
No, they have long been enjoying one of Europe’s hidden gems long before anyone else has been given the chance to ruin it. We suggest you pack a camera, find yourself a spot on one of the endless beaches and find out why.
Stay: Aman Sveti Stefan
Wind around the mountains, the coast on your right. Find the island. Once you see it, it's unmistakable: Sveti Stefan, perhaps the most exclusive resort island in the world.
It’s difficult to convey exactly what makes Aman Sveti Stefan so wonderful, but the word ‘private’ comes close.
There’s a sense of seclusion on this island, one that’s regularly exaggerated by your getting happily lost while navigating the ancient streets that criss-cross from villa to pool to restaurant.
Sveti Stefan is quite the coup for Aman, the opulent hotel group. The island dates back to the 15th century, and the cobbled streets and stone buildings have been faithfully maintained – including several rustic chapels.
Rather than augmenting the island’s history with brutalist structures and floor-to-ceiling windows, Aman have, wisely, only made it more elegant, nipping and tucking with nuance and polish.
The result is a hotel that’s wholly distinct: a refreshingly memorable space in the world of generic hotels.
Might we make an unusual recommendation? In Kotor, skip the hotel all together.
Montenegro’s luxury accommodation scene is up and coming, to be sure (Europe’s first One&Only opened here this year). But, post Sveti Stefan, there’s a smart argument for any one of the new, affordable, coastal Airbnbs that have popped up.
Part of the fun will be guiding your teensy rental through the narrow cobbled streets, with leather-faced locals speeding recklessly past you, a cigarette hanging out of their mouths.
Montenegro may be the ideal destination for those who love a hike, sans the giant backpack and specially issued boots. No, these walks are simple and satisfying, and their payoffs outsized.
Kotor’s old town was walled by the Republic of Venice centuries ago, so once you’ve scaled its heights, and taken in the immensity of this cobalt cove, you ought to take a moment to thank the Venetians – they did us all a favour.
Little surprise Conte has views that will floor you. Yes, the seafood is wonderful. But it’s the wine list that’s more likely to linger in your mind, weeks after the holiday’s over. Get a taxi, arrive at dusk – you don’t want to skip the sunset.
Eat: Aman Sveti Stefan
The in-house restaurant at Aman ranks as one of Montenegro’s best. Happily, it totally defies what a hotel restaurant can be. The views here warrant a lengthy pre-dinner drink, and the taking of a very slow appetiser.
We suggest working your way through any number of the tremendous hero dishes – and a bottle of Montenegrin wine.
Eat: Nobu Sveti Stefan
There’s a unique joy to sitting down to Nobu in a country like Montenegro. Just across the water from Aman, it’s wonderfully out of place. Sure, the Black Cod needs to be flown in, but it’s wholly familiar and uncompromised.
On the water near Budva, you owe it to yourself to find Galion: pull together a friend or five for an impossible array of delectable seafood that’s only topped by the astonishment that the minuscule bill brings.
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Do: Durmitor National Park
It may feel counterintuitive to fly to the Adriatic Coast and rent skis, but Durmitor has a formidable ski resort in the colder months.
If you’re visiting in summer (which you should), explore the Tara River canyon by foot, and hop on a raft if you’re so inclined.
Do: Ostrog Monastery (pictured above)
Ostrog is maybe the most revered building in Montenegro. Come for the history – it dates back to the 17th century. But what’s more likely to sear itself into your memories is the sheer marvel of its architecture.
Do: The Blue Grotto
Yes, your eyes will be saturated by impossible shades of teal and blue while driving around Montenegro – but this might top all of them. Located in Herceg Novi, this blue cave is stupidly pretty, and well worth a lazy day trip and swim
Do: Sveti Stefan
You’re now keenly aware that you can spend a night (or three) on the island of Sveti Stefan. But, let this be our final suggestion for inclusion in your Montenegrin itinerary: if you’re looking for your Instagram money shot, you’ve found it.