Majestic Montenegro

5 Jul 2023 by Tamsin Cocks
Historic town of Perast at Bay of Kotor in summer, Montenegro (Credit bluejayphoto/iStock)

From super yachts to rustic olive groves, Europe’s little-explored beauty spot appeals to luxury travellers in many forms.

Blessed with brooding mountains, sparkling fjord-like bays and medieval villages, Montenegro really is one of southern Europe’s best-kept secrets. The country received just 2.5 million tourists at its peak in 2019 compared to neighbouring Croatia, which received 19.6 million.

Perched on the Adriatic Sea between Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Albania, the small Balkan country has had its fair share of tumultuous history, which partly explains why it’s been kept off the tourist trail. A new chapter began in 2006 when the country formalised its independence from the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro (formerly Yugoslavia) to became one of Europe’s youngest sovereign nations. (Only Kosovo is younger, which established independence in 2008).

Since then, the country has emerged as a luxury playground – there’s more super yachts than McDonalds (although that’s actually not difficult, given there isn’t a single McDonalds in the whole country), and has a rapidly growing tourism economy. This is due to some visionary hospitality investments and a coordinated government approach to tourism that makes use of its stunning natural assets and welcoming Mediterranean climate.

The makeover began with Porto Montenegro in Tivat, a premium marina town developed by Canadian billionaire Peter Munk. Styled on the VIP resort vibes of Monaco, Porto Montenegro opened in 2010 and has become a haven for super yachts, with 450 berths of up to 250 metres welcoming some of the most stylish and exclusive sailing vessels in the world, including Azzam, the world’s largest super yacht.

It’s nestled on the breathtaking UNESCO-listed Bay of Kotor (also known as Boka Bay), which resembles the magnificent Scandinavian fjords with its crystal-clear waterways flanked by rugged snow-capped mountains, while medieval forts and idyllic fishing towns fringe the coastline to complete the picture-perfect vista.

The beautiful natural backdrop and new luxury facilities means that you find billionaires and Hollywood celebrities milling around its fashionable boutiques, upmarket restaurants and five-star hotels such as IHG’s Regent Porto Montenegro.

Elite area of Tivat (Nadtochiy/iStock)

Luxury lifestyle

Despite its new-found appeal, Montenegro is being selective with its approach to tourism, “shouting quietly” about its star status to a targeted group of luxury visitors. Part of the reason for this approach is that there’s just no room to cater to mass tourism. The country is small, with a population of 600,000, just 294 kilometres of coastline, and very few main roads.

There’s also limited air connections – easyJet offers a twice-weekly service from Gatwick to Tivat (at the ungodly hour of 6.20am), while Ryanair offers three weekly flights from Stansted to the capital Podgorica and Wizz Air operates twice weekly services from Gatwick. Flying to Dubrovnik, a two-hour drive away, offers better connections with services by the likes of British Airways – unless you’re arriving by private jet or sailing in on your super yacht, of course.

That’s not to say Montenegro is exclusionary – far from it. The country is very affordable, with a beer setting you back around €2 (the country has applied for official EU status, and adopted the euro in 2002). But the government is focusing on attracting an upmarket clientele, with five-star hospitality companies clambering to pick a spot on the gorgeous coastline.

Recent openings include the One&Only Portonovi in 2021 and the Hyatt Regency Kotor Bay Resort in June 2023, complete with the Vrmac Health and Wellbeing Retreat de’MAR. The wellness-focused SIRO brand, which recently debuted in Dubai, is also due to open in 2024.

Among the most exciting new developments is Luštica Bay, located just over the peninsula from Kotor Bay. If Porto Montenegro is the country’s first foray into modern luxury, Luštica Bay is the new and improved version, with more than €1.5 billion worth of investment being poured into 690 hectares of rugged terrain (though 90 per cent of this will be left in its natural state to preserve the area’s beauty). The project is being undertaken by Orascom, an Egyptian-based development company that focuses on creating five-star integrated destinations.

So far, just ten per cent of the site has been developed. This includes the Marina Village, already filled with shiny yachts, upmarket boutiques, fancy restaurants, a sleek beach club, luxury villas, and five-star hotel The Chedi, a member of The Leading Hotels of the World.

One key difference is a deliberate effort not to create a soulless summer camp for the rich and famous that’s deserted in the off-season. To this end, the heart of the development, Centrale, is a town hub that has been created predominantly for local families, with all the resources needed for a community, including a school and hospital.

The resort’s accommodations have been sensitively constructed to retain the aesthetic of Montenegro’s charming fishing villages, complete with architectural features such as dormer windows and red gabled roofs, locally sourced stone that weathers with age, and indigenous cypress trees rather than imported palms. The development has encompassed old army bases to rejuvenate the country’s military past, and will renovate historical sites such as an old Austro-Hungarian fort to maintain the rich culture.

But there’s plenty more to come – seven five-star hotels will have set up shop here when the project is completed in the mid 2030s. The next stage will see the creation of an 18-hole golf course designed by South African golfer Gary Player. The first nine holes and Club House will be complete by 2026, while the final 18 holes will be ready in 2028.

This will be joined by a collection of luxurious villas and apartments known as The Peaks, which will comprise one-, two-, three- and four-bedroom luxury apartments and villas dotted around the green, offering incredible views over the wild beauty of Luštica, Kotor Bay and the Adriatic. Starting from around €1.8 million, they are already being rapidly snapped up by international speculators despite only being announced recently.

Authentic charm

Beyond the glitz and glamour, what makes Montenegro so appealing is its authentic culture and unspoilt natural beauty. It has one of the last virgin forests in Europe, the second deepest canyon in the world, and 48 peaks above 2,000 metres in Durmitor National Park. The rugged terrain offers endless options for thrill seekers: spend the morning skiing in the slopes and sun yourself on the beach in the afternoon. In the meantime, you could be canyoning through adrenaline-spiking ravines, mountain biking across stunning terrain, or camping in rural bliss on the Albanian border.

Culture enthusiasts also have an abundance of charming fishing villages and historical sites to discover. Built by three fairies, so the story goes, the undefeated fortress town of Kotor is a charming maze of tight streets and old stone buildings. Packed within the tiny town are more than ten Romanesque Orthodox and Catholic churches, including the 12th century Kotor Cathedral; a maritime museum paying tribute to the town’s seafaring history; and ancient guild houses that have been passed down through families for generations.

Look up and you’ll see the Monastery of St Francis clinging to the mountainous cliffs above, and the bobbing heads of intrepid visitors who have decided to scale the path.

UNESCO funding helped the city to preserve its historic beauty after severe earthquake damage, but more modern additions have also crept in to cater to the growth in tourism. These include restaurants and cafes, souvenir shops, and even a nightclub tucked under the ancient fortified walls.

Outside the city walls you’ll also find local markets and food stalls. Walk a bit further and you’ll come to the overwater fine-dining restaurant Galion. Here you can play ‘spot the biggest yacht’ while drinking in fairytale views over a multi-course menu of seasonal, Asian-inspired European cuisine.

In contrast to the wealth of the guildhalls and churches in Kotor, Perast is the epitome of a humble fishing village, though its beauty is no less radiant. Again, perched on the breathtaking Bay of Kotor, this traditional fishing town has become a must-see on the tourist check list, with pretty architecture and a slew of seafront restaurants serving up seafood dishes with Italian influences and delicious regional wines.

After wandering through the sleepy alleyways, ducking into churches and feasting on the fresh catch of the day, it’s time to hop on a speedboat to the small manmade island in the middle of the bay – Our Lady on the Rocks. You’ll find a quaint Catholic church adorned with silver treasures and a museum, plus enough distance to take in the majestic views of Perast.

More treats can be found inland. At Tići village, on the Luštica peninsula, you can visit the Moric olive farm run by sixth-generation farmers. Expect to be greeted in the customary Montenegrin way: with doughnuts dripping in homemade honey and a shot of liquor.

Olives are processed on site by hand, and you’ll receive a quick masterclass in both the process of collecting and making olive oil – and how to discern quality extra-virgin olive oil from shoddy imposters. The picturesque olive grove is as rustic as you like, blooming with fragrant lavender, rosemary and myrtle. There’s no pesticides here and the landscaping is left to a pack of hungry sheep and “chief weed managers” Mishca and Ruscha, two very friendly donkeys.

Surrounded by dry-stone walls (a UNESCO-listed intangible cultural heritage skill) and protected by dozy village dogs, it’s the kind of sleepy paradise that speaks to the Adriatic as it used to be, and exactly the kind of charming authenticity that luxury-seekers yearn for these days.

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Business Traveller November 2023 cover
Business Traveller November 2023 cover
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