Palm trees rustle gently in the breeze as swallows duck and dive. The sun dips behind the brooding mountain beyond, silhouetting a vast white yacht that slides into view. It manoeuvres gracefully on to its mooring, significantly dwarfing the others around it — those already classed as superyachts. “It belongs to one of the Saudi royal family and it’s over 80m long,” whispers our waiter. A quick Google search reveals which Saudi prince. In fact, Googling superyacht owners becomes a new obsession. It’s hard not to, with all this boat power on show.
Porto Montenegro accommodates the largest yachts in the world. With the marina due to be completed next year, there will be a total of 850 berths, of which 311 will be for yachts over 24m, making it the largest facility for superyachts in the Mediterranean with tax benefits galore (fuel is 45% cheaper here than in other European countries). “In fact, Jetty 5 can take a 250m yacht, but that one hasn’t been built yet,” reveals Porto Montenegro spokesperson Danilo Kalezic.
Bordering Croatia and Albania, and just up the coast from Greece, Montenegro has been dogged by memories of the Yugoslav wars, which tore the region apart in the 1990s. Before the war erupted, it had been a magnet for the rich and famous, a slice of St Tropez in the Adriatic. Luxury island resort Sveti Stefan, which was reopened in 2011 by Aman Hotels, once hosted such famous faces as Princess Margaret, Sophia Loren, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. The war stopped tourism in its tracks virtually overnight.
In 2006, Montenegro gained independence from Serbia and over the past decade it has become a holiday hotspot once more, attracting such figures as British billionaire Lord Jacob Rothschild and LVMH chief Bernard Arnault. Along with Canadian businessman Peter Munk, they have jumped at the chance to develop a defunct naval base in Tivat in the Bay of Kotor into Porto Montenegro. “Yachts are getting bigger and bigger and people are complaining that they can’t find proper berths for them. That’s no problem in Tivat. It used to cater for warships,” says Munk.
The marina, and its residential complex, yacht club, five-star Regent hotel, smart restaurants, bars and designer shops has so far enjoyed investment of more than €361 million (£279 million). It’s part of the master plan to position Montenegro as a niche luxury destination. Add this to the Aman resort a little further down the coast and Europe’s first One & Only Resort opening next year on the shore opposite in Portonovi and one can see this quiet corner of the Adriatic is back on the map for Europe’s elite.
The Bay of Kotor itself became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, with the impressively walled town of Kotor at its beautifully preserved heart. The bay is Europe’s southernmost fjord and deepest natural harbour, seducing visitors with its soaring mountains, pristine sandy coves and medieval towns.
The Bay’s 100km of coastline twists out to sea to the open waters of the Adriatic on the southern edge of the Dalmatian coast, offering some of the best cruising in the Med basin; flotilla sailing, yacht races and regattas continue to grow here. That’s not to mention the Tara River in Montenegro’s rugged interior, which boasts Europe’s deepest canyon (second only to the Grand Canyon in Arizona), Europe’s last virgin black pine forest and Lake Skadar, the largest freshwater lake in south-eastern Europe and home to the biggest bird reserve in Europe.
So it’s no surprise to learn that Montenegrin tourism is currently growing at the highest rate in the world, with more than €2 billion already pumped into the economy by foreign investors. Tourism is concentrated in the established resort of Budva, its perfectly preserved old town contrasting vividly with its numerous bars pumping out loud music for its mostly young clientele of partygoers from Europe and other Balkan states.
Tourism here is currently growing at the highest rate in the world
Yet if it’s people watching, designer clothes, stylish bars and restaurants that you want, then make the elegant Regent Porto Montenegro your base. Opened in August 2014, it has 57 double bedrooms and 30 one-, two- and three-bedroom suites and residences. It also offers slick dining in its flagship Dining Room restaurant where Croatian-born executive chef Zeljko Knezovic, who has done time at Noma in Copenhagen, delivers a modern take on Montenegrin dishes.
A must-do is a tour of the Bay of Kotor by speedboat; everything makes more sense out on the water. Book a day out with a skipper on a sleek Porto Montenegro Yacht Club Frauscher. Visit the baroque town of Perast, with its strong maritime heritage, the wistful islet of Our Lady of the Rock and the handsome walled city of Kotor at the furthest end of the bay. Stay over in Kotor if you can — the magic really starts to happen once the tour buses and cruise ships have disappeared for the day. A mini Dubrovnik, it was built largely by the Venetians, who ruled Montenegro for nearly 400 years, after the Romans and Byzantines had left their mark. The city walls climb implausibly up the mountainside, but the view at the top is well worth the slog up the 1,350 steps to St John’s Fortress.
If negotiating a hairpin bend is more your thing, drive up from the shore to Njeguši above, along a narrow road nicknamed The Serpentine, to find breathtaking views over Kotor and beyond. “We’re not trying to be Monaco. We want to provide a five-star experience with that hidden gem factor, showing off our unspoilt beauty with a true Montenegrin flavour,” says Kalezic.
If it’s seclusion you’re after, then bag a suite at the Aman Sveti Stefan. Sophia Loren was drawn to Room 118, the most private of the resort’s suites, with its own swimming pool, but Room 41 gets the best sunsets. A compact, picturesque group of red-roofed former fishermen’s cottages on an isthmus south of Budva, it offers guests ultimate luxury and a real sense of place, scented by abundant lavender and orange blossom. The 12 families that once lived here until the 1950s were relocated, with much financial inducement, to the mainland shore opposite, where they still live.
You might prefer one of the eight suites at the resort’s Villa Milocer opposite. Idyllically situated on King’s Beach, the 1930s-built former royal summer palace houses a restaurant and a lounge area. The Serbian-born tennis champion Novak Djokovic got married here in 2014 and chose Room 3 as his bed for the night. Not that the staff ever divulge any information about the numerous famous guests that choose to rest up here — that was down to Hello! magazine.
We're not trying to be Monaco. We want to show off our unspoilt beauty with a true Montenegrin flavour
For an even more Zen experience, head to the peaceful (for now, anyway) Luštica Peninsula, which is on the verge of development itself. Reaching out from the southern headland of the Bay of Kotor, the peninsula offers secluded beaches and a handful of terracotta-tiled villages dotted among the olives groves and orange trees. There, Bogdan Kaludjerović has renovated his family’s abandoned hamlet to open a rustic chic hotel complex, Klinci Village Resort, where homegrown organic produce is the focus.
Does the food and drink match the luxury on offer in Montenegro? In the resorts mentioned, sure — they have a discerning crowd to please. Armed with a few recommendations to pre-book (essential in Kotor during the coach and cruise-ship season), you won’t be disappointed with the standard of the food outside the luxury resorts either; it appears Montenegrins are just as particular about their food, too. The bay area is famous for its shellfish, in particular oysters, clams and mussels, the latter two presented in an addictively spiky tomato sauce called buzzara.
Also notable is the grilled wild fish, albeit at a price, including John Dory, sea bass, monkfish and turbot, served with blitva (crushed potato and Swiss chard) and an outrageously garlicky dressing called marinada.
Other highlights include a ubiquitous starter of fish pâté, each restaurant with its own take; other specialities include tiny fried girice (like whitebait); proja (moreish cornbread); tender octopus salad and an array of black squid ink risotto and pasta dishes, a happy hangover from the days under Venetian rule. For meatheads, try ćevapi (little grilled kebabs of ground meat) served with flatbreads, yoghurt and an unctuous red pepper sauce called ajvar. For dessert, don’t miss the trilece sponge cake cooked with three kinds of milk; the Konoba Langust restaurant in Pržno does the best. A word of warning: rein back on the rakija — the grape brandy is Montenegro’s national drink, but too much and it will come back to bite you.
Talking about grapes, Montenegro’s wine industry has kept pace with the rise in tourism here, although the country has been making wine since Roman times. The dominant local grape variety, Vranac (pronounced “vrah-natz”), is its biggest success story. Unlike many other grapes in the region (for example, Croatia’s Plavac Mali, from the same family as Italy’s Primitivo and the United States’ Zinfandel), Vranac is unique.
“Vranac is a thick-skinned dark grape and, while Montenegrin summers are hot, the grapes are not always able to fully ripen,” explains Mike Shore, the owner of Porto Montenegro wine shop Crush. “Vranac is also quite tannic and often benefits from some prolonged ageing, like Brunello di Montalcino, so it’s not uncommon to see 2008 or 2010 vintages just hitting the market now.”
Shore’s shop is located right on the marina, where he offers a tax-free delivery service to yachts and holds around 600 different (mostly) fine French and Italian wines, plus key producers from Montenegro. “Many of the smaller Montenegrin producers are making some great wines these days, with retail prices ranging from €15 up to €50,” he advises.
Those to watch include Vinarija Krgović, with wines sold under the Arhonto brand, and Vinarija Vučinić, with its Zenta wines, both with vineyards near the Montenegrin capital, Podgorica. Plantaže, the largest producer and owner of Europe’s biggest single vineyard, represents good value, especially for its Vranac Barrique, at about €10. Shore is rather dismissive of the local white, Krstač (pronounced “kris-tatch”), although I happily downed a few bottles of it made by Plantaže in Montenegro’s konobas (trattorias), where it’s herby, preserved lemon fruit and bracing acidity paired well with the garlicky flavours.
My wine of the trip, though, was reserved for Status from Vinarija Milović (also stocked by Shore, at €45), made from Vranac grapes grown in the southern coastal region, near Ulcinj, within sight of the Albanian border. Sipping a glass of it while watching the yachts come and go was thrilling, to say the least, which about sums up this Mediterranean gem. Just get here before everyone else does.