Forget St. Tropez, Get Yourself to Montenegro
Perhaps you’ve got a passport bursting with stamps from enticing Euro summer cities; one that conjures up memories of old cookie-cutter towns, coastlines packed with lobster-red Brits and borderline-predatory businesses whose summer menus bear no relation to their usual prices.
And you’d think, rightly, “Why on earth would I visit Montenegro?” But then, you’d be forced to think again.
Here, in this tiny country where the mountains meet the sea, the peaks are awfully reminiscent of Yosemite – only there’s not a McDonald’s (or American) in sight. In Montenegro, the waters are VSCO-filter blue – only there’s no Maldives-style island tax that goes with them.
You’ll eat day-caught seafood dishes that, while masterfully prepared, have an absolute, unbreakable, maximum plate price of, say $60. You’ll feel like you’re getting away with something unfairly.
Skip a stay in Dubrovnik. It’s too polished. Lunch will cost you $250 and taste like underwhelming fish-and-chip joint fare on a Monday afternoon. But do fly into Dubrovnik. Grab a car. Snake your way down the far southern border between Croatia and Montenegro. Wait patiently. Then enter.
If you’re a frequent visitor to Croatia, something will immediately catch your eye: Montenegro, in parts, can look a bit shabby. You’ll be quick to learn that this developmental phase is its greatest asset.
In the Bay of Kotor, where the fjords meet the Mediterranean, it won’t take you terribly long to realise why the medieval town is UNESCO protected. It’s stupidly pretty, and has the requisite food and drink to keep you staring at it for hours at a time.
Sometime during your visit to Montenegro, you’ll notice that things are missing. The bloated tourist centres are gone. There are no backpackers flogging you Game of Thrones tours and kayak rides – if you’re not familiar with this, count yourself wildly lucky. And something else is missing: the tourists. Western ones, anyway. You’ll bump into an abundance of Russians here. They have, for too long, been sitting on a magnificent secret: Montenegro is Croatia, without the tour groups, the prices, the crowds. All that’s left is dizzyingly good seafood, afternoon-worthy beaches, and stretches of coastline that hurt your camera finger and swell your heart.
Attached to the coast by a narrow isthmus, this charming seaside hideaway pairs 600-year-old red-tiled roofs with modern treats, like this private beach.
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 might come closest. There’s a sense of seclusion on this island exaggerated by your getting happily lost 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 has, 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 samey garden-variety world of hotels.
Gladly, Aman’s in-house restaurant ranks as one of Montenegro’s best. 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. By the time you’ve worked your way through any number of the tremendous hero dishes, you will have a camera roll stuffed with Instagrammable landscape shots.
Your ideal itinerary? Sleep. Deeply. Fall away into the quiet, cliff pools. Call the speedboat to ferry you across to King or Queen’s beaches – once the private playgrounds of literal royalty. Queen Marija was Queen Victoria’s great-granddaughter, and the beach that was once hers is, for the length of your stay, yours. Don’t like the vibe of the beach? Does that rose-coloured sand throw you off? Fine: grab the speedboat back to the island and linger poolside. That dramatic cliffside view not doing it for you? Cool. Walk up to the white-on-white pool by the other cliff, and take in hues of blue that only appear on holiday.
Book via aman.com
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. 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.
If all this sounds like a little too much trouble, allow Aman to handle it. The hotel boasts a near-endless array of private excursions, so that you can focus on what’s more important: the sun, the water, and the fine art of exerting no effort at all.
From the October issue of GQ Middle East