If I tell you where I went last summer, you'll want to go. Then millions of tourists (which we of course are not) will go, and soon it'll feel more like tourist-clogged Dubrovnik (which I have thoughts about). As overlooked as a middle name, it is serene, beautiful, and a little odd. Friendly, laid-back and, like its Orjen iris, endangered. The tap-tap-tap of hammers is everywhere, the sound of another dozen luxury hotels and condos going up in this wonderful, weird pocket on the Adriatic.
What makes a country a country? That was on my mind when my niece and I chose Montenegro for our hiking-in-a-foreign culture destination. The war in Ukraine was four months old; its independence hanging in the balance. (My grandparents were Ukrainian.) Montenegrins only voted to separate from Serbia sixteen years ago, and their land has been fought over for centuries by a number of invaders. I wondered what made it unique.
First impressions last, and I can't imagine a better one for Montenegro than that from the vineyard at Savina, a spot about 30 minutes south of the Dubrovnik airport, where we stopped for a snack. (Ask your driver to take the less crowded Kebeli border crossing.) From their palm-fringed terrace high over the stunning Bay of Kotor, while sipping rose and nibbling local Njeguška pršut (the local prosciutto), we got a preview of our week ahead — of red-roofed Venetian fishing villages and, behind them, the Dinaric Alps.
We ambled downhill to the 16th-century town of Herceg Novi and wandered its wide leafy promenade dotted with cafes and local vendors selling honey, herbal tinctures, and embroidery. Herceg Novi deserves at least a day and night, but we'd arranged for a speed boat (+382-69-627-352) to meet us at the jetty to take us across the blue bay to our first hotel, Regent Porto Montenegro.
A former Austro-Hungarian naval base, this elegant marina resort is a hushed sanctuary of infinity pools, tennis courts, restaurants, an excellent spa, and five-star service. I loved its old-world elegance: all that wood, brass, and navy. The hotel's Murano restaurant was serene, with fine food and live music on the Porto promenade. The Gourmet Corner, its more casual sister, serves simple grilled fish, terrific salads, and signature smoothies.
Porto is the kind of spotless gated community that gives me the horrors, but it must come in handy for mega-yachters who need another Dior bikini or bottle of Dom. Time it right, and you could also catch a polo match, a jazz festival, or a zippy regatta.
The Regent is a great base for exploring the Bay by speed boat and by foot, on your own, or with a guide (bookable with the concierge). One of the best-preserved villages on the Adriatic is Perast, with 17 Baroque palaces and 19 churches, and don't miss the chapel-island Our Lady of the Rocks (Gospa od Škrpjela). Walk the walls in Kotor, the oldest town in Montenegro, and check out the kooky Cats Museum (meowing back to the 16th century), then have lunch on the square at Hotel Astoria, where the food is as fine as the people watching.
Though it’s as small as Connecticut, Montenegro has five (going on six!) national parks with diverse landscapes. Booking a guide through one of the many online outfitters is a great (and helpful) way to see and navigate them. On our way to Biogradska Gora (one of only three primeval rainforests left in Europe), we stopped to see the moody dark frescoes in the 13th-century Moraca monastery. We were alone except for one gaunt, big-eyed monk. We drove on and, after a welcome dinner and breakfast served in the cheerful, country house Mirovic Apartments, we followed our guide for miles over empty, grassy hillsides of blue, yellow, and white wildflowers and up rocky summits.
Durmitor, another stunning national park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, offers 25 trails, 48 peaks (each about 8,000 feet high), and 18 glacial lakes known as gorske oči ("mountain eyes"). The guest houses in Zabljak are as straightforward as the food: We stayed at Holiday Home Vile Calimero, a cheerful, wood-beamed country chalet that's clean, comfy, and a good base for exploring the park. We ate delicious local specialties at Krčma Nostalgija, our favorite tavern. The staff was wonderfully friendly, the table cloths were checkered, the fare was hearty. Get the burger or the trout.
Outside Durmitor, after searching a windswept field, we finally found the medieval stećci we'd read about: a dozen giant white slabs, carved 13th-century Christian tombs. Like other historically significant sites in Montenegro, there were no crowds (or signs!) which made us feel more like explorers than 21st-century tourists.
Three hours later, with a stop for fantastic goulash at the old hunter's roadside tavern Lovački gaj (Jasenovo Polje, Nikšić; +382-67-560-169), we arrived by car at another utterly different landscape. With a few cafes and modest guesthouses clustered around a tiny leafy square, hippie-vibed Virpazar seems to exist solely to launch kayak and boat tours on the 30-mile-long, mountain-rimmed Skadar Lake. We kayaked through lily pads and light chop and a couple of hours later reached fisherman Luka Lipci's old stone house, where we would swim and sun before a delicious lunch of salad and potatoes and Luka's morning's catch. (The restaurant and guest house are accessible only by boat or kayak. Call Luka at +382-67-300-393 to pick you up in Virpazar. Reserve rooms through Booking.com, see more on Instagram at @Radus_Skadar_Lake_.)
That night, we drove about an hour to Montenegro's more distant past, the town of Stari Bar. We checked into Stara Čaršija, a beautiful, tranquil boutique hotel overlooking the old town ruins, with a spa, excellent restaurant, and pool. For dinner on its terrace overlooking the 11th-century walled fortress, a lively, hilarious Salt Bae impersonator served us yet another invader's cuisine: a delicious Turkish feast. In the morning, we were the only tourists wandering the ruins of the walled city that has been under Byzantine, Venetian, Hungarian, and Ottoman rule. Montenegro is a cultural palimpsest, which makes it so interesting and unique — and what might save it from becoming a brand.
Hyatt Regency Kotor Bay (it was Blue Kotor Bay Premium Spa Resort until its recent Hyatt conversion) was the perfect end for our trip: a sleek new hotel with marble and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Kotor Bay, with a medi-spa, a gorgeous indoor pool, restaurants, a beach, and the most extravagant breakfast buffet you've ever seen. A luxurious oasis for exploring the Bay. We could swim all day and have crazy medical and spa treatments at night. The Lighthouse restaurant at the hotel served satisfying fresh fish and local vegetables, but the cotton-candy tree dessert stole the show.
On our last night, we walked the narrow road along the Bay. The hot sun slid behind the mountains, bathing the old limestone palazzos in a pink light and cooling the air, now fragrant with pine and jasmine. It was quiet and serene. We came across two tanned, barefoot boys selling seashells. The cheerier one showed us his bounty carefully displayed on the stone embankment. His prices were random and astronomical. We paid them. As we walked away, he called out, "My friend has seashells, too!" We went back and bought a few more from the shier boy. I asked him if he knew a good restaurant nearby. Konoba Vila Marija (Prcanj 148 Jadranska Magistrala; +382-69-218-905) and Mademoiselle, he said, adding that one had better food; the other, live music. We found both open-air cafes offered rustic waterside tables and whole fish displayed on chipped ice. We couldn't resist the cellist, who played Brahms and The Beatles passionately, and later, asked for requests.