Time to visit Montenegro and discover the beauty of the Balkans

Montenegro is a small country with spectacular natural beauty and big tourist ambitions, writes Lisa Marks

There are many questions you might want to ask when visiting Montenegro but all you really need to know is that this is a small country with a mighty history.

Looking to regenerate after years of war and uncertainty, this feisty Balkan nation, with a population of just 650,000, is rising like a phoenix from the flames.

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Formerly part of Yugoslavia, Montenegro declared independence from Serbia in 2006, and is now waiting to be explored and enjoyed.

The Kotor cable carThe Kotor cable car
The Kotor cable car

Montenegro translates as ‘black rock’ and the country is just that; a big mountain, although many of the towns – Kotor, Budva, Tivat, Perast and Porto Montenegro (where I stayed) – tightly hug the coastline.

Its rich and colourful past seeps from every pore. For example, Kotor, on Boka Bay, is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The town’s centrepiece, the St Tryphon Cathedral, was built in 1166, although salvaged after the great earthquake of 1979. You’re welcome to enter and light a candle.

On the other side of Boka Bay, in the Bay of Kotor, you’ll find Porto Montenegro, the sexy, upscale, modern marina resort, which is located less than five miles from Tivat airport.This new Mediterranean development is the product of an ambitious regeneration of Porto Montenegro, a former submarine shipyard, which was built in 1889. Essentially a giant factory, known as the Arsenal, it was almost the sole generator of income for the locals. When the Arsenal closed in 2007, the town needed a new focus.

Step forward the late philanthropist and billionaire Peter Munk. Before his death aged 90, in 2018, he cleverly realised that with the rise of superyachts there weren’t enough berths in the world for these pricey behemoths. (A case in point is that the famous Black Pearl has already taken up permanent residence here).

Munk bought the land and promised to clean up the bay – at what may now seem like a bargain price of £20 million – and along with the Investment Corporation of Dubai, the port now features 450 berths and a glitzy new lease of life. After investment so far totalling £490 million, they’ve completed a slick about-turn from building warships to mixing cocktails and living the high life.

As a homage to its military history, a submarine crane that lights up at night, sits proudly in the centre of the marina. You can also tour an out-of-commission sub.The Arsenal used to cut the town of Tivat in half but now there’s a promenade along the waterside offering a relaxing stroll past ice cream parlours, cafes and supermarkets. It perfectly illustrates how the old and the new co-exist. Porto Montenegro, the sparkling new bit in the middle, features the marina, the five-star Regent hotel, fine dining restaurants and designer boutiques.

The Regent Porto Montenegro is an elegant and unrushed luxury hotel, comprising of 175 rooms. It’s designed as three separate but connecting wings – Venetia, Aqua and Baia – with four pools, gym, spa, the fabulous Onyx cocktail bar, gourmet cake shop, conference rooms and the highly regarded Murano restaurant.

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On arrival, I revelled in the Regent’s signature spa massage that washed away the stress of travel. There’s also a Finnish sauna, steam room, and hammam.My airy double room featured nautical-style furnishings, a kitchen (useful for families) and giant bed that I almost lost myself in. Amusingly, there’s a sliding hatch by the bathtub that connects the bathroom with the bedroom, and stunning views over the marina from the balcony. At the breakfast buffet on the restaurant’s patio you can eat and pick out which yacht you’d like to own.

The hotel is one of five phases of the port’s proposed transformation. Hotel number two, Boka Place, opens next year, angling for the wellness crowd, with a minimalist, modern feel. The remaining properties will open over the next 15 years. The first Montenegrin Starbucks arrives soon.

This is a country worth seeing so peel yourself away from the pool and start by touring the bay in a boat. Make for the 15th century Our Lady of the Rocks church, near Perast. Stretch your legs and indulge in an ice cream before changing gear completely. Tennis champ Novak Djokavic officially launched the Kotor cable car last April and in a thrilling 11 minutes that takes you 1,316 metres up to Mount Lovćen national park, visitors can inhale spectacular views of the bay.

There’s a restaurant and juice bar at the top, and also plans next year to offer tourists a shuttle service to the nearby Petar II Petrovic Njegos Mausoleum. Once there, climb the final 461 steps to the peak and gaze at almost 60 per cent of the country’s land mass. On a clear day you can see Lake Skadar, the old royal capital Cetinje and give nearby Albania a wave.

Cetinje is a pretty town that was home to King Nicholas and his family in 1860. Book a guided tour of the state rooms and the king’s office. The country waged a 500-year war against Turkey, so there’s also a solid collection of weapons and uniforms for those who like military history.

Fuel up al fresco at the town’s five-star Gradska hotel patio restaurant, once the site of an old administration building that now offers casual dining and excellent people watching.Nearer to Porto Montenegro is a tiny town called Gornji Skovic, which can only be accessed by noodling up a hairpin dirt track. Thankfully, our driver was experienced in traversing this dirt-track road because at one point we drove upwards in reverse.

This charming hamlet used to be home to 1500 inhabitants and now has less than ten. Young ladies could only be betrothed to men who had planted 100 olive trees, which sounds eminently sensible. After a bracing walk up the hill to their ancient church, sample their fresh pomegranate juice and plate of nutty cheese and cured meats – a staple here – at their rustic café. The hotel will organise your trips and drivers.

All of this derring-do means you’ll have no doubt worked up a real hunger. You won’t be disappointed with any of the fish. At the hotel, Murano’s Executive Chef Marko Zivkovic oversees a dinner menu that combines traditional and modern trends, such as his black beetroot salad, octopus and signature turbot for two. There’s also a comprehensive selection of local wines.

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In nearby Tivat, seafront restaurant Divino is run under the watchful eye of Chef Bojan. His shrimp with black wine and capers was incredible and if fortification is required, Montenegrin grappa is the perfect aperitif. Marea, which is a two-minute walk from the hotel, serves up spectacular pasta and a sea bream that will make your heart sing.

Look out all over for the Montenegrin priganice donut. Doughy, hot and dipped in honey or chocolate they’re a local speciality.

Ultimately, what adds to the charm are the kind-hearted locals. However, unless you’ve got a grip of Slovenian or Croatian you probably won’t find the language easy to pick up but everyone can learn ‘Hvala’, which means thank you, or ‘Živjeli’, which means cheers.

It’ll be worth the effort as it’s surely only a matter of time before floods of tourists fall in love with Montenegro. Be the first and toast your good fortune with a grappa. Živjeli!Carrier (0161-492 1357, www.carrier.co.uk) offers 7 nights from £2,780 per person based on 2 adults sharing a Premium Venezia Suite. Price includes breakfast, return Club Europe flights with British Airways from London Gatwick, and private transfers. Price based on departure 1 June.