The phrase “good things come in small packages” may be a cliché, but in the case of Montenegro, it’s an adage so apt it should be embroidered on the flag. This tiny corner of south-eastern Europe crams in some of the continent’s most glorious beaches, wilderness and historic towns into an area smaller than Northern Ireland.
If the name of this diminutive nation doesn’t ring any bells, you shouldn’t feel bad: since the First World War, it’s gone through seven incarnations, first as part of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, then swallowed by the many guises of Yugoslavia, and – until voting for independence in 2006 – was part of a last-gasp federation with big brother Serbia.
Largely ignored by the holiday hordes in favour of neighbouring Croatia and across-the-way Italy, Montenegro has mostly served as a private playground for well-to-do Russians and Serbs, who whisper reverently of its glories in its soul-stirring native name: Crna Gora (Black Mountain). Flights from the UK have been few and far between, and always from London, but all that changed this month, when easyJet (easyjet.com) introduced a direct link from Manchester to Montenegro’s glitzy port town, Tivat, opening up a country once described by Sophia Loren as reminiscent of “the most beautiful fairytale of my childhood”.
Home to the new multi-million dollar Porto Montenegro super-yacht marina, Tivat sits pretty on the Bay of Kotor, a submerged river canyon that’s part Scandinavian fjord and part jet-set era St-Tropez. Framed by lofty mountains and stitched together by scenic – and often hairy – serpentine roads, the bay is scattered with photogenic Medieval towns admiring their reflections in peacock-blue inlets.
The eponymous Kotor is the king of these settlements. Its atmospheric Stari Grad (Old Town) – a Middle-Ages maze of churches, café-strewn squares and Venetian palaces and pillories – is hemmed in by city walls snaking up a limestone cliff, making for one of the most dramatic sights in Montenegro.
The kinks and curves of “the Boka”, as the bay is known, give way to a dazzling strip of coastline, where the green of the mountains jostles for attention with the red roofs of the ancient cities and intense blues of the Adriatic. Buzzy Budva’s abundance of beaches, tourist facilities and historic charms draw the most visitors. If crowds (and clothes) aren’t your thing, continue south to Ulcinj on the Albanian border; perhaps surprisingly, this mosque-studded town is home to Montenegro’s best nudist beach.
The rugged ranges visible from every corner of Montenegro house the true soul of the country: after all, they’re what gave it its name. The soaring Durmitor National Park, a Unesco World Heritage Site in the north-west, is the best-equipped for visitors. Its main town – Zabljak – has a shambolic frontier feel to it, but offers easy access to superb skiing, rewarding hikes and 18 glacial lakes known poetically as gorske oci (mountain eyes). Travellers can expect a warm welcome and the addition of a few kilograms; highlanders are wont to stuff guests with prsut (prosciutto), domaci sir (homemade cheese) and grilled meats galore, not to mention the odd tipple or ten of rakija, an incredibly potent schnapps-like concoction made of fermented fruit.
Explore Montenegro (montenegroholidays.com) runs three- to seven-night gulet cruises of the Adriatic coast; prices start at £698 and include flights, accommodation and most meals. The company can also organise day tours and excursions.
Undiscovered Montenegro ( undiscoveredmontenegro.com) offers 10- and 14-day adventure holidays in the country’s more remote corners. Packages start from £895 and include accommodation, guided activities, transport and most meals.
Of all the sights along Montenegro’s 295km shoreline, Sveti Stefan is among the most spectacular. A fortified island village connected to the mainland by a causeway, Sveti Stefan’s handsome jumble of 15th-century stone villas overlooks an impeccable beach with sugary pink sand and transparent waters. Sveti Stefan is owned by Aman Resorts (aman.com; suites from €771, B&B) and off-limits to non-guests, but ogling from the mainland comes for free: it’s one of Montenegro’s most photographed sites.
Just up the road, Budva – billed as the “Montenegrin Miami” – is the country’s party capital, and is home to almost as many beaches as nightclubs. It’s easy to be distracted from the postcard-perfect panorama of mountains, olive groves and cerulean sea by blaring Mediterranean pop, beach bars and the strutting-of-Speedo-covered-stuff, so if the bronzing oil proves too cloying, catch a water taxi (€3 return) to the more placid island of Sveti Nikola, or catch a bird’s eye view of the shenanigans on a tandem paragliding flight (00 382 675 80664; montenegrofly.com; €65).
Take a hike
Montenegro’s inland massifs are the enigmatic brawn to the coast’s blatant beauty. Durmitor National Park is highland HQ, with some of the country’s most domineering mountains (it has 48 peaks over 2,000m), a picturesque smattering of villages and a relatively organised tourist infrastructure. If you plan to tackle the hills in depth, Summit Travel Agency (summit.co.me) can organise accommodation in traditional A-frame mountain huts from €40 per night.
Further south-east, the Peaks of the Balkans is a 192km hiking trail that winds through the remote “Accursed Mountains”, which stretch across borders between Montenegro, Albania and Kosovo, taking in jaw-dropping vistas and isolated villages. Walks Worldwide (walksworldwide.com) runs 14-day guided treks; the price of £1,599pp includes flights, transfers, meals and accommodation.
You may be tempted to do little more than ogle Montenegro’s beauty from a sun lounger, but for those who can resist the siren’s song of sloth, whitewater rafting down the Tara River – the country’s most popular outdoor adventure – is a must-do. The river slices through Europe’s deepest canyon (1,300m at its peak) and whizzes past pristine forests, secret monasteries and swooping falcons. Tourism is still finding its feet in Montenegro and there are a few renegades out there: be sure your operator offers life-vests and helmets. Two well-regarded firms are Tara Tour (tara-tour.com; half-day trip €40) and Rafting Centre Waterfall (raftingmontenegro.com; half-day trip €45).
Yet Montenegro is not just a destination for the warmer months. It’s also an emerging – and cheap – ski destination; with 120 days of snow cover, Durmitor offers the most reliable slopes. Savin Kuk (3.5km run; day pass €10) is ideal for advanced powderhounds, while gentle Javorova (800m run; day pass €5) is a beginner’s dream.
Montenegrins take their heroes and deities very seriously. The country is dotted with striking shrines as magnificent as the scenery that surrounds them. The nation’s most famous son, Petar II Petrovi Njegos (1813-1851) was a prince-bishop, reformer and epic poet. His spectacular mountaintop mausoleum in Mt Lovcen National Park (mnmuseum.org; €3; 9am-5pm) is as dramatic as his verse: perched atop a 1,657m peak, the imposing monument overlooks more than half of Montenegro, with views stretching as far as Albania and Croatia. Above the burial chamber, a 28-ton granite sculpture of Njegoš hunkers in a golden room.
To the north, the 17th-century Ostrog Monastery is the country’s premier pilgrimage site for Orthodox Christians, though you needn’t be a believer to visit. The snow-white monastery is carved into a 900m sheer rock wall. Though the cliffside cloisters seem to defy gravity, that doesn’t stop devotees scaling the heights on their knees.
Where to stay
Accommodation in Montenegro runs the gamut from camp grounds to posh resorts. With majestic mountain views, charming cottages and lashings of local cuisine, Etno Selo Sljeme (etnoselosljeme.com) offers a wonderful way to soak up the scenic splendour of Durmitor. Double cottages from €70, B&B.
On the other end of the scale, Regent Porto Montenegro (regenthotels.com) is a swish new resort overlooking Tivat’s glistening new marina. Inspired by Renaissance Venetian architecture, it boasts slick service and views of the Bay of Kotor. Doubles from €187, B&B.
The boutique Hotel Hippocampus (hotelhippocampus.com) is housed in a 17th-century building in Kotor’s Old Town. Its designer rooms are modern, but the views from them are timeless. Doubles from €80, B&B.
In addition to easyJet’s new direct flights between Manchester and Tivat, Ryanair (ryanair.com) flies direct from Stansted to the capital, Podgorica, while Montenegro Airlines (montenegroairlines.com) restarts its summer service to Tivat on 1 May.
With twisting, poorly-maintained roads the norm, driving in Montenegro can veer between terrifying and exhilarating. Local firm Meridian (meridian-rentacar.com) offers affordable rental cars; one day hire starts at €25.
Montenegro Railways (zpcg.me) runs daily trains between Podgorica and Niksi, and from the southern port of Bar north to the Serbian border.
Blue Line buses (blueline-mne.com) travel from the Bay of Kotor to Budva before turning inland towards Podgorica and a further 115km to the east.