TIVAT, Montenegro – A newly developed luxury resort village called Porto Montenegro may finally be helping Montenegro's image catch up with its overly glamorous portrayal in the 2006 James Bond film "Casino Royale."
Porto Montenegro — sometimes called the Monte Carlo of the Adriatic — has upgraded this tiny Balkan state from a favorite destination of average Russian and Serbian tourists to a mecca for some of the world's wealthiest people.
Located on the southern corner of the Adriatic Sea, the destination features a huge black and white-tiled infinity pool with a panoramic view of the turquoise-colored water and rocky mountain peaks, Venetian-style waterfront luxury homes, a vibrant nautical village with top brand shops and restaurants, and a vast super-yacht marina for some of the finest boats afloat.
The marina — once a navy port and a dry dock for Yugoslav and Soviet warships — opened about year ago and is a brainchild of Canadian billionaire Peter Munk, who wanted to invest in a less-congested French Riviera-style resort on a relatively remote and undiscovered European territory.
"We really see ourselves as playing a part in the renaissance of Montenegro's tourism, in particular in terms of the marina," said Matt Morley, brand and marketing manager of the marina.
"We get a real mix of customers visiting our marina," he said. "Of course, there is the A-list, the super-wealthy. One of the things that we offer is a greater sense of privacy than in the lot of other marinas out there, in the south of France or Sardinia, Italy, for example."
Locals like to brag about scenes from the Bond film, which showed their tiny, poor Balkan state as a neat and romantic place with modern trains and ornate infrastructure. Ironically, says Morley, "the film wasn't actually filmed in Montenegro, but there's a definite sense of mystique still, I think, about Montenegro."
Morley said a casino under construction in Porto Montenegro might even be named Casino Royale.
Much of Montenegro's allure comes from its shining mix of colors: aquamarine waters, green pine-forested mountains, blazing blue skies and white pebble beaches. But if Montenegro is the jewel of the Adriatic, it's a rough and unpolished one. Its natural beauty is best seen from a plane landing at the seaside airport of Tivat, a 10-minute drive from Porto Montenegro.
Once on the ground, a different reality emerges: Visitors can be put off by narrow, bumpy and traffic-jammed roads lined with huge and often unfinished construction sites. Old communist-era decaying hotels dot the spectacular landscape. And the beaches can be overcrowded during the peak of the summer season in July and August.
In some ways, Porto Montenegro is trying to restore the exclusivity of an earlier era. Sveti Stefan is a tiny peninsula with sun-bleached limestone homes that turned from a fishing village to a luxury hotel complex in the 1960s, attracting famous visitors like Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Its 15th-century stone walls, narrow streets and tiny church were destroyed by an earthquake in 1979, then carefully reconstructed bit by bit. Sveti Stefan lost much of its allure during the Balkan Wars, but today, its red tile roofs shimmer in the sunlight with oleander, bougainvillea and palms providing green and shade. Next to Sveti Stefan, the Queen's Beach offers peace and privacy for €75 ($92) per day per person.
Next door is Budva, Montenegro's biggest tourist resort, featuring a quaint, stonewalled Old Town with its warren of little lanes lined with shops and restaurants buzzing with activity. With its intact city walls, narrow streets and seaside cafes, Budva can seem like a vest-pocket version of Dubrovnik, the renowned Croatian resort on the border with Montenegro. Some of Montenegro's best restaurants — offering hors-d'oeuvres of traditional extra-dry ham and goat cheese dipped in olive oil — are located in Budva and in neighboring fishing village of Bigovo.
"Now we're getting these richer tourists on yachts," said Nikola Lazarevic, owner of the Grispolis restaurant in Bigovo, perched on a deep sea bay nestled between pristine hills covered with ancient olive trees.
"More money spent, better for us," Lazarevic said as he served delicious grilled fish spiced with garlic and parsley, coupled with famous Montenegrin Vranac red wine.
Such a meal together with the ham hors-d'oeuvre and the must-have "loza" (a strong brandy made from grapes) as a before-dinner drink, cost up to €60 ($75) per person, without a customary 10 percent tip. Even though Montenegro is not a European Union country, the euro is its official currency.
Since it split from much larger Serbia in 2006, Montenegro experienced a real estate boom, with mostly Russians and Britons investing en masse into new hotels, tourist resorts or even complete new villages.
"I think it's one of the most marvelous places in the world," said Dmitry Krysin, a plastic surgeon from Moscow. "I used to travel a lot and practically I can't see anything more positive, relaxing, cheap, where to stay and enjoy."
If You Go ...
GETTING THERE: Montenegro Airlines flies to the capital of Podgorica and to the Adriatic Sea airport of Tivat from European cities including Paris, Rome, Budapest, Zurich, Moscow, Frankfurt, Istanbul and Ljubljana. JAT Airways, the Serbian national airline, flies to Belgrade from most European capitals, and has several flights a day from Belgrade to Podgorica and Tivat. A return ticket for a 45-minute flight from Belgrade costs €100 ($124).
LODGING: A night in a hotel with breakfast can start from €50 ($62) for a double room, but new hotels on the Adriatic coast start from about €100 (US$124) per night for a double room. Private owners offer a double room starting from €20 ($24) a night.
DINING: The favorite Balkan fast food — cevapcici — small spiced minced meat sausages, and a pint of beer runs about €8 ($10). A full dinner of local delicacies such as octopus salad and stuffed squid will cost around €35 ($43), including a local wine.
LANGUAGE: Serbian, or Montenegrin as it is now called after the split from Serbia, is the local language. English, Italian and German are spoken by many locals, especially restaurant waiters and hotel staff.
SIDE TRIPS: Buses for the famous Croatian resort of Dubrovnik leave Budva every day. Daylong boat excursions from Budva to Sveti Stefan cost about €10 ($12). A day-trip by bus to Mount Lovcen via Njegusi, home of the best dried ham and goat cheese dipped in olive oil in the Balkans, is a must. The Montenegro Tourist agency provides day-trips to a wide array of sights.
BEST TIME TO VISIT: Offseason — May, beginning of June and September — as the Montenegrin Riviera tends to become overcrowded with tourists amid scorching summer heat in July and August.