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Journeys

  • Montenegro
  • Jamie Edwards

Montenegro

Written and Travelled by Jamie Edwards

Follow her at: iamlostandfound

The 15th century island village of Sveti Stefan is but a dot in the Adriatic Sea—no cars, no golf carts or bicycles, just narrow pedestrian lanes and thousands of stone steps. The perimeter is a mere 1.2 miles, only accessible by foot along an isthmus from the mainland, and only if you are a guest at the hotel that now occupies the entire island. Yes, a dot in the Adriatic, but if someone asked me to spend a year there taking photographs, I doubt I would run out of material.

First, there’s the light, which changes the colors on the sun-bleached stone walls dramatically, and without fail, each passing hour. Rustic reds and burnt oranges in the mornings were especially spectacular. Second, the sky. Some days gray and lavender hues, other days cerulean and bright blues—the color of the sea taking its cue from the sky above. Third, the sea—in the mornings flat and as reflective as a mirror, glassy and ethereal, then later in the day with undulating rows of puffy whitecaps. Boats unceasingly circling and criss-crossing in all directions to catch sight of the exclusive private island — super yachts, schooners, gulets, and small, unassuming fishing boats all within view.

Lastly, the mountains—detailed during the day with razor sharp green Adriatic pines and patches of steel craggy rocks. As the sun sets, they blur into a watercolor of overlapping shades of lavender, blue, and gray before finally sharpening to solid black against the final rays of sunlight that edge out the sky. On the island itself you notice never-ending geometric patterns and colors to capture. Each day seeing something that wasn’t there the day before. An artist’s playground in angle, palette, and dimension—a Bauhaus lover’s paradise.

Montenegro, meaning ‘black mountain’, is a truly scenic and unspoiled country, home to the second tallest people in the world, as we were told on our drive from Dubrovnik to Sveti Stefan. The border crossing from Croatia to Montenegro typically takes three hours, but for us took six due to a travel error on my part that had us driving on a Saturday in the peak of summer. The upside? We were able to see the coastline, take a car ferry alongside a very pretty mountain pass, and admire the old town of Budva from afar. We passed Croatian and Montenegrin vineyards, looming mountain ranges, valley villages marked by a single church spire, and ancient buildings that looked like they were hanging onto the mountainside for dear life. They say the mountains in Montenegro are some of the most rugged in all of Europe. I wish we could say we saw more of Montenegro than the drives to and from the airport, as we had every intention, but once we stepped foot within the walls of Aman Sveti Stefan, we knew we were there to stay.

The village of Sveti Stefan was bought in 2007 by Aman Resorts, who spent much time and money creating a luxury resort, while maintaining the authentic village-vibe of the past. The rooms are modern and with all the amenities you might want, free standing soaking tubs in oversized bathrooms, intimate terraces, Nespresso machines and complimentary wine—however, the details of the original village lovingly remain. The windows and sashes, walls, lantern lighting and red ceramic rooftops all restored in aesthetic harmony.

Gaze around any corner, and notice the ivy climbing effortlessly along the thick, mortared walls, creating a lush blanket of green. The iron lanterns illuminate just enough of the pathways at night to find your way back to your room after an al fresco dinner, at a table that appears to hover above the sea. The air feels steeped in history, in the way only a 600 year old village can.

Wander along the aptly named paths, Cliff Lane, Church Lane, Oleander Walk, while admiring the eight hundred mature olive trees that nestle themselves seamlessly into the landscape. White oleanders, wild rosemary, and wondrous cypresses fill up the nooks and crannies. Slits cut out in the stone walls that were once where bows and arrows were launched when the island had to defend itself still remain—today offering a perfect portal to take photos. The village winds up to it’s final elevation like a corkscrew, and every step up reveals a different view. I’ve never been so relaxed and happy while being so completely lost.

The resort has three ‘private’ beaches on the mainland, and an Aman boat will shuttle you the few minutes it takes from the rocky island launch to the beach as you need. All beaches in Montenegro are public, but the Aman evades this in a crafty way, a mandatory charge of 100 euros for the mandatory use of the beach umbrellas. 

Built in the 1930s, Villa Miločer was the summer residence of Queen Marija Karadordevic of Serbia. It is now the mainland beach hotel of the Aman resort and has eight magnificent suites. The design is quite different from Sveti Stefan, more sleek, modern and with touches of leather and suede, parquet wooden floors and white marble accents. There is a library in the communal area and mature gardens surrounding the villa. The boat will drop you at King’s Beach, where a passage through a dark cave reveals beach access to either King’s or Queen’s beaches.

You can spend the day eating, drinking, swimming and lounging—all within view of the island and it’s iconic terra cotta roof tiles. We spent days on stony King’s Beach, only getting up to have a Chablis-infused lunch under the lush wisteria canopy of Villa Miločer. Mediterranean-style hummus, baba ganoush, tzatziki and flatbreads, olives, olive oil and various Montenegrin specialties among the options.

We decided to come back for dinner that evening to Villa Miločer as a particular dish caught our eye on the menu while we were enjoying lunch. A truffle-infused whole chicken baked in a thick crust of salt. Unfortunately, it required 24 hour advance notice for preparation. But the waiter asked the chef, and he kindly accommodated us that evening. The chicken was decadent and lived up to it’s reputation, the setting looking and feeling like a completely different restaurant in the evening, still under the wisteria, but now highlighted with candles and dangling lights. We chose a unique red wine from Slovenia, a 2009 Carolina Select by Jakoncic Goriska Brda. It is a blend of mostly Merlot and a bit of Cabernet Sauvignon, and was powerful with intense flavors of spice, tobacco and currant. We ended up ordering it most nights as it was so fantastic and went so well with the Montengrin meals.

Each evening we made a point of arriving at the terrace of Sveti Stefan’s restaurant, Arva, for drinks by 7:30pm in order to catch the sunsets. It was like getting the best seats to a hot new Broadway show, but in this case, every seat had the best view.

Each sunset was unique, the first with clouds high enough in the sky to reflect luminously in the outdoor pool, shades of pink and red mirroring the sky so spectacularly. The next night was cloudless, yet no less breathtaking. The other two nights somewhere in between, the clouds being such a perfect vehicle to carry the colors of the sunset, as they seemingly melted into the sky. In the background, the layered mountains in every shade between blue and charcoal, adding even more depth to the scenery.

The dinners at the Sveti Stefan restaurant will forever be chiseled in my mind as possibly the prettiest and most breathtaking, as they had the ultimate sweeping views of the sunset and the sea. The tables are first come, first served each night, no reservations. We scoped out a particularly unique table that sat at the tip of a triangular peak of the patio, unobstructed views of sea, sun and beach. We lingered there for hours, capturing every nuance of light the sun offered until we could only see Mars and twinkling stars above us in the jet black sky. The menu was international overall, but with lots of lovely Montenegrin touches in the sauces and flavors.

The service was effortless and just the right amount of friendly banter to make you feel comfortable. One night, a local Montenegrin guitar player spent a few hours playing folk music while we dined, an experience that added much magic to an already magical setting.

Our mornings were spent at the beach after a leisurely breakfast at the restaurant in the central piazza at the top of the village. Two of the four village churches within view, white umbrellas to shield the sun while we gazed out towards the vast Adriatic. Lemon ricotta pancakes with blueberries and honeycomb, toasted homemade granola, banana porridge, and freshly baked pastries served warm, were among the choices. The service and staff at the Aman restaurants were friendly and intuitive. And they seemed to outnumber the guests 2:1 even at peak capacity. And with 50 rooms on the island, it was hard to believe, as it never felt crowded. There was always someone on hand to offer directions and a warm smile.

Later in the day, we would head to one of the three pools on the island, one is for the private Adriatic Suite, another only for adults, and one for families. We only had one option, having our kids in tow, but truth be told, the family pool is by far more interesting than the adult pool, where I had the chance to relax alone one afternoon.

The views from the family pool are sweeping, it was intimate and uncrowded. In fact, in four days, we only saw a handful of other guests, which made it feel like our own private pool, complete with bar and food service. The kids gulped down freshly made mango smoothies and we treated ourselves to a bottle of rosé as we read books and settled into the afternoon.

We did manage to leave the property once during our stay, on foot, to a steep viewpoint high above a local monastery. Our kids moaned the entire time, so we left them in the dust to bond over how annoyed they were with us for dragging them up a mountain in the heat. Chasing a view has always been a great past time for us, and passing on the chance to see Sveti Stefan from above seemed unimaginable, as photo-ready as it is! For the five minutes we lingered at the top, it was worth the complaints, the intense heat, and the bushwacking through brambles on the way back.

On our last morning in Montenegro, I spent an hour or so watching life unfold on the sea and land from our terrace. The public beach filling up with sun seekers, inflatable flamingos, unicorns and swans bobbing in the water. The Aman beaches nearly empty, a lone man raking the quiet sand in anticipation of the day ahead. The entrepreneurial fishermen checking their pots for lobsters, the yachts pulling up anchor and heading up the coast towards the town of Kotor. The stone walls of the village tinged with pale blues and dusty roses in the early morning light, the heavy white mortar creating mesmerizing patterns. I thought four days would be enough here, I left wishing for more.

They say that Aman put Montenegro on the map for American tourists, which is understandable being such a stellar brand of resorts. However, we are now eager to come back and explore deeper into the country, the off-the-beaten path villages, the vineyards and the culture. Although we’d be hard-pressed not to incorporate another few nights at Sveti Stefan again.

So while I wait patiently to be hired as Intsagrammer-in-Chief for Aman Sveti Stefan, I will have to settle for reliving my memories through thousands of photos, my crystal clear memories of the divine views, and the hope that I might find myself lost again in the never-ending passageways of this bucolic village.

Kelly's Packing List for Montenegro

Top row from left to right: 

LNDR cotton top $78, Corroon Baby Beach Daddy $300,  Marios Schwab cotton dress $725, Matches; The Upside leggings $111, Leslie Amon swimsuit $167, MatchesJust Bee Queen Sarong; $250, Matches, Dolce & Gabbana sandals, Matches