Montenegro was one of the first countries to open its borders to tourists on June 1st, having declared itself enviably Covid free back in May. The clichés surrounding this tiny Adriatic jewel are all true: turquoise waters, red-tiled roofs and dramatic scenery abound. But there’s only one place worth staying in. About a minute’s helicopter ride from the casino where they filmed Casino Royale is a hotel so glamorous and picture perfect I’m amazed they haven’t yet used it for one of those scenes where, having finally vanquished the villain, Bond gets to celebrate with one last shag.
Its name is Aman Sveti Stefan and it has been photographed so many times and lusted after from on shore by so many tourists that it’s probably better known than Montenegro itself.
Viewed from the mountains above, it looks a bit like a squashed Mont-St-Michel, or maybe a luxury Alcatraz: picturesque stone buildings with the distinctive local red-tiled roofs, dotted with cypress, cedar and palm trees, on an island about a hundred yards offshore. It used to be a fortified village, built in the 15th century as protection against marauding Turkish galleys. But for the last fifty years it has been probably the most exclusive hotel on the Adriatic.
You reach it either by a causeway, guarded by polite hotel staff or – how else? – by the hotel’s private speed boat which you may glimpse from your bedroom tethered to a mooring on shore near a fissure in the rocks. This, on closer examination, turns out to be a cave-like tunnel which leads to a private beach – King’s Beach – next to what, in the Communist era when it was still part of Yugoslavia, used to be Marshal Tito’s holiday residence. It’s now a hotel lodge and restaurant.
Just round the corner from King’s Beach, reached through a gateway in a private park, is the even more exclusive Queen’s Beach – a perfect crescent bay with golden sand and clear, emerald-green sea, fringed with cypress trees, overlooked by another red-roofed villa, formerly the summer residence of Queen Marija Karadjordjevic and now a very high-end spa. While non-residents can pay Euros 120 a day to use the King’s Beach, only hotel guests can use the Queen’s Beach.
Can you imagine how disgustingly smug this makes you feel? There you are, chilling on your private sun lounger, looked over indulgently by eager yet discreet staff alert to the slightest twitch indicative of your latest whim – be it a need for a plate of fresh fruit, or some chilled water, or a fresh towel, or a cocktail or the use of the beach’s paddleboard or snorkel. And nobody to disturb the peace save your discreetly distant fellow guests, conversing quietly in the way the very rich do, in Russian, Korean or American.
If I seem to be dwelling at length on this particular posh hotel, it’s that I suspect it’s just about the main point of going to Montenegro. The mountainous interior with its remote monasteries and wolves and bears and river rapids is, I gather, dramatic, stunning and unspoilt. But the coast is starting to look slightly overdeveloped (Russian money) or, in the case of places like the fjord of Kotor with its walled town built when it was part of the Republic of Venice, so overtouristed you may wonder why you bothered.
What Aman Sveti Stefan does is let you experience Montenegro as it might have been had you gone in the days before mass tourism. Yes, it will cost you an arm and a leg. But aren’t you curious to stay in the same place jet setters like Sophia Loren used to hang out in in the 1970s? Wouldn’t you like to imagine how you’d spend your money if, say, you’d just sold your Silicon Valley start up for a billion and wanted to live life like all the beautiful people do? And suppose your daughter marries an oligarch or a hedge funder, don’t you want to see where the happy couple will probably celebrate their wedding by commandeering all 50 rooms on the island?
The country isn’t taking any chances as Europe emerges from lockdown and has vowed to look carefully at the number of national active cases in a tourist’s home country before letting them in. But for some, its Covid-free record is now a major selling point. As much as I hate advising you to choose your holiday destination on the basis of the illnesses you could avoid, in the current climate Montenegro is as safe as it gets.
Stays at Aman Sveti Stefan start from £670 per room per night including breakfast. www.aman.com