Croatia and Montenegro. As if the names alone aren’t exotic enough to pique your intrigue, the sheer rugged beauty is guaranteed to win travellers’ favour. One of the most eye-catching coastlines in the Mediterranean, the Adriatic is the stuff of wanderlust dreams.
The Balkan nations are a heady mix of hidden bays, majestic mountains, pristine waters and picturesque towns and villages. Romance is the byword in a region fast gaining repute as exotic Europe. Long a celebrity haunt, the holidaymaker’s growing love affair with Croatia is now affirming it as a travel hotspot.
Inspiring poets and playwrights, Croatia’s Dubrovnik Riviera has been hailed “Pearl of the Adriatic” and “Paradise on Earth”. The 20km coastline is a silhouette of dramatic emerald mountains tumbling to inviting alcoves on the royal blue Adriatic. Nestled into the bougainvillea-clad hills, Villa Dubrovnik is the region’s emblem of boutique luxury living, with balcony Jacuzzis overhanging the sparkling waters.
A wondrous coastal road carved into the mountainside snakes along the Riviera, from Dubrovnik to Cavtat, filtering through lush vineyards and with exits to quaint waterfront villages. Designed for romantic rambles, each village claims it’s own authenticity with antique churches and forested headlands, beach boats, cafes and walks.
It’s easy to drop off the radar at lovingly restored villages, Plat and Mlini, with isolated beaches and dense greenery. Cavtat, the furthest from Dubrovnik, is charmingly Croatian and oft sprinkled with famous faces, from Roman Abramovich to Liz Taylor. The picturesque harbour hems in a necklace of bays and a town, covered pillar to post with Roman ruins, galleries and fresh seafood restaurants.
Magazine cover-ready medieval Dubrovnik is a vision of terracotta rooftops and whitewashed buildings, fringed by the azure Adriatic. Jutting out on a fortified island, it is suspended at sea. Featuring the largest and best-preserved city walls in Europe, the Old Town’s 14th-century walls are nearly 2km long and 22m high.
Clinging to a cliff and hovering over the sea, Buza Cliff Bar is legendary. The popular locale provides respite from the thick city walls, which is also half the fun of finding it. Mingle with locals over sundowners in this most scenic of spots.
Oozing timelessness, the Old Town is where graceful Baroque churches rub regal shoulders with centuries-old monasteries and noble palazzo.
Like a living breathing museum, the city flaunts a rich artistic history, whilst cafe culture spills into the streets.
For the best bird’s-eye views over the Old Town, ascend Mount Srd on a revolving cable car. At 412m elevation, Srd Mountain affords dreamy Dubrovnik views, laid out like a map below. On a clear day, the hills of neighbouring Montenegro and silhouette of surrounding islands are on display. For a romantic treat, head up at sunset and dine at the intimate glass-encased Panorama restaurant. It’s a magical spot, floating above the city at dusk.
Boutique villas are to Dubrovnik what Riads are to Marrakech. Often converted private residences, the whitewashed villas blend seamlessly into the landscape, offering every luxury in intimate surrounds.
Among them, Villa Dubrovnik is tailored luxury at its finest. Blink and you’ve missed the discreet entrance, where a lift transports guests into a lavish haven of billowing whites, linens and light.
The design-led Leading Hotels of the World property affords sensational views of the Old Town from the sultry rooftop Prosciutto & Wine bar, the chicest spot in town.
Suites are chic, minimalist and tech-savvy, flaunting top-to-toe views over the tranquil Adriatic and lush Lokrum, the island known for its Dead Sea salt lake, 12th-century Benedictine monastery and resident peacocks.
Fashionistas can live out Hollywood dreams aboard the stylish Vaporetto speedboat, for glamorous private transfers from the hotel to the Old Town.
With more than a thousand Croatian islands, the question is, “Where?” The silky Adriatic waters can be sliced aboard any form of craft from kayaks and sailboats to yachts. Pristine beaches and harbours are striking at peninsula-perched, former-Venetian Korcula, bordered by rolling hills and concealed coves.
Adventure lovers will find bliss at Mljet National Park, a 3,100-ha refuge of lakes and indigenous forests. With wreck sites for divers and hiking trails weaving through greenery, it is an explorer’s treasure trove. The Elaphiti Islands, scattered like pearls in the Adriatic, are a ferry-ride away.
About 40km from Dubrovnik is the ethereal state of Montenegro. The dramatic coastal route is one of the continent’s most visually stunning drives, along a twisting road hugging the mountainside. Unrivalled views unfurl of the glittering sea studded with myriad of Croatia’s offshore islands and the majestic mountains of Montenegro.
A rugged profile emerges, of skyscraping peaks encircling dramatic deep blue sparkling waters, as the drive descends into the richly romantic Unesco Bay of Kotor (or Boka Bay).
The sentiments of Lord Byron come alive here — “At the birth of our planet, the most beautiful encounter between the land the sea must have happened at the coast of Montenegro”, he had observed in the 19th century. Tracing this serpentine coast to Ulcinj, the southernmost mosque-studded beach town, is a dreamy drive through a colourful collection of quaint fishing villages flanked by stone villas and small boats. This southernmost fjord is hemmed in by a deeply indented coastline. It is responsible for spawning a maritime legacy of world-class seamen, credited with putting Montenegro on the map, from Yugoslavia’s first world circumnavigator to notorious pirates.
Visitors are lured to the coastal necklace of blonde beaches studded with picture-perfect villages, glitzy marinas and buzzing maritime towns. Weaving through the meandering fingers and unfurling nooks of the Bay of Kotor, the epic coastal hinterland scenery is reminiscent of a small-scale Canadian Rockies or New Zealand’s Milford Sound. Hiking in the mountainous national parks rewards visitors with expansive views over the Bay, few other people and natural beauty famously synonymous with Montenegro.
Boat trips depart regularly from the Bay of Kotor between ancient maritime villages, of which Perast, Kotor and Prcanj are noteworthy. Kotor is a literal showcase of crumbling churches and Venetian-inspired architecture, wallowing in Baroque palazzos of wealthy seamen.
A highlight floats offshore, where eyes fall upon two iconic islands: The ninth-century St George Benedictine Abbey and the man-made 15th-century Our Lady of the Rocks church. It’s believed locals, depositing stones around a mythical rock apparition of the Madonna and Child, erected the latter.
The youngest town on the block is the showy newcomer, Tivat. Positioned at the foot of Mount Vrmac, on a sunny peninsula, Tivat was once a hub of salt manufacturing. Today, it hosts two international airports and is undergoing a renaissance as a major superyacht marina. Porto Montenegro is a hub of burgeoning tourism, foreign investment, with luxury apartments, a yacht club and a vibrant international scene. Fringed by beautiful beaches and lined by museums and restaurants, it offers something for everyone.
The effortlessly regal Regent Porto Montenegro flanks the deep-water harbour. Soaking in the high-end ambience, afternoon tea is a highlight by the waters. Romance is heightened inside the hotel, where revelling in the plush Asian-inspired interiors, outfitted to the highest spec, is an absolute treat. Backed by impressive mountains and fringed by wide beaches and airy open spaces, Montenegro is the heart of Europe’s glamorous playground for the international elite.