On my second day in Montenegro, I was taken on a boat trip into the Bay of Kotor, colloquially known as Boka Bay. Entering through a narrow inlet from the Adriatic Sea, the landscape is, quite literally, breathtaking. Steep mountain ranges rise majestically from the fjord-like bay’s sparkling blue waters, all fringed with tiny clusters of medieval towns and church towers built from honey-colored stone. At its heart sit two picture-postcard islands that speak to the strong influence of Venice within the region (it was ruled by the Venetian Republic for over 400 years) and as the evening sun sets behind the mountains, the spires of their churches take on an almost hallucinatory shimmer. Drinking all of it in, it’s hard not to ask yourself: why isn’t this one of the Mediterranean’s absolute must-visit destinations?
With the help of a new guard of luxury resorts, it could soon be just that. Leading the charge is the latest property from One&Only, the ultra-high-end and fast-growing hotel empire whose distinctive approach includes an emphasis on wellness. By arriving in Montenegro, they may have just found their ideal location.
While Montenegro has long been a destination to know for well-seasoned travelers, your average holiday-goer may at first struggle to pinpoint it on a map. (A relatively tiny coastal country in the heart of the Balkans, it’s nestled between Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast, Serbia, Albania, and Bosnia and Herzegovina.) As its international reputation as a vacation destination has grown, the country is now taking a two-pronged approach to avoid overcrowding—there are a spate of luxury resorts either newly opened or in the pipeline, while at the other end of the spectrum, a booming market for ecotourism is taking advantage of Montenegro’s spectacular scenery. At the One&Only Portonovi, which launched last summer, both are seamlessly combined: you can embark on a hike through the mountains in the morning, relax by the pool at lunch, and then spend your afternoon enjoying a head-spinning array of treatments in its Chenot Éspace spa.
As the first One&Only property in Europe, this sprawling complex of rooms, suites, and villas offers a sleek take on the architectural tradition of Venetian palazzi, as well as nods to Montenegrin culture through the likes of chandeliers crafted by local artisans—the tradition of glass blowing being another hangover from its days under Venice—and plenty of horses, the unofficial mascot of the country. (How else would you have made it up and down all those hills back in the day?) With its prime location at the mouth of the bay near the picturesque town of Herceg Novi, One&Only’s beachfront position and multiple swimming pools make it a no-brainer summer destination. But with its lavishly-outfitted, state-of-the-art spa and the fireplaces dotted around every room, there’s a compelling case to be made for the region as a year-round destination, too.
Indeed, what makes Montenegro so unique is the proximity of everything its 422-mile borders contain. (A recurring anecdote from locals is that you can swim on its pristine beaches in the morning, and within a few hours find yourself whizzing down its ski slopes.) Roughly the size of Connecticut but with one-sixth of its population, what the country lacks in size it makes up for in sheer variety, most notably when it comes to outdoor pursuits. Sailing, scuba diving, hiking, skiing, climbing, rafting; here, pretty much every adventurous activity you could think of is possible in world-beating surroundings and conditions, with the additional draw that you’ll often casually find yourself passing by a UNESCO-approved relic of European history while doing so. All of this and more can be arranged by the resort, while on-site there are tennis courts, a slick new fitness center, and even a yoga studio with views across the bay. And when you need to refuel, there are myriad dining options available, from gourmet riffs on Southern Italian cuisine at their restaurant Sabia to an open kitchen serving locally-sourced ingredients called La Veranda. For something a little more lively, a short stroll from the central building will take you to Tapasake, a pool club serving contemporary Japanese small plates with a dedicated sake bar and DJ sets during the summer.
The property’s health programs are the result of a first-of-its-kind global partnership with Chenot, the Swiss-based spa and wellness experts who are on hand to offer all-encompassing detox programs—they vary from two days all the way up to a week—that touch on nutrition, fitness, stress relief, and targeted spa treatments to encourage balance and a bodily reset. (If you just need a robust massage to soothe your legs after a morning hiking through Montenegro’s towering hillscapes, they can, of course, offer that too.)
Most of all, it’s the astonishing natural beauty of the region that is the biggest takeaway, as well as the warmth and hospitality of its people. On my final day at the resort, a particularly brilliant guide by the name of Bogdan provided a riveting four-hour boat tour that took in the charming medieval towns of Perast and Kotor and their array of Orthodox and Catholic churches—and plenty of doses of the Montenegrin’s ruthless sense of humor, too. To appreciate Montenegro fully, it also helps to have something of a primer on its checkered history of invasions, occupations, and resistance movements—endless decades of brutal conflict make for a pitch-black wit and a carpe diem spirit, Bogdan notes.
Breezing back out of the inner bays and returning to the resort, though, the sheer sensory pleasures of the region foster a sense that time has stopped. There’s the sight of cloud wisps clinging to the tops of the mountains as the warm Adriatic winds hit the cold subzero stone, the sound of rustling olive groves and motors whizzing between jetties, the scent of mimosa trees and that distinctively crisp salty sea air, the taste of fresh grilled fish or the allegedly medicinal properties of the country’s bracing national drink, rakija. For those seeking authenticity and something more active from their holidays—alongside a little indulgence, naturally—it’s easy to see how Montenegro could be one of those corners of the world that draws you back in, again and again.