After a rickety flight on Montenegro Airlines, Melinda Hughes finally reached the Aman Sveti Stefan. Turns out it’s so relaxing even a creaky, stinky plane can be forgotten
I HAD NO idea what to expect from Montenegro, often pitched as the hidden gem of the Mediterranean. This should be the Monte Carlo of the Balkans, where superyachts in berths of never-seen-before sizes can rest side by side. The über-rich have a new tax-haven playground, with 9 per cent personal and corporation taxes. Peter Monk, Oleg Deripaska and Nat Rothschild have ploughed millions into Porto Montenegro, a new development with a state of the art marina, boutique hotel, residences, restaurants and shops.
However, this is all new and outside of these luxury resorts, there is still too much evidence of the rough ways of old. There are horror stories of expats relocating to Montenegro and encountering extortion and dishonesty, even with national companies supplying water and electricity. I wasn’t the only wary one, for as soon as I sent my first email from Montenegro, my server asked me to verify my account and my email access was blocked for a day.
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The jetset can fly in to Montenegro and indeed there were plenty of private jets lined up as we landed at Tivat, but (unlucky for us) our flight was on the less than salubrious Montenegro Airlines. I strongly suggest the Montenegrin government addresses the state of their national airline if they are to encourage tourism, for we suddenly found ourselves on what resembled a 1980s charter flight with next to no safety procedures, a cabin crew who wore impossibly high heels, serving tepid artificial tasting fruit juices, within a dirty hunk of a plane that rattled and creaked and stank of pee. There, I’ve said it. Let’s move on to the nice part.
WE HEADED SOUTH on the coastal road, dramatic black mountains rising to our left and sinking into a glistening sea, and as we passed the outskirts of Budva with its huge hotel complexes, casinos and half-finished towering developments, we saw the Aman Sveti Stefan, an island reachable only by a pedestrian causeway.
Pictured above: The Aman Sveti Stefan is on an island
This isolated 15th century fishing village has been beautifully preserved and renovated but has all the touches one would expect from an Aman resort. It has over fifty stone cottages and suites all discreetly positioned within a labyrinth of cobbled and delightfully confusing medieval lanes. There are two chapels on the island, a secluded swimming pool, a low-key restaurant and no end of stunning views. If the walk to the beach and back doesn’t suffice in toning you up there is a state-of- the-art gym with stunning views across the bay to the mainland.
For ultimate luxury one can book the Sveti Stefan suite with a private infinity pool and jacuzzi. We unwittingly broke into the suite one afternoon and only realised we were at the wrong pool when we couldn’t find any towels… Oops.
AT THE CENTRE of this island idyll is a shady piazza comprising an oenoteca, antipasti bar, library, cigar room and terrace where one can sit for breakfast and enjoy views across the Adriatic. This was my favourite spot: the Italian style menu was unpretentious, fresh and simple serving delicious octopus salad, pizzas, local cheeses and cured meats. With a glass of surprisingly good Montenegrin wine and my trusty backgammon board, I was in heaven.
Sveti Stefan has taken great care in restoring the many old fishermen’s cottages and converting them into beautiful secluded suites. Our cottage was elegantly decorated in calm neutral tones with local materials, preserving the original walls and adding a finish of timber and stone, cleverly coupling local history with contemporary design.
Pictured above: A bedroom at the Aman Sveti Stefan
I felt spoilt as I poured a bubble-bath in my free-standing tub within my stone bathroom, and I was delighted by the little touches that appeared every evening at our bedside: lavender sachets, traditional local pastries, chocolates, an invitation from the general manager to dinner.
ACROSS THE CAUSEWAY, the Sveti Stefan resort continues to expand. It has no less than three private beaches, the prettiest being the Queen’s beach where the new Aman Spa, due to open in Spring 2013, presides. For now I had to make do with one of the six private treatment rooms dotted about our private island where hidden alleys led to secluded havens which offered spa treatments and the best deep tissue massages.
We did venture out twice, once to the nearby old town of Budva which, although a charming fortress by the sea, lacked sophistication in its shops and restaurants. Budva is simply a crowded mecca for tourists who arrive in coachloads for the huge casinos and nightclubs and in my mind is best to be avoided. There were some pretty spots and it’s a popular destination with plenty of cafes to sit and people-watch but if like me you prefer tranquillity, Budva should be a pit stop.
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I was only tempted out again to eat dinner by the invitation of our charming GM Kevin Brooke to the smartest of the Sveti Stefan restaurants on the mainland, Vila Miločer. This grand Italianate villa was once the summer residence of Queen Marja Karadordevic and was also one of Tito’s many hideaways. It houses eight contemporary suites each with its own Juliet balcony. There is a library, a conference room, spacious reception rooms and it could serve as an ideal location for an off-site management retreat.
We dined on the terrace watching the sun set with the view across to Sveti Stefan. I had excellent home-made egg ravioli with ricotta followed by a delicious Adriatic bouillabaisse, but there was also lobster, plenty of fresh fish and even foie gras in case one didn’t want to slum it. The food was beautifully presented by friendly staff and still keenly priced despite the opulent surroundings.
Pictured above: Sunset at the Aman Sveti Stefan
There are also some stunning Montenegrin wines to try such as Sjekloća Vranac Reserve 2002 from the wine growing Crmnica valley in the South as well as some interesting Croatian and Serbian wines. Of course the more conservative can chose the more extravagant Gaja Barbaresco 2006 or perhaps a Chateau Pichon Longueville Baron Deuxieme Cru 1997.
THIS IS A place for total relaxation at a sumptuous level and unlike the other Aman resorts in far-flung exotic locations it is just a few hours away by plane (not Montenegro Airlines, obviously). Additions to the resort include a private boat shuttle to the mainland, a new rooftop lounge and pool area and a signature Aman restaurant due to open in 2013.
We had chosen the perfect time to go and on a late September afternoon we were basking in temperatures of up to 30 degrees, without any of August’s crowds. I would suggest a late Spring break or long weekend after the children have gone back to school in Autumn.
This was my first visit to an Aman hotel and once I had settled into the luxurious haven of Sveti Stefan, I never wanted to leave, not even for a wine-tasting trip, a visit to a remote clifftop monastery or any of the other bespoke excursions that are on offer. Sveti Stefan is magical within a rather wild and rapidly changing country.