When a vendetta shooting takes place on a bright spring morning at a café in a picturesque public square, it can be inconvenient for more than just the victim. That was the case this past May in Montenegro, the tiny Balkan nation that gained independence from Serbia only four years ago and that is feverishly recasting itself as a luxury travel mecca. Dragan Dudi´c, the owner of a discotheque in the medieval village of Kotor, was sipping coffee on a terrace when he was shot and killed, apparently in retribution for some previous misdeed of his own. Nobody else was hurt that morning (except for the killer, who was severely pummeled by Dudi´c’s bodyguards before the police arrived), but the incident, and the subsequent newspaper stories examining Dudi´c’s connections to fugitive drug lord Darko Sari´c, offered outsiders an ill-timed reminder of Montenegro’s sometimes shady history. It came just as the country was getting ready to unveil several glossy new attractions, such as a $900 million-plus superyacht marina in the harbor that once housed the Yugoslav navy.
In truth, Montenegro is a perfectly safe place these days if you’re not a drug runner named Darko or Dragan, and the occasional revenge killing seems unlikely to threaten the country’s five-star future. Berths are filling rapidly at the new marina, Porto Montenegro, which Canadian billionaire Peter Munk is bankrolling with other investors like Bernard Arnault and Lord Rothschild. Just down the coast, Amanresorts is opening its latest showpiece, in the fortified island village of Sveti Stefan, where it has converted 118 fisherman’s cottages into 47 suites, a bakery, an antipasto bar, and a cigar lounge. And the Swiss-based developer Orascom is about to break ground on a $1.3 billion resort complex amid the olive groves on the bucolic Luštica peninsula.
While the Kotor incident offered an extreme example of the rough edges that the Montenegrin government is eager to smooth out, it also provided evidence of a certain raw authenticity that many travelers are craving these days. Montenegro is at that pivotal moment in which it has eliminated water shortages and power outages but has not yet been colonized by EasyJet. If you want a vacation spot where you can spend the day maneuvering your boat between serene waterside tavernas and decommissioned submarine bunkers, or hiking alone in one of Europe’s last primeval forests, look no further.
“The western Mediterranean has become so oversaturated, it’s almost a joke,” says luxury yachting guru George Nicholson of Camper & Nicholsons. “But parts of Montenegro still have the feel of Saint-Tropez in the Forties. It’s unique.”
Consider, for instance, the spectacular coastline, a stretch of the Adriatic that has enraptured both 19th-century poets (Lord Byron is said to have called it “the most beautiful encounter between the land and the sea”) and modern-day travel guides (Lonely Planet rhapsodizes, “this perfumed land, bathed in the scent of wild herbs, conifers and Mediterranean blossoms…”). The woman sitting behind me on the plane had a more succinct take. “Holy crap,” she said as we swooped down toward the Gulf of Kotor and Tivat airport, past the soaring mountains that line cerulean bays dotted with stone houses. Indeed, the scenery along Montenegro’s coast—as well as inland, where you’ll find the world’s second-deepest canyon—is so magnificent as to seem almost indecent, especially when you realize that it’s contained in a country the size of Connecticut, with a population of 670,000, equivalent to that of Memphis.