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June 3, 2011 10:06 pm

A star reborn

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Sveti Stefan

Sveti Stefan is connected to the mainland by a narrow isthmus

Back in 1968 Paris Match rated Sveti Stefan one of the top 10 hotels in the world. Quite an achievement for a government-owned property in communist Yugoslavia, albeit a spectacularly picturesque one converted from a 15th-century fortified fishing village set on a rocky islet just off the coast of Montenegro. Inevitably its fortunes waned as Yugoslavia broke up and went to war. And by 2003, when I first stayed there, it was fairly dilapidated.

It was still captivating, though. The beauty of its stone cottages, its three tiny churches, its labyrinth of steep alleys decked with oleander, olive trees and scarlet pomegranate blossom, remained intact. But the rooms were scuffed and battered, and the bathrooms, with their uncertainly grouted ochre-and-green patterned tiles (matching floor and walls) and chipped beige porcelain, dispiriting.

That year, Adrian Zecha, the chairman and founder of Singapore-based Aman Resorts, also stayed at Sveti Stefan and, as he puts it, “decided I would love to do something” with it. A meeting with Montenegro’s then prime minister, Milo Djukanovic, was convened late that summer, the first step on the long road to its rejuvenation. The old hotel closed in 2005 (the year before Montenegro declared independence), Aman took over the site in 2007, and last week, Aman Sveti Stefan finally opened as a fully functioning hotel.

Perhaps fittingly for a settlement that was founded in the 1440s with the spoils of a battle against the Ottomans, it’s been a process of Byzantine complications. Not just politics and the financial crash (the project was rescued by Greek shipping magnate Victor Restis, now its principal investor), but a frustratingly challenging build. Converting historically protected buildings robust enough to have survived, but nevertheless sustained, earthquake damage into 21st-century luxury hotel rooms was never going to be easy, but they had not reckoned on uncovering the remains of a fourth church and a host of other historical artefacts. As Marylou Thomson of its architect, Denniston International, told me, “It’s been like a protracted chess game with the island as our opponent.”

Map of Montenegro

Back in its 1960s and 1970s heyday, there was a nightclub, a casino, a hairdresser and a terrace bedecked by beautiful people. In 1964, Sidney Poitier and Richard Widmark stayed here while shooting a best-forgotten Viking movie in nearby Budva. And soon other Hollywood names began to visit: Kirk Douglas, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. As did heads of state, for this was where Yugoslavia’s President Marshal Tito liked to accommodate guests, even though he himself never stayed here, his legs unable to cope with the endless flights of steps that link the cottages. (Even in its new incarnation, this is not a place for anyone with even faintly impaired mobility or, for that matter, high heels.)

Mostly, however, it was a haunt of high-profile Russians: Yuri Gagarin, the ballerina Maya Plisetskaya – and Italians: Monica Vitti, Alberto Moravia, Gio Ponti and Sophia Loren who, disappointed by dinner one evening, swept into the kitchen to show the chef how spaghetti carbonara ought to be made.

The source of this gossip was Diki Kazanegra, who had worked here in its glory days, joining as a porter and rising to become general manager, and with whom I had dinner in 2003. At first he was the model of discretion, his anecdotes recalling the silver-dollar tips distributed by wealthy Americans. (No use to him except as souvenirs.)

But as the wine flowed – a good earthy local red called Vranac Pro Corde that is, the label promises, beneficial to the heart – so his stories became more outlandish, none more so than his memories of a German film star who “used to come with three or four girls from Asia”, and once “asked for his bath to be filled with warm champagne”.

Perhaps because I was English, he was more guarded in his anecdotes about Britain’s Princess Margaret. “The first time she came, we had no idea about protocol,” he remembered. “We didn’t know she had to have a photograph of the royal family in her room, though as soon as we found out, we located one, and it was there in two hours.” Not as much of a challenge as a visit from the president of Mongolia, who demanded camel’s milk. But as Kazanegra put it, so keen was the Yugoslav government to make a good impression on the wider world, “We just snapped our fingers, and they’d fly it down from Belgrade.”

That sort of attitude pertains still. At least that was my experience when I stayed there again last week. I mentioned at breakfast my first morning that I’d been plagued by mosquitoes in the night; by the time I got back to my room, a repellent had been plugged in. I’d commented, too, on the dimness of the bedside light; cue instant provision of a Barber & Osgerby lamp.

The room count has been reduced from 118 to 50, each designed in a way that both acknowledges the hotel’s history as a fishing village (the hurricane lamp-like lights that hang in the windows evoke those the fishwives would have used to light the way home for their husbands) and makes play of local materials. Walls are limewashed or exposed stone; floors are honey-coloured honed marble or dark oak with sisal rugs; ceilings have been removed to expose rafters and beams; and the just-the-right-side-of-rustic Shaker-influenced oak furniture has been made in neighbouring Serbia.

Aesthetically, then, there was much to admire in my deluxe cottage (number 38), with its south- and west-facing terraces. But for a room costing €990 a night excluding breakfast, it was austere: no television (though some rooms have them, and I could have requested one), and nowhere to sit bar the single ladder-back carver chair by the desk. The wardrobe contained just six hangers and a single drawer (fine for a couple of nights, but the other guests I met, self-confessed Aman junkies from Hong Kong and Mexico, were on 10-day and two-week holidays respectively). And the only real colour, bar the brown waffle blanket on the bed, was a sober bunch of myrtle leaves in a vase on the windowsill.

Every room on the island is different, however. Some have spacious sitting rooms with sofas and televisions (number 20), some have large terraces (36), some have both: 41, for instance, or 1, which has a sea-facing terrace, two vine-covered pergolas and a second bedroom with five (glazed) arrow slits as well as windows.

Only the supremely handsome Sveti Stefan suite has its own pool. But then this isn’t somewhere one comes to swim. There is a small black-tiled heated cliff-top pool, shaded by a giant Aleppo pine, and a 14m one will open next year, along with a gym and spa (for the moment treatments are available in individual “spa cottages” dotted across the island). And of course there’s the sea.

At the heart of the village, there’s a piazza with an ancient well at its centre, surrounded by unpretentious little eateries called Enoteca, Pasticceria, Antipasti and Taverna (great pizza). Montenegrin coastal cooking has much in common with that of its Italian and Greek near-neighbours, what with the octopus salads, feta and prosciutto (prsut, they call it here), Adriatic fish and ice-cream cassatas, so the nomenclature makes sense. But I do wish they hadn’t given the island’s winding alleys suburban English names – Church Lane, Ivy Lane – and that the staff were allowed to greet you with a dobro jutro instead of “good morning”.

To eat in a formal restaurant, guests must cross a causeway to the mainland, for the 12,400 sq m island is actually only a fraction of a 32ha estate under Aman stewardship. There, amid botanical gardens, olive groves and pine and cedar forest, Aman has operated another more conventionally comfortable eight-suite hotel, Villa Milocer, since 2008, a 1930s former royal residence subsequently used by President Tito. Its elegant restaurant has a shaded terrace overlooking one of the property’s three beaches; an arc of coral-coloured sand that is lovely to behold but coarse as gravel underfoot.

High on a wooded hill above the next idyllic horseshoe-shaped bay, a brisk 20-minute walk from the island along the public footpath that runs through the estate, there’s another, less expensive, restaurant, serving excellent pappardelle and grilled fish. And there’s also a beach café and a brasserie by the causeway. But it does rather defeat the purpose of staying offshore if you’re encouraged to go to the mainland for meals.

These cavils aside, however, I found Sveti Stefan a place of strange enchantment. I loved the fig-scented air; the pellucid light; the peace (except when the wind howls and the waves crash); the sense of history, of all this rock has witnessed and endured. But most of all I loved the optimism that seemed to abound.

With a coast that Byron judged “the most beautiful encounter between land and sea” when he visited in 1809, Montenegro depends on tourism for more than a fifth of its GDP, yet Aman is the first high-profile foreign resort brand to open here. And the enthusiasm the young, engaging, mostly very local staff have for their employer is infectious. I met people whose grandparents had been born on the island, whose parents had worked at the old hotel, whose pride in the new one was such that they told me they hoped their children – if they had them – would grow up to work here too. All of which makes for a happy place that I felt genuinely sad to leave.

Doubles from €770 (www.amanresorts.com). The closest airport is Tivat, 34km away. Claire Wrathall flew with British Airways (www.ba.com) from London to Dubrovnik, which is about 100km, or a two-hour drive, away; returns cost from £118.

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