When the first guests check in to a new five-star hotel in Montenegro on Friday, they will not just be signing a pristine register: they will be putting their names to a centisecond of history. Whether they realise it or not, they’ll be contributing to a key phase in the reinvention of the country.
The hotel is at the centre of Porto Montenegro, a swish new yacht marina and one of the most ambitious leisure projects in Europe. The port, about a third complete, is also seen as laying a template for how tourism, the country’s biggest industry, could develop. Montenegro’s aspiration is not just to go for numbers but to cultivate travel in its most rarefied form, at the top end of the luxury trade.
The hotel, built by Porto Montenegro but managed by Taiwanese company Regent, is the first (self-awarded) five-star property in Boka bay, a deep fiord-like inlet off the Adriatic, which encompasses a Unesco World Heritage area around the ancient town of Kotor. A little walled city of churches, alleys, palaces and squares, it’s like a mini-Dubrovnik, all built from the limestone of the mountains that soar above it in operatic peaks of grey rock.
The history is as vivid as the landscape. The geological upheaval that sank a canyon to create the bay, and threw up the grizzled crags that surround it, was as violent as the events that brought a succession of conquerors: Saracens, Venetians, Austrians, Russians and French. Today, though, it’s the luxury resort brands that are piling in. Aman is already here, on the island of Sveti Stefan, and the Regent’s opening will be followed, in the next few years, by One & Only, Four Seasons, Banyan Tree and Kempinski, all of which are planning or already building properties.
At Lustica Bay, the Egyptian developer Orascom has begun work on a development of two marinas, seven hotels, a golf course and hundreds of villas, town houses and apartments. What they are not planning is to coat the rocky shore with sand.
Michael Posch, Regent’s general manager, welcomes the competition, not least because he hopes it will impress Europe’s airlines into serving the area better. “We know it is a very interesting destination for the Russians but we want to get back the people from western Europe,” he says. “They were guests before the [Balkan] war – they just never came back.”
The hotel will add three more restaurants to the port’s collection plus a spa, whose wellness programme will run throughout the winter. Two pools, one indoor, are augmented by exclusive access to a beach that can only be reached by boat. Of the 83 accommodation units, only 34 will be hotel rooms. The rest are being sold as apartments – or residences, in Porto-speak – ranging from studios to €7m penthouses.
The marina, too, is doubling in size, from 245 berths to 490. It’s one of the few large enough for Roman Abramovich to berth his 163m yacht, Eclipse. And with Montenegro being outside the EU, it is also very competitively priced. Berths and fuel are about half the price they are in the south of France; yacht sales and charters get some juicy tax breaks. Oliver Corlette, managing director of Porto Montenegro, says the recession has changed attitudes in the yachting industry. “It used to be, the higher the price the better it was. Now it’s a question of what’s the best value.”
Porto Montenegro is an unreality check. Sitting outside one of its restaurants, I look to my right, across the blue waters of the bay, to a range of fat hills lying slumped in the sun. Behind them rise mountains in a rough parapet of steely rock. Everything else I can see was introduced by man – even the decorative palm trees lining the main jetty have been imported from Uruguay. Broad as a boulevard, this is the quay where the superyachts berth, side by side, the ensigns of their tax havens unfolding in the breeze. One of the biggest belongs to Oleg Deripaska, among the wealthiest men in Russia, and a major investor in Porto Montenegro, along with Peter Munk, the Canadian gold mining magnate, whose vision the port was in the first place. His yacht is on the jetty too.
Behind the marina is a Mediterranean-themed village of angular buildings in faded paint. It caters more to desires than needs. Apart from a small convenience store, a pharmacy, florist, yacht chandlers and – about to be opened – a bank, there are restaurants, cafés and bars, some more stylish than others. There will soon be a nightclub, art gallery and casino.
There are trees and creepers, awnings, shutters and terracotta tiles, and a veritable bunting of designer labels attached to everything from bikinis to a 50m Benetti yacht, reduced to €19.95m. Yet the village is defined as much by what isn’t there as by what is. There is no graffiti, no posters, policemen or overhead cables; no clutter, litter or satellite dishes. None of the spoor of human habitation.
Originally an Austro-Hungarian naval base, it became a Yugoslav navy shipyard after the second world war. A restored Yugoslav submarine is open to the public and has its periscope permanently trained on the plutocrats’ yachts; nearby is a smart lido with cabanas and an infinity pool tiled in dark tesserae – unreal.
As is my breakfast at the Boulangerie Saint Honoré, a French café at the back of the village. “Do you bake these here?” I inquire of my pain au raisin. “No,” comes the answer. “We fly them in from France.”
It’s all a far cry from when I was last here four years ago. Then, Porto Montenegro consisted of little more than the original stone quays, and the whole country had something of a frontier feel. What is crucial now is whether Montenegro, having glimpsed the heady prospectus for a land of silk and money, can show restraint. Will it stick to its master plan to reserve Boka bay for low-impact/high-price resorts or will it succumb to the temptations of wanton development?
It could go either way. It’s not in the interests of those who have put their money in to Porto Montenegro to see the gulf degraded. On the other hand, those who confidently claim that perpendicular hillsides are inimical to construction should look at the great gash made in the shore, directly opposite the World Heritage village of Perast, for some undistinguished holiday flats.
Montenegro is one of the last patches of southern Europe that survives much as it was when the Venetians left at the end of the 18th century. But what used to be called the Gulf of Kotor is being turned into a new mini-Gulf state. Whether that is an expression of admiration or a term of abuse remains to be seen.
Photograph: Veri Veroza