We drive round the Bay of Kotor as the sun is setting, the sky’s pale pink hues blending into a deep red. Around the water’s edge, families are still swimming, old men in obscene banana hammocks sit on fold-out chairs, their fishing rods bowed over the still water. As the summer night darkens, TV screens showing football matches glow in the sky. Locals gather outside mini marts and pizzerias to eat, socialise and watch the game. By contrast, the road to our destination, Lustica Bay becomes quieter and quieter until nothing but the stars above and the roadside shrubs keep us company.
Lustica Bay is a development of holiday homes, rentals and (eventually) multiple hotels, a golf course and residential village for locals. Only in its soft launch phase on our visit, the resort has sold a number of its properties to overseas homeowners but holiday rentals – at least until the 2018 season – are far less common.
We check into one of Lustica’s self-catered apartments. Decorated in cool greys and whites throughout, the spacious terrace has views of the Adriatic Sea, and its comfy wicker chairs and cushions make it the perfect spot for early morning green teas and evening rose sundowners.
What sounds like an old fashioned steam train, is in fact the rhythmic noise of building works; with the first Lustica Bay hotel due to open in July 2018, along with a marina and shops, it can feel like the site is home to as many builders as guests.
Building works is nothing new in this part of Montenegro. The once spectacularly beautiful and unspoilt Boka Bay is now home to huge cruise ships and multi million developments, including Lustica, are popping up, down and around the coast. Surrounded by tree-covered hills and mountains, which dramatically meet the sea edge with no shoreline, the bay is often mistakenly referred to as a fjord: it’s easy to see why it was granted its World Heritage in 1979. But since the noughties UNESCO has expressed concerns at the rate of development in the area and in July 2016 issued its final warning, writing on its website ‘Current developments, including new tourism centres, roads, and buildings on the coast itself, threaten to lead to the gradual yet irreversible transformation of the coastline as well as the abandonment of the traditional terraced structures.’
The Bay of Kotor is currently not on the danger list but the warning on UNESCO’s website remains.
The Lustica Bay development is away from the main hub of resorts and cruise ships, situated on the other side of the beautiful Lustica peninsula, overlooking Traste Bay: only the odd dot of a lone swimmer or solitary speedboat break up the blue with a small splash or a burst of white foam. The heat is so tangible it feels like I can smell it, pick it out of the sky and put it into my pocket.
We satisfy ourselves with morning dips in the sea and sunbathing and swimming in our own private infinity pool (at least while the apartments aren’t all in use) the rest of the day.
We eat simple lunches of sandwiches and crisps and read books till the pages go crinkly from pool splashes. It would be easy to just carry on in the same lazy pattern but when you have your own personal Skipper on speed dial, it would be a waste not to use him. While still in soft launch phase, Sveto, (to be referred to as Skipper henceforth), doesn’t have many water transfers to make so drives the four of us in Lustica Bay’s speedboat to the Almara Beach Club where we feast on fresh salads then drink cocktails till the sun is setting before spedding back to our pool for an impromptu pool party (to clarify: sans Skipper).
The next day we ask Skipper if he will take us somewhere a little less beach club and a lot more Montenegrin. He speeds along to the village his father was born in. An elderly sandy-coloured Labrador Retriever sits next to a tin box of fresh squid, the four-legged gatekeeper of the small jetty. There are approximately 500-600 residents in Bigova, one of the 21 small villages that dot the coastline that stretches between towns Budva and Kotor. This time Skipper gets out of the boat with us.
‘I don’t live here but I come in the summer ‘ Skipper explains. ‘Legend is that it used to be a Greek village and it’s subsiding. When you come here in the morning you can’t hear anything apart from the birds.’
I can believe that. At the perfectly situated Grispolis restaurant we drink crisp Montenegrin Chardonnay and eat the best calamari of the trip – two types: crunchy, deep fried and juicy stuffed with rice and prawns. Walking along the modest waterfront after, we pass a group of older women in matronly swimming costumes heading to the tiny jetty. Orange and black butterflies hover above the ground and I wish we could spend longer here or have another few days to visit more of these hidden villages, swim to tiny beaches, smaller than my London back garden and jump off cliffs* into the sparkling Aegean (*confession: I was the only one out of our group to not do this.)
But our time at Lustica is ending and it’s time to stay in the Bay of Kotor itself. Still from one speedboat to another (we’d got a taste) we continue our exploring but this time around the much more visited sites of Boka bay.
We stop off at Lastavica island, a tiny island with just one building on it, Mamula Fortress, the former Austro-Hungarian fort, built in 1853 then used by the Italians in World War two to detain POAs. Despite being an island, the air is eerily still on Lastavica, with no breeze. Graffiti covers some of stone remains, scratchy shrubs push through cracks and the dusty ground.
The island has recently been bought by developers who plan to turn it into an exclusive hotel, a plan that feels totally incongruous with the atmosphere and history of the island.
In a bizarre twist, Orascom Development Holding, the company responsible for Lustica Bay has bought Mamula. While locals speak with pride and admiration for Lustica Bay’s careful development ( complete with investment in the local infrastructure and building in the traditional Montenegrin style to match the coastline aesthetic), they are unhappy about the tiny island’s predicted fate. Our speedboat driver Mikolavca speaks plainly: ‘ for Montenegrins they do not want this to happen.’
Speeding back from the blue caves, where I chicken out of swimming for the second time (beautiful colour but choppy and cold) we pass Forte Rose, which has more than a passing resemblance to an Italian seaside village. Submarine tunnels from the second world war burrow into the rockface. We veer right into one of the 70-metre long tunnels.
We finish with lunch at picture postcard Perast eating in Konoba Skolji. It’s emptier than the other waterfront eateries and its satin sheen tablecloths have seen better days (the 80s) but Mikalovce recommends it and our bread basket (freshly baked in house) and spaghetti vongole proves Mikalovcke knows what he’s talking about. Next to the restaurant a man sells fruit out of the back of his car: we buy fresh figs and purple grapes to snack on the boat. The ubiquitous cruise ship and cranes are still there as we speed back and in the evening, sat at the recommended Old Winery in Kotor Old Town (get the meat and cheese board) we hear as many passersby talk in English as Montenegrin. For now though, there’s enough quiet coves and hidden eateries to make a trip to Montenegro still feel like you’ve discovered somewhere very special.
Rate for the apartment Nathalie stayed in (two bedrooms and bathrooms with access to infinity pool) 300 euros per night. For those who book their stay 3 months in advance, a 10% discount early-bird rate applies. Go to www.lusticabay.com to find out more.