British writer Rebecca West once called Budva, the largest and northernmost city on the Montenegrin Riviera, "a little white tortoise against the blue sea."
Not much has changed over the course of two wars, a communist regime and almost 70 years since she wrote that: Budva is still a white-walled jewel jutting into the glass clear Adriatic Sea, a dramatic entry point to the miles of beaches that stretch south toward Albania.
With its narrow stone streets and expansive sea views, Budva reminds many visitors of Dubrovnik, its tourist-choked Croatian neighbor 60 miles north. And Montenegro, having seen what tourism can do for an ex-communist economy, is eager to cash in on the similarities. Though not yet a member of the European Union, it has adopted the euro as its official currency, and hotel staff members speak perfect English. Everywhere roads are being widened, wineries are sprouting and luxury resorts are opening for business - at a steep discount from even Croatia's tourist fare, let alone France's or Italy's.
A familiar Old World scene
The old city of Budva teems with shops, restaurants and bars, interposed with the occasional church-fronted plaza. The town and its environs abound with ruins, primarily Roman, including thermae uncovered by a 1979 earthquake. The newer parts of the city are not much to look at beyond the beach, although in fairness it's hard to tell for all the construction and roadwork.
To avoid the crowds, head southeast a mile or two to a new strip of luxury hotels rising along Becici's beach, including the four-star Queen of Montenegro, where a little more than 100 euros a night will fetch a balcony room overlooking the Adriatic. The hotel, majority-owned by an Austrian concern, is the result of a rush by international investors to cash in on Montenegro's growing popularity.
Montenegro has seen all of this before. During the height of communist Yugoslavia, Belgrade poured money into its coast as a way of attracting tourists. The real draw was Sveti Stefan, which opened in the 1950s after officials converted its cottages into luxury suites and its plazas into exclusive alfresco restaurants.
Over the next several decades people like Sophia Loren, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor paid a visit, and it was rumored to be the destination of choice for Charles and Diana's honeymoon (until press attention forced the couple to change plans). The complex essentially shut down during the Balkan wars, but its new operators have plans to reopen it in its former glory sometime in the next few years.
Becici, at least in the off-season, is still mostly a local hangout. English menus are fewer, and a little Serbo-Croatian goes a long way in negotiating dinner.
More to explore beyond the city
Budva is also a good base from which to set out on day trips down Montenegro's coast and into its mountainous interior. The two-lane "Adriatic Highway" running south to the Albanian border isn't the best road, especially when you're stuck behind slow-going trucks, but the scenery is a good diversion. Wrapped alongside a steep slope rising straight up from a rocky coastline, the road is akin to the more dramatic parts of California's Route 1, but dotted with Orthodox monasteries and roadside markets.
Like elsewhere along the Adriatic coast, nearly every stari grad (old city) is a former port. One exception is Bar, the oldest portion of which sits a few miles inland and uphill from its bustling modern seaside. Destroyed in the same earthquake that uncovered ruins in Budva, old Bar is now uninhabited and overgrown; locals have installed historical exhibits in some of the still-standing buildings and charge a euro to enter, with proceeds going to renovation.
Another good day trip is Lake Skadar. Ringed by thousands of acres of marsh grass and populated by flocks of black ibises, the lake seems a thousand miles from the sandy beach, instead of just 7. The southern reaches of the lake are in Albania, but about two-thirds of the northern shoreline are Montenegrin and constitute a national park.
Just north of Budva lies the Boka Kotorska, a T-shaped fjord between the Riviera and the Croatian border. Half a dozen somnolent towns occupy the thin strips of flat land between the calm water and the mountains that cup it, including the bay's namesake, Kotor.
I stayed overnight in Kotor, dining on branzino at Restaurant Gallery, just outside the city walls, and sleeping at Hotel Marija, one of the few options in town (and fortunately a good one). Though it has relatively few tourists, Kotor comes alive at night: a string of stone plazas overflow with enormous cafes that stay packed until early morning.
Farther up the fjord is Perast, another old port legendary for its seamen. They fought under the Venetians at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, and later Peter the Great of Russia sent noblemen to the town to study at its maritime academy.
Little remains of Perast's nautical fame, though along its pier dock a few boats that, for 3 euros, will take you out to a pair of islands in the middle of the fjord.
From Perast it is about two hours to the Dubrovnik airport. As I drove there to catch my flight home, I decided Montenegro was best compared with a stage just before a play. The set is ready, the cast waits nervously in the wings. All that's missing is the audience.
IF YOU GO
Getting there: What you'll save in hotel fares and food you may spend on the flight. Austrian Airlines runs regular flights from Vienna for about $500, but tickets from Tampa to Vienna are about $1,500 this summer.
Where to stay: Montenegro still has a way to go before joining the European Union, but it has adopted the euro as its currency.
The Queen of Montenegro (www.queenofmontenegro .com) is in Becici, outside Budva. Double rooms start between 55 euros (about $76 at $1.39 to the euro) and 110 euros a person, breakfast included, depending on the season.
Hotel Splendid (www.montenegrostars.com) is also in Becici. One of a trio of resort hotels in the area, it has double rooms starting at 97 euros to 137 euros a person, breakfast included, depending on the season.