In the heart of the Adriatic, the once-secret island getaway of Sveti Stefan in Montenegro is reborn as a glamorous resort.

By Charles Maclean
March 25, 2011
Credit: Malú Alvarez

Driving south along the precipitous Budva corniche, described by Lord Byron as “the most beautiful meeting of land and sea” anywhere, I glimpse Sveti Stefan far below. A cluster of red-roofed cottages on a rocky isle moored to the mainland by a catwalk of pink sand, the 15th-century pirate stronghold converted into a “hotel-village” in the late 1950’s seems to float on the wide dark-blue Adriatic.

The paradisiacal view hasn’t changed since I first came here as a child in 1962, when Montenegro, a remote mountain kingdom on the historic fault line between East and West, was part of communist Yugoslavia. I remember being woken one night by gunfire, the ruckus apparently caused by exuberant “bim-bams” (ex-freedom-fighters) in the hills. The country is still trying to shed a romanticized reputation for brigandry and clannish political intrigue. But Sveti Stefan, an off-the-radar haunt of movie stars, jet-setters, and world leaders until it fell into disrepair during the wars in the Balkans in the 1990’s, has been reborn. After an extensive multimillion-dollar makeover, the Singapore-based luxury group Amanresorts has relaunched the hotel as Aman Sveti Stefan, which comprises the private island, with freestanding cottages, and the eight-suite Villa Miločer, a former royal palace located on the mainland.

The Miločer has kept the air of a charmed stately retreat. Check-in formalities are swiftly dealt with on a laptop by a cool Montenegrin girl named Jelena, who welcomes me in the simple, unpretentious Aman style that makes guests feel at home—I am easily seduced by the notion that this is not so much a hotel as a way of life. My suite is an open-plan with fluid lines, dark wood, and white marble (a modern take on traditional Dalmatian interiors). The minimalist décor creates an East-meets-West ambience that is anodyne, soothingly luxurious with just a hint of the spiritual. Aman is a Sanskrit word meaning “place of peace.”

Adrian Zecha, the founder of Amanresorts, came to Sveti Stefan in the summer of 2002. After dining under the stars on the restaurant terrace high above the Adriatic—an experience that’s like being on the deck of a great ocean liner—Zecha fell in love with the island and saw its potential as perhaps the last unspoiled Mediterranean destination. He took a gamble in locating Aman’s second European resort in Montenegro, an alluring but impoverished country that at that time was still tied to Serbia.

Realizing his vision for Sveti Stefan hasn’t been easy. Project coordinator Jean-Pierre Baratin recalls the enormous challenges of the site, from the complex logistics, the handicap of working within the limits of protected historic buildings, financial pressures brought on by the global downturn, and prolonged negotiations with the government—all of which delayed the opening.

“Then there was the task of making the local people understand how important it was for the future of their country to bring Sveti Stefan back to its former glory,” Baratin tells me.

Before dinner, I take a dip at the Queen’s Beach, a secluded cove two minutes’ walk from Miločer. I swim out until I can see the whole property, which includes 1 1/4 miles of coastline, hotels, restaurants, and shops, and acres of pine forest rising up the mountain slopes. While reflecting on the scale of the undertaking—a spa above the Queen’s Beach will eventually complete the picture—I notice a couple of locals strolling down to the water’s edge followed by an attendant insisting politely that the beach is for guests only.

For Montenegrins, this is a sensitive issue. Sveti Stefan holds a special place in the nation’s heart, and many resent being excluded from what they see as their patrimony. At the Villa Miločer, a few guests have complained about the lack of privacy—the public may still wander along footpaths through the gardens—but general manager Henry Gray believes a balance between respect for local traditions and the Aman philosophy can be struck: “We don’t compromise in anything we do. It will take time and patience, but we will get it right.”

On the wisteria-covered loggia of the Villa Miločer, dinner is served to the sound of waves gently slapping the beach. I ask for Njeguski prsut, a delicately flavored, air-cured Montenegrin ham that tastes just as delicious as I remember from my first visit. The ham comes with kaymak (a house-made cream cheese) from the same mountain valley and a glass of Vranac, the local red wine. Between courses I chat with headwaiter Vule Peric, one of the few senior staff to be kept on from the old days. Of all his nostalgia-tinged stories about serving Hollywood royalty (Sophia Loren; Orson Welles; Kirk Douglas; Elizabeth Taylor), the best concern former Yugoslav dictator Marshal Tito, who stayed in what is now the ground-floor library. The great man’s dogs slept in an upstairs room, and it was Peric’s job to save them the juiciest bones.

The next morning, Baratin takes me on a tour of the complex. We cross the causeway to inspect the elegantly revamped cottages and suites (the number of rooms has been cut from 124 to 50), including the Sveti Stefan Suite (where Loren once stayed), with its own black swimming pool and spectacular views over the Adriatic. Baratin points out what’s been dubbed the Piazza, where guests can gather for cocktails: the idea is to reinvent the village square. The island’s historic exteriors have been preserved, the church immaculately restored, the once unreliable plumbing modernized—I’m left in no doubt that the “pearl of the Adriatic” has regained its luster.

Aman Sveti Stefan, Sveti Stefan, Montenegro; 800/477-9180 or 382-33/420-000;; doubles from $822.