Once the haunt of movie stars and royalty, the tiny island of Sveti Stefan off Montenegro’s coast has just reopened its doors to well-heeled guests. Helena Frith Powell explores
In Norman Lewis’s Voices of the Old Sea, he recounts how a small Catalan fishing village in the 1950s became corrupted by tourism within a few short years.
Many of its customs were superstitious, bordering on medieval. Nothing leather was allowed on board the fishing boats, for example, and certainly no women. But soon the fishermen were ferrying visitors from the north and day trippers from Barcelona around the calanques. The prices of property soared; the fishermen became restaurateurs, waiters and tour guides, their old way of life gone forever.
At about the same time in a corner of Yugoslavia something similar was happening, although the change was abrupt, not gradual. The communist government of Tito decided to turn Sveti Stefan, a tiny rocky island on the Adriatic that had been home to mystics and fishermen for generations, into a hotel.
They relocated the few remaining locals off the island, and created a resort that attracted celebrities and sybarites, from Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor to Sophia Loren and Britain’s Princess Margaret and even the Soviet Union’s first Rocket Man, Yuri Gagarin. It became the symbol of Yugoslavia’s tourist industry.
But a bloody civil war intervened. The Yugoslav War in the 1990s killed off the tourist trade and, briefly, Sveti Stefan was occupied by just one guest, a man who had invented a pyramid scheme and made a killing. Then even he fled, and the place was left to the wind and the waves once more.
In 2005, an independent Montenegro decided to revive its tourism business and now welcomes a little more than 1.1m visitors per year. As part of a push to lure a wealthier kind of tourist, Aman signed a 30-year lease to take over the island and a five-year project of restoration ensued under the watchful eye of the Montenegrin authorities, who insisted that the original look- that of a small fishing village – be retained. And, just over a month ago, the Aman Sveti Stefan opened.
We drove over the hills and descended through the town of Sveti Stefan, which shares the name of the famous island resort. It had been raining and in the afternoon gloaming the granite walls looked dark and forbidding, rather like a sanatorium or a prison. “Welcome to Devil’s Island,” my husband said. “Nobody gets off alive, except perhaps Papillon.”
We crossed the 200-metre stone causeway that links the island to the mainland and were greeted by countless Novak Djokovic lookalikes who showed us up a windy lane to our cottage. Everything was white, wood and stone. During the restoration, Aman utterly transformed the interiors, in many cases knocking two cottages into one to create the kinds of space five-star clients require, installing wooden floors and exposing the original stonework, but the exterior shapes and structures have been left as they were. Every detail from the roofs to the wooden shutters are faithful to the original. Inside, everything was white, wood and stone. Aman hotels are a combination of minimalism and high-tech, a lack of fuss and pretension. No decorations, not even a seashell, and no colours except greige – a mixture of grey and beige. At first this can seem unnecessarily monastic, but after a day or so it grows on you.
We had dinner overlooking the sea, drank the local grape juice and ate antipasti followed by seabass and tired from our journey decided to turn in early. Diana, the charming waitress, insisted on carrying my chamomile tea to the room, which was lucky because by then I had forgotten which windy lane it was located on.
Next morning I was up early and off to yoga on the terrace under the pine trees overlooking the Adriatic Sea. There is something extremely zen about doing yoga outside, even if your hamstrings are horribly tight after hours in an aeroplane. The place looked a lot brighter in the sun, even the greige looked lively, the red tile roofs shone and the “village”, as they call it, looked idyllic from our table at the Olive Tree Restaurant, another property owned by Aman a short walk over the causeway.
Apparently, there are 887 olive trees on the property, and we sat under one eating a delicious Montenegrin breakfast that could have been sponsored by a coronary heart disease drug manufacturer. If you go for this option (and it really is not for the faint-hearted), save some room for the priganitza, which are the third and final course – round doughnut-type pastries that you dip in local honey and jam. I hate doughnuts but these are truly superior.
As well as the island, the Aman consists of a 32-hectare estate running along the coast, including the Villa Milocer, once the summer residence of queens and communist dictators, as well as the Queen’s Table, a restaurant perched high in the hills. There are five restaurants in total, all serving great quality food, and the service is outstanding in them all.
There are many excursions on offer, such as to the stunning Skadar Lake and the Bay of Kotor, a Unesco World Heritage Site. There is even a nightclub nestled in the hills above Budva that houses 4,500 punters and is apparently the largest single consumer of Moët & Chandon in the world. But, personally, I didn’t feel the need to go anywhere. Time passes incredibly quickly at the Aman Sveti Stefan. By the time you’ve done the yoga, had breakfast, been for a swim at one of the three beaches on offer, it’s time to decide where to go for lunch. That could take a while and then you have to decide where to have your obligatory afternoon sleep: the cliff pool, or the Villa Milocer beach, or maybe just in the greige tranquility of your room? Wherever you are, one of the 350 staff is on hand to make sure you have everything you need and, just in case you get lost somewhere, trying to find your way from the beach to the restaurant, you are issued with a personal mobile phone upon arrival with a speed-dial to reception.
In April, the resort will re-open with a spa, helipad (very useful) and new restaurant. The plan is to close at the end of this season for all the work to take place – Aman Resorts has a policy that no building work takes place while its guests are in situ. And if you have the cash, go for the Sveti Stefan Suite with its private swimming pool, a favourite hang-out of Jeremy Irons among others.
Once you visit Sveti Stefan it’s hard to leave, and those who do spend their time thinking about how to return. Vule Peric has been working there since 1970, waiting on celebrities from Tito to Kirk Douglas, Claudia Cardinale, Klaus Kinski and countless European political leaders. Back in those days there was a nightclub and a casino and a room next door that could only be let to Italians because they preferred to dance than to sleep.
“Tito was a real man,” says Mr Peric as he serves us breakfast in The Piazza restaurant, situated in the island’s square. “He loved the view here and the people, and always travelled with his three poodles and his wife, he slept in what is now the library of the Villa Milocer and his wife next door. The poodles were upstairs.”
The place is quieter now; the nightclub is being turned into a restaurant and a spa. As we were preparing to leave, the Rothschilds were arriving. Money doesn’t talk these days, it whispers.