This national park’s lake is enormous and also almost always mirror like in its calmness, with 400km² of water, birdlife, carpets of lily pads and a backdrop of the Prokletije or ‘Cursed Mountains’ reflected in it. All making it a paddler’s and photographer’s paradise. Not forgetting wild swimmers, for whom this is a whole new wild world.
Skadar Lake, the Bojana Delta and Ulcinj saltpans are all Important Bird Areas, boasting beauties like the greater flamingo, Kentish plover, rare Dalmatian Pelican and the Pygmy Cormorant. There is, in fact, a total of 280 different species homing in on these special habitats. Just take your binoculars when you are out and about, or go on a specialist holiday with local expert ornithologists.
Accessible from Kotor Bay you can access the lower hills on mule trails created during Austro-Hungarian times, starting at the old fortress in Kotor. Keep room in your backpack for cheese and ham. You will find plenty of mountain huts selling it en route. This is a long trek, about ten hours to the top and back, so you need to be fit. But the views are worth it.
Lake Skadar area is Montengro’s wine country, with over 30 small wineries to tour around. And given that the local culture is never to leave a guest’s glass empty, you will do well out of a wine tour. Vranac and Kratosije grapes are the indigenous and irresistibly good ones, with producers all in stunning locations around the lake and mountains. So there is plenty to raise a toast to.
Montenegro’s coastline is something else, especially for cycling, with routes taking you along some of the most stunning coves and cliff top views that the Mediterranean has to offer. Including the UNESCO World Heritage Site Bay of Kotor. It’s not all coastal cycling here though, with opportunities to bike around the shoreline of Lake Skadar, the biggest in the Balkans, or up into the Budva Mountains for some challenging climbs.
Montenegro has five national parks: Lovcen, Durmitor, Biogradska gora, Lake Skadar and Prokletije. Durmitor is probably the most visited, with the Tara River canyon cutting through it, along with brave white water rafters. On dry land, this is also a favourite with horse riders. All the parks have hiking and biking trails though and, as Montenegro is so small, it is easy to dip in and out of all them. Especially Skadar, with its mammoth lake. You can’t miss dipping in that.
By travelling through several of the Balkan countries, you get a wonderful overview of this most stunning mountainous landscape, but also its culture and history. In two weeks you can easily dip in and out of four countries: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro, without feeling rushed. Choosing an expert tour operator who can give you a short cut to the cultural and natural highlights helps though.
This small country is brimming with all sorts of cultural curiosities. A great starting point is “Old Montenegro”, comprising the former capital Cetinje and its ancient surroundings which put the whole Ottoman heritage into context. Orthodox Christianity is also very important, and you could spend two weeks just looking at churches if you wanted. From sampling its cuisine, with its plethora of produce and artisan producers on every mountain turn.
Especially during peak season when Budva’s beaches are overcrowded, bars play loud Europop, there are horrific traffic jams, it has a history of corruption and, although the old town is pretty, the rest has become a case study on how not to develop a traditional coastal town. And now Petrovac is joining the race to win the award for best concrete monstrosity.
Gambling in Montenegro was put on the map by the James Bond film, Casino Royale, which features in the story. None of the filming was done here, however, so local casinos might cash in on chips, but they can’t do so on location. And gambling your money into corporate coffers rather than community is not high on our list of responsible tourism things to do.
Following in the footsteps of its neighbouring Dubrovnik and Venice, Kotor Bay is becoming cruise central. These floating hotels are starting to create a lot of anchor angst with thousands of people landing in on this ancient, tiny town for a few hours at a time. They contribute little to the local economy and the pollution levels in a biodiverse beauty spot are not well documented.
Montenegro’s fantastic coastline sadly has its share of fly-and-flop resorts low on ethical cred and high on ugliness and environmental impact. All inclusive resorts get particular black marks – research suggests less than 10 percent of daily tourist spend goes to local permanent shops outside the holiday bunker. You’ll enjoy Montenegro more if you get out and connect with local life. And it is so small, you have no excuse for not just getting on your bike and finding it.