The One&Only is the perfect place from which to discover the ‘world’s smallest big country’, says Lauren Ho
Review: Balkan bliss at One&Only Portonovi, Montenegro
Montenegrins like to say they live in the world’s ‘smallest big country’. At just under 14,000 kilometres squared in area, Montenegro might only be around five per cent the size of the UK, but it’s said that if you flattened its mountainous terrain, it would be equivalent in expanse to Russia.
A Balkan country set on the Adriatic Sea with Albania, Kosovo, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Croatia as its neighbours, this magnificent rolling landscape is most impressive along its coastline which, at not even 300km in length, packs a mighty punch with soaring mountains that loom majestically over crystal-clear waters.
At one end, on the border of Croatia’s southernmost tip, a chunk of the shoreline has been scooped out to reveal the winding Bay of Kotor, otherwise known locally as Boka Bay. Here, I find myself one chilly autumn morning, the crisp air chilled by a light breeze. The early sunlight shimmers on the rippled surface of the cobalt-blue water, which seductively meanders away from me, stretching out to placid shores on both sides, that immediately rise, broadening into vertical mountain slopes, forming an almost fjord-like appearance.
It’s my first morning of a three-day visit to One&Only Portonovi, a recently-opened 113-room retreat – the brand’s first European outpost – that sits at the heart of Portonovi, a glamorous new residential development, which is filled with a collection of buzzing restaurants and shops. After many failed pandemic-related attempts to visit the property, I had finally arrived the previous afternoon; too late now for the summer hustle but, on the flip side, at the perfect time to experience a mellower side to the destination, which includes making the most of the resort’s wellness offering at Chenot Espace, its sprawling 4,000 sq/m spa.
At this time of the year, the light is different in Boka Bay; the blinding sun of the summer months has softened to a ripened glow that bounces off the muscular contours of the surrounding limestone mountains and the clusters of medieval villages, with their red-tiled roofs that tumble downslope to the water’s edge. Having just returned from One&Only Reethi Rah, the group’s iconic property in the Maldives, I have a newfound appreciation for the brand, which is best-known for its inspiring locations – from the lush jungles of Rwanda to Australia’s rugged Wolgan Valley – outstanding service, progressive food and beverage offerings, and truly tailored experiences. Expectations for One&Only Portonovi then, were high.
To start with, like the others, the resort is lovely to look at. The design – a collaboration between Jean-Michel Gathy of Denniston Architects, who was behind the initial concept, and Hirsch Bedner Associates (HBA) who brought the spaces to life – is decisively sophisticated and refined. From the outside, its monastic architecture, with its red roof, arched windows and geometrical columns, slots right into the landscape, while the interiors subtly capture a sense of place.
The lobby, for example, is an ode to the mimosa, Montenegro’s national flower, its marble walls swathed in sheer embroidered drapery with a mimosa-inspired flora motif. Fireplaces, always a part of a traditional Montenegrin home, also abound throughout the hotel, most notably in the guestrooms, where they take centre stage, surrounded by a balcony, the sleeping area, and a spacious bathroom that has a bath that transforms into a daybed, making it the perfect spot to soak up the mountain views.
There is an excellent collection of restaurants, including Sabia, an offering from Michelin star chef, Georgio Locatelli, as well as Tapasake, the group’s Japanese restaurant brand that, here, is part of a chilled beachside club. And then there’s the spa. A global partnership with health and wellness brand Chenot, the offering at One&Only Portonovi takes things to the next level, while establishing the resort as a year-round destination. There is a sensational indoor pool, a sprawling gym, 28 treatment rooms and a menu of pioneering treatments that covers everything from medical needs to human performance, aesthetics and fitness.
This all comes together to form the perfect base from which to explore the breathtaking and richly diverse Boka Bay. Stitched together by a series of scenic, winding roads, the region is easily navigable by car. So, one bright morning we set off in a vintage Jaguar, zigzagging along the coast – past clusters of homes wedged between the sparkling sea and the mountains – to the Old Town of Herceg Novi, where we ambled through narrow, cobbled medieval streets, past catholic and orthodox christian churches and up sturdy forts, with views of the shimmering bay. Later that afternoon, we hopped back in the car and headed towards the small town of Igalo, famous for its medical health spa. Here, we stepped back to 1976 at Villa Galeb, one of the 33 residences former Yugoslav leader, Tito, had scattered throughout Yugoslavia. Perched on a hill, surrounded by pine trees, and with panoramic views of Boka Bay, the perfectly preserved villa gives a fascinating insight into the lifestyle of one of the most influential world figures.
In between, time spent at the hotel was either at the spa, enjoying indulgent treatments, or on my balcony soaking up the last warm autumn rays. In the evenings, hotel guests tended to gather at Caminetti, for a preprandial cocktail. Meaning ‘little fireplaces’ in Italian, the intimate space is lined with a wall of warming fireplaces that separates the outdoor balcony from the indoors. Here, under the glow of the flickering flames, are a collection of comfortable leather armchairs and sofas, from which to settle in and enjoy one of the bar’s signature barrel-aged negronis alongside light bites like the truffle burger. Elsewhere, supper can be as formal or informal as you like, from Japanese-Peruvian fair against chilled out DJ beats at Tapasake, to a wine-pairing meal at La Veranda, the hotel’s all-day dining restaurant, which serves a modern European menu with Montenegrin influences, using locally sourced ingredients.
My last day was when Boka Bay really revealed its extraordinary beauty. In the early morning, I boarded the hotel’s boat and sped north east along mist-cloaked waters through the narrow straits, towards Perast, a picturesque medieval town – punctuated by the spire of St Nicholas’ Church – that cascades downhill to the water’s edge. Against a magnificent mountain backdrop, I strolled along the one main road, through small cobbled streets, past an incredible number of churches and the evocative ruins of grand palazzos that recall the bygone opulence of its Venetian heritage.
After a brief stop at Our Lady of the Rocks, a legendary church perched on a tiny 500-year-old man-made island floating just off the coast of Perast, we hopped back on board and sped further east past vertical cliffs towards Kotor. Tucked between hulking mountains in a hushed corner of the bay, this medieval town with its fort walls that snake up the mountainside, churches, and grand Venetian palaces is an atmospheric joy. And as I sip a cup of coffee in one of the town’s many lively squares, the sunshine warm on my shoulders, I think about my short time in this small part of Montenegro and know that I want to return.
Book it: Doubles from £1,278 B&B. oneandonlyresorts.com/portonovi