Montenegro isn’t the first place you might think of when planning a family holiday. It’s well off the beaten track and many people don’t even know where it is on the map.
Yet, all this is about to change. Both Vogue and Lonely Planet have highlighted this Balkan country, with its spectacular landscapes, as a top new European place to visit.
Now the travel operator TUI has named Montenegro as a key destination for 2018 and will launch its first direct, summer flights from the UK to the capital Podgorica from May 3.
Montenegro offers value, views and adventure
Montenegro is about five times smaller than Ireland. Once part of communist Yugoslavia, it only became an independent state in 2006. But this tiny, young nation more than deserves its sudden recognition.
Like its neighbour Croatia, already a star of the travel world, it boasts entrancing mountainous scenery, a complex history and medieval towns to explore - but the newcomer is seen as being more affordable, offering great value on both food and accommodation.
For our family though, one of Montenegro’s strongest draws is the sense of adventure it offers. No one we know has ever been there.
After years of playing it safe as parents, sticking to Britain, France and Spain because they aren’t too far away, this feels liberating to me and my husband, Mark. Our children, Max, 13, and Eve, 5, are equally enthused.
And all that separates us from our unusual destination is a short flight, lasting less than three hours.
Becici is perfect for family fun
We’re staying in Becici, a family-friendly spot on the Adriatic coast. As we transfer there by taxi, Montenegro already has us enthralled. The sight of towering peaks plunging fiercely down into the bright blue sea is almost impossibly beautiful.
Max (who, like most teens, doesn’t normally rave about scenery) grabs his phone and begins taking reams of pictures. “I want to climb all these mountains,” he decides.
Tempting - but as we are visiting in August, the hottest and driest month when temperatures soar into the high 30Cs daily, that isn’t the most practical holiday plan.
Instead, we quickly settle into a morning routine of clamouring down the 97 stone steps that lead directly from our hotel, The Queen Of Montenegro, to the 2km Blue-Flagged beach that stretches the length of the town.
Becici is pretty touristy for Montenegro. There are paddleboards and kayaks to hire, stalls selling inflatable flamingos on the promenade, booths offering pizza for E1.50 and hamburgers for E2. (All excellent things in Max and Eve’s judgement.)
But the pebbly-sandy beach (the pebbles get larger the closer you get to the waves, so flip-flops are a must) boasts the clearest, sparkling waters that are always blissfully warm in summer, even at 7am.
Lying on our sunloungers, we gaze at the headlands and islands artistically scattered nearby - there’s a reason this beach won a Golden Palm award back in 1935 for being the most beautiful in Europe. The urge to explore further afield becomes irresistible.
Przno is the perfect spot for a sunset swim
We wait at the unmarked spot on Becici’s main road, under a billboard, where locals assure us the bus to the nearest village, Przno, will stop. The fare for the 4.5km journey is just E1 each for the adults and Max, while Eve goes free.
Przno’s tiny bay offers the stunning backdrop of a small craggy islet, complete with a ruined watchtower that may once - long ago - have protected the locals from pirates.
This becomes our go-to place for sunset swims, alongside other families, drawn in by the enclosed red sands and welcoming surrounding cafes.
The Konoba More restaurant, in a 500-year-old house, is one step from the beach and offers fabulous seafood rizoto (like the Italian version, but spelled differently) for E11. There’s nothing vegetarian on the actual menu, but the kitchen happily rustles up a child-friendly portion of tomato pasta for Eve that costs E6 and is enormous enough to fill us all.
Travel guides say Montenegrins love children and eagerly serve them huge helpings, which turns out to be wonderfully true.
Sveti Stefan is stunningly beautiful
Another day, we discover a path through the woods from Przno, clinging to the shore but shaded with olive and pine trees.
It transports us to another world of the rich. Past the grand wisteria-draped Villa Milocer, once the summer residence of the Serbian royal family (back in the 1930s when Montenegro was part of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes), and around the corner to a view that stops us in our tracks.
Sveti Stefan is Montenegro’s most famous sight. Connected to the mainland by a narrow causeway, this scenic, fortified island holds a huddle of 15th century stone buildings.
We can’t pass the guarded entrance - Sveti Stefan is now part of the luxury Aman resort. Staying here costs around E800 a night, and even visiting the private beach is E100, we discover.
But frankly, it doesn’t matter. We snap countless photographs, have a heated debate about how much one stone from the beach would be worth, let Eve try out the free children’s playground and then suck bargain ice-lollies (E3 for four), before catching the bus back to reality.
Budva is bursting with history
Travelling 4km in the other direction from Becici, we reach Budva - at first sight an ordinary touristy town, with modern buildings on its outskirts.
Then we step through the thick walls of the Stari Grad - which means old town - and find ourselves wandering along an irresistible maze of narrow, marbled streets, past cannons and churches clustered round the main square, Trg Izmeda Crkava.
This is an ancient place, founded in the 4th century BC as a Greek trading post. The Venetians, who ruled it for nearly 400 years from 1420, first fortified it against other invaders, by erecting its walls.
And yet all is not entirely as it seems - the stones have not all stood fast throughout that time. For after an earthquake struck Budva in 1979, many of the buildings were doggedly restored to their original form.
By evening, we know this fascinating area will be throbbing with visitors, clustering into the restaurants, bars and boutiques. But when we visit in the mid-afternoon heat, it is almost deserted; thankfully, the winding alleys give shade.
Alone, Max and I wander around the Archaeological Museum (we pay just E2.50 entry for both of us), trying to get a better grip on Montenegro’s history.
An ancient helmet on display, with jagged holes in the back, bears witness to bloodier times when the town lay on the fault line of the fearsome Roman and Byzantine empires.
The Venetian rulers explain the delicious Italian-inspired food we’ve enjoyed.
But we realise there was also terrible suffering, battles for independence by people who refused to give up through centuries of repression, Nazi invasion, Communist rule - and finally, in 2006, a referendum vote for independence.
The upheavals the welcoming locals have lived through even in recent times makes us think, hard.
Budva’s cafes and shops need checking out too
Emerging back into the sunlight, we find Eve and Mark lounging with smoothies in the shade of a pine tree at one of Budva’s trendiest cafe-bars, Casper.
Heading off together around another corner, we yet again find heaven - or at least Eve’s idea of it. The Pirate Candy Shop offers mountains of sweets, and happiness, in giant, wooden barrels.
Montenegro, with its constant surprises that you just stumble upon without any effort, and blend of touristy fun and intriguing history and culture, offers the perfect family holiday.
The biggest surprise is that it’s taken us so long to discover this beautiful Baltic destination.
How to get there
From May 3, 2018, TUI (tui.co.uk) will offer direct flights to Podgorica airport in Montenegro from London Gatwick, Manchester and Birmingham. Accommodation can be booked in resorts including Becici, Budva, Ulcinj and Petrovac.
A seven-night holiday staying at the 4T Avala Resort & Villa in Budva on a half board basis costs from £579 per person. Price is based on two adults sharing and includes flights departing from London Gatwick airport on May 16, 2018 and transfers.