Uncovering the mystique of Sveti Stefan—Montenegro’s exclusive island and Europe’s newest playground.

If you ask even the most avid world traveler where Montenegro is located, my guess is that, at best, you would get a generalized response (something along the lines of “Of course! Europe, the coast!”). But actually pinpointing this small country (formally part of Yugoslavia and, more recently, Serbia), nestled between the crystal clear Adriatic Sea, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia and Albania, would be a stretch. Living vicariously through Hollywood, most of us were exposed to the picturesque country made famous in the opening scenes of James Bond’s “Casino Royale,” only later to discover that the movie’s director had never actually visited Montenegro, and the film’s version of the mountainous country was much more indicative of Monaco than Montenegro— two vastly different countries.

The majority of travelers lucky enough to visit Montenegro have done so either as a daytrip from Dubrovnik or as a brief stopover on a cruise down the coast from Venice to the Greek Isles. While even a half-day tour in Montenegro is still magnificent, it is not nearly enough time to uncover the mystique of this mountainous destination that is similar in size to the state of Connecticut. The main reason for Montenegro’s lack of visitors, despite its reputation of being a “less-crowded Croatia” is that, in addition to missing the crowds, Montenegro was also lacking something vital to tourism: hotels.

The first international hotel brand to enter Montenegro was Aman Resorts, with their 2013 completion of Sveti Stefan. Located in the center of Montenegro’s Adriatic coastline, the resort incorporates 1.2 miles of pristine coastline and two spectacular accommodation options: the six-suite Villa Milocer and 50 rooms, cottages and suites on the private island of Sveti Stefan. Villa Milocer, once the summer home of Queen Marija Karadordevic of Yugoslavia, is a historic Mediterranean seaside estate set on 79 acres of immaculately manicured grounds (including 800 olive trees), surrounded by ancient cedar and pine forests, fronting the pink, sandy horseshoe-shaped Milocer Beach. Across the bay from Villa Milocer, and connected to the coast by a narrow isthmus, lies the island of Sveti Stefan, the country’s crown jewel and most iconic destination. In 2006, after Montenegro gained its independence from Serbia, Aman Resorts began the process to transform the entire island into a one-of-a-kind luxury resort village.

“After the war, the government put out a bid for an international hotel group to come in and revive this property, and that’s when Aman Resorts won the tender and started what turned out to be a seven-year renovation,” says Kevin Brooke, general manager of Aman Sveti Stefan. “It was a long, expensive, painstaking process, as this was literally a 15th-century fishing village that had to be completely revived and renovated, but because of the monuments on the island and the historic significance of the property, the government was very specific about what could be changed,” Brooke adds.

Aman Sveti Stefan - DeluxeCottage

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Nestled behind Queen Beach, Aman Spa's six private cottages, scattered across the island, are the optimal escape.

After nearly a decade of remodeling, Sveti Stefan was transformed into a private village for the exclusive use of Aman guests, and the results are astonishing. Because they did not construct, but rather, repurposed every building in the old village, each resort suite throughout the island is unique. And unlike most five-star hotel rooms, large picture windows and balconies are few and far between, but the experience of living in a restored 15th-century fortress more than makes up for it.

The architect’s attention to detail in the preservation of the property transports you back in time. The walls inside each room are still the original exposed raw chiseled white brick, with the furniture, doors, latches and windows all custom designed to match the original features. Building on the property’s rich history, the resort incorporates clever touches that contribute to the unique experience. For example, there are no hallways on the island, but rather, individual streets, aptly named Olive, Cedar and Church Lane. In addition to a private tour, a hand-drawn map is provided upon check-in to help acquaint with your new island home.

Ideally, the first day of your stay could be devoted to just wandering around the island and its adjacent coastal property to see first-hand all that Sveti Stefan has to offer, including two cliff-side swimming pools, four restored 15th century churches and three picturesque beaches—all exclusively for the use of Aman guests. The real essence of the resort property can be experienced on a 15-minute walk from the island of Sveti Stefan through the natural forest, past Villa Milocer to Queen’s Beach and the new Aman Spa. The cool air coming down from the famous Black Mountains, views back towards the island of Sveti Stefan, and the overall sense of peace is calming. Resort guests are whisked through every secured gate, past velvet ropes and onto the finest of beaches and viewpoints, making it difficult not to slip into a daydream about being a guest of the Queen at her seaside estate.

In five-star fashion, the amenities at Aman Sveti Stefan are plentiful. At any given time, in any of the resort’s eight dining options, there is a table and friendly staff waiting to accommodate your every need. The Piazza, on Sveti Stefan, is the “town’s” open-air square featuring several dining options, including Enoteca, Taverna and Antipasta Bar. In addition, Aman is the resort’s signature restaurant featuring regional cuisine. Over at Villa Milocer, there are three additional dining options open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Even in the high season summer months, don’t be surprised to find that you have the restaurant all to yourself as you enjoy a late afternoon glass of rosé and watch the sun dip down into the Adriatic. At Sveti Stefan, it’s easy to forget the hordes of travelers clogging up other coastal hotspots across Europe.

“I suggest guests really experience as much as possible. Right now our average length of stay is three nights, but I would say you really need five to seven to get to know the country,” Brooke says. “There is incredible history and culture throughout Montenegro where you can come across ancient villages and monasteries that really have not changed much in centuries. So really take the time to experience the hotel, the island, the villa and all we have to offer, and then take some time to experience Montenegro as a whole.”

If you can pry yourself away from the resort, the Bay of Kotor is not to be missed.

A short drive from Sveti Stefan, the Bay of Kotor, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the southernmost fjord in Europe. The bay has been inhabited since antiquity and is rumored to have been used by Peter the Great to train his navy. Still today, it supports several well-restored medieval towns. Its waters glisten in the vibrant blue hues it shares with the connecting Adriatic Sea, and the raw, chiseled mountains that embrace the bay are equally impressive, towering toward the sky, reminiscent of the Swiss Alps.

To complete your visit to Montenegro, and earn another glass of rosé, pack your hiking shoes and extra water to venture up the steep trail behind the town of Kotor for a spectacular bird’s-eye view of the famous fjord. An intense, 20-minute hike up 1,350 stairs to an elevation of nearly 4,000 feet will leave you with one of the world’s most spectacular views and the perfect ending to your fairytale vacation discovering Montenegro.

Aman Sveti Stefan, located on Sveti Stefan, Montenegro, amanresorts.com/amansvetistefan

Photos courtesy of Aman Resorts, unless otherwise noted