Magic, mystery and intrigue of the Montenegro Riveria
The Montenegro riviera has everything that its Adriatic rivals can offer but has so far managed to retain the mystery and intrigue that is part and parcel of this region's complex and tragic past.
When children are small any glossy brochure with alluring images of swimming pools is enough to woo them. But when they're old enough to vote they generally have fairly firm opinions of their own on what constitutes a cool break. Like, totally.
We wanted our youngest - who turned 18 this summer - to come away with us one more time. A sort of nostalgic swansong for the family holiday. We reckoned that the empty-nester breaks would be upon us soon enough and, while we looked forward to the liberation that would bring, we were also finding it hard to let go.
Jean, for her part, seemed shrewdly aware that there might not be too many gratis holidays left in the goody bag of life and was, in her own way, eager to compromise.
We were thinking more Germany or Austria. We scrolled through websites with endless images of pristine, placid lakes and leafed through brochures with inviting pictures of majestic snow dusted alps. Jean wasn't having any of that. Like, hello.
The compromise when it came was inspired: Montenegro.
None of us had ever been, it was different and, crucially, it seemed to have swimming pools. Lots of them.
It interested me, in so far as the Balkans always have, largely because of the region's complex and tragic history. It also, of course, boasts its own beautiful stretch of the Adriatic and, having holidayed in Croatia once before, we knew that this reputation was more than the mere invention of tourism spin-doctors.
We flew into Dubrovnik, in southern Croatia, only because Montenegro, though making very visible economic strides, is still a country with a sizable infrastructural deficit. While it has 'international' airports in the capital Podgorica and Tivat, western visitors tend to be shooed through its northern neighbour.
The trip south over the border to our resort town of Budva took over two hours, though we were led to believe it would be less. But as the roads are generally a throwback to what Ireland's were like a generation ago - that is, twisty one-laners clogged with lorries and ambling holidaymakers - the journey time is in the lap of the gods.
We stayed at Hotel Avala, which calls itself a four star plus. I'm not sure what the plus actually stands for but it would be hard to begrudge it. The hotel fronts onto the walls of the old town, Stari Grad, an erstwhile fortress that has had a turbulent history and has either seen off, or absorbed, enemies since the Venetians arrived in the 15th century.
Hotel Avala survived everything the 20th century could throw at it, including wars and a catastrophic earthquake in 1979. It now boasts over 300 bedrooms and has all that a western tourist could wish for, but with a Slavic emphasis on efficiency that takes a bit of getting used to. They don't do small talk as a rule (their English hovers between the sketchy and merely functional), but they do get things done.
Our balcony watched over the hotel's own beach, the steep stone walls of the Stari Grad and also had a sweeping view south down the coast to the adjoining towns of Becici and Sveti Stefan. When the temperatures rose to the stifling high 30s, which they did near our week's end, the balcony often became a place of quiet respite. It was the circular pool that had attracted Jean to this hotel in the first place and it didn't disappoint either.
A very cheap, efficient and punctual bus service runs from Budva to Sveti Stefan, an 8km trip which takes you high above the gleaming sea. For the most part it's a very picturesque ride and the smart way to explore the dramatic coastline in the cool of the evening.
For people-watchers, the exclusive hotel Villa Milocar - perched haughtily on an islet connected to Sveti Stefan by a short, private isthmus - is a true eye-opener. A former settlement with its roots in medieval times, the hotel now boasts rooms that cost as much as €3,000 a night. One balmy evening we saw the vulgaratti in all their blinging glory being escorted to limos and then whisked off to somewhere, presumably, equally exclusive.
Not that such displays of conspicuous wealth was confined to this monument to post-Cold War opulence. The marinas, which nestle in the shelter of Budva's old walls, were teeming with gigantic, sleek look-at-me yachts which generally stayed no more than a night before purring out of the harbour and on to the next party.
There was nothing discreet about this wealth either, with owners and their guests, Russians for the most part, happy to pop the champagne and dine lavishly in front of the great unwashed who greedily recorded the occasions on their smartphones as they ambled along the quaysides. Privacy is so last century.
By way of contrast, our day trip south across the border into Albania, brought us to a country yet to see the sort of economic benefits that have sloshed unevenly over their former Eastern Bloc neighbours. Catastrophic as the decades after WWII were for Central Europe, it appears this unfortunate country was catapulted back a few centuries during the Stalinist tenure of Enver Hoxha and, to some degree, is still residing there.
We visited the city of Shkoder, which sits on the stunning lake of the same name, and while there are encouraging signs that this country's nightmare might end sometime - some brash new buildings would suggest so anyway - the poverty at every street corner is unsettling to western tourists, who might have thought that the past six years of EU austerity had been a reality check. It wasn't, but this was.
A stunningly beautiful country, it has been given generous gifts by mother nature but, by the same token, sadly short-changed by history.
Montenegro's time has come. Albania's seems someway off.
*Frank travelled with Concorde Travel: www.concordetravel.ie / 01 775 9300.
*Their programme runs from April to October
*A week in Hotel Avala, Budva (including flights ex Dublin, tax and flight supplement), in mid October costs €710pps.
*Aer Lingus offer weekly returns from Dublin and a selection of set departures from other airports.