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February 03, 2012, Montenegro

A fairy-tale destination

DAVEN WU is inspired by the Aman Sveti Stefan’s sensational setting in Montenegro as well as the resort’s rich history

Daven Wu

AMANRESORTS founder Adrian Zecha may have sold off his controlling interest in the luxury resort group he founded back in 1988, but he's continued to oversee, with great canny, new developments in Asia. In recent years, he's been casting his net further afield, but even by his standards, Aman Sveti Stefan's location in Montenegro with its sweeping views of the Adriatic Sea is inspired.

A tiny 15th-century fortified fishing village that sits on a tiny island – itself connected to the mainland by a narrow man-made causeway – Sveti Stefan was converted in the early 1960s by the then Yugoslav government into a casino resort. Each of the stone-bricked houses, vacated by the 12 or so fishing families, was converted into suites, restaurants and gambling rooms. Sophia Loren and Richard Burton headlined a string of celebrity guests that stretched all the way into the 1990s to include Claudia Schiffer and Jeremy Irons.

The closing of the casino coincided with the break up of Yugoslavia into six independent republics. Its most recent incarnation as a luxurious 58-room super-resort – managed by Amanresorts but owned by an anonymous Greek billionaire – has taken the better part of five years and labyrinthine negotiations with the Montenegran government.

Not that any of this is apparent on the surface. Every single one of the cottage villas – terraced into the island's hillocks – has been freshly spruced up with at least double the floor space of a room in the previous hotel. Furnished simply with bare stone, pleasingly rough hessian rugs and exposed timber paneling, the mood is almost monastic in its John Pawson austerity and yet oddly sybaritic.

The landscaping is similarly low-key with fig and olive trees framing two ancient chapels, its silhouette of distinctive russet-hued roofs flashing through the branches. In the high heat of summer, wasps drone lazily around the bushes of rosemary and thyme.

Every morning, yoga is conducted on the timber deck of the terrace pool beneath the rustle of foliage and the distant crash of surf far below the cliff. Beyond the downward dog, one's summer vacation pretty much stretches ahead in a dreamy sequence of languid heat interrupted by a plunge into the pool, a siesta, and lunch and dinner in any one of the resort's four eateries, one on the island itself and the other three scattered within walking distance along the coastline.

But what makes the fairy tale quality of Aman Sveti Stefan especially intriguing is that if rustic upscale cottage accommodation is not quite your thing, then a leisurely 15 minute walk away, set in a bijou bay with its own private beach is Villa Milocer – a grand mansion that was once the former queen's summer residence. Now a part of the Aman, it has just eight suites, all gracefully swathed in slick wood paneling, antico stone, freestanding bath tubs and a distinctly modern vibe serviced by a retinue of good looking staff in stiffly starched uniforms.

Snuggled along a particularly pristine stretch of the Adriatic coastline, Aman Sveti Stefan features three beaches in ascending order of privacy. The two by the island and Villa Milocer are technically open to the public, but a hefty 50 euro entry fee tends to keep most casual sun-seekers at bay. The third beach, set in a private cove decorated by thick fragrant stands of cedar and pine, is especially spectacular for its warm emerald waters of astounding clarity. On a clear cloudless day, the dappled sunlight dancing on the sea is like the explosion of a million paparazzi flashbulbs.

As Amanresorts go, the Aman Sveti Stefan with its incredible back story and sensational setting was always going to have blockbuster written all over it. But neither Zecha nor any one of the 400-plus staff has taken anything for granted – whether in the quality of the rooms, or the almost OCD anticipatory nature of the service.

Late last year, the resort, which had only just opened for the summer season, closed till this April for the final stages of its renovations of new rooms, two new pools, terrace, restaurant and spa. All the more reason to start blocking space in the diary for a visit.

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