In an age of instant knowledge, it’s rare to hear of places that are still “undiscovered.” This past summer, however, I had the opportunity to explore a cruising ground that, at least to the Western world, is still undiscovered: Montenegro’s Gulf of Kotor.
For years, Montenegro was considered out of bounds for Western sailors. With a population of 650,000—roughly the size of Baltimore—the country rarely made anyone’s places-to-visit list. Boats were discouraged from entering the Serbian-controlled waters just south of Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast, though rumors held that this inland sea contained some of the most breathtaking cruising in the Mediterranean. In 2006, Montenegro declared its independence and the rugged, beautiful country was finally open to visitors. This was when my husband, Don da Parma, and I set out to uncover the mysteries of the Gulf of Kotor. We set sail on the Wells’ Mystic 55, Surprize with our friends David and Robin Wells and their crew Damir Cepelja.
The Wells keep their boat in Kremik Marina near Split, Croatia, which served as a perfect starting point for our trip. After clearing customs at Cavtat, we sailed south in deep water, with chalky cliffs towering overhead, until suddenly Croatia came to an end. We rounded the headland and the massive brooding mountains ahead told us we were at the Gulf of Kotor.
Below the mountains were forested slopes dotted with medieval churches, many in ruins. Some were victims of a 1979 earthquake that damaged or felled one quarter of all of the buildings in the area. At the base of the slopes, pressed hard to the shore, were little red-roofed hamlets, strung along a narrow coastal road that ran the length of all three bays that encompass this stretch of cerulean water.
The first bay was named for the small city of Herceq-Novi. To the north was Zelenika, the customs stop, where Damir hoisted our red-and-orange Montenegrin courtesy flag. We traveled under power; the air was still and none of the half dozen sailboats in sight was under sail. Robin and i tried to identify the intoxicating aroma of flower blossoms. Was it camellia? Mimosa?
The second bay is named for the town of Tivat, a former Yugoslavian naval base. Tivat is now a resort where investors are building a luxury marina for superyachts, complete with a Four Seasons Hotel. Tivat will soon be renamed Port Montenegro, and some predict it will become the next Monte Carlo. From Surprize we could see massive construction cranes and a bevy of superyachts nesting in the marina—a sign of things to come.
A narrow channel led into the third and final bay, the Bay of Kotor, where 3,000-foot grey mountains soared into the sky, creating a vast wall not unlike the glacial fjords of northern Europe. Ancient towns dot the shore like charms on a necklace, each with its own rich history. Perast in particular, with its elegant Venetian architecture, was worth a slow sail-by. This bay is so rich in culture that UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site in 1979.
Tucked into the tip of the bay we discovered the most precious jewel of all, the Old Town of Kotor. From afar we spotted its ramparts (built by Byzantine emperor Justinian in the sixth century), which soar almost vertically up Lovcen Mountain behind the town. Originally named Cattaro, the town served as an Austro-Hungarian naval base during WWI. After the war, it was taken over by the Kingdom of Serbs, then Croats and then Slovenians and renamed Kotor.
The quay in the Kotor town marina runs parallel to the massive walls of the Old Town. We tied up close to the main gate and strolled into the maze of alleys and odd-shaped piazzas, all lined with ancient palaces, churches and an abundance of restaurants and bars. Local vendors told us that in July and August, when the marina is full of cruise ships and super-yachts, the Old Town becomes very busy.
But on this Sunday evening in June, with the air filled with the smell of magnolia, the place was quiet and romantic. It seemed there could not be a more spectacular place to tie up one’s sailboat for the night.
Nosing Surprize out of the Gulf of Kotor and into the Adriatic, we gazed back at the looming mountains and enchanted towns and concurred: the rumors of breathtaking cruising in Montenegro’s inland sea are, in fact, reality. We felt lucky to discover it.