As firm fixtures on the European travel map, the en-vogue duo of Croatia and Montenegro are packed with beautiful walled cities brimming with culture, history and scenic wonders.
The beauty on the inside of these destinations is awe-inspiring, but it is the Adriatic coastline and thousand-plus islands that usually attract first-time travellers to this unsung slice of Europe. A natural start-point is Dubrovnik, one of the world's most dazzling walled cities.
'Those who search for paradise on earth should come and see Dubrovnik' - George Bernard Shaw
A UNESCO World Heritage site, the ancient ramparts of Dubrovnik cocoon a treasure trove of medieval churches and monasteries, an intricately beautiful cathedral, a labyrinth of cobbled streets and vast squares alive with cafés, bars and restaurants. Take the cable car up Mount Srd for a bird's eye view, walk the two kilometre ancient walls and get lost in the maze of alleyways, stopping off to refuel on delicious coffee and leisurely alfresco meals. A host of accommodation options include the five star Hotel Excelsior Dubrovnik, a Croatian icon since 1913 and member of Adriatic Luxury Hotels. With the Old Town on one side and the glinting Adriatic on the other, its sea-meets-city location is flat-out brilliant. Over the years, it has hosted starlets from Francis Ford Coppola to Sophia Loren. Standout features include Prora beach restaurant, with its delicious seafood and must-try signature steak dish, the private beach, wonderful spa, flawless service and Abakus Piano Bar (no stay in the city is complete without a coffee on its famous terrace).
Newer to Adriatic Luxury Hotels' portfolio is Hotel Bellevue, carved into a cliff above Miramare Bay. Just ten minutes walk from town and with jaw-dropping views, the 91 sleek sea-inspired rooms and suites all feature original Croatian art. A brilliant spa comes complete with an indoor infinity pool and there are two exceptional restaurants. Don't leave without sharing a platter of oysters at the hopelessly romantic Nevera beach restaurant. Peacefully secluded, this calm oasis has a small semi-private pebble beach, perfect for early morning dips when quite often, you'll have it all to yourself.
Another refined and secluded option is the totally charming Villa Orsula, a welcome boutique addition to Dubrovnik. Five minutes from the Old Town and set in a once private residence, it has just 13 rooms and a simple yet contemporary décor, including surrealist artwork by Roberto Matta. Time drifts by with guests whiling away the hours in the pretty terraced gardens, reading amidst wild orange trees and lavender, keeping cool in the arched bar or following the little path to chill out on the beach.
Set on a vine-draped terrace, Victoria is a destination in itself, loved for its creative dishes. From here, head out to sea to a host of gorgeous islands; the Elafiti Islands are doable in a day trip or head to the seductive forest-cloaked Mljet. Alternatively, sail further north to Korčula, home to olive groves, vineyards, sleepy villages, sandy beaches and the glorious Korčula Town. Like a mini Dubrovnik, this coastal citadel is captivatingly beautiful and there is nowhere better to stay than the unique Lesic Dimitri Palace. The LD Restaurant celebrates traditional Croatian food and Dalmatian wine (Grk and Pošip come highly recommended). This super-central 18th Century bolthole is home to five exquisite one to three bedroom residences. Ultra-chic interiors retain many original features and are themed after Marco Polo's travels (he is rumoured to have been born on Korčula).
What's more, guests are in walking distance to several sandy beaches, but be sure to roll up the towel to hike the island's inland trails. Korčula can also be reached from Split, one of Croatia's most overlooked cities. Split is often used as a launch pad to glamourous Hvar, surf-dude Brač and far-flung Vis, but it is so much more than a transit point. Get lost in Diocletian Palace's stone chambers, peoplewatch on Bačvice Beach, join a game of picigin, drink in ancient squares and be swept along in the evening stroll down Riva promenade. The city has it all: sunshine, sand, culture, food and a general joie de vivre.
If you're looking for resort-style accommodation, our recommendation would be Le Méridien Lav. Five miles away on the beach in Podstrana, it comes with a brilliant spa, tennis academy, watersports centre and kids' club.
Travelling up the coast, island after idyllic island unfurls across the Adriatic until you reach the northern peninsula of Istria, home to unmissable Rovinj. Fall in love with its enchanting narrow streets; colourful houses; squares where locals come to drink and play cards; and when the heat of the day rises, hit one of the beautiful beaches. If you stay at Hotel Monte Mulini in Zlatni Rt Forest, be sure to hire their bikes; exploring Istria on two wheels is pure magic. Stop off at rural farmhouses for a traditional meal, go wine tasting or even truffle hunting. And if this sounds too much like hard work, sail away to de-stress on Cres, Rab or Krk.
The Tara River cuts through its northern region forming an incredible canyon that dips to 1,300 metres (just 200 metres short of the Grand Canyon). The best way to experience this incredible natural phenomenon is by rafting. But it is not only Croatia coming of age; Montenegro is seeing a surge in popularity. It might be small, but what there is of it is perfectly formed. Rugged mountains jut out of the sea, medieval villages cling to cliffs, fortified towns glint in the sunlight, beaches hem its coastline, whilst inland, national parks take your breath away. Durmitor National Park is home to 48 peaks that soar to over 2,000 metres. In summer, it is cloaked in sweet smelling pine, alive with butterflies and birds and home to wolves and bears.
Lake Skadar National Park is also a nature lover's eden. Vast and blissfully pretty, travellers can kayak through tranquil water lily meadows on the lookout for rare birds and mammals. Like Croatia, it is impossible to ignore Montenegro's coastline, particularly the fjord-like Bay of Kotor and its fortified town. Kotor is wedged between mountains, its walls hugging a labyrinth of marbled streets lined with shops, bars and restaurants. The energetic can cycle the few kilometres to sleepy Perast in Boka Bay, a town rich in Venetian influence. A little pocket of paradise, hop on a boat to the manmade island, Our Lady of the Rocks, with its tiny church. Also in the Bay of Kotor is the super-yacht haven of Porto Montenegro, dubbed the next St Tropez.
The marina is buzzing morning, noon and night and Regent Porto Montenegro is the address to note down. There are 57 plus rooms and 30 one to three bedroom residences, all with fabulous mountain or sea views. Interiors are elegant, there's a very good spa, the Library Bar provides a cosy spot with an open fire in winter and an array of cognac, whisky and Champagne; anyone with a sweet tooth will love the Gourmet Corner brimming with cakes, pastries and truffles.
Whether or not Porto Montenegro does achieve St Tropez stardom, having received nearly 20 accolades, this 2014 opening is a super-stylish step in the right direction. Possibly the strongest sign that Montenegro has cemented itself on the travel map is the arrival of Aman Resorts. Along with the eight-bedroom Villa Milocer, Aman Sveti Stefan is a destination in itself. Just south of the old town of Budva, this little UNESCO-protected islet took four years to restore. Its higgledy-piggledy stone passageways, rustic chic fisherman cottages, shaded courtyards and pink-sand beaches are an escape in the truest sense of the word.