Having just voted to part from Serbia, Montenegro looks forward to being the hottest new travel destination. ROBIN MCKELVIE checks out the sights of the small Balkan state.

When Montenegro voted to become independent at the end of May, more than a few well-travelled souls had to swallow their pride and admit they didn’t even know where it was. That is all set to change as this tiny country, which enjoys a beach-blessed Adriatic coastline, the Balkans’ largest lake, Unesco World Heritage-listed towns and huge mountain ranges, is on the verge of becoming Europe’s hottest new travel destination.

Montenegro (the name translates to ‘Black Mountain’), was once part of the pan-Slavic nation of Yugoslavia. When the country imploded at the start of the 1990s, with Croatia and Slovenia breaking away, Montenegro opted to stay in the rump of Yugoslavia and even pitched into battle with the Serbs against the Croats. This involvement meant Montenegro faced a decade as an international pariah alongside Serbia, with the economy in tatters and tourism in the doldrums.

All that doom and gloom is set to lift with independence from Serbia, which should also speed up Montenegro’s entry into the European Union as its old partner Serbia is having its accession hampered by its inability – or unwillingness – to hand over wanted war criminals. Most of the population, even some of the large Serbian minority, are glad finally to leave the troubled years behind them as Vesna, a resident of the capital, Podgorica, explains: For years we feel we have been going nowhere and we were unsure about the future, but now things are going to get better quickly especially with more foreigners coming here.”

Vesna may well be right as there are plenty of reasons to visit a country that travel pundits are already dubbing the ‘New Croatia’. While Croatia has few sandy beaches, Montenegro boasts a string of sandy beaches all the way down to the Albanian border, with some of the cleanest waters in the Mediterranean and plenty of space to escape what crowds do emerge in summer.

Montenegro’s mountains stretch all the way from the beaches deep inland to the Serbian border. The Durmitor Mountains, a Unesco World Heritage site, alone offer 27 peaks higher than 1200m. Among the mountains of the Durmitor are five large canyons, 18 lakes and 748 springs spread across 40,000 hectares. The highest peak is Bokotov Kuk at 2522m, a real challenge for mountaineers in a country where facilities are basic to say the least. Also within the perimeters of the Durmitor are over 200km of walking and hiking trails, which open up this wildscape for serious climbers and ramblers alike. Here you get a real sense of being somewhere truly wild, where brown bears, wild boar and wolves roam free and often you are the only human for miles.

Then there is Lake Skadar. This sinewy expanse of fresh water spreads out all around and disappears south over the horizon in search of the Albanian border. Pelicans, black ibises and grey horns are the only sound to break the calm. In total there are said to be over 300 species of birdlife, making it an ornithologist’s paradise. Edging out on small boats visitors can now explore the waters, which only go down to a maximum depth of 7m, and enjoy waterfront restaurants that serve up fresh roast carp.

On the mountain plains that lie north and west of Skadar the winters are harsh and long, but locally produced wines, ham and cheese warm up the darkest of the days. In summer mountain villages like Njegusi offer a slice of the legendary Montenegrin hospitality. In the roadside restaurants there is the ice cold local Niksic beer, salty mountain cheese and prust, the air dried ham that many locals traditionally used to get them through the winter, but which tastes great at any time of the year.

Leaving the mountains behind, the country’s highlight for many visitors is the Bay of Kotor, a stunning Unesco World Heritage listed gorge that snakes 28km inland from the Adriatic. This is the nearest the Mediterranean has to a real fjord and it is an impressive sight with sheer rock walls crowding around the deep blue waters, with the slips of flat land at water level peppered with orange-roofed tiled villages and dotted with church spires. The highlight of the bay is Kotor itself, a stunning medieval oasis that rivals most towns in neighbouring Croatia, with its sturdy old walls, impressive churches and rambling old buildings.

Once Kotor was alive with the exotic sounds and smells of trade as it played a pivotal role in the movement of goods and people from east to west and back, but these days it is a sleepier haven.

Delving into Kotor’s old town the centuries peel back. Once inside the walls there are a sprinkling of pavement cafés, laden with chic tables and chairs that would not look out of place in Italy across the Adriatic. Kotor is perfect for aimless wandering, leafing through the old buildings and the fruit and vegetable market that lies just outside the walls. You can climb the 1350 steps to the Fortress of St Ivan, which hovers over 250m above Kotor. From this bird’s eye perch the old town of Kotor unfolds directly below, while stretching into the distance is the expanse of the Bay of Kotor, massaging its way through the karst mountains and out to its meeting with the Adriatic.

It may be the world’s newest country and one of Europe’s smallest, but what it lacks in size, Montenegro more than makes up for with its collage of vaulting mountains, unspoilt beaches, rambling old towns and sweeping lakes. It may not be long before mass tourism descends on the ‘New Croatia’, but for now travellers venturing to Montenegro are getting to witness a country emerging from more than a decade of slumber.

Top 5 reasons to visit

1. Unesco World Heritage-listed Bay of Kotor
2. Kotor Old Town
3. Sandy Beaches
4. Black Mountains of Montenegro
5. Lake Skadar

• See www.visit-montenegro.com.