Montenegro: Hidden Gem of the Balkans

In the summer of 2017 we did about a 3 week road trip through some of the Balkan countries: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro. This was the best trip of the year for us, we absolutely loved it and were totally in our happy places. We had been to Croatia before and were over the moon about it, so we knew we would enjoy that. The biggest surprise for us though was how much we loved Montenegro.

Montenegro is Croatia’s neighbor to the south. It is a tiny country…….We entered Montenegro from Bosnia and Herzegovina. Our first stop was Kotor and before we even arrived, we were pressed up against the car windows oohing and ahhing over the scenery. Montenegro, meaning “Black Mountain,” has large mountains that seem to back right up to the coast. It is a dramatic scene with these beautiful walled coastal towns and towering mountains right behind them.

Kotor

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When we arrived to Kotor we were greeted by the surprise that cars were not allowed inside the city walls. We hadn’t realized that upon initial trip planning so we were a little caught off guard with trying to park, and pull in luggage. However, our friendly apartment host was there to assist and get us squared away. We had a wonderful family apartment in the old town. Our host went above and beyond to make sure we were comfortable and taken care of. You can find the link here

We spent the rest of the afternoon just wandering the town, checking things out, stopping for gelato…you know, the perfect European afternoon! If you are a photographer, you will love Kotor’s white stone buildings and green shutters. There is something beautiful and charming to photograph around every corner. We enjoyed wandering, exploring, and looking at all the city’s most famous residents…the cats!

Kotor is a popular cruise port and when there’s a ship (or 2) in port, you will definitely feel the crowds. To get a better experience, try to stay at least one night so you can see the town after the cruise crowds have all left.

 

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Kotor City Walls

The next day we knew we wanted to hike the city’s walls or fortifications that wind up the mountain directly behind the town. The weather had been a bit overcast and raining on and off. So once there was a little window of sun, we decided to head up and see how far we could get with the kids and the weather cooperating. There is a small fee to enter the trail, and at the church midway up there are people selling waters, some snacks, and trinkets. My daughter really appreciated the shopping stop to break up the hike. She smiled and chatted with a lady selling stuff and the lady ended up gifting her a little princess hair clip. This happened to us multiple times in Kotor. People were so kind to the kids and kept gifting them sweets or little trinkets.

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The magnificent view!

The views from the walls are phenomenal. We had some cloud cover restricting the full view of the Bay of Kotor, so I can only imagine how wonderful the view must be on a clear day. Next time, I would try to get up the trail early in the morning for 2 reasons:

1) less people

2) cooler temperatures

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While not overcrowded, the trail did have quite a few people up there, and there was some waiting and jockeying for certain photo ops. It also was a little hot and sticky-the climb is all stairs and uphill. Add a toddler who doesn’t want to walk and now you’re carrying extra weight. Also, I totally get that you want to look cute in your photos with the amazing view, but be warned it’s a little tricky with loose rocks and hiking up a mountain. Decent shoes are recommended ūüôā

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Budva

From Kotor we drove south to Budva. Our original plan was to stay here a few nights but upon the recommendation of someone who had lived in the Balkans for years, we opted to change our reservation to stay in Sveti Stefan instead. However, we still wanted to see Budva, so we just stopped there for the day. Budva is also a walled city right on the ocean. Unlike Kotor, it also had a couple beaches for sunbathing and swimming.

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Budva’s Old Town

 

The best thing we did in Budva was walk a path along the rocky coast to the right of the main beach. It gave us great views of the old city, and led to a more secluded Mogren beach. If we had more time to spend, we definitely would’ve camped on that beach all day!

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Pretty much paradise!

Sveti Stefan

Our final stop on the trip was possibly our favorite. Although it’s hard for me to pick between Sveti Stefan and Kotor. Sveti Stefan has a tiny little peninsula that jets out from the mainland. This little patch of land is completely private and can only be accessed if you are staying at the resort or one of the rentals on it. It is very exclusive, and very expensive. But not to worry, if that’s not quite in your budget, there are plenty other hotels and apartments you can stay at where you can enjoy the magical view of the peninsula. Our apartment had a gorgeous view, the link to book is here.

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This is the actual view from our balcony, stunning!

 

The beach in Sveti Stefan was rocky (like most other European beaches) but the water was warm and clear. There’s plenty of chairs to rent, also little paddle boats if you wanted to paddle out on the ocean for a bit. There is a restaurant called Olive not far from the beach, and there is a playground outside. Always nice to have the kids get some playtime before asking them to sit nicely at a restaurant for dinner.

Our first night there also happened to be our son’s 2nd birthday. The restaurant was very sweet and brought him a chocolate cake and sang to him. It was unexpected but very appreciated!

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Sveti Stefan was a nice relaxing oasis. We didn’t tour around, no hiking, no sight seeing. We just hung out on the beach and enjoyed relaxing and the beautiful views! It is a welcome respite after enduring the crowds of Dubrovnik.

Overall

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I’m the first one to say that I absolutely love Croatia. I love the gorgeous blue water, the warm summer air, the beautiful architecture of the old cities. But just as I love it, so do a lot of other people! There was a very noticeable increase in tourists from our first visit in 2014. Montenegro is still a little bit under the radar, though I’m sure it will quickly catch up. So go there quick, before everyone else figures out how wonderful it is! We found it to be less crowded and less expensive than Croatia.

Kotor is an easy day trip from Dubrovnik, but Montenegro is really deserving of a dedicated vacation. Besides the three coastal towns we visited, there are many more. There are also some expansive national parks inland that have great hiking and kayaking opportunities.

We had a rental car and found the driving to be relatively easy, but there are winding mountain roads. Be sure to check with your car rental agency if you will be driving from another country because sometimes there are country restrictions on where they will allow you to take the car, or you may need special documentation.

If you’ve been to Montenegro, I’d love to hear your experiences! Or if you have questions please feel free to reach out!

Montenegro GUide

 

Lokrum Island

Just off the shore of Dubrovnik, is Lokrum Island. It is very easy to get out there, you can just buy a boat ticket at the harbor the day you want to go. The boat ride was quick, probably 15 minutes or so (from my memory). If you’ve spent a day walking around Dubrovnik and are ready to get out to see something else, this is a great option.

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Here’s the harbor where you will find the ferry.

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Be sure to sit on the outer edges of the ferry so you can take pictures of all the beautiful views!

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Room for babies in small strollers on the boat!

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This is the ferry we took, docked at Lokrum.

It is super important that you find out when the last ferry of the day is, and make sure you don’t miss it! There aren’t any hotels or places to stay on the island, so you’ll want to be sure you don’t get stuck. We almost missed the last ferry, it was vacation stress I could’ve done without. I wonder though, what would happen if you missed the last ferry? Is there a back up plan or are you just out of luck? I’d love to know, but wouldn’t want to be the one to figure it out the hard way!

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The island is very lush and quiet (except for the locals). It is perfect for wandering and having a little downtime. You could go and just walk around, or spend some time at one of the beaches. There is also a botanical garden and an old monastery you can walk through.

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Locals on Lokrum, colorful peacocks!

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Peacocks everywhere, even willing to hang out with you at the beach!

We chose a beach and the big kids started snorkeling. They all decided to buy snorkel gear on the previous afternoon at another nearby beach. It turned out to be a lot of fun for them, I think they would’ve snorkeled all day everyday if they could’ve.IMG_2278 (2)IMG_2294 (2)IMG_2305 (1)

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One important thing to note about Croatia is that the beaches are rocky. Water shoes are important and it may not be as easy to just lay out a big towel for little ones. We would find the biggest flat rock we could, and camp there. The rocky beaches make for some very clear, blue, gorgeous waters though! Don’t let the rocks deter you, just be prepared!

We spent the bulk of our day at this rocky cove area. We left to for a bit to eat lunch at a restaurant near the old monastery on the island. The food was great, and the scenery was tranquil. As I said earlier, we got so lost in the tranquility that all of a sudden we realized we were about to miss the last ferry. We were all happy to spend the day on Lokrum. Dubrovnik is beautiful, but Lokrum provides a different kind of beauty. It’s a nice escape from the hustle and bustle of tourists in the old city.

Snorkeling in Thailand

When planning our trip for Thailand, Hubby¬†had one major piece of input. ¬†He wanted to snorkel. ¬†I think it’s safe to say he got his fill on it. ¬†We were able to do a little snorkeling at the end of our Emerald Cave visit and we hired our same boat to take us to some prime snorkeling spots the next day too. ¬†The snorkeling was fabulous! ¬†Lots of fish, bright colors, and some interesting creatures. ¬†We got to see a puffer fish, star fish, sea urchins, an eel, giant clams, and countless tropical fish. ¬†One particular kind of fish was a bit aggressive and even bit M and drew blood! ¬†They would guard the beginnings of the coral and you had to swim fast to get past them without getting attacked.

Everyone had a good time floating around and looking at the fish. ¬†I was an apprehensive snorkeler up until just a couple years ago. ¬†Once you get the hang of it, it’s really relaxing! ¬†This is by far the best snorkeling I have done. ¬†I’ve only done it a handful of places but Thailand was incredible. ¬†Next on my list is to snorkel somewhere with sea turtles!

Bye Bye resort, we’re going snorkeling!
Life on the boat.
First snorkel spot.

These blue, pink, and yellow fish were so pretty!

No sunburns for this little guy!

“Snorkel god”

Emerald Cave

The second morning of our stay on Koh Mook, we arranged a boat to take us out to the Emerald Cave (as seen on Sean Lowe’s season of The Bachelor). ¬†As soon as we got on the boat we strapped little lady into her life jacket, and put her on T’s lap. ¬†Not 5 minutes after the boat started she was fast asleep. ¬†Great that she got a little snooze in but then we had to wake her up once we got there which made her a little grumpy. ¬†The boat ride was full of beautiful blue water and striking rock islands jutting up from the ocean.

Once you get to the cave everyone puts on their life jackets and starts to swim in. ¬†The cave is dark at first, but you can still see what’s ahead of you. ¬†Maybe halfway through, it goes pitch black, you can’t see anything but fleeting glimpses of your guide’s flashlight. ¬†We were holding onto each other and bumping into one another to make our way through. ¬†Eventually you see a literal light at the end of the tunnel and it’s a big relief! ¬†So, how did we do this with a baby? ¬†With a lot of help and having the guys take turns holding her up while they swam with one arm. ¬†Not an easy feat, and a little unnerving in the dark. ¬†I think I kept repeating, “are you OK, where are you, do you need help, is she OK?” ¬†I probably wouldn’t have wanted her to do this normally but I knew my friend had brought her little guy through and that made me feel like we could do it too.

When you finally make it inside the cave, you are in this little hole surrounded by a jungle. ¬†It’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. ¬†I’m not sure how The Bachelor pulled off getting it completely private. ¬†Maybe they paid off the other boats so no one else would go in? ¬†It was magical, but would’ve been even better if we were the only ones in there.

Getting close to the cave.
Getting ready to swim through!
Inside, the black area is the cave you swim in and out of.

Blurry picture, but happy baby.
The locals loved her.

At the end of our cave experience we had a little bit of an incident. ¬†As we were all swimming back to the boat, K got stung by a jellyfish! ¬†She was OK but in pain for a while. ¬†None of us saw the jellyfish in the water until we were already on the boat. ¬†Luckily neither of the little ones got stung, I’m pretty sure that would’ve made us mommas lose it. ¬†It was a big brownish orangey one about the size of a volleyball. ¬†So if you visit here, be on the lookout! ¬†Thanks J and K for planning such a fun day for us! It was a very memorable experience!

Koh Mook

After a few days in Bangkok it was time to hit the beach!  We took a one hour flight south to Trang and were driven out to the coast in a private van.  From there we hopped on a speed boat to take us out to the island where our hotel was.

On our way!
Pulling up to the resort.
Getting used to a life jacket.
We made it!
Upon arrival we were greeted with cool towels and sweet drinks.

 We stayed in little beach bungalows that had big wrap around porches with lounge chairs, windows looking out to the ocean, and came complete with mosquito nets!

The rest of the afternoon was spent on the beach and in the water.  It was great to relax and hang out in the beautiful clear blue ocean.  We ate almost all our meals at the restaurant in the resort.  It was semi-open air and everyone was barefoot.  You leave your shoes at the entrance, dip your feet in a tub of water to rinse off the sand and then step inside.  They had a pretty wide selection of food and drinks and it was much more inexpensive than most American or European hotels.  By the end of the trip, I think as a group we had ordered every item on the menu!

The Dead Sea

Our next day in Israel we took another road trip out to the Dead Sea.  The Dead Sea lies between Israel and Jordan.  It is the saltiest body of water on Earth, so salty nothing can survive in it.  That saltiness is also what makes you float!

We only had two days to choose from to go out to the Dead Sea, we chose the day with the better weather. ¬†It was sunny and warm but not as warm as I like it to be when I go swimming. ¬†The breeze wasn’t helping anybody either. ¬†We sat in chairs on the beach for a while, working up the courage to get into the chilly water. ¬†It really wasn’t that bad, but I like water to feel like a hot bath so for me it was a bit too cold.

cold, cold, cold, cold
Once you’re floating it doesn’t feel so cold.

I was nervous to lean back, I knew I would float but it’s a strange feeling. ¬†Like you’re doing a trust exercise with the water, “is it going to catch me?” ¬†Side note that I didn’t know about before doing my trip research. ¬†All the Dead Sea advice makes sure to tell you not to shave for a few days before going in. ¬†Apparently it really burns if you’ve shaved too close to your Dead Sea swim. ¬†Really glad I took that advice!

No floating for babies, but I don’t think she minded too much.
Salt crystalized on the rocks.

The other thing you “have to do” when you visit is get all lathered up with Dead Sea mud. ¬†It’s supposed to be very healing and good for your skin. ¬†It was chillier by the time we got around to doing the mud. ¬†So instead of a relaxing outdoor spa experience it was more like, “hurry up and put it on!” ¬†Maybe I’m a wuss, but I needed like 10 more degrees to be comfortable.

Again, cold, cold, cold, cold, cold.

Even if it was chilly, I’m so happy we went. ¬†It was really fun and possibly a once in a lifetime experience!

A Family Guide to Fun on Oahu

Oahu is a great island to choose for your Hawaiian vacation. It is the easiest to fly to and there are so many hikes, beaches, coves, and other attractions to keep you as busy or relaxed as you want to be. Here’s some tips and ideas for your next trip to Oahu!

1. Line up early for Haleiwa Joe’s.

This popular restaurant has two locations, one in Haleiwa on the North Shore and one in Kaneohe on the windward side. We ate at the Kaneohe location. We arrived promptly at 4:25 and the restaurant opens at 4:30. There was already a long¬†line, and we wondered if we would make the first round of seating. Luckily we only had to wait about five¬†minutes to be seated, but that tells you just how popular and crowded the restaurant is! It’s known for it’s massive prime rib, which the hubby ordered. No pictures of it because you know, unruly kids. I had the baked catch of the day and it was topped with crab and amazing. The restaurant is perched above a hidden garden and pond, not visible from the parking lot. After dinner the kids enjoyed running down the big hill, out onto the dock, and looking at the fish. The grownups just tried to keep up and tried to keep them from falling in!

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2. Spend a day at Bellows Beach.

This gorgeous beach was not crowded, and the waves were fairly calm. Part of the beach access is restricted to military, and part is open to the public. Most of us enjoyed a calm day floating in the turquoise water. Our daughter however, was not a fan. She’s never really been a fan of the beach. We were hopeful that the warmer water and weather would crack her, but no such luck. She spent most of the day on the beach blanket. She much preferred swimming in the pool.IMG_7656IMG_7740

3. Have a drink and enjoy the view at Turtle Bay.

The pool bar at Turtle Bay serves up pricey, but delicious drinks and food with a beautiful view of the bay. There is room for kids to roam without going to far. Our daughter quickly made friends with some other kiddos and played in the grass near our table while we relaxed in our seats. IMG_7874

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4. Hike the Lanikai Pillboxes.

I will warn the folks with young children that this isn’t exactly an easy hike, but can be done baby wearing or carrying on shoulders as my husband did. The onset of the hike is a little¬†steep, and the path is rocky, dusty, and can be a little slippery. So exercise caution! The trailhead lies in a neighborhood, we had a local friend with us to show us exactly where to go and where to park-very helpful. Be careful where you park, do NOT park in a bike lane unless you want to spend part of your vacation dealing with a tow company! The view from this hike is well worth it, don’t stop at the first pillbox, keep going to the second. You’ll be happy you did!IMG_7957IMG_7959IMG_8049

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Depending our your kids, be prepared to carry them. It was a little too much for our almost three year old. Our friend’s four year old can do it no problem though.

5. Eat breakfast with Mickey.

Disney has a resort in Ko Olina called Aulani. As you would expect, it is not cheap to stay there. Even if it’s not in the budget to stay, consider visiting for a breakfast with Mickey. These breakfasts are open to the public, but don’t forget to make a reservation! Adults were $35 each, and kids under 3 were free. Before breakfast you get a chance to meet Mickey and have your picture taken with him. Hand your camera to the photographers so you don’t have to buy the picture package. Once you have met Mickey, you will be taken to your table. The breakfast is served buffet style and includes Mickey waffles, fruit, yogurt, an omelet station, a few Hawaiian dishes, Asian dishes, cold cuts, pastries, and a variety of other things. The food was tasty, everyone in our party was fully satisfied. Minnie and Goofy will also make their rounds to your table for pictures. “Aunty” leads the breakfast, walking around playing the ukulele and singing. She invites the kids to interact with her several times, giving them chances to play instruments and dance together.¬†Photo 0022IMG_8201

6. Sample shrimp on the North Shore.

Giovanni’s shrimp truck is the most talked about for shrimp so we did what many other tourists do and drove out to try a plate. We opted for the scampi, the most popular. It was indeed delicious, as everyone says it is. My husband wasn’t overly impressed, thought it was good, but didn’t necessarily agree with all the fuss about it. Bring wet wipes, the shrimp are served shell on, so you will have to get a little dirty! Also be prepared for literally buses full of tourists. When we arrived there was no line, but we saw a tour bus come in with a big group. There is also a shave ice truck at this location in Kahuku, but you may want to hold out for Matsumoto’s in Haleiwa or visit Giovanni’s in Haleiwa then go over to Matsumoto’s after. If you’re not in the mood for shave ice in Haleiwa, I highly recommend Island Vintage Coffee right across the plaza. I had a super delicious, frappucino-like drink, with coconut and macadamia nut there. Yum!!IMG_4948

7. See the show at the Polynesian Cultural Center.

The PCC (for short) is also on the North Shore. We went because we were told it was the best luau on the island. While I can’t quite say it was a luau, we did enjoy the show “Ha: Breath of Life.” I think of a traditional luau as being on the beach, the pig being cooked in the sand, a big buffet of Hawaiian food, and a show on a stage featuring hula and fire dancing.

At the PCC we showed up and entered a huge food hall for a buffet dinner. The type of ticket we bought was for the American style food, there was also a more expensive option for Hawaiian style food. The dinner was OK, but nothing particularly special. If we were to do it again, I would just eat dinner somewhere else and show up for the show. If you’ve been at the PCC all day, it probably is just more convenient to eat there or at one of the other restaurants located on the grounds. The dinner just lacked a little of the ambiance that you would have eating on the beach at sunset, surrounded by tiki torches.

After dinner we wandered the marketplace where you can buy any type of tropical souvenir imaginable. You could even get a tribal tattoo airbrushed on, I saw many people walking around with them on their faces! The show is in a large amphitheater with a volcano as the backdrop. The show is lengthy at two hours, with an intermission. We weren’t sure that our kids would make it through the whole thing, but they did! We were impressed with the effects, live music, and variety of dancing. The show was highly¬†entertaining and had a moving storyline. It showcased¬†dances from the different island nations represented in the PCC villages. ¬†I imagine it would be easy to spend an entire day here. We felt it might be a little much for our young children, but I think older kids would definitely be entertained. My impression was the PCC seems like¬†Disneyland of the Polynesian islands.

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She’s trying to do the “shaka” with the Shaka statue.