Honest Travel: Kotor, Montenegro

“Where the hell is Kotor?” I admit I had literally never heard of Kotor before looking up the itinerary of this Celebrity Cruise. The coastal town in Montenegro along the Adriatic Sea has become a popular cruise stop for good reason. You can see the city in a day, and it has maintained it’s charm despite being 100% dedicated to tourism (more on that later). I considered this own of the top pleasant surprises of our entire trip.

The walking tour

dsc00724Like the Croatians I met, the Montenegrins are blunt and open without being condescending or too off-putting.  Unlike our unintentionally funny Croatian guide, our walking tour guide was hilarious on purpose. His name was Vampas. He lived about two hours away and was an expert in all of Montenegro’s history and current stats. He blurred the lines between fact and personal opinion, which I thought gave a more accurate picture of the country than a guide book could. Just make sure to leave your own political leanings at home if you’re easily offended. All my information is from his tour:

Kotor gateA review of Kotor is a review of Montenegro. The very small country has only been independent from Serbia since 2006, and had been previously conquered by a dozen countries. From Illyrian to Byzantine to Independent Kingdom to Venetian to Napoleonic France to Yugoslavia to Serbia to Independence. He noted several times they managed to never be conquered by the Ottomans, seemingly a point of pride. It became quite clear by 10 minutes in that Vampas would have preferred if the region had remained as Yugoslavia. From the end of WW2 through Tito’s death in the early 1980’s, the united republics under communist rule were an industrial juggernaut. The shells of a five star hotel and a waterfront manufacturing plant back his claim.  When sanctions were enacted in the 90s, everything crumbled.  The unemployment rate which had been 0 soared, leading to a rise in crime and corruption. It wasn’t until 2006, when the country became independent and jumped on the tourism bandwagon that it began to recover. For the past 10 years, tourism has been the country’s only industry. While in other countries an emphasis on tourism feels cheap and exploitative, I would say Kotor escapes that negative feeling. They are appreciative for your presence without aggressively pushing for your business. Instead of fetishizing a “village” lifestyle, you are there to appreciate 2,500 years of history.  The Old Town of Kotor in genuine and intact with the exception of several portions which were rebuilt after the earthquake of 1667 and 1979. The residence of the Venetian Prince who once oversaw the city bleeds right into the theater that was built for Napolean. Orthodox churches represent the 80% of the population who are Orthodox Christians and a Catholic Cathedral serves the rest. And on a funny side note that my husband looked up on his own – Montenegro is one of the only two countries using the Euro illegally.  Not able or willing to make their own currency, they had been borrowing the German Mark.dsc00409 When it changed to Euro, they simply decided to start using it. The EU protested, pointing out that they weren’t a part of the EU.  But Montenegro pointed out that their entrance into the union was inevitable, so why go through the hassle to coming up with their own currency? Not knowing what to do with this pesky, little brother of a country, they decided to let it do.  So Kotor uses the Euro.

Within every medieval building was either a restaurant, a boutique hotel, a clothing boutique or a souvenir shop. The centuries-old town 100% caters to tourists. The shop employees seemed to be all stylish young women. They look bored, but are happy to help if asked, and won’t be pushy – which I much appreciated. A .50 Euro public bathroom is located on a side street and identified on tourist maps. If you’d like to take home some of the country’s signature red Vranac wine, your guide can point you to a small grocery tucked among the tourist spots and you can get a bottle for 7 Euros.


The City wall

img_3555Kotor’s tower city walls surround the town and climb up the mountain like a mini Great Wall of China. It is 3 Euros to walk up the walls, so have a few coins with you. The stairs are narrow, but are accompanied by a ramp of precarious rocks. The first stop, about 20 minutes up, is a very small church/chapel (and accompanying stand of cheesy souvenirs).  This is where most tourists (and I) stopped.  The views are stunning, seeing the small medieval down, the fjord-like mountains and the cruise ship in the bay. My husband spent another 20 minutes to get to the top fort, which gives you a view of the other side of the mountain. You do not NEED a tour guide for any of this, as cruise ships leave their passengers just outside the city walls.  But a walking tour may be informative and/or entertaining.

Last but not least, one of the most impactful parts of Kotor is the cruise in and out of the bay. Looking on a map, you’ll see Kotor is rather tucked away inland. Sailing in and out, especially from the top floor of a cruise ship gives you a panoramic view of the small villages dotted along the use of mountains that resemble fjords. This mountains are created through technonic shifts, but they give many people the feel of traveling through fjords, mountains carved from glacier erosion. Here’s some photos to give a clearer view:

Honest Travel: Dubrovnik, Croatia

Dubrovnik. To be honest, I couldn’t pronounce it, and I’d never heard of it when I first booked our cruise. Google images showed an unromantic but historic seaside, fortified town. (Game of Thrones fans may recognize it as King’s Landing.) My ignorance and low expectations set me up for the most pleasant surprise of the entire trip – Dubrovnik is delightful!

A short ride by shuttle takes you to the medieval city enclosed in towering walls. Inside you’ll find museums, a monastery, shops, restaurants, a small port, a town square and at least one church. One ticket can get you into all the museums, as well as entrance onto the walk on top of the wall. Both the bustling main street and the steep, winding side streets give you a sense of what it may have been like to live during its heyday. We only had a few hours so we stopped by the monastery for a peaceful rest and some photo ops. The walk around the wall offered lots of photo opportunities, as well as a small bar along the way. This is a tourist spot, without question, but that doesn’t mean you don’t get a glimpse at the locals. You waiter is probably a local student. One of the bars later that night were taken over by a a ladies night. Some local musicians performed their interpretation of some American classics at cafe outside on the cobblestones. For me, the real adventures were the excursions that took us outside the average experience.

Food and Wine Tour

I only insisted on pre-booking one excursion, and it was this one – a drive along the Dalmation coast that stopped at an olive oil orchard (farm? mill?) and a vineyard. Best decision ever! First, you must let go of any negativity coming from the fact that you’re traveling in a tour bus with retirees and that you won’t be “dropping in on locals” as they go about their daily business. Hundreds have come before you and hundreds will come after, but that doesn’t sully their product or the process in which it’s made.

First still, olive oil! The owner produces the majority of his oil through modern means in hygienic facilities far from where he visited, but had kept his own old family press and donkey to demonstrate how oil had traditionally been pressed. He demonstrated how hand-picked olives are first crushed with stone wheels pulled by the donkey, then the pulp is put into woven baskets which are squeezed by the man-powered press. Check out a short video here. Afterwards we shared salad and bread with his olive oil. It all sounds simple, but it’s the breathtaking view that elevates the experience. And yes, I overpaid for a bottle of his olive oil, but “when in Croatia…”

Salt Flats

A bathroom stop in the village of Ston let us look at a salt “museum” from the outside, which was basically a low-yield salt flat. We bought a huge bag of salt flakes for about $3. Warning: the bus will leave without you… as they reminded my husband and I after we arrived 3 minutes late.


Eh. They found a seafood restaurant that would accommodate our large group with a pre-determined meal. It was some sort of seafood pasta with a small dessert. The highlight was table wine included with the meal. I forgive the lackluster lunch because I know the constraints of time, price and party size. But if you’re a foodie and don’t want to waste a single meal… you’ll have to avoid the group excursions. I compromised by ordering 3 raw oysters for a taste of local seafood and paid separately.

Vikas Vino Winery

The second major stop was a winery that also made fruit liquor. Pomegranate, orange, cherry… you want dessert liquor, you’ve got it. Also, after a short presentation in the wine cellar, we tasted the bold reds that the region is known for. Grown on rocky hillsides and battered by the sun, the thick-skinned grapes of Croatia lend themselves to stronger, bolder reds. There’s a snapshot included in this video.

Pirate Tour

Who could turn down a ride on a pirate ship?  This late night excursion on a full-fledged wood pirate ship picked up its passengers right outside the ship and took a 45 minute ride to Dubrovnik’s port. The ship is outfitted with a bar, indoor seating and picnic tables on the deck. I’ll be honest – it was cold, rainy and would have been miserable if not for my stubbornly positive attitude. Pirates experienced harsh weather, so why shouldn’t I? So my hubby and I enjoyed glasses of wine in the rain at the head of the ship as we looked out on the lights dotting the Croatian coast. I’m clearly too stubborn for my own good. Most stayed inside and left for the ship when they docked instead of spending an hour walking around the town and taking the ship back.  The stop allowed us to have some seafood pasta underneath a heat lamp at a side street restaurant and sip a drink at an outdoor cafe while listening to a jazz band.

As you’ll see from my post about the Amalfi Coast, I recommend you have low expectations – it leads to revelations and surprises, instead of disappointment and a reality check.  Don’t discount Croatia just because it hasn’t been painted as a romantic European destination. Nothing in America compares to a seaside medieval town. But for all my praise, I really don’t think you need more than a day or two.



How to Enjoy a Cruise

There are usually two camps when it comes to cruises: “I love cruises! I’ve already signed up for my next one,” and “I would never go on a cruise!” I used to be the latter. Spending every free vacation of my college years traveling to third world countries, I was a bit of a hippie travel snob. I avoided Europe and cushy vacations. But after a two week honeymoon driving through India in a van with 9 of my relatives… I was ready to sign up for a floating hotel. So here are tips on how to enjoy a cruise from a reformed elitist traveler.

Bay of Kotor Cruise

How to Enjoy a Cruise

  1. Buy the beverage packagecruise balcony
    • You’re on a boat in the middle of a salty ocean. So much water and not a drop to drink. Do you really want to debate a $3 water when you’re thirsty for two weeks straight? No. Bottled water, juice, beer, some wine, coffee-to-go, rail liquor (though they don’t call it that) is included in the drink package. Premium lets you order anything your little heart desires. You can pick up a drink almost any time from the endless bars around the ship, including at your seat in the theater or from waiters poolside. To not carry cash and order a glass of wine at your every whim gives you the free, pampered feeling these kind of vacations should be made of.
  2. Embrace the excursions
    • When the shore excursions were advertised at 20% off a few weeks before the cruise, I wanted to buy a few. They have two major benefits: they require no planning, and they guarantee you get back on the ship before it leaves. After a childhood of hearing about the time my 17-year-old father was left behind in Helsinki without his passport, this sounded fairly important. However, my husband  insisted that we would enjoy the flexibility of choosing the excursions on the ship, where we could better judge how we felt. We could decide if we want to book something that filled the whole day, half the day or go off on our own with better accuracy. I was afraid they’d sell out We compromised. I booked a food tour I was excited about (wine and olive oil tasting in Dubrovnik). We booked the full day in Rome, because dsc00524-1his previous experience told him that a tour that could cut lines would be the only way to do it all in a day. Most other days we booked while on board. And on two days we winged it.
    • NOTICE: Some ports are as far as an hour away from the city you want to visit, particularly Civitavecchia outside of Rome and Salerno off of the Amalfi Coast. Factor in the time and cost if you’re winging it. There will be taxis at the port to take you to the city, but it will cost you!
    • dsc00396Pros: the tour guides are well-tested and know their stuff. Our guides in Sicily, Rome and Kotor were capable and often hilarious simply for being characters. Also, the prices aren’t that inflated. When you add all the individual parts up, they’re basically the price the cruise gives.
    • Cons: the restaurants chosen for the included lunches are good, not great. Also, time-wise, they can play it a little too safe and arrive back at the boat a bit early. In some cases, like Salerno, you can go back out and enjoy the port city before getting back onboard.
  3. img_3663Make friends with the staff
    • Will you get extra perks? No – they’re trained exceptionally well and would rather not lose their jobs. But it’s a lot more fun when they greet you each day as an individual. They register what you like and try to do right by you. Ask them about their lives and their families. The international crew is a glimpse into cultures and societies around the world, not to mention the unique life below deck on a cruise ship. If you have a set dinner time, it’s the same waiters every day.
  4. Order breakfast in your roomcruise breakfast
    • Check if it’s free for you… if it is, DO IT! Room service is another piece in the luxury puzzle, helping remove you from the everyday life you’re trying to shut out for the week. Exactly what you ordered arrives on time, a huge plus when your excursion requires you meet at 7:15am. Sitting on a balcony in your white robe, you can sip coffee and peel hard-boiled eggs. Or you can drink your smoothie and eat your omelette while you get ready for your shore excursion early in the morning.
  5. Don’t be afraid to separate

    • img_3523Sure, we were on our honeymoon; but by the second week, seeing each other 24/7 wasn’t improving
      the romance. My husband and I had different ideas of the best way to spend a day at sea. He wanted to participate in every activity offered – poker, ping-pong, trivia, etc. I wanted to read a book on a lounge chair while holding a margarita. Separating during sea days and meeting up for the show gave us new things to talk about at dinner. I suggest buying walkie-talkies so that you can check in. CELL PHONES ARE A NO GO. Roaming kills you at sea. Watch out; you’d be surprised how reliant you are on them to coordinate with others.

img_0842I think a seasoned cruiser would say something about making sure you chose the right cruise line, the right ship, the right trip and the right time of year. They could probably compare the shows and the dining options. But I would say, just make sure the stops are where you want to go. And also be aware that particular cruises and times of year may determine the average age of the guest on the ship 😉  I’ll talk more about that in upcoming posts.

Last, but not least, I think next time I’ll go with a large group of family and/or friends. I can see how this would be a vacation that could include all ages and let people separate and convene with ease.

$$$ – I noticed that a few of my suggestions lean towards spending money. Only you know your budget and capabilities. But I do want to caution the people who go bare bones then piece-meal along the way… often buying things individually can add up before you realize it and then it has the added hassle of continually assessing your finances. I’d suggest making the most of the packages or excursions. I can’t tell you how many bottles of water my husband spirited away each day for our time on shore. And my MIL sent me along with tupperware 🙂