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It’s the Med…in a New Light

From pavement cafés to cerulean seas, it’s hard to beat the Mediterranean in summer. Traditional hotspots are pricy, though, and increasingly overcrowded, so RICHARD HOLMES ventures off the beaten track. Whether it’s glorious beaches, layers of history or the great outdoors you’re after, he suggests three destinations that deliver.

MONTENEGRO

On the coastline near Budva, the fortified island village of Sveti Stefan plays host to a colourful collection of 15th-century stone villas, connected to the mainland by a narrow causeway.

It may well be the coastline that brings you to Montenegro; a sliver of beautiful Adriatic that, although it lacks the archipelagos of neighbouring Croatia, delivers both pristine waters and charming coastal towns.

Beyond the beach, it’s the scuba diving that draws many adventurous travellers. The sea here is littered with a thousand years of shipwrecks, from Greek traders to Second World War battleships. Sunken history aside, Montenegro’s underwater landscapes range from dramatic drop‐offs to underwater cave systems, all teeming with sea life. If you want to suit up, head for Budva, Pržno or Ulcinj – Montenegro’s main diving hubs – between May and September when water temperatures and visibility are at their best.

But limiting your time in Montenegro to the coastline would be a loss, as the country’s dramatic interior offers mountainous landscapes that can give Switzerland and Austria a run for their money – and at a fraction of the cost. As one of the most affordable countries in Europe, it’s a Goldilocks destination for those who never go on holiday without their hiking boots or trail shoes.

Aphrodite’s Rock is said to mark the place where the goddess of love and beauty first stepped from the sea. The water here is often too rough for swimming, but the coastline surrounding this dramatic sea stack makes it well worth the journey as you explore this glorious stretch of Cyprus’s coastline.

Ease into Montenegro with a little light adventure on the shores of Lake Skadar, a national park for the past 40 years. It’s a birding hotspot – look especially for the endangered Dalmatian pelican – and best discovered by boat or kayak, which can be rented in lakeside towns.

Or pedal your way around the lake shore to discover ancient monasteries, boutique wineries and crumbling fortresses dating to the Ottoman era.
But those serious about adventure should set their sights north, to the jagged peaks of the Durmitor National Park.

It’s a landscape of towering summits – 50 peaks top out above 2 000m – and glacial lakes, with hiking and biking trails forming a lattice of adventurous options.
The park offers more than 150km of trails, although a local guide is recommended if you want to tackle the high peaks.

Also set aside a day for the Tara River Canyon, which cuts through the landscape to a depth of up to 1 300m (the USA’s Grand Canyon is just 200m deeper) and offers memorable white‐water rafting.

Rafting operators, which are open from April to October, brave the final 18km of the gorge on easily booked day trips, while longer overnight adventures explore the more remote, and deepest, corners of the canyon.

Book‐end your trip with time in and around the Bay of Kotor, where a range of adventurous options can be woven into each day.

The peaks above Budva offer some of Europe’s best paragliding, with launches from Brajići ending with a soft landing on Bečići Beach, while the scenic drives in and around the Bay of Kotor are enough to get your heart racing. Lovcen National Park is a fine place to end your time in Montenegro. Make your base in the ancient royal capital of Cetinje to spend your days exploring the well‐marked network of hiking and mountain biking trails.

CYPRUS

The sinuous road linking Kotor to Lovcen National Park twists through 25 hairpin turns, unfurling some of the finest coastal views the Mediterranean has to offer.

Come for the beaches. Stay for the Greek mythology. That’s my advice when it comes to the island of Cyprus. Because sun seekers searching for golden sands in the Mediterranean too often rely on the tried, tested and overcrowded. The glamour of the south of France. The bustle of Mallorca. The charming seafronts, lined with tavernas, of the Greek Isles.

But Cyprus? It’s a bit of an outlier.

This is why those in the know love to keep this corner of the Mediterranean hush‐hush, jealously guarding the gorgeous coves of golden sand set against hills carpeted in forests of Calabrian pine. Of the island’s 160 official beaches, 77 have Blue Flag certification. South Africa, with four times as much coastline, has just 51.
The variety is as impressive as their quality. In Ayia Napa, the beaches (Nissi is perhaps the most famous) appeal to those in search of a party vibe, with seas of sun‐loungers and DJs spinning the decks in the chic bars behind.

Nissi Beach in Ayia Napa is ideal for those who want a party on the sands.

But if you’re looking for a little peace and quiet, you’ll find it here too, coupled with all the charm of an ancient island culture.

To escape the crowds, head for the shoreline north of Paphos in the west of Cyprus. On the fringes of the Akamas Peninsula National Park, Blue Lagoon Beach offers a wonderfully wild counterpoint to the crowds of Ayia Napa. It’s rocky and a little rugged, but the swimming in the warm crystalline water is remarkable. The remote location helps to keep the crowds away, and your best bet for getting here is on a chartered boat cruise.

For a quieter escape, pay a visit to the Adonis Baths Waterfalls on the outskirts of Paphos.

The same applies to Lara Bay nearby. This coastline is largely undeveloped to protect the loggerhead turtles that nest here each year, and it offers an idyllic day out in the far west of the island.

Venturing beyond the beach, you’ll want to pay a visit to the Adonis Baths Waterfalls near the village of Koili, where mountain streams gush down the hillside into a natural pool fringed by lush forest. It was here, so the Greek legend says, that Aphrodite and Adonis would meet and become lovers.

MALTA

Explore the atmospheric medieval streets of Mdina in the heart of the island of Malta.

Malta may be a tiny archipelago of islands, but its location in the very heart of the Mediterranean has given it an outsize role in the trade and history of the region. And today that means a rich history for visitors to discover.

Although Malta may lack the grandiose historical monuments of Rome or Athens, across the islands you’ll find a more nuanced, textured history that whispers, not shouts, of centuries past.

Start exploring in Malta’s historic capital, Valletta. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the city is renowned for its well‐preserved 16th‐century architecture and is laid out on a rocky peninsula above the blue sea, as Europe’s first planned city.

Take a moment to admire the frescoed ceilings inside Mdina’s Metropolitan Cathedral of Saint Paul, which dates to the 12th century.

As you wander the narrow streets (don’t miss St John’s Co‐Cathedral or the sumptuous Grand Master’s Palace), the walls of imposing forts and splendid churches tell the tales of the Knights of St John, who kept the island safe from Ottoman invasion. There’s modernity amid the history, though. In the 16th‐century Auberge d’Italie, MUŻA offers an impressive home for Malta’s Museum of Fine Arts.
It’s worth spending an afternoon in a traditional dgћajsa water taxi exploring the three fortified towns just across the Grand Harbour. The sea has long defined Malta’s fortunes, and in the fortified settlement of Birgu, the excellent Maritime Museum – housed in what was once a British Naval bakery – delves into Malta’s strategic importance for navies seeking to dominate trade in the Mediterranean.

Or you can discover a darker period of the island’s history at the Inquisitor’s Palace, where the true horrors of the Inquisition are retold.

Not far from Valletta, in the heart of the island, lies the ancient capital of Mdina. Often dubbed the ‘Silent City’, this medieval walled settlement, with narrow alleys leading to the majestic Mdina Cathedral, appears almost frozen in time. And although Malta made its most indelible mark in the Middle Ages, the history of these islands stretches further – much further – back in time.

Dramatic sunset views across the natural harbour of Marsamxett to Valletta, the ancient capital of Malta.

The underground necropolis of Hal Saflieni Hypogeum dates back more than 6 000 years and is acclaimed as one of the world’s best‐preserved prehistoric sites. Megalithic temples, older than either Stonehenge or the Pyramids, are to be found across the archipelago. Only time for one? Make it Ggantija, on the island of Gozo, where towering walls of limestone speak of Malta’s Neolithic history.

At the end of a day delving deep into Malta’s past, find your way – hiring a car is best for exploring the islands – back to one of Malta’s elegant historic hotels, which bring a contemporary flourish to some of the island’s most regal buildings.

In Mdina, the Palazzo Bifora offers just six suites in the very heart of the city, while Valletta’s beautifully renovated Domus Zamittello offers modern elegance in a 17th‐century baroque palazzo that is also within walking distance of the city’s most important sights. V