Driving from Dalmatia to Montenegro is a spectacular affair. Croatia's seemingly endless coastline and numerous islands are a treat to enjoy on the long drive down from places like Split, as the magistrala main road hugs the Adriatic for the majority of the drive. Then, crossing the border into Montenegro, the wonderful Boka Bay comes into view. Truly spectacular.
Unfortunately, especially in summer, you are not alone...
There are two things that I don't enjoy about driving the coastal road in the summer particularly. The first is the traffic, obviously, and the main border crossing from Dubrovnik to Herceg Novi can get very busy. Almost as annoying, at least to seasoned Croatia to Dubrovnik drivers like myself, is the sense of Adriatic fatigue by the time you arrive in Montenegro. Hours of driving slowly behind a multitude of cars with the sea to the right quickly loses its sparkle.
There is another way...
A way which heads inland, offering a totally different driving experience, and allows your first glimpse of the Boka Bay to be a truly mind-blowing first impression. You will also arrive quicker and more refreshed, but you need to sacrifice that coastal drive as the price. Coming from Split (or further afield), take the motorway south until it ends near Ploce and then take the turn for Medjugorje, Mostar and Sarajevo. This motorway is under construction and only goes for a few kilometres across the border, but it sets you on the way for the lesser-known route (driving tip - as soon as you cross the border, there is a toll where you must pay 1.2 Bosnian marks - in KM, euro or card, and the exchange rate sucks).
You are not far from the village of Medjugorje, made internationally famous as one of the most visited religious destinations in the world, following the alleged apparition of the Virgin Mary to six children on a remote hillside in 1981. A little further north is the city of Mostar and its iconic old town and bridge - destroyed in 1993 and totally rebuilt at a cost of some US$8 million. But if you want to take a break and stay on the route, my recommendation would be the ancient and gorgeous town of Stolac, which is signposted after you reach Capljina, the town to head to from the motorway. Enjoy a coffee by its quaint river or tour its impressive stone fortifications.
No sooner do you leave the motorway than the main benefit of the route becomes obvious. Empty roads. The road to Trebinje runs almost parallel to the coastal road, and the trade-off for sitting behind a Golf 1 while looking at the sea is reasonably good roads and the untouched nature of Republika Srpska. While some people do speed along these roads, the speed limits are enforced by the occasional police car and radar control lurking behind a corner. The choice is yours.
It took just over three hours to cross the border. There were a few places to eat along the way, but I decided to see what Montenegro had to offer in the hills, and I stopped at the first proper restaurant on the road down to Boka.
And I was not disappointed. This is what 8 euro buys you in the hills - and the photo does not properly reflect the four layers of meat.
And so the drive continued along empty roads until...
The first sight of water in four hours. Gorgeous!
And as I descended, a choice - Kotor to the left or Herceg Novi to the right.
They had one thing in common - the drive to both towns went on a coastal road that was right on the water. Of course it will be busier in season, but what a refreshing way to arrive in Montenegro and see its nature up close.
Most tourists, even reading this, will probably stick to the coastal route, as they are normally on a one-time visit and taking in the coast, but for those who want a different way to arrive, try this route. The whole driving and arrival in Montenegro experience is infinitely better.