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Associated Press

BUDVA, Montenegro — "Experience the Wild Beauty" is Montenegro's newest tourist slogan.

But while the beauty of the "Pearl of the Adriatic" is undeniable, the wilderness is disappearing.

The tiny Balkan state — nestled in the southeast corner of Europe — is a breathtaking mix of colors: blazing blue skies, lush green mountains, white pebble beaches and turquoise Adriatic Sea waters.

But since it split from much larger Serbia in 2006, Montenegro experienced a real-estate boom, with mostly Russians and Britons investing en masse into new hotels, tourist resorts or even complete new villages.

The result: narrow, winding roads along the coastline are jammed with construction trucks, and hills and forests are being leveled to accommodate new concrete structures that dot the landscape.

A small peninsula that used to be a thick pine forest on the entrance of Montenegro's main resort of Budva is being turned into a Dubai-style skyscraper hotel, surrounded by a dozen luxury villas.

"The nature is spectacular, but it is sad to watch how it is being eroded," said Donna Jones, an English retiree vacationing in Budva, in the center of Montenegro's 180-mile-long riviera.

Even so, tourism is rocketing in Montenegro after a decade of bloody Balkan wars in the 1990s slowed the stream of visitors to a trickle. Most tourists now come from Russia, but the sparkling sea waters, stony mountain peaks, crystal-clear rivers and lakes increasingly draw Western visitors.

According to official statistics, Montenegro was visited last year by 1.1 million tourists, a 50 percent increase over 2000 and a figure that makes clear the tiny republic is back on the map.

But Montenegro is still considered a bargain tourist destination for Westerners. A room in a private home goes from $30 per night, about half the price of a similar room in a beach town in neighboring Croatia. In new luxury hotels on the Becici beach south of Budva, the prices for a double room can start at $160.

Sveti Stefan, just south of Budva, is a tiny peninsula whose sun-bleached limestone homes were turned from a fishing village to a luxury hotel complex in the 1960s. It is currently under reconstruction after being taken over by a Singaporean company.

Sveti Stefan, once frequented by movie stars like Sylvester Stallone, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, is seen from the towering mountains above as a tiny shining jewel neatly placed onto deep blue sea waters.

Its 15th-century stone walls, narrow streets, tiny church at the top and red tile roofs shimmer in the sunlight, with oleander, bougainvillea and palms providing green and shade.

Close by is Budva, featuring a quaint, stonewalled Old Town with its maze of little lanes lined with shops and restaurants buzzing with activity. With its Venetian fortress walls, Budva is a mini version of Dubrovnik, the much better known Croatian resort just to the north.

Some of Montenegro's best restaurants are located in Budva's neighborhood. But those who seek a change of the classic Mediterranean scenery can visit restaurants located on wooden rafts on the Bojana River, covered with marsh grass and flocks of wild geese, where it joints the Adriatic in the far south of the riviera.

The must-have Montenegrin meal includes hors-d'oeuvres of traditional extra dry ham and goat cheese dipped in olive oil; followed by grilled fish spiced with garlic and parsley, all coupled with famous Montenegrin Vranac red wine.

Such a meal could cost up to $64 per person, without a customary 10 percent tip. Even though Montenegro is not a European Union country, the euro is its official currency.

The best time to visit Montenegro is offseason — May, beginning of June and the end of September — as the Montenegrin Riviera tends to become overcrowded with tourists amid scorching summer heat, sometimes even triggering water shortages.

"The main tourist season now lasts four months, compared to two months not so long ago," said Nikola Lazarevic, owner of the Grispolis restaurant in the quiet village of Bigova — just north of Budva — perched on a deep sea bay nestled between hills covered with ancient olive trees.

A day excursion from Budva to Mount Lovcen via the village of Njegusi, home of the best dried ham in the Balkans, is popular among tourists. Nearly all of the tiny country can be seen from the top of the mountain still covered with snow as late as May.

Another worthwhile excursion is to Boka Kotorska, the largest T-shaped bay on the Adriatic, with the town of Kotor, whose stone-covered plazas and medieval churches are listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

"Montenegro has become a real tourist destination, and is no longer a wild little place in Europe's backyard," Lazarevic said.

If you go ...

Getting there: Montenegro Airlines flies to the capital of Podgorica and to the Adriatic Sea airport of Tivat from many European cities, including Paris, Rome, Budapest, Zurich, Moscow, Frankfurt, Istanbul and Ljubljana. JAT Airways, the Serbian national airline, flies to Belgrade from most European capitals, and has several flights a day from Belgrade to Podgorica and Tivat. A return ticket for a 45-minute flight from Belgrade costs $160. Austrian Airlines flies to Podgorica from Vienna and Adria Airways from Ljubljana, Slovenia.

Lodging: A night in a hotel with breakfast can start from $80 for a double room, but new hotels on the Adriatic coast start from about $160 per night for a double room. Private owners offer a double room for $30 a night.

Dining: The favorite Balkan fast food, cevapcici (small spiced, minced meat sausages) and a pint of beer, runs about $13. A full dinner of local delicacies such as octopus salad and stuffed squid will cost around $55, including a local wine.

Language: Serbian, or Montenegrin as it is now called after the split from Serbia, is the local language. Broken English, Italian and German are spoken by many locals, especially restaurant waiters and hotel staff.

Side trips: Buses for the famous Croatian resort of Dubrovnik leave Budva every day. Daylong boat excursions from Budva to Sveti Stefan cost about $15. A day-trip by bus to Mount Lovcen via Njegusi, home of the best dried ham and goat cheese dipped in olive oil in the Balkans, is a must. The Montenegro Tourist agency provides day-trips to a wide array of sights.