Albania is about as close to a perfect summer holiday destination as you can get in Europe.
Before you protest, be assured I’m aware just how audacious a claim that is – especially as the continent is packed with dreamy coastal towns and elegant beach resorts.
But Albania, situated a few hundred kilometres from Croatia on the southern end of the Balkan Peninsula, boasts perhaps the greatest potential to become Europe’s next travel hotspot.
That’s largely thanks to its glut of underpopulated white-sand coastline, its enviable position overlooking the bewitching Adriatic Sea, and its struggling economy, which makes it a very cheap place to travel.
At this stage, Albania’s potential has largely gone untapped. Its tourism industry is under-developed, and the country is now playing catch-up to make the most of its growing allure to foreigners.
Which is all the more reason to visit now, before it’s overrun with tourists. Here’s why it’s worth checking out.
Keep to the capital and the coast
Poverty is one of the inescapable realities of life in Albania, with nearly a third of citizens earning less than five euros a day. Sadly, it means keeping to some of the more well-visited areas is usually the way to travel there, as others are so run-down.
Spending time in capital city Tirana is one dependable way to ensure an enjoyable start to your trip, with the city boasting an ever-growing collection of top-quality hotels, restaurants and bars.
But the most popular way to travel the country is to hire a car and follow as closely as you can to the coast, admiring the mesmerising Albanian Riviera and its bright-blue Adriatic waters the entire way.
It’s quiet… perhaps too quiet
Curiously, many of Albania’s beaches are highly under-populated by European standards – which may be its biggest charm of all for some.
It’s not an uncommon experience, even in the height of summer, to set your towel down on a patch of pristine beach when the nearest person is a good 100m away.
It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but for those looking for a relaxing wind-down and to avoid swathes of tourists, it’s difficult to do better than Albania for this reason.
Among the best spots along the riviera is Dhërmi, which enjoys the most crystalline ocean anywhere in the Balkans. As a result, it’s quickly becoming a resort town, with hotels littering the coast – but until Albania’s popularity has adequately grown, the crowds will remain relatively small.
Sarandë, Vlorë and Himarë are also popular seaside towns, boasting incredible beaches that are well worth stopping off at for a day or two.
It’s just so cheap
Many Kiwis keen on European travel are hindered by the huge expense of getting there. As a result, a holiday in Albania may feel like too much of a financial burden to justify.
But the expense of getting there is cushioned by how much you’ll pay once you’ve arrived.
In many ways Albania feels more like South-East Asia than Europe; it’s hot and dry, there are beautiful beaches everywhere, and it’s unbelievably, ludicrously cheap.
Five-star hotels you’d expect to pay a fortune for are suddenly affordable, and you could theoretically eat out for every meal and still find yourself spending less than NZ$20 a day per person on food. Think NZ$3 for döner kebabs, NZ$1 for gelato and less than NZ$10 for a restaurant dish.
Even normally costly excursions and activities like boat tours or visits to its famous castles or archaeological sites shouldn’t hit you too hard in the pocket.
Travel, too, is inexpensive. If you take the daring approach of travelling by bus to your destinations (more on this later), it’ll cost no more $10 for a journey lasting five or six hours.
Even taxis, normally a travel no-no for those serious about keeping to their budget, are cheap and thus a genuine option for journeys of several hours.
It’s not for everyone
Despite everything it’s got going for it, Albania isn’t for everyone, and does have a few hang-ups that may make you think twice before booking a trip there.
Having only recently escaped the clutches of communism, Albania’s only been accessible for foreigners since 1991, making it a somewhat unknown quantity. This is perhaps the main reason it rarely features on Kiwis’ travel bucket lists.
Albania’s terrible public transport system is a major drawback; buses are extraordinarily unreliable and rarely on time, and timetables prove near impossible to access and rarely adhered to anyway. It’s common for Albanians to call the bus driver directly if they are travelling from one village to another, to find out when it’s coming by.
And there are other issues, too – rampant corruption, for one (which has proven such a stumbling block that its attempts to join the EU have so far fallen flat), poverty and a major lack of infrastructure outside of cities.
It’s a good fit for experienced travellers
If you’re feeling adventurous and open-minded, Albania can be a massively rewarding travel destination – especially if you have good travel experience.
Its proximity to Greece, Croatia and Italy makes it an easy country to add on to more traditional European travel. But Albania has a distinct spirit, while retaining the cerulean waters of the Adriatic that make visits to that part of the world so special.
The value of the New Zealand dollar in the country is a huge drawcard, and its multitude of otherworldly beaches and quaint coastal villages – many of which are seemingly unpopulated – make it a must-visit location.
It’s important, though, that you know what you’re getting yourself into. This is not the south of France.
Albania is still somewhat a secret travel destination, and until it has the throngs of tourists that flock to the continent’s best-known summer destinations, it may be a while until it can match the level of organisation and tourist information available there.
So, while you’re right to expect jaw-dropping landscapes and picturesque beachside resorts, be prepared for some experiences which may feel more like that of a third-world country than southern Europe.