A little-known jewel on the southeastern Balkan Peninsula, Albania has emerged from a treacherous political history as a top Mediterranean destination. They boast their very own Alps, picturesque river canyons, fertile valleys and endless coves of turquoise waters. Nestled on the Adriatic and Ionian Seas, Albania’s neighbors include Montenegro and Kosovo to the north, North Macedonia to the east and Greece to the south with Italy a ferry ride to the west.
Several UNESCO sites dot the country signifying a rich and diverse history along with the 175,000 bunkers built by the late brutal dictator, Enver Hoxha. With no shortage of activities and sights, Albania makes for an adventurous vacation at just the right price.
#1 Albanian Alps
Who knew that this tiny country sported such spectacular mountains? Our journey began by crossing over the border by car from Montenegro and heading to Valbona via Skodra, one of Albania’s larger cities. Mind you, Albania’s population is a mere 3 million so it is not crowded by American standards.
The route to the Alps includes a stunning ferry ride on the glassy, teal waters of Koman Lake. Steep slopes wrapped in thick forests line the rivers’ edge and take you back in time as you peer up at isolated villages teetering on rock ledges. About three quarters of the way to disembarking at Fierza, a vertical gorge rises several hundred feet winding around blind corners and spinning the river a milky green.
Post ferry ride, our scenic drive snakes along the Valbona River and deposits us in the stunning mountain town of the same name. Hordes of beech trees line the mountain range eloquently shadowed by snowy mountain peaks and the occasional waterfall. Hiking trails border the rocky river bed carved up by intersecting ice blue streams. The main trail, popular in summer with steadfast European trekkers, leads you 16 miles through the range to Thethi, the other Albanian Alp town but the trail is closed during winter. The silence of the river valley on our hike was only punctuated by a small avalanche echoing across the valley; a striking site but one I was glad to be gazing at from afar.
#2 The Albanian Riviera
From Vlore down to the Greek border, Albania delivers on beaches, private coves and aqua waters like Pappa John’s delivers pizza. We began our Ionian Sea adventure in Saranda, the largest town in the south. Corfu, Greece is a short ferry ride away and makes for a nice backdrop at sunset.
Seafood restaurants and hotels sprinkle the azure shoreline and small harbor. This central location allowed us to bounce around to several different beaches both north and south. Ksamil to the south is a smaller coastal town where we charted a small boat to a deserted island and wallowed away the day sunbathing and swimming.
Further up the coast on the very winding road (attention passengers who are prone to car sickness) we hit empty pebble beaches with a smattering of lounge chairs and restaurants as it was the shoulder season. Rumor has it that the beaches crowd during peak summer months with tourists seeking sun, music and libations. Buceni, Livadh, Jale and Dhermi were some of our favorites as well as an overnight stay in Himara.
#3 Hospitality Is The Rule of Law In Albania
One of the special treats about visiting Albania is the people! Forget those stories from Taken about trafficking and drugs… we found the locals overwhelmingly kind and welcoming. Keep up with your dance moves because you will be asked to dance the Shota when touring. The Shota is a communal dance spontaneously erupting at every social event where strangers are invited to join hands and circle the room in synchronized steps.
We danced in the Alps at a ten-year-old boy’s birthday party, in Berat at a company team building event and again at a seventeen-year-old girl’s birthday bash in Saranda. Albanians share their language with no one, unlike their northern Serbo-Croat neighbors, but most locals we encountered spoke excellent English, which they are required to learn in school. Warm service in restaurants and hotels permeated the country as did the staff’s sincere thanks for visiting their homeland of which they are extremely proud.
#4 Mediterranean Cuisine with a Twist
Green fertile valleys and plains provide fresh vegetables, fruits, meats and wines throughout Albania. We dined on specialties like Tavë which closely resembles a casserole (think comfort food.) It is made with lamb, yogurt and eggs and pairs well with the local Pilsner, Tirana.
The breakfast table consistently dazzled us with fresh feta cheese, homemade breads, sliced cucumbers, boiled eggs and assorted meats. Another specialty for the hearty eater is the byrek, or filo pastry pie prepared with various fillings such as meat, spinach and feta cheese, or cottage cheese.
Along the coast we devoured mussels, grilled octopus, fresh fish and squid. A stop at the family owned and operated Cobo Winery outside of Berat introduced us to the local grape, Sheshi i Zi, recently resurrected and considered the “father” of Cabernet. Other wines included Merlot/ Cabernet blends and the specialty of the house, a sparkling wine called “Shendevere” which aptly translates to “joy and happiness of the soul.”
# 5 Albania is Cheap!
What’s not to like about a 10 to 1 exchange rate? The Lek is the currency used in Albania and the rate for Americans goes quite a long way. While five-star resorts have yet to sprout in the Alps and along the beaches, there are plenty of charming boutique hotels with great views and affordable restaurants.
Our sea view room in Ksamil with a large balcony and jacuzzi tub as well as breakfast cost less than $200 a night. An “expensive” meal in the capital, Tirana, came in at $12 a plate. We thought our eyes were deceiving us. The hotels also haven’t reached a point where there is a “western” price and a “local” price so dust off your passports and purchase those at-home COVID tests!
Don’t forget towns like Berat, Butrint and Gjirokaster that boast castles and magnificent views along with buildings and derelicts dating back to Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman rule. Spend a day in Tirana just to visit the Bunk’Art Museum that cleverly details the gruesome and terrifying reign of Enver Hoxha and stroll through the impressive National Arts Gallery near Skanderbeg Square. Reserve now before it becomes the next Croatia!