When I set off with JayWay Travel to for the southern coast of Albania, my friends were more than a little skeptical. Known for scouring the earth in search of the best beaches, they didn’t see the lure. To be honest, besides it being an off-the-beaten-path destination, I wasn’t sure what to expect myself in the Albanian Riviera.
What I found on this coastline where the Adriatic and Ionian seas meet was an idyllic seashore nothing short of magical, rivaling the beaches in the Caribbean, South Pacific, or Asia.
Beaches in the Albanian Riviera
Wait, what? An affordable beach paradise… in Europe? However unlikely, that’s what this little piece of heaven is. It’s no secret to residents of the Balkans who have been basking on these pristine beaches for quite years, but the rest of Europe is just starting to discover the region. As for Americans, it’s not even on their radar. Yet.
The shimmering unspoiled aqua beaches, the coastal villages snuggled into the bays, the vibrant sunsets, and the mouth-watering seafood all combine to make the Albanian Riviera one of the most outstanding bargains. Ksamil beach, across the channel from the Greek island of Corfu, rivals the beauty of the beaches of nearby Croatia and Greece, but staying here will cost approximately half as much. Even though this small village beach gets more crowded during the summer months, it’s yet to be discovered by foreigners so the local atmosphere is still intact.
The beach itself isn’t just one monotonous line of sand. It consists of small bays separated by rock formations, with a backdrop of mountains. The effect is stunning. From the beach, you can see four craggy islands that are an easy swim, paddleboard or boat ride away.
Food in the Albanian Riviera
We discovered utopia at Korali restaurant and beach club, where we had use of beach chairs and umbrellas, and al fresco dining on the most succulent and diverse variety of locally-caught fresh seafood you could imagine… octopus, mussels, shrimp, grilled fish, with cheeses, dips, and salads for appetizers, tasty vegetable side dishes, and baklava for dessert. Add in two bottles of wine and my margarita, and our dinner for seven people cost…wait for it…. $78 total! At Ksamil, I did something I have never yet done while traveling – I ate every lunch and dinner there. THAT’s how scrumptious it was.
Accommodations in the Albania Riviera
Ksamil is lacking in luxury high-rise hotels – which in my opinion was perfect as I’m not a fan of crowded, cookie-cutter resorts. The construction seems a bit oddly planned and the streets are not all paved, but that just added to the quirky uniqueness of the beachside village. JayWay Travel did not disappoint and booked us into a spectacular guest house just a few minutes’ walk from the beach. The suite was humongous; not only was there plenty of room for three of us, but we frequently invited the rest of our group of seven to come and have breakfast with us on our private terrace.
A block from the guest house was a small, festive bar where we joined locals who were watching a soccer playoff match with loud passion. I tried the local drink rakja (pronounced rah-key-ya), a high octane fruit brandy popular in the Balkans. It’s served neat in a small glass. The rest of our group loved it, but being a lightweight drinker, it was too strong for my liking.
Albanian Day Trips
If you are an adventurer (like me!) and don’t want to spend your time exclusively at the beach or stuffing yourself with the fresh delicious seafood, not to worry….there are a plethora of things to do and see a few minutes or few hours from Ksamil.
Here are five day-trips we took that not to be missed!
Butrint is a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the most important archaeological and unique archeological sites in the region. Some of the structures date from at least the 9th century B.C., but legends hint to occupation by Trojan exiles.
Contained within the grounds are historically significant archaeological ruins, the most impressive of which is the old amphitheater, which dates from the fourth century, B.C. and seats approximately 1,500. There’s also a monastery, a fort, a baptistery with intricate mosaics, ancient walls, the great basilica, Venetian castles and the remains of Roman courtyard houses. The site is surrounded by woodlands, olive groves, and a lagoon. It is this combination of historic monuments and natural environment that makes Butrint such a unique place.
2. The Blue Eye
Gazing into the Blue Eye, or “Syri i kaltër” as it is called in Albanian, is a truly hypnotic experience. The eye is part of a deep, continuously pumping aqua spring and natural phenomenon enclosed in a wooded nature reserve. Surrounded by bright green water, the eye itself is an intense electric blue outer ring with a dark blue middle like a pupil, which gives the illusion of a gorgeous blue eye when viewed from above. Divers have descended to 164 feet (50 meters), but the actual depth of the hole is unknown. It’s possible to swim in the spring or even jump from a platform that cantilevered over the eye, but with a water temperature of 50° F/10° C, not many take advantage, even on a hot day.
There are two enjoyable restaurants near the Blue Eye. One is very close and overlooks a breezy waterfall. The other is on a floating covered dock on the river just outside the entrance path to the Eye.
Gjirokastër is a UNESCO Heritage Site, the highlight of which is the castle at the top of the hill, the second largest in all the Balkans. The castle still has World War II prison cells which were used by the government for political prisoners during the Communist regime. The castle’s museum contains a collection of mostly post-War era weapons, photographs, artwork, and a WWII American airplane. The real treasure is the view of the city below from the roof of the dominating fortress.
In Old Town, the old bazaar is still the social and commercial center. There are also several examples of historic Ottoman houses at various levels of restoration which are open to the public.
4. Vlorë Beach
Briefly the capital of Albania, Vlorë is situated on the Bay of Vlorë on the rugged coastline of the Albanian Riviera, and is considered the frontier between the Adriatic Sea and the Ionian Sea. The northernmost point of the Albanian Riviera, Vlorë is known for its picturesque turquoise beach on Vlora’s bay which is closed in by the craggy peninsula of Karaburun, the largest peninsula in Albania. Nearby sights include the Castle of Vlora, Castle of Porto Palermo, and the Theatre of Orikum.
5. Corfu, Greece
A 15-minute drive to the port of Saranda, then a one-hour ferry ride takes passengers to the nearby Greek Island of Corfu. The island is delightful. Corfu old town is lined with cobblestone streets, medieval buildings, the old fort, and the street markets. White sand, turquoise beaches fringe the island and can be reached by public buses all day long. Corfu also has the most accessible airport to the Albanian Riviera, so I recommend spending a few days here either on your way in or out of Albania.
And for wine-lovers, don’t miss a visit to the Uka vineyards, Europe’s oldest winery, in Albania.
Much to the surprise of everyone who asks, Albania ranks at the top of my favorite countries in Europe, right up there with Croatia. And the people are unequaled as the #1 friendliest I’ve ever encountered, registering sheer delight when learning I was an American. The beaches and the food were superlative. For the money, JayWay’s customizable tour to Albania earns my highest endorsement.
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Disclosure: The author was honored to be the guest of JayWay Travel during her stay in Albania, but as always, the opinions, reviews, and experiences are her own.