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Here’s a test. When you think of travelling the Albanian coastline or indeed Albania in general, what comes to mind? A hint of danger? Liam Neeson? A country with a vast land-mass of war-torn buildings with donkeys and cows crossing half-made gravel roads? Well, after facing “The Albanian Experience” (in capitals and inverted commas) I can tell you that you’re somewhat correct. But there’s also an unbelievably pristine and largely untouched Albanian Riviera located along the coastline from Saranda to the South and Vlore to the North. So, there’s that.
Albania – A bit of background
Albania is a forgotten little Balkan country with Greece to the south and Montenegro to the North. In the 90’s, Albania was marred with civil war and unrest after a government failed “pyramid scheme” left half of Albania’s GDP depleted overnight. The country was a no-go zone for travellers for many years. It’s still fairly corrupt, as the vast majority of wealth is arguably made through arms deals on the black market as the power/elite still have many stocked weapons depots leftover from the war, mostly in the North.
The Albanian Riviera in the South is a mere forty minute ferry ride from Corfu in Greece so you could practically swim there, which is mostly why a few friends and I decided to go. We’d been on a sail around the Ionian Islands with Yacht Getaways prior and wanted to continue our tans and adventures in a different country, albeit within close proximity to the Corfu harbour – our final stop on the sail.
If curiosity got the better of you in my last article explaining why travel in Albania is weird, and you’re keen to experience the pristine body of water that is the Albanian Riviera before the western hoards, then pay attention to the next part. Here’s some handy tips that’ll make travelling the Albanian Coastline a tad less headache-ey.
Tips for Travelling the Albanian Coastline
Saranda is the gateway town to the Albanian coastline, and you can easily get there by flying into Corfu (Greece) and then catching the ferry (40 minutes, 10-15 euros).
Handy Hint: Try your absolute best to avoid flying to and from Albania’s one and only airport in Tirana – it’s about a 7-9 hour drive from anywhere in the Riviera, and a waste of a day!
Car Rental in Albania
Intercity public transport doesn’t really exist in Albania, and when it does it’s unreliable and takes over twice as long to reach a destination. So if you’re planning on going anywhere further than a 2 kilometre radius of Saranda town, you’re going to need a hire car. And not just any old hire car, you’ll need a 4WD. The roads are a mixture of gravel and anxiety-inducing cliff-hangers, so the bigger the car, the better.
Handy Hint: You don’t need to book online if you plan on hiring a vehicle in Saranda. There’s a street full of car rental joints just after you disembark the ferry from Corfu. Hire companies won’t take a copy of your credit card or a deposit before they let you leave the depot. My guess is it’s because it’s virtually impossible to avoid car dints and scratches due to the state of the “roads”. You will need a driver’s license though.
We hired a little Suzuki 4×4 from Sipi Tours, one of said car rental joints above. We would have loved a Jeep but hey, beggars can’t be choosers. The condition of the car was OK (meaning, we made it all the way up the coast and back in one-piece). Car hire should cost about 15-25 Euros a day. Again, they will only take cash and usually take it up front.
As a rule, the more north you go the less ATM’s. If you’re staying in Saranda you’ll have no issues (there are a few around), but if you’re travelling up the coast you’ll need to plan ahead with your cash. Most hotels, restaurants and shops are cash only.
The shops in the main resort towns of Saranda and Hamil take both Euros and LEK. However smaller grocery shops and boutiques will only take LEK.
Handy fact: Everything will always be cheaper in LEK, so try to stock up on the national currency as often as you can.
Hotels in Albania
There is no such thing as a luxury hotel along the Albanian Coastline; only “luxury” ones. Meaning they are about 2-3 star at best. Albania has a good 15-20 years before they catch up to western standards with their tourism industry, but this only adds to the countries’ charm (and weirdness). We stayed at a hotel that was built into a cliff with breathtaking views of the Adriatic ocean. The rooms were clean; I could cliff jump off the pool ledge, and it had a bar. That about sums up the hotels’ redeeming qualities. Oh, and there were MILLIONS of live turtles in the garden.
I was travelling with two other blondes so we stood out like sore thumbs from the moment we arrived in the Albanian Riviera. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, but my point is if you’re a westerner, prepare to be stared at by locals the farther away from any beach promenade you walk. This is also the general rule-of-thumb the farther North (or off-the-beaten-track) you travel in Albania. Even other tourists (read: Albanians, Russians and Greeks) are wowed when they find out two Aussies and a Brit are sharing the same holiday destination and will most likely ask to take a photo with you! Z-grade celebrities, anyone?
Everyone is super friendly along the Albanian coastline due to its close proximity to Greece and because it survives mostly on tourism. I felt completely safe walking around the promenade of Saranda by myself at night until about 11pm when the town itself stopped buzzing.
Most speak English fluently and will go out of their way to help you with things like directions, attractions, recommendations etc. The teenage girls working in the supermarkets love to have a chat about make-up and beauty and anything teenage-ish really, so make sure you indulge them. On the whole, down south where tourism thrives, my experience suggests Albanians are a very friendly bunch.
Ah, Albanian food. If you follow this blog, you’ll know eating is one of my favourite pastimes. When I’m on the road I love trying new international dishes and seeking out restaurants to stuff myself. Food wasn’t high on our agenda this trip, so unfortunately I can’t really give you a rundown. I can say that if you’re staying in the resort towns you’re going to be consuming resort-type food – think meat and fries and Greek salads.
Albanian cuisine in general is a mix of seafood, lamb and veal – both hot and cold dishes – similar to what you might eat in Greece. In Saranda, we ate at a local restaurant just back from the main promenade called La Petit (which was, funnily enough, owned by a Greek) and it had amazingly fresh seafood dishes – I thoroughly recommend!
Pickpocketing and petty crime is virtually non-existent in the resort towns and as I discussed above, I felt safe wondering the main streets on my own at night until they emptied out.
You’ll have no trouble staying connected in Albania, and Vodafone international roaming works a treat (not sponsored). There’s WiFi at most hotels and it works better than most hubs in Australia.
The best stretch of Albanian coastline is between Saranda and Vlora. The trip between the two towns is about a 5-hour drive without stopping, but you’ll need to take into account the crazy roads, cliffs and drivers when trip planning. On the way you should spend some time at beautiful Khsamil Beach, Gjipe Beach, Himara Cove, Drymades … but skip Dhermi – it’s overrated. I’ll be writing a separate guide on the best beaches along the Albanian coastline, so stay tuned.
About an hour’s drive from Saranda is a natural phenomenon known as ‘Syri i Kalter’’ or ‘Blue Eye’, where an almost bottomless dark blue hole bubbles amidst the surrounding turquoise waters. Apparently nobody has ever swum to the bottom – this may be because glacial waters are freezing all year round and therefore not great for free-divers!
The Llogara Pass is the spectacular mountain road from Dhermi to Orikum. Sitting at a height of 1027 meters, the Llogara Pass or Qafa e Llogarasë is part of the Cika Mountain Range in the Llogara National Park.
To the South of the Himara Town, lies the village of Qeparo. It is one of the Albanian villages that has been cultivating olives for centuries. Both Greeks and Albanians live in the charming settlement of Qeparo, and you can stroll along its narrow streets with old houses.