Albania: The Magic Off the Well-Worn Path

Albania is still a place where you can have the world to yourself and your own unique adventure–even off the well-worn path.  

Tucked away between Montenegro and Greece, lies a hidden gem that has long been overlooked by travelers. The Balkan country of Albania, touches both the Adriatic and Ionian Seas. And while neighbor to popular tourist destinations like Venice, Italy; Dubrovnik, Croatia; and Corfu, Greece; Albania is rarely, if ever, mentioned in the same conversation. The reason for this relative obscurity is due to a long history of conquests, war, and isolation. While the 1990’s finally brought about an independent nation open to the West, and a more democratic political system, an economic collapse in the late-90s led to a rise in organized crime.  

Unfortunately, this is what many still associate with the region today. However, by the mid-2000s, Albania pledged with neighboring countries to fight this organized crime and applied for EU membership in April 2009. They were granted official EU candidate status in June 2014 and by June 2018, the European Council agreed on a pathway to starting accession talks with Albania by the end of 2019.  

Despite a history of turmoil, and an image tarnished by crime and political unrest, Albania has fiercely preserved its own unique ethnic and cultural heritage. This is important in a modern travel environment when travelers are searching for authentic experiences and destinations that feel unchartered. While many tourists have traditionally sought out well-known bucket list attractions, a new generation of travelers are searching for unique places that take a little more effort to get to, but the reward is relatively untouched landscapes, deep-rooted culture, and a refreshing lack of other tourists. Albania, with its complicated but rich history, dramatic landscapes, and pristine beaches, make it a perfect destination for a Mediterranean adventure.  

To explore the country properly, I would strongly recommend renting a car and discovering on your own. While you can of course fly into the capitol city of Tirana, you can traverse the whole coastline, top-to-bottom, by crossing the border at either end of the country. At the southern border, a short 30-minute ferry ride from the island of Corfu, deposits you in the bustling coastal town of Serande. Known as the unofficial capital of the Albanian Riviera, it is a delight for seafood lovers and those looking for an "insta-worthy" sunset over Corfu. 

You can also enter at the northern end from Montenegro. A convenient and beautiful route is to fly into Dubrovnik and drive the full coast of Montenegro into Albania. Albania’s coastline stretches almost 300 miles, with beaches to suit all tastes and preferences. The entire coast of Albania can be driven in about 6 hours, but plan for many stops as it is home to some of the most beautiful beaches in the Mediterranean, with pristine waters and endless soft sand. 

Dermi is one of the longest beaches in Albania with views that appear straight out of a postcard. However, this obvious beauty and easy accessibility also means you won’t be alone. If you are into a beach with a fun and energetic vibe, you’ll find it here. If a less crowded and more relaxed beach is more your speed, take the short drive to Drymades. Just across the Adriatic from Italy, this small beach has both rocky and sandy shores.  

It is a wonderful alternative to the madness of the Mediterranean and is rarely busy, even in the summer months. Need even more solitude? Head to the city of Vlora, where the Ionian Sea and the Adriatic converge. From Vlora port, you can hire a boat tour to the quiet pristine bays of both Karaburun and Sazan. After all that tranquility, you may again be ready for the hustle and bustle of a beautiful coastal town. Ksamil, located in the south of the country, is a picture-perfect paradise. It can get crowded in the summer months, but if you have never been, it’s worth carving your spot out along this calm bay on the crystal waters of the Ionian sea. It also has three small islands in the bay you can reach by local boat, or even swim to if you are feeling energized. 

The beauty of this country is that has more to offer than just stunning beaches. Albania's rugged terrain and mountainous landscape make it a hiker's paradise with a plethora of trails for both seasoned hikers and beginners. About three-fourths of its landscape consists of mountains, with the most impressive ranges referred to as the Albanian Alps. You'll pass through dense forests, crystal-clear streams, and breathtaking valleys, all while taking in the fresh mountain air.  

I’d personally recommend the Maja e Vajushes hike in the Northern village of Lepushe. Even getting there is a treat. There are endless stops along the mountain roads with beautiful lookouts across some of the most stunning natural scenery in the country. While driving these winding roads, be sure to keep an eye out for the true locals; rogue sheep gangs that seem to have no master and clearly rule both the countryside and the towns. It’s also worth a stop in the small town of Theth for a bite to eat. The town looks like a mini version of a Colorado ski-town with stone promenades and lodge-like buildings perched on the side of a creamy blue raging river.  

Albania's mountain regions skew heavily toward Balkan flavors. A lot of meat, local vegetables, and sauces. A specialty seemed to be potatoes, oven roasted in cheese, cream, and spices. I still dream about those potatoes to this day and have not been able to recreate the magic at home, no matter how many times I have tried. The best part about the food you will get in Albania is that it is almost completely locally sourced. About half of the economically active population is employed in agriculture, and the country meets nearly all its food needs from domestic production. While the fare is simpler than a Western diet, it’s about as fresh, local, and organic as it comes.  

Upon arriving in the Village of Lepushe, we checked into Guesthouse Alpini Lepushe. A family run farm nestled at the base of a magnificent valley. Their four newly built two-story chalets offer stunning views of the heart of the Albanian Alps from your balcony. The base of the Maja e Vajushes hike is no more than a 5-minute drive away. The first hour of the hike is through a winding forest via a well-marked trail. You emerge from the woods into lush green hills and a single small farmhouse. This sweeping meadow was where our relatively easy 3-hour hike turned into 8 hours of misadventure!  

There are various routes to reach the summit, and it seems we may have taken all of them. While we followed the markers, just as we had the first hour through the woods, those markers are just spray-painted rocks that, apparently, can easily be shifted to point you in exactly the wrong direction. After winding around some trails that did not lead to a summit, and then ascending the wrong summit, we made the executive decision to traverse down the side of the incorrect summit instead of back-tracking another hour. Traverse is a nice way to say I was in a barely controlled slide as my bare hands managed to find every single thistle bush in Albania! Following some more questionable decisions, we finally reached the steepest climb I have ever witnessed in person.  

In this moment, my hangry, thistle-ravaged self, regretted ever suggesting Albania as a vacation. But it is amazing what a bag of bagel chips and an absolute breathtaking view will do to turn your mood around!  

Once on the actual summit and sufficiently fed, I sat atop that mountain and marveled at how much of the world there is still to see and all the hidden places most travelers don’t know exist. While we did see half a dozen hikers throughout the day, we were completely alone on the summit.  

Just after coming down from the summit, we found the original trail that was literally a straight, clear path back to that farmhouse. This is the magic of Albania. It is still a place where you can have the world to yourself and your own unique adventure–even off the well-worn path.  


Summer Corbitt originally wrote this feature for the 2023 Travel Advisor Magazine.

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