Mediterranean Europe is the go-to summer destination for millions of Americans. Famous for its crystal-clear waters, picturesque coastal villages, and incredibly ancient nations, the region is bracing for a record increase in tourism this season.
As strange as it sounds, one of the Mediterranean’s most beautiful swimming spots, which has recently earned the nickname of ‘the Maldives of Europe‘, is still flying under the radar of most travelers.
We’re not talking Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast, the increasingly trendy Montenegro, nor any of these off-path Greek islands: it’s Ksamil, in the hugely underrated Albania, that should be on your bucket list.
The Maldives Of Europe Is An Underrated Balkan Country
‘The Maldives of Europe’ is a small beach town in Southern Albania, in a coastal strip commonly called Albanian Riviera, straddling the turquoise-colored Ionian Sea and a stone’s throw away from the Greek island of Corfu.
In the post-pandemic scene, Albania has risen to prominence as one of the trendiest sunny spots in Europe due to stunning nature and cultural wealth, though there is a catch:
Tourists arriving at the airport in Tirana, the country’s largest, are often disappointed when they don’t immediately get the ‘Maldives’ vibes they had manifested:
More often than not, they will take a short trip to Durres, the closest port to Tirana, and pay the under-developed municipal beach a visit, where the seas are an uninviting gray and the beaches excessively pebbly, usually calling it a day.
In order to experience Albania’s coastal charm, you must head South.
The Long Drive South To Paradise
The Albanian capital, and its accompanying port, are ridden with communist-era landmarks, and though they make for an exciting city break, Tirana or Durres exist in a different realm altogether than that of the Southern Albanian Coast.
The easiest way to travel Albania is renting a car, as inter-municipal buses regularly do not run on time, and train service between cities is non-existent, which makes the mission of reaching the European Maldives slightly more complicated.
Driving down the rugged Albanian coastline on a road path that traverses subtropical reserves, deep valleys, and beachfront villages, you will be met with breathtaking panoramas of the azure Adriatic and Ionian seas, arguably the prettiest minor seas that form part of the wider Mediterranean.
The shortest distance between Tirana, where the main international airport, is Saranda, the largest city in Southern Albania, is only 4h55. Here the seas are already crystal-clear, and there is a booming resort scene, as well as daily ferries leave for Corfu, in Greece.
A short 14 km from Saranda, along the SH81 route, there is a much more quaint town that’s set to become the Mediterranean’s next big thing.
The Quaint Ksamil
Ksamil is a coastal workers’ village built during the communist years, when Albania was under a dictatorship, just outside the municipal boundaries of Saranda, and on the road to Butrint, with the sole goal of boosting olive oil and tangerine production.
With a population of just under 10,000 people, it’s come a long way since then, turning its focus to tourism, which has kept growing at a rapid rate since democracy was reinstated in Albania, and it’s now a highly affordable, idyllic sunny getaway most Americans are completely unaware of.
With its white beaches, laid-back atmosphere, and crystalline seas, it’s easy to see why a Maldives comparison would have arisen.
Ksamil is essentially a relaxation retreat, with only a handful of tourist accommodations, AirBnBs, and boutique stays to supply demand. You will not find ultra-luxurious resorts, all-inclusive hotels, or those dreaded gated expat communities, known to drive prices up.
In fact, there are no five-star properties listed on Booking.com, making this one of Europe’s last surviving beach locations not yet swallowed up by luxury brands.
Some of the most expensive hotels in the area, such as Hotel Livia or Hotel Piramida, welcome guests on nightly rates of just US$84 and US$135, respectively, a shockingly-affordable price for the Mediterranean high season, while there are numerous private, secluded villas, and beachfront apartments in the center of town for as cheap as US$66 per night.
To draw a comparison, nightly rates for similar properties in Oia, one of the largest settlements in the Greek island of Santorini, start at a whopping US$221 for August dates on the same booking platform, though they can go as high as an eye-watering US$7,903 (for a private villa with a pool).
Spain’s busy Balearic island of Mallorca is no different, where a double room in a ‘good’ hotel with breakfast included can set you back by as much as US$215 per night. Staying in Ksamil, you get to enjoy similar amenities for a much cheaper price.
Want to treat yourself and have a nice dinner at a mid-range beachfront restaurant in the neighboring, vibrant city of Saranda? You should budget in a mere US$36.86 for a three-course meal… For two people.
If you’re a culture enthusiast, you’re also in luck, as a majority of historical attractions in the vicinity are either free to visit or have a symbolic ‘entry fee’.
At the same time, the landmark Kalaja e Lëkurësit, a medieval castle perched on a hilltop featuring a spacious restaurant overlooking Saranda, Ksamil, and the wider Riviera, is free for visitors.
You won’t find a better vacation deal than the Albanian Riviera anywhere in the Mediterranean.
But why is Ksamil so cheap and under-visited if it’s so gorgeous, you may be wondering?
A Hidden Subtropical Gem
Tourism in Albania had also not taken off well into the early 2000s, following a deep economic recession in the late nineties and the legacy of the communist years, which resulted in much of the country facing a severe lack of critical infrastructure, let alone tourist infrastructure, up until recently.
For instance, Southern Albania doesn’t even have an international airport, and the country’s only major hub in use is in Tirana, the inland capital, a four to five-hour drive North.
This year, it ranked as the second most sought-after vacation spot on AirBnB worldwide, so the secret seems to be out; nevertheless, it is harder to get to, and a majority of vacationers, especially Americans flying from across the pond, tend to favor more ‘traditional’ destinations they can fly to directly, or that wouldn’t involve long, complicated layovers or land transfers.
Ksamil may be poised to become the Mediterranean’s next hotspot, but Albania’s disadvantaged economy and less-than-impressive efforts to develop tourism locally may hold mass tourism back for more years.
Is Under-development To Blame?
On top of that, despite being an official candidate for European Union (EU) membership, Albania is still a long way off from becoming a member or adopting the Euro as the official currency.
This means the depreciated Albanian lek will remain in use for the next years, keeping Albania ‘cheap’ for foreigners, unlike Croatia, which ditched the kuna recently to become a Euroized state, edging ever closer to Western European prices.
Other beach areas in Southern Albania, Pema and Thatë are going viral on TikTok as well, due to their peaceful beach huts equipped with hammocks swinging over the ocean, available for daily rent starting at only US$9.90.
Next time, don’t think too hard: add the budget-friendly, stunning Albanian Riviera to your summer wishlist./Traveloffpath