The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday
This unspoilt gem is Europe’s answer to the Caribbean
Mark Stratton heads to little-known Albanian coastal village Ksamil – and finds sunshine, history and surprisingly good value
I saw an Instagram post recently describing the Albanian coastal town of Ksamil as the “Caribbean of Europe”. With its palm trees, dazzling beach, azure sea and thatched parasols, it bore more than a passing resemblance, so I decided to pay a visit to see how the comparison stacked up.
It’s certainly quicker and cheaper to reach than Barbados. I flew to Corfu, the closest Greek island to the Albanian Riviera, which runs for 100 miles along the eastern Ionian Sea coast. From Corfu Town it’s a 40-minute ferry crossing to Saranda, from which I took a 30-minute taxi ride south to Ksamil, which sits just above Northern Greece’s border.
Ksamil didn’t exist until Enver Hoxha’s communist regime established it in the 1960s as a base for olive oil production. Now, it’s a small but growing village in a scalloped bay – its beach lined with hotels, restaurants and bars. At Poda Boutique Hotel, I met owner – and author of the Instagram post that drew me here – Anna Poda.
“You can see the turquoise sea and white sands are quite Caribbean,” she said cheerily, before confessing that their palm trees are imported. “People come for 310 days of sunshine each year and really good prices.”
She has a point about both the sea and the prices. Sediment from the marble mountains creates a white, sandy sea bottom that lends a striking milky blueness; while my half-board double room, with its magnificent balcony view towards Corfu, cost just £80 per night. Throughout, the Albanian Riviera proved to be outstanding value, especially the seafoodheavy cuisine. At the hotel, a three-course meal of Greek salad, mussel linguine and grilled sea bass cost just £17.
There’s history as good as anywhere in Europe within striking distance of Ksamil, too – with the Greek, Roman and Ottoman civilisations all leaving their mark. Butrint, a stone’s throw from Ksamil, is one of Albania’s four Unesco World Heritage Sites and was mentioned in Virgil’s Aeneid as dating before the fall of Troy. But its true glory began around the 3rd century BC, when the Romans swaggered in and left characteristically sublime structures, including a 3,000-capacity theatre with Latin inscriptions warning spectators to keep their feet off the seats.
Wilder spots – like Pigeons Cave, where the sea is incandescently turquoise and bookended by strikingly white cliffs – are still easy to come by, but there are already plans for the development of five-star hotels and luxury villas further up the coast, characterless eyesores that loom large in the Albanian Riviera’s future.
But for now, it resembles the Corfu of 50 years ago. I spent a final night near Vlore, where the Ionian Sea becomes the Adriatic and the Paradise Beach Hotel has huge sea-facing doubles for £75. The evening air was warm, the sea an inky blue, and the staff treated me like a long-lost friend. Never mind the Instagram puffery, who needs Caribbean calypso when you’ve got a glass of raki to toast a sunset turning distant Greek islands into silhouettes?