2009's backpacking secret is ... Albania
Ask someone to give you their list of "paradise" destinations and Albania is probably one of the least likely places to crop up. But as I drop my bags, kick off my flip-flops and dive into a turquoise sea, the "P" word is the only way to describe what I'm seeing.
Bobbing about on my back, I strain my eyes right and left in a bid to spot another human being, but all I can see is smooth white sand stretching away in both directions for about three miles. Mountains rise up just behind the beach, huddling together to increase my privacy. And as if that's not utopian enough, I've even got my own "private" beach bar, where resident mixologist Bledi rustles up mojitos for £3 a pop.
In Albania, this counts as expensive. No wonder increasing numbers of backpackers are making their way over here. According to student travel specialist STA Travel, there has been a huge rise in demand for trips to the country, which was once regarded as Europe's poor relation.
"We have noticed a massive increase in the number of gap-year travellers and backpackers wanting to try Albania," says STA's Ian Swain.
When I went backpacking, in the late 90s, it was all about Thailand, with its talcum-powder sand, beach huts and low-key bars. But getting there required an endurance test of 15 hours in economy class, not to mention a sizable dent in the student loan. My trip to Drymades Beach involved only a three-hour flight. All right, I then had to spend a few more hours on the bus that weaves its way along the rocky mountain roads that lead south from Tirana, the capital city. But that just meant I had the opportunity to hop off en route and explore some of the country's coastal nooks and crannies.
The Albanian Riviera stretches nearly 300 miles from Vlore down to Butrint, forming one of the last stretches of unspoilt shoreline in Europe. Around almost every corner there's a strip of empty sand that has managed to escape invasion by the package holiday hordes.
Heading out of Tirana for the coast, one of the first places I stopped at was Orikumi, home to the ruins of an ancient village dating back to 600BC. In other countries it would all be roped off, with overpriced tickets and T-shirts on sale. Here, however, I could wander at will around the remains, crunching along a path strewn with bits of old Roman pottery. I felt like a pasty-faced Indiana Jones stumbling across a lost city. While a large proportion of Orikum (as the village was originally called) is buried under the nearby estuary, the amphitheatre, market stalls and sacrificial altar are still largely intact.
From here, my route continued up into the Cika Mountains, where the smell of pine trees and hot earth wafted in through the open windows of the bus, fuelling my desire to find a beach and cool off as soon as possible. I didn't have to wait much longer.
After winding up through the Llogara Pass, at 1,100m (3,609ft), the road began to weave its way down to the coast and I got my first glimpse of what the backpackers are getting so excited about. The edge of Albania stretched out into the distance, bordered the whole way along by a ribbon of white sand. The only symptoms of human "civilisation" were the domes of the machine gun bunkers scattered every few hundred metres along the shore - leftovers from the country's paranoid dictator Enver Hoxha, who died in 1985.
Reaching the coast, we turned off the tiny "main" road and headed down to Palassa Beach, bouncing down a track that would break the average rental car. I wasn't about to complain about having my teeth shaken loose over the potholes, though; the lack of tarmac is the main reason why the region has yet to be gripped by the tentacles of mass tourism.
The reward for those prepared to put in the effort is a three-mile stretch of beach to call your own. The only sound here is the hypnotic rattle of pebbles being raked over the shoreline. In 48BC, Julius Caesar landed here from Rome, on his way to battle Pompey at Pharsalus in northern Greece; I've a hunch it hasn't changed much since. As with most of the beaches I came across, there's nothing (and no one) stopping you from simply plonking a tent up and spending a few nights here.
Do that, though, and you're in danger of missing out on Bledi's freshly made mojitos. Drymades is the next beach along, and it's here that pebbles are replaced by smooth sand and a mellow soundtrack of Cafe del Mar-style tunes.
After emerging from my spontaneous dip I finally bump into another visitor. Edward is an Albanian artist looking for inspiration. "I love it here," he tells me, as we wait for Bledi to mix mojito number three. "You should see it first thing in the morning, when the sun comes up. It'll blow your mind."
It wasn't just the beach bar lifestyle that brought back memories of backpacking in Thailand; the accommodation was similar, too. Tucked away in the woods behind the beach are a bunch of wooden, one-bedroom huts, with kitchens and shower rooms. They are basic but comfortable - especially when you're spending most of your time catching rays on the beach.
If you do find yourself craving some civilisation (ancient or modern), you'll find it just a couple of hours' drive away, in Saranda. When the sun goes down, you can see the lights of Corfu twinkling across the water like tiny glow-worms in the distance.
A few days after dragging myself away from Drymades, I sit sipping the froth off a cappuccino while fishermen putter about in the little harbour, their boats chock-full of freshly caught fish. I could happily spend the day here, watching the world go by, but this is merely a pause on the way to Butrint.
The ruins of this city form an architectural index of ancient history, with Greek, Roman and Venetian remains all contained on one tiny island. Located half-an-hour's drive south of Saranda, on the edge of a beautiful blue lagoon, it was a thriving port for more than a thousand years and is now a Unesco world heritage site.
Starting at sea level I amble along avenues of shady trees, working my way up through time until I reach the island's highest point. The route takes me past an ancient Roman bathhouse and Christian baptistry, before leading me up steps worn smooth by centuries of shuffling feet to the magnificent Venetian castle. In the 15th century this would have provided an important early peek at hostile visitors; now it's ideal for spotting sea eagles circling over the electric-blue water.
Albania is not all old ruins and rudimentary beach huts, though. Making my way back north towards Tirana, I spend the final few nights at a boutique hotel, Rapo's, in the village of Himara.
This is the first glimpse I get of Albania's potential future - one with Wi-Fi, swanky dark wood sunbeds and poolside waiter service. While it's all very nice, I can't resist sneaking off down a nearby track to find yet another deserted beach. Developers must be itching to get their hands on this place but, for now, the backpackers have it to themselves.
British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) flies from Gatwick to Tirana from £200, including taxes. Huts at Drymades Beach sleep two people and cost from €25 (00 355 69 229 3463; email firstname.lastname@example.org). Doubles at the Rapo's Resort Hotel in Himara (00 355 39 322856; raposresorthotel.com) cost from €65, including breakfast. For more information about visiting Albania see albaniantourism.com.
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