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The Albanian Riviera

Known locally as "the Albanian Riviera," Saranda is a jewel in the process of being cut, and one largely unseen as yet by the world outside the Balkans. Located at the extreme southwest tip of Albania, just northeast of the Greek island Corfu, Saranda has escaped many of the hardships experienced by the northern parts of the country, and is free of the pollution that plagues the rest of the country's coastline. Saranda is right now what Greece was 60 years ago: A developing tourist hotspot, inexpensive and untouched by the international tourist hordes.

This is not to suggest that there are no tourists. Well-to-do Albanians enjoy visiting the city, and you'll even see some Greek and Italian nationals. And with Albania expected to receive an offer to join the European Union, Saranda has experienced a flood of investment, resulting in spectacular new hotels springing up everywhere. As a result, Saranda now has more accommodation than people to stay in it, which means the chance to enjoy five-star luxury at single-star prices.

Saranda offers far more than just fancy hotel rooms. The warm Ionian waters and sandy shoreline are enough to please any beach bunny, with none of the intimidatingly sharp and rocky cliffs found to the north. Dining options can be stellar, and the seaside promenade offers enticing opportunities to sit down with a drink by the water. When dusk is approaching, you can join the natives for their xhiro, or evening stroll, when it seems that the entire city turns out to socialize. And when it's finally dark outside, Saranda offers vibrant nightlife, with your choice of bars and nightclubs.

If you happen to notice what appear to be ancient ruins around Saranda, don't mistakenly imagine that they're simply remnants of the Communist regime, like the defensive concrete bunkers dotting the landscape. Albania, like its coastal neighbors, was once near the center of the sprawling Athenian and Roman empires. For a particularly impressive sight, head south away from Saranda to the archaeological site Butrint, an ancient Roman colony. There you'll find well-preserved fortifications, a small amphitheater and a temple. There's even a reconstructed hilltop fortress, though now it's only inhabited by tourists and a resident goat.

Heading to and from Butrint, take a good look at the sweeping, mountainous scenery unrolling around you. Daytrips in minibuses can take you further into the mountains, to beautiful villages and historical Ottoman towns like Gjirokastra. There's plenty to see within a day trip's distance from Saranda, and no shortage of drivers willing to take you. Just be prepared for switchbacks and even some dirt roads this is no place for freeways.

With friendly, welcoming people, an expanding economy and stunning natural surroundings, Saranda is poised to become a new favorite of the Mediterranean set. Now is the time to see Saranda, before tourist hordes rob it of any of its charm. So grab your bag, pack your swim trunks and sandals, and prepare for Mediterranean sun and fun, in a place few of your friends, and fellow travelers, have even heard of.

- Saranda Review by Chris Morrison

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