Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Travel Influencers Keep Saying This Is the ‘Maldives of Europe.’ They’re Wrong.

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I fell for the promise of an under-the-radar paradise.

“Whoever called Ksamil ‘the Maldives of Europe’ must be an idiot,” a native Albanian texts me right before my trip to the Balkan country.

I should have known better than to trust social media, but videos and articles praising the country’s emerging hospitality scene had me hoping that I was about to experience a still-hidden treasure. In my mind, sun loungers, golden sand, and cocktails by the water were waiting for me at a fraction of the cost spent on the Maldives, Seychelles, or other pricey tropical destinations. All I had to do was book the trip, wade out into the sea in slow motion, and look demure.

My friend suggested that I should instead hire a driver and visit the quaint villages and Byzantine churches–these were Albania’s true treasures. I, however, wanted blue skies and blue waters. The internet had convinced me that the Albanian Riviera was the new Croatia or, as the influencers were saying on social media, the “Maldives of Europe.” I fell for the hype.

Far From a Calm Welcome

My first realization that Albania might be less relaxing I’d hoped was when I arrived in the port of Sarande, where taxi drivers stand in line vying for clients.

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“Forty-five euros!” shouted the first driver, whom I told I was going to Ksamil, about 30 minutes away. It didn’t sound unreasonable, but knowing that the price should have hovered around €20, the mark-up seemed aggressive. The next driver brought the price down to a more reasonable—if still 50% overpriced—€30 (note: almost every vendor takes euros, even though Albania’s official currency is the lek; what they don’t take readily are credit cards).

Having considered renting a car for the weekend, I was relieved that I’d given up that idea before my arrival. A more confident driver would have probably embraced the adventure, but as someone who appreciates road signs and knowing who has the right of way, the chaos of Albanian roads seemed better left to braver drivers.

Carita Rizzo

In Ksamil, the roads felt narrow and bumpy, and every street was packed with pedestrians. My taxi driver soon lost his patience trying to navigate the traffic and the people and instead allowed his car to slide down a rubble hill leading to my beachfront hotel.

Nevertheless, I arrived, and despite warnings on Hotels.com that Delight Hotel does not have a reception desk, I was received by staff and handed vouchers for sun loungers at Lori Beach, where I could wait for my room to be readied.

I parked myself on the outermost edge of a sundeck–far away from the kids that congregated in the shallow end of the water–ready to doze off to the sounds of smooth elevator music that wafted over from one of the nearby beach clubs.

“I want the boats! How much?” someone suddenly roared nearby.

I opened my eyes and saw a man standing right above me, defying all reasonable expectations for personal space. He was yelling at another man standing on the dock of the adjacent property. In the bay, bobbing between us, were three car-shaped pedal boats–a mere sampling of the countless tiny boats sprinkled around the bay.

The man in charge seemed only vaguely interested in renting them out, which led to the men exchanging loud expletives in English before they eventually came to a financial agreement. The large family, each member louder than the next, took over the boats and pedaled them in front of me for the next hour.

Could one just move? Sure, but the scene in Tetranisi Bay is spirited no matter where you lay your towel. Adult-only beach clubs are located inches away from child-friendly ones, with nothing separating them but a soft breeze. And, frankly, age is no guarantee for indoor voices. My dreams of wading into the quiet, empty bay were quickly dashed.

False Expectations Thanks to Social Media

Everything in life is about expectations. Mine were of tranquil, affordable luxury based on Instagram reels (who’s the idiot now?). These clips depicted the Albanian Riviera as heaven on earth. In retrospect, they were probably filmed in the early morning before the hordes of families and partiers settled in for the day. Or possibly, the videos were shot in the off-season, before prices sky-rocket and tourists flock. Whenever they shot these reels, everyone was careful not to include the cows or the dumpsters that were just out of frame.

As it turns out, the person who said, “Ksamil is the Maldives of Europe,” isn’t an idiot, as my friend believed. They’re just really good at cropping.

Carita Rizzo

At this point, I had a choice. I could spend the next two days disappointed about what Ksamil wasn’t, or I could figure out what the place actually delivers on. The front desk  helped me book a driver for half a day so I could visit the Blue Eye, a natural spring with crystal clear waters of teal and turquoise colors you wouldn’t believe exist in nature. But even this wasn’t what I’d hoped. Was I there alone without crowds? No. Was I able to swim? Not legally. Was it an easy excursion that gave me a sense of what this area might have been without human intervention? Sure.

Dinner that night comprised of grilled fish and vegetables on a randomly chosen rooftop overlooking the bay. It was as delicious as it was inexpensive. The sunset appeared like something straight from a brochure. It wasn’t hard to see how influencers have managed to sell this area as an under-the-radar paradise. Looking out to the water, the vibes were nearly reminiscent of the French and Italian Riviera.

On our last night I fully surrendered to the tourist experience of the Albanian Riviera. As I swayed to the beats of familiar songs on a rooftop restaurant packed with fellow out-of-towners, things finally clicked. Ksamil may still be under the radar, but no one was here looking for an off-the-beaten-path experience, they were simply here to enjoy themselves. Like party paradises that came before it, Albania’s coast is a destination where one could be anywhere and nowhere. A place like Cancun or maybe Las Vegas, where the motto is “what happens here, stays here.” Albania was definitely “just like” something, just not the Maldives.

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