When it comes to the world's most beautiful beaches, some contenders are a given. For starters there's Thailand, Australia, Brazil and, of course, the Caribbean. Even in Europe you might look to Spain's coast or Croatia's islands... But have you considered Albania? This undiscovered gem of a country is on the cusp on becoming Europe's next big thing. Yes, really. You may have barely heard of it, but that won't stop you falling in love with the stunning Adriatic coastline.
In case you're still wondering exactly where it is, Albania is a small, mountainous country in the Balkan peninsula. Bordered by Greece and a ferry ride from Italy, it's quite literally one of Europe's last untouched destinations. The reason for this, primarily, is a tumultuous history. All but completely isolated from the rest of the world, Albania was under strict communist rule until the early 1990s. Since then, however, it's begun to catch up with its neighbors. (Though remains significantly more affordable than them.)
Although it's brimming with quaint mountain towns and historic cities, Albania's main draw is its scenery. The best beaches can be found at the southern tip of the country, and the bustling seaside resort of Saranda is a good place to start this exploration. The town is packed with sights from the remains of a monastery to a stylish waterfront promenade. But the most noteworthy attraction has to be Blue Eye Spring, a dazzlingly beautiful pool nearby. Back in Saranda (where you should be staying at the Demi Hotel , and enjoying its private beach), consider taking a trip to Ksamil, just 15 minutes away.
Not only is the village known for boasting some of the region's only sandy beaches, but the several small islands close by are as remote as they are beautiful. Accessible only by boat, they're truly something special. They also form part of the larger Butrint National Park, parts of which have been classed UNESCO Heritage Sites. Home to some of the region's loveliest beaches, the waters around Ksamil are azure blue and the beer and seafood plentiful. In the small village itself, two restaurants stand out: Guvat , for local dishes and perfect views, and Legisi , for other-worldly pizza and seafood.
If you're still eager to explore the country's stunning beaches, a last hidden gem to check out is Gjipe Beach. A highlight of the Albanian Riviera, it's accessible only via a tiny track, and offers both seclusion and stunningly clear water. The beach is at the end of a canyon - not deep but pretty overgrown, it makes for a fantastic hike (read: climb). Not one for beginners.
When you're looking to get back to civilization, look no further than Tirana, the country's capital. Book a room at historic boutique Kotoni , and settle into the city's (surprisingly) charming business district. The most pleasant thing to do in Tirana is wander its boulevards. Reminiscent of the country's Ottaman, Italian and communist past, they're just one example of the city's eclectic, colourful architecture. And if you eat in just one restaurant, make it Pastarella , a no-nonsense but delicious seafood hot spot. Another city worth visiting is Berat, a worthy UNESCO World Heritage Site. Super easy-going, it's known for the gorgeous Ottoman houses climbing the hill to its castle.
It may surprise visitors to know there's both a fairly vibrant nightlife here and in Tirana. From bars and clubs to live music venues, there's something for everyone. ( Take 5 Jazz Club is particularly atmospheric, a must-visit in the capital.) But, back to the country's biggest draw, the beauty. If you're looking for something more active than lazing by the beach, the hiking scene won't disappoint.
There's plenty of trails for the intrepid explorer, particularly as the Albanian Alps have very few tourists and such pristine surroundings. The 'Peaks of the Balkans' trail stuns thanks to the small paths winding up the mountains to 2,300 meters above sea level. Packed with green valleys, crystal-clear lakes and remote mountain villages, it's pretty much the dream alpine trail. What are you waiting for? Albania's calling.