In Corfu, the taxi driver just laughed at us.
“Albania!” He chuckled through his third cigarette of the 20 minute journey. Suddenly serious, he continued. “You don’t go there for holiday, you go for survival. Don’t go out at night, not safe.”
Outwardly I laughed. Inwardly I was mentally leafing through the ferry timetable for earlier return journeys, and wondering whether the two lessons of jiu jitsu I took when I was 8 would be enough to ward off the danger that awaited us.
Needless to say, had I needed to use aforementioned martial arts moves, I would have been immediately killed. Also needless to say, the taxi driver was full of shit. We got there, it was lovely, normally I wouldn’t bother you with the details.
However, given its relative unknown status, especially amongst us Brits, there’s not a great deal of good recent information about Ksamil, we only really heard of it when working out what to do in Corfu and then looking at pretty pictures. So in an attempt to rectify that, here’s what we did.
The easiest way to Ksamil is via Corfu. In fact it’s pretty much the only way if you’re coming from western Europe – Albania is not exactly laden with airports. We split our trip between Corfu and Ksamil, with about 5 days in each, and it worked nicely.
There’s a regular ferry between Corfu town and Sarande on the Albanian coast. In the summer months there are 3 or so a day, check out Ionian Seaways for a timetable. We booked tickets on the website, but don’t bother. The price is spectacularly incorrect, you don’t actually pay for the tickets in advance, and you can buy tickets from the port in about 5 minutes from the Ionian office.
Tickets cost about €24 per person one way as of 2017.
The boat takes about an hour for the slower ferry, but it’s a nice trip and dolphins often swim next to the boat – we saw them going out and coming back, and I used my magical camera skills to capture one in all its glory for your viewing pleasure. I think this picture ought to win some sort of award:
On arrival in Saranda/e/ë, whichever you prefer, breeze through passport control and out onto into the port.There’s a taxi rank just to the left on the road (not down the slope), but we didn’t spot this. You can also take a bus if you go right out of the passport office and down to the roundabout with the big tree. I saw two buses in Albania- one of which was large, crisply air-conditioned and generally awesome as far as buses go, and another which looked like the kind of minibus you see burnt out in fields, only in worse condition. Now admittedly the bus is very cheap at 80 Leke (55p), but do you want to take that chance?
We decided to splash on a taxi, and were immediately collared by a man who was fairly insistent that he was a taxi driver. I had my suspicions given that he was almost definitely selling postcards seconds before we turned up, and these suspicions were only heightened when he had to borrow a car from a friend to drive us.
We agreed a fee of €20, which was tantamount to robbery but we admired the man’s hustle. €10-15 is about right, and taxis/random blokes will gladly accept Euros.
It takes about 20 minutes to get from Saranda to Ksamil, and I couldn’t tell you which side of the road cars are supposed to drive on.
On arrival, you’ll notice that you’re not exactly short of hotels to pick from. Apparently owing to a glorious lack of planning, Ksamil has just sort of sprung up all over the place. There are probably more hotels than people. To be honest it’s not a particularly pretty sight – especially as the official response to illegal building appears to be tear down most, but not all of the building, leading to such stunning vistas as this:
Thankfully, there do seem to be plenty of hotels available that aren’t falling down. We picked Villa Ideal, and were glad that we did. It’s well located about a 5min stroll to the best beaches and town amenities. It’s run by a very friendly family, it’s the cleanest place I’ve ever set foot in, and 4 nights at peak season for a big, comfy room with occasional complimentary lemon ice tea will set you back a princely €130. There’s also a glimpse of sea view and the 3 islands of Ksamil from the balcony:
Stuff to do
Ksamil is famous for its beaches and has the perfect climate for sunseekers. This patch of Albanian coast is only 10 miles from Corfu, so has the same Mediterranean wall-to-wall sunshine and 35 degree heat. The beaches are so famous though that they are consistently rammed throughout July – think Italian-level busy. It’s very much a sunbeds and parasols affair – almost all the beaches are private, but two beds and a parasol for the whole day will only cost you 500 lek (£3.50), so it’s not hideous. The best private beaches we found were in front of Korali and Guvat restaurants. You can also order food and drinks from your lounger and there are lots of men, women and the occasional toddler (genuinely) selling snacks on the beaches, so you can spend an entire day without getting off your arse if that’s your bag.
Busy though they are, the beaches, water and general surroundings are very pretty, and again startlingly clean. There are little islands just off the coast that are in easy swimming and pedalo reach.
We prefer a bit of peace and quiet, and this is achievable with a small amount of effort. The islands are almost deserted compared to the beaches. You can either rent a pedalo or hire a man and boat to run you across, or you can swim across yourself (it’s very easy) from the main beaches. Invest in a cheap dry bag (this one worked a treat and was also a good general rucksack) and all of your stuff will bob gently on your back while you serenely float to an island. There are two close by, and a bigger one about another 300m out – swimmable if you’re strong but probably easier to take a boat. We opted for one of the close by pair and more or less had it to ourselves all day:
If beaches aren’t your thing, how about some history? Butrint National Park, of which Ksamil is a part, contains the ancient Roman city of Butrint. It’s about a 15 minute bus from Ksamil, and the bus runs every hour or so from next to the post office (on the main road close to Tirana Bank, outside a small bakery). It cost us 100 leke for 2 people. Ignore the taxi drivers when they say it takes an hour and goes via Saranda. It doesn’t.
The ruins are really good and definitely worth a day trip and the entry price (700 leke), it’s a huge sprawling city and took us the best part of 4 hours to see everything. On the other side of the lake there are bison roaming about and a chain ferry. Basically it’s all very exciting.
I think it’s possible to walk to Butrint from Ksamil via a load of olive groves, it should only take an hour and I could see paths from the bus. If anyone wants to share a route of how to do that be my guest…
Back in Ksamil, there are plenty of food options, and it’s all laughably cheap. The best restaurant we found was Korali, on the promenade bit on the waterfront. The food in Ksamil is pretty heavily influenced by the rest of the Med – lots of fresh seafood and grilled things. We had the seafood platter for two, some starters, three beers each and some raki as a liquid dessert, and that came to the grand total of about 30 Euro. Like everyone we met in Albania, the staff are super friendly and all spoke English.
Guvat, next door, was also nice and did some more pasta and meat type dishes which were pretty good. All of the restaurants double as cafes and beach bars so it’s easy to find beer, wine, coffee etc.
We tended to get breakfast and lunch goods from the small supermarket at the top of town (next to the fast food restaurant). There’s good selections of fruit and snacks. There are also any number of delicious bakeries (Furre I think) which do sweet and savoury baked goods for no money. There’s a great one on the road to the right of the bus stop. Have what everyone else is having, or the chocolate bread, and you won’t go wrong.
Our other favourite, and I’m not ashamed to say this, was the fast food place at the top of town. You can get a delicious pork or chicken souvlaki (with chips actually stuffed into the sandwich – genius), and it will cost less than a pound. And you’ll be delighted. We ate there twice.
Cash is king. There are two cashpoints but only one takes Mastercard. It’s in the petrol station on the main road (left as you go down the hill). It does charge you 700 leke per withdrawal so use it wisely…if you have a Visa there’s a couple more machines around town, including by the bus stop at Tirana bank.
You can buy ferry tickets from the office at the top of town near the supermarket, this saves you getting in a flap when you get back to Saranda like we did. Hotels should be able to sort out a taxi, or just give you a lift like ours did.
The ability to speak even any words of Albanian goes down a storm, and helps calm some of the crushing embarrassment of being English abroad. We managed to get by with ‘Falemenderit’ (thankyou), ‘Tyeta’ (hi), and ‘Mah falni’ (Sorry). Also ‘Po’ means yes and ‘Yo’ (spelt Jo I think) means no, or vice versa, which isn’t at all confusing.
May, June and mid-August onwards are apparently much, much quieter.
Tirana beer is better than the other beer.
If you’re looking for a sunny holiday that’s a bit different and won’t trouble your bank balance, you won’t go too far wrong with the Albanian Riviera and Ksamil for a few days.