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With 200 miles of Adriatic and Ionian Sea coastline and the ability to spend Lek rather than Euros, Albania is fast becoming the adventure seeker's alternate European getaway. The largely Muslim country is home to spectacular beaches, stunning mosques and churches as well as some outstanding ancient ruins and archaeological sites where you won't be battling thousands of tourists for the best views. I won't sugar-coat it -- the tourism infrastructure here is limited, English isn't too widely spoken and you may not find a lot of five-star luxury -- but in place of all these amenities is access to a unique, inviting and affordable southern European destination.

The north of the country is largely not frequented by visitors due to its proximity to Kosovo but the southern and coastal regions are extremely appealing, as are some of the inland mountainous areas. Key locations worthy of visiting include Butrint (ancient Buthrotum) -- a UNESCO World Heritage site and an exceptional place to see early Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine ruins. Its relative proximity to the Greek Island of Corfu means that especially in the summer season you may be sharing the site with day trippers who take the 30-minute Hydrofoil or 90-minute ferry across from the island to the nearby port of Saranda. From there is a short bus ride to Butrint. Durrës, the old port city is the gateway to many of the regions beaches, the town of Krujë offers magnificent Ottoman architecture, restored castles and a historic market, Tirana, the capital is often a tourist's first impression of the country, the beach city of Vlora and the UNESCO World Heritage site Ottoman city of Gjirokastër are all major attractions.

Traveling within Albania itself is best done by public buses or mini-vans which operate as shuttle between major cities and towns. These generally pick up and drop off passengers in key locations like city squares or outside public bus stations. Both modes of transport are extremely inexpensive with fares starting at less than one dollar for inter-city trips. The journey from Tirana to Krujë in a mini-van is currently approximately $1.50. Taxis are also very affordable but prices for long distances need to be negotiated in advance.

Although most hotels are smaller, privately owned properties, international hotel chains are established in Tirana and beach resort areas. There are also whispers that Club Med may develop a coastal property between Vlora and Saranda. Due to the fledgling nature of the tourism industry, you will be unlikely to find airfare/tour package trips to Albania from the U.S. market but there are a few travel companies that can provide tours and accommodation options.

Adventure Center's (tel. 800/228-8747; www.adventurecenter.com) seven-day Albanian trail tour starts in Durres, then travels to Kanina Hills, Vlora, Dukat, Shën Thanas, Mt. Cika, Monastir, Dhermi beach and ends in Krujë. The tours price includes seven nights' hotel accommodations, seven breakfasts, two lunches, transportation by bus and on foot, a tour leader and driver with a group of 12 to 16 participants. Highlights include a visit to a medieval fortress, local farms, Llogora Pass, the steep slopes of the Karabuni Peninsula and a walk to the summit of Mt Cika. Most walks are graded moderate with the ascent of Mt. Cika strenuous. This trip would appeal to people comfortable with moderate hiking with hikes of between three and six hours. This tour is priced at $730 per person land-only with departures available on June 3 and September 9 and 16, 2007.

For a longer Albanian adventure, take their 14-day "Europe's Last Frontier" trip. The tour starts in Tirana and then visits Ohrid (Macedonia), Elbasan fortress, Sveti Naum, Voskopoja, Permeti, Benja hot springs, Gjirokastër, Kelcyra Gorge, Gjirokastër, Saranda, ancient Butrint, Apollonia, Durrës and ends in Krujë. The trip includes eleven nights' hotel accommodations, two nights in local homes and 13 breakfasts. Transport for the group of up to 18 people is by bus with a tour leader, driver and interpreter guide. This tour is priced at $1,120 per person based on double occupancy (land-only) with departures still available on July 15 and 29 and August 12 and 26, 2007. Single rooms are available for this tour at a supplement from US$220, depending on availability.

Locally based Albania Holidays (tel. +355/4-235-498; www.albania-holidays.com) offers a seven-day, land-only "Highlights of Albania" trip that operates from March to November. The tour starts in Tirana with a pick-up service from the airport. It visits the Monastery of Ardenica, the ancient city of Apollonia, Vlora, Saranda, the Albanian Riviera, the Llogara Pass, the Lekuresi Fortress, the ancient city of Butrint, Berat, Gjirokastër, Durrës and Krujë. The tour is priced from $543 per person based on double occupancy and includes transfers and transportation in an air-conditioned motor coach, English speaking tour guide, six nights' accommodations in three-star hotels, breakfast and dinner daily, a folk Show in Tirana, all taxes and entrance fees. A single supplement is $136.

Regent Holidays (tel. +44/870-499-0911; www.regent-holidays.co.uk), a U.K. operator, has a "Best of Albania" 12-day extensive group tour priced from $2,350 per person. The trip includes round-trip flights on British Airways from London to Tirana, all airport taxes (except Albanian departure taxes), accommodations for 11-nights in three-star hotels with breakfast and lunch daily, transfers, transportation, sightseeing with an English speaking guide and all entrance fees. Highlights include extensive touring in Tirana, visits to Krujë, the Roman amphitheatre and the Archaeological Museum in Durrës, Korca, Elbasan (ancient Skampa), Pogradec on the shores of Lake Ohrid, the ancient Illyrian fortress of Encheleana, Prespa Lake, Prespa National Park, the tiny island of Maligrad, the villages of Voskopoja, Dardha and Mborje, the museum city of Gjirokastër, Saranda, the Greek and Roman ruins of Butrint, Vlora, the Albanian Riviera, the Ali Pasha Fortress at Porto Palermo bay, Llogara Pass, Fier, ancient Apollonia (an important port along the route between Rome and Byzantium and where Emperor Augustus studied), the Monastery of Ardenica and the fortress and Chapel of St Marina of Blachemae along the ridge above the gorge at Berat. Tour dates for 2007 are May 24 and September 6. Single room supplement is $270 and upgrading to Business Class flights is an additional $530.

The Albania Travel and Hospitality Service (www.aths-travel.com) features a number of different short and longer tours of the region, including day trips Â? unfortunately prices are not listed on the website so you have to request pricing information by email. The site is also a good resource for information about land and sea border crossings plus it has an online booking service for hotels across the country including the following listings:

  • The three-star Hotel Butrinti in Saranda with prices starting from $41 per night for a double room
  • The three-star Hotel Delfini in Vlora starting from $48 per night
  • The four-star Chateau Linza in Tirana from $68 per night
  • The three-star Hotel Alvi in Durrës from $95 per night

Tirana International Airport recently opened a new terminal to help cope with the almost 30% increase in tourism last year. As most visitors come from Italy, the U.K. and Germany, it is easiest to reach the Albania by air from these countries. Apart from traditional airlines, several low-cost airlines fly between various sectors. Belle Air (www.belleair.it) is actually based in Albania and has ridiculously cheap airfares, sometimes starting as low as $11 one way, plus taxes, from cities like Genova, Pisa, Verona, Milan or (London Stansted). They also fly to Greece and Turkey. Germanwings (www.germanwings.com) flies from Cologne-Bonn to Tirana from $24 each way and Alpie Eagles (www.alpieagles.com) flies from Northern Italy. You may have to search around a bit to find the right departure dates and invariably the airfares during summer will be considerably higher. A July weekend flight from Venice to Tirana on Alpie Eagles was $137 each way. Alternatively, British Airways flies from London with spring season fares starting at approximately $212 one-way including all taxes.

Currently the cheapest way we could find to get to Tirana from the U.S. is flying Alitalia (www.alitalia.com). Round-trip airfares from New York via Milan in May 2007 start from $836 including taxes. By early summer these fares increase by 50% or more, i.e. June flights start from $1,259 including taxes.

For general tourism information about Albania visit www.albaniantourism.com/default2.asp.

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