Unveiling Coastal Albania: Dhermi, Gjipe and Grama Bay

Would you like to visit a country only recently opened up after years of communist isolation? Is exploring some of the most beautiful coastline in Europe on your bucket list? Do you want to know more about the wild beaches along the Albanian coastline? How about getting some restaurant and accommodation recommendations for the area too? If so, read all about our recent family vacation to Dhermi Beach, Albania, to help plan your own trip to a destination still unspoilt by mainstream tourism.

Although Albania has begun to pop up on a few Instagram feeds, it remains off the radar of most western tourists due to fairly limited connectivity on European budget airlines and heaps of alternative more well known destinations. But all that is about to change; Wizz Air recently began flights from London Luton to Tirana for less than $50 one way and other budget airlines will probably follow them soon enough. Therefore, unless you like to follow the crowd, the best time to explore Albania is right now! Uniquely hidden from the world for many decades, coastal Albania is the ultimate place for a family adventure exploring some of Europe's most amazing beaches. Due to low levels of international tourists, the prices are remarkably affordable too. Further development is almost inevitable and, like many popular spots in Europe, Albania might lose some its appeal in future years. Go there now before the influx truly begins!

Towards Dhermi Beach

Our family journey through the Balkans had begun a few days earlier in Turkey, where we spent a frenetic 48 hours in Istanbul. From there, we flew direct to Tirana on a Turkish Airlines open jaw ticket, and discovered ten awesome things to experience in Albania's up and coming capital city. While budget airlines fly direct to Albania, you should definitely consider checking out promo fares on more established carriers; we're tired of the early morning departures, pay for everything approach, and hideous service on the likes of Ryanair.

A few weeks before flying, we had contacted the manager of our resort in Dhermi to arrange a taxi for a direct transfer from Tirana. Public transport is fairly hit and miss in Albania and private buses are expensive and liable to cancel trips unless they get sufficient passengers. Therefore, a taxi at 150 Euro for three people seemed the best option to us. On the morning of our departure, we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast before the taxi arrived; no luggage struggle or sweating, instead we just loaded up the car and jumped in for the four-hour journey to Dhermi. Blandness dominated the skyline between Durres and Vlore, and we felt so happy that these two famous seaside towns weren't our destination; they seemed surprisingly built up and full of concrete. As soon as the highway bent eastwards at Orikum, the scenery improved sharply. Suddenly, we found ourselves in a verdant valley more reminiscent of Switzerland than the Mediterranean. The road continued ever upwards to the top of Mount Cika, where a drone buzzed above a newly married couple posing at the panoramic viewpoint. Then, we descended for another thirty minutes, skirting the quaint mountain village of Dhermi and down to the beach chalets of Lodges Shen Nikolla; our budget accommodation for a week of seaside fun.

Where to stay in Dhermi

While Dhermi's native population is only around 2,000, you'll find plenty of places to stay both in the mountains and along the beach due to a recent boom in construction. For reasons of location and budget, we chose the perfectly positioned Lodges Shen Nikolla (see pictures below), which cost just twenty pounds ($26) a night. The unbelievable location, comfortable room and super cheap price made it an absolutely perfect base for our Dhermi adventure. Some mosquitoes at night caused us a few problems, so make sure you either bring a net or some chemicals to keep the bugs at bay. Alternatively, we'd recommend jumping on Airbnb and booking Vila Druru Dhermi 1 for about twenty-five pounds a night ($33) or, if budget isn't a major consideration, why not go slightly upmarket and book Beachfront Apartment 1 for about thirty-four pounds ($45) a night. If hotels are more your thing, then check out the relatively new Elysium Hotel for about fifty pounds ($65) a night including breakfast. Their pool is pretty amazing!

Whatever you're looking for in terms of accommodation, it's available in Dhermi and if you're travelling outside of peak season (May or September, for example), you don't need to book ahead because there's plenty of availability and options.

Three Awesome Beaches to Explore around Dhermi 

1. Grama Bay

Easily the most dramatic and wild beach in the area, Grama Bay has to be seen to be believed. Completely inaccessible by road, you have to hire a speedboat from Dhermi to get there. Along the way is another beautiful bay punctuated by a quaint ancient church and a cave complex which is big enough to fit a couple of boats inside. However, the main feature of any speedboat excursion northwest of Dhermi is the incredible hidden bay called Grama. It lies about 20km from Dhermi and takes about 45 minutes to reach by speedboat. Once you get dropped off on the deserted beach, you can either snorkle the rocky reefs, marvel at the steep dramatic mountains surrounding the bay or just sit back and catch some rays. Overnight is possible if you prearrange everything yourself.

While the water is much colder here than Dhermi, Miras, Raf and I reveled in the sea for as long as possible and felt truly blessed to visit such an incredible place all on our own. When you get away from mainstream tourist destinations, you can really feel the peace and magic of God's wonder creation. And that's what we felt here more than any other destination in Europe. Don't miss Grama Bay if you ever make it to Albania. It's stunning!

2. Gjipe Beach

A definite highlight of any visit to Dhermi region is climbing down the steep footpath to beautiful Gjipe Beach. Overlooking a deep canyon straight out of Indiana Jones, it's an incredible walk with striking coastal and countryside views. However, it's quite challenging, so think about hiring a speedboat if you have really young children or just prefer lazy days on holiday. Once you actually get down to the beach there's plenty of choices: explore deep inside the canyon, hire a beach umbrella and relax all day, go swimming in the deep blue sea, or continue walking southwards to the next bay. Overnight camping is possible here too - plenty of people had pitched their tents and seemingly planned to stay all summer with the amount of supplies around.

Although the walk down seemed quite a breeze, Miras and Raf struggled far more to make the ascent due to the increasing temperatures and steep upwards climb. However, we all felt a sense of achievement when we got back to the top. It's certainly one of the most beautiful beaches we've ever been to, enhanced greatly by the challenging access and wonderfully natural surroundings. Seems like commercial development might come soon to Gjipe Beach, so don't wait too long to check out this hidden piece of Albanian treasure.

3. Dhermi Beach

Offering a long stretch of pebbles and sand, Dhermi Beach appeals to typical tourists and young Albanians looking for a vibrant atmosphere, proper facilities, deck chairs galore and group tour possibilities. This isn't what we look for at all, but we still found a little gem hidden away right in front of our accommodation: Lodges Shen Nikolla. It's easy to find! Situated half a kilometer to the northwest of Lucianos, it offers a smooth pebbled beach with a 15-foot concrete jump off point, turquoise seas, rocky reefs to explore, and even a small photogenic church positioned on a rocky outcrop. Empty first thing in the morning and never crowded, this became our go-to spot whenever we weren't out exploring. On our final morning in Dhermi, Raf insisted on a couple of final jumps; such was his love for this Albanian jewel of a beach.

Two Great Places to Eat in Dhermi 

Wonderfully fertile land, proximity to the sea and influential neighbours Greece, Italy and Turkey, have conflated to make Albanian cuisine what it is today: diverse, delicious and very Mediterranean-style. Stables include lamb, chicken and fish, along with bread, rice and feta cheese. Salads and vegetables are available as side dishes or main courses. Fresh produce abounds in the form of legumes, eggplants, peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers and olives. Dhermi Beach offers a reasonable selection of Mediterranean and Albanian cuisine along its coastal stretch. Being on the coast, it also offers a range of fresh seafood dishes. You can expect to pay €6-8 for pasta dishes, €10-15 for fish dishes, and less than €8 for a whole pizza. Read more about two of our favourite restaurants in Dhermi below.

1. Lucianos

Lucianos is the go-to restaurant in Dhermi for anyone seeking quality Mediterranean food and crisp white wine at very affordable prices. Located right in the middle of Dhermi beach, the extremely friendly staff will do their best to find you a seat overlooking the sea. Their large menu offers seafood alongside standard Mediterranean fare. Soft drinks, water, beer and carafes of house red and white wine (€5) are also available. We ate here several times and particularly loved their Pasta di Frutti di Mare (6 Euro), pepperoni pizza (5 Euro), and mussels (€4 Euro). Fresh fish was quite expensive compared to their other dishes, so we never ordered it. Although it was sometimes a bit busy, we always seemed to get a great table; its much deserved popularity made for a superb atmosphere and we'd definitely recommend you try the place at least once.

2. Royal Blue Hotel

Lucianos main competitor is further south along the boardwalk: Royal Blue Hotel's lovely beach side restaurant. Alongside its perfect location for people and beach watching, Royal Blue's menu is reasonably priced and contains all the touristy staples available elsewhere in Dhermi. Our late afternoon experience got underway with a couple of carafes of white wine followed by two delightful starters: calamaris and brushetta. Perfectly timed, the mains came out together: chicken for Raf, seafood pasta for Miras, and a nice vegetable risotto for me. As usual, we ordered a delicious plate of grilled vegetables as a side for us all. While it certainly didn't match Lucianos for service, atmosphere or quality, the flowing wine and pretty good food made us all happy enough. A small argument over a ripped banknote which the restaurant refused to accept dampened my spirits a bit upon departure, but Miras said it was all my fault anyway!

Follow in our footsteps

– To get to Albania in the first place, start with skyscanner to find the cheapest international flight options. You can fly direct from almost all European capitals.

– Alternatively, combine Albania with other countries in the Balkans. Check Turkish Airlines for some particularly attractive open jaw options flying into Istanbul, onto Tirana and out of Macedonia or Kosovo, allowing overland travel around the region.

– Check booking.com and Airbnb for accommodation options in Dhermi and elsewhere along the stunning Albanian coastline. While booking ahead isn't essential during the low season at Dhermi, it makes sense to do so using booking.com (using free cancellation option if plans change) if you want the security of a guaranteed booking. Alternatively, just turn up and see if you can negotiate a bargain.

– If you stay at Lodges Shen Nikolla, you can request an airport or hotel pickup using one of their taxi contacts via the messaging facility on Booking.com. The current charge is 150 Euro one-way. Alternatively, especially if you're alone, you could book a private bus transfer for 39 Euro on Riviera Bus, but they need sufficient passengers to go ahead with each daily trip. Of course local buses ply the route too, so if you're on a low budget go to the local bus station and wait for one of several daily departures to Dhermi. Expect a long journey (at least 6 hours) and a crowded bus.

– Taxis are available for local trips to Gjipe and elsewhere - just ask your resort to arrange one for you.

– Of course if you prefer to drive yourself, a rental car in one of the main Albanian centres is the ideal way to explore under your own steam. If you're flying into the capital, try pre-booking a car online at Albanian Car Rentals or Euro Car Rentals both situated at Tirana Airport.

– The tourist scene in coastal Albania is delightfully low key, especially during the late spring and early autumn. There is usually no need to book ahead for restaurants, boat tours or any other activities in Dhermi. 

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