Steve McKenna takes his SPF 30 and sunnies to one of Europe's hidden coastal getaways.
WHAT Dhermi Hotel
WHERE Dhermi, Albania
HOW MUCH Rooms (sleeping up to four) from 3000 leke (about $40) a night.
WHY GO? If you can't afford to spend hundreds of euros a night mingling with the masses on Italy's Amalfi Coast, sunning yourself on the French Riviera or hopping around the Greek Islands, fear not.
Here's a northern-summer holiday destination for budget travellers. It offers exquisite scenery, mesmerising beaches, delicious seafood and friendly locals – with prices more akin to South-East Asian coastlines than the Euro zone.
The catch? It's in Albania. One of Europe's most mysterious nations, for most of the second half of the 20th century, Albania was ruled by a paranoid dictator, Enver Hoxha, who virtually shut off the country from the outside world.
Despite his passing, international tourism to Albania is still rare, yet those who take the plunge usually end up raving about the place.
Albania is blessed with fascinating inland spots but its highlight is the astonishingly pretty Ionian coastline, dubbed the Albanian Riviera. Strung along it are dreamy and largely isolated stretches of sand and pebbles, lapped by mesmeric swathes of turquoise water.
My favourite spot is Dhermi, where just a handful of affordable hotel-restaurants nestles on a gorgeous beach.
The best-value place is the rather blandly named but cosy Dhermi Hotel. Reservations are usually recommended for stays between June and August, but my two friends and I turn up on spec and find an apartment – simple and clean, with two double beds and a bathroom with warm shower – for just 3000 leke ($40) a night.
Admiring the stunning coastal view from our balcony, we agree that we'd have had to pay 10 times more for this in the glamorous resorts of Western Europe.
Despite it being the high season, the beach on our doorstep is almost deserted, save for a few playful young Albanian families and a handful of bizarre grey "concrete mushrooms" – built relics from the Hoxha regime. Convinced his country would be invaded by foreign enemies, he ordered the construction of about 700,000 defence bunkers, spread across pristine beaches such as Dhermi's and wedged high up in the vertiginous, pine-clad mountains and rolling olive groves that sit above the coastline.
Rocky stretches abound on Dhermi but we find a nice, sandy part on which to laze. The sun burns down and the crystal-clear sea inevitably tempts us. The water temperature, about 26 degrees, makes swimming a delight.
Dhermi Hotel's terrace restaurant serves fine Albanian coffee and inexpensive but deliciously fresh seafood. The three of us enjoy a mixed-fish feast and drinks (Albania's favourite beer, Birra Tirana) for 1200 leke.
Nightlife options in unhurried Dhermi are limited to an open-air beach club called the Havana. Dotted with comfy couches and featuring a seductive lighting scheme, it evokes the kind of atmosphere you'd find in Nice or Santorini. We find the cocktail prices, however, are distinctly Albanian.
Dhermi is a two-hour bus or furgon (mini-van) ride north of Saranda, an attractive port city in Albania's south.
FREE STUFF From Dhermi, there are walking trails to other secluded beaches. Heading north, a slightly overgrown track leads to the even more isolated Drymades.
There are a few rustic huts and bungalows but you'll barely see another soul and, to some laid-back beach dwellers, this is even more idyllic than Dhermi.
ADDED BONUS A popular holiday destination for Albanians, nearby Saranda is the perfect base from which to add some local culture to your beach holiday. Close by is Butrint, a UNESCO World Heritage-listed site of sprawling ruins dating back to the time of the ancient Greeks. The site – subsequently ruled and developed by the Roman, Norman, Byzantine, Venetian and Ottoman empires – is shrouded in forest and nestled beside a lagoon and is a magnificent place to sit and wile away a few hours.
Once you've tired of Albania – if your budget allows – take a ferry from Saranda to the Greek island of Corfu (journey time is about 45 minutes).
DETAILS Dhermi Hotel, Dhermi beach. Phone +355 68 208 6924 or +355 68 224 6805, see www.albaniantourism.com.