Albania: yachting's last Riviera, by Tristan Rutherford
Boat International, May 2018
In the leafy confines of London’s Westminster, the Albanian Ambassador Qirjako Qirko is extolling the yachting virtues of his neighbour Montenegro. It’s a nation few charter guests could find on the map a decade ago. “Of course Montenegro has been successful,” admits His Excellency. “They are a model of what you can develop in such a short time.” Although Albanian marina development is in its infancy, the country boasts the Mediterranean’s last virgin coastline. Qirko and I also discuss reopening of Sazan island – off-limits as a military base for a century – with the yachting opportunities the whole package could bring. “We are resolutely open to this business,” says Qirko. “But first you must go and see for yourself.”
My British Airways A320 cruises over Venice then starts its gradual descent past Istria and the Kornati Islands. The wake from a hundred yachts sprouts out like shooting stars from the timeless citadel of Dubrovnik. The picture-perfect Bay of Kotor is up next. In 2006 this same scene greeted Canadian investor Peter Munk when he flew over the disused submarine base at Tivat and decided to build Porto Montenegro on top. Montenegro’s limestone cliffs soften to beach as my Airbus dips into Albanian airspace.
On the final descent, eyes turn right as 350km of barely-developed coast ribbons past Sazan all the way to Corfu. After passing through Tirana’s Mother Teresa Airport – a terminal far cleaner and more welcoming that London’s Gatwick – it’s in Albania’s deep south where I begin my seven-day trip.
Corfu looks close enough to swim to. Its soaring cypress trees are mirrored a mile away on the Albanian shore, where the UNESCO ruin of Butrint abuts an azure sea.
The Rothschild name carries weight on both coasts. His Lordship’s Butrint Foundation helps maintain the open-air museum that offers a saunter-though of Mediterranean civilization. The tumbledown city is so stunningly located that it hosted the Adriatic’s great and good in Greek agoras, Roman villas and Byzantine baths. This being Albania, much is unexcavated and choked in vines, an archaeological playground for Indiana Jones. I drop a stone into a still working well that has rope burns in the stone from two millennia of continual use.
As I’m keen to tour Butrint’s sun-splashed coast, I hire a speedboat. The price of €140 seems steep for these parts. Until I realise that I’ve added a zero and it’s just €14 – half the price of a cocktail at Monaco’s Hotel de Paris – to hire both captain and boat. Again that’s Albania, a nation as inexpensive as it is unexplored.
The lagoon that surrounds Butrint is quite rightly a National Park. Unlike the Cote d’Azur, the flora and fauna are as they were two thousand years ago. Underneath our puttering boat reside 100 species of fish. The 250 types of birds include the egrets and kingfishers that escort our vessel towards Corfu.
During Albania’s severe communist regime, savvy students volunteered for archaeological digs in this watery idyll. They could sunbathe in peace, smoke cigarettes in the seafront castle visited by
Byron, then quite literally pluck an amphora from the seabed when it was time to hand in their findings. On the ride back to Butrint’s pier I spy the only tourist buses I’ll see all trip. Visitor numbers were up 20% per year in both 2016 and 2017, statistics witnessed in nineties Croatia. The annual growth figure mirrors superyacht arrivals too.
The woman who has processed much of this yachting boom is Jelja Serani. Her agency in the historic port of Sarande recently handled the paperwork for SS Delphine, the 79m century-old former US naval flagship, and M/Y Barbara, Oceanco’s brand-new 89m build. “Our growing number of yachts usually enter from Corfu,” explains Serani. “Embarkation isn’t difficult but you need an intermediary to advise on mooring. Or to hire cars to visit our other UNESCO site at Gjirokaster.” Provisioning in Albania is excellent, with the local seafood superb. Although in communist times the art of eating juicy Adriatic prawns was simply forgotten by a civilization closed to all outside influence – priceless crustaceans were fed to pigs instead.
Serani is all business as she discusses her country’s position at the EU frontier. Outside her office ferries shuttle to Brindisi, a ten-hour sail due west. But every 18 months yachts must depart the EU in order to avoid VAT. “It makes sense they bunker here, especially as we offer Duty Free fuel at a cheaper price than Montenegro.” S
he mentions a new airport near Sarande that’s slated to open in 2019, which could do for yachting what Tivat’s unassuming airstrip did for visitor statistics 160 nautical miles north. “But what we really need is a world-class harbour.” Although yachts can anchor along Albania’s paradisiacal coast, and at Orikum Marina 100km north, a combination of hip hotels and repair units would give the Tuscany-sized nation practical allure. Serani pulls out her iPhone to show me an approved marina plan in the cargo port of Limioni, 2km north of town. “The installation is part-owned by the Ministries of Transport and Defence. With the right backer we could moor 120m yachts without issue.” It’s food for thought, as I drive in that direction up the coast.
Using Serani’s superyacht tips as a guide, I round the safe anchorage of Cap Qefalit. It’s like the Amalfi Coast – a hundred years ago. Cliffs chasm around empty beaches lapped by a gin clear Ionian Sea. I could be forgiven for never leaving Kakome beach, a silver sand banana with a rickety jump-into-heaven pier. Instead I park up and follow a pilgrimage trail past two finely frescoed monasteries to Krorëzës beach, two perfect curves of toe-tickle sand that would be the headline act in Croatia, Turkey or Greece.
Here I’m the only guy on the beach. Luckily I’ve been pre-warned about this sandy Elysium so I’ve slipped a nearby beach bar owner €10 to bring my home. His ramshackle 20hp Johnson must be started by upending the lid and ripping the start system with a length of knotted string. My roaring sunset sail home, past Soviet torpedo tubes carved into cliffs, will cause my seen-it-all yachting colleagues to choke on their Hendrick’s and tonic.
The next day yields a far bigger surprise. The fortified peninsula of Porto Palermo – a miniature Cap Ferrat topped with a Venetian castle – dates from the Adriatic tug-of-war between the galleys of Venice and the Ottoman fleet. The emplacement is so strategic that when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev visited in 1959 he opened his wallet to pay for a warm water submarine base in this very spot. Armed with nothing more than a rented kayak and a facemask I make a morning assault on the unguarded base. You need to approach the giant pen at speed then lean back and drift under the vast sea doors. Inside it’s a cathedral of concrete that could backdrop a Bond film. I’m too timid to freedive the submarine pen floor so I paddle a full 100m until I see daylight twinkling from the other side of the tunnel base. Trying doing that in Beaulieu-sur-Mer.
Another day, another speedboat. Sazan Island was off-limits as a top-secret military installation since World War One, until it opened to curious tourists in 2017. At 5km in length it’s purportedly the largest uninhabited island in the entire Mediterranean. It’s clad in dense forest, looming larger with every engine stroke, like the Lost World from Jurassic Park. Soviet and Chinese special forces left a legacy of 2,800 bunkers and wind-whistled barracks, a scene now complemented by soaring eagles and leaping dolphins. As my Sazan entry permit only allows for a flying visit, I finish my tour with a hike to a ramshackle Italian governor’s mansion. The panoramic seascape over where the salty, azure Ionian meets the shallower navy of the Adriatic begs the ultimate question: why aren’t more yachts making the day sail over from Italy, Croatia, Montenegro or Greece.
They are, says Nicolas Fry, Charter Manager at Camper and Nicholsons, who I call from the road to Tirana. “In 2017 we saw a real increase in popularity.” Fry booked “a few charters in Albania with M/Y Eclipse,” a 43m Feadship that charters for €125,000 per week. More important than the Terence Disdale interior, it has the exploratory toys needed for an offbeat Albanian adventure. “The clients had a great time,” but what’s missing is “a first-class marina built and managed for superyachts.” As Fry explains: “When you ask about Albania, first look at what its neighbour Montenegro built in just ten years. In short, Porto Montenegro must be a model for the development of yachting in Albania.”
It’s a question I’m keen to put to the people in charge. But first I take in the shock of 21st-century Tirana, a throbbing pavement café of a city that didn’t have a single disco back in 1991. Emblematic of this trend is new gourmet restaurant Mullixhiu, opened by a returning Albanian from Copenhagen’s triple Michelin star Noma. The €15 eight-course tasting menu of zucchini flour crepes and sheep curd cocktails leaves me groggy as I stand outside the Ministry of Transport the following morning.
“Foreigners are more than welcome to build marinas in the Republic of Albania, subject to local legislation,” says Ministry spokesperson Stela Basha. “The Saranda Port Development Master Plan includes a yacht harbour but so far there has not been an official investor demand”. Despite GDP growth ticking along at 4% per annum, “there is only one concession in Kavajë, an hour from Tirana, which is currently under construction”, says Basha.
This 35-year concession is a proposed 1,100-berth marina for yachts of up to 75m. Now billed as Porto Albania, the project has broken ground under the aegis of Swiss development company Finsec. There’s no set finishing date. So it you want to profit by building a better one – or just fancy frolicking on a secret beach that global tourism forgot – you know who to call.
Tristan Rutherford is a travel writer specialising in Albania and the Adriatic.