Spring and Summer Cruises

On an excursion to Albania, it's just you and the antiquities

By Peter Mandel
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, January 17, 2010

It is early morning in the MS Oosterdam's Vista Lounge. Passengers cluster. Curtains sway with the sea. I am awake, but thanks to the softness of the lounge's velour chair, I keep remembering sleep.

"You on the Kickin' Corfu tour?" asks a man with a backpack and an aluminum-and-rubber cane.

"Um, no," I say. "Shore excursion No. 6. I'm going to Albania."

"Albania?" he repeats. It's a country that always seems to come with a question.

"That's right," I say. "Albania."

"Well, better git with your group," he says, giving me a suspicious stare.

I don't tell him more, but in fact I've always been curious about this tiny Eastern European nation. Maybe it's from reading the comic strip "Dilbert," with its made-up outpost "Elbonia." Elbonia mirrors Albania in seeming wildly out-of-the-loop. Albania lived under the thumb of a communist dictator named Enver Hoxha from the end of World War II until his death in 1985 (and the fall of communism there in 1991). Ruled before that by Romans, by Byzantines and by Ottomans, the nation got detached from the world under Hoxha. A 1950s map I looked at showed it as a blank area, not a country.

But color is coming back to the now-independent free-market democracy. In April, Albania joined NATO and applied for EU membership. A bit of the Balkan Peninsula, it's only slightly larger than Maryland. But there's variety inside that space, including a mountain-studded interior and an unspoiled Adriatic coastline. Travelers like me who long for places that don't yet have a Starbucks are starting to take notice.

Since this is a Mediterranean cruise and Albania has popped up as one of Holland America Lines' tour options in the port of Kerkira, Corfu, it's my chance, I think, to fill in the blank.

As soon as I leave my velour chair on the ship, things start happening fast. I'm told to go get my passport. We're the only shore excursion tour group that's changing countries. And I'm tagged with an orange sticker that says "Holland America Lines Oosterdam #6." Is this in case I get lost? I feel like Paddington Bear.

The Oosterdam is in Kerkira for a single day. Most passengers are walking around town or are on three- or four-hour local excursions such as "Panoramic Corfu" or "Corfu and Mon Repos Palace."

My "Albanian Adventure" tour is listed as lasting seven hours. And it's pricey. I can barely afford the $221 fee. "Strenuous," warns the cruise line brochure. "Roads are bumpy. Insect repellent is strongly recommended." All this makes me think that two, maybe three other passengers will leave the clean and comfortable cocoon of the ship and sign up. But as we roar out of the port, my orange No. 6 bus is completely full.

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