The sunny Black Sea resort of Sochi – beloved by Stalin and a favorite of Vladimir Putin’s – has pebbled beaches and a surprising subtropical climate and is breathtaking backdropped by the snowy Caucasus Mountains. Sochi, Russia was for decades the Soviet Union’s center for relaxation and rejuvenation, the finest resort behind the Iron Curtain. It has prodigious natural attributes: mild weather, 73 miles of beach, nearby hills for hiking, easy access to skiing in the winter, and seriously good rustic cuisine.
In 1919, Lenin signed a decree declaring Sochi a “health resort of national importance”. Stalin had a dacha here. Now it is a kitschy hotel and museum. He encouraged the construction, starting on the 1920’s of health spas known as sanatoriums for the hardworking proletariat. Soviet champagne flowed freely in the seafood restaurants lining Sochi’s promenade, and the market stunned with its abundance of cheeses, fruits, meats, spices, and vegetables, most of which came from the then Soviet republic of Georgia. Tennis, boating, hiking, spa treatments, and open-air concerts complemented the dump but delicious pleasure of dozing on the beach, and the resort had a liveliness that set it apart from more stolid Soviet cities.
Many of sanatoriums are still operating, running on fumes and faded glory. Until lately, that’s been it: Sochi was a place with a modicum of time-capsule charm. Starting in 2006 the Kremlin began funneling stratospheric amounts of cash and big political muscle into the grandly named Federal Target Program for the Development of Sochi, which promises almost $12 billion over the next seven years to “completely refurbish the entire region”.
The first manifestation of the new Sochi is the Grand Hotel Rodina, a $45 million resort that opened quietly in July 2006, flaunting impeccable wild-Russian-luxury credentials.
The Russian-language Kinotavr film festival (the festival of Russian movies and international ones), held in Sochi each June for the past 16 years, is gaining international attention. Putin himself has a resort-size personal dacha here, where he hosted an EU summit in May 2006. A degree of star power comes from an elite mater of, among others, Maria Sharapova.
One thing Sochi, Russia indisputably does have going for it is location. Set on a stretch of the easternmost side of the Black Sea, along the foothills of the western Caucasus Mountains, its dramatic black-stone beaches are swimmable from May through the “velvet season” in late October. Blue, cold, instantly deep water hits the rocky shore with a distinctive clatter-slurp sound evocative of ice in a cocktail glass. The coastline segues into hills so sleep they’re accessible only by elevator or gondola. Less than an hour away, reached via a newly completed, mountain-bypassing tunnel, looms Krasnaya Polyana (Red Meadow), the apparatchik ski resort that’s a favorite of Putin’s.
This is an area of the world like no others, its rugged hills dotted with fat chickens, milk cows, and cypress trees like black exclamation points, immortalized by the Georgian primitivism painter Niko Pirosmani. Fertile inland hills support vineyards and orchards; along the town’s palm-lined street, women with glinting gold teeth sell fresh fruit in plastic pint-size containers-tiny, fragrant wild strawberries, ruby-like morellos, bilberries, whortleberries, and peaches the size of small lapdogs. The vendors’ open-air stands are festooned with strings of homemade fruit leather bulging with nuts, knots of a salty local cheese known as suluguni, wreaths of fresh laurel leaves, and glossy bouquets of lemons.
The setting allows all kinds of outdoor activities; most of them can be enjoyed in distinctly. Mountain jeeps carve up pristine hills is summer, and fixed ropes allow neophyte spelunkers access to unsupervised prehistoric caves. For the less extreme, there’s hiking, swimming in the emerald pools at the bases of icy mountain waterfalls (of which there are dozens; the most popular are the Agura waterfalls, below the Eagle Cliffs), and rafting trips that stop at riverside restaurants where you can dine on freshly caught trout. The lifts at Krasnaya Polyana run all summer, taking tourists to the summit for a 360-degree view of undulating green hills and Alpine lakes.
Sochi restaurants offer really wide cuisines variety. The best food in Sochi can be found at Amshenki Dvor, a 30-minute drive from the Rodina in the direction of Krasnaya Polyana. This mostly open-air Armenian restaurant is set behind a stricture that looks like the prow of a ship. Peacocks prowl the courtyard; grapevines drape over and around the cabanas; communal tables are hewn from whole trees. House specialties include fried egg and cheese on fluffy homemade lavash bread, polenta-like cornmeal mamaliga, and grape leaves stuffed with fresh cheese, mild rice, and lamb in a nutmeg-tomato sauce. All this is followed inevitably by succulent shashlik, Caucasian skewers of grilled meat. Another popular restaurant in Sochi is Beliye Nochi, known for its khinkali (Caucasian dumplings, served fried or boiled with different sauces, of which pomegranate is the best).
Such opulence hasn’t yet overwhelmed the simple pleasure of wandering the town’s lovely botanic gardens with an ice cone, but anyone who wants a time-capsule experience of an old-fashioned Russian resort should go now.