Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 July 2019

Krasnodar Krai: inside Russia’s southern gem

Home to Sochi, host of the 2014 Winter Olympics, this Russian region has plenty to offer travellers

You can be in the mountains in the morning and on the beach by afternoon in Sochi. Courtesy Wow Sochi
You can be in the mountains in the morning and on the beach by afternoon in Sochi. Courtesy Wow Sochi

Where can you go that’s less than four hours from the UAE and allows you to be at the top of a snow-capped mountain in the morning and lounging on the beach by lunch?

If you’d asked me this question a month ago, my answer – possibly like many people familiar with this region – would have been Lebanon.

The country is known for its party scene, fantastic beach clubs and good ski resorts. But ask me today and you’ll probably be surprised by my answer, if only because it’s most likely a place you’ve never heard of.

I’m talking about Krasnodar Krai. This destination had quietly slipped under my radar until a few weeks ago, when flydubai launched direct flights from Dubai to Sochi, one of the major cities in the Krasnodar Krai district of southern Russia.

Sochi – that’s a spot you might have heard of. It was the host of the 2014 Winter Olympics, which perhaps explains why I arrived in the city expecting to see little more than snow-capped mountains.

Even though it was June, I wasn’t disappointed – although technically the mountains I saw were in the Krasnaya Polyana region, rather than in Sochi itself. What I also saw landing at Sochi International Airport was a set of coloured Olympic rings, waiting to welcome travellers to a city that was entirely rebuilt for the world’s most popular winter sporting event. Sochi is proud of its status as an Olympic host and even more so of the way it has eluded the oft-dreaded curse that befalls many host towns.

Beyond the games

Many nations struggle in the aftermath of the Olympics – which require massive infrastructure, housing and facility development with associated costs ($51 billion [Dh187.33bn] in Russia’s case) – but a lack of visitors once the final gold medal has been handed out.

That’s not been the case in Russia. Instead, only eight months after the Winter Olympics ended, Sochi hosted the first Grand Prix to take place in the country in exactly 100 years. Housed in the newly built Sochi Autodrom, the fourth-longest circuit on the Formula One calendar, it soon became a regular fixture on the international motorsport calendar. If cars are your thing, you can book a tour of the circuit (Dh40 for adults) and you’ll get to wander the pit lane, step inside the team garages, visit the control room and stand on the winner’s podium. Afterwards, the Sochi AutoSport Museum lets you get up close and personal with some of the rarest cars in motorsport history.

Rebuilt to host the 2014 winter olympics, Sochi's transport options are impressive. 
Rebuilt to host the 2014 winter olympics, Sochi's transport options are impressive. 

Adjacent to the Autodrom is Sochi Olympic Park (free entry), home to the famous Fisht Stadium, arguably the most impressive arena in all of Russia. It’s where the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympic Games took place and was also a host site for Russia’s 2018 Fifa World Cup. Right in the middle of the Olympic Park, if you look carefully enough, you’ll see a small graveyard belonging to the community that lived on this land before it was selected as the site of the Olympics. Sochi’s Old Believers’ cemetery predates the new venues by more than 100 years, and is the only remnant of a time, not too long ago, when Sochi was nothing but farmland and villages.

If you’re travelling with children, Sochi Park is a western-style theme park that’s not quite on par with Disneyland but will certainly keep little ones entertained. The four-star fairy-tale castle-like Bogatyr hotel (rooms from Dh680) is right on site and offers unlimited access to the park’s roller coasters, carousels and myriad attractions. Elsewhere, the main Olympic Village, which was once home to athletes, journalists and delegates, is now a resort town that welcomes tourists from all over the country who descend on Sochi in search of the “Russian Riviera” lifestyle.

On the beach

Luxury resorts line the pebble beach not far from the Olympic Village and site of the Russian Grand Prix.
Luxury resorts line the pebble beach not far from the Olympic Village and site of the Russian Grand Prix.

One of the biggest draws in this southern region is the Black Sea coastline.Stretching some 150 kilometres, it offers vast stretches of beaches to explore. From the popular tourist-laden Riviera Beach, dotted with bars, restaurants, volleyball courts and ice cream stalls, to the remote pebbly coastline in Adler, sunbathing is easy – just don’t expect sand. If that’s a deal breaker for you, the Radisson Collection Paradise Resort and Spa (rooms from Dh869) has a white sandy beach created from sand imported for an international volleyball tournament. The luxury resort also has one of the area’s best-ranked spas and there are six luxury villas, if you want a bit more privacy.

Now, back to those mountains: from Sochi’s resort district you can take a 40-minute high-speed train journey to Krasnaya Polyana, the mountainous region above Sochi and the place where the Olympic skiing, bobsledding and snowboarding competitions took place.

The mountains of Krasnaya Polyana attract local and foreign tourists in search of snow and Caucasus elevations. The most popular winter resort is Roza Khutor, which has 80kms of ski trails and an impressively long ski season. Prices, in comparison to many European ski resorts, are on the decidedly low end of the scale.

Going up

Much of Sochi could be mistaken for being in Switzerland or Austria, but prices are a lot more affordable. 
Much of Sochi could be mistaken for being in Switzerland or Austria, but prices are a lot more affordable. 

Visit in summer and you’ll see an entirely different side of this mountainous province, which is best reached via a network of ski-lifts, gondolas and cable cars. Gliding overhead, you’ll get an unexpected juxtaposition of fauna – fir, oak, pine and juniper trees happily nestle beside tropical palms and flowering rhododendron. Keep an eye out for the deer, goats, boar and even the odd bear that call these forests home. And don’t forget your jacket – it may be a balmy 27°C on the ground but travel a few thousand metres higher and you’ll be able to scrape together a few snowballs. Then stop for lunch at Vysota 2320 on Rosa Peak, the highest point in the region, where hearty Russian and Georgian food, plus breathtaking views from a height of 2,320 metres, await. Finally, descend the mountain and take a selfie at the flag-covered Olympic Village, in front of the Olympic rings, with the mountain peaks as a stunning backdrop.

Gorky Gorod is a mountain resort where cable cars and gondolas used as ski-lifts in winter act as handy traveltors in summer. 
Gorky Gorod is a mountain resort where cable cars and gondolas used as ski-lifts in winter act as handy traveltors in summer. 

Not too far from Roza Khutor is Gorky Gorod (disembark at Esto-Sadok train station, if you’re travelling by rail). This resort town is home to the longest night-ski track in the area, and another popular choice for summer weekends. The tiny village has its own private beach on the Black Sea, dozens of open-air restaurants, cafes and shisha bars, live music and an aqua park. There’s a plethora of hotels in Gorky Gorod so you won’t struggle to find a place to stay that fits what you’re looking for in terms of budget and activities.

The spa at Rixos Krasnaya Polyana Sochi. Courtesy Rixos hotel
The spa at Rixos Krasnaya Polyana Sochi. Courtesy Rixos hotel

If a girlie spa weekend has been on your radar then you could do a lot worse than checking in to the Rixos Krasnaya Polyana Sochi (rooms from Dh410). Situated midway up the mountain at about 960m above sea level, it’s home to one of the most beautiful spas I’ve ever seen, spread over two storeys and with oversized arch windows to make the most of the Caucasus mountain views.

Families, however, might be better off staying in the central square, where you don’t need to rely on cable cars to get from your hotel to the town centre. The Courtyard by Marriott Sochi (rooms from Dh170) has a great location on the banks of the Mzymta River and is within walking distance of the resort’s main strip. In summer, the traditional Christmas markets in the town centre are repurposed as market stalls where you can pick up souvenirs like classic matryoshka dolls, Olympic memorabilia or Georgian churchkhela (a traditional sweet).

The Caucasus mountains act as the ideal backdrop for adventure travellers at Skypark. 
The Caucasus mountains act as the ideal backdrop for adventure travellers at Skypark. 

Adventure enthusiasts could stay at the Novotel Krasnaya Polyana (rooms from Dh210). In winter, it offers ski-in ski-out facilities and in summer is a great starting point for keen hikers. It’s also close to the newly opened zip line, the highest and longest in Russia, where you can fly through the air at an altitude of more than 2,000m (tickets are Dh86). If that’s piqued your adventure appetite, squeeze in a day trip to SkyPark.

About a 40-minute drive from Gorky Gorod, this adventure park (entry Dh86 for adults, Dh45 for children) was created by AJ Hacket, the man who brought bungee jumping to the world. As well as being home to one of the world’s highest bungee jumps, it’s also where you can swing above a river at speeds of up to 120kms per hour, zip line through the trees above Sochi’s National Park or take a walk on the world’s longest suspended pedestrian bridge – the perfect way to take in the undiscovered natural beauty of Russia’s deep south below you.

Updated: July 8, 2019 03:12 AM

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