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Russian Riviera

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Photo: Simon Watson

Russian beach has the undeniable ring of an oxymoron. Russia is, after all, the land of reindeer, permafrost, and polar night—a place where people are occasionally killed by icicles. The pants-tucked-in-the-boots look is always de rigeur here, out of necessity. Steam baths, binge drinking, and Ukrainian smoked-lard delicacies, all prophylactics against freezing to death, have been elevated to the status of cultural icons. Tourists who come to Russia do it for the girls, the weirdness, the flash, the spectacle, the party. Expatriates who work here do it for funds or for oil companies or to diligently promote the global increase of credit-card debt. But no one expects to get a tan.

Mere logic has never deterred the Russians from a building project, however. Peter the Great erected his capital on a swamp—and St. Petersburg’s slinking black canals and crumbling Baroque palaces remain a wonder of the world to this day. Delusional, grandiose, ruthless, visionary, mad: these are the people who colonized Siberia and blithely erected cities in the Arctic Circle. So for the humble Black Sea town of Sochi to cast a bid to host the 2014 Winter Olympics—and to become a year-round, world-class resort destination attracting high-end travelers who might even, yes, go swimming—is not as implausible as it sounds.

Sochi 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. Stalin had a dacha here (now a kitschy hotel and museum), and he encouraged the construction, starting in the 1920’s, of health spas known as sanatoriums—many of which 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, but not much draw for international travelers.

It appears that all of this is about to change. Last year, the Kremlin began funneling stratospheric amounts of cash and big political muscle into the grandly named Federal Target Programme for the Development of Sochi, which promises almost $12 billion over the next seven years to "completely refurbish the entire region," in the words of Olympic bid committee marketing and communications director Andrey Braginski. The funding will be 60 percent public and 40 percent private; deals already inked or under way include a sparkling new airport and additional hotels (both funded by aluminum oligarch Oleg Deripaska, a 39-year-old billionaire whose Belgravia mansion set him back $49 million), as well as two new ski resorts, one financed by the state-owned energy monolith Gazprom, the other by the privately held Interros. If Sochi doesn’t win its Olympic bid (to be determined in July; the city is currently one of three finalists, along with Salzburg and Pyeongchang, South Korea), $7 billion will still be invested, Braginski says, though not necessarily in bobsled tracks.

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. Owned by Russian Hotels, a branch of Deripaska’s empire, and managed by the Stein Group, a European boutique hotelier, the Rodina is a stunning refurbishment of a Stalin-era villa, with characteristically soaring ceilings, acres of creamy marble, and manicured grounds leading down to a private beachfront. Fans of the Stein Group’s other properties (including The Cadogan on Sloane Street, in London, and the College Hotel, in Amsterdam) will recognize the patrician, post-Starck style. The palette in the 40 spacious rooms is chocolate, cinnamon, and vanilla, set off by exposed wood beams and luscious textures. Home-country touches appear unexpectedly here and there: gorgeous antique Pushkin and Tolstoy tomes in Cyrillic in the library, a dish at the hotel’s Black Magnolia restaurant that’s a surf-and-turf "Fabergé egg" of chicken, fish and lobster. Prepared by a French chef, naturally.

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