Published: April 2009
By Valerie Stivers-Isakova
Yes, you read that correctly. In the alluring Black Sea town of Sochi, plutocrats and state officials alike are spending billions to reinvent what was once the Soviet Union’s premier resort.
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.
"I found the history of the Rodina fascinating," says Stein Group founder and chairman David Stein, referring to the site’s interbellum use as a bolthole where party bosses could relax (or not, since Stalin’s own palace, less than 10 miles away, was perhaps too close for comfort). Through the Cold War and up until perestroika, the building was reserved for the Council of Ministers of the U.S.S.R.; on an early scouting mission, Stein found a bomb shelter on the premises. "It has these incredible old doors with hammers and sickles painted on them," he says. "We’re going to turn it into a cigar bar."
Stein also has plans to open a full-service spa on the grounds—the architect Matteo Thun is purportedly attached to the project—supplemented by two vast swimming pools; there are also a billiards hall and a screening room, making the Rodina a suitable haven for beachgoers in the summer and skiers in the winter.
It’s still up in the air, however, whether the hotel is a pioneer on the new frontier of Russian decadence or a lonely white elephant. True, the Russian-language Kinotavr film festival, 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 tennis camp in the hills, the alma mater of, among others, Maria Sharapova. But Sochi’s appeal for tourists, whether Russian or foreign, remains unproven—and, if you ask certain jet-set nationals, unlikely. The distant-second-best hotel option is the Radisson SAS Lazurnaya, built in 1996, which has a nice pool but Miami Vice-hued rooms that could use a revamp. And the current swinging-weekend scene of foreign businessmen down to meet their local "girlfriends" is amusing or distasteful, depending on your point of view.
One thing Sochi 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 steep 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 other, its rugged hills dotted with fat chickens, milk cows, and cypress trees like black exclamation points, immortalized by the Georgian primitivist painter Niko Pirosmani. Fertile inland hills support vineyards and orchards; along the town’s palm-lined streets, women with glinting gold teeth sell fresh fruit in plastic pint-size containers—tiny, fragrant wild strawberries, rubylike 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 under-regulated Russian style. In ski season, a few bucks and a helicopter will get you to the top of any piste you like, despite towering cliffs of avalanche-prone powder. Mountain jeeps carve up pristine hills in 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.
Back in town, things are only marginally less wild. Sochi, which means "juicy" in Russian, is at heart a flaming neon phoenix of a boardwalk town. On its main corner stands a giant mosaic of Lenin’s head, perpetually wreathed in smoke billowing from carts of grilling meat. The women—characterized by feral blue eyes and gangly limbs—wear high heels on the beach here, and their proto-capitalist mates unironically chomp cigars as they stand in the shallows.
This 21st-century present exists cheek-by-jowl with the Soviet past, in the form of Sochi’s sanatoriums: combination spa-hospital-resorts where the U.S.S.R.’s workforce—the metalsmiths, the auto workers, the tax collectors—arrived with vouchers to take a heavily discounted month of rest, cooling the sweat of their noble communist labor. On the paths winding through the forested grounds, signposts point: this way—pool, that way—X-rays. In what must be one of the nation’s funnier exercises in futility, wall murals in the socialist-propaganda style exhort Russians not to smoke.
The magnificent Stalinist imperial buildings (and depressing Brezhnev concrete blocks) may be falling into disrepair, but the sanatoriums still endure. At Ordzhonikidze, a palatial structure named after an early Bolshevik activist, pinafore-clad middle-aged women—of the type known as "chemical aunties" for their improbably hued hair and toxic demeanor—guard creaky wooden corridors lavish with original detail. No one can see a room without the proper permission (and paperwork). Inquiries about services and prices, or whether it is even possible to stay the night, are met with extreme suspicion, and visitors are sent to a separate department to stand in one line, then another. And so on.
The sanatoriums are slowly being bought up and transformed—the Rodina is only one example. But visitors who make haste to the region will still have plenty of opportunities to see statues of robust, toga-wearing workers and beautiful marble bas-relief carvings: sheaf of wheat, basket of fruit, hammer and sickle.
Ironically, these still-functioning relics have become obstacles in Sochi’s development. Sanatoriums attract 3 million visitors a year, according to state PR channel Russia Today, many of them financially and physically distressed—making Sochi currently too unfashionable among the Russian elite to, well, become fashionable any time soon. Propose it as a Destination, and chic Muscovites react with varying degrees of amusement and alarm; as the joke goes, "Question: What’s the Russian Riviera?Answer: The Riviera."
Moreover, the infrastructure isn’t yet up to luxury-travel standards. Roads are traffic-choked, mountain paths are sometimes scattered with litter, and the night spots are a collective time machine set to 1980. Until the boondoggle that is the Olympic bid is secure and/or the new ski resorts, airports, and roads are built, it might be foolish for anyone less financially secure than an oligarch to dump money here. A lesson can be drawn from a sight a few minutes up the road from the current, abysmal airport: a grand, ruined, insectile black-glass structure that was to be a new international airport—half-built and then abandoned a decade ago.
And there’s still the general implausibility of Russia as a resort destination. Although it’s very good at many things, the country is not known for its service industry. "Sochi, so far, is still fighting for tourist clientele on a par with those of Turkey and Egypt," says Anton Lyalin, an owner of Moscow’s Goodman Steak House chain, who considered opening a restaurant in town (a low-cost café is all he thinks would make sense) and has decided against it for now. "But the service guys in Turkey—they smile," he says. "Sochi needs a program of how to welcome people to our city, and it’s not happening yet."
Of course, the rough edges hardly matter once one is inside the Rodina’s stately gates, where the atmosphere is so Western, travelers may as well be on Majorca or the Amalfi Coast at one of Stein’s other properties. The hotel will appeal to Russians as a way to "be in Russia without being in Russia," according to Stein Group chairman Thierry Naidu.
The same could be said of the attraction of the place for foreigners, who might be a better audience for the resort, regardless of the Olympics. Greg Tepper, president of the Exeter International agency, a Florida-based company specializing in luxury travel to Eastern Europe, says that a stop in Sochi is sometimes, though not often, part of a client’s Russian itinerary. "The people we’ve sent there are eccentric, looking for something off the beaten path," he says. He adds that to fly directly there from the United States is an "insurmountable" challenge and that he "can’t imagine Sochi in the foreseeable future having major appeal for Americans." On the other hand, Sochi’s current buzz, fascinating history, colorful boardwalk, and unfamiliar but delectable cuisine could constitute major draws in themselves—a reason to come here instead of a more predictable Eastern European destination.
The restaurant scene is predictably (and maddeningly) inconsistent, but a handful of places serve authentic Caucasian food, making them worthy destinations. Beliye Nochi ("White Nights") offers a cult version of the Georgian meat dumpling khinkali that one Sochi businessman and bon vivant describes as the best in Russia. These juicy packets of ground meat, wrapped in a tissue-thin flexible dough, are served boiled or fried, with a variety of sauces (sour-cream-and-garlic and sour pomegranate are favorites). Regulars call ahead to reserve multiple orders, which they eat with many little side dishes, in the Georgian style. At Shalet, a café on the boardwalk, the lyulya kebabs of ground lamb are sprinkled with pomegranate spice, parsley, and chopped white onion and are accompanied by plenty of papery Armenian flatbread.
But the best food can be found at Amshenski Dvor, a 30-minute drive from the Rodina in the direction of Krasnaya Polyana. This mostly open-air Armenian restaurant is set behind a structure 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.
This idyllic scene is not without flaws. The staff’s collective English is rudimentary at best, and the bathrooms are better left undescribed. Amshenski Dvor’s edges, like so many others found in Sochi, are rough. But sitting in such a place, a stone’s throw from the blue, blue waters of the Black Sea, savoring regional home cooking while the Volgas and Ladas cruise by on the highway and, perhaps, dabbling in selections from the extensive vodka menu, a person could be forgiven for thinking that there’s nothing at all wrong with Sochi that a few billion dollars couldn’t fix.
Valerie Stivers-Isakova lives in New York and Moscow. Her first novel, Blood Is the New Black, will be published by Crown in the fall.
When to Go
The balmy months of spring are best; temperatures hit the sixties in April and seventies in June. High summer is a favorite with visitors who enjoy swimming and hiking outdoors; temperatures remain in the sixties through October.
S7 Airlines (www.s7.ru) runs inexpensive, short-haul flights from Moscow to Sochi’s Adler airport. Consult Greg Tepper of Exeter International (800/633-1008; www.exeterinternational.com) for travel advice and arrangements in Russia.
A visa is required for entry to Russia. Many hotels offer tourist invitations (required of all applicants), for a small fee in addition to the cost of the visa. For more information, see www.waytorussia.net or www.expresstorussia.com.
Cabs are plentiful but charge more for foreigners, and most drivers speak only Russian. Ask the concierge at your hotel to arrange transportation.
Where to Stay
Where to Eat
Amshenski Dvor 15A Krasnaplotskaya; 7-8622/955-121; dinner for two $25.
Beliye Nochi 9 Ordzhonikidze St.; 7-8622/625-288; dinner for two $25.
Black Magnolia 33 Vinogradnaya St.; 7-8622/539-000; dinner for two $150.
Shalet 5 Rivyersky Pereulok; 7-918/104-5254; dinner for two $20.
What to Do
The country remains steeped in Soviet attitudes and regulations. For all activities, including outdoor ones, make arrangements with your concierge—the Rodina staff was endlessly helpful—or contact local travel agency SG tours (7-8622/665-070; www.sgtours.ru).
Zelyonaya Roscha Hotel at Stalin’s Dacha Travelers may not enter the gates of this museum without a prior reservation (ask your hotel to book one for you); the phone number (7-8622/621-842) rarely works.
Kinotavr Film Festival Occurs every June in Sochi, attracting national and international filmmakers. www.kinotavr.net.
Ordzhonikidze 96/5 Kurortny Prospekt; 7-8622/ 976-657.
Mettalurg 92 Kurortny Prospekt; 7-8622/ 971-945.
What to Read
Light contemporary Russian fiction—it’s a beach town, after all—such as mysteries by essayist Boris Akunin and novels by Moscow native Oksana Robski, available in translation.
Sochi’s black-pebble beaches are murder on bare feet: bring water shoes. To fit in with locals, pack your fanciest, flashiest resortwear. The standard gratuity in Russia is 10 percent.