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Russian Riviera

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Photo: Simon Watson

"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.

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