Playground of the tsars
"Russia needs its paradise,” Prince Grigory Potemkin, Catherine the Great’s general, wrote in 1782 urging the annexation of Crimea, and no wonder.
The Crimean Peninsula, with its voluptuously curved Black Sea coast of sparkling cliffs, is paradise—with Riviera-grade vistas but without Riviera prices. Balmy with 300 days of sun a year (“It is never winter here,” said the writer Anton Chekhov, who had a dacha near Yalta), the place served as the playground of tsars and Politburo fat cats. Russians practically wept when, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Crimea was pulled out of the orbit of Russian rule and became part of an independent Ukraine.
A trace of Soviet hangover endures in the form of unsmiling babushkas and concrete block architecture. Visitors can tour the once secret nuclear-blast-proof Soviet submarine base in Balaklava, a piece of Cold War history, now a museum. Afterward, retreat to one of the briny health resorts of the west and east coasts for a therapeutic mud bath, or go for a run down to Livadia Palace in Yalta, scene of the 1945 conference that reconfigured postwar Europe.
Summer is high season, crowded with Russian and eastern European tourists (North Americans are still rare). In autumn the air turns soft and it’s harvest time at vineyards like Massandra, built in the 19th century to supply wines for Nicholas II, the last Russian tsar. There you may have the pleasure of tasting a Riesling with the scent of alpine meadows, port the color of rubies, and a nectar called “Seventh Heaven,” of which a recent visitor said: “I could kneel in front of this wine.” —Cathy Newman
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When to Go: May-October
Where to Stay: Newer (opened in 2011) Crimea Breeze Residence is a posh, southern peninsula oasis with low-rise stucco-and-stone luxury villas, seawater pools, and a helpful English-speaking staff.
How to Get Around: Marshrutka (minibus) routes crisscross the region. Private and public bus and train routes connect most cities, and taxis are readily available. Luxury train tour options include the two-week Crimean Express Railway Journey from St. Petersburg to Yalta.
Where to Eat or Drink: Sample traditional Crimean Tatar dishes like lagman (spicy noodle soup), chee-börek (meat turnover), and plov (rice pilaf and lamb) at Harem in Yalta, Kafe Marakand in Simferopol, and, in summer, at the small beach stands and cafes in Koktebel and Sudak.
Cultural Tip: English isn’t spoken widely outside the major tourist areas. Bringing a Russian phrase book and learning a few basic phrases before your trip will make it easier to ask directions, order food, and interact with locals.
What to Read Before You Go: Lady With the Little Dog and Other Stories (1896-1904), by Anton Chekhov (2002). The legendary Russian playwright and modern short story master penned these 11 tales during his final years, spent living in a Yalta villa.
Fun Fact: Joseph Stalin stashed wines confiscated from the tsars’ palaces in the Massandra vineyard cellars, located in underground tunnels. Temporarily relocated during the 1941 Nazi invasion, these rare vintages remain the jewels of Massandra’s estimated million-bottle collection.
Helpful Links: Travel to Ukraine
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Best Trips 2013
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