While tension continues to build between Russia and Ukraine, the strained relations on the border of Georgia—another former Soviet Republic—are slowly, ever so slowly, beginning to warm. Or, at least, they’re no longer considered ice-cold. It’s especially evident in the number of Russian tourists flocking across the southwestern border. And it’s no surprise. Georgia is one of the most beautiful places in the world.
Georgia sits at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. It was an independent kingdom until the Russians arrived in 1801. Russian rule turned into Soviet rule, and the country didn’t gain its independence again until 1991. Even then, the fighting continued over the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. A true resolution still hasn’t been reached. But that hasn’t stopped the tourists from running to the beaches, the mountains, and the hillside churches.
Gudauri, on the southern slopes of the Greater Caucasus Mountain Range, is one of the most popular destinations in Georgia. It’s two hours north of Tbilisi, the capital. Skiers flock here in the winter to ski, heliski, and speed fly above the tree line. The views of the rugged, snow-capped peaks are breathtaking.
But it might be even more beautiful after the snow, at least most of the snow, melts. This time of year, the skiers have turned into beach bums and left the area. They’re missing out on flowering hillsides, flowing waterfalls, and empty hiking trails. Those still here have an adventurous spirit. They come to paraglide off Sadzele Peak, kayak along the rapids of the Terek River, and climb cloud-covered Mount Kazbek.
You may not want to start with the highest Caucasus peak, but there are plenty of other ambitious treks in the area. From Gudauri, head toward Gergeti. The little village sits along the bank of the Chkheri river. Mount Kazbek looms overhead. Cows graze along the hills. And the Gergeti Trinity Church sits atop a steep slope. The 14th-century monastery looks like it was created for a fantasy novel. The village of Stepantsminda, Darial Gorge, and the ruins of Queen Tamara’s castle are nearby. Mineral springs, mountain lakes, and bright green pastures surround you. Then visit the 7th century Lomisi Monastery, where people go to pray for miracles. The small, stone hut sits at the edge of a ridge. The monks offer you homemade vodka, warm bread, and a tour.
At the end of each day, you return to Gudauri. Your hotel, the Gudauri Marco Polo, is also quiet this time of year without the après-ski crowd. You sooth your muscles in the jacuzzi and cool off in the indoor pool. You eat salmon soup and clay pot dumplings for dinner. And you sip a vodka cocktail by the fireplace. Even now, as you stare at the bare ski slopes, you can’t take your eyes away from the gorgeous mountains.