There are places you know you will miss from the first moment you set your eyes on them. Those places feel like home without you even having thought of visiting before. Deep into the Caucasus Mountains, where Georgia ends and Russia begins, at the top of Cross Pass outside Gudauri, you can still find high mountain peaks, desolate roads, rugged landscape, and unexplored wilderness that make my heart sing. High up there, where >5000m peaks kiss the bright blue sky and most people lose their breath, that is where I get found. The wilderness speaks directly to my soul, it calls my wild heart, it urges me to explore. It calms me down, I sleep without a single worry, nothing matters and all our “modern” concerns seem like “first world problems”.
The real Georgia in winter is cold and snowy, rough around the edges, wild and untamable, high in altitude and strong in liquor content. Just how I like my destinations (and my men) ❤ A few places in the American West had such a profound effect on me, an effect so strong I didn’t want to leave, let alone go back to the city. The Caucasus Mountains remind me of the San Juans in Southwest Colorado high up Red Mountain Pass from Ouray to Silverton – a place where I camped without a tent at 12000ft elevation and that experience was the best birthday present I could have ever asked for ❤
In Gudauri I recommend staying at Quadrum Hotel (under $100 for a double room, breakfast with a view included). Brand new and built only with natural materials in simple and modern Scandinavian style, it offers a spa and swimming pool, as well as daily yoga classes to meet all your post-skiing / hiking needs and soothe your sore muscles. There is a bar and restaurant on site as well where you can grab dinner as you’ll be exhausted after a day of skiing and unwilling to look for a place to eat down the road in town at night.
In Kazbegi Rooms Hotel (over $100 for double room, breakfast with a view included) gets my vote for fantastic design, superb amenities, fusion cuisine and incredible service. You’ll notice there are many cheaper options in Georgia but as with every developing country, you get what you pay for, so be careful how excited you get about a budget room, especially if your budget can accommodate a comfier experience 🙂 Remember to book both hotels well in advance as they usually sell out during the main season.
The never ending “tunnels” between Gudauri and Kazbegi are probably the most freakish roads I have ever passed (and to think I was considering hitchhiking there…) There is no light inside, no road markings or directions, the tunnels curve and are very narrow (remember…one way traffic). If I told you there would be light at the end of the tunnel (literally), would you follow me high up in the Caucasus Mountains in the middle of a snow storm, on windy one-lane roads through pitch-black avalanche barriers? And if you did the reward would be one of the greatest views of Mt Kazbeg you’ve ever seen (and a cocktail in the swanky bar at the posh Rooms Hotel Kazbegi)
Georgia may seem far and off the beaten path to the weekend traveler, yet there are multiple flights daily from Europe to Tbilisi and Kutaishi. We opted for budget travel and I’m SO glad we did! The bus-shuttle-plane-taxi experience gave our trip such a good and authentic start. Since we were coming from Bulgaria, we took the bus to Turkey (6hrs overnight from Plovdiv to Istambul in the coldest night of the year), schlepped our luggage from the bus station to the airport with a shuttle (which took another 1.5hrs), then jumped on a flight to Tbilisi (2.5hrs of crammed leg space) and finished our trip with a taxi to Gudauri (add 2 more hours where we were so exhausted the taxi driver could have taken us anywhere and I wouldn’t have cared as long as he let me sleep 🙂
The travel was very oriental and interesting, safe, cheap, and by no means difficult. Culture shock abound for my Western friends every step of the way – squat toilets with no paper at the Bulgarian-Turkish border (yes, we had to cross the border on foot at night in the middle of a rainstorm), perfumed alcohol in the bus to disinfect your hands, having to haggle for your bottled water (because you have to haggle for everything in the Middle East), et all. Since we were coming from a place with no snow and going thru a place with no snow, everyone was really interested in us and where we are going with all this snowboarding gear. Some people had never seen snow, most couldn’t even perceive the idea that we were taking a bus to a shuttle to a plane to a taxi to a winter resort in Georgia almost on the border with Russia.
To get from Tbilisi to the mountains you have to experience the famous Georgian driving on steep and windy mountain roads. My recommendation is to hold on tight and not look at what the driver is doing…prayer also helps 🙂 You thought Istambul driving was crazy, wait till you see Georgia. If you don’t abide to above rules, you’ll die of heart attack WAY before you actually crash. Locals drive these roads every day, your shuttle driver is well aware of what he is doing, save him your backseat driver speech 🙂
The capital of Georgia – Tbilisi (aka ТиБилЛиСи in Bulgarian) is also called Tiflis in Turkey where I almost missed my flight not being able to find Tbilisi on the dashboard. And while the US has Facebook and Russia has V Kontakte, Tbilisi has Balcony.ge. People observe and share everything from their balconies 🙂 There is balcony architecture, balcony culture, balcony parties, basically “Welcome to the Land of Balconies!”
Having covered skiing and travel in Georgia, now onto food and wine! What should you try from the famous Georgian cuisine? Basically everything…more than once – Kachapuri (homemade cheese and egg “pastry”), Khinkali (meat or veggie dumplings), Shashlik (meat skewers), breads, yogurt, cheeses, jams, jellies, soups, pickled veggies, spices!!! Based on the cuisines I had tasted before, I found Georgian dishes to resemble a mix of Armenian, Turkish, Russian, and Eastern European flavors but maybe those countries borrowed their spices and intricate preparations from Georgia, who knows…