Our recent family cruise on the Black Sea included a fortuitous stop in Sochi, Russia. We embarked in Athens, sailed across the Aegean Sea and the Dardanelles to the Sea of Marmara, up the Bosphorus Strait through Turkey, where our ship, Regent’s Seven Seas Mariner, entered the Black Sea. Besides being an exceptional lesson in world geography for my boys, it was an opportunity to explore several unique ports in four countries on this lovely turquoise sea. Most memorable was Sochi, located close to Russia’s border with Georgia.
At the time of our visit, the 2014 Winter Olympics (February 7th -23rd) seemed very far off. I noticed only a small billboard in the port announcing this upcoming international event that would draw thousands of visitors to this city, established as a fashionable resort under Stalin and home to his dacha, or summertime residence. While the mighty snow-capped Caucuses, Europe’s tallest mountains, loom above the harbor, this tourist destination actually enjoys a sub-tropical climate in its lower elevations and features inviting sand and pebble beaches and graceful palm trees along its coast. The Olympic events will actually be split between the coastal and mountainous districts, roughly 30 minutes apart.
As we strolled along the lovely sea promenade in shorts and t-shirts under bright skies and sunny 77 degrees Fahrenheit weather spending our rubles on cold bottles of water, it was hard to imagine Sochi serving as this winter’s Olympic venue since its average February temperature is a balmy 50 degrees. It is actually the warmest city to ever host winter Olympic games and according to Time, for the past year, Russia has been diligently stockpiling snow and inventing ways to keep every flake frozen.
Our visit to Sochi included a tour of the Russian Tea Plantation, the only one in the country and because of the city’s unique climatic conditions — warm, humid and consistently sunny — it’s the northernmost such farm in the world. Up in the mountains an agronomist, who specialized in the technology of growing tea, greeted us near the fields and expounded on the distinctive history of tea in Russia. A quick hike down a forest path led us to a wooden izba (chalet) where we were treated to a tea tasting and serenaded by a folklore troupe in traditional dress — their lively Russian melodies accompanied by accordions.
Servers produced traditional Russian samovars to dispense the freshly brewed black tea, which was served with delicious homemade breads and pastries, honeys, nuts and jams. We explored the Russian handicrafts – matryoshka (nesting) dolls, lacquered boxes, and painted clay figurines — in the tiny gift shop at the front of the chalet. On our journey back down the mountain, into the city proper, I gazed up at those beautiful and majestic Caucuses, and prayed for snow in February 2014.
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