Georgia

Georgia is where lush valleys, meandering rivers, snowcapped peaks and sprawling vineyards paint a picture perfect landscape. Stretching east from the shores of the Black Sea, over the Caucasus Mountains and across a countryside dotted with national parks, this is a haven for bikers, hikers, horse riders and skiers. Georgia is a crossroads between Europe and Asia in both location and historical influence. The Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Ottomans and Soviets all left their mark here. An independent nation since 1991, today Georgia remains largely unblemished from modern-day tourism. So relish in the chance to discover one of the world’s last great paradises.

The Caucasus Mountains resemble a series of green and snowy towers strung out along the Georgia-Russia border. You’ll get a great introduction into the natural and cultural riches of this mountain range in the Kazbegi region, home to the 21,498-acre (8,700-hectare) Kazbegi National Park. Visit the 700-year-old church of the region’s eponymous town, Kazbegi (Stepantsminda). Spend your days driving in the shadow of steep ravines via the Darial Gorge and spot snakes while walking to Gveleti Waterfall. Hike to Devdoraki Glacier, which drapes the 16,558-feet (5,047-meter) tall Mount Kazbek. Other excellent places to hike are Khada Gorge and Upper Torso Gorge, where deserted settlements sit at the foot of deep valleys. Typical mountain lifestyles thrive in the villages of Juta and Sno.

An often treacherous, single-lane track called the Abano Pass zigzags through pristine Caucasus landscapes to the remote eastern region of Tusheti. Its passable in summertime only and even then is prone to closure due to heavy rain or snowfall, so plan your visit well in advance. Your reward for making this journey in a 4×4 is the impossibly scenic Tusheti National Park. Hamlets sit high up on mountains, green pastures travel for as far as the eye can see and rivers and waterfalls are at the turn of every corner. Shepherds come to graze their flock here and men prey at ancient khatebi stone shrines. Foodies will enjoy sampling local dishes such as kotori (flatbread stuffed with cottage or sheep cheese) and khinkali (dumpling filled with cheese, potato or spiced minced meat).

Below Tusheti is the Kakheti Wine Region, where evidence of viniculture has been traced back some 8,000 years. Choose a designated driver and sample hundreds of grape varieties as you hop between age-old wineries. Add Khareba Winery to the list, a unique bodega with cellars and tunnels carved into a mountainside. Continue east from the wine region to the Lagodekhi Protected Areas, on the tri-border with Azerbaijan and Russia. Go walking in a national park of dense forests, glacial lakes and rushing rivers inhabited by brown bears and wolves.

Make your way to Svaneti, the mountainous region set in the country’s northwestern extreme. This is the site of the tallest peaks of the Caucasus range, around which rugged dirt roads travel to secluded villages beautified by centuries-old defensive towers. Time moves at its own pace here and the Svan tribespeople practice their customs without the need for modern advances. There’s few better ways to experience the Svan way of life than at July’s annual Kvirikoba festival. Lace up a pair of walking boots and hike the many trails and alpine meadows of the Upper Svaneti. Or strap on your skis and carve up on the slopes of mountains shrouded in legends at the Hatsvali and Tetnuldi ski resorts. You won’t want to miss Ushguli, which at 7,874 feet (2,400 meters) above sea level is Europe’s highest settlement.

For a change of scenery, Georgia’s 192-mile (310-kilometer) long Black Sea coastline offers dozens of seaside resorts. Adjara, with its subtropical climate, sand and stone beaches, is a favorite among Georgians and vacationers from neighboring countries. Take your pick between Mtsvane Kontskhi, Gonio, Kvariati and Sarpi. Exotic plants flourish, bears, boars and deer roam freely and eagles swoop overhead in Mtirala National Park.

Move inland again to visit the Borjom-Kharagauli National Park and Borjomi Nature Reserve. Here, 12 marked trails traverse a terrain notable for its mixed coniferous forests. Crash through rapids on a white-water rafting tour on the Mtkvari River. Two spellbinding cave cities stand above the banks of the same river and are perfect for day trips. Vardzia was built into the foothills of Erusheti Mountain in the 1100s and was once a retreat for 2,000 monks. Uplistsikhe, near the town of Gori, is a village of otherworldly landscapes perched atop a massif.

You’ll probably also want to include a few days in the nation’s capital, Tbilisi. This vibrant city blends everything from a maze-like old town and art nouveau landmarks to sulfur baths, art galleries and riverfront parks. If you haven’t already, then make certain to indulge in a supra. This traditional national event is a feast accompanied by copious small plates, generous servings of wine and endless toasts. With Tbilisi National Park a short drive away, excursions amid natural beauty are never far away.

Activities in summer and winter make Georgia a year-round destination, although when you go depends on your vacation preference. Mid-May through October presents almost ideal conditions for hiking in the Caucasus Mountains. If the heat gets too intense in July and August then swap your walking boots for your swimming costume. Skiers and snowboarders descend upon the slopes from late-December to May. Camping is big in Georgia and almost the entire nation is open to travelers that want to pitch a tent or park up in a 4×4 vehicle. At the beach, in a valley, on a lakeshore or on a mountainside, you decide. Being a compact country means that there’s short distances between attractions, so you can fall asleep beneath a billion stars before waking up to a new dazzling view each morning.

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