5 Reasons to Explore the Mountains of Georgia (Vogue)
The mountains of Georgia may not have the cachet of the Alps or Aspen, but there are plenty of reasons to make the journey to the Caucasus Mountains, especially when they’re blanketed in snow.
Georgia’s natural beauty—vineyards, seaside, mountains, forests—remained hidden behind the Iron Curtain for much of the 20th century. When seven decades of Soviet rule ended in 1991, the republic finally reappeared on the map of the Western world. Georgians, a proud, gregarious, food-and-wine-obsessed people, may be the world’s most welcoming hosts. The Tbilisi airport even greets visitors with a Wi-Fi network named “TBILISILOVESYOU.” In recent years, the capital has captured travelers’ imaginations with its effortlessly cool, Brooklyn-esque scene of restaurants, bars, art galleries, and fashion boutiques. However, the surrounding mountain villages have their own charm, cuisine, and culture, and getting beyond the city has never been easier thanks to new hotels, more flights, and even private jet service.
The Rooms Hotel Kazbegi Means No More Roughing It
Homestays and camping have their place, but it’s a treat to be cocooned in comfort in a far-flung wilderness setting. When the Rooms Hotel Kazbegi opened in 2012, it finally brought city-worthy digs and amenities to the highlands of northern Georgia. Located in the sleepy mountain town of Stepantsminda, the former Soviet resort has been reimagined with timber interiors (reclaimed from dilapidated buildings in the west of the country), deep leather armchairs, bold pendant lighting, and colorful Georgian rugs. Vintage Soviet sports posters found in the existing building now grace the walls of the 156 guest rooms and enormous communal area, which is divided by bookcases stocked with Russian and English novels. Think of it as an Ace Hotel–meets–Soho House vibe. An expansive terrace runs the length of the hotel, providing mountain views well worth the winding 2.5-hour drive from Tbilisi. On a clear day, you can look across the valley to the 14th-century Gergeti Trinity Church on the nearest peak. After a day exploring the mountains, guests can retire to the hotel’s subterranean wellness center, which boasts a 30-foot heated pool with alpine views. And if you’re craving a bit of nightlife, Rooms has its own casino where mixologists serve excellent cocktails late into the night.
Georgian Cuisine Is the Ultimate Comfort Food
The dumplings and cheese-filled breads served in the mountains of Georgia rival iconic Alpine dishes like Austrian schnitzel, tiroler gröstl (fried potatoes, onions meat), alplermagronen (the Swiss answer to mac ‘n’ cheese), and fondue. Khinkali, addictive Georgian soup dumplings, are ubiquitous in chic Tbilisi restaurants, but the versions found in mountain villages like Mestia, Pasanauri, and Kazbegi come spiked with unique mountain herbs like ombalo mint. Eating them is just as much of an art form as creating the pleats that cinch the dumpling closed. Forget a knife and fork if you want to enjoy the warm savory broth. Locals grab khinkali by the topknot, bite a small hole in the side, then slurp out the broth before biting into the filling. Rooms Kazbegi doesn’t put the dumpling on its menu because they prefer guests try the local sakhinkles (khinkali houses), like Tsanareti. The lowly kidney bean gets transformed into a hearty dish called lobio, a cross between refried beans and stew, seasoned with fried onions, chilies, and cilantro and accompanied by a griddled cornbread called mchadi. If you like fondue, you’ll adore khachapuri, essentially a shallow bread bowl of molten cheese, sometimes topped with an egg. Vegetarians can fill up on pkhali, a traditional dish of chopped and minced vegetables like eggplant, spinach, and beets, combined with ground walnuts, herbs, and garlic. And be warned, every meal (sometimes every dish) is complemented by shots of chacha—Georgia’s take on grappa.
You Can Heli-Ski Untouched Powder
Heli-skiing tops many adventure enthusiasts’ bucket lists, but to hire a chopper in powder meccas like Alaska, Japan, and the Alps can cost a small fortune. The Caucasus Mountains offer big lines and untouched terrain at half the heli-price tag ($160 per person compared to $390 in Switzerland). Last year, Kazbegi Helicopters partnered with Gudauri Freeride Tours. Their team of experienced Austrian pilots and mountain guides help hardcore powder hounds access acres of untracked snows. Too extreme? You can also stick to the slopes of Gudauri, Georgia’s premier ski resort. With six lifts, 50 kilometers of skiable terrain, and 1,000 meters of vertical drop, it’s no Aspen, but a daily ski pass costs just 30 lauri ($12) and the 40-minute drive from Rooms Kazbegi is rewarded with a unique cultural experience and amazing people watching. The ski patrol team sports hand-me-down uniforms from Jackson Hole and Vail and you most likely will be serenaded by chacha-fueled locals in the sole gondola. Stalls at the base of the mountain hawk wool-knit socks, king-size Snickers, and churchkhela, candle-like strings of nuts encased in a wax-like, thickened grape juice.
You Can Take In UNESCO-Worthy Culture
The UNESCO-recognized Upper Svaneti region—the highest inhabited area in the Caucasus—is like a living museum made up of medieval-type villages, castles, churches, and distinctive stone tower houses. These isolated communities, surrounded by rugged 10,000-foot peaks, are home to the Svans, an ethnic subgroup of Georgians who have preserved their own dialect and cultural traditions. Tourism has slowly started to trickle into these communities and Rooms Hotel has introduced jet service from Tbilisi, turning what would be an 8-hour drive into a scenic, 40-minute flight. Like most Georgians, the Svans are model hosts, inviting visitors into their homes for fresh-made lobiani—bean-stuffed bread—and, of course, chacha. The Svaneti Museum of History and Ethnography provides a good overview of the region’s story. Development is encroaching, though carefully monitored by the government to preserve the unique culture and nature found here. Hotels have yet to debut, but simple guest homes are plentiful. Two ski resorts, Mestia and Tetnuldi, have opened in the last five years, offering serious slopes without the crowds. The plan is to model the development after European ski areas, like Austria’s Arlberg, and interconnect the villages by a network of ski lifts.
You Can Fly Through the Clouds
The mountain regions of Georgia offer endless adventures, from ice climbing and white water rafting, to mountain biking and mountaineering. For an adrenaline rush without much physical effort, try paragliding. Alexander Iskandarov, the chief adventure guide at Rooms Hotel Kazbegi, is also a pioneer in the region’s burgeoning paragliding scene. A tandem flight in Gudauri is spectacular no matter what the season. In winter, ride the chair lift alongside skiers and soar through the clouds, high above snow-capped peaks, getting the ultimate view of the region before landing right on the slopes. Iskandarov and his team capture the entire experience on GoPro and will edit the clip into your own adventure film souvenir.