Crimea, the Ukraine’s odd beach paradise
A wild beach in Sevastopol's Balaklava bay on Ukraine's Crimea peninsula. (Yuliya Popova)
“Shrimp, sunflower seeds, baklava!” That odd beach vendor chant is the sound of summer in the Crimea, a small Ukrainian peninsula that juts into the Black Sea. The vendors make their way past sunburnt bodies occupying every inch of the coast, offering Turkish honey pastries or Russian salty shrimp as an appetizer to a sumptuous holiday of contrasts.
The green, mountainous Crimea is a wild and fairly undiscovered beach destination in Eastern Europe. Frequented by Russian holidaymakers, the peninsula has had little influence from the West and is better known for its war history than for the long strips of pebble beach propping the rocky Crimean Mountains. In the late 19th Century, Russians fought the British, French and the Ottoman Turks from these Crimean shores, as a part of an extended conflict over the spoils of the Ottoman Empire. The winner of the three-year Crimean War depends on which country’s history books you consult, but what has prevailed is an odd blend of Russian and Turkish cultures.
From Turkey, the Crimea inherited a mild Mediterranean climate; from Russia, millions of loyal tourists who take off en masse every summer for an annual break. Although the Crimea is a part of Ukraine now, most locals continue to speak Russian and reminisce over the Soviet Union, which partly explains the annual Russian exodus.
In August there are so many sun worshipers, the beach looks like New York City’s Times Square on New Year’s Eve. With more disposable income to burn than Ukrainians, Russians drive up local accommodation and food prices, forcing Ukrainian tourists to travel in the shoulder seasons.
A typical Crimean beach scene is a crowded and lascivious affair, where food, people and water blend together. Young women, with figures that would make Venice Beach babes jealous, roll up the sides of their swimming bottoms for a better suntan, blurring the line between public and nudist beach. Most men prefer swimming briefs, no matter how unathletic their bellies look.
Crimea has dozens of lovely beach towns, but only a few offer proper tourist infrastructure. Hot water, menus in English, toilet paper and public toilets are hard to come by in many areas, so stick to larger cities, which are more likely to have Western hotels. While locals advertise rooms for rent by nailing hand written boards to random trees and lampposts, residential properties can suffer occasional water and gas shortages. For the best accommodations and dining options, the safe bets are Yalta, Novyi Svit, and Sevastopol, all within an hour and a half drive from Simferopil, the capital of the Crimea and the only city on the peninsula with an airport.
Only six kilometres from a popular resort called Sudak, the village of Novyi Svit (“New World”) sits at the foot of the lush pine peaks that nestle the bay.
Pack your hiking gear to explore its many historic trails. Previously called Paradise, Novyi Svit is famous for its vineyards and champagne, which are so good even Tsar Nicholas II, according to local legend, spent a few heady nights here in the early 1900s. He was the last Russian monarch to enjoy the Crimean holiday palaces, one of which was built in Yalta specifically for his family. Livadia Palace, a whitewashed Renaissance mansion, entertained the Romanovs until the start of World War I in 1914.
Before heading to Yalta, explore the town of Sudak, which is dominated by a magnificent 14th-century fortress. Stretching more than 30km, the ancient battlements were erected by Venetians until the Genoese took over the peninsula in 1365. The town itself is a typical Crimean mix of grey Soviet apartment houses, buzzing open-air markets and developing hotels that are best to avoid.
Russian royalty held the Crimea dear to their hearts, infusing it with palaces, mansions and exquisite wineries and vineyards. Later, the Soviet elite converted the royal real estate into sanatoriums and built dachas (summer houses) for their own folly.