Russians flock to the Black Sea’s mountainous peninsula for the sand, shrimp and history.

“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.

Novyi Svit
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.

Stay in Prince Golitsyn hotel to enjoy a private beach and hikes into the ancient mountains. Eat at Aquatoria, a fish restaurant that pledges to serve only the same day’s catch.

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.

Today, some of them serve as museums while others have been resold into private hands. The most famous of the government-run mansions, perhaps, is Yalta’s stunning, late 19th-century Livadia Palace. The elegant, palm-lined palace overlooking the sea made it into textbooks when Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt convened here to carve up post-war Europe in 1945. Today, you can tour the rooms where they plotted, with some of the original furniture preserved. An art and photo gallery, as well as lavish courtrooms, give a good impression of Tsar Nicholas’ lifestyle.

The high life in Yalta continues today. Known as a shabby chic party capital for the young and wealthy, the town lures travellers with a glamorous yacht-lined pedestrian pier, fancy hotels and nightclubs that stay open till dawn.

Stay in Villa Elena, a luxurious five-star hotel from 1912. Eat in Khutorok La Mer for Ukrainian cuisine on the waterfront and spice up the experience with Turkish hookahs that you can smoke.

For the best blend of sand, pebbles and history, head to this active naval base for Russian and Ukrainian fleets. Built by the Russians in the 18th Century, the town still stirs passion about who it really belongs to. Recently, in exchange for cheaper gas, Russians extended their lease of the fleet till 2042.

The town itself does not feel Ukrainian. Whitewashed government buildings, concert halls and battleships line the horizon, and there are elaborate monuments celebrating Russian feats of war. The place has a noble feel reminiscent of the former empire.

In the west of Sevastopol, the Greek ruins of the city of Chersoneses date back to 5 BC. Apart from collecting prenatal pottery pieces (there seems to be no restriction against it), locals and tourists can enjoy a refreshing swim in the rolling, blue waves of the Black Sea -- so called for the colour of its deep waters densely populated with algae. 

Stay in the waterfront Sevastopol hotel, steps away from Sevastopol’s pedestrian piers and best for watching naval parades. And eat in Kazbek, a Georgian cuisine restaurant famous for its plov (pilau rice with meat) and khachapuri (warm white sour dough with melting cheese inside).

How to
From the airport in Simferopil, hire a cab (bargaining the price down twice is a must) or get on a shuttle bus. You can also take an authentic Soviet trolley that drags through the mountains for more than two hours without an air conditioner; the 84km route is said to be the longest in the world and, perhaps, the cheapest. 

To avoid Russian holidaymakers, travel in the shoulder season, which begins in late April and lasts through May. The sun will be warm enough for a healthy tan and quick water dips. Alternatively, visit the Crimea in September or October for the beauty and quiet peace of the Indian summer. Hotel prices and availability will be ample, the sea still warm and mountain trails blissfully vacated.