At the start of our cruise in New York, we had dinner near Wall Street. Our waitress, Olga, was from Russia and we asked her about Sochi.Â â€œThe Miami Beach of Russiaâ€ was how she described it.
Then, while on the ship, CNN International aired frequent commercials promoting Sochi as a potential location for the 2014 Winter Olympics.
So we were quite curious about somewhere that could be described as â€œMiami Beachâ€ and be a Winter Olympics destination.Â
Likely due to the fact that it was Holland America Lineâ€™s first call to Sochi, there was a brass band greeting the Prinsendamâ€™s arrival. Many of us smiled when they played â€œStrangers in the Nightâ€ just as the port officials and Holland America representatives were about to greet.
This port requires a Russian Visa (tough and expensive to get prior to the cruise).Â However, similar to St. Petersburg, if you purchase a shore excursion, then you are covered by a blanket Visa.Â More than 700 guests were on tour during this visit.
We booked the â€œStalinâ€™s Summer Homeâ€ tour. Our guide, Yuri, was an English teacher at the local university and spoke excellent English.
Sochi, we learned, is only 10 miles from the Georgian border. It is a young city; only 160 years old with a population of 400,000.Â And its rocky beaches stretches almost 100 miles but it is only 15 miles inland to the foothills to the Caucasus Range, Europeâ€™s highest mountains.Â
Sochi is under massive development and property prices are similar to Moscow. The beach front area is packed with high rise hotels, shops, bars, spas and casinos.Â We could se a similarity to Miami Beach or Las Vegas.Â Many Russians are buying second homes here.Â Â
But with the mountains so close, it is also a winter resort; Sochi is a finalist with Korea and Austria for the 2014 Olympics, to be determined in July.
Â Stalinâ€™s dacha, or summer house, is called â€œThe Green Groveâ€ and is today a public hotel/spa called Zelenaya Roscha www.rosha-sochi.ru .Â It is painted dark green to match the forest and is supposedly in the original â€œsecret formulaâ€ paint that has lasted since 1937.Â Â Here we saw the billiards room, and the movie room used as a office, complete with a wax figure of Stalin.Â We also had a sample of Stalinâ€™s favorite Georgian wine.
Next, our tour headed to the Riviera Park.Â This park is filled with rides and other amusements for children.Â Many were disappointed that few vendors accepted dollars or euros, and the only ATM machine was broken.Â Â After free time here, our tour ended back at the ship.
Yuri, our guide, asked us if we wanted to talk further and we invited him for a beer.Â Unfortunately we learned that we could leave the port area â€“ even with the guide â€“ due to the visa issue but we did manage to have drink at a fancy restaurant inside the port area.Â Yuri wanted to practice his English with Americas as he has never been to the United States.Â He was curious to know what Americaâ€™s think of Putin.Â Â This conversation was the most fun of our day.Â Â Â