The Russian Riviera’s bare essentials—and all that jazz
By David Jenison
Few travelers know there’s a Russian Riviera or that ex-Commies love jazz, but who wouldn’t want to know about these elements converging on the largest nude beach of the Soviet Empire? It’s enough to make Vladimir Lenin roll over in his grave. From Sept. 9-12, tourists will descend upon the resort town of Koktebel for Black Sea waves, sweet local wines and jazz-lovin‘ sunbathers who are more than just barefoot on the beach.
Launched seven years ago, the Koktebel Jazz Festival attracts over 15,000 people each September for one of the best beach bashes that side of the old Iron Curtain. This 2,500-person beach town has special allure as the prime naturalist destination for those other “red states.” Nearly 200 international jazz artists participate in the official event and hundreds more do impromptu jams around town. This writer attended last year’s fest, and highlights included a main stage performer rockin‘ Motörhead’s “Ace of Spades” on the accordion and a hippie boardwalk band jazzin‘ up Zeppelin classics. The “NU Jazzz” stage is certainly the most fun since it’s set up right on the clothing-optional beach. In other words, it’s the one stage where you really can rock out with your cock out.
Camping is allowed on the beach, though more comfortable options include the Galeon Hotel at the foot of the Kara Dag volcano and countless residential guest rooms. Certainly don’t miss out on the local specialties, from the region’s popular champagnes and sparkling white wines to delicious Tatar specialties that reflect their Turkic roots. Beach bathers will encounter too many trinket hawkers, but do shell out for the ridiculous baklava and homemade cakes, especially if your appetite or need to snack come calling. Vodka lovers will find that liquid courage comes cheaply with the national Ukrainian brand running $2 a bottle—and not the airline size either.
Koktebel itself is located on the Russian Riviera, which ironically is not in Russia. It’s part of Ukraine’s autonomous Crimean Peninsula, a pendant-shaped land mass that dips into the Black Sea like a large island. Joseph Stalin so loved Crimea that he relocated the native Tatars to Uzbekistan to make room for rich Russians and their vacation homes (socialism is about redistribution, after all). Yalta is the most popular destination despite being touristy and expensive with rocky beaches. An amusing highlight is a giant Mickey D’s monstrosity built in front of a Lenin monument that gazes directly at the Golden Arches. Lenin, meet Ronald.
Among the better Crimean spots, there’s the Vorontsov Palace (same architect as Buckingham Palace) in Alupka, the cave city of Bakhchisaray and, for all the Lord Tenny’ fans out there, the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade site in Balaclava. The best attractions, however, are on the shoreline headed east toward Russia, and they include the ancient Genoan fortress in Sudak, the incredible beaches and winery of Novy Svet an of course, Koktebel, which means Land of the Blue Hills in the Tatar language.
Koktebel is known historically for its literary associations, notably poet Maximilian Voloshin, while its iconic image is the bridge-shaped Golden Gate rock located several hundred feet offshore from the Reserve Kara-Dag national park. The beach itself—covered with small, brightly colored pebbles—features typical summer activities like diving, windsurfing and water-skiing. Koktebel also draws big crowds in August for Neptune Day, when world-class body artists depict the birth of Venus on a host of naked “canvases.”
Koktebel is one of the more green-friendly spots in the otherwise less-tolerant Ukraine, but if stopped by the police, ask if paying a “fine” would suffice since many law enforcement officers can be bribed faster than a BP regulator. Also make sure to check the product first, though quality has improved in recent years. Crimea Blue, a Ukrainian hash-and-blueberry hybrid, placed second in the Indica category at the High Times Cannabis Cup three years ago.
Simferopol, the Crimean capital, is the main air and train hub for the peninsula. It even features the world’s longest trolleybus line, 54 grueling miles to Yalta, that makes a South American chicken bus seem like the Orient Express. Mini-buses and privately hired cars can take travelers to Koktebel and all other Crimean destinations.