The Georgian Military Highway winds its way from Tbilisi towards the Russian border, passing UNESCO churches, scenic reservoirs, and the somewhat over optimistically named Friendship Monument, a late 1980s celebration of Georgian-Soviet relations.
As the road climbs higher, the forests cloaking the slopes grow thinner until you emerge above the treeline and they’re replaced completely by thick blankets of snow as far as the eye can see. Welcome to the Greater Caucasus Mountain Range.
Georgia has appeared in the travel press frequently in the last couple of years as travellers take advantage of the new direct flights from London. We’ve started to cotton on to the country’s natural beauty, rich history, and the fact that the Georgians invented wine making (something we all should be grateful for) some 8,000 years ago. But the secret the Georgians haven’t been sharing, except with a fortunate few, is that their country also boasts phenomenal skiing, and the season lasts until May.
The Alps and the Pyrenees both have their charms, but their fame and ease of access have resulted in over-development and crowds. The idea of having the slopes to yourself is laughable, and even at the highest, most remote points you are still able to spot gondolas, cafes, and other skiers below. I prefer my mountain wilderness wild.
Georgia has four separate ski zones, of which the most extensive is Gudauri. It’s a two-hour drive from the international airport at Tbilisi, and unless there’s an avalanche (which would only briefly block the way), it’s accessible by road year round.
There’s a scattering of ski resorts across the former Eastern Bloc, with those in Bulgaria and Kazakhstan probably best known. The challenge they face is that improvements to their Soviet-era infrastructure haven’t kept pace with the demands of international skiers, and there are limited runs to explore.
I drove up with friend and tour guide Tsotne Japardize, who can be found on the slopes whenever he has time off. Fluent in half a dozen languages including English, well-travelled, cosmopolitan, and totally charming, he’s the epitome of the young, post-Soviet generation of Georgians who are pushing tourism development in the country forwards.
A snow drift seemed to have shifted into the resort’s main carpark overnight, so we pushed the car into four-wheel drive and skated over the ice for the last few metres to the wooden ski hut to pick up boots and skis. There’s not a massive selection, but there’s no waiting around, the kit’s fairly new, and once we skied off from the door, it was barely a minute to the bottom of the lifts.
There’s a scattering of ski resorts across the former Eastern Bloc, with those in Bulgaria and Kazakhstan probably best known. The challenge they face is that improvements to their Soviet-era infrastructure haven’t kept pace with the demands of international skiers, and there are limited runs to explore. Investing for the future, the Georgians have brought in foreign expertise. Gudauri’s development master plan was written by the Canadians, who know a thing or two about world-class ski resorts. It will be several years before everything is in place, but ski specialists Dynastar and Lange, who like to be ahead of the curve, are both testing and filming their latest ski gear in Georgia this month. They’re anticipating a rapid uptick in interest from pro and semi-pro skiers and boarders next season, which would finally place Georgia on the international snow sports circuit.
As it stands, Gudauri has 70km of pisted runs, plus uncountable ways of exploring the backcountry. The lifts will take you up to 3,300 m — which is often above the clouds — and in the bright morning sunshine, the haze of snowflakes in the air sparkle silver like glitter. A solitary Georgian flag — white with a red cross, the familiar flag of St. George — flutters proudly in the wind of one of the ski-in cafes, where stylishly dressed snowboarders are lounging outside on bean bags, drinking beers and steaming mugs of unusually potent mulled wine.
I’m normally content to stick to the red slopes, but as the blacks were fairly empty and sprinkled with a fresh coat of powder, skiing them was actually a pleasure. I tended to stop quite frequently, not just to catch my breath, but to stand and stare at the unspoilt panorama of peaks.
Set against the brilliant blue of the sky, colourful paragliders swooped on the thermals, having launched themselves from the top of one of Gudauri’s higher lifts. You can fly with an instructor in tandem, which seems particularly popular amongst the non-skiing Indian and Middle Eastern tourists who have come to Georgia for their first sight of snow.
Peaks that at first look inaccessible soon reveal the tell-tale wavy lines of a skier or two decorating their otherwise untouched powder. Hardy types hike up to the top to begin their run, but those who prefer to expend their energy on the way down are dropped off by private helicopter. Prohibitively expensive in Europe, heli-skiing has become almost mainstream in Georgia, with charter companies flying dawn until dusk throughout the ski season. The aircraft are well-maintained, the backcountry guides experienced, but you’ll still need nerves of steel to navigate and accomplish a safe run down to your chosen transfer site.
Exertion on the slopes justifies indulgent evenings, so once the lifts closed I hopped along the valley to Rooms Kazbegi, a highly awarded hotel that easily rivals Europe’s most exciting design hotels in service and style. Stretched out along the hillside, public areas, the terrace, and many of the guest rooms look directly across at rugged peaks. The tiny church of Stepantsminda clings atop one summit, always isolated, and lost completely when the clouds descend. Wrapped up in a woollen blanket, I sat awhile outside with the telescope looking up at the mountains and stars. A glass or three of Lagvinari — the best Georgian qvevri wine on the menu — warmed my heart if not my hands, and when I did finally retreat inside to thaw, Rooms’ sauna was exactly what was required.