Travel: Retreat from Moscow

Sochi on the Black Sea is every Russian's dream of a seaside resort.
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SOCHI IS not like the rest of Russia. Palm trees line the promenade; bamboo grows in the gardens; tea plantations cover the slopes that rise from the sea. In a land of endless forests and desperately grey cities, Sochi is a gem. Russians get misty-eyed at the mere mention of the name - particularly since the collapse of the Russian economy means that, for most, Sochi is as remote a destination as the Seychelles or Barbados.

It is a 36-hour train ride from Moscow to the Black Sea coast. There was excitement as the train drew in to Sochi station. Hordes of eager holiday-makers crowded on to the platform, jostling to enter this paradise. When the crowds cleared I made my way to the booking hall, haunt of that most useful species, the dispatcher.

The dispatcher arranges the B&B accommodation, vital to anyone travelling on a budget in Russia. He spoke no English, and I no Russian, but after a bit of frantic arm-waving, we agreed on a price range and I was taken to a suitable host. I was given a bed in a spotlessly clean triple, with kitchen and bathroom attached, all for 30 roubles a night (pounds 3). My hostess gave me tea and sandwiches, then lent me a map so that I could explore the town.

Sochi sits on a thin strip of land wedged between the Caucasus mountains and the Black Sea. War-torn Abkhasia is a few miles to the south, and Chechnya lies to the north east, but there isn't the slightest hint of menace on the trim streets of the resort. Neat gardens, trailing wisteria, and pensioners strolling on the promenade give Sochi a thoroughly English air: Torquay, perhaps, since there are definitely flashes of Fawlty Towers here.

At the tourist desk in the giant Hotel Zhemchuzhina I asked the receptionist what there was to do in Sochi.

"Nothing," she replied. She paused, considered for a moment, and repeated "No. Nothing. People come to Sochi to do nothing. Would you like to see the list of activities the hotel can arrange?" She handed me an old Intourist brochure, in English, with pictures of happy Soviet citizens windsurfing, water-skiing, horse-riding. "But most people do nothing." Why? She shrugged: "This is Russia."

She was right. The pebbly beach was dotted with people doing nothing. Even in the bars, people drank vodka with less than the usual energy. The arboretum was the busiest place in town.

The Sochi arboretum is Russia's biggest, and the displays of rare and exotic plants are truly spectacular. The grounds are huge, with winding paths and glorious vistas. Italianate villas, statues and a cable-car all hide away among the giant ferns and bamboo. It is a long climb to the highest point of the park, but the views compensate. Caucasian peaks drop to tea-clad hills, which sweep down to the sea. Far along the curving coastline, the distant hills of Georgia are visible.

Sochi harbour was beautiful in the fading orange light of a Black Sea sunset. A few fishing boats bobbed at anchor, and the air was filled with the enticing smell of cooking. The local specialty is shashlyk, a sort of Caucasian shish kebab. The similarity with Turkish cuisine is not surprising; the Turkish town of Trabzon is only five hours away by hydrofoil.

Sochi may be the most popular resort in Russia, but the most exclusive lies a few miles along the coast. The Dagomys complex was built by Intourist in the mid-Eighties as a showcase for the tourist facilities of the Soviet Union. It has all the amenities of the big Spanish resorts, and most of the architectural merit, too.

A third of the 1,700 rooms here overlook the coast, with a view of electricity pylons, a substation and the main railway line to Georgia. Beyond that lies a pebble beach of unexpected cleanliness.

The railway station in Sochi is slowly being modernised to cope with the expected floods of visitors. This rather touching faith in the future of the tourist industry is surprising. The break-up of the Soviet Union has reduced the numbers of people who can visit this area without a visa. The East Germans, Czechs and Poles of 10 years ago have been replaced by Russians who cannot now go to resorts in the Ukraine or Baltic States. Few Western tourists come to the region. Most, it seems, are put off by the proximity of the trouble spots, though there is no violence in Sochi.

The lack of familiarity with Westerners has some amusing consequences. Fawlty Towers' Manuel might have been proud of the local English language guide. It waxes lyrical about the area, praising the "notoriously pleasant climate" and "interesing cooking".

As long as there is enthusiasm like that, Sochi will remain a rewarding destination for anyone seeking the quiet and the quirky.

The cheapest fare to Moscow may involve a journey via Helsinki; Finnair offers a return fare of around pounds 350 through discount agents, travelling from Gatwick, Heathrow or Manchester. Non-stop flights from Gatwick or Heathrow to Moscow on British Airways are generally expensive for those not travelling as part of an organised tour; you may have more luck with Aeroflot (0171-355 2233), particularly if you book through a consolidator such as IMS Travel (0171-224 4678).

Visitors to the Russian Federation require a visa. Obtaining one can be a frustrating and expensive business. All applicants require an invitation from an organisation in Russia. People booking an organised tour get this automatically; independent travellers have to arrange their own. Many Russian companies will supply the necessary visa support, for a fee, but it's not always acceptable to the Russian consulate where you apply. The Embassy of the Russian Federation has a premium-rate phone service explaining the requirements, on 0891 171271.