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Ukraine's Black Sea coast: Russians' best-kept travel secret

By George Webster for CNN
  • Ukraine's Black Sea coast has long been a favorite holiday destination among Russians
  • However, most Westerners have yet to discover its rich mix of history and natural beauty
  • Attractions include neo-Renaissance palaces, volcanic mountains and ancient Greek temples

CNN's global series i-List takes you to a different country each month. In January, we visit Ukraine and look at changes shaping the country's economy, culture and social fabric.

(CNN) -- Ask a group of Russians where they'll be vacationing this summer and chances are they'll all give the same answer: Ukraine.

The vast nation in the heart of Eastern Europe rarely features on the travel itineraries of many Westerners.

However, the latest figures from the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNTWO) show that Ukraine is the 12th most popular tourist destination in the world -- with 20.7 million visitors in 2009.

According to John Kester, UNTWO manager of tourism trends, the overwhelming majority of these visitors come from Russia.

"These figures reflect a social legacy from when Ukraine was a part of the Soviet Union," he explained.

"Most of those traveling from Russia have friends and family there. You have to remember that Ukraine, particularly along the Black Sea coast, was considered the glamorous holiday hotspot for most Soviets during the communist era."

Indeed, Ukraine's Black Sea coast -- which extends along the Crimean Peninsula to the historic city of Odessa -- has been a big draw over the centuries for Russian czars, wealthy European monarchs and Soviet proletariats alike.

With its glut of architectural treasures, arching cliffs and perennially temperate climate, the Black Sea coast has all the hallmarks of a traveler's paradise.

So why hasn't it hit the big time much beyond the borders of the former Soviet Union?

"Ukraine has not really engaged in any kind of serious promotion of itself as a tourist destination," says Oksana Yakovenko of the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation.

"The Black Sea coast is easily as good as the Mediterranean, but far fewer people seem know about it -- at least for the time being," says Yakovenko.

For those keen to catch a glimpse of the former "Red Riviera" before the hordes catch on, Lonely Planet travel writer Greg Bloom has a treasure trove of suggestions.

First up, head to Yalta -- Crimea's most well-known city on the peninsula's southern tip. Don a pair of oversized slippers and stroll around the neo-Renaissance mansion that is Livadia Palace, which is "where the last of the Romanovs frolicked and where Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill met in 1945 to shape the post-war world," says Bloom.

Fortresses dot the peninsula, bearing the signatures of mighty civilizations -- Greek, Mongol, Ottoman, Slavic.
--Greg Bloom, Lonely Planet author
  • Crimea
  • Black Sea
  • Ukraine
  • Travel Destinations
  • Tourism

The palace is just one of several historical jewels in Crimea. Fifty kilometers west of Yalta, in Balaklava, you can retrace the Charge of the Light Brigade from the Crimean War and tour an underwater cave that was a secret nuclear submarine factory in Soviet times.

Ancient ruins more your thing? "Fortresses dot the peninsula, bearing the signatures of mighty civilizations -- Greek, Mongol, Ottoman, Slavic," says Bloom.

Of special note is the Chersonesos Taurica -- the remains of an ancient Greek colony founded on the shore of the Black Sea over 2,500 years ago.

Known as the "Ukrainian Pompeii," the sprawling site, on the outskirts of the city of Sevastopol, boasts a smorgasbord of old-world relics -- including a Roman amphitheater, a Greek temple and the ancient vestiges of mass-produced wine.

Fast-forward a few millennia to 1920, when Vladimir Lenin's decree "On Utilizing the Crimea for the Medical Treatment of Working People" spawned the large-scale development of "sanatoriums" -- monolithic limestone health spas with a Soviet twist.

"While many have been demolished or converted into high-end hotels, a few holdouts remain operational, as if the Soviet Union had never collapsed," says Bloom.

Ukraine's share of the Black Sea coast boasts an embarrassing amount of alpine splendor -- and nowhere more so than along the Kara Dag Nature Reserve, situated between the Crimean village of Kurortnoye and the resort of Koktebel.

Dominated by a now extinct volcano, its ancient lava formations have produced a Jurassic landscape carpeted with unusual flora and wildlife unique to the region.

"The coast is a hitchhiker's dream" says Yakovenko. "There are endless dramatic cliffs, breathtaking sea views, impossibly beautiful sunsets -- the full works!"

For those with a real cliff-side disposition, the Swallow's Nest castle is a must. Perched on the side of the 40-meter high Aurora cliff, near Yalta, the breathtaking neo-Gothic "chateaux fantastiques" dates back to the late 19th century, and is one of the most popular attractions in Crimea.

But it's not all historical quirks and rustic charm.

Every year, the sleepy seaside village of Popovka (a two-hour drive from the Crimean capital of Simferopol) is transformed into a techno-fueled hedonist's paradise for the Kazantip festival.

The month-long event attracts 150,000 visitors a year from across the world, according to its organizers, who bill it not just as any old music festival, but as a temporary independent "republic."

Despite Ukraine's rich mix of history, natural beauty and cultural attractions, the tourist masses that descend on much of Eastern Europe have largely spared Ukraine, says Bloom.

"Those looking to stay ahead of the pack should look no further," he says. But, he adds, they better hurry -- the pack won't be far behind.