Hideaway Report Editor
Georgia: An Unpredictable but Exhilarating New Frontier in Travel
By Hideaway Report Editor
September 10, 2018
There is a certain kind of experienced traveler who will revel in the unpredictability of Georgia. Exploring this spectacular little country bounded by the Caucasus Mountains and the Black Sea can be frustrating, baffling, awe-inspiring and exhilarating, but it is rarely dull. In a world that is increasingly homogeneous, Georgia has not yet been polished smooth, a quality I found refreshing and grew to love. Of course, a little roughness goes a long way, and I couldn’t recommend traveling to Georgia if there weren’t comfortable hotels and good restaurants. I am pleased to say that I discovered several of both.
Strategically located on the Silk Road, Georgia has had a rough and complicated history. Mongols, Ottomans, Persians and Russians have all invaded and Russia still occupies the Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Fortunately, the past decade has been peaceful, and the necessary infrastructure is now in place for travelers who wish to investigate the country’s extravagantly scenic landscapes and fascinating history.
Ancient Colchis in western Georgia was the home of Greek mythology’s Golden Fleece, and farther east, archaeologists have discovered evidence of winemaking as early as 8,000 years ago.
Wineries are everywhere, as are centuries-old Orthodox churches and hilltop monasteries. During my two-week visit, I could only scratch the surface, missing attractions such as the troglodyte monastery of Davit Gareja, the cave city of Vardzia and mountainous Svaneti, known for its numerous ancient towers. But the capital of Tbilisi, the rugged wine region of Kakheti and the breathtaking Caucasus Mountains in Kazbegi provided ample compensation. I found stylish hotels in each of these locations, and when combined they make for a compelling itinerary. Do not expect to have major sites to yourself, however; Russian and Chinese, as well as European, tourists are found everywhere in the summer high season.
Most Georgian journeys start and finish in Tbilisi. According to legend, King Vakhtang I founded the city in the fifth century, because he was so impressed by the local sulfur hot springs. Today this city of 1.5 million is a collision of medieval churches, moldering mansions, repurposed Soviet-era factories and futuristic architecture of curvaceous glass. Certain streets, like pedestrianized Erekle II in the old center and the grand 19th-century boulevard of Rustaveli, have been spiffed up for tourists, but the turn of a corner reveals a place that, though obviously wealthy at one time, is still suffering the aftereffects of 70 years of communism. Wine bars, restaurants and shops mingle with abandoned historic buildings that scream out for renovation. The city’s mix of the stylish and the half-ruined gives it an edge reminiscent of Budapest in the 1990s.
Rooms Hotel Tbilisi
Every travel publication that covers Tbilisi these days extols the virtues of the Rooms Hotel Tbilisi, set in a former publishing house about 20 minutes on foot from the historic center. A member of Design Hotels, the 125-room property looks fantastic in a magazine spread, with its entry hall library and adjacent lounge filled with fashionably mismatched midcentury modern-style furnishings. Our Terrace King Room had a similarly stylish masculine décor, with an industrial-inspired black-and-white bath and a wood-floored bedroom. But the wood floor of the subway-tiled shower was a mistake — it made an unsettling squishing sound when I stepped on it — and our terrace proved a little too industrial for my taste, as it faced the I-beams of a construction site.
Service proved friendly and efficient, for the most part. The cheerful front desk clerk worked with housekeeping to give us access to our room hours before the official check-in time, and when one of our Edison bulbs stopped working, a maintenance man arrived within minutes. Service was also swift and personable at the shady courtyard bar, where I enjoyed a refreshing Feijoa Sour, a cocktail made with chacha, a local grappa-like spirit. Only at breakfast did the staff stumble. A server approached as we returned from the buffet to tell me that the meal was not included in our room rate. I agreed, which seemed to confuse her. “What … what should I do?” she asked. And as I took my first bite of food, another server rushed over and waited for me to sign the check.
Service at dinner in the hotel’s The Kitchen restaurant was more organized, and I recommend trying the Italian-Georgian-Russian-fusion restaurant whether you stay in the hotel or not. I loved my appetizer of tortellini filled with smoked salmon in a lemon-dill cream sauce, and my main course of moist grilled red mullet with young mustard greens in a tangy anchovy sauce.
Rooms is not a perfect hotel, but with its stylish décor and friendly staff, it is currently the top choice in Tbilisi. Soon, however, I suspect the best option will be the Stamba Hotel, a sister property nearby. Its high-ceilinged rooms tend to be much larger than the accommodations at Rooms, most of which are quite compact. (Don’t book anything smaller than a Signature King Room). But only about two months old at the time of our visit, the Stamba was not ready for a review. Less than half of its guestrooms were finished; the rooftop pool was a work in progress; and at breakfast I counted seven servers and seven chefs in the open kitchen, yet it still took 20 minutes to receive a plate of overcooked scrambled eggs. The Stamba Hotel looks very promising, but I wouldn’t recommend staying there until 2019, after it has fully opened and the staff have had a chance to settle in.
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The cheerful and efficient staff; the stylish and warm décor; the fine restaurant; the shady courtyard bar; a location convenient to museums, the opera and a number of fashionable restaurants and bars.
The uninspiring views of either an unremarkable street or a construction site; the location is a rather long walk to the old center.
Good to Know
Once it fully opens, the neighboring Stamba Hotel (sister to Rooms) will offer superior accommodations; whether or not you stay at Rooms, book the unforgettable Insider’s Guide tour offered by the hotel.
Rates: Lowest Rate: Urban Queen, $230. Editor’s Choice: Loren Suite, $580
Address: 14 Merab Kostava Street, Tbilisi
Telephone: (995) 32-202-0099
If you prefer to stay right at the edge of Tbilisi’s old center, the 121-room Ambassadori Tbilisi hotel provides a more traditional alternative. Its location could not be better: at the top of pedestrianized Ioane Shavteli Street, overlooking the Mtkvari River, at one end of the Baratashvili Bridge.
Finding availability tight, we had booked a large and expensive Ambassador Suite. Intricate geometric screens along the tops and bottoms of the floor-to-ceiling windows gave the suite some sense of place, but otherwise it was resolutely contemporary, done mostly in cream and beige with aqua-blue accents, aside from the capacious bath of orange-swirl marble. Unfortunately, the promised “unparalleled panoramic views” encompassed a construction site and Baratashvili Avenue.
The staff of the hotel never failed to be helpful, but the cheerfulness I encountered at Rooms was more elusive at the Ambassadori. The front desk personnel were serious and reserved, and at breakfast, no one greeted us as we entered, or offered to tell us about the ample and well-presented breakfast buffet. Perhaps the mostly Russian clientele of the hotel expect the staff to have an impenetrably serious demeanor, but I found it off-putting. Only in the hotel’s bar, the Flamingo Lounge, did I discover staff with a smile. The Ambassadori is a very comfortable and well-positioned hotel with an appealing spa and indoor rooftop pool — amenities that Rooms lacks — but you’ll almost certainly have more fun staying at the latter.
The guide arranged by the Ambassadori to take me into the Kakheti wine region was good-humored but ignored my itinerary suggestions entirely. Instead of visiting the Ikalto Monastery and Telavi’s recently restored castle, we stopped by an unremarkable lake and, much more enjoyably, a small family winery. We drove through a patchwork of pastures, vineyards and cornfields, along country roads that often turned into walnut-lined allées. Some stretches of our route were flanked by stands of colorful produce. At one point we stopped at a bakery specializing in shoti, bow-shaped bread cooked in a tandoorlike tone oven. As I watched the baker at work, Georgia’s connection to the ancient Silk Road felt particularly tangible. A fresh loaf paired with the local feta-like cheese provided a memorable snack.
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The central location on the northern edge of the old center; our spacious and bright contemporary suite; the flamboyantly decorated bar.
The reserved, sometimes standoffish staff; the turndown service that consisted of a chambermaid handing me two chocolates; the nouveau-riche décor; the lack of a promised panoramic view.
Good to Know
The hotel’s main restaurant has a new menu offering “unusual fusions,” but a second, river-view roof terrace restaurant serves more-traditional Georgian recipes.
Rates: Lowest Rate: Premier King, $210. Editor’s Choice: Elegance Suite, $425
Address: 17 Shavteli Street, Tbilisi
Telephone: (995) 32-243-9494
Hotel Erekle II
We spent the night in the heart of Telavi, Kakheti’s largest city, at a historic mansion just outside Batonis Tsikhe, a castle where King Erekle II lived in the 18th century. The building that is now the seven-room Hotel Erekle II served as home to the king’s 24 children in the early 19th century. Its low room rates — I booked one of the largest accommodations for a little more than $100, including breakfast — gave me some concern, as did its cheap-looking website. So it was a pleasant surprise to discover a stylish boutique hotel, with an inviting lobby bar-lounge and guest rooms that combined exposed-brick walls with colorful paneling decorated with geometric motifs. Outside, a garden patio had views of Telavi and the green mountains beyond.
Each guest room has a color theme. Our Orange Room came with high ceilings, a wood floor, a vast daybed and a headboard with an enlarged image from a Persian miniature. The attractive but relatively small bath provided only a shower, like all those in the hotel. And the wide balcony overlooked the castle walls, the castle parking lot and the construction site of a new Holiday Inn. Minor drawbacks aside, I can’t recall the last time I stayed in such comfortable accommodations at such a low price.
Service, however, was too casual for my taste. For example, I was obliged to carry our bags up to our room. And the food at dinner, while flavorful, was very heavy. The Erekle II could become a top-quality boutique hotel, but for the moment, it’s best suited to wallet-conscious travelers.
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The chic and colorful renovation of a historic mansion; the low price; the central Telavi location.
The casual and sometimes reserved service; the ineffective air conditioning in our room; signs of wear on some of the baths’ floors; the unimpressive website.
Good to Know
There is no elevator, but one room is on the ground floor behind reception. Because the food at the Erekle II is fairly simple, I wish we’d had dinner at nearby Chadartan.
Rates: Lowest Rate: Standard Room, $95. Editor’s Choice: Deluxe Double Room with Balcony, $115
Address: 1 Lionidze Street, Telavi
Telephone: (995) 59-637-7377
The more traditional Schuchmann Hotel will please a wider range of guests. This 20-room German-owned hotel, restaurant and winery stands amid vineyards on a hillside a few minutes’ drive from Telavi. There, too, the staff were casual, but service was less reserved and more attentive. And the ever-present manager carried our bags up to our Junior Suite.
From our terrace’s table and chairs, we had magnificent views of vineyards, the outdoor pool, the broad Alazani Valley and the cloud-wreathed Caucasus Mountains beyond. Inside, the spacious wood-floored Junior Suite had a simple but attractive contemporary décor. Alas, the bath felt cramped, with one sink, little space for toiletries and a tight shower stall. In addition, a bit of freshening was in order: The corners of the shower had some mildew, and one of the knobs of the stall’s handle was missing.
The restaurant’s wide terrace, just below our Junior Suite, had a similarly captivating view, and it served simple, delicious Georgian cuisine, like a warm oyster mushroom salad with tarragon pesto, wild garlic-green salad with grapeseed oil, and barbecued rabbit with roasted Brussels sprouts and green beans. The wine list focused, understandably, on Schuchmann’s own well-crafted bottlings. We had a delightful tour of the on-site winery with the personable sommelier, Luka Bakhsoliani, who led us through a memorable tasting. It was fascinating to compare wines from the same grape varieties produced using Western methods versus the ancient Georgian technique of fermenting grapes in qvevri (amphorae-like vessels buried in the earth). My favorite was a rich and full Saperavi, fermented in qvevri and aged in oak, incorporating the best of both worlds.
I became even better acquainted with Schuchmann’s Saperavi in the pretty stone-clad spa, where I indulged in an allegedly healthful and unquestionably relaxing wine bath. Instead of rose petals, grape leaves floated atop the deep purple liquid in the stainless-steel tub.
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The tranquil location amid vineyards with views of the Alazani Valley and Caucasus Mountains; the simple but attractive décor; the friendly staff; the on-site winery; the very good restaurant; my relaxing wine bath in the pretty spa.
Signs of wear in our Junior Suite, including a pocked sink and torn upholstery; the difficulty of nailing down an itinerary via email with the hotel’s manager; the unattractive breakfast buffet.
Good to Know
The driver-guide booked by the hotel was fun, accommodating and inexpensive, but he lacked polish and his English was rudimentary; I recommend arranging for sightseeing with another company.
Rates: Lowest Rate: Standard Room, $120. Editor’s Choice: Tower Suite with Balcony, $185
Address: Kisiskhevi, Telavi
Telephone: (995) 35-023-6967
Schuchmann Hotel has a convenient location for sightseeing, with easy access to a number of major monasteries as well as notable wineries such as Orgo and Khareba. I enjoyed our stay there, but owing to our room’s maintenance issues and its compact bath, I preferred the Hotel Kabadoni, in the restored hill town of Sighnaghi, 75 minutes southeast of Telavi. This contemporary 21-room property in the town’s center is the best base for exploring the Kakheti wine region.
We spent a full day within the immediate vicinity of the hotel, visiting the Bodbe Convent, set amid cypress-studded gardens, and enjoying the center of Sighnaghi, home to several wineries. The unappetizingly named Pheasant’s Tears is the most famous, and it is home to a cozy restaurant, where we had a delicious lunch paired with superlative wines (make advance reservations, especially for dinner). I also recommend visiting Okro’s, which makes excellent natural, qvevri-fermented wines, if only for the experience of meeting its charming American owner. In the afternoon, we followed Chavchavadze Street uphill from the hotel to an old stone defensive tower, the top of which afforded splendid views of Sighnaghi and the surrounding valleys.
We didn’t have to make the climb to enjoy panoramas of Sighnaghi and the countryside, however. The wide terrace of our suite overlooked a slender ridge that pointed to the Alazani Valley far below and the distant peaks of the Caucasus. Hotel Kabadoni’s Deluxe Rooms have balconies with a similar view, but because of the property’s relatively low rates, we splurged on the King Erekle Suite. I recommend you do the same. Located in a separate building from the rest of the hotel but connected via a passage, the King Erekle Suite had a cool color palette of gray and steel-blue, with splashes of warmth provided by bright-red and -orange kilim rugs, hung on the walls along with original oil paintings. Next to the bedroom, a stylishly contemporary study faced glass doors leading to the terrace. The gray-tile bath felt pleasingly spacious.
Hot and tired from a day of exploration, we headed to the indoor pool, which was just big enough for laps. I had hoped to have an aperitif in the sunny wine bar, but since it was closed, we went straight to dinner. We shared a seasonal pickle platter, which included the Georgian specialty of jonjoli (pickled bladdernut flower buds), and I very much enjoyed my chakapuli (stew) of lamb cooked in white wine with tarragon, watercress, scallions and sour plums. And I especially appreciated that the hotel’s general manager stopped by in between courses to present us with a bottle of Saperavi, as an apology for our driver’s being 30 minutes late earlier that day.
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The central but quiet location in the beautiful hill town of Sighnaghi; the contemporary décor incorporating colorful Georgian accents; the splendid views; our striking and spacious King Erekle Suite; the helpful and personable staff; the quick delivery of room service.
The discoloration on our terrace’s white plastic furniture; our bath was well-lit, but its gray tile felt institutional.
Good to Know
When arranging for transfers or sightseeing, request an English-speaking driver-guide or a separate guide and driver. The driver arranged by the hotel for us was friendly and reasonably priced but spoke almost no English.
Rates: Lowest Rate: Mansard Room Street View, $120. Editor’s Choice: King Erekle Suite, $355
Address: 1 Tamar Mepe Street, Sighnaghi
Telephone: (995) 32-224-0400
Rooms Hotel Kazbegi
The driver arranged by Rooms Hotel Kazbegi was very prompt, however, and I felt optimistic about the hotel as soon as I saw his professional attire and his smart black Toyota Land Cruiser. We passed the edge of Tbilisi, stopping at the historic but crowded Ananuri Fortress overlooking the Zhinvali Reservoir before continuing north along the Georgian Military Highway into the Caucasus Mountains. “Highway” is a strong word for the winding two-lane road, sometimes blocked by herds of cows. The main artery between Georgia and Russia, this breathtakingly scenic route follows the Tetri Aragvi River, skirting steep mountainsides resembling great swaths of crushed green velvet. Near the ski resort of Gudauri, snowcapped peaks come into view, culminating with the towering 16,512-foot Mount Kazbek.
From its perch just above the town of Stepantsminda, Rooms Kazbegi provides stupendous views of the mountain, as well as Gergeti Trinity Church, its 14th-century towers rising improbably from a steep hilltop nearby. Lodgings at the back of the hotel overlook a forest and mountain ridge, but there is a relatively minor price difference between the pretty view and the truly unforgettable one.
All 155 accommodations at the hotel are small, making it wise to reserve one of the Signature Rooms, which provide an additional 100 to 150 square feet. (Some of the Signature Rooms face the forest, so be sure to request a Mount Kazbek view when making your booking.) Our Signature Room felt at once stylish and old-fashioned, with wood floors, a king bed with a vintage metal frame and a love seat. Storage was limited to an antique wardrobe and some hooks by the door, which I found very frustrating, as there was plenty of room for a second wardrobe, or at least some luggage racks. I liked the ample counter space in the shower-only bath, but the lighting of the single vanity was poor. And I wished that our balcony, with two cane chairs and ottomans, had more privacy. It was divided from the others by transparent metal mesh.
In general, privacy is not a strength of Rooms Kazbegi. The main public areas comprise a fashionably eclectic library-lounge running almost the length of the hotel, an indoor restaurant for breakfast and dinner, and a vast terrace furnished with groups of sofas and armchairs. But in none of these spaces is there a dining table for two. Indeed, dining tables seemed to be in short supply. Lunching on the Mount Kazbek- and Gergeti-view terrace was bliss, but it was necessary to do so from a sofa and coffee table. The restaurant did have proper tables and chairs, but dining there was communal. Fortunately, because the three areas were all large, we didn’t have trouble carving out space for ourselves to dine on the menu’s simple Georgian cuisine, complemented by a strong list of local wines by the glass.
The problems of small accommodations, lack of privacy and hit-or-miss food would ordinarily cause me to dismiss a property. But Rooms Kazbegi’s striking design, lively atmosphere, stupendous views and compelling excursions make the hotel easy to like.
After breakfast from the extensive buffet, we met our engaging young guide, Konstantin, who spoke excellent English. We then hiked up a steep trail through shady forest, which eventually opened to alpine meadows speckled with buttercups and gentians. The Gergeti Trinity Church stood atop a nearby hill, and behind us rose the intimidating Mount Kazbek, gleaming with snow. From there, Konstantin led us to the two Gveleti waterfalls, each in a rugged valley filled with semitropical vegetation, before finishing the day in the half-abandoned village of Tsdo. At its top is a crumbling stone watchtower, guarded by an eerie stone sculpture of a ram, complete with real ram horns wired to its head. Standing there, it was easy to understand why some people think the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy was filmed in Georgia and not New Zealand.
I had the foresight to book massages in the hotel’s spa before dinner, which was just the thing to soothe my tired legs. My therapist, awkwardly, did not leave the treatment room as I disrobed and laid down on the table, and when the massage was over, she simply departed without a word. Here was the typical Georgian trifecta: inexpensive, rough around the edges, but pleasurable nevertheless. As I reclined in a mountain-view lounger beside the lengthy indoor pool, feeling thoroughly relaxed and content, I wondered how long it would take Georgia’s top hotels, restaurants and guides to polish their services to an international level of shine. More polish would make it easier for me to provide recommendations, but it would also mean fewer stories to share on my return home.
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The breathtaking views from our room and public terrace; the memorably scenic excursions into the Caucasus; the warm, English-speaking staff; the pretty spa and large indoor pool; the extensive by-the-glass wine list.
Even the largest accommodations are rather small; the poor lighting over our vanity; the hit-or-miss food; the lack of dining tables for two.
Good to Know
Book excursions in advance of your arrival; guides often aren’t available if guests try to book last-minute tours. Visit the Gergeti Trinity Church as early in the morning as possible to avoid the crowds.
Rates: Lowest Rate: Double Room Forest View, $220. Editor’s Choice: Signature Room Mountain View, $330
Address: 1 V. Gorgasali Street, Stepantsminda
Telephone: (995) 32-271-0099