Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Russian surprises and Georgia Island-hopping

Russia is a revelation. The cold war imbued most of us with images of a cold, dreary Moscow and Kremlin replete with intimidating concrete buildings, foreboding walls, bars and barbed wire.

In winter, the season without sun, it is definitely cold and the sky is gray, but the Kremlin, the Russian word for fortress? Bright, open, treed and landscaped with glorious gold-domed churches,

red brick walls anchored by almost whimsical green-topped towers and tourist-filled grounds.

Outside in Red Square?

A vast expanse facing the glamorous Gum's Department Store (Russians pronounce it Gooms) lit up in twinkling white lights.

At one end, a history museum

and at the other the fairy tale, dizzying domes and towers of St. Basil Cathedral. Lenin's Tomb is inconspicuously tucked away along the Kremlin wall between the two. Inviting, yes; intimidating, no.

It isn't all rosy. As a guide said, "We used to have money but nothing to buy. Now we have everything to buy but no money."

Crowds, even in October, can be crushing in museums like the Tretyakov

Unknown Lady, Ivan Kramskoy, 1883.
a compendium of Russian art,

Clock Egg, Faberge.
 and the Kremlin Armory housing the nation's treasures from court gowns to eight royal Faberge eggs.

The famous Metro is crowded, too, but glorious with its marble, mosaics, paintings and chandeliers.

Increasingly, the 16 million Muscovites have cars and at any given time most seem to be on the roads. The Bloomberg Report listed Moscow as the world's most congested city and I believe them.

Viking Ingvar was moored north of town and it took 45 to 60 minutes to drive the 5-10 miles in each day.

St. Petersburg is everything you expect and more. Peter the Great and his successors built one beautiful city and fortunately, the Communists realized its value soon enough that many of the buildings have been preserved. In the nearby palaces, the people themselves worked to hide, bury and protect the treasures from the ravages and scavenging of war.

The Hermitage,


 Catherine Palace 


Peterhof Palace and Park

are the must-sees for most Americans and they should be. Just don't expect to see it all.

Between crowds, Russians as well as tourists, there will be crowds and waits, not to mention the sheer magnitude of riches to be seen. It is said that it would take 12 years to spend one minute before each work on display at the Hermitage and that's just a small portion of its collection of 3 million objects.

There are many more objects of wonder to be seen in St. Petersburg.

Lilies of the Valley Easter Egg, 1898

From the elegant creations at the Faberge Museum to the many cathedrals, especially the Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood.

The food is good, too. I can personally recommend an excellent family restaurant (there's an outside playground for the kids), Teplo, with a satin-smooth stroganov and huge portions. For a fine dining experience, Tsar, offers a period decor, elegant presentation and excellent beet salad and chicken kiev. Ladies, don't miss the bathroom.

In between, cruising the Moscow Canal, Volga-Baltic Waterway, Lake Onega, Svir River, Lake Ladoga and Neva River visiting Uglich, Yaroslavl, Kuzino, Kizhi and Mandrogy is a look into smaller cities, tourist villages and dense forests of birch, hardwoods and evergreens.

Try a pre-tour/post tour of Moscow and St. Petersburg if you can. It will be the best part of your trip. Western tourists are invariably greeted by friendly locals but the Russians make it a point to have you leave knowing they personally love the American people. It's the systems that don't get along.

Georgia Island hopping.

Earlier this month I revisited our across-the-border neighbors Little St. Simons and Jekyll Islands. 

Little St. Simons Island, reached by boat from St. Simons Island, is a unique experience.

The Lodge was built in 1917, cottages and the large pool came later.

The newest two feature four en suite bedrooms around a large living area with fireplace and wet bar plus screened porch and open deck.

Explore the beaches,
pristine maritime forests,

pine highlands, marshes, eagles,
ducks, spoonbills, wood storks, egrets and cranes by day, with or without a guide. Bicycle, fish, hike, kayak, swim, go for a picnic, learn about the organic garden or idle away.

After wine and dinner with fellow guests -  occupancy is a max of 32 - go for an owl prowl, learn more about the environment or island history from a naturalist's presentation or chat, play card and board or read a book by your fireplace.

Nightly rates for a two-night minimum range from $450-$700 per double depending on time of year and accommodations, plus 18 percent service fee and applicable taxes. That includes everything during your stay on this 11,000-acre island:  lodging, three meals a day and snacks, soft drinks, beer and wine, all island activities including guided Naturalist excursions and use of all recreational gear (bikes, boats, kayaks, fishing equipment) as well as transfers to and from the island.

You also will have sun block, bug spray, water bottles and the use of umbrellas and slickers. It is the nearest thing to a pure escape you are likely to find.

Meantime at Jekyll Island, by day Driftwood Beach is as spectacular as ever.

Come darkness, the Christmas lights are up in the historic quarter.

The live oak limbs are like overgrown tendrils of white light,

the Christmas tree is a fat mass of color

and you can almost smell the period wreaths and swags on the "cottages."

 The # Westin Jekyll Island offers an cool, oceanfront contemporary vibe with rates of $179-$229 a night through Dec. 29.

The Jekyll Island Club is filled with echoes of nostalgia and days of yore and offers an island exploration package: island club or island cottages accommodations for $169 a night or Ocean Club for $249 a night plus a free half-day bicycle rental.