Georgia Off the Radar

written by | Posted on November 7th, 2013

The picturesque hill town of Signagi is known for its historical monuments.

The picturesque hill town of Signagi is known for its historical monuments.

It was just after a scrumptious lunch of trout, fresh tomato and cucumber salad, Georgian cheese and bread, boiled and seasoned potatoes, and ajapsandali (an eggplant dish with bell peppers, tomatoes, garlic and spices) at Valodia’s Cottage in the Samtskhe-Javakheti region of Georgia when travel agent Elizabeth Koon from Coronado, CA, exclaimed, “You know, Georgia is the new frontier for the sophisticated traveler!”

Chimes in Georgie Pryal, a certified cruise, destination and adventure travel specialist also based in California, “I think if you have a client interested in photography, Georgia would be great because the topography is so unique and diverse.”

Both travel agents couldn’t be more on point. After touring this country, bordered to the west by the Black Sea and to the north by Russia; Turkey and Armenia to the south and Azerbaijan to the southeast, we were pleasantly surprised by its diverse landscape, bustling capital city of Tbilisi, its wine region (Georgia’s tradition of wine making dates back 8,000 years and the country grows over 500 different indigenous grapes), and its hospitality. And with no visa necessary to enter, and storefronts and road signs in both Georgian and English, this far-flung destination in the Caucasus region begs to be explored.

For 17 years, Maia Mdivnishvili, manager of We Love Georgia Tourism Company, has introduced Georgia to travelers, but it was only three years ago that she began working as a travel guide with New York-based Panorama Travel, the first U.S. travel agency partnering with the Georgian National Tourism Administration to create travel agent FAMs. According to Giorgi Sigua, head of the Georgia National Tourism Administration, Georgia welcomes only 30,000 North American visitors a year, so it’s definitely a well-kept secret within the travel community, although a few tour operators offer Georgia combined with other destinations like Turkey and Armenia.

“Generally, the people who travel to Georgia always mention how kind and hospitable Georgians are,” says Mdivnishvili. “I think this is one of the highlights for travelers. Georgia has so much to offer, from its architecture to its nature, culture, history, and, of course, its wine, which is one of our main attractions.”

Our 8-day itinerary had us hopping from churches and monasteries to mountain ski resorts and Georgia’s wine region and
village towns, where locals sold their goods like fruits and vegetables, homemade bread, cheeses, and pungent Georgian vodka. The travel time to some destinations took anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, but the passing scenery helped pass the time and Mdivnishvili kept us entertained with facts and history about the country.

Says Hannah Belaya with No Problem Travel, based in New York, “Georgia is for the younger clientele interested in hiking, biking and trekking. It has great food and organic products, lots of history and diversity. It’s a place where culture and nature meet, but there are a few cons. The hotel service is not up to the level with what we are used to in the U.S., and it will be a difficult destination to sell to clients with disabilities because many of the sites and hotels are not ADA compliant.”

It’s true—some of the travel infrastructure needs a makeover: bathrooms were scarce on some of our outings, which caused a few uncomfortable situations out in the woods, although the group of 15 travel agents on this FAM were understanding, but will their clients be?

“Georgia is a totally new and different destination for me,” says Neeta Sharma, president of SLA Travel & Tours, based in Pennsylvania. “I never thought of coming here, but when this FAM came about I knew I needed to see this part of the world and experience it so that I can sell it to my clients.”

Georgia currently has three sites listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites (the historical monuments of Mtskheta; Bagrati Cathedral and Gelati Monastery; and the Upper Svaneti region) and 15 others submitted for consideration within UNESCO’s tentative list. The country, in fact, boasts 18,000 historical monuments. Not only is Georgia a safe destination for travelers, it’s also ideal for every kind of traveler: the photographer, hiker, cyclist, skier, the food and wine enthusiast, the history buff, ecotourist, nature lover…the list goes on and on.

Narrating this tour could take up more than half of this issue, so here are just a few notable highlights of Georgia—a country off the radar, but with the power to draw you in and never let go.

Bridge of Peace in Georgia's capital, Tbilisi.

Bridge of Peace in Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi.

the highlights

Churches & Monasteries: The Jvari Monastery, constructed in the fifth to sixth centuries, is a breathtaking site. Situated on a hilltop, the view is spectacular: green rolling hills for miles; the ancient city of Mtskheta, Georgia’s old capital, below; and a perfect view of where the Aragvi and Mtkvari rivers converge. Another highlight is the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral (the “Life-Giving Pillar”), an impressive structure built in the 11th century. Located in Mtskheta, northwest of Tbilisi, it is said the cathedral holds fragments of the robe worn by Jesus Christ. The interior walls are adorned with frescos as well as a centuries-old baptismal font that is still used today. A memorable moment for your clients will be traveling by small van up a mountain (a ride that takes about 30 minutes) to see Gergeti Trinity Church, which is located only 10 miles from the Russian border near Kazbegi. The church is a masterpiece high up in the clouds, about 6,000 ft. above sea level, and built in the 14th century. The mountains cradle the church on all sides—a truly
spiritual experience.

Feasting with the Family: Upon entering the home of Simon Ruadze, we were immediately welcomed as his new family. Simon greeted us dressed in a black choka, a traditional Georgian uniform; gave us a tour of his property where he harvests and produces his own wine; sang traditional Georgian songs with his son and daughter; and gave more than one toast to us, life, family, happiness and all things good and Georgian.

Cave Dwellers: The Uplistsikhe Cave Town, located about an hour-and-a-half drive from Tbilisi, is a wonder to behold. Inhabited between sixth century B.C. to the 14th century, the cave town’s wine cellars, ancient pharmacy, bakeries, baths and even a theater that emerges from the rock are still intact. This is a photographer’s and historian’s dream come true.

Another cave community, founded in 1185 by Georgia’s Queen Tamar, is Vardzia. Located in southern Georgia, close to the Turkish border, this cave town holds 250 caves and was created in the 12th to 13th centuries. A main church is carved into the rock and contains frescos of Queen Tamar holding the church as it is being blessed by angels.

the cuisine

Georgian food is full of flavor and ingredients—walnuts, garlic, herbs and spices, red pepper, and pomegranate. Meats like chicken and pork are normally barbequed, but vegetarians would be pleased as not everything includes meat. Staple dishes are khachapuri—a Georgian cheese bread; khinkali—a national Georgian dish of juicy meat dumplings eaten by hand; ispanakhi—spinach with ground walnuts, seasoning, spices and herbs; and churchkela—a dessert of walnuts on a thread dipped in a hot grape mixture then hung to dry.

Tbilisi’s restaurant scene is also stellar. We enjoyed the ambiance at the Georgian House where at long communal tables, piled high with Georgian dishes, sat gregarious diners (and the wine flowed and flowed) while performers sang Georgian music and spun around the room dancing energetically—the atmosphere was electric.

the accommodations

Traveling mostly through Georgia’s eastern regions, during the tour we came across a few impressive hotels. One of the main hotels in Tbilisi is the Holiday Inn, a far cry from the American version of the brand. Renovated in 2011, this 252-guestroom, city-based hotel is ideal for travelers who want to spend a few days exploring Tbilisi. The guestrooms, done up in modern decor, include complimentary WiFi and a view of the city’s busy motorways. There’s also a large Olympic-sized pool, fitness center and spa on site. Starting rates are $200 per night.

For clients venturing from Tbilisi and into wine country, look into Chateau Mere in Telavi. This charming property does have a few flaws: paper-thin walls so sound echoes, an unimpressive breakfast spread and no elevators. The positives are the view of the surrounding mountains, and its quirky decorations and atmosphere. Standard rooms have a balcony, small TV and cozy bathroom. Prices for a standard room with breakfast and dinner included are $132 per night.

But the top award goes to the Rooms Hotel, a mountain resort located in Kazbegi. The hotel’s main lobby features floor-to-ceiling windows so guests can get a full view of the Gergeti Trinity Church. Rooms boast wood furnishings with balconies that look out over the mountains. The 156-room hotel features an indoor pool; casino; onsite restaurant, lounge area and bar; and a library. Starting rates are $100 a night for a standard room.

getting there & things to know

Direct flights to Tbilisi are offered from many destinations, including Paris, Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Istanbul, Rome, London and Dubai. Our carrier was LOT Polish Airlines direct from New York (JFK) to Warsaw. With an 8-hour layover, the group was able to depart the airport and tour the city.

The country’s main currency is the Georgian lari (at press time, $1 was about 1.65 lari) and currency can be exchanged within the city-center, at hotels and at the airport. All major credits cards are accepted, but it’s best for your client to carry lari when market shopping for Georgian produce or handmade goods like jewelry or felt products.

a panoramic view of georgia

For three years, New York-based Panorama Travel has worked with the Georgian National Tourism Administration introducing Georgia to travel agents from North America on FAMs.

“My dream was always to promote Georgia, but we never had this opportunity because there was no tourism infrastructure,” says Vera Pearson Sagareishvili, managing director of accounts with Panorama Travel. “It was after our Rose Revolution that a lot has been done and our government has invested money in infrastructure for the past five years, so we started pushing Georgia to the American market.”

Panorama Travel offers a Georgia – Wine and Culture tour (from $990 pp dbl) visiting Tbilisi, Mtskheta, Gori, Uplistsikhe, Signati, and other Georgian cities to experience the old tradition of wine making and the country’s rich culture.

There are no direct flights from the U.S. to Georgia, but Sagareishvili says right now it’s just not practical. “We don’t have enough traffic to fill up planes and in the near future I don’t see it happening, therefore Georgia can be combined with other counties.

Turkish Airways has a good connection from Istanbul to Tbilisi with three flights a day, and some Americans who do travel to the Caucasus don’t want to see just one republic, so they can see Armenia, which is very doable by bus and car, or Azerbaijan, although it’s a bit expensive, but yet definitely these three republics [Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan] can be combined into one vacation.”

(212) 741-0033 ext. 3112; panoramatravel.com

tour operator intel

abercrombie & kent

“I see Georgia as part of a multi-country itinerary rather than a stand-alone destination, as it is not too well-known,” says Jo Anne Sperry, Europe product manager for A&K. “It would be a good combination with Azerbaijan or some of the other ‘Stans.”

Next year, A&K is offering the Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express rail journey, Caspian Odyssey, which includes Georgia. This 16-day journey (from $20,995 pp) spends about three days in Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi, and includes a visit to the country’s picturesque wine region, Telavi, as well as Gori, the Uplistsikhe Cave City and Mtskheta.

“We may consider packaging a program to Georgia and Azerbaijan in the future, possibly as part of our Marco Polo Invitational Journeys, which go to exactly these types of destinations,” says Sperry.

(800) 554-7016; abercrombiekent.com

cox & kings

Bernhard Steiner, destination manager, European Journeys, Cox & Kings, says there has been some interest in Georgia.

“Hotels and general infrastructure are still fairly basic, but progress is being made. We are going to work on creating some sample itineraries to be ready for next year’s start of season.

“The demand for the region is gradually and slowly rising, as Georgia receives more positive media and travel industry attention. We do expect the demand to go up at a faster rate, however, from this point forward,” he says.

Although Cox & Kings does not offer any Georgia packages, you could book trips offered by the UK office, commission included. The 11-day Armenia & Georgia: Treasures of the Caucasus tour ($3,902 pp) takes travelers through Armenia and into Georgia visiting the coastal town of Batumi near the Black Sea and the country’s capital, Tbilisi.

“When they [travelers] come to Georgia, they frequently find that the country exceeded their expectations and wish they had come here sooner. Recently, many younger clients are coming to explore Georgia and the Caucasus to take advantage of adventure travel options,” says Steiner.

(800) 999-1758; coxandkingsusa.com/content/travel-advisor-portal-login

Archived related articles (available on recommend.com/magazine/issue-archive):
Kush Kelibsiz!: Welcome to Uzbekistan (May 2013)

contact information
Chateau Mere: mere.ge
Georgia National Tourism Administration: georgia.travel; gnta.ge
Holiday Inn: holidayinn.com