Accompanying me to Mezhyhirya and on a tour of Kiev were Julia Kulik and Aleksandr Skrypka, the young couple who owns JC Travel, a receptive operator. I found them to be enterprising and enthusiastic, arranging my visits to both Chernobyl and Mezhyhirya and coaching me on the correct pronunciation of the password to gain entrance to OB. They scored great tickets to see the local soccer team, FC Dynamo, and ziplined with me across the Dnieper River in central Kiev.
They and one of their guides, Olga Karpenko, walked me through onion-domed churches and beautiful city parks and provided the narration for a fascinating architectural tour.
The couple's upbeat outlook and cheery professionalism seemed a reflection of the hopeful energy and new-dawn vibe of OB. Despite challenges the country is facing and the looming presence of Russia, these young entrepreneurs see a way to marshal the country's identity and considerable cultural assets and resources to boost both tourism and national self-esteem.
While in Kiev, I had dinner with Frank Ludwig, a German who serves as the senior inspector for tourism for Kiev, and he is working with the private sector in support of raising arrival numbers. Given the competing priorities for government resources in the country at the moment, he relies heavily on working with the private sector to formulate strategies to promote visitation.
He is linked to what seems to be a burgeoning informal network of private-sector players who are cooperating in and coordinating tourism promotion. Ukraine Airline's Truman is a driving force in trying to increase traffic from the U.S.; he had met Kulik and Skrypka of JC Travel at the New York Times Travel Show last year (they're returning this year, as well), and together they connected me with the InterContinental's Pigeon and also Dejan Djordjevic, the managing director of hospitality business for Esta Holding, whose properties include Kiev's Opera Hotel. (My trip was fully hosted, thanks to Truman's efforts.)
My overnights at the InterContinental and Opera reflected properties with a full understanding of international luxury standards. The InterContinental was recognized within its parent company as being the European hotel of the year and having the best hotel service in Europe. For five years running, it has been rewarded as having the best breakfast in the hotel group within Europe.
When I first saw the property, I thought it was a very well-maintained grand hotel built in the first quarter of the 20th century. It turned out that it, like much of the architecture in Kiev, is of more recent vintage but designed to be consistent with the aesthetic of that earlier era. The InterContinental is just 7 years old, and occupies an enviable location, within easy walking distance of major tourist sites and Independence Square.
The Opera Hotel does have an older pedigree, and is said to have once been the residence of composer Franz Liszt. It's on a quieter street near the Opera House. Djordjevic said they are positioning the hotel, which is a member of Leading Hotels of the World, as an intimate, boutique-style property with a focus on personalized service.
"We're not trying to compete with the big boys, the InterContinental, Hyatt or Hilton," he said.
A feature of the property is seven suites decorated in the style of opera locales: France, Russia, Italy, the U.S., Japan, Egypt and Morocco.
My overall impression is that Ukraine is an undervalued, barely known destination that will appeal not only to the adventurous who like exploring off-the-beaten-path locales, but would also suit anyone with an appreciation for classical culture. Truman envisions tours focused on opera and classical music; both the philharmonic and opera have a wide and varied repertoire, each featuring several different shows in any given week.
With high service levels, one-of-a-kind-attractions, quality performing arts and outstanding value, Ukraine seems primed to appear on some "best-kept-secret" lists. It certainly made mine. Ukraine Airline flies daily to Kiev from New York JFK March through October, and five days a week in low season. (The U.S. is crucial to its strategic plan to serve as a low-cost, global-network carrier.)
And no small part of its attractiveness lies in its people, their souls forged in centuries-old traditions, yet continually redefined by current events.