Made up of the three former Soviet republics of Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan, the South Caucasus is among the most culturally genuine, historically rich and religiously diverse --not to mention under the radar -- parts of the world. The area is geopolitically sensitive yet stable, with pockets of ongoing conflicts that remain unresolved but unthreatening to visitors. Snug within a dramatically mountainous region wedged between the Black Sea on the west and the Caspian Sea to the east, these three small nations, independent since 1991, could not be more different from each other. Yet they share a timeless and deep-rooted tradition of hospitality, family and food.
Long seen as a strategically important bridge linking East and West, North
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and South, this was the realm of Silk Road caravans, coveted and conquered by Persians, Byzantines, Ottomans, Russians and Soviets. The region is regularly misconstrued and misunderstood today (it doesn't help that the Republic of Georgia is forever confused with the state of Georgia in the U.S. and that the Iowa caucuses pop up in a Google search).
The Caucasus (more specifically, the Transcaucasus) sits at the standard Europe/Asia divide. When asking locals -- from our Armenian driver to the night manager of our white-glove hotel in Baku -- whether they felt European or Asian, the question was always met with hesitation and thoughtful reflection. Though leaning toward Europe politically and economically, the truth is that there are no easy demarcations (or so I concluded after a fascinating tour with Exeter International, which specializes in custom luxury travel to the former U.S.S.R.). These three pieces in the puzzle, in an area the size of the U.K., deserve their own distinctive world region.
"It is an area that is little known, barely visited and amazingly underrated," Greg Tepper, founder and president of Exeter International, told me. "It is Nirvana for those with passports bulging with extended pages, those curious about the world's ancient and obscure corners." And tourism is negligible. If there were any other American tourists visiting during our stay, I did not see them.
Thanks to recent developments, travel here can also be done in great comfort and style. "Many upscale travelers were afraid to step into this part of the world due to its reputation for bad food, poor hotels and a general lack of infrastructure or luxury ... even considered unsafe perhaps," said Tepper. "But that has all changed in the last few years." He outlined what our recent June adventure would reveal: "Armenia has wonderfully charming hotels in the midst of a dramatic countryside and a cuisine that is only topped by that of Georgia." In fact, Georgia's role as an exciting and emerging food destination was what little I knew of the area.
And what about oil-rich Azerbaijan, whose thrumming capital has been called both the Paris and the Cannes of the Caspian? "It has a new Four Seasons Baku that is one of my favorite Four Seasons hotels in the world," said Tepper, who made himself personally familiar with the region's finest accommodations before booking his discerning travelers.