The Martini Diaries – Episode 14

14 – 22 February 2020

The Martini Diaries returns in 2020, with my return to skiing after a 13 year absence, and a visit to Georgia. I am bewildered by the sheer volume of luggage people try and take as ‘carry-on’, experience the new Istanbul airport, enjoy red wine for breakfast (a first), ski in Georgia, plan a conference, and now cannot wait until next February to ski again!

Friday 14 February 2020

I begin the day with the last of my packing, which consumed most of yesterday afternoon and now several hours this morning. Why does it take so long to pack – in my case many hours – yet when heading back from a trip I manage to pack my cases in my hotel room in less than 15 minutes? One of the mysteries of the World I guess.

I am off to Georgia for a short working visit, my second time in that very interesting country. I had been invited to return as a follow up to one of the suggestions that arose from my first visit – the idea of Georgia becoming the host to the first ever Caucasus’ nutrition science conference, taking advantage of its unique geographical and political position. This idea had been expanded upon to consider not using the capital Tbilisi but to use one of the mountain resorts during the skiing season – a science version of Davos!

The Georgia Ambassador to London had, when we last met in December, encouraged me to visit the ski area and report back, as she believed the resorts had the potential to become a major tourist opportunity for Georgia. So, having dusted off my ski clothing and boots (I had not skied for 13 years), I left Ipswich for Heathrow Airport today for the three stage journey to Bakuriani in Georgia.

The drive to Heathrow was uneventful, and after some tea and sandwiches (and of course a quick nip of champagne) in the British Airways lounge I headed to the Gate for my 5.50 pm flight to Istanbul. The Gate was somewhat chaotic. I had forgotten we were about to venture into half term – when the BA staff started boarding by casually inviting ‘anyone with small children’ to come forward and board first they had clearly not expected the volumes of not just people and little Oompa Loompas but the vast quantities of ‘carry-on’ luggage. Most of the parents’ luggage, for a full flight, was deemed excessive by the BA staff – so this had to be tagged and removed to go in the hold. This also meant some unpacking and repacking by the parents. This took over quarter of an hour!

I remember when I took my daughter on her first flight (aged 2) to Spain for a summer holiday. In those days (1991) people still smoked in aircraft, and you could not reserve a seat in advance. I certainly never travelled on the aircraft with enough supplies to last a week – just enough to get us through the 2 1/2 hours. Everything else went in the suitcase. I was just pleased to be able sit with my child next to someone who didn’t smoke! Why now, in 2020, do parents need to travel on a 3 1/2 flight with supplies sufficient for a short holiday?

We were a little late taking off, but as this flight only lasted 3 1/2 hours we were soon in Istanbul, but now local time was nearly midnight. I was booked onto a Turkish Airlines flight next to Tbilisi at 2.30 am. Immigration was confusing – I assumed I was ‘connecting’ through Istanbul, but the immigration officer decided differently and insisted I needed a Visa. I protested – as I would not be leaving the airport in the next 2 hours – he didn’t care. So, off to the Visa office, then, £20 lighter but with a Visa in my Passport, I returned to immigration and was allowed into Istanbul. I collected my suitcases, went up in a lift to Departures, and checked-in my suitcases again onto Turkish Airlines. You have to love officialdom.

In passing I should mention this was my first visit to the new Istanbul airport. It is simply huge – lots of bling, and endless shops. It was like being in Westfield Mall! There were even 29 luggage carousels (Heathrow Terminal 5 has 11 – to give you a sense of the scale). I walked some 7000 steps just between the Gates and Immigration!

Istanbul airport – plenty of ‘bling’

Saturday 15 February 2020

A short stop in the Turkish Airlines lounge to freshen up, and at 1.30 am I walked to the departure gates for Tbilisi. We took off on time, I snacked on a light fruit breakfast and coffee and, less than 2 hours later, we landed in Tbilisi. I was met at the airport by colleagues and driven to the Biltimore hotel for a 7 am breakfast. My hosts surprised me by ordering a bottle of red wine (a Mukuzani from the Shumi winery) to accompany breakfast – then I remembered I am in Georgia, home of the oldest wine in the world, and a country that loves (and reveres) its wine. Strangely, it was a welcome boost (now almost 24 hours without sleep for me) and complimented my omelette and local bread.

Wine for breakfast!

At 9 am I joined the main party in their small minivan and we drove onto to Bakuriani. This is a journey of 2 1/2 hours, 2 hours on a motorway to Khashuri, and then 30 minutes winding our way up into the mountains. We turned again at Borjomi (home to the famous mineral water). Just after 12 pm we arrived in Bakuriani. Unfortunately, first impressions were not good. It looked like a rough, worn down, semi-derelict old Eastern Europe town. Concrete shells of abandoned buildings, shanty type sheds and houses, and poor quality roads – and far too much traffic. Then, we emerged from this initial area and a vast open space appeared – snow covered, hotels in the distance, Swiss style chalets, and the first sight of ski lifts and runs. It is clear here that plenty of investment is being made in this area – new chalets and hotels everywhere. I was excited.

My hotel, Rooms Hotel, was at the far end of the road to Kokhta mountain. The resort is 1725 meters above sea level, with the mountain topping out at 2157 meters. Rooms Hotel sits beside the chair lift – it is a ski in – ski out hotel. The hotel has only been opened two weeks, and was still incomplete – the spa and pool had not opened (I was later told by their CFO they wanted to manage a partial ski season through the hotel to iron out any problem areas). The Hotel staff were superb – attentive, professional, un-rushed. MY room, which had a Mountain View and balcony, was decorated in a natural, almost clinical, style. Lots of wood, stone, plaster, space, and a large wet room style bathroom. Plenty of towels, robes, slippers, a huge TV and very large King size bed.

I settled in my room, unpacked, donned my ski clothing and went out to hire some skis and purchase a lift pass. A 4 day lift pass was only £35 and my 4 days of ski and pole hire £30! Onto the chair lift and up the hill to the beginning of the main blue run (and training slope). It was 3 pm, still no sleep now for 36 hours, and I am on skis for the first time in 13 years. It felt very strange. My whole body seemed disconnected. The first turn was shaky, but I was encouraged by the parallel nature of my traverse. Two turns, and stop, Then three linked turns and stop. I gained confidence. Eventually I reached the bottom of the slope, thighs burning a little.

I went up 3 more times, coming down in increasing linked turns. The 4th run was more comfortable, and I only paused twice. But, no style or fluidity was forthcoming – it just felt ugly. I remembered my old ski instructor in Germany telling me most skiing injuries happen in the last run of the day when we are tired – now, at 4 pm, 37 hours without sleep, tired legs, it was time to stop.

Rooms Hotel offer, free to guests, lockers in an area of the hotel where one enters from the ski run. The lockers are heated, with 4 protruding rods for hanging boots and gloves on, and hooks to hang clothing. There is also room for the skis and poles. Fabulous, as the next morning all my kit was beautifully dry and warm.

I had just returned to my room, when a member of staff knocked on my door and presented me with a bottle of red wine and a large plate of dried fruits and nuts – compliments of the hotel management. I enjoyed a cigar on my balcony watching the sun set, and sipped my complimentary wine. A hot shower in my very stylish ‘wet room’ bathroom, and then I ordered room service. I watched Ipswich Town in iFollow (linked by an HDMI cable from my iPad to the room TV) and in bed, with a melatonin pill, sound asleep by 10 pm.

Complimentary dried fruit and nuts

Sunday 16 February 2020

Breakfast was not until 8 am, and we had planned to meet up for some skiing at 10.15 am. I used the opportunity to catch up on some emails and papers, and went to breakfast at 9.30 am. Excellent – everything you could think off to eat, and the eggs cooked to order (an omelette for me) were superb. My colleagues were delayed, so I skied myself that morning. I ventured further up the mountain to the top – stunning views – and where a red run would take me down to the top of the blue I had skied the day before. The steeper slope of the red actually helped my skiing, and I found myself almost back to my old style by lunchtime.

The village of Bakuriani

I had a lunchtime meeting with the CFO of the Hotel chain, and we discussed the idea of the conference, and whether the hotel could manage. He was very keen. I sat quietly and made some initial plans whilst eating lunch. At 2 pm I joined my colleagues and we skied some more until 4.30 pm. If I have one observation from this first 24 hours skiing in Georgia it is the lack of etiquette in the skiing, mainly by teenagers. It appears they lack an understanding of safety and priority for other skiers. Too many times today I have nearly been knocked over by a reckless youngster hurtling down the slope, especially on the blue runs, almost out of control with speed. In many resorts I have skied, especially Canada, the ski patrol would have removed and banned them from the slopes. There is work to do here for Georgia.

That evening, after catching up on some more planning work, we dined at Mimino, considered the finest restaurant in Bakuriani. Classic Georgian cuisine, cooked quickly, accompanied by local wine, all served in a chalet style room. It was cosy, comfortable, relaxing. I presented a certificate of appointment as Ambassador to Georgia to my host in a small ceremony, and was back in my hotel room by 10 pm. The fresh air, high altitude, multi-tasking, and fatigue from yesterday’s journey, had taken their toll. I was quickly asleep.

Monday 17 February 2020

Up and ready to go at 7 am, so I worked on papers and plans until 8 am, and went for breakfast – I was the only person there! Clearly Georgians are not earlier risers. This whole hotel has, thanks to the large open fire in the lounge area, a wonderful permanent aroma of wood smoke – such a wonderful smell.

The lounge area in the hotel with access to the outdoor space – the ski lift is outside

Outside, after the past 2 days of 0c and clear blue sky, there is a very strong wind. ‘Feels like’ temperature has dropped to -15c. My colleagues have suggested trying a different slope today. Unfortunately, a number of slopes are closed because of the high winds. Instead, we try Mitarbi, a few kilometers away. As a series of runs it is more demanding than Kokhta, but through a red and blue run the two are linked. We drove with a local guide (who was a ski jumper for the Soviet Union in 1983!) to Mitarbi, and found the chair lift open, but only to the mid station. He asked me where my helmet was – I showed him my cashmere woolen hat, and he smiled broadly. “My fearless Englishman” he called me – he was also only wearing a woolen hat (I have never skied in a helmet – and have to say the day it becomes compulsory is the day I stop skiing. I was taught to ski in Germany and Switzerland, where safety was paramount, but through respect for other skiers. I believe a helmet has the danger of encouraging reckless behaviour). He skied with us and guided us through the various red runs. Then, we were left alone. We skied until lunchtime, and then skied across and back down to Rooms Hotel. More meetings over lunch and then back to skiing. The high winds made visibility poor, so by 4.30 pm I decided to leave.

A pile of emails awaited me, so I dined in the hotel restaurant alone that evening (a wonderful cheese board, followed by a large sirloin steak and fries and roasted vegetables), and returned to my room by 9.30 pm to carry on working. I eventually went to bed, but did not sleep well – there was far too much salt in my meal that evening, and I could not hydrate enough to sleep well.

Tuesday 18 February 2020.

Last full day here, and the winds have dropped. Clear blue sky, 1c. I worked until 9.45 am, and was on the first chair lift when it opened at 10 am. I skied over the Mitarbi again, and found the upper chair lift open. I travelled up almost alone. The slopes had been groomed to perfection, and no one had skied yet. The views here, another 200 metres higher, were stunning. I just stood there for a while and took in the 360 degree views. Eventually I set off – here I found my ideal slopes, Red, wide, and suddenly found myself skiing to my old standards. There is something unique about that feeling of complete control and togetherness when man, skis, and the slope are in perfect harmony. I carved wide turns in virgin snow and barely saw anyone all morning. I cannot remember ever having such perfect skiing conditions all to myself – this would never have happened in Switzerland!

Almost empty slopes

I came down for a working lunch – made more frustrating when the lady sitting opposite me ate my entire lunch (I had not noticed my pasta arrive as I was working, and she simply picked it up and ate it – when I complained to the waiter my lunch had not been delivered he confronted the lady and she confessed!). We agreed the initial plan for the science conference for February 2020, and allocated next actions.

Excellent pasta lunch, but the work continues!

Back to the slopes, and skied as hard as I could until 4 pm. Exhausted, and remembering to avoid the danger of the last run, decided to come down and not push it any further. I returned my skis and poles to the hire shop and went up to my room. Onto the balcony, some more of my complimentary wine and another cigar, watching the sun set behind the mountain, and a rare moment of relax as I managed to finish my book (‘Our Friends in Berlin’ by Anthony Quinn).

Outside view of the rear of Rooms Hotel
The outside patio area – entrance to the ski lockers is at the far left

I dined that evening with my hosts in their rented house in Bakuriani and returned to the hotel to pack.

Wednesday 19 February 2020

Awake at 6 am, and ready to go at 7.15 am. Slightly annoyed on check-out after being asked if I had used my mini bar and saying no, the receptionist asked to wait whilst he telephoned the room staff and wanted them to go into my vacated room and check! Not very trusting, especially for a hotel that has only been opened 2 weeks. My driver arrived on time at 7.30 am and we left for Tbilisi. Breakfast was a protein bar and a bottle of water in the car, as I worked on my MacBook to keep on top of projects (I needed to write a speech for my forthcoming visit to Dubai).

At the airport, 2 1/2 hours later, I used the Lounge to find some croissants and much needed coffee. My flight with Turkish Airlines left on time for Istanbul at 12.10 pm. In Istanbul I had to walk almost the whole length of the airport to carousel 26 for for suitcases – back up the lift into departures and to the BA check in area. I had hoped to gain some Lounge time to continue my work, but found the check-in closed. The flight to London was at 5.50 pm, but the check-in would not open until 3.20 pm. It was only 2 pm. If there is one thing I have learnt over the years of traveling (including the two years when I studied for my MBA through distance learning (the wonderful Open University) in hotels, cars, trains and aircraft) is how to create a ‘bubble’ of tranquility to be able to concentrate and focus. That kicked in, and on a bench beside the gate, with La Traviata playing in in my headphones, I settled down to work.

British Airways uses the IGA Lounge in Istanbul – a multi-purpose huge facility, much frequented by Priority Pass holders and others looking to find a way in with various credit cards. Fortunately there was no waiting when I arrived, and I passed through the desk quickly and found a quiet area to work (and drink a much needed cup of tea!). We boarded on time, I enjoyed a pleasant glass of champagne, some excellent cottage pie followed by a cheese board, and continued with my speech preparation. Because of the time zones we landed only an hour after taking off, so I was able to sit in the back of the car by 7 pm and finish my work during the 2 hour drive home. I went almost straight to bed at 10 pm, comforted by a melatonin pill, and slept a sound and restful sleep!

Back in London

Thursday 20 February 2020

Back into London today for a series of catch-up meetings in my office, and a working lunch over a video conference call to plan an international conference with our French colleagues. Home by 7 pm, and finally time to unpack my suitcase!

What a few days – but, so glad I made the trip, even though I lost a weekend at home. Georgia has great potential as a country and people. They have a naturally ambitious culture – they think big – and I sense their ski resorts (and their economy) are on the verge of greatness. Perhaps in years to come I will sit on the chair lift up to Mount Kokhta, surrounded by thousands of skiers, reminiscing of these halcyon days when Georgia had not been ‘discovered’ and I glided effortlessly down empty slopes carving my wide S turns. At the very least, I am back in love with skiing and the mountains! Roll on next February!

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