And because Sochi -- stretching along the Black Sea with a backdrop of the Caucasus Mountains, some 90 miles beyond it -- is the site of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, it promised to be one of our most interesting ports of call.
Weeks before the cruise began we were notified of Russia's visa (and that's not the credit card) requirements: get one on your own, sign up for a group tour, or stay on the ship. Visitors are not welcome to simply go explore the town as with the other ports of call on this trip.
Using a link on HAL's website, we signed up for a tour before leaving home. The response: we were 'wait-listed' for the 4.5 hour highlights tour that we had selected ( $59USD per person).
The night before arriving in Sochi, having heard nothing about our outing, I joined a line of fellow cruisers at the oft-crowded tour desk to check our status, only to be told, "Sorry, you don't show up on the waitlist. Hmmm," she added, "we will have to make note of this."
It didn't matter really as others were told there was still a wait-list for two of the tours -including the one we had wanted.
We opted not to take any of the three yet-to-be-filled remaining tours, priced at $89, $94, and $224, per person, with outings including tea at Dagomys tea plantation, visiting Sochi's Friendship Tree and seeing 'the best of Sochi'.
So we stayed on the ship. No visit to the 'homeland' for me this tme.
Using our binoculars, we admired the snow-topped mountain peaks that drew the Olympics here; without binoculars we watched the two boats (pictured above) that never left our side while we were anchored. Their presence on the gray, dreary day, added to the mystique of the visit, but didn't give a particularly warm and fuzzy welcoming feel to it.
Those who did go ashore told tales of narrow roads, lack of tourist facilities (dirty bathrooms, no souvenirs) and a traffic jam that caused at least one bus to go no further than a mile in an hour's time (several buses were delayed in returning to the ship).
"How will this place ever be ready for the crowds the Olympics generate?" was the common question they asked.
One thing is for sure, they need to enlarge their welcome mat or they won't have crowds with which to deal.