It’s not just about Formula One and snazzy architecture – Azerbaijan has a mind-boggling variety of experiences for a country relatively modest in scale. Laura Archer explores
With nine different climate zones, a trip through Azerbaijan can take you from sun lounger to ski slope in just a few hours. Shahdag Mountain Resort, northwest of Baku, is the jewel in the crown of the country’s snow scene.
With the majestic Caucasus as your backdrop, there are 13 slopes catering for all skill levels and a network of ski lifts to get you to each. So whether you want to hurtle down a black run or take it easy on a genteel green (we won’t tell anyone), there’s something here to suit. In fact, even if you don’t go anywhere near a pair of skis, you’ll have a great time thanks to the resort’s three five-star hotels, several spas and 15 restaurants. Our pick is the Aspen Grill Restaurant with its soaring vaulted ceiling and triple-height windows overlooking the mountains, where you can make après last all day.
Need to know Shahdag goes up to a height of 2,100m but don’t worry if it’s unusually mild – snow machines maintain pristine powder conditions all season long.
When to go Winter, obviously, for snow fiends – the ski season runs from December to April. But don’t overlook summer here as this is one of the most beautiful regions of Azerbaijan and the warmer months offer spectacular glacial lakes, wildflower meadows, canyons and incredible flora and fauna.
The slopes at Shahdag Mountain Resort
The achingly elegant aesthetic of Chenot Palace screams – sorry, whispers – luxury, and even the name hints at opulence (a palace! Summon the entourage and let the feasting commence). But while this clinic, idyllically tucked away beside a lake in the hills of Gabala in northern Azerbaijan, is certainly luxurious, it’s not the indulgent kind. This is where people come to practise the Chenot Method, a stringent but remarkably effective form of wellness pioneered by Henri Chenot in the Italian spa town of Merano in the 1980s.
From detoxing to anti-ageing, there are few health concerns that the Chenot Method can’t address, but doing so requires commitment and discipline (in other words, we doubt there’s a wine list). Programmes range from seven to 14 nights, although you can do a quick three-night detox. During that time you’ll have a variety of tests ranging from a vascular age assessment (that’s a cardiovascular risk evaluation to you and me) to mineral and heavy-metal analysis to see if your biochemistry is in balance. A tailor-made programme is then created that could see you undergo anything from vigorous massages to an anti-gravity treatment. The rooms are five-star standard and the food is delicious, albeit served in minuscule portions. Celebrities and royals are among those who swear by the Chenot Method – and who are we to argue?
Need to know The best accommodations at Chenot Palace are the three-bedroom villas, which come with their own private spa and heated pool so you don’t have to mingle with the hoi polloi in your dressing gown.
When to go Models and magazine editors flock to the Merano clinic for pre-fashion-week prep and post-event detoxing. If your life isn’t quite that red carpet, we suggest any time you feel in need of a rest and a reset.
When the mercury spikes 30-plus degrees, almost all of Baku decamps to the coast to cool off. For those in the know there’s only one destination of note – Amburan Beach Club. Less than an hour’s drive from Baku, Amburan is like a little slice of Ibiza on the Caspian Sea. Think hammocks strung between palms, ice-cold mojitos and sultry house beats from the resident DJ. The all-white colour scheme is offset with pops of colour – lemon cushions, turquoise napkins – but the eye is instinctively drawn to the sparkling pool, golden sand and the sea beyond. There’s volleyball on the beach, an aquapark for kids (and the young at heart) and water sports, but you’ll find us lounging poolside with cocktail in hand, thanks all the same. When you need a break from the tough schedule of sunshine, snoozing and swimming, there are several restaurants for all-day dining – our favourite is Evde Amburan Bar & Grill, which has a lovely shady terrace with sea views.
Need to know Members have their own VIP areas for an even more exclusive experience.
When to go Amburan is now open year-round (the Amburan Winter Garden restaurant is a particularly lovely space on a cool evening) but in the height of summer you may want to avoid the Saturday crowds and try the mellow Sunday brunch instead.
From the marble-lined and chandelier-lit subways to the glittering designer boutiques on Neftchilar Avenue, Baku is a stylish hub that draws a well-heeled international crowd to sip cocktails by the Caspian Sea. Once home to oil barons whose ornate mansions still stand proud, Baku today retains an air of historic grandeur while pulsing to a very 21st-century beat. Its restaurants wouldn’t look out of place in Paris or London yet remain resolutely Azerbaijani, whether from the scent of tarragon and saffron or the view of the ancient Unesco-listed city walls. Visit Port Baku Mall for shopping – the flagship branch of Azerbaijani department store Emporium is here – or take tea at the Four Seasons. View works by Dalí, Chagall and Picasso at the Museum of Modern Art, admire Zaha Hadid’s awe-inspiring architecture at the Heydar Aliyev Center, and unwind with a hot stone massage in the rooftop spa at the JW Marriott Absheron.
Need to know The pretty seafront esplanade, known as the Boulevard, runs for several kilometres past many of the city’s main attractions, including the Azerbaijan Carpet Museum, the 12th-century Maiden Tower, National Flag Square (formerly the world’s highest flag, fact fans), Baku Crystal Hall and Yarat Contemporary Art Space. It’s also where the great and the good of Baku walk and chat in the cool of the evening, so the people-watching is on point.
When to go In April the city’s cobbled streets vibrate beneath the tyres of Formula One cars as the Grand Prix comes to town. The atmosphere is electric, the weather temperate and anyone who’s anyone tries to bag a room at the JW Marriott with its prime views of the starting grid and finishing line.
Main image courtesy of Getty Images. Images courtesy of Shahdag Mountain Resort, Amburan Beach Club and Chenot Palace Health Wellness Hotel
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