At the eastern end of the Caucasus mountains, close to the Caspian Sea, is one of Eurasia’s best-kept secrets: the snow-cloaked slopes and breathtaking vistas of Azerbaijan’s ski resorts.
For a winter getaway with a difference, the state-of-the-art facilities and rich cultural experiences of the region are unbeatable. The ski season normally runs from December to March, but there is plenty to see and do outside that period. There is something for every interest and every season; not only skiing, but snowshoeing, horse-riding, tobogganing, paragliding and hiking, and – at the end of the day – a taste of regional cuisine.
Azerbaijan’s investment in tourist-focused infrastructure has made the country more accessible than ever. Though new facilities are opening up all the time, the main ski resorts are Shahdag, Tufandag and Agbulag; all three offering a range of activities and pristine snowy landscapes.
The largest ski resort in the Caucasus is the Shahdag Mountain Resort, which caters for every level, from complete beginners to the most intrepid of skiers, who have the run of more than 30 kilometres of pistes.
Around three hours’ drive from Baku, at an elevation of about 2,500 metres, Shahdag offers a range of activities for both summer and winter, and has a clutch of supremely comfortable hotels.
Among these are Park Chalet, with an indoor pool, gym and sauna, or the comfortable rooms of the luxurious Pik Palace hotel, which has an outdoor heated pool and spa. Both have spacious and elegant rooms, with jaw-dropping mountain views.
Shahdag’s ski schools have slopes and instructors for every level of ability, but there is also plenty on offer for the non-skier. Snowmobiling, snowshoeing and trottinette rides are available in the winter months, while paragliding, horse-riding, archery and cable-car rides are available year-round. A favourite attraction is the Alpine Coaster, an adrenaline-filled ride that combines a rollercoaster with toboggans, reaching speeds of up to 42 kilometres per hour.
The nearby village of Laza is also worth a visit, not least for its spectacular waterfalls, used for ice-climbing in winter when they are frozen.
Tufandag, on the other side of the vast Mount Shahdag, also provides a perfect blend of adventure, nature and culture. Its immaculate slopes add up to 15 kilometres for snowboarders and skiers, while its onsite school has ample nursery slopes for even complete beginners.
A short drive from Gabala International Airport, Tufandag Mountain Resort is also convenient for Gabala itself, where holidaymakers can visit the ancient fortress walls of what was once a major trade hub along the Silk Road. A nearby museum explains the history of the region and its archaeological finds.
Around an hour’s drive south of Gabala lies the vast Shahdag National Park, a paradise of ecotourism where hikers can expect to see a vast range of flora and fauna, which might include lynx, roe deer, wild boar, jackals and even brown bears or a golden eagle.
Over to the west, and separate from the rest of Azerbaijan is Nakhchivan. Here, tourists will find the village of Agbulag, the location of Azerbaijan’s newest ski resort.
Perched 2,000 metres above sea level in the Lesser Caucasus Mountains, Agbulag Ski Center enjoys perfect conditions for all types of snow-related activities, with facilities of the highest standard.
Its ski school has instructors experienced with both beginners and advanced skiers, and families are catered for with playgrounds and entertainment parks.
With a 38-room hotel and three rental cottages, Agbulag has everything a visitor might need, but for a day out, the city of Nakhchivan is an hour’s drive away. Nakhchivan is home to many stately monuments, such as the oriental Khans’ Palace, built in the 18th century and now a museum.
Equally unmissable is Noah’s Mausoleum, which has existed in various incarnations since the fourth millennium BC. The cleft peak of nearby Mount Ilandag is said to have formed as Noah’s ark floated across it, and Noah himself is thought to have lived and died here.
With geometrically designed patterns of red bricks and turquoise tiles, it follows a similar architectural design (the so-called ‘Nakhchivan school’) akin to the nearby 12th-century Momine Khatin Mausoleum, one of Azerbaijan’s most fascinating monuments.
These resorts offer more than just skiing. Each provides a range of attractions to enrich any holiday. The one thing they have in common, however, is the opportunity to experience local hospitality.
Azerbaijanis consider it a duty to treat their guests with infinite care. Following a day spent on the slopes, a cup of hot aromatic tea with delicious sweets will bring immense pleasure.