Low-cost tour of South Caucasus

By Ed Deaton
This item appears on page 27 of the May 2019 issue.
Melanie Branca and Ed Deaton in northern Georgia.

My friend Melanie Branca and I took an inexpensive group tour to the South Caucasus, visiting Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan, Sept. 5-23, 2018. It was with Exotour (17 Pavle Ingorokva St., 0108 Tbilisi, Georgia; phone +995 32 291 31 91, www.exotour.travel/en).

The tour consisted mainly of visiting the capitals of the three countries and taking day trips. We had investigated three other companies’ tours and found them to be similar in length and in the sights covered. The difference between those and Exotour’s tour was the cost.

Per person, double occupancy, one of the other tours cost $6,000, one was $7,000 and one was $8,500. The cost for each of us on the Exotour trip was $1,485. We thought we might have to take our own sleeping bags!

The price included 13 nights’ hotels, airport pickup and dropoff and English-speaking guides and driver. Good buffet breakfasts were included at all hotels, but lunches and dinners (except for one lunch) were not. We were pleased with this, as we could choose our own restaurants.

I’m 88 and Melanie is 76. We travel a lot, usually twice a year, and this was the first time we had booked an organized tour, but we knew that getting around in the Caucasus would not be simple. It’s difficult to get from Turkey to Armenia (we stayed one night in Istanbul on the way over and three nights on the way back), and the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan is closed.

We flew from Istanbul to Yere van, Armenia, where we were met by Exotour and taken to our hotel. There were three other people on the tour, but they were staying at a different hotel. Ours was the City Hotel Yerevan (Saryan St.; cityhotel.am), an unpleasant hotel on a dark street about a half-mile from “downtown.”

We moved to a very good hotel for the next three nights, the Paris Hotel Yerevan (Amiryan St.; www.parishotel.am/en), located near the main street, where we paid an extra $65 per night. Yerevan is a beautiful city. We really enjoyed it.

We then headed to Tbilisi, Georgia, where our guide was Salome Dzvelaia, who was very good. Again, our hotel was unacceptable, due to location and appearance, but the tour company found us a nice boutique hotel, Hotel City (7 Gia Abesadze St.; www.hotelcity.ge), on a main pedestrian street. It cost only $40 per night extra.

After five nights in Georgia, we went to Baku, Azerbaijan, for the final four nights. The Empire Hotel (49 Khagani St.; empire.hotels-baku.com/en) was nice.

In all three countries, we had good English-speaking guides and good drivers, who each used a 10- or 12-passenger Mercedes van. We were met by our guides between 8:30 and 9:30 a.m. Several days, we did not return until 7 or 7:30 p.m., especially in Georgia.

There was a great deal of walking on this tour, frequently on rough paths and up steep steps or slopes. One canyon in Georgia had 965 metal steps (I counted), half down and half up. I was tired after that. But we loved walking through the streets at night and having dessert and coffee before returning to our hotel.

We had lunch stops, sometimes with choices of restaurants or cafĂ©s, sometimes not. Dinners were on our own. The other three travelers didn’t join us in Yerevan or Tbilisi, as they were in different hotels, but we joined them for dinners in Baku. Food was inexpensive in all three countries — under $30 for two, not including alcohol.

In Yerevan, we attended a ballet for less than $10 per person. Even though the building was beautiful, we felt the ballet company was not very good.

All in all, we enjoyed the tour very much, but we wish we’d had the ability to upgrade hotels before the trip started. We do recommend Exotour, but we suggest you choose your own hotels and pay the difference.

On the way home we spent three days in Istanbul, staying at the Dersaadet Hotel Istanbul (Kucuk Ayasofya Cad.; www.hoteldersaadet.com), in the Sultanahmet area, for about $100 per night. It was very nice, with a wonderful staff.

While there, we did a day trip to Ephesus, Turkey, which we enjoyed very much. We should have stayed overnight there. It took about four hours to travel from Istanbul to Ephesus, which included a 1¼-hour flight, an hour in the airport and two one-hour taxi rides.

I’m willing to answer questions anyone may have about the trip. I can be reached at edmund_deaton@yahoo.com.

San Diego, CA