Exploring the Black Sea's Crimean Coast
Credit: Alamy
When Americans travel abroad, we always yearn to discover "unspoiled" places, such as mythical Tuscan villages or tiny Caribbean islands unsullied by other American tourists. But here's the thing about the Crimean coast: It was spoiled when we found it. Two centuries of Slavic-style tourism had done some damage.

But then again, who was I to be self-righteous? Sure, the stinking trash heaps on the beach were a bummer, but ultimately they would be a lot easier to remedy than the refineries and freeways that blight the coast of California. And more to the point: The Ukrainians have just cast off the shackles of almost a century of dictatorship. Let them throw a little trash.

The funny thing about freedom is that once people get the idea they've been liberated, they start acting as if they're free – at which point, well, maybe they are. So go ahead, drive your Lada onto the beach, slip into your banana hammock, start a bonfire, take a dump in the sand, crank up the techno, and chuck your bottles down the beach. One definition of freedom is simply breaking the rules and doing whatever the hell you want. All we needed were some yahoos revving up jet skis and firing guns, and it would be just like spring break on the "Redneck Riviera," the Florida Panhandle.

Just as in America, the lazy tourists crowded the most accessible places on the Crimean coast, while the backcountry offered sanctuary for the seekers. On our final day we stumbled upon a scene farther east that reminded me of the American desert or Baja California, Mexico. Here, on a less spectacular and less crowded beach called Fox Bay, where muddy brown cliffs collapse on a desolate shore, the beachgoers were younger, thinner, and better-looking than the porcine bathers around Morskoye and Sudak. On this beach the tents were permanent, palapas of palm branches and plastic sheets strung between Russian olive trees along the base of the crumbling bluffs, the only shade on the entire stretch. The women were tanned and nude, the men wore sarongs, and naked babies scurried underfoot. A gorgeous naked woman scrubbed laundry in a plastic tub while a man with a long beard stuffed his pack with empty plastic water jugs and headed down the beach to find a place to refill them. At the nearest road head someone had put an old van up on blocks and was working on the tranny. I got the feeling that in Fox Bay they were ready to wait out the apocalypse, or maybe they thought it had already come and didn't care; they'd found their paradise.

Has freedom really come to Ukraine? It's hard to say. President Yuschenko's reformist party has been assailed as corrupt and incompetent. And the old Russian-backed party won the recent parliamentary elections, which means Yuschenko now works directly with the man who was his rival in 2004. Business as usual, it seems.

But as I walked along a dusty two-track, where a pair of loose cows rummaged through a trash pile, I suddenly felt elated. As surely as governments will misgovern and leaders will mislead, there will also always be havens like this where the dreamers sink beneath the surveillance and soak up the sun's democratic warmth. Freedom is our way, after all, and freedom is what we may yet find.

Plan Your Expedition

Decades of Soviet rule left the Crimean Peninsula and its surrounding areas relatively unexplored by Westerners, so you're forgiven if you don't immediately associate Ukraine, southern Russia, and Georgia with world-class hiking, skiing, and mountain biking. But trust us, they're there. Here are four trips to get you started.

Ride Crimea
The Meganom bike club offers weeklong fat-tire tours of Crimea's rugged southern coast. You'll camp on the Black Sea and explore a 15th-century Tatar palace. [$300-$600; meganom.info]

Explore the Ukraine
Mountain Travel Sobek no longer offers trips to the Ukraine, but the luxury outfitter Cox & Kings has picked up where they left off. The "Treasures of the Ukraine" package takes travelers through Crimea, Yalta, and Kiev. [from $2,767; coxandkings.co.uk]

Ski Europe's Top Peak
Just on the Russian side of the Caucasus, 18,510-foot Mount Elbrus is the fifth-highest of the seven summits. Seattle-based Mountain Madness gets you down the volcanic massif on ski or snowboard. [$5,375; mountainmadness.com]