Disembark and whiz through the small, sparse, yet efficient Almaty International Airport. Even with two planes arriving at the same time, I was on my way with my checked luggage in about half an hour.
Check in to The Ritz-Carlton, Almaty atop the Esentai Tower (77/7 Al-Farabi Ave), which was designed by SOM architects, the same group that designed the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. Adjourn to the aptly named Vista restaurant where you will be tempted to linger, absorbing the incredible views of the city and surrounding mountains. Sample the international breakfast buffet with morning treats from around the world.
From just behind the cultural centre in the Republican Palace, catch a cable car and soar over the trees to the top of Kok Tobe (or Green Hill), the highest point in Almaty. Stroll along the tree-shaded paths to see amazing vistas of the city reaching to the mountains in the distance, or the unspoiled hills on the other side. The sprouting of new office towers and apartment buildings in the downtown area are evidence of the metamorphosis of the city. One of the quirky highlights at Kok Tobe is a life-size bronze sculpture of The Beatles by local artist, Eduard Kazaryan.
As you cross the city, stately, mature trees frame the wide streets and camouflage large grey blocks, remnants of Soviet construction. Either take the 25-minute cable car ride or drive up the mountain to Shymbulak; a ski resort high above the city. In the warmer months, it is the perfect location for an exquisite lunch at Chalet. Try the shashlik, which is grilled over saksaul, a wood grown on the mountainside, giving the meat a unique, subtle flavour. Also, try the buckwood berry tea, a naturally bright orange drink made from berries indigenous to the region. Both tart and sweet, it is said to be particularly good for reducing blood pressure. Because of the altitude, it is best to visit earlier in the day when it is warmer.
One of the most popular parks in Almaty is Panfilov Park, which was named for a small regiment of soldiers who valiantly fought to defend Moscow in World War II. Most were sacrificed and are now remembered by an eternal flame in this peaceful green park with paved pathways through 18 hectares of towering trees and gardens. Several not-to-be-missed historical buildings with intriguing histories are also located here. Among these is the Zenkov Cathedral (or the Ascension Cathedral), a colourful example of the Tsarist era, built entirely of wood — including the nails — and featuring an ornate interior with frescoes, murals and gold.
It was one of the few buildings to survive a devastating earthquake in 1911. After being a museum and concert hall during the Soviet era, it is once again a place of worship. On the edge of the park, a short stroll from the cathedral, in a building that was once called the House of Officers and used for military meetings, is the Museum of National Musical Instruments. On display are handmade instruments from the distant to more recent past, including woodwinds, percussion and strings, decorated with beautiful ornate carvings.
Built just 15 years ago with public donations, the Central Mosque (Pushkin St) is the largest in central Asia, with room for 7,000 worshippers. Created from local white marble and coloured glazed tiles, it features a blue dome more than 20 metres in diameter and 36 metres high, and a minaret of 47 metres. Non-Muslims are permitted inside, as long as they are respectful and observe the religious customs: shoes must be removed and ladies must cover their hair.
Esentai Mall is a sleek, new international emporium offering the latest from Prada, Lanvin and almost any other designer a well-appointed visitor could desire. Be sure to check out Esentai Gourmet for some local Rakhat chocolate, a delicious treat with slightly different taste undertones from the typical European varieties, and look out for the impressive collection of sculptures and artworks throughout the store.
The perfect way to end a busy day is at the Six Senses Spa at Esentai Tower, a refreshing oasis with a full menu of superb treatments. I enjoyed a deep tissue full body massage that left me completely stress-free. Although the treatment was only 50 minutes, I was so relaxed I was almost late meeting my dinner companions.
Chef Laurent Tourondel presides over an open kitchen at The Ritz-Carlton’s LT Grill, where he impressed even this native Texan who knows good beef. The béarnaise sauce that accompanied a perfectly prepared medium rare filet mignon was probably the best I have ever enjoyed. The starter of heirloom tomatoes and Stilton cheese was a taste sensation matched only by the banana date pudding that concluded the feast. A selection from the extensive wine list enhanced the experience, as did the soothing live piano music and the gorgeous night views of the city.
End your stay with a soak in your suite’s freestanding tub, designed by Ross Lovegrove, before climbing between the luxurious Ritz-Carlton sheets for a blissful night’s sleep before your return flight home.
The Ritz-Carlton, Almaty
Tel: +7 727 332 8888
Tel: +7 727 300 3300
Tel: +7 727 250 5000