Looking down from the cliffs at the secluded, sandy coves below and the intense turquoise of the sea, you could be forgiven for forgetting that you're in the Ukraine. Crimea is as different from the rest of the country as can be - a slice of the exotic connected to the mainland by two tentative strands of land. Crimea's autonomy stems not just from the peninsula's physical distance from the mother country, but also from its unique history, having been shaped by the Greeks, Romans, Mongols, Ottoman Turks and Crimean Tatars, in contrast to the far more homogenous mainland. Today, Crimea is becoming more and more popular with visiting Europeans, as well as the usual contingent of Ukrainians and Russians.
Stretching from remote Yevpatoria in the west to Feodosiya in the east, the Crimean coast includes both busy seaside resorts and quiet villages, each with its own distinct character. Images of sand-strewn sun worshippers, well-dressed holidaymakers sipping sweet Massandra wine in seaside cafés and millionaires' yachts bobbing on the water are particularly true for the south coast - a lovely but busy stretch of white-sand beach lined with upmarket resorts and exclusive spas running between the tourist hubs of Yalta and Alushta. In contrast, the coast running west from Yalta to Foros is less developed, and dotted with secluded coves, fishing villages and low-key holiday cabins. Inland, mountain-bikers and hikers are making inroads into the little-explored and dramatic mountainous terrain.
The towns of Yalta and Alushta are the south coast's most popular resorts, and the ones that best epitomise the classic image of Crimea as an elite summer retreat for Russian nobility. Yalta's own whitewashed, Renaissance-style Livadia Palace was originally the summer residence of Tsar Nicholas II, and was later used to host the 1945 Yalta Conference between the Allied leaders of WWII. Wistful photographic exhibits on display here are dedicated to Russia's last royal family.
Yalta offers the greatest range of accommodation, from upgraded Soviet-style sanatoriums such as Dnepr - complete with available medical check-ups and treatments - to atmospheric luxury hotels such as Oreanda and Bristol. The eating scene is appropriately diverse, featuring cafés dotting the seafront; elegant fine dining, such as Byely Lyev (Nab Lenina 31A) and Oreanda, which specialise in European and Ukrainian haute cuisine; beachfront shashlyk stands grilling up succulent skewers of meat kebabs; and teahouses such as Aishe (Nab Lenina 9) serving plov (rice with lamb), a dish reflecting Crimea's Tatar heritage. The beachfront revelry continues late into the night at laid-back cocktail bars such as Apelsin (Nab Lenina 35a) and Mojito (Nab Lenina 32), and at the 24-hour dance clubs: Matrix (Nab Lenina 35/2) has nightly performances from international DJs (and a strict dress code).
Alushta is greener and less crowded than Yalta, and home to excellent modern spa hotels, such as More, which offer multiday revitalisation treatment packages by day and lively seafront discos by night.
Quiet Yevpatoria specialises in health tourism, with a smattering of sanatoriums, hot springs and mud treatments that allegedly possess curative properties. Apart from its upgraded facilities, it seems little changed from the time when Soviet workers and their families were sent on seaside holidays here as job-performance rewards. Well-equipped health resorts such as Planeta epitomise Yevpatoria's relaxed, child-friendly character.
Though many come to Crimea for the beaches, there's plenty more to entice you away from the sea. Near Yalta, a short hiking trail leads to Uchan-Su, Europe's highest waterfall. Just south of Yalta, Cape Ai-Todor is home to the much-photographed Swallow's Nest Castle, perched on the very edge of a steep cliff and offering stupendous views from the top. Crimea's 'Grand Canyon' - the gorge between Yalta and Bakhchisarai - makes for some wonderful trekking, particularly if you follow the trail down into the gorge and take a dip in the little waterfalls created by the Auzen-Uzen River. The summit of Ai-Petri, a mountain towering above the tiny town of Alupka, offers splendid views of the Crimean coast; it can be reached by rickety cable car or - for the fitness lovers - by mountain bike.
Alushta makes an excellent base for exploring the nearby Byzantine and Genoese castle ruins. You can also go on guided hikes into the Crimean Nature Reserve, home to gazelles, mountain goats, foxes and numerous bird species. Other spectacular outdoor activities include trekking, mountain-biking, horse riding and camping on nearby Demerdzhi mountain, which offers an otherworldly rock-sculpture garden called the Valley of Ghosts, the majestic Dzhur-Dzhur waterfall and dizzying views from the summit.
Inland, near the regional capital of Simferopol, lie several cave formations. Eminé-Ba'ir-Khosar was the scene of the tragic story of a maiden who threw herself into its incredible 120m (393ft) depths when her love was killed by her father's tribe. Mramornaya (Marble) Cave, a 60,000-year old subterranean riverbed, attracts cavers with its 'melting' rock formations and the opportunity to explore its untouched lower depths with a hard hat and torch.
Sevastopol, a port formerly closed to foreigners, boasts the lion's share of historical monuments. Aficionados of the Crimean War can head south to Balaklava; the valley above it was the site of the ill-fated Charge of the Light Brigade. The Sevastopol Diorama offers the best panoramic view of the former battle site, now an attractive meadow with some vineyards. The town itself is home to Chersonesus, Crimea's largest and most intact Greek ruins; they go right down to the seafront, allowing you to combine a stroll amidst intact temples with a swim, or even a dive in search of treasure with Akvamarin.
The living presence of Crimea's ancient Tatar culture is felt particularly strongly inland, in Bakhchysaray, once capital of the Crimean khanate, where Tatar grandmothers sell traditional food such as köbete (meatballs) and hearty lagman (noodle soup). Here you can visit the 16th-century Khan's Palace and wander through the harem and courtyards, admiring the lofty minarets, the Fountain Yard, the elegant calligraphy above the doorways and the interior of the working mosque.