This beautiful and many-faceted part of Russia receives few travellers, despite being only a plane or train journey from Moscow, and that's a pity. The colossal Caucasus mountains, 1100km of soaring peaks and deep valleys, stride from the Caspian to the Black Sea. Between the mountain range and the Black Sea is a coastal strip that endows Russia with its most southerly seaside resorts. The pearl is Sochi, with glorious summer sun, warm sea, plenty of classy bars and restaurants, and performances by Russia's top entertainers. In the mountains near Sochi lies Krasnaya Polyana, on the way to being another big European ski resort. Here, in this 'Switzerland by the sea', you can easily ski and swim in the sea on the same day.
This region, one of the last to be added to the tsarist Russian Empire, was won and controlled with the help of Cossack warriors. Their homeland lies in the Kuban Steppe, around Rostov-on-Don, where Cossack culture remains undiminished; their old capital, Starocherkassk, is where to find it. Wander east and the central Caucasus mountains rise from the vast steppe in a land of dead volcanoes and gushing mineral springs. Their curative powers attracted mid-19th-century society, which transformed Pyatigorsk and Kislovodsk into elegant spa towns. Visitors to the sanatoriums can roam the parks and take day trips to Dombay and Mt Elbrus. Threaded into this landscape is the drama of writer Lermontov's death echoing the plot of his novel A Hero of Our Time, also set here.
Even if you're no skier, hiker or climber, do venture into the mountains by visiting Dombay or Mt Elbrus and ride cable cars and chairlifts part of the way up to view the savage beauty of this lofty range. At the eastern end lies unsafe-to-visit Chechnya and Dagestan, a complicated and fractious ethnic jigsaw with an Asiatic atmosphere, extending from the mountains to the Caspian Sea.