More Than Volcanoes

For MT
Dangling out into the Pacific nine time zones ahead of Moscow and with a reputation as a land of fire and ice inhabited primarily by bears, the Kamchatka Peninsula might seem both too distant and too inhospitable to be worth visiting as a tourist. While it may not be reachable by road or rail, however, direct flights from Moscow and an ever-increasing range of adventure travel and sporting opportunities for visitors make Kamchatka a much more attractive prospect than it might appear at first.

Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, the regional capital, is the starting point of any trip to the area since it is the home of the airport and most tour operators. The city itself has some attractions, including the usual Lenin statue and some monuments to the minor role the local garrison played in the Crimean War, somehow defeating the English and French ships that bombarded the city. But Petropavlovsk's most remarkable feature is its setting, sandwiched between the Koriakskaya Sopka volcano and the vast Avacha Bay. A visit to the city is of course necessary if you want to organize helicopter travel, since those arrangements can only be made through a local tour company. Helicopter flights are crucial for heli-skiing or taking in the region's highlights, such as the towering volcanoes south of Petropavlovsk, the Valley of the Geysers and the eerie moon landscapes of Tolbachik, within a limited amount of time. Although this can be extremely expensive, it is becoming increasingly possible to mount an independent expedition to some areas of incredible natural beauty without dispensing the required $40 per minute charged by Krechet, the company with a near-monopoly on helicopter travel throughout Kamchatka.

One destination that can now be reached by public bus is Esso, a town of around 3,000 nestled in a picturesque valley in Bystrinsky Park, a nature preserve in the center of the peninsula. A welcome contrast to Petropavlovsk, whose monotonous rectangular housing blocks most visitors either avoid altogether or choose to flee quickly, Esso has much of what Kamchatka is famous for: towering snow-covered peaks, rushing rivers that freeze over in winter and friendly locals who live in pretty wooden houses and count among their numbers members of the local native Even, Koriak and Itelmen populations. The histories and ways of life of these peoples are refreshingly done justice in the local museum, whose welcoming curators are usually more than happy to provide information to supplement the already extensive displays. Also on view is information about the annual Beringia dog-sled race, a 980 kilometer two-week competition that starts from Esso every March.

Ed Pulford / for MT
Many of the guesthouses in Esso feature outdoor hot-spring pools where travelers can relax after a long day exploring.

The park staff can arrange any number of excursions up nearby mountains and help with helicopter trips to visit reindeer herds, which move from place to place through the surrounding countryside. This is an attractive option for the traveler who can afford a single short helicopter trip but not daily flights. The town itself is remarkable for the fact that it is entirely powered on geothermal energy. The uninsulated metal hot- water pipes winding their way alongside every road provide an ever-present reminder of Kamchatka's unique properties, most violently expressed in the region's 68 active volcanoes. The town and many of the local guesthouses also have their own outdoor hot-spring pools, which are wonderful places to relax after a day's hiking or skiing. For many months of the year, they also afford an opportunity for the hardy to jump out straight into the snow for a truly Russian experience thousands of kilometres from Moscow.

When to Go

For much of the year, Kamchatka experiences some of Russia's highest recorded snowfalls. Mid winter can be very cold and in the spring, much of Petropavlovsk and the road up to Esso turn into impassable slush. Therefore, the best times to go are summer (with insect repellent) or February-March after the worst of the cold is over and before the snow starts to melt.

How to Get There

By plane: Direct round-trip flights from Moscow to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky with Aeroflot run around $650.

Where to Stay

In Petropavlovsk: If she has space, an excellent place to spend the night is the home of Martha Madsen, an American who owns and runs the tour firm Explore Kamchatka. Situated in Yelizovo, a town a short bus ride outside Petropavlovsk where the airport is located, Martha herself arranges many different tours of the peninsula, including heli-skiing trips. Check her web site for more information. One night in one of her rooms, which includes a delicious breakfast, costs 1,000 rubles per person.

41 Bolshakovaya Ulitsa, Yelizovo, +7 (41531) 2-66-01,

In Esso: Altai Guesthouse: a very attractive set of wooden buildings run by the Lipatov family who themselves stem from the distant Altai region. Self-catering is possible in the decent kitchens provided in each building, which also contain two- and three-bed rooms. Also features a hot-spring pool and can arrange snowmobile rides. Costs between 500 rubles to 750 rubles per person per night.

16 Mostovaya Ulitsa, opposite where bus stops, +7 (4152) 4221218

What to See and How to Arrange Excursions in Esso

Esso Museum: featuring a wide range of photographs, maps and costumes as well as scale-models of houses and canoes, Esso's museum provides a wealth of information on local native populations from the 18th century to the present day and demonstrates that their diverse cultures are still very much alive in the area. Also has an excellent gift shop selling local crafts.

Over the bridge near the river, +7 (4152) 21319

Bear Museum: a small room in the local library focused on Kamchatka's -- and probably Russia's -- most notorious animal inhabitant, it also displays bear-related memorabilia from all over the world. Everything you could ever wish to know about bears.

Esso Public Library, ask at the park office (below)

Bystrinsky Park Headquarters: features displays about reindeer herding and the annual Beringia dog-sled race; also the place to go to arrange trips through the surrounding park to various destinations.

8 Ulitsa Lenina, +7 (415) 42 21461,

Where to Eat and Drink

As mentioned above, the Altai Guesthouse provides adequate self-catering facilities and there are numerous small stores in Esso in which to buy provisions and tasty unpasteurized Kamchatka beer. Other dining options in Esso mainly consist of small cafes serving a limited selection of fish, mashed potatoes and side salads.

In Petropavlovsk: For that last farewell meal before departure, San Marino is probably the city's nicest restaurant and has a mixed menu including plenty of fish. Meals will cost around $40 to $50. Make sure to dress smartly as doormen can be strict.

Ulitsa Karla Marksa 29/1, +7 (41522) 93355