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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Summer Travel: From the Gulag to Majorca

There are no more excuses. It's not too cold. The roads aren't blocked. And you've accumulated way too much vacation to pretend there's no time. The season to explore Russia is upon us. It's time to see what exists outside this cosmopolitan town.


Since it's warm and light out, why not take Smart Travel's (Tel. 233-1765) Gulag Archipelago tour? Yes, that's right, experience Solzhenitsyn's book. This five-day tour which costs $704 per person, double occupancy, starts with a first-class overnight train ride from Moscow to the 16th-century city of Archangelsk. Travellers then fly to the Solovets Islands, located 150 kilometers below the Arctic Circle, and visit the Solovetsky Monastery. Built in 1436, this complex of sacred buildings was made part of the Stalinist gulag.


And while visitors do learn the bleak history of this place, through lectures and guided tours given in English, there is also an opportunity to enjoy the landscape and wildlife. The island, which once housed one of the harshest concentration camps in Russia, is now a nature preserve with protected forests, lakes and canals. Excursions include a trip to Sekirnaya mountain -- the highest place on the island with a lighthouse that once housed prisoners.


Olga Dougina, the director of Smart Travel, said she started the Gulag tour four years ago and that it has become increasingly popular since then. "I wanted to offer a unique tourist product -- something appealing and unusual," Dougina said. "Russia is so big and so interesting to see. Yet often, people just travel to St. Petersburg or Kiev."


"The population of the island is 1,300 people," she said. "You feel absolutely cut off from the world." Great for a prison or a vacation.


For travellers looking for an English-language tour on the lighter side, Patriarchi Dom (Tel. 926-5680) offers a Lacquer Box trip over the weekend of June 1 and 2. Travellers visit master artists and museums in Palekh and Kholui, two villages known for producing lacquer boxes, and then travel to Vladimir and Suzdal, two ancient Russian cities that are part of Moscow's Golden Ring. The trip, which includes bus transportation, a guide, admission to museums, four meals and accommodation at the Intourist complex in Suzdal, costs $120 per person for double occupancy and $140 for single.


The same tour company is also organizing an excursion to Smolensk over the weekend of June 22 and 23. The trip, which includes bus transportation, an English-speaking guide, museums, four meals and a hotel in Smolensk, costs $150 per person for a double room, $170 for a single. Smolensk, on the banks of the upper Dnieper River, was long a trading, industrial and cultural center known as the key to Moscow because of its strategic location.


To get even further away and see even more of Russia, the Russian-Swiss joint venture Rusrail (Tel. 262-1717) offers weekend trips aboard the Orient Express train. Rusrail manager Galina Kusmina said the trains used for these trips are "special tourist trains" with air conditioning, sleeping berths with private showers and "very soft seats." All packages include three gourmet meals a day. Longer trips include a 12-day trip from Moscow to Beijing which departs June 10 and costs $2,400 per person double occupancy. Shorter trips on the luxury train include a tour to Kostroma, Yaroslavl and Veliky Rostov from May 31 to June 2 for $350.


If getting out of Russia is essential, there are still some decent rates to the United States for the month of June, even though the expensive summer season is upon us. Until June 14, Delta Airlines (Tel. 438-0900) offers a round-trip fare to New York for $850. Finnair (Tel. 924-7596) flies there round-trip for $825. Aeroflot (Tel. 155-5045) to New York is $1,290 for foreigners, but you can get the price for Russian citizens of 3,708,000 rubles (about $740) from most travel agencies. Be aware that Aeroflot revises their fares every Thursday.


American Express (Tel. 956-9000) is featuring low round-trip airfares to several Mediterranean destinations. The travel agency would not name the airlines but the prices are low. For $415, you can fly round-trip to Rome, Athens or Madrid.


For travellers who want a break from working hours filled with thinking and planning, there are several packages available that give the brain a vacation. Ultramar Express offers a week-long trip to Spain's Costa del Sol including flight, transfer, daily breakfast and dinner starting at $555. This price and all others listed, are based on double occupancy. Or spend a week on Majorca, the largest of Spain's Balearic Islands. The trip includes a three-star hotel, airfare and daily half board of breakfast and dinner for $660. The same company offers a week-long sojourn to Tenerife, the largest of the Canary Islands, for $985 including airfare and accommodation with half board.


And from Coral Travel (Tel. 215-3179), there's a $485 trip to Antalya, Turkey-- either to the Alanya or Kemer beach towns -- including a week's stay in a beach hotel, one excursion and half board.


For those travellers who like to shop, of the several hundred international shop tours offered every month from Moscow, some are particularly attractive. The hotels aren't glorious but they're cheap. Super Nova Travel (Tel. 292-3019) offers a package to Antalya for $373 including seven nights in a hotel, daily half board and a shopping excursion. Or, the same company offers a package, also for a week, to Cyprus for $374.


Globus Travel Elite Service (Tel. 203-6233) offers a four-day shopping trip to Istanbul with accommodations in a four-star hotel and all meals for $350. The same company also offers a long weekend in Rimini, a northern Italian town near Ravenna. Travellers leave Wednesday and return Monday, bags brimming with shoes and leather. The price for this package is $450.