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A peninsula the size of Vermont tucked beneath the Ukraine, jutting into the Black Sea, the Crimea boasts an eight-mile wide, hundred-mile-long strip of coastal land that for centuries has been Russia's playground. Protected from harsh northern winds by the Crimean mountains, the region's southern coast was long a vacation paradise for aristocratic refugees from Russia's frigid winter climate. In the 20th century the Crimean coast was overtaken by Communist Party bosses and their deserving workers, who enjoyed the amenities of luxurious former palaces and built commodious spas for health-conscious vacationers.

Today, in the Post-Communist era, it's a different story. Vacations used to be subsidized to the hilt, but no more, and the Ukraine's soaring inflation hasn't helped matters. But even now merrymakers flock to the Crimea, the more well-heeled congregating along the esplanade that fronts the big hotels in Yalta, the Crimea's main drag. Here Russia's new ruling class, the so-called "mafia," flaunts its ill-gotten wealth and cavorts in the thriving market for drugs and prostitution. Sevastavol, the grand naval town on the Crimea's western rim, is another tourist magnet.

Its natural beauty aside, the Crimea's unique infrastructure of spas and sanitoriums continues to draw Russians seeking renewed health and vigor. In a setting of stunning physical grandeur, the spas offer naturopathic therapies and a brisk infusion of mineral waters, as well as the stimulating brine of the Black Sea.

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