Caspian, the Friendly Coast

By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 15, 2006

Q. I'd like to see more of Russia besides Moscow and St. Petersburg. Are there tours that go from Moscow to the Caspian Sea?

Marilyn Antunes, Prince George, Va.

A. For travel in Russia, the areas around the Caspian Sea might as well be in Siberia -- in other words, they are far off the tourist track. "It's not a popular area. Everyone seems to prefer the more popular places like Moscow, St. Petersburg, the Trans-Siberian Railway, the neighboring Baltic states," says Tanya Jensen, a travel consultant with Red Star Travel (800-215-4378, ), a Seattle company that specializes in Russia. "There are not many things to see around the Caspian Sea, only smaller tourist attractions scattered around."

Because of the low demand, not many operators organize group tours there. Instead, you'll have to go independently or on a customized tour. Jensen recommends visiting Azerbaijan, a southern Caucasus republic, and Astrakhan, a Russian city near the Caspian Sea in the Volga River delta. On the eastern shore, Jensen recommends Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, but you'll have to go inland. "The republics are interesting," she says, "but not the areas on the sea." (She also would add Dagestan if there weren't a conflict in nearby Chechnya.)

Azerbaijan's capital of Baku, called the "Pearl of the Caspian," has Muslim sites, lively bazaars, an attractive old town and boisterous nightlife around Fountains Square. Farther north, Astrakhan is a fishing town known for its black caviar and sturgeon and for having some of the oldest and largest caviar fisheries in the world. It's also a common port of call on many Volga River cruises; however, because the itinerary often includes the more predictable cities and sights in Russia, the entire voyage can take 10 to 20 days.

As an alternative, passenger boats sometimes travel between Moscow and Astrakhan. The service, though, could be canceled for the entire spring-to-fall season, so check with tour operators in the spring to see whether it's running. Planes and trains are more reliable; flight time is about 2 1/2 hours, while trains take up to 30 hours.

What happens if you lose your ID while on a trip? Can you get on a flight without a photo ID?

Norm Huddy, McLean

If you lose your identification, be prepared for some extreme additional screening. According to Transportation Security Administration spokesman Darrin Kayser, the agency's policy is that any passenger without ID may board the plane but will be subject to additional security measures.

"The passenger will have to undergo secondary screening," says Kayser. That could involve a puffer machine, a pat-down or a more thorough screening of your bags.

I am taking a cruise out of Charleston, S.C. What is the daily price to park, and are there other parking facilities nearby? Also, do any of the hotels offer "park and cruise" specials?

Linda Jones, Suitland

The Port of Charleston hardly has the cruise traffic of Miami or Fort Lauderdale, Fla., but the terminal does have a steady stream of passengers both embarking and passing through. "It is a relatively small cruise port, but it's grown since 9/11," says port spokesman Byron D. Miller. "We have a fair share of people who drive four or five hours and embark here, as well as a high level of port of calls."

Passengers who drive to the port can park at its on-site lot, available only to cruisers, for $15 a day; a free shuttle transports guests to the passenger terminal. The lot accepts only cash, traveler's checks and personal checks. Because the port is in historic Charleston, you also can park at a public garage and walk or take a cab to the dock. Check the City of Charleston's Web site ( ) for a map of downtown garages.

If you plan to spend a night in town before setting sail, the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau lists "stay and cruise" packages. For instance, the Charleston Riverview Hotel (800-968-3569, ), about a mile from the port, has a "stay one night, park for free" deal with rooms starting at $84 a night. Other deals include special rates for cruisers, free transfers to and from the port and more. For lodgings with similar deals, contact the visitors bureau (843-853-8000) or check its list of participating properties at .

For info on the Port of Charleston: 843-958-8298, .

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