While the GINO Wellness Spa and Sauna is housed in the lower level of Hotel GINO Wellness Rabati, you don't have to be a guest of the hotel to use it. For hotel guests the saunas are free; for the outsider its about 30 GEL. If you're doing a lot of hiking in the region, visiting in winter season, or just want to pamper yourself, this is the place to do it. The sauna rooms are ultra modern, clean and covered in beautiful tile work. Each room provides a different type of sauna experience. There's a Finnish Sauna, a Roman Steam room, a Salt Steam room, an Herbal Sauna, Knelp foot soaking pools, a Cooling Pool, a Whirlpool, and a Tepidarium where there are tiled lounging benches that radiate heat. The Tepidarium is really nice for reclining and feeling the heat soak into your back while you listen to dreamy Asian-inspired music. There are high-tech lockers in the men's and women's locker rooms that lock and unlock when you press a wristband to it. You can store your clothes, wallet and valuables there. The attendants will issue large towels or thin waist wraps to the customers; use whichever you choose. You can wear bathing suits if you are not comfortable being naked. After a shower, when you are ready to use the saunas, the attendant will dim the lights and turn on relaxing new age music. Some of the saunas offer aromatic experiences and you can also request various massages at a range of prices.
From just about anywhere in Akhaltsikhe, you can see Rabati (old town) up on its hill with its fortress walls. Built in the 12th century, most of it was nothing but ruins up to a few years ago. Today just about everything in Rabati is new or newly refurbished. The sidewalk, road and buildings leading from the base of the hill to the entrances of the fortress were refurbished. The two parking lots, the fortress walls, the citidel, towers, museum, mosque, minaret, synagogue, Christian temple, the Jakeli dynasty palace, old baths, even the tunnel to Potskhovi river was restored. A 4-star spa hotel, tourist information center, wedding hall, exhibition hall, wine cellar, restaurant, conference center, water fountians, gardens, a terraced vinyard, and a special events area were added. Rabati Fortress was reopened to the public after 15 months of reconstruction in August of 2012.
There are two ways to enter Rabati. As you drive or walk up the hill, the first parking lot gives entrance to the lower part of Rabati, where the hotel (has a copper dome) is and some places to eat. When there is a special event, this area may hold it and the parking lot will be blocked to vehicles. Farther up the hill is the second and larger parking lot. This one gives access to the upper part of Rabati where the museum, gardens, mosque (identified by the gold dome), madrasa, and other buildings of interest. To enter this area you must pay a small fee (7 GEL?). From there you can wander where ever you like. You can walk along parts of the fortress wall and climb the to the top of the towers for some great views and photographs.
Entry to the Ivane Javakhishvili Samtskhe-Javakheti History Museum is free, but it would be worth visiting even if it charged a separate small fee. The displays are classy and there are some neat things to look at. They limit the number of people inside at one time, so if it is crowded, you may have to wait outside under the covered front steps for a little while. The mosque is completely empty and bare. I don't believe it is operating. The madrasa is also just a museum structure. If you go up in the castle, you can climb up into the tower for the highest vantage point in Rabati. There is also a modern conference room in the castle with a modern sound and projection system, paintings of the Ottoman siege of Akhaltsike, balconies, and one of the walls is the exposed rock face of the hill itself.
What's left of old Akhaltsikhe is clustered between the castle and the bus station, a few roads with old stone houses lining the streets. The real attraction is just to walk through the narrow lanes and see life going on around you...a shepherd leading his cattle and sheep past a local school, women hanging their washing out while gossiping about neighbours, children playing football, donkeys carrying loads of firewood...a completely different atmosphere to the centre of town.
If you're in Akhaltsikhe and you're getting tired of Georgian fare, check out this restaurant. It's suppose to serve German dishes. I wouldn't say the dishes are authentic German fare, but it does provide a little variety. Even if you're looking to dine on Georgian fare, this is still a good restaurant. The building is relatively new, clean and nicely decorated. They have indoor as well as outdoor seating. They did not seem to have air conditioning so it was a little muggy in the main room when we were there in August for lunch. The upper deck inside would have been stifling. They also have a basement which is nice and cool in the summer, but it wasn't open when we were there for lunch that day.
Akhaltsikhe's bus station is about as lively as the town gets...there are usually at least three buses waiting there at any one given moment! The four hour trip from Tbilisi costs 7 Lari (June 2005 US$1 = 1.82 Lari), and passes through Gori and Borjomi. Lying close to the border crossing at Vani/Posof, there are buses between Akhaltsikhe and the Turkish town of Ardahan...or at least I've seen Turkish buses languishing in the bus station. Ask around for times and prices.
For Vardzia, a minibus leaves once a day at an unspecified hour in the early afternoon...make a trip to the bus station in the morning to try and find out exactly when. the friendly bus driver speaks Turkish, so if you can get by in that language, you can ask him to help you find accommodation in Vardzia and find out when he will be making the return trip to Akhaltsikhe. It takes roughly 3 hours to reach Vardzia, passing through some stunning scenery en route...sit on the right hand side on the way, the left hand side on the return journey, to see the best views. 3 Lari is all you need to pay.