By Will Hide

The Times
February 04, 2006
Glorious beaches, historic towns . . . the Baltic states offer a relaxed alternative to the Med’s summer madness, says Will Hide. First stop: Estonia

Tallinn has one of northern Europe’s best-preserved medieval old towns

When it comes to summer sun, there are those of us who will always stick with old favourites around the Med. We know what we like and we like what we’re used to. But this year, might I suggest Sir or Madam goes off-menu when it comes to sun-lounger à la Brit and heads east for a take-away Baltic instead?

Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are attracting more UK visitors, from stag parties to families. Take miles of sandy beaches, wooded countryside and old, well-preserved towns. Throw in a pinch of some rather interesting history, stir with good value and an increasing range of budget flights, and there you have it.

True, it may have a shorter season than traditional resorts farther south — if you want to lie on the beach, you’re really just looking at June, July and August — but, with Estonia, for example, on the same latitude as the Shetland Islands, the midsummer days are gloriously long. “The Baltics have everything we look for in a family holiday,” says Erik Ozols, who set up the Baltic Travel Company several years ago after holidaying in the area. “My wife and I had taken our two daughters to France and Italy every August since they were born, but we spent most of our time figuring ways to stay out of the heat, not to mention avoiding packed beaches and road congestion. “The Baltics haven’t been overrun by tourism yet and the coastal towns have a simple, easygoing feel.” So raise your glass to a new holiday destination. Terviseks! Prieka! Sveikata! Or, for the non-Estonian, Latvian or Lithuanian speakers among us — cheers!

LYING south of the Gulf of Finland, Estonia was the first of the three Baltic states to open up to British tourists after the fall of the Soviet Union, and these days pulls in families, outdoors enthusiasts and that fine UK export, the stag party.

Cobblestoned Tallinn, the capital, has one of northern Europe’s best-preserved medieval old towns — it was one of the leading cities of the Hanseatic League for 300 years from the 13th century. Now it looks firmly west towards Scandinavia, rather than east towards Russia, although the sound of Russian spoken in shops and restaurants is a reminder of the large number (still 40 per cent of the population) who were moved here by Stalin after the Second World War. For those wishing to avoid their fellow countrymen, head to the seaside at Pärnu, which has been a spa and health resort since the 1830s. It is about 90 minutes’ drive south of the capital and ideal for families since the beach is sandy with gently shelving water. These days there are music festivals and nightclubs, but it still manages to preserve a laid-back feeling.