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You don't tend to hear a lot about travel to the three countries that make up the Baltic States -Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania but that may be about to change. Located on the eastern coast of the Baltic Sea, these formerly Russian provinces and republics of the former USSR, found their independence a mere 15 years ago. Despite their shared past and geographic grouping, the Baltic States each have a very different character, language, and currency. They are sparsely populated countries featuring well-preserved medieval cities, a young population and the main cities offer great cultural opportunities and all the modern amenities. Although they are situated close to Scandinavia and share a similar landscape to Sweden and Finland, they boast a lifestyle that is more reminiscent of Italy or Spain. Rich in culture and history, these venerable old capital cities are waiting to be discovered.
Slowly and quietly these countries have been developing their tourism industry and although tourists from the North America may be yet to uncover these treasures, European tourists are flocking to these affordable, safe, relatively inexpensive and historic yet constantly reinventing themselves destinations. English is widely spoken in the larger cities of each country.
Known for its cobblestone streets, long history and stunning gothic architecture, Tallinn is fast becoming the new "it" place for quick weekend getaways from London. A city with a thriving nightclub scene, uber stylish bars and funky restaurants, is young, dynamic and very in fashion right now. This 12th century city by the sea has been designated a UNESCO world heritage site, and for good reason -- it is one of the best preserved medieval towns in northern Europe without architectural influences from each of the countries that ruled it through the centuries - Denmark, Sweden, Germany and Russia.
Riga, Latvia's capital is a cosmopolitan city with nightlife to match. Despite being heavily damaged by bombing raids during World War, architecture buffs will note that Riga still has the largest number of Art Nouveau buildings in Europe and the center of the Old Town is also listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The www.rigathisweek.lv website is about as sophisticated a city information website as you can find Â¿ and all in English. It includes events, dining, museums, accommodations, transport information, sports and a getting out of town section. Another equally informative and well designed website is www.virtualriga.com -- check out the 360 degree panorama videos of key Riga sites. There's a great section on Money and Prices of Goods, which shows you that a hamburger costs a dollar, a beer is 58 cents and a Snickers bar only 40 cents which would have to make this capital among the cheapest in Europe. A few US cities could learn a bit about city websites from their Latvian counterparts.
Vilnius is the capital and heart of Lithuania. Almost 700 years old, it once again features a combination of eastern and western architecture with monumental buildings, palaces, museums, and a robust nightlife. It was one of the largest cities in Europe during the 16th Century and a crucial part of the vast Polish empire that stretched between the Baltic and Black Seas. Often referred to as the "Baltic Jerusalem", the city enshrines remnants of ancient Lithuanian, Jewish and Polish cultures which can yet be found in the old town. Like its sister capital cities of Riga and Tallinn, the Old Town is also a protected UNESCO World Heritage site.
Many tour companies, based both locally, in the UK and in the US offer tours that take in the highlights and/or capitals of all three countries, providing a great introduction to the region.
Sophisticated Traveler (tel. 408/229-1950; www.s-traveler.com) runs a number of Baltic States tours taking in the highlights of the Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania. Their eight-day "Baltic Capitals" package includes airfare to Vilnius from New York and return fro Tallinn, seven-nights accommodations in first class hotels, airport transfers, full breakfast daily, transportation on the ground by a deluxe motorcoach, trains or ferries where required, services of an English/German speaking guide and sightseeing in Vilnius, Trakai, Rundale, Riga, Parnu and Tallinn. Highlights include city tours and visits to historic castles, palaces, cathedrals and Medieval towns. This trip is priced $1,630 for departures on November 9 and 20, 2006 or from $1,789 for travel on September 14, October 12 and December 21, 2006 and $2,006 for departures on June 29, July 6, 13, 20 and 27, and August 3, 10, 17 and 24, 2006. The ten-day "Classic Baltics" tour includes all of the above plus an extra two nights and visits to Tartu and Sigulda. It is priced from $1870 (November 11 and December 1, 2006) and goes up to $2296 for departures on June 9, 16 and 23, 2006. Add approximately $51 from Washington DC, $56 from Atlanta, $113 from Miami and $149 from Detroit or Chicago. Other departure cities are available on request. Departure taxes and fuel surcharges of between $150 and 295 are additional.
Gate 1 Travel (tel. 800/682-3333; www.gate1travel.com) has a ten-day Estonia, Lativia and Lithuania trip that also takes in a bit of neighboring Poland. Priced from $1,979 per person based on twin share, the tour visits Tallinn, Riga, Vilnius and Warsaw. The package includes airfare from New York to Tallinn and from Warsaw back to New York, airline fuel surcharges, eight-nights first class accommodations (two at the Grand Hotel, Tallinn, two at the Riga Hotel in Riga, two at the New Vilnius Hotel in Vilnius and two at the Holiday Inn in Warsaw), all transfers, daily breakfasts, seven dinners, sightseeing per itinerary in modern air-conditioned motor coach, services of English-speaking tour escort/manager and local guides in all major cities plus all entrance fees. Highlights include visits to the Toompea Castle in Tallinn, St. Peter and Paul Church in Vilnius and Lazienki Park in Warsaw. This price is valid fro the September 29, 2006 departure or pay $200 more for the September 8, 2006 departure. Travel in June 16, July 7 and August 4, 2006 is $2,399. Other departure cities available for additional cost.
For a very different roadside view of the Baltic States, why not "easyride" it on an Edelweiss Bike Tour (www.edelweissbike.com). Travel along highways, country roads and through small villages in the most stunning regions of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania plus make a side trip out of the Baltics to St Petersburg, Russia. This 11-day vacation features eight riding days and starts and finishes in Riga. It includes nine-nights accommodation, nine breakfasts, seven dinners and rental of a BMW motorcycle (prices vary according to which model you choose). Departure dates are July 5 and August 16, 2006 and the total distance you will travel is 1200 miles at an average of 150 to 250 miles per day. Rest days are spent in St. Petersburg, Riga and Tallinn. Travel light because there is no service van for luggage. A visa is required for Russia. Prices start at $2,720 on a BMW F650 CS Scarver or F650 GS and go up to $3,770 on a BMW K1200S. International airfare to Riga is additional.
Baltic Tours (www.baltictours.com) is a locally based tour company offering a variety of short getaways, day tours and longer packages, mainly from Vilnius. Their nine-day "Amber Trail through the Baltic States" tours depart on May 20 and August 19, 2006. The package includes eight-nights accommodation in five-star hotels, breakfasts and dinners daily, comfortable bus with an English speaking tour guide during all trip, a ferry ride, museum entrances, ecological and state taxes. The tour departs from Vilnius and visits the cities of Rumsiskes, Kaunas, Pazaislis, Trakai, Klapeda, Neringa, Palanga Siauliai, Bauska, Rundale, Riga, Sigulda, Turaida and Tallinn and is priced at $1,118 per person. International airfare is additional. Their three-night Vilnius weekend getaway land-only package is priced from $260 and includes accommodation in a four-star bed and breakfast. They also offer moderately priced spa and wellness packages, discounted hotel accommodation, apartments for rent, and day tours.
Vilnius is a city steeped in Jewish history -- from humble beginnings in the middle ages to horrific atrocities under Nazi occupation during World War II. There are a number of significant Jewish sites to visit in the city, including the ghetto areas, synagogues, cemeteries and museums. An excellent resource for these is the In Your Pocket website (www.inyourpocket.com/lithuania/vilnius/en/category?cid=55567&chid=229). There are also numerous Jewish heritage tours. A local travel agency named Visit Lithuania (www.lithuanianholidays.lt/index2.php?id=51) runs a "Jewish Heritage Trail" tour which is a seven-day package that takes in Vilnius, Kaunas, Trakai, Ponar and Riga. It includes six-nights accommodation in standard class hotels (superior class upgrades are available), transportation between cities, sightseeing and admission fees and is priced from $622 per person if there are five people in a group or $1,065 if there are only two.
Totally unrelated to Jewish heritage but run by the same company, Visit Lithuania, are several "stag" and "hen" weekend packages - and for those who don't speak British English, that means bachelor and bachelorette parties. Two night land-only packages that include airport transfers, accommodations, daily breakfast and visits to bars, nightclubs and casinos until dawn each day are priced from $96 per person based on twin share. Upgrade to a superior class package from $174. Three night packages start from $132. And with beers priced at around $1.50, there could be some rowdy groups sharing the bars and nightclubs with you. There's also another site that specializes in these guys or gals party weekends - www.balticstags.com so both Vilnius and Riga must be a popular singles destination.
Est Tours (tel. +44/870-930-4977; www.est-tours.co.uk) is a UK based company that specializes in weekend getaways to Tallinn and Vilnius. They offer packages that include direct flights plus three-nights hotel accommodation (extra nights can be added), breakfast daily, all taxes and fees. They can also arrange pub tours and a weekend guide on arrival for additional cost. Tallinn three-night weekends, flying Estonian Air and staying at Tatari 53 Hotel, a short walk from the Old Town is priced from $312 per person twin share. A Vilnius three-night weekend package flying Air Baltic from London Gatwick, with accommodation at the Centrum UniqueStay Hotel, breakfast daily and all taxes and fees is also priced from $312 per person.
They also run a variety of themed Estonian short breaks, including a "Classical Spa" package which gives you a two days in Tallinn and two days in the Spa town of Kuressaare. It includes three-nights accommodation in Tallinn in a standard class hotel, two-nights accommodation at the Spa hotel in Kuressaare, breakfast daily, unlimited use of the Spa facilities, airport transfers both in Tallinn and Kuressaare and the domestic flights between Tallinn and Kuressaare. From November 1 to March 31, this package is priced from $347, and the price goes up to $433 from April 1 to October 31, 2006. International Airfare is additional.
More spa getaways are on offer from Baltic Travel Company (tel. +44/870-753-7747; www.baltictravelcompany.com). This London based company, has luxurious spa packages in Latvia at the lovely coastal resort of Jurmala at the Hotel Jurmala Spa, so that you can relax by the seaside and take the shortÂ¿15 mile trip intoÂ¿the capital of Riga if you are looking forÂ¿some city life. Two night packages are priced from $566 per person based on twin share and include round-trip airfare from London Heathrow to Riga on British Airways, transfers from Riga Airport to the hotel in Jurmala and return, accommodation at the Hotel Jurmala Spa, daily breakfast at the hotel, all taxes and most importantly twoÂ¿spa treatments (valued at approximately $90). Choose from indulgences like 90-minute massages with hot volcanic stones, 90-minute aromatherapy massages or several others.
InÂ¿Estonia, a two night spa package on the peaceful island of Saaremaa is priced from $866 per person. It includes round-trip airfare from London, two-nights accommodation at the outstanding Georg Ots Spa Hotel, breakfast daily, airport transfers and two deluxe spa treatments. In Lithuania, enjoy a luxurious spa break at the five-star spa packages at the Le Meridien Hotel situated at a peaceful lake resort outside of Vilnius.Â¿It includes round-trip airfare from London, two-nights accommodation, breakfast daily, airport transfers and two deluxe spa treatments. The facilities and service are first rate and the picturesque surroundings are sure to relax you. If you would like to combine a spa break with a city break or extended holiday, they can tailor a trip for you.
Airfares to the Baltic capitals from the US vary greatly in price depending on season. Airfares between now and the end of March (considered low season) from New York range from as low as $314 to around $500 with suppliers like 1800 Cheapseats (www.1800cheapseats.com) and 1800Fly Europe (www.1800flyeurope.com). You may have to fly via Canada of another European city to get the best deals. Fares in late spring and into the summer months (peak season) range from around $700 to $800, once again depending on route and airline. Discount airlines Ryanair (www.ryanair.co.uk) and EasyJet (www.easyjet.co.uk) both fly from the UK to Riga and EasyJet also flies to Tallinn, so if you can afford the extra couple of hours to fly via London, you may save big on airfare. Alternatively you can catch ferries to Tallinn and Riga (and various other smaller cities like Liepaja and Ventspils in Latvia) from various ports in Sweden, Finland and Germany.