”Go, go, now, now, quick, quick,” screams the middle-aged attendant in broken English before trying to shove me through the heavy iron door of something which resembles a nuclear bunker … except inside it’s -115 degrees Celsius.
Along with four elderly hotel guests and a fellow journalist, I am dressed in the mandatory costume – swimsuit, woolly hat, woolly gloves and thick socks. Not for the first time I wonder why I got out of my warm bed at 7am for this cold room therapy treatment which promises to alleviate aching joints and arthritis through a “pleasant burning biting feeling.”
I’m on a spa trip to Estonia and Latvia, and am currently in the clinic-like SPA Estonia in the seaside town of Pärnu, two hours south of Tallinn. A town of 45,000, Pärnu is filling up with large glass four-star modern hotels as it tries to establish itself as a “spa destination”.
The town still has a hidden charm with peaceful parks, a long sandy beach, never ending forests, and few international visitors; I can’t help but wonder if one day their spa blitz will work and it will become the next “Prague” to visit. But they are not there yet and the town is still relatively uncommercialized.
Just as I’m about to brave the cold room, one of the little old ladies tells me that I shouldn’t have washed my skin or drunk liquids twelve hours before the treatment and definitely should have removed my contact lenses. Something the staff “forgot” to tell me when the treatment was booked.
I cannot help but wonder if this is due to a language communication problem, a lack of interest in my wellbeing or if it was just an inadvertent mistake. But a mistake that could prove costly if something should go wrong with such an “extreme” treatment.
Pärnu offers cheap spa treatments in modern, clean and airy spas but somehow that X factor is missing. When you book your treatment, you are given a room number and enter an empty room before a white-clothed therapist enters … it’s a bit like going to visit a doctor or dentist but for a much more pleasant treatment.
What’s often missing is a smile, an explanation in English of the treatment and a personal touch. The therapists are professional and punctual but the attitude is very much that they are there to do their job, to do the treatment as per the specifications and in the required amount of time and that’s as close as they’re going to get to you. The beauty is being able to doze off and really relax during the treatment without any fear of being immersed in conversation.
I first set foot on Estonian soil in 1999 when the country still had very much an Eastern Bloc feel to it. Western goods were still a luxury and the only foreigners were the Finns who came across on the two-hour ferry ride from Helsinki to stock up on cheap alcohol and cigarettes.
Eight years later Tallinn harbour has been dramatically transformed… a modern and clean ferry terminal welcomes the hordes of Scandinavian visitors arriving on the Tallink Silja ferries from Stockholm and Helsinki. Outside an orderly queue of taxis (also owned by Tallink Silja), with drivers who are not conversational but who are reasonably honest and use the meter, wait for business.
Nobody hassles you, nobody tries to sell you extravagant taxi rides and there is a distinctive scent of newly acquired money in the air. The derelict warehouses, empty cargo containers and wasteland which surrounded the harbour in the past have been replaced by shiny glass buildings, tourist shops and swanky new hotels.
The fairytale-like medieval Old Town with its picturesque squares, winding cobble-stoned streets and colourful houses is now thronged with tourists. As I check in to the sparkling new Tallink Spahotel with its fabulous sauna and water-park area, I spot Swedes, Norwegians and Finns, lured by cheaper spa prices and value-for-money cruise packages.
Checking out the hairdressing salon and spa in the hotel, I am impressed by the brand new and clean facilities, the prices are also around 30 percent cheaper than similar treatments in Sweden. And I have to admit that my haircut in this salon is better than any I have had during my four years living in Sweden. And for half the price. It’s a good idea, however, to pre-book treatments to avoid disappointment as the slots fill up quickly.
Twenty-four hours in Tallinn is the perfect length of time to explore the city’s beautiful Old Town, dine al fresco in one of the lively squares and to enjoy the hotel’s excellent spa facilities. After that it’s a two-hour bus trip to Pärnu which costs 120 krooni (70 Swedish kronor) one way. Passing by 130 km of trees (around 46 percent of the country is covered by forests) and little else in between, you really sense how sparsely populated the country of 1.3 million people is.
The first thing that strikes you about Pärnu in the summertime is the laid-back, holiday feeling of this “Sleepy Hollow” town. With its wooden-fronted villas, green parks, long sandy beach and small and scattered bars, Pärnu is in the throes of change. The most obvious example being the new spa hotels and the much loved EU–funded beach promenade, boasting state of the art lights, trendy benches and tasteful water fountains.
I check in to the Tervise Paradiis hotel, a massive glass building perched close to the beach and housing the country’s largest water-park and an impressive spa. The rooms, like many of the new hotels in Estonia, are fresh, modern, clean and spacious.
We head to the spa and sign up for four days of treatments – from 90-minute hot stone massages and health capsule treatments for around 400 kronor, not to mention facials for around 250 kronor as well as morning Nordic stick walking and aquarobic sessions. Again, the staff are professional, the facilities are clean and modern and the prices are perfect.
Pärnu is a place to go to relax, so don’t expect round-the-clock nightlife and much entertainment. If the weather is good, everyone heads to the beach by bike or foot where there is kite surfing, swimming and beach volleyball. Think relaxation, family holidays, girlie spa trips.
But even if it’s crammed during the Estonian holiday peak in July-August, you don’t have a feeling of being in a kindergarten as the kids are like their parents – well behaved, silent, reserved and respectful.
Once sufficiently relaxed and revitalized, finish up your Baltic experience in the Latvian capital, Riga. Even though it is only three hours by bus from Pärnu, the two towns, and countries, are worlds apart.
After spending one week in Estonia and acclimatizing to local habits, I was taken aback by a smiling, enthusiastic receptionist at Waldemar’s Hotel who not only told me the breakfast times, pointed out the restaurant and offered a city map marking the hotel location in perfect English, but also wished us “a nice day.”
Walking into the town to revisit the Occupation Museum and getting lost on the way, a local man simply said “follow me, I’ll show you”. Together with some great cocktails at the Sky Bar for 30 kronor a pop, some serious shopping in the city’s trendy boutiques and great sushi, Riga is the perfect end to a Baltic Sea cruise trip.
As I embarked the Tallink Silja Festival ship for the 18 hour trip back to Stockholm, I felt physically refreshed and mentally relaxed and more culturally versed in the Latvian and Estonian cultures. A combined cruise/spa trip is perfect relaxation therapy … all year round.
What to do outside of the spa
– Try bear sausages at the Olde Hansa Restaurant.
– A walk through the Old Town.
– Visit the Kumu Art Museum, 2008 European Museum of the Year.
– Shopping in the Foorum, Kaubamaja and Stockmann shopping centers. But note that the prices are not so much cheaper than Sweden and you find most of the same stores that you find in Sweden.
– Dinner at trendy and classic Restaurant Ö with a fusion of Estonian modern cuisine and traditional local products.
– Get merry at the Scotland Yard Bar with its huge fish tank and police uniform-clad doormen.
– More information on Tallinn: www.tourism.tallinn.ee
– White Beach Golf: 18-hole course with 450 krooni (268 kronor) green fee. Don’t expect a big commercial golf course with a fancy club house, this one is small, quiet and unpretentious.
– Villa Andrapoff: the previous holiday playground for top Soviet leadership, it’s now a hotel which owns White Beach Golf and a stone’s throw from a secluded sandy beach. The sauna is inside a former Soviet cinema.
– Day trip to Kihnu Island for a more traditional Estonian experience.
– Hop on a bike and explore the town. Pärnu’s pretty flat, so perfect for cycling.
– Take a day trip to Tartu, Tallinn or Riga, all within a 2-3 hour drive.
– Try “Bogshoeing”: walking through the boglands of Soomaa National Park.
– Dine at the Ammende Villa: the former home of a local merchant and hunter, this place has character and atmosphere from stuffed bears and eagles to romantic, candlelit, solitary dinners in a small tower with a personal waiter.
– Sample rustic and wholesome local and Russian food at Postipoiss – an old posthouse on the Tallinn to Riga route.
– More information on Pärnu: www.visitparnu.com
– Estonia: www.visitestonia.com
Alannah Eames on the Latvian capital: Riga – Strangely unfamiliar.
More information: www.rigatourism.lv
Tallink Silja offer daily sailings from Stockholm to Tallinn and Riga. Book just the ferry crossing or check out their spa packages and tailor-made trips. You can also take your own car on the ferry.
Local bus companies run regular services from Tallinn to Pärnu and from Tallinn/Pärnu to Riga. Check times and prices at hotel reception/tourist centre.