Recently, my husband and I participated in Unique World Cruises’ whirlwind fam of the Baltic states, visiting Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Independent of Soviet rule since 1991, these small countries have made strides toward becoming excellent tourist destinations.
Our tour, Treasures of the Baltics, provided two-night stays in each of the three capital cities Talinn, Riga and Vilnius.
We met in Tallinn, Estonia’s picturesque capital, a 20-minute flight from Helsinki. Tallinn’s Old Town is a treasure-trove of history with a well-preserved medieval wall and towers, cobblestone streets and spire-topped churches.
Traveling by comfortable coach from Tallinn to Riga, the capital of Latvia, we crossed rolling countryside, forests and farmland. Riga, the largest of the Baltic capitals, is fast-moving and cosmopolitan. Many of its architecturally significant buildings have been beautifully restored. Its historic Old Town, dominated by steeples, is filled with shops and restaurants. En route to Lithuania, we toured restored Rundale Palace and briefly stopped at the Hill of Crosses, a symbol of Lithuanian nationalism. Our final destination was Vilnius, Lithuania’s bustling capital. Its modern history is poignant with reminders of the huge Jewish population lost during World War II. Vilnius’ Old Town is the largest in Eastern Europe and is on UNESCO’s list of protected sites. From Tallinn to Vilnius, we drove about 400 miles.
Tourism appears to be thriving in the Baltic States. According to our Estonian guide, Estonia has received 3 million visitors so far this year, most of them Finnish. Tourism represents 15% of Estonia’s economy, and 26% of city jobs are tourism-related.
So far this year, Estonia has received 140,000 cruise-ship visitors. During our stay, Tallinn’s Old Town was full of Holland America passengers.
Our guide noted that Tallinn also is courting conference travel.
Latvia’s tourism has increased during the past two years, in part because of Riga’s 800th anniversary celebration.
Irish airline, Ryanair, plans to begin flights to Lithuania, its first destination in the Baltic States.
According to local newspapers, Great Britain has successfully sold the Baltics as an alternative to trips canceled due to flooding in Central Europe.
Each state has kept its own currency. Estonia has the kroon (EEK), at an exchange rate of US$1=16.02 EEK. Latvia’s monetary unit is the lats (LVL), US$1=.60 lati. Lithuania uses the litas (LTL), US$1=3.53 lity. Dollars can be exchanged at banks, hotels and airports. Unused currency is not refundable but it can be exchanged in banks against other Baltic currencies.
Credit cards are widely accepted and ATMs are available. Our guide said that travelers’ checks could be problematic, and we found that a plentiful supply of U.S. $1 bills was useful.
All hotels on our tour were recently constructed or remodeled and were within walking distance of areas of greatest tourist interest. In Tallinn, we stayed at the four-star Grand Hotel Tallinn. The rate per night for a standard double was $149.
In Riga, our hotel was a three-star high-rise, the Reval Hotel Latvia, at a rate of $130.
In Vilnius, our hotel was the recently opened Holiday Inn, at a rate of $165. Hotel rates include VAT and buffet breakfast.
All of the hotels offered nonsmoking rooms and fitness facilities. Most hotel employees, waiters and shopkeepers spoke some English. Many restaurants offered multilingual menus.
Each country provided its own guide. All were knowledgeable and had good command of the English language.
Although we were advised to be alert to pickpockets, we encountered no problems and consider this a very safe destination.
Travel agents should know that U.S. citizens visiting the Baltic States need valid passports, but no visas.
Our group was advised to drink bottled water, which was readily available.
The cities we visited were a shopper’s paradise offering linens, leather goods, knitted articles, pottery, wood carvings and, in Latvia and Lithuania, amber jewelry.
This weeklong trip is usually offered as an optional post-cruise extension. The tour includes a trans-Atlantic flight to Tallinn and return from Vilnius, airport transfers, accommodations in rooms with twin beds and private baths, breakfast and dinner daily, welcome and farewell dinners in local restaurants, touring by deluxe motorcoach, sightseeing tours and local guides.
Rates range from $899 to $999.
Call Unique World Cruises at 800-669-0757.
Web site: www.uniqueworldcruises.com.
Gayle Christensen is a travel agent with Alamo World Travel in Alamo, Calif.