Independent Baltic States shine as vacation destinations

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senior travel talkIt’s been a quarter century since Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia regained their independence with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Today, those thriving democratic nations along the Baltic Sea have strong ties to the West and are small gems waiting to be discovered by travelers.

Estonia, the northernmost of the three, has cultural ties to Scandinavia. The capital, Tallinn, is located on the Gulf of Finland, a two-hour ferry ride from Helsinki. Tallinn has a beautifully preserved Old Town where cobblestone streets are dotted with medieval churches and grand merchants’ homes as well as restaurants, shops and galleries. In the summer, Old Town Square is the site of concerts and in December, it’s transformed into a Christmas market.

While many of them are tiny, Estonia has about 1,500 islands where activities include bird watching, canoeing, sailing and fishing. The largest, Saaremaa, is the site of majestic Kuressaare Castle, built in the 14th century. Tartu, a university city, is a cultural center that exudes a bohemian spirit.

Latvia is in the middle of the Baltic States. Its capital, Riga, built on the Daugava River, latvia.mapinspires superlatives. A poll of “USA TODAY” readers voted Riga the “prettiest European city.” Among the must-see attractions are the intricately designed art nouveau apartment buildings along Albert Street; the vast Central Market housed in World War I Zeppelin hangars; and the 13th century Riga Cathedral, in the city’s Old Town. In addition to historic sites, Old Town is a great place to experience Riga’s nightlife.

Forests cover nearly half of Latvia, and there are plenty of places to get in touch with the natural world. At Gauja National Park, about an hour northeast of Riga, visitors will find opportunities for hiking and cycling on scenic trails and canoeing along the Gauja River as well as castles, churches and even an underground bunker built during the Soviet era for use in the event of a nuclear war. In the winter, the park’s slopes become a destination for skiers.

Southernmost of the three Baltic States, Lithuania is on the border with Poland. Its capital, Vilnius, has an Old Town that’s one of the largest in Central and Eastern Europe, with more than 1,500 buildings in a variety of architectural styles, including the Gothic St. Anne’s Church. For a panoramic view of Old Town, climb or take the funicular railway to Gediminas’ Tower, named after the founder of Vilnius and a symbol of Lithuanian independence.

There’s much to see outside of Lithuania’s capital. Trakai Castle, located on an island on a lake, is a popular day trip from Vilnius. The Curonian Spit, a 60-mile strip of sand dunes and pine forests along the Baltic Sea, is one of Europe’s most unique natural features. And the Hill of Crosses in north-central Lithuania is a remarkable manmade site. Since the 19th century, visitors have left thousands of crosses there, many with photos of loved ones or personal messages.

For help planning a trip to one or more of the Baltic States, which could even include a cruise to give you a taste of the region, contact your travel agent.

By Lucie Giguere, an agent and office manager of Travel Leaders/Travel Advisors International at 204 Front St. in Lincoln. Contact her at (401) 725-1234 or lucie@taitrips.com.

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