From The Sunday Times
January 14, 2007
Baltic beauty: basking on Lithuania's coast
Still haven’t found a beach? Andrew Quested tries something completely differentAfter decades of being knocked from pillar to post, surviving in the shadow of history’s most oppressive moustaches, and various other miscellaneous hardships and humiliations, Lithuania has wound up being the largest of the Baltic states, but having the least Baltic sea frontage. Ripped off! The mere 60 miles of Lithuanian coast, however, should not be overlooked. Geography, creativity and something that can only be described as Lithuanianity have conspired to leave Europe’s quirkiest little country with mischievously good beachy bits.
You want a whey-hey-hey beach party with a cast of extras from Baywatch? No problem. You want to kick back in a seaside shanty and buy smoked fish from a man with a smoked face? Step this way. Or maybe you just want to stroll on a squeaky beach until your own footsteps drive you styrofoam-insane? You can do that too. And here’s the best bit: if you’re not sure what you want, these various options are so close together that you can easily flit between them.
So you don’t even have to make up your mind... apart from the “going to Lithuania for a beach holiday” bit.
Such variety is possible because two-thirds of the Lithuanian coastline is shadowed by the Curonian Spit — a long, thin strip of dunes pinned down by hand-planted pines. The spit originates in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, to the south, thrusts up along the Lithuanian coast and comes “that close” to touching the mainland, but doesn’t actually make it. (A five-minute ferry ride bridges the gap.) In effect, it extends the Lithuanian coast by about 80 miles and adds a string of calm lagoon beaches that are just a short flip-flop away from vast, untouched sea beaches on the other side.
The spit is too narrow to support any real development, but it has sprouted a few villages and towns big enough to offer the essentials for a laid-back holiday: good services and accommodation, not much to do, and beautiful environs to not do it in. Pottering about seems to be the most popular pastime here, but it is often interrupted by sitting about in pleasant cafes, restaurants or waterside gardens, enjoying good food and a cool drink.
On the mainland, a half-hour drive from the point where the spit almost touches, is Palanga — party central for Lithuanians in summer. As warm weather approaches, locals move into broom cupboards and rent rooms out to holidaymakers, and the place goes bonkers. The beach and promenade are constantly swarming with mildly delirious and arrestingly beautiful people, making Palanga a good choice for those who like the lively burble and fizz of constant action, and don’t mind the high probability of tripping over one gorgeous, scantily clad body while trying not to look at another. Try-hard trendies come here to show off in the sun, cool off in the water and bask in each other’s marvellous presence. It’s all very Dolce Banana.
Palanga offers a quieter side. too. Deviate from the maindrag and you’ll discover the beautiful botanical gardens and an amber museum housed in an old mansion. It also has a few tucked-away cafes and bars that have, despite what can seem like a moronslaught on the main street, carved out their own quirky niche and offer a subtly spellbinding atmosphere.
Regardless of which beach you choose to sift through your toes, the summer climate on the Lithuanian coast is almost always superb. The sun won’t fry you and the Baltic Sea, filled as it is with low-salt glacial runoff, is mountain-stream cool and fresh. So you won’t go home looking like a cooked and salted prawn.
Page 2: travel brief
Getting there: Air Baltic (00 370 5-235 6000, www.airbaltic.com) flies to Vilnius from Gatwick and Dublin. FlyLAL (252 5555, www.flylal.com) flies there from Gatwick and Shannon, and once a week from Dublin to Palanga. Fares start at £70. Ryanair (0871 246 0000, www.ryanair.com) flies to Kaunas, Lithuania’s second city, from Stansted, Liverpool and Dublin; from £54. Buses run from Vilnius and Kaunas to the port city of Klaipeda — from which a ferry shuttles passengers to the Curonian Spit for about 50p — and direct to Palanga.
Where to stay: in Palanga, it doesn’t get much better than the five-star Palanga Hotel (00 370 4-604 1414, www.palangahotel.lt), a looming luxury cruise ship of a building moored in the forest just 50yd from the beach and a five-minute walk from all the action; a double costs £100 in high season. Or there’s the cosier Vila Ramybe (605 4124, www.vilaramybe.lt), a family-run guesthouse with one of the best bars and cafes in town; doubles from £60.
In Nida, on the Curonian Spit, Vila Banga (695 1139, www.nidosbanga.lt) offers thatched-roofed fishing-village charm, with clean, simply furnished doubles from £56 in high season. Or try Nidus (695 2001, www.nidus.lt), a subtly stylish hotel, midway between the lagoon and sea beaches; doubles from £70.
Where to eat: in Palanga, you can feast on fish at Zuvine (604 8070), where a belt-bursting meal with wine will cost about £15pp.
In Nida, Eserine (695 2757) is the place to try local fish; about £20pp.