Ged Cleugh is one of our Producers. His never-ending research into the world's top tourist resorts has left him able to recite the hotels of Europe at will. A keen snowboarder, Ged takes to the slopes each season working his way through the world's finest resorts in search of "big air".
Lithuania, ‘Land of Rain’. Well not in my experience. With two previous trips under my belt and on both occasions rarely a cloud in the sky, this summer I took the somewhat rare step for a British Holidaymaker and booked a weeks summer holiday on Lithuania’s Baltic Coast.
What coast you may ask. Well in fact there is a near seventy kilometre strip of weathered sandy beach that stretches from the border with Latvia in the north to Russia in the south. Peppered along it are a string of sleepy fishing villages and a trio of interesting resorts, namely Palanga, Klaipeda and Nida.
Access to the region is a definite case of cost over convenience. There are no direct flights from the UK to Palanga Airport. Instead I opted for Ryanair’s scheduled service to Kaunas, the nation’s second city and a mere couple of hours from Palanga by hire car. The connecting highway is new, swift and reasonably scenic, but where is the fun in that? There is a splendid road along the gorgeous meandering banks of the Nemunas River south of Kaunas. A couple of castles break up the drive, and if you make the break north at Jurbarkas then the stretch of road through the pine forests is equally exhilarating. This is one of the most pleasant drives I’ve experienced on the continent, and it didn’t add more than half an hour or so to the direct route along the as-functional-as-it-sounds ‘A1’.
Palanga is to Lithuania what Blackpool is to the UK. Fun, sea and sand in spades. The town of around eighteen thousand souls swells in the summer to a burgeoning throng of scantily clad beachgoers, all vying for space on the eighteen kilometer stretch of sand. As you’d expect the town itself is choc-full of souvenir shops, hotels, restaurants and bars. The main drag can be just that, masses of holidaymakers jostling for a route through to the beach, but despite this bottleneck a mere road or two away Palanga opens into an airy, spacious and pleasantly relaxing resort town. There are extensive pine forests and dunes to explore and the best way to do so is by bike. These are easily picked up from one of scores of hire joints, it’s a cheap-as-chips day out and rather healthy to boot. Something you’ll no doubt welcome given the weight of traditional Lithuanian food. Saddled up, a good starting point is the Botanical Gardens. These were designed by French architect Eduardo Andre are well tended with rare plants, a pretty lake, the splendid neo-Renaissance Tiskeviciai Palace and an Amber Museum. From the gardens the forests and dunes stretch along the coast on well tended paths as far as you dare venture.
Accommodation wise you’ll find the full spectrum of pensions, B&B’s, hotels and five star luxury. Be warned though, they will all fill up in the peak summer months so do get your booking in early. I stayed at Palanga Hotel and Spa, an award winning nautical themed building a stones throw from the beach. The rooms are sleek, stylish and airy replete with all mod cons. The floor to ceiling windows spill light, yet the surrounding pine trees retain the sense of privacy. You’ll notice the appropriate use of amber in the colour scheme, and all rooms come with a balcony. Guests have use of a spa, outside pool and ground floor restaurant of the same name. ‘Palanga’ is spacious and tastefully decorated with a European menu and an expansive outside terrace. As one would expect seafood features heavily on the menu. I opted for a mixed fish grill for two and was presented with a tasty, perfectly cooked combination of mussels, king prawns, scallops salmon, tuna, halibut and sea bass. It was as tasty a seafood grill as I’ve ever had, and a wonderful introduction of Lithuanian cuisine.
Dusk brings Palanga to life. The endless bars and restaurants along Jonas Basanavicius Street, or the main street crank up the volume as the neon takes over. You can eat a couple of courses with wine or beer for well under ten euro a head, a rare bargain in Europe. The bars too are reasonable, though as ever you will pay inflated prices in clubs which open long into the night.
Klaipeda is the third largest city in Lithuania and about a twenty minute drive south of Palanga at the mouth of the Curonian Lagoon. It has spent large parts of its history jostling between battling empires owing to its importance as a (usually) ice free Baltic Port. The German legacy is the most obvious with many Fachwerk style buildings throughout the town. They are big on jazz in this part of the Baltic, and one place definitely worth a mention is ‘Kurpiai’ restaurant. It offers live jazz most evenings (cover charge applies) and the food is really tasty. It fills out with a knowing local crowd, eager to chat across the shared tables and share their travel tips with you.
Accommodation is Klaipeda is also plentiful. Hotel Klaipeda is an imposing modern building adjacent to the old town. It is part of a sprawling complex of contemporary bars and restaurants. The rooms are modern and spacious offering spectacular views of the port and lagoon. The hotel also offers a wide ranging entertainment from ‘Honolulu’ a fully equipped bowling alley with arcade games, pool and darts to a casino and even a nightclub. Food wise there are three restaurants to pick from; the one that gets my recommendation is Viva LaVita, a cocktail bar that serves up food with an exotic twist. The piece de resistance is the view, from the twentieth floor its pretty jaw-dropping, especially during sunset.
Klaipeda mainly serves as the gateway to the incredible Curonian Spit, a narrow sand bank that stretches down the Baltic Coast to Russia. Connecting ferries are frequent and very cheap, especially if you are on foot or cycle. Of the one hundred kilometer spit, around half belongs to Lithuania. The dunes rise out of the sea majestically, so tall in fact that they are the highest drifting sand dunes in Europe. Consequently much of the spit is protected (you’ll have a pay a entrance fee if you want to take your car, but it’s worth it.) as a national park. It was added to UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites in 2000 and given the conservation efforts it would be foolish to hike into the restricted areas as there are plenty of regulated places to enjoy the dunes.
Day trips from Klaipeda by bus or bike are easily arranged through your hotel. I opted to stay on the spit in Nida. This fishing village has blossomed into a quiet tourist town. Rooms are at a premium so book in advance, or contact the local tourist information centre who can help arrange home stays.
Getting up close to the sand dunes is what Nida is all about. Throngs head for the Baltic Coast beaches but you wont have to travel far to find your own spot of seclusion. You may well notice that the tourists hit the beach, while the regular visitors hide in the adjacent dunes, the reason is the surprisingly chilling winds that whip down the coastline even on the hottest days.
On the opposite side of the Spit are the lagoon beaches. Wind and crowd free, these get my vote. Plus, you can walk to your own private area in under ten minutes from the centre of Nida. The waters are great for swimming and are whole lot calmer making it a safer option If you are travelling with younger kids. For the best view of the dunes you can hire a boat for a trip along the lagoon. There are a couple of traditional wooden vessels called Curonas, these were originally for fishing and with the sails up are a romantic and relaxing voyage along the coast.
Dusk in Nida and not a lot changes. This sleepy destination offers a couple of traditional restaurants and a handful of quiet bars. This place is all about relaxation, and after the hectic all-singing-and-dancing scene of its Baltic Coast neighbours, is welcome respite.
So who would take a summer break to Lithuania’s Baltic Coast? Well I for one would return in a heartbeat. It’s family friendly, pretty, history rich and all mod cons are in place, but most important is the extraordinary value for money you get, especially as the Eurozone’s prices skyrocket.