The heat is on and so is the search for a summer getaway. Estonia, a tiny north European country, could be a 'smart' choice. With its thick forests, vast seas and 1,200 lakes, the tech-savvy nation has a lot to offer to adrenaline junkies as well as nature lovers. Ten reasons why you should explore the country:
1) 20 degrees of separation: Surrounded by the Baltic Sea and proximity to the Atlantic, keeps Estonian summers cool. An average summer day's temperature is around 20 degree celsius and can go up to 30 degree celsius, but that doesn't happen too often. The hottest this country has ever got is at 35 degree celsius -- a breeze for most of us. In the capital Tallinn, the Baltic is never too far for a walk. Summer is the time when flowers bloom in city's numerous parks, a nice place for a lazy picnic. Shopping is a stroll. There are plenty of malls in the city's hotel district and most of them are open from 9am to 9pm.
2) Stay connected: The next best thing to the beautiful summer is connectivity. With 97% cellular penetration and extensive 3G and 4G coverage, Estonia is as connected as it gets. And, it doesn't cost a bomb. Wi-fi is largely free. Hotels, restaurants and even fuel stations, Wifi hot spots are widely spread, covering most public spaces. Guide maps, hotel reservations, museum tickets - anything under the sun is available online. You are never lost in this country.
3) Sea kayaking: Sea kayaking, and canoeing are popular summer sports in Estonia, which is surrounded by the sea on almost three sides. For the beginners, short trips around Tallinn and other coastal towns are recommended. Day-long trips or even longer expeditions are possible along the northern and western coasts. The towns are well connected to Tallinn through rail and bus. Many tour organisers arrange transport on request. Packages normally include equipment and guides. Tour operators can be contacted online. Dugouts, or a long boats carved out of a single log, are a treat. They go back to Stone Age and are worth a try.
4) A jungle out there: It truly is. About half of the Estonian land is forests. Estonians have always been close to nature - an oak tree, in keeping with tradition, is still held sacred. In 2011, Estonian air was voted the cleanest in the world. Take a deep breath and you will know. Hiking, nature walks and bird and wildlife watching come with the territory.
June 24 is the most important summer day in Estonia. St John's Day, or Midsummer Day, marks the end of spring sowing and beginning of the hay-making season. Bonfires are lit on the night of June 23 and people gather around them with families and friends, singing and dancing. Lovers head for forests looking for the elusive fern flower that is said to bloom only that night - a ritual rooted in the fairy tale of Koit (dawn) and Hämarik (dusk) who see each other only once in a year and share a briefest kiss - a symbol, perhaps, of the fleeting moment when dawn meets dusk.
5) Beaver safari: Beavers, the largest of the rodents, burrow on the banks of rivers or lakes. Second only to humans when it comes to reengineering their environment, beavers were once found across Europe until they were hunted close to extinction. Conservation efforts have paid off and Estonia is one of their homes. Beaver-watching trips are held during the day as well as night. Soomaa national park in south-western part of the country is popular for night safaris where these nocturnal animals can be seen by the river.
6) Hook, line and sinker: Fishing is a year-round hobby. Hundreds of rivers, thousands of lakes and 3,800km-long coastline has enough for anglers of all vintages. Anyone can fish with a simple hand line, provided season, sites and restrictions are kept in mind. A brown trout, sea trout, pike and eel are among the fish you will net. Some places and equipment need fishing permits that are easily available online, so is the information on gear and fishing possibilities.
7) A toast to history: For almost all Estonian cities, there is an old town. Swedes, Danes, Germans and Russians, who ruled the Baltic country at different times in history have left their mark on cityscapes. In the heart of Tallinn is the Mediaeval Old Town, a Unesco world heritage site. Gabled houses, gothic spires and cobbled streets, the old town, layered in history, is an architectural maze and gem at the same time. History and modern world make for a delicious combination. Gourmet restaurants, pubs, pizzerias and even dancing clubs operate out of what were once merchant houses and even barns. It is not at many places that one gets to go up an ancient stone-carved staircase leading to a café. Wrapped in a blanket, sipping mulled wine, Tallinn is laid out in all its glory with the sparkling blue of the Baltic lining the horizon. In the university town of Tartu, the oldest of its streets is a pub line, catering to both -- broke students and the posh set. Weekend is a buzz at the country's intellectual capital.
Tallinn, the mediaeval old town.
8) May your bread last: That is unlikely if it is the delicious dark rye bread. The Estonians greeting for bon appetite is throwback to days of frugality but the local cuisine has been enriched by the influence of neighbours and ruling powers. Fish is plentiful. Pork remains the favourite meat, with a side of potatoes and sauerkraut, a German influence but with a distinct Estonian taste. Dairy is one of the biggest exports. Supermarket shelves groan under the weight of cheese, yogurts and milk products. Farmer markets are good place to shop for local meat, meat products, vegetables and fruits. Estonia's forests produce a lot of honey. Kama flour is another staple. A mix of roasted cereals and legumes, it has a nice nutty taste and is best served mixed with yogurt and a layer of fresh plum or strawberry jam.
Beer-brewing has been a serious business for larger islands for a while now. The best beer comes from there, their recipes remain a secret to mainlanders till date but a glug and your in heaven, or at least close to it. Cheers!
9) Song and drama: What is a good holiday without some song and drama? Estonia has plenty on offer. Summer makes otherwise reserved Estonians sing. Choir competitions song festivals and outdoor concerts are held throughout the country. Go online and you are bound to find something to sing about. In Tallinn, they even have a song ground and in Tartu, impromptu gigs, student festivals are a regular feature. Theatre holds a special place. Each year, hundreds of new productions go up on the stage and are very well attended. By the number of theatre-goers, Estonia is one of the leading countries in Europe.
10) Bog-shoeing: If you can walk, you can bog-shoe. Typical to northern hemisphere, a bog is a wetland, loosely a marsh where layers and layers of peat-- remains of tree and plants, and moss, capture small lakes and make walking possible. A bog shoe is like a snow shoe or a miniature boat which is clipped on to a walking shoe. Pick berries on edges of bog or just walk or even take a hike in what otherwise would be inaccessible slushy forests. Bogs are spread widely but the most walkable in Soomaa and Lahemaa national parks. You can even bog-shoe to the Russian border on the south. From a few hours to cottages for overnight stay, tours are available across the country.
Bog-shoeing at Soomaa national park.
Getting there: Tallinn is connected by air to all Scandinavian and most European capitals. Tallinn, which sits on the southern shore of Gulf of Finland, is also a popular cruise destination. Finnish capital Helsinki is just 83k away from the city and a ferry trip takes just two hours.
Staying there: Top-of-the line hotels to budget accommodations - there is something for every pocket. Tallinn has a hotel district close to the city centre. Old Town, too, has hotels and youth hostels. It is possible to stay the night for €13-16. Same for Tartu. B&B are quite common in Estonia and are largely family run. If planning a long stay and travelling in a group, it is better to rent a flat. Camps and caravans, spa hotels and even manor houses are other options.
For accomodation check: http://www.visitestonia.com/en/holiday-accommodation and https://www.likealocalguide.com/tartu
Take a look at the interactive map: http://www.visitestonia.com/en/map-of-estonia?utm_medium=map_est
(The writer was in Estonia on the invitation of Baltic Film and Media School and the Estonian ministry of foreign affairs.)