Pampered in the Park
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HOSPITALITY in a grand manner . . . and also in an exclusive and very special manor, set in a national park in a wild and wonderful part of a small, addictive country we are sure to hear a lot more of.
After a couple of days revisiting the delights of Tallinn, ten years after my first visit to the delightful capital of Estonia, we headed off into the countryside, in the general direction of the Russian border.
I was well aware of some amazing contrasts in a country that on the one hand celebrates it's ancient heritage and picturesque, medieval past, yet is one of the world's leading countries when it comes to internet-based infrastructure, boasting almost blanket coverage with mostly-free WiFi in trains, buses and even the most out-of-the way places, and that Estonian chaps invented Skype.
But all I knew of the small Baltic country's interior is that a good quarter of it is designated nature reserve, a lot of it is forest and marsh, with more than 1,000 lakes and many more thousands of streams and rivers; and that it is teeming with wildlife, from mice to moose and most things in between, including deer, beaver, lynx, wild boar, brown bear and even wolves; and it's also a birdwatchers' paradise.
The Lahemaa National Park I travelled into mirrors all those facets, along with a well-stocked nature's larder of berries and mushrooms, but is also has an extra dimension . . . it came as a great surprise at one point to emerge from a dense, moss-cloaked and moist pine forest to realise we were almost on the coast, and a fascinating one at that, with cliffs, dunes, sheltered coves and mile upon mile of glorious, unspoiled sand beaches.
Lahemma translates as Land of Bays and during the long, bleak years of Soviet occupation, the coast and its bays were very much a no-go area, in case any Estonians should wish to escape the glorious socialist republic, but now it is revealed as a fantastic seaside playground, open for all to enjoy.
Enjoyment and indulgence is very much on the agenda with another surprise Lahemaa has in store. Scattered among the forests and farms are historic manor houses, built by Baltic Germans and now celebrated as a valuable slice of heritage to be cherished, with some of them ripe for restoration, some already turned into time-capsule showpieces and some very much in tune with today.
One such tucked-away gem is Vihula Manor Country Club & Spa, which is part of the Estonian-based Unique Hotels group . . . and it certainly lives up to the 'unique' tag, starting with 27 buildings set in 50 hectares (more than 120 acres in real money) of beautiful parkland by the Mustoja River.
Unique's Paul Taylor and Michael Pilkington have already built up a fine reputation with the von Stackelberg, Kreutzwald and City Hotels in Tallinn, and with Vihula manager Michael Stenner they have now created a Rolls Royce resort 90 kms out of town. That's no joke, either, because Paul's classic car connections led to the 20-Ghost Club, the oldest Rolls Royce club in the world, calling by and helping to launch Vihula's first Vintage and Classic Car Day, with an on-tour cavalcade of 18 pristine early Rollers dating from 1913 to the 1930s.
Apart from regular showcase events, weddings, concerts and conferences (with occasional get-togethers at prime ministerial level), Vihula caters for couples, families and any visitor who just wants to get away from it all and enjoy a darn good pampering, with food, drink and spa treatments in any combination, or just plain relaxation.
The fine dining La Boheme restaurant in the main manor building is backed up by a two-level tavern in the grounds and a Lifestyle Café in the old Water Mill (it still has lots of working bits!) and it's well worth looking on the website at menus and a sommelier's list with more than 500 bottles of Portuguese wine alone to help get some idea of why I'm now drooling in my keyboard.
The foodie focus is on local cuisine, with hearty country fare combined with elegant manor dining, many ingredients coming from neighbouring farms as well as the Manor's own Eco-Farm with its cows, sheep, rabbits and chickens; and its garden, where you can maybe see your salad being freshly picked before dinner.
A tour of what else is on offer calls for a golf cart, to get round and see facilities such as the holiday village, conference, banqueting and concert halls, the largest 18-hole mini-golf course in the Baltics, the old cattle barn with its 15-metre pool, kids' pool, Turkish steambath and gym, boutique spa with treatment rooms, sauna, sun terraces and outside Jacuzzi, leisure centre with party rooms, saunas, and terraces, the sports arena where you can play tennis, badminton, football and goodness knows what else, boating on the river, trails for hiking, biking, cross-country skiing, snow-shoeing, horse-drawn sleigh-riding . . . and the vodka museum. That last gentle diversion is a clinching reason, if one were needed, for trundling about on a golf buggy.
Once you have such an oasis of luxury on the sat-nav to return to, you can head for the great outdoors, maybe with a fount of local knowledge and country lore like Anne Kurepalu, a guide who was good enough to compress a normal two-day itinerary into one so we could see as much as possible, and hopefully want to return at leisure.
A quick lunch at the family Lahemaa Kohvikann restaurant in the forest, with a menu featuring wild mushrooms picked that morning by local foragers, punctuated visits to the Palmse and Sagadi manor houses; the picturesque, 15th century 'museum village' of Käsmu on the coast, where in 1930 there were apparently 62 sea captains for every 100 families; and to the town of Rakvere, with its medieval castle, giant bronze statue of Tarvas, the bull-like 'Auroch', and ancient church tower (count the steps) with spectacular views.
Back to base at Vihula, change gear, then an aperitif and dinner in the rustic Kaval-Ants Tavern, once the manor's ice cellar, with traditional Estonian dishes to replace all those burned-off calories, ready for the trip back to Tallinn and flight back home. Phew!
Would I make a more leisurely return to Estonia? Try to stop me!
Our travel partner Regent Holidays can offer a six-night trip to Estonia, with three nights at the Radisson Blu in Tallinn and three in Vihula Manor from £625 per person, B&B, including flights from London City Airport and transfers. Sadly, the cheap Ryanair link from Manchester to Tallinn that I used has ended, but Estonian Airlines will be running a regular service from London City Airport to Tallinn from March 2013, with a 15-minute check-in. Call now on 020 7666 1244.
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