Stylist’s art editor Rob Timm weaves his way round Tallinn and Pärnu to celebrate Estonia’s 100th anniversary in style
Tallinn is small. Tiny. Just 450,000 people live there – there’s only 1.3 million people in the whole of Estonia – which, at 6ft3, suits me just fine. There’s room to breathe, stretch out and indulge in some quality alone time. Essential criteria because I’m here to kick off my Estonian ‘spa trail’ – and I am, if nothing else, ready to relax.
The spa trail has been designed to coincide with Estonia’s 100th anniversary celebrations for 2018 to put its best wellness offerings on the map. From traditional therapies such as juniper body peels and home-brewed beer treatments, to countryside smoke saunas, visitors can weave their own route across the country (spa season kicks off on 1 November).
To begin, I’m staying in Tallinn’s tallest building at the Swissôtel, handily located for the city’s Unesco-listed old town, with attractions such as the Kadriorg Palace and Kumu modern art museum a half-hour walk away. More importantly, the hotel’s Pürovel Spa & Sport is the perfect retreat after a long day, offering everything from hydrotherapy to hot stone massages, and a swimming pool on the 30th floor with a breathtaking view.
Next I head to the Telegraaf hotel in the centre of town, close to Tallinn’s nightlife. Here they have an Elemis Spa offering a raft of treatments, whirlpool bath, sauna and steam bath and a 10-metre swimming pool under a skylight.
For general mooching, Telliskivi Creative City – located in a former industrial complex on the borders of the old town – is an on-trend Shoreditch-like area that’s a bikeriding, graffiti-laden haven for creative types and their businesses. We set up in the restaurant F-Hoone to ponder the hommikusöögimenüü – possibly the longest word I have ever seen, but I am reliably informed it means breakfast. I have the smoothie bowl with fresh berries, Greek yoghurt and pralines: a sampling of the fresh food I come to learn is the staple diet of Estonians. Fresh produce comes from a clean environment on par with their Finnish neighbours (according to a 2017 study, Estonia has the second lowest level of residual pesticides in Europe). A popular dish is beetroot salad or, due to the close proximity to the sea, Baltic sprat sandwich.
It’s heartening to see how the city’s Cold War-era buildings have been reused in myriad colourful ways, housing everything from clothing boutiques to art galleries and (my favourite) organic ice cream store La Muu. Every Saturday there is a flea market in Telliskivi, and just round the corner is a three-floor indoor food market called Balti Jaam selling local produce. A great place to visit if the weather is not so good, we rated the steamed buns at Baojaam, street food at its best: inexpensive and very good quality. For a decent cocktail, try Parrot Minibar: a Twenties-style speakeasy which you enter through a wardrobe and exit via a bird cage. Inside, it feels as if you’ve fallen down the rabbit hole, while drinks are mixed just enough to give a kick.
For a hit of the sweet stuff, Chocolala is a chocolate shop tucked away near the old town set up by husband and wife Kristi Lehtis and Youssef Laban, who took a break from finance and law to open their plan-B Wonka shop. We took part in a chocolate making workshop and the gin-flavoured, full cocoa-beaned chocolate we made was a winner.
Spa stop three was Pärnu: a popular summer spot for Estonians a two-hour bus ride south from Tallinn. Adjacent to long, golden sandy beaches, the streets are lined with colourful wooden buildings that strike a distinctive Fifties surfer beach feel, and the water is shallow; in the summer it can reach 26 degrees for that wonderful warm bath feeling. Grab lunch at Supelsaksad where, continuing the retro vibe, waitresses wear polka dots while serving up coffee and cakes.
Pärnu as a resort town dates back to 1838 – photographs show topless bathers as far back as the 1900s and a women-only nudist beach remains – and its Hedon Spa is a magnificent architectural temple famed for its ancient experience packages and use of mud. I have the Journey To Ancient Estonia (from €80): a two-hour treatment based on traditional Nordic therapies to give you back your balance and lost strength. Made up of a birch branch sauna, skin-exfoliating mud wrap and ancient Estonian massage involving organic local hemp and carrot oil known as soonetasumine, translating roughly as “vessel repayment”, it’s a treatment that forms part of traditional Estonian folk wisdom in its purest sense.
If I had more time, I would have visited one of the country’s many eco spas. The Organic Spa Harmoonikum is the first Beer Spa in Estonia, featuring a wood-burning steam sauna and craft beer baths. I’m intrigued to find out how two of my favourite things can be mixed together: beer and relaxation.
So if you enjoy a road trip and want the stress (quite literally) taken out of planning it, this is for you.
Stays at Swissôtel in Tallinn start from £133*, swissotel.com/hotels/ tallinn; stays at Telegraaf in Tallinn start from £173*, telegraafhotel.com; stays at Hedon Spa & Hotel in Pärnu start from £79*, hedonspa.com/en; visitestonia.com/en
Images: Courtesy of venues