Visit Otepää, Estonia’s Winter Capital
If you’re coming to Estonia, whether on holiday or a business trip, you might assume that, in the winter, it was better to stick to Tallinn and its cosy surroundings. However, the sheer majesty of a country that is bigger than Switzerland should convince you otherwise. One area of great beauty, which you can’t afford to miss, is Otepää and its neighbouring village, Pühajärve.
Otepää is a picture-postcard little village with lovely walking routes all around, and a deep, dense forest in which to be lost with your thoughts. However the attention-grabbers for most tourists are Väike Munamägi, the second tallest hill in Estonia, and the tallest, Suur Munamägi. They are located about an hour’s drive south from Otepää. Whether you’re an experienced skier looking for some piste action in the Baltics, or a newbie wanting a hill that isn’t the Black Run on which to learn your craft, there’s a reason to visit the two Egg Hills, as they are known in English. And even if winter sports are not your thing, south Estonia’s flatness means you can see for miles all around when you’re at the top. If you want a bit of a challenge have a go at the Kekkose Ski Trail (a 14 km run named in honour of the visit, from the then Finnish president Urho Kekkose’s visit to Kääriku to ski), one of the country’s most challenging cross-country trails.
Nestling in deepest South Estonia, we recommend taking a car to this underrated holiday resort, although it’s perfectly possible to go there by bus – just jump on the Tallinn to Tartu express, then take a connecting service to Pühajärve. We stayed in the Pühajärve Spa Hotel, a three-star destination which overlooks the enormous lake, which of course is completely frozen in winter, and, should you be there with kids, allows them to carry out their Queen Elsa fantasies to their heart’s content. Do you wanna build a snowman? No problem – snow is one natural resource there is plenty of.
The spa’s rooftop café gives truly spectacular panoramic views of the lake, the hills and surrounds. Ensconced in your forest kingdom, you’ll finally be able to forget all your daily working troubles. The food is pretty decent local fare, and certainly fills you up before or after a long day’s strolling in the gorgeous countryside. There is a pub down below for simpler tastes and an a la carte restaurant on the main floor of the former manor house.
The spa’s jewel is the outstanding swimming pool designed by one of Estonia’s master architects Andres Alver. The pools main structure is engineered wood glulam complemented with the use of locally produced birch plywood. Swimming there is certainly a must on any Estonian travel bucket list.
In addition to the swimming pool there are also saunas, including an infra-red sauna guaranteed to leave you feeling refreshed and detoxed. There is a considerable list of treatment options, including a chocolate spread that sounds tasty enough to eat while it’s on your body. Beware the massage though – the standard package is a chiropractic massage, and had me wondering if the masseur would pull a joint out of its socket. By the end you’re feeling great, but it wasn’t my scented-candle vision of a massage on holiday.
We recommend taking a car, although it’s perfectly possible to go there by bus - just jump on the Tallinn to Tartu express, then take a connecting service to Otepää. www.tpilet.ee
There are train connections from Tallinn-Tartu-Palupera. Palupera is about 20 km from Otepää and from there you can take a taxi which should be no more than €20. Please note: most taxis do not accept card payment.
Train tickets: www.elron.ee
Otepää Taxi: 1200Click on the address to see the location.
TEXT STUART GARLICK, KRISTINA LUPP, PHOTOS ANDREI CHERTKOV