Category Archives: Baltic

6 Cool Places in Riga, Latvia

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Heading to the Baltics for a cruise or a drive? Riga’s cosmopolitan cool will excite any traveler. Here’s our quick guide to places to explore in the Latvian capital.

1. Check out the Old Town

Eastern Europe capitals are known for their charming old town centers, and Riga’s is certainly a memorable one. But few cities have the towering, gingerbread-esque buildings that dot the Old Town Square. Spend a picturesque afternoon wandering the alleyways of Old Riga (Vecriga) any day of the year. The architecture is particularly pretty in winter, when Christmas markets and huge evergreens light up the warm Dutch colors and art nouveau rooftops.

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2. Try Balsam

No, it’s not a vinegar! Riga black balsam is an herbal liquor made from vodka. Though somewhat morphing into a drink for the locals, it’s still to be found in many homes as an old-fashioned cocktail or a general remedy for the common cold. Traditional recipes are made of 24 different herbs, berries, roots and oils, and is somewhat bitter to the taste. The golden-brown color can be poured over ice or mixed with juices or spices, served hot or cold. Balsam dates back all the way to the 18th century, a pharmacist concocted the beverage to cure Empress Catherine the Great of Russia of an ailment. In the winter, it’s sometimes mixed with black currant and heated, much like mulled wine. Though the drink is not to everyone’s taste, I say, “when in Rome!”

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3. Freedom Monument

In the middle of Bastion Hill Park towers a huge memorial honoring soldiers killed during the Latvian War of Independence, 1918-1920. The landmark is an important symbol of freedom and the sovereignty of Latvia. At the top of a white monolith stands a woman, her arms outstretched and holding three stars, that represent the three historic districts of Latvia. Locals call her Milda. Built in 1935, the 138-ft monument was designed by notable sculptor Kārlis Zāle, who won an award for his design “Shine like a star!” Guards regularly patrol the area, with a changing of the guard every hour from 9am to 6pm. Guards are required to be at least 6 feet tall and to stand without moving for half an hour!

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4. Gauja National Park and Gutmanis Cave

Though technically outside of Riga, the achingly beautiful Gauja National Park is reachable by a 1-hour drive. As the oldest and largest such park in Latvia, Gauja makes a refreshing day trip into the countryside. Established in 1973, it’s 90,000 hectares of sandstone cliffs, natural springs and thick foliage. Discover one of the more notable attractions, Gutmanis Cave, an old site of pilgrimage. The sandstone cavern walls are smothered in graffiti that dates all the way back to the 16th century, depicting coats-of-arms and the names of various barons. Legend has it that the waters of the nearby spring will heal any ache, injury or hangover. Once upon a time, the Liv chief Rindaugs buried his unfaithful wife alive on the banks of the Gauja river. The woman cried so hard in her grave, and her tears flowed out of the cave, creating the curative stream that flows there today.

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5. Art Nouveau

Though Art Nouveau peppers the streets of Riga, the best specimens can be found along Elizabetes Street, in the so-called “Quiet Center,” a 10-minute walk from Old Town. Some 800 facades in the area flaunt decorative motifs, floral patterns, peacocks, detailed female figurines and masks. At the turn of the 19th century, architectural themes remodeled from abstract romantic to more figurative and imaginative design characteristic of the Art Nouveau style.

For the true art-inclined, the Museum of Riga Art Nouveau (Alberta ielā 12) is the perfect place to start your tour of the city’s architecture, with its stained glass windows, elegant twisting staircase and sharp corner tower.

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6. Bergs Bazaar

The intimate and arched promenades of the Bergs Bazaar is nothing short of charming. The atmosphere is more garden than mall, and along its 130-year-old cobblestones you’ll find around 140 cafes, restaurants and boutiques. It’s a great place to come in the evenings for a languid stroll, and watch the locals chat and go about their daily business!

Willamette Intl Travel loves to talk Baltic cruises! Heading to this quirky region of Europe? Give us a call! 503-224-0180 or email info@wittravel.com. 

 

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Filed under Europe, Art & Architecture, Baltic

The Next Best Destinations for 2017

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Happy New Year, dear Readers! We’ve made past the end of 2016, hopefully with some fun and meaningful travel memories racked up. But what does 2017 have in store for the traveler? Here are our Top Destinations in 2017:

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Cruise ship in Isafjordur, the West Fjords of Iceland

1. Iceland

It’s probably no surprise to anyone that Iceland has once again made the list. In the past 10 years, Iceland’s popularity as a travel destination soared to immense heights, capping 1 billion travelers to this dynamic Atlantean rock in the summer of 2016 alone. Most travelers have visited the gorgeous Golden Circle and the Glacier Lagoon, maybe even ridden an Icelandic horse or spied the Northern Lights–but what’s next for Iceland in 2017? Traveling a bit more off-the-beaten path, to Lake Myvatn area, to the West Fjords and the Westman Isles. We’ll have to see what this magical Viking isle has in store for us!

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Lake Bled in Slovenia

2. Slovenia (& the Balkans)

If you haven’t discovered this off-the-beaten-path trek in Europe, what are you waiting for? Slovenia is the oft-cited “playground of Europe,” with a range of activities to attract the thrill-seeker. Spelunking, hang-gliding, jet-skiing are just some of the more popular pursuits. Plus there are few city centers as pristine as Ljubljana’s. A great way to see the Balkan countries is to rent a car and spend a few weeks traveling around war-wounded Sarajevo, culturally bobbing Belgrade, and Croatia’s exquisite Dalmatian coast.

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Białowieża Forest, Poland

3. Australia & New Zealand

Australia & New Zealand have always been a popular destination for families, couples and backpackers alike. Sydney boasted the “best fireworks in the world” at the Opera this New Year’s Eve. Tazmania might just be the next prime hiking destination, with multi-day excursions and luxury ecolodges. And NZ has an array of fun food-themed fetes to enjoy, kicking off with Auckland Seafood Festival in January and then Marlborough Wine & Food Festival come February. Though the Northern Lights have attracted some fair attention these past few years, the Southern Hemisphere has it’s own bragging right: the unparalleled Southern Cross!

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River Boat sailing through Chicago, USA

4. River Cruises in North America

Domestic travel usually has to offer something unique to attract travelers, and we believe river cruises are that unique option. There seems to be no end to high quality river and lake cruises: the Great Lakes, roundtrip Nashville on the Mississippi River, Montreal and the eastern seaboard, and the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest. Themes range from southern style comfort on the Mississippi to the pioneer history of the Oregon Trail. River cruises are small-scale, comfortable, unhurried cruises in American history that often sail year-round–without the spectacle afforded on ocean cruises. Plus one major advantage over Europe or South America: shorter flights to get there (if any)!

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Lisbon, Portugal

5. Portugal

Warm beach weather, delicious cuisine, and a charming ambiance makes Portugal a global destination. Lisbon has all the Old World beauty of a European small town, and the coastline draws its fair share of beachgoers and world-class surfers. In terms of food and wine, Portugal will certainly peak your interest, and the easygoing temperance of the locals will make you feel at home in no time.

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Oslo, Norway

6. Scandinavia

Though oft-cited as the most expensive destination in Europe, Scandinavia remains one of the best “bang-for-your-buck” destinations in the world. Thanks to recent trends following the Northern Lights and Iceland’s natural attractions, the region is receiving all the attention it deserves. World-class restaurants, leisurely cafes, and interactive museums still place it at the top of the list (and the map!). Not to mention how easy and accessible most travelers find Oslo, Copenhagen, Stockholm, and Reykjavik–most of the population are friendly, curious, polite and speak English.

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Reindeer in Finland

7. Finland & Estonia

Finland celebrates 100 years of independence from Russia in 2017, and a spirit of unity will be rampant in every town and city. Wander 39 national parks or visit the laid-back seaside capital, view the Northern Lights or take a dip in the local sauna. Helsinki has the familiarity and design-conscious layout of a Scandinavian town, with a cultural flair that’s uniquely Finnish. Estonia is also growing on the tourist horizon–Tallinn as a leading city of technology and entrepreneurship. Its heritage is part Baltic, with smatterings of Soviet Union and Finnish influence. A popular way to visit is via a cruise to the Baltic region–many of our clients have come back from a cruise excursion with tales of Tallinn’s enchanting city center.

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Paris, France

8. France

Throughout the centuries, France has never lost its charms. Even through recent security issues have scared off some travelers, the Loire chateaux, Bordeaux wines and sun-baked sands of the Riviera are still there and thriving. After a shaky 2016, France is bouncing back in a big way, and tourist bookings have increased exponentially for 2017. Tourists seem to have their eyes on provincial towns and the hidden secrets of the countryside. Is this the time to finally check out the Champagne region, or go wine-tasting in the Dordogne Valley?

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1950s/60s Cars in Cuba

9. Cuba

With relaxing entry regulations, Cuba has received quite the attention these past two years. The response from group travelers and cruise ship passengers has been wildly enthusiastic. Over 2 million travelers visited the island in the first half of 2016, compared to just 63,000 in 2010. But that may all change soon–some travel industry experts fear that the Trump administration will restrict travel there in the future. So now might be your only chance in a while to travel to the “Pearl of the Antilles.”

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The Majestic African Elephant

10. Africa Destinations: Kenya, Tanzania, Namibia and South Africa.

Africa remains an ever-popular destination, with senior couples and large families booking safari trips in Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa. These regions are still within reasonable budget to catch a glimpse of wildebeest, lions, antelopes. South Africa is world-famous for their natural diversity and local cuisine, catering to all flavors and styles. Immerse yourself on a game drive in Kruger National Park, or indulge in wine-tasting in Boberg or the Breede River Valley. We’re proud also to include Namibia on our list. As some of our readers know, WIT Owners Christina and John guided a merry band through the red sands of Namibia. The landscape is like no other, with miles upon miles of arid desert, dotted with unique wildlife and local tribes who paint themselves with ochre. We expect to see a rise in interest for Namibia in 2017, and now you can receive firsthand travelers’ experience at our office in Portland.

Do you have a favorite travel memory or photo from 2016? We’d love to hear about it! Share with us in the comments!

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Filed under Africa, Baltic, Croatia, Cruises, Cuba, Estonia, Europe, Finland, Iceland, Kenya, Namibia, North America, Norway, Poland, portugal, Slovenia, South Africa, Sweden, tanzania, USA