It all started during a long consultation with a map.
I was staring at the French Riviera, where we were thinking of spending a week. At some point my eye drifted upward until I hit a patch of blue, the Baltic Sea, and the filigreed curtain of Danish islands that separates it from the Atlantic. The looming fingers of the Scandinavian countries extended down from above, and the sea came to a timorous stop at the western tip of Russia. At its bottom lip were Latvia and Estonia. Looking at the map I couldn’t help but think of them as two tiny pebbles only recently revealed by the receding Soviet tide. They have been independent since 1991, and joined the European Union in 2003. But at the moment, my thoughts were less geopolitical than preoccupied with the hedonistic question, What’s the beach like up there? Mustn’t there be a Baltic Riviera?Surely it must be pristine, untouched, an unknown kingdom neglected by history (or the tourism industry).
Which is how I found myself, a few months later, with my wife and our six-month-old daughter (a.k.a. “the Nugget”), setting off from Riga International Airport for Juurmala, Latvia, the best-known beach resort on the Baltic. I’d had this perverse idea that we’d be entering some sort of Soviet time machine, but when I saw the profusion of Mercedes, BMW, and Audi sedans surrounding us on the broad highway, I knew I’d been wrong. What I discovered were two Baltic countries, different in language and culture, that are both still struggling to define themselves against their enormous neighbor to the east.
Jurmala is made up of a series of beaches stretched out over a small peninsula, bordered by the Lielupe River on one side and the Baltic on the other. The main promenade, Jomas Iela, sits next to Majori, the most popular beach, and is surrounded by thick trees, beneath which is an interesting amalgam of 19th-century wooden villas built for vacationing Russians—some are very beautiful, with towers, spires, and elaborate porches—alongside new structures with minimalist Scandinavian architecture. All the buildings—a jumble of old-school and new—were built in scale to the surrounding forest, except for two. One is the Jurmala Spa Hotel, where we were staying, 11 stories of purple-tinted glass rising up out of the woods. Inside, the lobby hummed with a techno beat, and on the walls were black-and-white “art photographs” that celebrated the nude female body. I held my daughter tight and wondered what I had gotten us into.
A glass elevator lifted us up over the forest and took my mood with it. I was pleased when we opened the door to our small but opulent room on the 11th floor and saw that, in addition to the sea, the beach, the forest, and the river, our view encompassed the white wedding cake of the Baltic Beach Hotel, the other enormous building on the beach that had been my first choice (and fully booked).
The Nugget had a boo-boo, and so we set off on the promenade to find a Band-Aid. There I discovered that Jurmala, long favored among Russians, is not yet a place where English is widely spoken. But pantomiming “Band-Aid?” with a baby in your arms is not difficult. This errand taken care of, we walked to the beach for our Baltic baptism. Majori was impressively huge—a stretch of soft white sand that runs in either direction as far as you can see. And it was absolutely packed. But there was something odd about it—the dividing line between beach and water was not clear. Instead, people were sitting and lounging in the water 30 feet out from where it lapped the shore.
We waded in, trailing the Nugget’s toes in the surprisingly warm water. I had expected that, even in August, it would be freezing. But the Baltic is shallow, so the sun warms it, and there are hardly any waves. We walked 50 yards out to sea. A group of teenagers up ahead of us were screaming when the water swelled to their waists.
That night, we sat among the beach crowds and families from Riga who come for dinner on weekends at one of the many outdoor restaurants that line Jomas Iela. Amid the elaborate restaurants and gingerbread architecture, you can also buy ice cream and cotton candy, sit in a rowdy beer garden, or take a small-scale amusement park ride. A good portion of the citizenry dresses up for the night, in a mix of backless halter tops and elegant evening wear, and this promenading enhances the faintly czarist atmosphere.
Later we returned to our room and saw the Baltic Beach Hotel lit up like a cruise ship surrounded by darkness. It was graced with a huge neon sign with some malfunctioning letters. And so we drifted pleasantly off to sleep that first night with the words baltic beach ho looming over the town, the forest, and the sea.
After two nights in Jurmala we headed west for the port town of Ventspils to begin our trip to Muhu, a small Estonian island to the north. Beneath the huge, bright blue sky were marvelous fields dotted with round bales of hay, sloping gently toward the horizon. We passed thick stands of white birches, clustered together in shadow, and dense forest with an incongruously sandy floor that suggested the nearness of the sea. Now and then we’d see a picturesque house with a very steep roof sitting alone by the side of the road. The landscape began to take on the flavor of one of those quaint—but also dark and foreboding—tales of the Brothers Grimm.