Mt. Rushmore, the Badlands & Devil’s Tower: Wait for Autumn Bargains

Mt. Rushmore. The flags of all 50 states line the main approach (see below), but I couldn’t resist this Texas flag view.

Mt. Rushmore should be on every American’s bucket list, and judging by the crowds and prices every summer, it probably is. If you can wait till fall, though, you’ll find the crowds gone and hotel prices much more reasonable. My husband and I did just that, waiting until the third week in October. Yes, the Flintstone Village was closed as was the faux Independence Hall and some mining-themed amusement parks, but we didn’t miss them at all. The Mt. Rushmore National Memorial was open, as was the Badlands National Park, Custer State Park (including Needles Highway), and Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. We stayed at K Bar S Lodge an terrific, rustic-but-lovely hotel just outside of Keystone, South Dakota, 30 minutes from the Rapid City Airport, where we could see Mt. Rushmore in the distance and hike a nearby abandoned mine. Yes, it was chilly at night and, yes, we risked things like Needles Highway being closed for the winter. But, the flight from DFW to Rapid City, SD, is an easy two hour and fifteen minute non-stop flight on American so we could monitor the weather forecast. [Although pricey in dollars, the flight was a cheap award using our British Airways Avios. We use BA Avios for those short hauls since BA is distance-based and charges us less miles for those flights that AA does.]

Mt. Rushmore exceeded my expectations. Not only are the famous statues impressive, but so is the park itself. The buildings and approach are sleek and stylish, the walkways around the base of the mountain pretty and well-maintained. We really enjoyed a free return visit at night to see the carvings illuminated. The main walkway is not lit until you reach the flags, though, so bring a flashlight.

Mt. Rushmore is especially magical at night, and free!

Custer State Park lies a thirty minute drive south of Keystone. Although we missed the September bison roundup at the park we got to see lots of bison up close in their winter habitat. Pronghorn antelope, big horn sheep, elk and whitetail deer also call the park home. Entry is $20/vehicle for a 1-7 day pass.

Bison in Custer State Park
Pronghorn antelope in Custer State Park

Needles Highway (Hwy 87) runs through the Cathedral Spires Area of Custer State Park. Sitting around a campfire at our lodge one night, I mentioned my huge disappointment in being told on check-in that Needles was closed for the season. The mother-daughter pair who’d offered to share their s’mores with us did even more to make my night when they informed me that they’d driven the Highway that day and that it was open and easily drivable despite a sign at the pay booth saying otherwise. Sure enough, the next day proved them right and we enjoyed a spectacular drive.

Spires along Needles Highway

Another day, we drove an hour and twenty minutes west to Badlands National Park. Entering through a vast prairie dog town, we found an otherworldly landscape of painted canyons. We pulled over to hike out to high observation points providing sweeping pastel vistas and explored walkways through the desert where big horn sheep fed nearby. Like Custer, entry is $20/car for a 1-7 day pass. The passes are not combinable as one is a state and one is a national park.

Bighorn sheep in Badlands National Park
The Badlands: immense and otherworldly

We crossed the South Dakota border into Wyoming for our final destination, Devil’s Tower National Monument, a little over two hours’ drive from Keystone. Made famous in the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind and wildly popular with motorcyclists and other tourists, we arrived to find only a few cars in one of its two large parking lots.

Devil’s Tower, Wyoming
We found another large prairie dog town near Devil’s Tower. They’re adorable, but be careful getting too close or letting pets near: The prairie dogs have plague!

A ranger assured me that, in summer, the lots were full and the web site warns of difficult parking. She particularly noted the craziness at Devil’s tower when the Sturgis Annual Motorcycle Rally is in swing. A half million motorcycle enthusiasts descend on Sturgis, SD, for the famous summer rally. That group makes an excursion to Devil’s Tower. The Sturgis rally lasts ten days and is set for August 4-13 this year. Check the calendar to avoid this horde unless you’re going to the rally.  On this gorgeous October day, however, we saw more birds, squirrels and rabbits than people as we hiked the perimeter of the tower. Entry to Devil’s Tower is $15/car, $10/motorcycle, $5/person arriving on foot or bicycle.

For a fun, economical, but limited-choice dinner, try the antique-filled Alpine Inn in Hill City, a short drive through wooded hills from Keystone. Dinner entree choices are large steak, small steak or vegetarian. [Dinner menu: 6oz. filet mignon = $11.95, 9oz. filet mignon =$13.95 (both steaks served with baked potato, wedge salad and Texas toast); German dumplings and cheese with vegetables = $11.95] Lunch offers more variety. The Alpine Inn is renowned for its steaks and its house-made desserts. It’s closed Sundays and doesn’t accept credit cards, but it does have an on-site ATM machine. It’s popular, so make reservations.

Finally, if you like to gamble, South Dakota is for you. In addition to casinos, nearly every business establishment from doughnut shops to nail salons has a slot machine or two. Kitschy Deadwood is at or near the top of gaming towns in South Dakota. We’re not gamblers and didn’t get much out of casino-filled Deadwood’s recreated western town brimming with casinos, but we met people who loved it and went every year. So, if that’s your thing, Deadwood awaits. The people are friendly and the hotels offer some pretty great deals to lure in the gamblers. Enjoy!

 

Limited-time Amex Transfer Bonus Offer: Membership Rewards to BA Avios

I’ve been planning to cancel my Amex Platinum card for a while and I won’t renew it next year. Even with its (limited) $200 travel credit, the $450 annual fee just isn’t worth it to me any more since Amex lost Admiral’s Club membership as a perk. Its other perks are mostly either duplicative of perks on other premium cards I have or just not very useful or valuable to me. (I will miss Centurion Club, though!) And, after this year, the annual fee is going up to $550. The question has been what to do with the Membership Rewards points I’ve accrued.

MR do not transfer to American Airlines AAdvantage, my most frequently used airline. Membership Rewards points do transfer to American partner British Airways, though. Since 2015 until recently, however, the transfer rate from MR points to British Airways Avios has been abysmal: 250MR to 200 Avios. Last week, Amex restored the old 1:1 ratio. But now, only until September 17, 2017, Amex is offering a 250 MR to 350 Avios transfer rate, a whopping increase. I use Avios a lot to get reduced-rate short-haul flights on partner American Airlines. Avios are also good for short-haul flights in Europe and I can share Avios between British Airways and Iberia Airlines making them even more useful. Anyway, I intend to take advantage of this offer and thought I’d give a heads-up.

Haapsalu, Estonia: beach resort of Imperial Russia

View from the Pavilion on the Promenade in Haapsalu

Despite the unseasonably cold spring, I really wanted to see the seaside resort town of Haapsalu while we were in the area, en route from Tallinn to Parnu. Renowned for centuries for curative mud and a popular spa resort with the Romanov family, Haapsalu is actively seeking to reassert itself as an international resort destination. [We were in Haapsalu May 2017. I’ve been enjoying a low-key summer and have been slow about finalizing my last two Estonia posts–this and one more on Parnu. We were supposed to be in Miami and Havana this coming week, but those plans are canceled due to Hurricane Irma, so I’m taking the opportunity to catch up blogging our Baltics travels before we head back to Belgium in October.]

We turned out to be the only guests at Lahe Guesthouse, the bed and breakfast I’d chosen for our stay. Our hostess was waiting for us when we arrived, showed us the rooms available, then left us on our own in her big, beautiful guest house with a key and the run of the place. It was fun!

Lahe Guesthouse. The two windows on the second floor, left, were our bedroom and offered views of the bay and marshes.
Dining area of Lahe Guesthouse with no one else around on our off-season stay. (Our hostess did return to fix breakfast in the morning.)
One side of our spacious guest room
Marshes and bay behind Lahe Guesthouse

After settling in, we walked away from the marshes and into town.

We saw few people on our way into Haapsalu town

Haapsalu is small, so in a few short blocks, we arrived at the remains of the 13th century Haapsalu Episcopal Castle, the former residence of the Bishops of Saare-Lääne. The semi-restored castle grounds and walls are open to the public without charge. We had fun just strolling and people-watching. Perched atop a portion of the wall, we laughed at the antics of a little boy zooming endlessly around the inner grounds on his foot-powered “motorcycle” while an older sibling ran after. There’s also a museum, encompassing the castle’s cathedral, that we did not visit, but it’s closed now until 2019 for renovations.

Entrance to Haapsalu Castle
Entering Haapsalu Castle
Haapsalu Castle ruins
Haapsalu Episcopal Castle cathedral

Leaving of the castle, we walked through the old town towards the waterfront Promenade.

Old Haapsalu

The pretty Russian Orthodox Church of Mary-Magdalene sits between old town and the Promenade, overlooking the water.

Russian Orthodox Church of Mary-Magdalene

The Promenade is the pride of Haapsalu. Lovingly decorated by Estonian Roman Haavamägi in the 1920’s, Haapsalu suffered during WWII and many of Haavamägi’s wooden sculptures that decorated the seafront Promenade were burnt. Recent restoration was completed and the Promenade reopened in 2010.

Haapsalu Sundial on the Promenade
Haapsalu Promenade with the Assembly Hall and iconic wooden polar bear statue (a replica) in the water

We enjoyed walking the Promenade, but it is definitely a sleepy place in the non-summer months. After dinner downtown followed by a shot of the local, vodka-like birch water alcohol, we called it a night. The next day, we strolled the paved walkways through the wild marshland behind our guest house before setting out again to explore the back roads of Estonia. Haapsalu made for a fun short visit and I’m glad we went, but there’s not much to keep a visitor there for long off-season.

Looking back towards the neighborhood of Lahe Guesthouse from the marsh paths

Beer Post: Koht Beer Bar and Põhjala Brewery’s Speakeasy in Tallinn, Estonia

Archway leading to the entrance to Koht

We were in Tallinn for the Tallinn Craft Beer Weekend, but tickets had been sold out for months, so all we could do is borrow a list of breweries and beers that would be represented from the owner of Old Town beer bar Koht and wistfully pour over what we’d be missing. Fortunately, Koht, (which just means “place”) had a lot of great craft beers on offer, so it was easy to drown our disappointment. Koht is a tiny place located through an arch off Lai Street in Lower Old Town. Despite its size, it was the place most recommended to us for regional craft and specialty beers.

Through the arch: The front door of Koht (and our friendly bartender)
Koht bar with doorway leading to the attached beer shop

We visited Koht on a slow weekday afternoon and enjoyed visiting with the knowledgeable owner and bartender and sampling some of their recommendations of draft and bottled beers from Estonia and around the world. A poster for “Large Barn Oven” rye stout from Lehe Brewery caught my eye and we had to try it. A product of a small Estonian brewery, the beer is dark and semi-sweet, tasting of malt and black bread (9% alc., €3.50 for 25cl). Draft selections at Koht were interesting and good, but limited. The bottle collection, on the other hand, is extensive.

Find Koht at 10133, Lai 8, 10133 Tallinn, Estonia; Phone: +372 644 3302. Their hours are flexible. We were told they usually open around 5pm, but we found them open at 3 or 3:30pm.

Things were slow on a weekday afternoon, but we heard Koht gets packed on weekend evening. The interior space is cozy any time but would be great on a cold evening with the fireplace lit.

Because of the Tallinn Craft Beer Weekend, popular Estonian brewery Põhjala opened its Speakeasy bar on the “wrong” side of the tracks near the train station. The friendly young woman tending bar told us the bar opens in the summer and from time to time throughout the year, so it would be worth checking with the brewery or the Speakeasy Facebook page for opening days if, like us, you’re in Tallinn in off-season. The bar is spartan but had a good range of Põhjala beers in bottle and on tap and the neighborhood is not scenic, but it does offer some dirt-cheap Asian restaurants. A restaurant adjacent to the Põhjala bar, Burger Box, would take orders through a small window between their spaces and hand through dinner to be eaten at the bar. Põhjala’s Speakeasy is located at Kopli 4, 10412 Tallinn, Estonia.

Põhjala temporary bar

We tried several Põhjala beers including their Pime ÖÖ Imperial Stout (13.6% alc.) and an interesting cassis-flavored porter, ÖÖ Cassis (10.5% alc.). The stout is rich, black and sweet, tasting of espresso and dark chocolate. The porter was interesting; also very rich and dark and coffee-bitter but with a touch of sweet-and-sour from the currants.

Interior of the Põhjala bar
Outdoor patio at Põhjala bar in Tallinn

Tallinn, Estonia: more than a ferry/cruise port

More retro blogging from our May 2017 Baltics travels. I’m trying to catch up before we’re off on our next trip:

The Great Coastal Gate and Fat Margaret Tower once protected Tallinn from seaborne threats

Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, has long been popular with tourists taking the two-hour ferry ride from Helsinki. More recently, cruise ships also discovered the picturesque Baltic port city. The result of all the boat traffic is a constant swell and ebb of humanity in the city and a very touristy, if lovely, Old Town. (In the summer, cruise ships can bring over 4600 tourists to Tallinn in a day!)

Tallinn Old Town main square
Tallinn flower market

Hoping to dig just a little deeper and see the city during some of those less-crowded ebb times, I booked us a 4-night AirBnB apartment in the heart of Old Tallinn. I had trouble finding an apartment with secure, dedicated parking, but finally settled on a chic, all-white (but small) studio in a terrific location with covered, gated parking. I’m usually not a fan of studios, but this time our options were really limited and we did have a semi-private seating area we shared with two other apartments. Prices are higher in Tallinn than elsewhere in the Baltics, too, albeit still lower than you’ll find in most of Western Europe and much cheaper than Scandinavia. Anyway, our apartment and landlords turned out great and our only complaint was too much sun in the mornings.

Fortified walls of Old Tallinn

We enjoyed wandering the cobbled streets and found simply enjoying the atmosphere to be our favorite part of Old Tallinn. The shops in Old Town are nearly all of the tourist souvenir variety and not of much interest to us, but fun if that’s what your looking for. At this stage of life and travels, we don’t buy a lot of souvenirs and are more excited to see shops and markets selling local products we might not be familiar with to locals. In this modern, small world, those sorts of shops are rarities, though.

Just down the road from our apartment on Uus. It seemed a miracle the old wooden building was still standing.

Old Tallinn consists of both a lower and an upper town. This was most easily visible from the tower of St. Olaf’s Church, a few blocks from our apartment in Lower Town.

View of Old Tallinn, both Lower and Upper, from St. Olaf’s Church tower.
It’s a steep climb and 232 steps to the observation level of St. Olaf’s Church tower

St. Olaf’s Church itself is simply adorned with some interesting archaeological pieces on display along the side aisles of the nave. Completed in the 1600’s, the original church dated back to the 1200’s. It’s the tallest medieval structure in Tallinn. Admission to the church is free, but there’s a €2/adult -€1/child fee to climb the tower.

Interior of St. Olaf’s Church
In the lower portion of Old Town Tallinn
Historical walk at Estonian History Museum in Lower Town

Hiking up to Upper Town, we visited the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, a 19th century Russian Orthodox church with characteristic architecture including three cross-topped onion domes. Former and current mansions of Estonian aristocracy abound in this area interspersed with terraces overlooking Lower Town, where we common folk could share the view.

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, a 19th century Russian Orthodox church in upper Old Town

The oldest church in Tallinn, the medieval St. Mary’s Cathedral, with its baroque tower also sits in Upper Old Town. Coats of arms of Estonian nobility cover its interior walls. There’s a €5/adult -€3/child fee to enter the church, although you can admire many of the coats of arms from before the ticket booth.

St. Mary’s Cathedral (also known as “Dome Church,” the oldest church in Tallinn
Family crests and coats-of-arms adorn the interior of Dome Church

Having time to spend in Tallinn let us extend our wanderings beyond Old Town. The modern city offers much in the way of shopping, dining, bars and coffee shops. We loved the futuristic additions to old warehouses in the Roterman City area. This chic neighborhood, in easy walking distance of Old Town, bustles with a hip young clientele.

Roterman area buildings

One day, a long walk to us to Kadriorg Art Museum in a baroque palace commissioned by Peter the Great in 1718. The palace itself is as worthy of a visit as the park. The palace is surrounded by Kadrioru Park, a place popular with locals.

Kadrioru Park leading to Kadriorg Art Museum and palace
Inside Kadriorg
Schoolchildren visiting Kadriorg

We enjoyed a delightful  late lunch for €20 (total) at Katharienthal, just inside the park grounds. It occupies an elegant building and offers French-style patisseries downstairs and a pretty dining room upstairs.

Katharienthal cafe exterior
Downstairs at Katharienthal
Upstairs dining room at Katharienthal

Walking further beyond Kadriorg palace, we came to the residence of the president of Estonia, an interesting woman who had to be drafted into the job. We were surprised to find we could just walk into the front parking area to snap a photo. Guards at the front door had no problem with us.

Residence of the Estonian President

Just beyond the president’s residence is the fantastic Kumu museum of modern art. Again, the building is as much an attraction as the art.

Kumu – Art Museum of Estonia
Interior of the Kumu

At last treat in Tallinn was a visit to the Estonian National Opera to see a performance of Tosca. The opera house is nowhere as ornate or large as the opera house in Riga and the staging was minimalist, but the performance was excellent and, for €31 apiece, we had front row center seats on the first balcony.

Interior of the Estonian National Opera House in Tallinn
Tosca

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Tallinn has a great beer scene and we definitely explored that. More on beer in a soon-to-follow separate post.

Viljandi, Estonia

Viljandi church (“Jaani Kirik”) just across a ravine from the castle ruins and park

The drive NNW from Valga toward Tallinn took us through woods and farmland dotted with traditional wooden houses.

Traditional Estonian farm homes

The highlight of the drive was a stop at pretty Viljandi, a popular Estonian tourist town that prides itself on preserving Estonian traditions. Considered a center of culture and folk history, Viljandi hosts popular outdoor concerts in the summer in the ruins of Viljandi Castle on the banks of a deep blue lake. Water sports are popular on the lake as well and the small town is surrounded by parks and green areas.

Footbridge from town to the ruins of Viljandi Castle
Ruins of Viljandi Castle
Lake Viljandi viewed from the castle ruins

There were no concerts or swimming on the crisp spring day we were there, but we still enjoyed wandering the ruins and admiring the gorgeous scenery. We crossed a pedestrian suspension bridge to continue our ramble on through yet another park and the modern Ugala open-air concert/theater venue.

The preserved Old Town is small, easily walkable and picturesque. We found plenty of cute restaurants and cafés in addition to a the Estonian Traditional Music Centre, a puppet theater, art center, museum and more. There’s an old brick water tower you can climb for the view for €2/adult,  €1/child. The Tourist Information Centre offers free parking and free maps within eyesight of “Jaani Kirik,” the church shown in the top photo. Viljandi is a place to relax and take in the atmosphere rather than visit major sites.

Old Town Viljandi

We opted for lunch at stylish Kohvik Fellin on a corner across from the Tourist Information Centre. The food was excellent, if pricier than elsewhere in rural Estonia, something we found true of Viljandi in general. We liked the bread at Kohvik Fellin so much we convinced them to sell us a loaf, something they apparently don’t ordinarily do. We paid a pretty exorbitant €6, but the dense sweet bread provided several breakfasts and we did love the way our waitress wrapped it for us!

Delicious but pricey bread at Kohvik Fellin in Viljandi
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The Viljandi Tourist Information Centre is open M-F 10am-5pm and Sat.-Sun. 10am-3pm. English speakers there are happy to offer advice on sights and dining. Parking is free (and conveniently located to sights) in the lot in front of the tourist center. Email at viljandi@visitestonia.com or phone (+372) 433 0442.

Driving from Birzai, Lithuania, to Valga, Estonia: unexpected treats, Turaida Castle, and a quirky hotel

A favorite photo from our cross-Latvia roadtrip

Leaving Birzai, Lithuania, we soon crossed the border again into the Latvian town of Skaistkalne and instantly came across our first surprise roadtrip treat when we spotted a lovely old church on a hill just overlooking the main road. This is exactly why we love exploring the roads less traveled and the freedom of a car. Winding our way up the steep drive, we passed a woman working on the church flowerbeds, but she paid us no heed and we wandered into the empty church on our own. We were blown away by the baroque interior and magnificent altar of the church which a sign proclaimed to be the tallest in Latvia. It turns out this church, Skaistkalnes baznīca–dating to the late 1600’s–is one of the largest churches in rural Latvia and the second most popular pilgrimage site. I left payment at the honor-system counter for a wooden rosary for my Catholic nephew, in green, his favorite color. What a lovely chance stop!

Beautiful Skaistkalnes baznīca

Continuing on our rural cross-country, we passed plowed fields (and lots of storks) before stopping for lunch in an eclectic little roadside eatery about 45km past Skaistkalne. Its sign named it only “Krodzinš” which basically means “inn,” so not much help there.

Rural central Latvia: plowed fields and storks

The sole waitress spoke no English, nor did anyone else in the place, but we got by with the aid of Google translate and a few words of German although Russian would have been a lot more helpful. Things were made extra-easy by the fact that a large portion of the menu wasn’t actually available. Oh well, we enjoyed what they had.

An eclectic interior
Lunch was cheap and good…once we figured out what was on the menu

My one sight-seeing goal for the day was Turaida Castle and the Turaida Museum Reserve in a forested national park northeast of Riga. We arrived in early afternoon to find ample parking in the nearest lot in front of a big restaurant and just across the street from the entrance to the castle and open air museum. We paid €1.50 to a lady watching the lot. Although it was off season and the restaurant was closed, a market of open stalls across the road was open and bustling.

Turaida Castle, like so much in this part of the world is largely rebuilt. The work was well-executed and the castle, surrounding buildings, and period-costumed docents give a glimpse of a bygone world. A adjacent sculpture park offers another scenic stroll. Adult entrance fee for the castle, outbuildings and sculpture park was €3 each. This is the winter fee and goes up to €5 in the summer peak season.

Approach to the castle inside the preserve grounds
View of Turaida Castle courtyard and the Gauja River from the castle tower
Fish tanks for breeding and harvest
Turaida blacksmith

Pine trees dominated the terrain around Turaida and beyond as we continued on our northeastern path. Logging trucks lumbered along the roads, piled high and slowing down our progress.

Logging trucks are a common sight in northern Latvia

Still, we made decent time and rolled into the Estonian college town of Valga by early evening. Once again, my TravSIM data SIM card transferred seamlessly as we crossed the border from Latvia into Estonia, so I was able to do a little quick hotel research and (for €68 euros including breakfast) book online what reviews promised to be the nicest hotel in town. Hotel Metsis is a distinguished small mansion of a building which sits across the street from a city park. The hotel lobby and restaurant are literally overflowing with an incredible collection of taxidermied animals. If this bothers you, you’ll want to avoid the place. We just found it quirky if a touch on the macabre side. I grew up in a Texas hunting family and am plenty familiar with domestic and foreign hunting trophies, but Hotel Metsis took things in a direction and to an extent I’ve never seen.

Hotel Metsis in Valga, Estonia

We enjoyed a very good dinner at the Hotel Metsis restaurant for €58 including a bottle of Chilean wine.

Dinner at Hotel Metsis
Hard to know what to say about this piece of taxidermy at the Hotel Metsis

The main street in front of the hotel was nearly devoid of cars and the town had a sleepy feel. We explored the park across the way and found only a few other people there. Walking into the residential neighborhood on the other side of the hotel we came across some some people playing ball in a small lakeside park. It was a quiet place, though, and we slept well that night in our pretty, comfortable room under the slanted roof of the hotel.

Park across from Hotel Metsis

Our included breakfast the next morning was served in the same restaurant as dinner and was good and ample, even if the various dead animals lurking over the buffet were a little off-putting.

Hotel Metsis breakfast buffet and stuffed/skinned animals

 

Latvia to Lithuania roadtrip: countryside, a palace, and a quest for unique beer

A windmill in rural Latvia

We got up bright and early to head out to the Riga Airport to pick up the Addcar rental car I’d reserved for eleven days. We were excited about the chance to get away from touristy Riga and the freedom to explore the Baltics on our own that only a car could offer.

Our first destination was Rundale Palace, a Versailles-like palace in the south of Latvia near the town of Bauska. I planned to head on from there to spend the night in Birzai, Lithuania, the “capital” of a special beer region in the north of Lithuania. Since we planned to drive back across Latvia to Estonia after visiting northern Lithuania, I navigated us to the westernmost route suggested by Google Maps so we could take a more easterly route when we headed north again and not have to retrace our path.

A short time out of Riga, we found ourselves driving through green fields, farms and small villages. The road was excellent and uncrowded. Our first detour was to check out the old windmill pictured in the top photo above. Not far from the town of Jelgava, we detoured again at Eleja where the ruins of an old plantation manor beckoned.

A headless sphinx, one of a pair guarding the ruins of Eleja Manor with the steward’s house to the left

A multi-lingual sign provided photos of the old manor building and informed us that the Russian Army had burned down 18 of the plantation buildings, including the main house, leaving only the steward’s house and a servant’s house. It’s a familiar story of pillage and destruction that we found repeated all over the Baltics and Belarus. The ruins at Eleja aren’t a major site, but they are part of a bigger picture that we would have missed without a car and the time to wander and stop.

Sign offering information about Eleja

A short distance beyond the Eleja ruins, we reached our first major destination of the day: Rundale Palace (Rundāles Pils). Rundale Palace is one of two opulent palaces built by the dukes of Courland, an independent duchy that once occupied a portion of modern day Latvia, but no longer exists. As with so many of the sites in the Baltics, it was heavily damaged by wars, but was restored. The extensive restoration spanned the years from 1972-2014 and was finally completed in 2015. The results are the impressive Rundale Palace and Museum.

David at the gates leading to the courtyard of Rundale Palace

Before starting our visit to the museum, our stomachs demanded food. We enjoyed a traditional lunch (and beer, of course) at Bālta Māja, a rustic restaurant situated between the parking lot and the palace entrance. Our friendly waitress spoke enough English to get us by. At €5+ for lunch and €2 for beer, prices were very reasonable.

Bālta Māja
Bālta Māja interior
Latvian lunch at Bālta Māja
Latvian lunch at Bālta Māja

Pleasantly full, we continued the short walk from Bālta Māja to the palace museum.

Rundale Palace courtyard from the main entrance
Stork and nest on the roof of the palace

With prices starting at €4 for adults, the Rundale Palace and Museum is a bargain. We had the option of the €4 “short route” or the slightly more expensive €4.80 (€6 in high season) “long route.” We opted for the long route and were glad we did since that added living quarters to the state rooms which comprise the short route.

The Gold Hall
Duke’s bedroom
The Rose Room in German Rococo style
Hand-painted tile stoves provided heat to most rooms

After exploring the palace, we headed outside to visit the extensive formal gardens. They promise to be spectacular in bloom, but were austere this early in the season. There’s an oriental “folly,” an open-air theater, gazebos and more.

Gardens viewed from Rundale Palace

With plenty of time left in the day, we retrieved the car and set out for Lithuania. Driving through Bauska and onto the A7, we were at the border in half an hour. Northern Lithuania is very rural and our main reason for going to the area was to try kaimiskas, a unique style of beer brewed only in that region. In making kaimiskas, the wort is never boiled and that’s just plain weird. We desperately wanted to try it. The town of Birzai claims title to the beer capital of Lithuania, so I booked us a hotel room there with plans to try a large brewery with a tasting room and restaurant in town. En route, though, we hoped to find some of that elusive local beer to try.

Having read about lots of small farm brewers with no discernible address, I decided we should try a larger outfit, Butautu Manor Brewery, located in a country manor house used as a party venue and also housing a small brewpub. I tried emailing with them about tasting, but never got a response. Knowing it was a gamble, we decided to chance a drive to the brewery anyway.

Just across the Lithuanian border, GPS steered us off the A7 highway and onto a dirt farm road. We probably should have turned around right then but the lure of rare beer pulled us on. The road degenerated with every turn until we found ourselves in flat, open fields. With only a mile or two to our destination, we came upon a wide, muddy patch in the road. Not wanting to concede defeat, David got out to test whether we could drive into the field and around the mud and water. I’ve done my share of rural driving and was shaking my head. If we stuck the rent car there, it was a long, long way to help and good luck finding someone out here who spoke English. Even David the Beer Lover had to admit we were thwarted. Making about a 15-point turn, we head back the long, winding, muddy way back to the highway.

The end of the road for us

But wait! Back on the highway, GPS found a re-route that wasn’t as far as I feared and we were back off. In less than thirty minutes we arrived at Butautu only to find the manor house and restaurant beer pub closed. Aargh. Oh well, it was pretty and we got to see more storks. So, we headed on to our nearby destination for the night, Birzai.

Butautu Manor brewery

About 20-25 minutes later, we pulled into Hotel Tyla just outside the town of Birzai and overlooking a scenic lake and inland. Fishermen in small john boats were just pulling in across the street when we arrived. The area and Hotel Tyla were set up for outdoor sports and recreation, but things were slow this time of year. We loved the quiet and the smell of the clean, fresh air. At around $55/night for a bedroom with balcony overlooking the inlet and including breakfast and free parking, we were happy. (Using Topcashback, we had another 4% rebate coming, too. Small change on this one-night stay, but Topcashback rebates add up to hundreds of dollars for me on travel and other purchases.)

View from our balcony at Hotel Tyla
View of the inlet from Hotel Tyla’s gazebo

After checking in and dropping off our luggage, we headed back into Birzai to visit the Alaus Kelias restaurant and brewery. They’d been great about responding to my emails, so I knew we wouldn’t be disappointed. We were surprised, though, at the pleasantly upscale restaurant and the extensive beer tasting on offer. There’s also a free small museum of the brewery upstairs.

Alaus Kelias restaurant

Despite the menu describing an 8-beer tasting, their special-made beer platter is set up for and provided 9 beers to taste. A written tasting guide was all in Lithuanian, but Google Translate helped us get the gist of things. The so-called “mini” tasting also came with a plate of assorted snacks.

Alaus Kelias “mini” beer tasting
Appetizers/beer snacks with our mini tasting

And, finally, we got to try a kaimiskas. No, we weren’t in a little farmhouse, but it was kaimiskas nonetheless, unboiled wort and all. It was like no beer we’d tried before: apricot yellow and so cloudy as to be completely opaque; tangy and low in carbonation, it tasted predominantly of fresh straw. I wouldn’t want to drink it all the time, but it was interesting and certainly not bad. I’m glad we got the chance to try it.

Rare, strange kaimiskas-style beer

Practical stuff re Addcar: I researched lots of rental options and found Addcar to offer the best value in the Baltics with unlimited miles. It also had good reviews for its Baltics operations. We used Addcar both for a 4-day rental in Vilnius (€68) and this 11-day rental from Riga (€180 rental+€15 cross-Baltic-border fee = €195 total). We were happy with Addcar both times and had absolutely no problems with the vehicles or the service. They did take a €450 security deposit charge on our credit card which they promptly refunded upon return of the car. The Addcar location at the Riga airport is just off-site, so requires a free shuttle. Since I didn’t have active phone service and was having some issues making the local call necessary to summon the shuttle van, I paid the Tourist Info office in the airport a small fee to make the call for me. In minutes, a van arrived to take us the short distance to the rental office and lot.

Riga, Latvia: Highlights, beer, ballet and practical things

View of Riga from St. Peter’s Church tower

Taking the Airport Bus to Old Town: We arrived in Riga via a 1-hour Belavia flight from Minsk, Belarus. There are two terminals at the Riga Airport and if you arrive, as we did, at the one with no Tourist Info office, walk out the main door and turn right to reach the main terminal. Inside this second terminal you’ll find the Tourist Info office. With the main terminal to your back, walk across the parking lot and in the far right corner, you’ll find the bus stop where Bus 22 and Minibus 222 provide cheap, efficient service to Old Town, the Riga Bus Station, covered markets, etc. Tickets are cheaper (€1.15) via a machine at the stand, but a 222 Minibus arrived just as we walked up and we paid the still-cheap €2 fare to the driver and were on our way. The bus was crowded to the point of standing room only and you’re on your own as far as getting your luggage on and off. It’s about a 30 minute ride to Old Town. [If you prefer a taxi, I read but can’t confirm that they are a fixed €14 and require the purchase of a voucher at the airport.] Read more about bus tickets and other public transportation here.

A bit crowded on Airport Minibus 222

Although the driver spoke little English, he tried to help people search for their stops. Our AirBnB host (a quick substitute after our original hostess canceled) had told me to get off at “Griezinieku station,” but little else. With no bus stop signs in sight, I was lucky when a fellow passenger offered that we were at that very stop, which wasn’t any sort of station. Anyway, for anyone wanting to take Bus 22 or Minibus 222 from the airport to Old Town, get off at the first stop just over the river bridge. (The bus turns right after crossing the bridge.) Walk back in the direction of the bridge and you’ll find a pedestrian underpass to Old Town that crosses under the wide, multi-lane boulevard that separates Old Town from the Daugava River. There’s currently construction going on, but it is open. It’s a very short walk (less than 5 minutes) from the bus stop to Old Town. Using Google Maps, we were at our apartment in no time. When it came time to pick up a rent car at the airport, we took the same pedestrian underpass, just popping up in the middle of the boulevard instead of walking all the way back to the riverside stop.

St. Peter’s Church; the €9 fee to climb to the top of the tower was ridiculous…but we paid it.
Old Town Riga

Old Town: Riga has a pretty, but small Old Town. Both a cruise ship port-of-call and a budget airline destination, it’s become very touristy with lots of souvenir shops, cafés, bars and restaurants. It caters to a younger, drinking crowd, too, and it’s common for bars to be open until 4am or even 6am! I pity the locals who live near the noisy, drunken throngs and pounding music. Cigarette butts and trash are frequently scattered across the sidewalks near bars. Choose your lodging location carefully.

The entrance to our AirBnB apartment was next door to such a dive-y bar, but fortunately faced an interior courtyard. With a fan for white noise, we didn’t have a problem sleeping, but certain neighbors must have. On the bright side, two doors down was a cavernous beer bar and restaurant, Folkklubs ALA, that topped David’s list of places to try local beer. We enjoyed a hearty and reasonably-priced meal of local fare there, too.

Prices have risen with the tourist trade, but we found the Latvian War Museum which encompasses the 14th century Powder Tower in the far NW corner of Old Town to be both surprisingly good and surprisingly free.

Old Town Riga square facing the beautiful House of the Blackheads with the somber Museum of the Occupation of Latvia to the right

We had rain on our first day in Riga, so headed to the famous covered market which is housed in four huge, side-by-side hangars (visible in the top photo of this blog post). This turned out to be one of our favorite stops. Products vary from building to building: produce, pickled goods, meat and cheese, fish, clothing and jewelry, etc. We bought honey and propolis, sausage, jerky and dark sausage bread. Vendors were friendly and quick to offer samples.

A line for the sausage lady’s goods. She also sold cheese, dark sausage bread, and kvass a fermented rye bread-based drink popular throughout the Slavic and Baltic countries and Russia

Beer!: The biggest hit at the market with our beer-loving selves was the Labietis craft beer bar set up near a main entrance (the one facing Old Town) to the produce hall. This bar is a small outpost of their much larger bar across town. We enjoyed visiting with the knowledgeable young woman serving beer that day and the other patrons who’d settled into the seating provided behind the bar. The beers were interesting and based on local ingredients. A particularly unusual brew was a “braggot” (a Welsh term for a honey brewed beverage related to mead) which they claim dates back to bronze age brewing techniques and ingredients. It’s a hazy golden drink with a small white head and fine bubbles. Its nose and taste is spicy with honey and meadow flowers. Sweet red berries and slight caramel round out the taste. We liked Labietis so much we made a point of a return visit when we came back to Riga some weeks later.

Lots on tap at the Labietis bar at the Riga Market
Enjoying a Labietis brew

Back in Old Town on another day, we tried local beers at Beer House No. 1, which boasts 70 beers on tap, both local and international. They’ve got a wide selection of Belgian beers, but having just spent 6 weeks in Belgium, we weren’t interested in that. I tried a Mežpils Saules EILS, a deep gold ale with a strong aroma and taste of butterscotch, rich, but with something crisper than expected that cuts through at the end. It was unusual, but I liked it at first. As it warmed, though, it developed a fake butterscotch taste that really put me off. I found myself unable/unwilling to finish it.

Beer House No. 1 in Old Town Riga
An odd butterscotch-y ale

Beyond Old Town: A short walk from Old Town Riga took us to the golden-domed Nativity of Christ Cathedral, a local icon. Just behind it across a small park sits the Latvian National Museum of Art. Walking from the cathedral past the museum a couple of blocks, we arrived at the famous Art Nouveau district of Riga. It’s a pleasant place to stroll, but it didn’t hold our attention for too long. For those more interested, the Riga Art Nouveau Museum is a long block further on.

Riga Nativity of Christ Cathedral
Art Nouveau buildings in Riga

Beautiful Ballet in a gorgeous Opera House: Some months before our arrival in Riga, I’d bought two of the few remaining tickets online to “On the Blue Danube,” a ballet I’d never heard of based on Johann Strauss music. The ballet turned out to be the true highlight of our stay in Riga. The Latvian National Opera House is a gorgeous gem of a venue and the ballet was spectacular. Mikhail Baryshnikov began dancing in his hometown of Riga and the tradition of fine ballet lives on with the Latvian National Ballet. In addition, the costuming was beautiful, mixing ballgowns and a formal menswear on waltzing, supporting dancers with classic ballet costumes on the ballet dancers in their midst…and all of this to Strauss music. Wonderful!

The Latvian National Opera House
Inside the Latvian National Opera House
Post-performance

At €10 each, our box seats were a steal even though they were not front row.  (See view from our seats above.) By the time we got to Riga, the performance was sold out for the coming 4 months, so book early if you’re interested. A pretty café offers drinks, hors d’oeuvres and desserts.

Café in the Latvian National Opera House

 

Minsk Airport Business Lounge review: a Priority Pass lounge

Flying Belavia, the national airline of Belarus, means arriving at the airport two hours before your flight. They’re firm about that no matter how short the flight. We arrived two-and-a-half hours early at the Minsk International Airport and found all Belavia desks closed, but sure enough, promptly two hours before our flight, a Belavia agent arrived and opened a counter. A line quickly formed. Since we were first in line, we were checked in and sans checked luggage in no time. With time to spare, we passed through security and headed upstairs to the Minsk Airport Business Lounge to which we have access via our Priority Pass Select cards (perks of both Chase Sapphire Reserve and AmEx Platinum).

We found an intriguing lounge, empty save for a single agent early on a Friday afternoon. Two massage chairs sat on an expanse of artificial turf spread just beyond two large, canopied daybeds of the kind you might expect to find in the beach area of a resort. Lounge chairs lined the faux lawn. Metal walls in this area and sleek lines on furniture and counters throughout give the lounge a futuristic look. I planted myself in one of the massage chairs for a goodly portion of our stay, but David thought they were too rough and opted for a lounge chair.

A buffet was set out in another wing of the L-shaped lounge just beyond the check in counter. Food tended toward local dishes, of cafeteria quality: sausage, fried meat and vegetables, soup, breakfast cereals and sweets. OK, but not great. Complementary coffee, soft drinks and water were also provided.

Free alcohol was limited to two kinds of Bobrov (a mass-produced Heineken beer) and local wine. Upgraded beer and wine were kept in a separate refrigerator near the check-in counter and cost extra. There were magazines and newspapers, but none in English.

View from a massage chair

We couldn’t access the free wi-fi with the directions provided on various signs because we had no way to receive the text message used to send a PIN code. The nice lady at the front counter solved the problem with access codes provided on scratch-off cards kept behind the front counter.

The Business Lounge was spotless, stylish and a good place to wait on a flight, if not exactly lavish. Just outside the Business Lounge, small 24-hour sleeping cubicles are available for rent. The Business Lounge is open 24-hours/day.

Sleeping cubicles at the Minsk Airport