The corridor, gently lit with modern downlighters, is flanked by stark white baths, a reminder of this smart new spa’s not-so-distant past as the Soviet Mud Baths. After years of dereliction, the baths, behind their stately pre-Soviet Neoclassical façade, have been restored and re-invented as the Hedon Spa and Hotel, an indulgent retreat for 21st-century Estonia.
The Hedon is in Parnu, the nation’s summer capital. “For Estonians, it’s not summer without a trip to Parnu,” I’m told by a couple of Talliners as I head along 120km of lowland forest between the capital and the coast. During Estonia’s long summer days and nights, when the sun barely sets, Parnu is the place to see and be seen.
I arrive to find a town that’s softly colourful in pastel shades touched by a cool, northern light. The streets are lined with weatherboard houses, bejewelled by doors that are striped, dotted and tessellated in bright geometric designs. Arty bars and shabby-chic restaurants and cafés hum with chatty customers and friendly waiting staff.
As I near the coast, elegant, if slightly faded, stone villas and Art Deco hotels bear witness to Parnu’s past. Since the 19th century – long before the Soviets popularised the mud bath – Estonians, Swedes, Finns, Latvians and Russians flocked here to improve their health and wellbeing. They came, and still come, to bathe, play and parade along its long stretch of white sandy beach, which gently slopes into the clear protected waters of Parnu Bay.
Photographs on Hedon Hotel’s walls show topless bathing as early as the 1900s and there is still a women-only stretch of beach where nudism is allowed. “Men are not actually excluded,” a hotel employee confides, and the males around me look interested ... until she adds: “The young don’t go there, it’s mostly women over 50.”
In summer the shallow, sun-warmed waters attract bathers of all ages. The beach teems, revellers spill on to the dunes and events abound including the annual Oistrakh classical music festival in July, named after the Soviet violinist, David Oistrakh, who used to spend his summers here. The bulk of the crowds are gone by mid-August, leaving a month or so of calmer beach time before temperatures plummet. In winter, you can sometimes walk on the sea or even drive the ice-road to outlying islands.
I walk along unspoilt dunes by a pristine beach, my peace interrupted only by gusts of sea air and the occasional cyclist on the coast path. Refreshed, I return to the contemporary Hedon Hotel, part of the €16m refurbishment of the historic spa, and sit in the glass-walled restaurant enjoying the view. By night this becomes Restaurant Raimond, territory of an inventive young chef, a rising star in Estonian gastronomy and a protégé of Gordon Ramsay. He owns a dog called Ramsay and has apparently picked up not only Gordon’s culinary flair but also his kitchen manner. Perhaps I’m not so sorry he’s out right now.
Tucked between the beach and Mud Baths, the bulk of the hotel’s new building is made light by its slatted construction. The theme continues inside, with tastefully striped rooms in black, white and beige and ribbed balconies overlooking the beach. The design was inspired by the roll-up metal blinds that were the height of modernity – and the first in Estonia – when the spa building was constructed in 1927.
One lonely blind remains, beneath the original, painted rose-vault ceiling that was built during Estonia’s brief first independence (1920-40). The spa’s “high society” bathers were soon replaced by Soviet workers on the closest they could get to a foreign holiday. They would pass the towering statue of Stalin – now long gone – that stood in front of this “Temple of Health”, before presenting their trade union vouchers for baths in thick brown mud that was trundled through the spa building in little iron railway trucks.
So, am I going to get covered in mud? No, explains the spa manager. Local mud is no longer used because “it’s too smelly”. Instead I bathe my way through the swimming pools and Silent Spa, the tranquil, child-free series of steam rooms, foot baths, and Dead Sea pool leading to the saunas.
“The sun always shines in Hedon Spa,” I’m told as I enter the sun relaxation room. The light jumps a few thousand lux. This is the “Bali” setting apparently (bright but laid back). It changes again to “Miami” (stark, reach-for-sunglasses), so I ask to go back to Bali and receive a post-winter vitamin D top up before a relaxing facial, then supper.
Rushing is not the way to do the Hedon Spa. Most of the other seven spas in town are primarily medical. The Hedon is not. Here the Estonian owners have restored the historic building but thrown off its muddy Soviet past in favour of a contemporary – hedonistic – future.
Juliet Rix travelled as a guest of the Estonian Tourist Board. Flights to Tallinn are operated by easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyJet.com) from Gatwick and Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) from Stansted and Manchester. Parnu is about two hours from Tallinn by car, bus or train.
Hedon Spa & Hotel (00 372 449 9000; hedonspa.com). Double rooms start at €69. Day visitors are also welcome at the spa.
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