RIGA - Rural tourism and outdoor recreation go hand in hand. A rarity in Europe, the Baltic states' nearly untouched ecosystem is scattered with small tourism entrepreneurships, offering everything from hot air ballooning, to river rafting and horseback riding on wild mares.
Today Latvia boasts an almost untouched natural ecosystem that covers more than 50 percent of its territory. From the country's beloved rolling plains to its 494-kilometer stretch of coastline, Latvia is a haven for tourists seeking rustic settings. And for each natural wonder, there's a handful of adrenaline-inducing ways to enjoy it.
Latvia's Gauja National Park, located in the central town of Sigulda, is a magnet for outdoor adventurers. The Gauja River 's the longest in Latvia at 452 kilometers 's cuts through the park's ancient valley of sandstone and dolomite cliffs. Bungee jumping, water rafting and trail trekking are just a few of the area's most popular activities.
Avid spelunkers can find the largest cave in the Baltic states 's Gutmana cave 's in the center of Gauja National Park. The cave's natural sand catacombs wind 18.8 meters deep, 12 meters wide and 10 meters high.
Sigulda's professional bobsled track, however, is by far the town's most prized recreational feature. Open year-round, the 1,420 meter-long track allows visitors to live out their dream of participating in one of the Winter Olympics' most popular sports.
The structure is primarily used for professional bobsled and luge training and competitions, in which athletes reach speeds of up to 125 kilometers per hour. Amateurs, however, will fly along the concrete track at a much safer speed of 80 kilometers per hour under the guidance of professionals.
"The ride is amazing," says Rainis Medenis, an outdoor recreation enthusiast who tried bobsledding earlier this month. "It's something you should mark off your 'things to do before you die' list."
During the summer months, Estonians find few things more enjoyable than relaxing by theseaside. The country's bountiful lakes, endless stretch of shoreline, and lush coastal islands, create a haven for water lovers. Sailing, canoeing, jet-skiing and other water recreation activities are only a few of the many ways to enjoy Estonia's sublime aqua playground.
The same is true for Latvia. According to Ivars Ildens, owner of Sturis Water Sports Center, water activities are becoming increasingly popular.
"Last year I had more than 300 customers who had never done [wake boarding] before," he says. "The main problem used to be that there were no decent places to try water sports, and no decent equipment. But now this has changed."
Even during the winter, the outdoor activities market keeps turning. In fact the Baltic's long snowy days serve as the perfect setting for winter sports.
With a generous snowfall, winter temperatures create ideal skiing conditions. Granted, there are no alpine peaks to be found in the Baltics, with Latvia's highest mountain, Gaizinkalns, reaching a mere 312 meters. Yet local hotels and lodges depend on winter business to keep them going all year, according to Gaizinstars hotel manager Larisa Sreija.
Gaizinkalns offers three different ski slopes, each with recently modernized lifts. Just this last year, the now-notorious Latvian company LIDO opened its own winter recreation center a few kilometers from Gaizinkalns, which includes 500 meters of downhill skiing, three rope tows, an ice-skating rink, lodge and restaurant.
Meanwhile in Lithuania, extreme sports are all the rage. With a history as turbulent as theirs, it comes as little surprise that Lithuanians indulge life to its maximum, oftentimes throwing caution to the wind.
Perhaps the epitome of daredevil activity, skydiving has found its niche in Kaunas. Founded in 1992 at Pociunai Airfield, the Kaunas Skydiving Club is the oldest parachute club in Lithuania and one of the most popular in the Baltics. Similar clubs can be found in Latvia and Estonia as well.
Meanwhile, the Kaunas Flyers Club offers delta-plane flights and paragliding for recreational enjoyment.
After nearly 15 years of independence, the Baltic states have experimented in almost every area of outdoor recreation. And with rural tourism on the rise (see story page 14), more and more tourists are trekking beyond the capital cities for some outdoor fun.
"Pretty much anything you want to do, you can find 's just maybe not on as large a scale as other places [in Europe]," says Medenis. "For example, there aren't any rapids for white-water rafting. But basically, the sports are there."