Otepää, Estonia

Photo: GMP Clubhotel

You’ve fallen under Estonia’s spell. A few years ago, when you first visited the Baltic states, you lumped the countries together. Estonia. Latvia. Lithuania. All three were waking up after 50 years of Soviet control. All three had been welcomed into the European Union. And all three were becoming tourist destinations for the first time. Estonia quickly jumped ahead of the pack.

Tallinn captivated you first. You hopped on the ferry in Helsinki, crossed the Gulf of Finland, and fell in love with its UNESCO-preserved Old Town. The coast and the islands were next. They reminded you of your favorite New England towns in the off-season. Now you’re finally heading inland and south. Estonia is home to more than 1,400 lakes and countless rivers, rolling hills and dense forests.

You’re nearly 150 miles south of Tallinn—almost to the Latvian border—when you finally stop in Valga. The county’s hills, ridges, and valleys were formed by glaciers. Otepää, a hilltop town, was dubbed the “winter capital” of Estonia as ski resorts were constructed. It overlooks Pühajärv, a beautiful lake with a sandy beach and five islands. Castle ruins, nature parks, and hiking trails are here, too. Perhaps Otepää should be considered an all-season destination.

Photo: GMP Clubhotel

Otepää’s natural beauty makes you stop, but it’s a man-made building that makes you stay. GMP Clubhotel sits on the northeast corner of the lake. As you approach, the hotel doesn’t look remarkable. It was built by the Soviets after all. The hotel’s lake views, especially from its summer terrace, are breathtaking, though. It’s a perfect spot to listen to live music as you sip a cocktail at sunset. The restaurant is even more impressive. GMP Pühajärv Restoran showcases modern Estonian cooking. It’s considered one of the best restaurants in the country and was recently included in the White Guide Nordic. The rest of the hotel no longer matters.

GMP Pühajärv Restoran takes fresh-from-the-field ingredients and combines them with complex, usually French, techniques. The results are rustic flavors and artful plates. Rye bread is baked the same way it has been for centuries. Fresh fruit (cowberries, apples, rhubarb) is added to starters. Grains are left whole and combined with fresh pesto and goat cheese for a unique take on risotto. The chicken, the duck, and the lamb were all raised nearby. Wild herbs are added to the ice cream that tops a traditional chocolate tart. While pairings include a new craft beer, an Estonian apple-quince wine, and a Rondo (a red wine that grows well in cold climates). By the time the young chef comes out to say hello, you’re convinced that Estonia is about to be overrun with a new type of tourist. Here come the foodies.

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