Two of my favourite things in the world are traveling and spending time with the group of people I’m blessed to call my friends. Put these two together and you get one HAPPY Pielaun. My squad and I embarked on a very unexpected trip earlier this month, and here’s a fun little recap!
My friends and I were kindly invited to head over to Latvia to stay in a serene eco-village located in the middle of woods, swamps and grasslands. Wait a minute. Latvia, you say? You know, that Baltic state with capital city Riga? Neighbour of Lithuana, Estonia, Belarus and Russia?
No worries if couldn’t tell me anything else about the country — same here! That’s exactly why I was so keen to explore Latvia: places you know absolutely nothing about are always a tiny bit more exciting to visit, right? The mystery! The thrill!
The first thing we noticed is also the one thing we all remember very well from this trip: Latvia turns out to be quite remote, sparsely populated and still very much unexplored. In other words: go here for the most peaceful, nature-oriented holiday of your life! With no less than 4 national parks, plenty of pristine lakes and even caverns and caves, the country is the perfect destination for adventure junkies and relaxation seekers.
Tranquillity and adventure, huh? This perfectly reflected in our accomodation. As mentioned before, our group was invited to stay in two stunning log houses by Koka Maja. These wooden houses are located in the picturesque eco-village Amatciems, that was founded from a desire to live in a facilitated, forest enclosed property in harmony with nature and wild animals. Surrounded by the Gauja National Park (without any fences!) you can enjoy the environment in total peace, freedom and privacy. Sounded like a DREAM, so it didn’t take us long to book our flights and pack our suitcases!
We stayed at Koka Maja from Sunday until Wednesday to experience a few days off in a unique setting. Honestly, I totally recommend to stay even longer in order to fully unwind and take your time to explore the area!
Off we went!
Upon arrival at the airport we were picked up and taken to the rental car that we very conveniently booked through Koka Maja. A quick stop at the supermarket and a 1,5 hour drive later our group arrived at Amatciems. As the sun had already set, you can imagine how curious we were to discover the surroundings the day after! And surprise, surprise…
We woke up to a village covered in snow! Usually Latvia is freezing and covered in deep, deep snow in February, but due to the warm Winter we’ve all experienced in Europe this year, we weren’t really expecting any flakes during our trip. We rushed outside to enjoy the surprise snow as long as it would last — about two hours before it started to melt, so it turned out 😉 Time to properly discover our log houses then!
First of all, meet Villa Venice! This property is the newest and biggest one of the two, housing up to 9 and a maximum of even 11 guests. This inevitably became our most important meeting place because of the space. Villa Venice has an impressive view over one of the fishing ponds of Amatciems, which was one of the highlights to wake up to every morning.
Also, the wellness area shares the same stunning view! And when I say “wellness area”, I mean an entire floor dedicated to relaxing: a large sauna, an outdoor jacuzzi, a private bar, a design bath tub, a huge lounge sofa and a sound & light system that you can operate yourself. Pretty staggering!
The house is divided in two apartments, so there are multiple bedrooms, bathrooms and even two kitchens. Very practical if you’re staying with couples or a big family group that wants some privacy. The apartments can also be rented seperately, but the wellness area is shared. If you have any specific requests, you can always ask Koka Maja as they stand for a very personal approach.
The second, smaller house is called Tubisi. I say smaller as it hosts up to 5 people, but in terms of open spaces this house might feel even bigger than Villa Venice. Next to the seating corner with wood stove (!) downstairs, there is also a huge living room on the top floor where you can hang out all evening to play games and enjoy a glass of wine.
Tubisi features a sauna and outdoor jacuzzi as well, with a beautiful view on a private landing-stage and fish pond! The place looked pretty amazing during Winter, but imagine coming here in Summer and dipping your toes in the water every morning… Must be magical!
What I really loved about this house was the fun, eclectic interior: think cozy mountain chalet meets midcentury modern. Especially the wellness area was absolutely gorgeous! Also, have I already mentioned that there is a large spa in the village of Amatciems as well, with an indoor pool and massage treatments for you to book? Just so you knooooow.
What to do in Latvia?
Besides sleeping in late, playing board games and sweating away in the sauna (amazing), we did of course embark on some outdoors adventures too! A country with this many forests has so many great outdoor activities to offer, but let’s start with the most obvious one: hiking!
Even in the village of Amatciems there are a few beautiful hiking routes that will keep you walking for a few hours. And of course, don’t miss the Gauja National Park if you’re into some spectacular sights of raw nature. Seriously, google it!
Besides that, I’d recommend you to go on a hiking trip near the Sigulda Adventure Park. Here you’ll find lots of hiking routes as well (find them on Google Maps), plus you can hop in a cable car that rides 43m above the valley of the Gauja River. I heard these views are pretty amazing! The cable ride ends at the Turaida Castle, which is worth a visit too. Oh, and in Summer daredevils can bungee jump from the cable car directly above the river. Well well well.
Find a list of the best hiking routes right here.
Husky Dog cuddling & sledding
Here’s something I had no clue about: Latvia is home to snow dogs like Huskies and Malamutes! And you can play & sled with them in the Gauja National Park! In a responsible, respectful and ethically correct way, that is. Let me tell you all about it.
The thing is, these dogs are incredibly energetic and require lots of activity and assistence. That’s why very often families unfortunately can’t take care of them, which means they’re often given up. Sniega Sugi is a Latvian shelter that takes in these dogs and tries to give these buddies a better life. To keep up with their much-needed daily workouts and cover their food, maintainance and vaccination costs, the shelter organises responsible dog sledding tours for visitors.
We arrived at the National Park and were welcomed by a bunch of more than 12 happy barking little friends. It was truly heartwarming to see the caretakers play with the dogs, and we were invited to do so too! They were all obviously well-loved, respected and healthy and were pretty excited to get hooked up to the sled. That’s right, sledding is an activity these guys apparently really enjoy too.
These tours are fairly short (about 15min) and each dog can only do a maximum of 3 tours a day, so they are rotated between every tour. They also have a minimum of 1 rest day a week for their mental health, as these dogs are born to just keep going, basically forever. I can also confirm that during the sledding these stunners are in no way being pushed to go faster or keep on going; on the contrary.
And then finally, this sledding obviously sounds very dreamy in a snowy landscape, but can also be organised when it’s a bit warmer outside — on wheels, that is. The latter happened in our case! Not as “pretty”, but equally fun.
We took turns in teams of 2 to ride the sled: one is driver, one is passenger, and in the middle of the track you stop and switch. It was a pretty crazy feeling to go along on this adrenaline rush of the dogs, but we also felt super safe as one caretaker always joined in front or behind the sled on a quad. As said before, every little tour takes about 15min and in the meantime the rest of the group can do what was probably the most fun: CUDDLING WITH THE DOGGIES. Best. Thing. Ever.
If you’re interested in spending an afternoon with these rescue dogs as well, head over to Red Fox Tours for all booking details! Also, I’ll share a vlog soon that will show even more of the doggie love
And some realtime footage of the ride!
Sushi workshop at Koka Maja
Ok ok, this might sound unexpected but was super fun too! One of the activities that you can book straight via Koka Maja is a sushi masterclass & private dinner in the coziness of your own log house. The owners of one of the best sushi restaurants in Riga come over to the house and bring every little detail and ingredient with them, so you don’t have to worry about cooking dinner that evening.
Warning: make sure you’re hungry when these guys arrive. Before we even got started, they already spoiled us with lots of delicious homemade appetizers. The chef then taught us how to prepare, roll and cut a proper Uramaki, or Inside-Out Roll — which was the first time for most of us! The end result was pretty delicious, but then… The chef really started pulling out his tricks and prepared two large plates of the finest sushi in rainbow colours! Amagad.
You can book the sushi masterclass via Koka Maja at €25 per person for the evening, all food included. Food coma guaranteed. More footage in my vlog soon!
Latvia is a country of castles and medieval villages. Any culture lover will adore wandering around these old manors, especially since most organise tours and even thematic events! You can also experience a night in one of these former palaces — sounds cool right? Find a list of the most famous castles right here.
Into extreme speed and thrill? In Latvia you’ll find one of the very few bobsleigh tracks in the world that’s open to both professionals and visitors. It’s one of the longest tracks in Europe (1420 meters) and it’s being used in the World Bobsleigh Championship too. The Olympic Bob reaches speed over 100km/h, but there’s slower options to choose from as well. Plus, you don’t need prior experience to hit the tracks!
Nearby Amatciems you’ll find a stunning nature trail that is being illuminated in the dark during Winter! This means you simply follow the lights to discover the hiking route. The trail reveals a story about the devil and two witches who lived in the Cicilu Rock, and takes about 1 hour in total.
I’ve mentioned wellness before, but there’s a real sauna tradition in Latvia to discover too! The ritual dates back to the 19th century, when every family had their own baththouse. Nowadays, Latvian people still rent houses with friends and family to escape their busy life and celebrate all kinds of occasions. One of the most famous rituals is the Black Sauna, that takes 3,5 hours and is guided by a professional sauna master.
Other outdoors activities include canoeing, rafting, kayaking, supping, ziplining, bungee jumping, cycling, quad biking, ice karting, skiing and so on. Find lots of activity inspiration right here!
And finally, something I wish I had done as well: visit the capital city Riga of course! The biggest metropolis in the Baltics is apparently a mix between tradition and unexpected cool, so that sounds pretty amazing. The old city is classified as a World Heritage site by UNESCO and a must-see when you’re in town. Follow the link above for a top 10 must-do’s in Riga!
Direct flights to Riga are 2u25 from Brussels or Charleroi, with airlines like Ryanair, Brussels Airlines and Baltic Air providing several flights a week.
You pay by euro in Latvia, and overall everything is quite a lot cheaper than in Belgium. Especially in the countryside you can go shop and dine at low prices!
Driving in Latvia is easy peasy as there’s never a lot of traffic. You can rent a car, which is being arranged for you if you book via Koka Maja.
You can book your preferred Koka Maja accomodation in the eco-village of Amatciems through their website or via Booking and Airbnb (search for Amatciems or Koka Maja).
Before you drive over to Amatciems, it’s best to stop at a supermarket to get all of your groceries. There’s a huge Rimi supermarket located near the airport at shopping mall Spice. so I’d advise you to drop by there first.
Out for dinner? The village of Amatciems houses a restaurant at the Jonathan Spa (offering breakfast too!), and most other nearby restaurants are located in Cecis. We went to Villa Santa and received recommendations on Janoga, H.E. Vanadzins and Bekko — these are all available for lunch too. For groups it’s best to make a reservation!
That’s it! My full travel guide for Latvia! I’d loooove to hear what you think — did I make you curious for this unexpected destination? Or was this place on your to-do list already? Drop me a line in the comments!
Disclaimer: our stay at the houses was very kindly gifted by Koka Maja to be able to create this travel guide — all other expenses on this trip were covered by ourselves.
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