I felt on top of the world, surrounded on all sides by undulating mountains of sand. A vigorous 45-minute hike had brought me to the peak of the dunes. But I wasn't in North Africa. In fact, I was thousands of kilometres away, in Northern Europe, in a place known as the Sahara of Lithuania. It is part of the Curonian Spit, a wisp-thin crescent-shaped strip of land, strung onto the water like a dainty necklace with the Baltic Sea on one side and the Curonian Lagoon on the other. Lithuanians call the spit Neringa.
I had first travelled to Lithuania, the land where my parents were born, as a 12 year old. It was 1975, a time of grim Soviet checkpoints and barbed-wire border crossings. On that trip and on five subsequent ones, I had always hoped to get to Neringa, which I knew through folklore and photos of majestic towering sand dunes that were the crowning glory of the 98-kilometre-long spit.
During the Soviet era, Neringa remained elusive because of its proximity to military installations in Kalingrad, south of the spit. This coastal paradise was, however, a prime vacation spot for Communist Party elite, staunchly off-limits to foreigners (though exceptions were made, apparently, for high-profile leftists like Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir).
Those barriers came down after Lithuania regained its independence in 1990. There is a different motivation now to keep watch on the number of visitors to Neringa. The ecology of the spit, which ranges in width from four kilometres to barely 500 metres, is extremely delicate. It was the wind and the tides that shaped the sand to create the spit, and they could take it all away again. Over the centuries, as many as 14 villages have vanished under shifting dunes.
I was intent on getting to Neringa this April, on a side-trip during a visit to Vilnius, Lithuania's capital, which is about a four-hour drive away. My Lithuanian friends were aghast when I told them of my plans. "You'll freeze," they said. "It's like the Arctic there at this time of year. It's not tourist season. If you're lucky enough to find accommodations that are open, they certainly won't be heated."
But I would not be dissuaded. And so it was with great anticipation – and a little trepidation – that I boarded the efficient car ferry in the port of Klaipeda, Lithuania's third-largest city, for a 10-minute hop across the harbour to Neringa.
It was late afternoon when I hit the two-lane road that bisects the spit. Deepening shadows were slightly ominous in the woods that hugged the narrow passage. But I felt secure that this dense forest is a key part of Neringa's ecology – pine trees especially are well-suited to keep the sandy soil from blowing away in the wind.
Still, after a bumpy 40-minute drive, I was relieved to arrive in Nida, the main town on the spit. Calling it a town might seem an exaggeration in the off-season when its population hovers at around 2,000. Just past Nida lies the border with Russia to which the other half of the spit belongs. The two countries now work together to protect this unique environment; in 2000, Lithuania and Russia jointly sponsored the Curonian Spit's nomination to UNESCO's World Heritage List.
Nida, which faces the lagoon, exudes the quaintness of a fishing village from the early 20th century. Wood-frame houses are freshly painted in deep red, with blue and white accents on the intricately carved trim under the eaves. Tucked in behind the homes are smokehouses to prepare the fish that is this region's main livelihood. A small market in Nida's main square displays a bountiful selection: eel, bream, perch and smelt that are dried, salted or smoked over pinecones.
I was relieved that the warnings about accommodation were unfounded as I stumbled upon a comfy bed-and-breakfast, a stone's throw from the bicycle path that runs along the harbour (it's part of an extensive network of bike trails that crisscross the spit). In my suite, birch logs were ready to be lit in the fireplace and a private sauna awaited. I went to sleep happy, knowing I wouldn't freeze and would finally see the dunes of Neringa the next day.
At breakfast the next morning, the buffet table was full: hard-boiled eggs, cereals, cold cuts and cheeses (the standout being a hard white curd with caraway seeds to be eaten on black bread with honey). And, it turned out, this was just for starters. A hot course of paper-light apple fritters followed.
Time to hit the trails to walk off the calories. The weather was glorious: not a cloud in the sky and temperatures in the low 20s. The sandy shore along the Baltic Sea was deserted, a perfect Robinson Crusoe moment. I tried to imagine it at the height of summer season when up to 300,000 people hit the beach – one with coveted environmental blue-flag status. But for now, the only signs of life were legions of birds. The Curonian Spit is on the migration path from Northern Europe and dozens of species – from starlings and swallows to ducks, swans and cranes – are as happy as I am to drop in on Neringa.
I could have stayed all day. But I had another stop to make: The tallest, most spectacular dunes are back on the lagoon side.
At the start of the trail winding up the 52-metre-high Parnidis Dune, signs warn visitors not to wander off the path, a crucial measure against erosion. The temptation is great: The sand is white and as soft as a duvet, a perfect place for a nap in the shade of a hillock. But the vista at the top beckons and it does not disappoint. Slate-blue water on either side caresses the verdant wisp of Neringa. It had taken me 40 years to get here, I made a wish that it wouldn't take another 40 to make it back.
IF YOU GO
Getting there: The ferry from Klaipeda leaves approximately every 30 minutes from the New Ferry Terminal. The Old Ferry Terminal is for pedestrian/bike passengers. Return fare is 40 litas ($16) for a car (hang on to your receipt for the return trip). Schedules available online at keltas.lt/eng.
The entry road toll on the Curonian Spit is 10 to 20 litas ($4 to $8) a car, depending on the season.
Where to stay: A wealth of accommodation options, including many bed-and-breakfasts, is available during the summer season which runs from June 1 to August 31. Booking ahead is recommended.
We stayed at Naglis guest home in Nida. A room with full kitchen and fireplace cost 250 litas ($100), breakfast is an extra 20 litas ($8) each. Nagliu gt, 12, Nida; 370-469-51124; naglis.lt.