Review by Fiona Duncan, published 2nd September 2007.
We are in the queue for departures at Heathrow, but we haven't a clue where we're going. Or rather we know what it says on our tickets - Palanga, via Copenhagen - but beyond that we're pretty much in the dark.
We trudge through the security checks and into the departure lounge, and are ready for a little light airport shopping when our stress levels, hovering around acute, soar back up to alarming: our flight to Copenhagen is delayed. When we get there, we'll have only 15 minutes to catch our connecting flight to Palanga. Was this trip really going to de-stress us?
I won't bore you with how my friend Leonie and I came to find ourselves in a last-minute bid for sun, sanity and soothing surroundings, but suffice to say that mounting work loads combined with school holidays, the ghastly British weather and the need to convene (we work together, but from our separate homes) were driving us to the brink.
Do we have to meet in Basingstoke again, I moaned (it's equidistant). Let's get away somewhere sunny, somewhere different, for a few days. We had no time to research destinations, so the moment had come to press that panic button, the one I noticed on blacktomato.co.uk.
Black Tomato is a savvy new travel agency that has as its shop window not brochures but a slick website, full of ideas for short breaks all over the world, pigeonholed into Action Time, Sports Time, Stylish Time, Intrepid Time and so on. Normally I dream up my own perfect break, but Black Tomato's panic button is there to provide urgent inspiration with a few days' notice.
With some trepidation, I filled in the detailed questionnaire on the home page and pressed the button. Within minutes I received a phone call from an adviser on the panic desk. Within hours we'd plumped for a three-night stay in a country we'd never been to (Lithuania), a town we'd never heard of (Palanga), with an equally obscure natural wonder, the Curonian Spit, nearby. Within days we were off, Black Tomato having taken care of our flights, transfers, hotel and hire car. The tickets arrived in the nick of time, with two gifts: a CD and book of our choice.
When we land at Palanga it's late, we're tired and although we made the transfer at Copenhagen, our bags didn't. However, the efficient staff at the tiny airport issue us with survival kits to get us through until morning when our bags, we hope, will appear.
Palanga is Lithuania's premier Baltic-coast resort: part colourful playground with a carnival vibe, full of bars, clubs, live music, tacky stalls and fairground rides; and part calm oasis, with houses hidden in a forest of scented, sky-high pines, a huge and beautiful botanical garden and a superb beach carpeted by the most luxuriant sand I have ever set foot on, stretching for miles.
We love our contemporary hotel, an elegant construction of curving glass almost obscured by the trees that surround it. Our standard room, with balcony, is comfortable and spacious, the staff are exceptionally friendly, and the food, we discover, is excellent: fresh, contemporary and inexpensive. And there's a swimming pool and spa (pre-book treatments).
Breakfast is more characteristic of the region than dinner: an amazing spread of curd cheese with jam and cream, poached salmon, stuffed eggs, frankfurters and salads - plus all the usuals, too. We set off, stuffed, to explore the Curonian Spit.
It's an hour's easy drive from Palanga, including a short ferry crossing from Klaipeda, Lithuania's second city, to the start of the spit. You can hire a car, or take a driver or, as we did, take a guide as well. Either way, you'll find an extraordinary and fragile landscape: a 60-mile lick of sand dividing the Curonian lagoon from the Baltic.
A Unesco World Heritage Site, it has given shelter to Crusaders crossing the winter ice, provided a through-route for the coaches and fours of European postal services, and been the summer home of Thomas Mann, whose wooden house is now a museum. Mann wrote of the spit's beauty and its fantastic dunes.
The sweeping, shifting sands, responsible for burying a number of villages, are the spit's highlight, but it has other charms: the sense of calm; the scent of pines; the herons in the tree tops; and the intricate weather vanes that once adorned family fishing boats.
We lunch in the village of Nida, with its colourful houses, its fabulous beach (equal to Palanga's, without the crowds) and its remarkable cemetery. The Curonians had only sand and pinewood at their disposal, so their tombstones are in wood, carved by relatives of the deceased. The graves lie in a tranquil glade, and are still smothered in flowers and greenery.
It's been a busy day. We'd thought we needed to flop, but we find that plunging into another world, one quite outside our experience, is far more cathartic than lying prone on the beach. And anyway, next day, back in Palanga, we get our share of sunbathing, as well as cycling gently through the botanical gardens and ambling round the intriguing Amber Museum, where million-year-old flies can be seen trapped in golden coffins made of pine resin.
Waiting for each of us at home is a package from Black Tomato containing a £25 voucher for an upmarket takeaway and a copy of The Week so we can catch up with the news. That's a nice touch, too, but what we're really grateful for is a panic button that worked.
Black Tomato (020 7610 9008; www.blacktomato.co.uk) charged £599 per person for four nights’ b&b at the Hotel Palanga, based on two people sharing a twin or double room, including international flights and private airport transfers.
Most operators’ websites offer a search option that will help users in a hurry find something quickly, but the questions asked - typically, “holiday style?” , “destination” and “special interests?” - are fairly broad so the results are less likely to be exactly what you are looking for.
However, several operators are introducing “welcome home” vouchers similar to Black Tomato’s: Virgin Holidays (www.virginholidays.co.uk), for example, is currently inviting customers travelling between May 1 and October 8, 2008, to fill their fridge with £100-worth of food from Tesco on their return - providing they book their holidays by September 24.