A spit is defined as “a narrow point of land projecting into the sea”, and that’s exactly what the Curonian Spit is. The swath of land extends into the Baltic Sea from Southwestern Lithuania, connecting to Kaliningrad’s Sambian Peninsula in a slightly crescent-shaped formation. On one side of the spit is the Curonian Lagoon; the other, the Baltic Sea. The Curonian Spit is 60 miles long and, at its widest, barely more than 2 miles across. The northern 32 miles of the spit belongs to Lithuania; the rest is part of the Kaliningrad Oblast, Russia. The Curonian Spit is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the designation shared by both countries. Furthermore, both the Russian and the Lithuanian sides of the spit are national parks.
A single road spans the length of the spit from Smiltynė, Lithuania, to Lesnoy, Russia. There are four main villages within the Lithuanian portion that make up the municipality of Neringa. They are Juodkrantė, Pervalka, Preila, and Nida, and they all are on the Curonian Lagoon side of the spit. On the Baltic side are miles of sweeping sand dunes and pristine beaches. Between the two shores, forested areas make up 70% of the land.
Settlements on the Curonian Spit date all the way back to the 7th century. Since then, the region has seen a vast array of occupants, including the Teutonic Knights, the Swedes, the Kingdom of Prussia, the German Empire, and the Soviet Union. Klaipėda, on the Lithuanian mainland, is the most prominent ice-free port in the Eastern Baltic and, today, it serves as the gateway to the Curonian Spit.
The only way to get to the Curonian Spit from mainland Lithuania is via ferry from Klaipėda. There are two terminals: Old Ferry Terminal (Northern Horn), from which only cyclists and pedestrians are transported; and New Ferry Terminal, from where car ferries depart. One of the ferries from the Old Terminal travels between Klaipėda and Smiltynė; another between Klaipėda and Nida with stops in Juodkrantė. The car ferries from the New Terminal travel only between Klaipėda and Smiltynė. During summer months, ferries from both terminals run quite frequently; however, it’s recommended to double check the schedules closer to your dates of travel to confirm departure and arrival times. This is true for any time of year but especially during fall, winter, and spring, as trips can be canceled due to inclement weather. The JSC Smiltynės perkėla website is most helpful when it comes to ferry schedules and prices.
My family and I flew to Vilnius, rented a car at the airport, and drove approximately three hours to Klaipėda. From there, it was quite simple to follow posted signs and find the New Terminal. We were directed by port employees to pay the toll and board the car ferry for the short ride across the lagoon to Smiltynė. Be advised that wait times on both ends of the ferry route can be lengthy on weekends and holidays, especially during the summer.
Things To Do
Miles of sandy beaches, fresh Baltic air, and mild temperatures make the Curonian Spit the perfect summer holiday destination. It’s easy to understand why so many families – mostly Lithuanian, German, and Russian – return year after year.
The beaches are mainly accessible via established foot and bike trails, some of which can be lengthy. As an example, the trail to the beach closest to our hotel in Juodkrantė was just under two miles long – one way. In addition, all the trails aren’t exactly flat. Remember the spit is characterized by its sand dunes; one must get up and over those dunes, via the trail and tall staircases, in order to reach the water. Consider it a challenge and embrace it, for the reward at the end of the trail is so worth it: warm, soft sand; the deep blue sea; panoramic views of the Baltic; and not a whole lot of crowds. Good to know: if walking to the beach, wear comfortable shoes and be prepared for slight inclines. Also, be sure to pack water and sunscreen, most importantly, and other necessary provisions. We depleted our water supply by the time we were leaving the beach to head back to town. Luckily, there was a kiosk along the trail with cold drinks and snacks for purchase. For added convenience, there are private stalls on the beach for changing into or out of swimsuits.
A bike trail runs the length of the spit along the Curonian Lagoon, making cycling a very popular activity on the spit. There are a number of rental kiosks along the path and many hotels rent or even lend (for free) bikes to guests. Some argue that biking the spit is the best way to see it and the best way to get from village to village.
Nature Walks / Hiking
As mentioned, the whole of the Curonian Spit has UNESCO World Heritage designation, partly due to its “unique” natural features. Urbanized areas comprise only 6% of the land so there is much nature to be had. One of the main natural attractions is the 160-foot Parnidis Dune, just outside of Nida. It’s the only place on the spit where both the Curonian Lagoon and the Baltic Sea can be seen from the same point. IMPORTANT: The Curonian dunes, Parnidis included, are very fragile and constantly evolving. To prevent destruction, please do not stray from marked trails!
For something a bit more mystical and unusual, take a walk through the forest at the Hill of Witches in Juodkrantė. It isn’t exactly a hill; rather, it is a prehistoric sand dune that’s now densely forested. Within the forest are 80 wood carvings, many appearing mysteriously over time since 1979, that represent figures from Lithuanian folklore and pagan traditions. The sculptures range from playful to downright frightening, while the trails range from easy to slightly moderate, making it suitable for the whole family. Again, comfortable shoes and water are key.
The Curonian Spit’s location along the East Atlantic Flyway, a migration route used by about 90 million birds annually, makes it a birder’s paradise. The spit is also home to Lithuania’s largest colony of grey herons and cormorants.
Where To Stay
There are no familiar hotel chains on the Curonian Spit. Many accommodations are small, family-run inns or self-catered rentals. My family and I stayed at Vila Flora, an historic wooden villa turned hotel in Juodkrantė, which happens to stay open year round. Vila Flora has 15 rooms, most of which are perfectly equipped for families, and breakfast at the on-site, full-service restaurant is included for all guests. We were given the “family room” when we arrived at Vila Flora. It’s furnished with two full-size beds, a couch, chairs, and refrigerator; has an en-suite bathroom and a balcony overlooking the outdoor cafe and the Curonian Lagoon. We couldn’t have asked for more comfortable accommodations. The kids loved the loft and were more than happy to sleep together up there every night!
Accommodation options are more plentiful in Nida, the spit’s largest town. Several historic wooden cottages have been transformed into hotels and inns and still retain the centuries-old charm.
Where To Eat
In all honesty, just walk through the towns and select a restaurant or cafe to stop in for a meal. That was my family’s strategy and we were not disappointed. One standout was Varna.Terasa in Nida. The rooftop terrace with views of the Curonian Lagoon totally won us over, as did the less-traditional menu and the cold local beer on a warm summer afternoon. Good to know: Do not be surprised if your server at a restaurant or the host at your hotel does not speak English. Aside from Lithuanian, you may hear German and Russian being spoken, and restaurant menus typically are printed in Lithuanian, German, and Russian.
Again, it’s easy to see why families return, year after year, to the Curonian Spit to spend their holidays. As I stood on the beach soaking up the warm sun, watching my kids laugh and splash in the Baltic Sea, I turned to my husband and asked, “Can we make this an annual vacation?” He didn’t say no.