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Introducing Northeastern Estonia

The crown jewel of Estonia's national parks, Lahemaa occupies an enormous place - literally and figuratively - when talk of the northeast arises. Lahemaa, the 'land of bays', comprises a pristine coastline of rugged beauty, lush inland forests teeming with wildlife, and sleepy villages scattered along its lakes, rivers and inlets. Visitors are well looked after here: there are cosy B&Bs, remote camp sites along the sea and an extensive network of pine-scented forest trails.

The park lies about one-third of the way between Tallinn and the Russian border. Travelling beyond the park's eastern borders, the bucolic landscape slowly transforms into an area of ragged, industrial blight. The scars left by Soviet industry are still visible in towns such as Kunda, home to a mammoth cement plant; Kohtla-Järve, the region's centre for ecologically destructive oil-shale extraction; and Sillamäe, once privy to Estonia's very own uranium processing plant. Before reaching for that biohazard suit, however, visitors should know that despite lingering pollution in some areas, the region has vastly improved in the last decade. Those willing to take the time will find some rewarding sites here, including the youthful up-and-coming city of Rakvere, the picturesque limestone cliffs around Ontika, some enchanting castle ruins and the curious spectacle of the seaside city of Sillamäe, a living monument to Stalinist-era architecture. The most striking city of this region is Narva, with its majestic castle dating back to the 13th century.

For those seeking a taste of Russia without the hassle of visas and border crossings, northeastern Estonia makes an excellent alternative. The vast majority of residents here are native Russians, and you'll hear Russian spoken on the streets, in shops and in restaurants; and you'll have plenty of opportunities to snap photos of lovely Orthodox churches, frightening communist-bloc high-rises and other legacies left behind by Estonia's mystifying eastern neighbours.