I've been told to get to Tallinn before it was "too late". It's a familiar refrain among travellers; a tip-off that somewhere or other is going to be the next hip, overrun destination. Fashion has its limits though. Even the trendiest tourist would hesitate before visiting the Baltic region in early spring. It's cold, windy and half-deserted. I wouldn't come at any other time.

The airport of the Estonian capital has a distinctly Nordic feel. In the departure lounge, travellers flop out on giant bean bags while their children burn off energy in well-equipped play areas. Arriving passengers are guided through a stylish space furnished like an Ikea showroom, to find their luggage has already reached the carousel. Passport formalities are painless - you get the feeling the efficient Estonians would do away with these bothersome documents entirely if they could.

Tallinn's Old Town is my kind of place - a perfectly preserved medieval settlement with high-speed Wi-fi. I renew my Hong Kong library books in the doorway of a 15th-century pharmacy, then make a Skype call to my bank on Lantau Island in the shadow of Northern Europe's only surviving Gothic town hall.

Business taken care of, I lose myself in the tangle of cobbled streets that lead up beyond stocky watchtowers and slender merchants' houses to a hilltop castle straight out of a Hans Christian Andersen story. "Protect your past or you'll have no future" is the mantra here, but Tallinn specialises in modern-day fairy tales, too.

Estonia, or e-Stonia, as the country has been dubbed, has embraced technology with gusto. Skype was created and developed in Tallinn, citizens can vote online in parliamentary elections and 98 per cent of banking transactions are conducted via the internet. Residents declare their taxes online, shop online and, since they spend half their lives in front of a screen, probably find their partners online, too.

Signing up for a city walking tour, however, proves to be disappointingly lo-tech. I'd expected to receive an encrypted biometric invite, delivered to my hotel by drone. Instead, I turn up at the appointed time to find my guide, Liina, waiting outside the Tourist Information Centre.

The 2011 European Capital of Culture is just the right size to explore on foot and an ideal backdrop for a history lesson. We learn that this strategically significant corner of the Baltic region has endured centuries of invasion, occupation and oppression.

Liina breathlessly tells of cold war intrigue, KGB wiretaps and how Estonians gathered in their thousands to sing songs of solidarity during the darkest years of Soviet rule. Then, in August 1989, about two million Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians peacefully rallied for freedom by linking arms to create a 600km human chain. Even Gandhi would have been impressed.

Estonia's current period of independence, which began at the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, is the longest in the country's history. Despite media scaremongering (today Crimea, tomorrow Estonia?) and a sense of geopolitical vulnerability, there is a philosophical attitude here towards national security.

Liina shrugs and explains that her compatriots spend little time fretting over scenarios they can't do much about.

Estonians speak English effortlessly, which is a relief as my attempts to pick up the local lingo are thwarted by the appearance of rogue vowel pairs. Muusseum, menüü and bistroo are familiar enough but then it all gets rather complicated. Perhaps I need a drink.

There are plenty of baars to choose from. Studies suggest that Estonians are among the heaviest per capita consumers of beer in the world. The reality, according to locals, is that hard-drinking visitors from Finland have skewed the figures.

Estonians joke that their northern neighbours are reserved to the point of aloofness - unless they have a beer in hand. Apparently, you can tell an extrovert Finn because he looks at your shoes, instead of his own, when he's talking to you. Curious to discover whether there's any truth to the stereotype, and keen to encounter some sober Finns, I head to the shipping office.

It's a two-hour ferry ride across the Gulf of Finland to Helsinki. We've only been at sea a few minutes yet my fellow passengers have sick bags at the ready and are struggling to stand up or walk in a straight line. This has nothing to do with rough seas, however; those around me have been drinking non-stop for two days. We disembark and throngs of inebriated travellers weave their way homewards, lugging handcarts piled high with cases of duty-free beer.

Slanting rain and a spiteful squall greet us on arrival in the Finnish capital. Maritime Helsinki has a jagged coastline of bays, inlets and islands and a raw Baltic breeze whips in off the water. Still, as they say in these parts, "There's no such thing as bad weather; only the wrong clothes."

Finland's capital turns out to be easy-going and easy on the eye. Locals go out of their way to be helpful, getting around is straightforward and any city that has "Hel Yeah!" as its slogan can't be all bad.

At Market Square, food stalls serve a selection of delicacies from Lapland - the country's largest and most northern region. After sampling a reindeer hot dog, I board my second ferry of the day.

Boats leave regularly for Suomenlinna, a jigsaw puzzle of islands that belong to Helsinki and were established in 1748 as a military garrison by the Swedes (when Finland was still part of Sweden). Surrendered to the Russians and finally reinvented as a tourist attraction by the Finns, today about 800 people live on the islands and many commute to the city.

It's a serene spot, ideal for a windswept walk or a summer picnic overlooked by rows of ancient cannon.

Sightseers first flocked to Suomenlinna as long ago as 1952, when regular ferries were introduced to coincide with the Helsinki Olympic Games. They were probably told to see the up-and-coming archipelago before it became hip and overrun with visitors.

Getting there: Finnair flies daily from Hong Kong to Helsinki.

 

By the same author: A driving tour in Morocco