Brigadoon on the Baltic

Cut off from the rest of the world for much of the 20th century, three Estonian islands are now welcoming visitors.

Kuressaare Bishop's Castle on Saaremaa, which has a collection of torture devices dating to the Middle Ages

Kuressaare Bishop's Castle on Saaremaa, which has a collection of torture devices dating to the Middle Ages

(Edina van der Wyck)
(Map by Newhouse Design)

Mirja von Knorring never expected to find herself living in a thatched cottage on Muhu, a speck of an island off Estonia's western coast. A Cordon Bleu–trained chef and native of Finland, she visited a friend on Muhu a couple of years ago and came under the spell of its hamlets, juniper forests, and fields of wildflowers. "This is a fairy-tale place, so beautiful and isolated," she tells me and my boyfriend, Alex, as we admire the foxglove gardens at the B&B she now runs with her friend Pirkko Silvennoinen. "It reminds me of Finland when I was growing up."

When I started planning our trip, I was probably as in-the-dark as Mirja had been about Muhu and the neighboring isles of Saaremaa and Hiiumaa. The reason for the visit was in part personal: Alex's dad had fled Estonia for the U.S. during World War II, and Alex, a New York native who'd recently applied for and received his Estonian citizenship, wanted to finally see his father's homeland. Our plan was to fly into Estonia's impressively preserved medieval capital, Tallinn, and then head for the islands, which have remained largely unchanged since Alex's father was a kid.

Ironically, Estonians have their former occupiers to thank for any time-warped charm. The country was overrun three times: by the Russians, the Germans, and then the Russians again in 1940. When the Soviet Union finally incorporated Estonia, it turned Muhu, Saaremaa, and Hiiumaa into military outposts, leaving them cut off from the rest of the world until the country became independent again in 1991. The few locals who stuck it out during the decades of Russian control survived in the old-world way, fishing for pike in the chilly waters of the Baltic Sea and holing up in wood-fired saunas during the long winters.

Today, Estonia is quickly making up for its extended slumber—the country's residents just became the first in the world to cast votes by cell phone. But as with the summer sunsets that color the sky lemonade-pink until nearly midnight, offshore change is very gradual. Rather than build resorts, island hoteliers are converting centuries-old manor houses into inns, and chefs have opened restaurants devoted to native ingredients such as elk, herring, and juniper berries. (Mirja herself has contributed to Namaste, a cookbook of island dishes.) Prices, too, have remained astonishingly low, only a fraction of what they are on the Estonian mainland—a true bargain compared with the rest of Europe.

MUHU: THE TRADITIONALIST
Most day-trippers from Tallinn skip 15-mile-wide Muhu in favor of the more-populated Saaremaa, but we decide to start things slow. Two days of doing nothing feels like a perfect way to slip into the relaxed pace of life here. As the local saying goes, "Muhu is an island where time rests."

Our first stop, the hamlet of Koguva on the western edge of the island, is reputed to be one of the best-preserved 19th-century villages in the country. With moss-covered stone walls, grassy lanes, and adorable pine houses, it looks like something out of a Hans Christian Andersen tale, complete with the occasional resident dressed in a brown wool vest and black knickerbockers. While searching for our guesthouse, Alex and I stumble upon a stable that turns out to be a contemporary art gallery hung with paintings of American jazz greats from the 1920s. Behind a small bar toward the back, Mirja is pouring glasses of Höpler Grüner Veltliner for guests staying at the adjoining Pärdi Talu B&B. The inn is rustic to the hilt, with iron beds and water basins in lieu of sinks. As she shows us around, Mirja mentions that a certain amount of roughing it is necessary on the island (I guess that explains the wooden outhouse).

For lunch, Mirja suggests Kalakohvik, a seafood shack in nearby Liiva that serves a bounty of regional specialties, including fried herring topped with sour cream and dill, potato pancakes, and a flaky pie stuffed with pike, apple, and farm-fresh eggs. This place takes family-run seriously: Marja, the young woman scribbling our orders at the counter, tells us that her grandfather catches the fish and her grandmother prepares it. "This is exactly what my own grandmother's dishes tasted like when I was growing up," Alex says as he polishes off a second fish pie.

That night, we're eager to experience the national obsession, the Estonian sauna, at Pädaste Manor, a former country estate that the owners have transformed into a 24-room boutique hotel and spa. Saunas exist everywhere, from the most isolated farms to the streets of Tallinn, where people take breaks in mobile sauna trucks throughout the workday. But the ritual is perhaps most faithfully observed on Muhu, where the sauna is heated the way it has been for centuries, with a wood-burning stove. Before stepping into the cedar box, we coat our skin with purifying honey and salt. The thermometer quickly spikes to 212 degrees Fahrenheit, and when we can't take it any longer, we jump out and dump a bucket of icy water over our heads. After we've hopped in and out a few times, it's on to another form of mild torture: We each grab a bundle of leafy birch branches and whack each other on the legs, arms, and back to improve circulation. I'm hesitant about the beatings, so I start by lightly tapping Alex's skin, like a shaman performing a healing ceremony.

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