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.
"Is that really all you've got?" he teases. "Pretend that I just dropped your camera and it shattered into a thousand pieces."
Thwack! Thwack! Thwack!
"Does this even feel good?" I yell over the swishing of the birch leaves.
He flinches at the last blow. "OK, OK!" he begs. "You can stop!"
SAAREMAA: THE SOPHISTICATE
Saaremaa's tidy capital, Kuressaare, is Estonia's answer to Martha's Vineyard: In the summer, the country's well-to-do flock here in their Mercedes and BMW sedans to sip espressos at sidewalk cafés, browse in boutiques, and rejuvenate in the city's many seaside spas. Kuressaare's resort-town roots date to the early 1800s, when the Russians leveled much of the village and then rebuilt it, erecting neoclassical private manors, opulent bathhouses, and gorgeous concert halls. The party came to an abrupt halt during World War I, but Kuressaare has since regained its status as the cultural heart of the islands.
Alex and I wander the cobblestoned streets, popping into stores selling handwoven linens and blown-glass jewelry. At Saaremaa Sepad, blacksmiths forge iron candlesticks, lanterns, and bells by hand, just as they did in olden days. We pass through a farmers market, where elderly women sit gossiping behind bouquets of wildflowers and jars of freshly picked raspberries. From town, it's a quick amble to Kuressaare Bishop's Castle, the only intact medieval fortress left in the Baltic countries—it looks so perfect, it could be the model for every grade-school drawing of a castle. According to legend, criminals got tossed into the castle's pit, where lions waited to rip them to shreds. As Alex and I peer down into the shaft, a loud roar emanates from the darkness, startling me. I'm instantly embarrassed when I realize it's a recording.
As we head out, I spot a poster by the exit: We've arrived during Kuressaare's annual Opera Days festival, and there's a concert at the castle that evening. We buy two of the last tickets and rush back to our hotel to freshen up. When we return, the castle's soaring main hall is set with leather-backed chairs encircling a grand piano. The performance couldn't be more magical, with candlelight flickering off the arched ceilings and Estonian singer Ain Anger's deep bass filling the cavernous space.
The following morning, we're ready for some exercise, so we rent a car and drive to Vilsandi National Park, a sprawling wetland where moose and boars roam and gray seals loaf on rocks. It's a gorgeous day: The Nordic sun is beaming down on fields of wild daisies and poppies, and a breeze is blowing through the juniper pines. After a couple hours of hiking, we make it to Harilaid Peninsula, where a white-and-black-striped lighthouse stands slightly askew just offshore. Alex takes a nap on the beach while I contemplate swimming to the lighthouse. (I quickly decide against it after dipping a toe in the numbingly cold water.) Famished from our excursion, we then pull over for lunch at a roadside farmhouse restaurant, Lümanda Söögimaja, and order a feast: pickled pumpkin and shredded beet salad, bean cakes drizzled with dill cream sauce, and herring rolls in a juniper-berry marinade. Sitting at a simple plank table under a maple tree, we hoist mugs of Saaremaa-brewed beer and toast to the best picnic of our lives.
When we check in that night at the whitewashed Loona Mõis Guesthouse, we're happy to discover that we're the only ones staying there. But our excitement turns to concern when the hotel's lone staffer walks out, bags in hand, and drives off as the sun sets at 11 p.m. Her shift is apparently over, and we're now totally alone, deep in the Saaremaa hinterland.
Just after dark, we hear a noise coming from the driveway. Alex and I look at each other, jump from our chairs, and lock the front door. "It could be a guest," I say. "Wouldn't the receptionist have waited around, then?" he responds. A few minutes go by, and we hear pounding on the door. We both take a deep breath before opening it. Standing on the front stoop is a very confused—and rather tired-looking—Estonian man, who tries to explain in his best English that he and his wife have a reservation, so we show him to one of the empty rooms.
The next morning, the hotel worker has a sour look on her face. "Did you let the other guest in last night?" she asks. I tell her that we did, and she thanks me with the thinnest of smiles. "He was late," she says.
HIIUMAA: THE UTTERLY REMOTE
Meeli Lass greets us warmly when we arrive at the Allika Hostel. Dressed in a flowery cotton dress, she's playing in the front yard with her two small children, who scamper off when they see a pair of Americans coming their way. "We're only here in the summer," she says, explaining that she's an opera singer in Tallinn the rest of the year; coincidently, she studied with Ain Anger. "It's good for my kids to spend time in the country—that's why I bought this place."