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.
Her hostel is no backpacker special. The six spacious guest rooms in the massive stone building, once used to house servants for an even grander mansion just down the road, are decorated with antique spinning wheels, wooden chests, and bear-skin rugs. "This is where you come when you truly want to get away from everything," she says, lighting a neat stack of juniper logs in our fireplace.
Indeed, of the three islands, Hiiumaa is the least developed. Crops don't flourish in the sandy soil, so the land is still blanketed with pine forests, and a single road hugs the shoreline. There's also very little in the way of infrastructure—Alex and I eat at the same restaurant twice in one day, and not because the food is that good. But what Hiiumaa lacks in amenities, the isle more than makes up for in its miles of empty beaches and hiking trails, not to mention an endearing community spirit. Take the local sheep farmers, who sell their wool at the mom-and-pop run Hiiu Vill factory, owned by Jüri and Tiiu Valdma. Jüri mans the creaky machines, giving demonstrations showing how they work, while Tiiu designs the sweaters and socks that are woven on an equally rickety loom.
Hiiumaa's enterprising farmers also make money these days by renting out rooms to travelers. Since it's our last night in the islands, Alex and I decide to rough it at Mäeotsa Talu, a tiny farmstead (with indoor plumbing!) surrounded by sheep-filled pastures. On top of running the three-room guesthouse, owner Margit Kääramees also shears the sheep; maintains the apple, cherry, tomato, and leek crops; and cooks the herring caught by her husband, Indrek, who spends most mornings at sea. Fortunately, she has the help of two grown daughters, who chatter all day in the backyard as they tackle their chores.
Alex is seduced by the scenery as we go on a long bike ride through the fields. "My father always talked about how much he relished being in the countryside in warm weather," he says. "I'd love to bring him here." Back at the inn, we ask Margit if we can indulge in one last sauna. She builds a fire in the stove to heat the small cedar room and then hands me a switch of birch leaves, pointing to a bucket filled with chilled water. "Yes, yes," I tell her. "I know the routine."
When I step foot inside the inferno, I practically faint. It's so hot that I can muster only 30 seconds, and Alex doesn't last much longer. As we emerge into the cool night, we notice that Margit's elderly mother is patiently waiting her turn. To our astonishment, she spends nearly 20 minutes sweating it out, putting us to shame. We may have learned to slow down on the islands, but endurance—that's another thing.
Tuule Laevad ferry service
Kuressaare, 011-372/452-4444, tuulelaevad.ee, from $8.50 per car, $3 per passenger. Ferries run several times a day from the mainland to both Hiiumaa and Muhu, as well as between Hiiumaa and Saaremaa
Pärdi Talu B&B
Muhu, 011-372/454-8873, saaremaa.ee/koguva, from $19 per person
Muhu, 011-372/454-8800, padaste.ee, from $197, sauna $81 for four people
Loona Mõis Guesthouse
Saaremaa, 011-372/454-6510, loona.ee, from $68
Hiiumaa, 011-372/462-9026, allika.com, from $66
Hiiumaa, 011-372/469-7120, maeotsa.maaturism.ee, from $25 per person
Muhu, 011-372/454-8551, fish pie $7
Saaremaa, 011-372/457-6493, herring rolls $6
Kuressaare Bishop's Castle
Saaremaa, 011-372/455-4463, saaremaamuuseum.ee, $4
Saaremaa, 011-372/614-7760, concert.ee, tickets from $7
Vilsandi National Park
Saaremaa, 011-372/510-9648, sepad.ee, iron candlestick $21
Hiiumaa, 011-372/463-6121, hiiuvill.ee, wool socks $9