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.

By Justin Bergman, Tuesday, Mar 24, 2009, 12:00 AM

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.

"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."

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.

TRANSPORTATION
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

LODGING
Pärdi Talu B&B
Muhu, 011-372/454-8873, saaremaa.ee/koguva, from $19 per person

Pädaste Manor
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

Allika Hostel
Hiiumaa, 011-372/462-9026, allika.com, from $66

Mäeotsa Talu
Hiiumaa, 011-372/469-7120, maeotsa.maaturism.ee, from $25 per person

FOOD
Kalakohvik
Muhu, 011-372/454-8551, fish pie $7

Lümanda Söögimaja
Saaremaa, 011-372/457-6493, herring rolls $6

ACTIVITIES
Kuressaare Bishop's Castle
Saaremaa, 011-372/455-4463, saaremaamuuseum.ee, $4

Opera Days
Saaremaa, 011-372/614-7760, concert.ee, tickets from $7

Vilsandi National Park
Saaremaa, 011-372/454-6554

SHOPPING
Saaremaa Sepad
Saaremaa, 011-372/510-9648, sepad.ee, iron candlestick $21

Hiiu Vill
Hiiumaa, 011-372/463-6121, hiiuvill.ee, wool socks $9

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