KURESSAARE, Estonia — This small Baltic nation counts 1,521 islands. I visited two, Saaremaa, the largest, and neighboring Muhu. A bridge links the pair, and each is connected to the mainland with regular ferry services.
I was a guest, with other press, of the Estonian Tourist Board.
This excursion began with the Virtsu-to-Muhu ferry, a 23-minute ride across the clear blue Baltic, in brisk (read, windy and chilly) air but under a bright September sun.
Our trip encompassed the following:
• Shopping in Liiva, a center for Muhu handicrafts, especially goods made with juniper wood. The big item is the butter knife. I have several now, some for gifts. Many souvenirs here are juniper because juniper is richly available on these islands, although protected elsewhere in Europe.
Another souvenir was colorful knitted socks in huge sizes for men. We wondered, do Estonian men really have such big feet? We were told yes.
• Lunch at Nautse Mihkli guesthouse, which is a repurposed set of farm buildings. The main structure originated as a house/barn combo more than 100 years ago.
Our hostess, Ingrem Raidjoe, and her husband own the business. The guesthouse accommodates 30 people in summer (many in a detached building with multiple singe beds, in a setting resembling summer camp) and 12 in winter, but only in the main house.
Tourists can book rooms, meals and/or cooking classes on line. Ingrem teaches the classes, specializing in ostrich (raised on Muhu) and wild game, meaning red buck (she and her husband hunt).
Lunch was mushroom quiche (way better than I expected), red buck, beet cake and beet ice cream.
Our visit included a folk dance program. Muhu is renowned for the dancing, which resembled square dancing/circle dances/polka. The accompanying accordion music included pieces called polkas.
All dancers were women, and they wore costumes that are specifically identified with Muhu. Skirts were bright yellow with vertical stripes of varying colors. Our hosts said that, traditionally, there were more women’s dances because men were so often out to sea.
• Making soap at GoodKaarma, an eco-farm on Saaremaa that makes organic soaps.
Co-owners Ea Velsvebel Greenwood and her husband remade an old house to accommodate their factory and themselves with children. She leads the soap-making sessions.
For our group, this involved rebatching, meaning the shaping of new soap bars from the shavings left from making the soaps that GoodKaarma sells. We could add flowers and spices for scents of our choice.
At GoodKaarma, soaps are based on olive, linseed and other oils, but no animal fat, which means the process does not involve stovetop cooking.
Two workshop options are available in the summer, one at six and one at seven euros per adult, bookable through the GoodKaarma Web site.
Our project was easy, and the factory certainly smelled nice!!
• Touring Kuressaare, capital of Saaremaa County, which includes Saaremaa and Muhu islands.
Kuressaare’s architectural centerpiece is a 14th century castle (with 13th century origins) and its water-filled moat.
We also paused in front of a tavern called Veski located inside a windmill — where I had eaten a lunch 21 years earlier! The Saaremaa countryside is noted for windmills.
Saaremaa was a well-established tourist destination by 1900, with a focus on spas — producing the nickname Spa-remaa. Further, our guide said, Saaremaa, a “human-sized place,” is good for hiking, biking and cross-country skiing, but “not for the party animal.”
Our guide said Saaremaa has one traffic light, installed as a joke.
However, while thinly populated, these islands are very connected. One can access free Wi-Fi almost anywhere in Estonia, including the islands.
• And eating a lot of things made with sea-buckthorn berries. At breakfast, at a Kuressaare B&B called Ekesparre, my smoothie combined carrots, bananas and the berries.
At lunch, after a spa treatment at Kuressaare’s Georg Ots hotel spa, lunch in the hotel’s restaurant ended with a sea-buckthorn sorbet.
And, during a grand multicourse dinner at the luxurious Padaste Manor on Muhu island, we had a fish dish topped with a sea-buckthorn sauce and, later, another sea-buckthorn sorbet.
The Padaste dinner was served in the former manor house, now the hotel’s main building. The restaurant, called Alexander, emphasizes Nordic cuisine; it has been voted Estonia’s best eatery for three years running.
Aside from the expected luxury features, Padaste Manor amused us with something unique — a robot lawnmower. My room, in the carriage house, overlooked the lawns, where a robot busily mowed the grass endlessly, hence ensuring lawns were always in fine trim. This vision suggested (to me) a very large bug crawling across the ground, and I laughed a lot.