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TRAVEL AND ADVENTURE Once Off-limits Estonian Coastal Islands Now a Virtual Paradise PDF Print E-mail
Written by Steve Bergsman, Creative Syndicate   
Thursday, 03 November 2011 02:41

PHOTO COURTESY OF STEVE BERGSMAN

A Finnish couple restored an old farm on the Estonian island of Muhu, converting original buildings into useful spaces.

Kristina Ojamaa, who lives in the city of Tallinn, Estonia, tells me the islands are the most beautiful part of her country. The country's coastline stretches along the Baltic Sea from Russia to Latvia, and south of Tallinn, the land mass of Estonia stretches directly east through a small grouping of large islands, two of which, Muhu and Saaremaa, I visited when the weather teased sunshine but cast above me mostly overcast skies that blew bitter winds off the Gulf of Finland.

The islands, rustic and sparsely populated, are indeed lovely with dense forests and rugged shorelines. Once locked up in time by the Soviet Union, they are being renewed with both a patina of modernity and commitment to tradition.Ojamaa, who is old enough to remember the days before Estonia's independence, told me that when her country was part of the Soviet empire from 1944 until its independence in 1991, non-islanders weren't allowed to visit either Muhu or Saaremaa because the Soviets considered the coastlines restricted places, and the islands were part of the borderlands defense structure. Only locals and the military lived on the islands. The locals fished and the Soviets constructed missile silos. Did these silos contain nuclear missiles? Everyone has an opinion, but no one knows for sure.

The bad thing was that Estonians couldn't come to the islands, but in the end, it was kind of good thing because the islands remained undeveloped and locked into a mid-20th century time warp.

At one time the smaller island, Muhu, was home to 6,000 people. Now just 2,000 folks hang their hats there, although the summer population can easily double that number. The larger Saaremaa boasts a few towns and a population of 40,000 — still not enough to make it seem anything more than a rural conclave.

Mostly wooded and agricultural, Muhu and Saareman were dotted with old farmhouses, many of which had been left to slowly rot away in the harsh elements. That was before the carriage trade moved in and began to discover the beauty not only of the old islands but also of these weathered buildings.

Sikke Sumari, the Finnish television personality and top chef de cuisine of the "Master Chef" television show, discovered an old property with collapsing stone and wood buildings. She and her husband, Tony, have spent years restoring and building out a kind of escapist compound in a style that might be called Baltic chic: a veneer of Scandinavian modernity mixed with traditional Baltic crafts. The estate is called Nami Namaste Farm and boasts such attractive guest rooms that the president of Estonia often comes to get away from the bustle of Tallinn politics.

Sikke teaches a cooking class so popular that a new building was being erected to hold 40 participants. When I visited the property, a small group of us gathered around the kitchen to help prepare our lunch: potato-leek soup, salmon entree and delicate chocolate cake desert. The cooking was not done by Sikke but by Tony, who began his career as a journalist but seemed to have picked up some new skills after 30 years of marriage.

On Saaremaa, I traveled to a remote farm that was now owned by Steve, a Brit, who married a local, Ea. After working at varied places doing different things in Europe and the United States they returned to Saaremaa, where, like Sikke and Tony, they bought a property with ancient structures and completely restored and modernized them all. Somewhere in this process, Steve and Ea, decided to go into the organic soapmaking business, which has become so successful that they now market their wares internationally.

Ea also instructs visitors in the art of soap-making and lets them keep what they have made. I created a lovely oval bar scented with pashuli and ylangylang and crusted with rose petals, cornflower and hops.

The grandest refurbishment was the restoration of a baronial estate that dates back to the 14th century into a sumptuous hotel. Called Padaste Manor, it is located on the shoreline of Muhu wetlands and consists of numerous estate buildings. The old overseer's house can now be rented to a large family or numerous couples. An old storage building houses the spa with treatment rooms and a sauna-steam area. The main building, or manor house, contains 14 rooms, each grandly outfitted with all the conveniences of the modern world combined with Baltic traditional furnishings.

The restaurant at Padaste Manor has been voted the best in Estonia. The night I was there the simple set-dinner of nouveau Estonian cuisine opened with juniper-smoked goat cheese and ash-baked vegetables adorned with beetroot dressing. The main course was a cod surrounded by parsnips, celery and apples. For desert, I indulged in the rhubarb compote-liquorice meringut.

Before I left Padaste Manor, the hotel's manager gave me an English translation of an excerpt from the Chronicle of Henry of Livonia, with a subtitle that read "This chapter deals with the conquest of Muhu Island in 1227 by the forefather of the last noble owner of the Padaste estate." The manor house isn't that old; it was built in the 19th century.

For the quirkiest meal on the islands, my vote goes to the old Episcopal Castle in Saaremaa's capital city of Kuressaare. It dates from the post-Henry of Livonia period and was originally a fortified residence for the local bishop, but over the centuries it became a considerable fort, complete with ramparts and moat.

Today, visitors can enjoy an entertaining medieval experience with the staff in period dress. The original bishop of the castle makes an appearance, blessing the considerable meal of pork and fish, vegetables, fruits and nuts.

The locals have always enjoyed grand times on these islands. As diarist Henry of Livonia noted, "The Livonians and the Letts surrounded the fort and allowed none to escape. When the enemy was defeated, the victors rejoiced and sang praise to God." To top off a splendid time, the Livonians "took the town, seized the loot, plundered the goods and fine possessions, drove away the horses and flocks and burned what was left with fire."

The Livonians knew that the Estonian islands of Muhu and Saaremaa were where to go for exuberant fun. Today's visitors can relive the good times — and nothing gets burned down.

WHEN YOU GO:

Getting there: I flew Finnair from New York to Helsinki to Tallinn, Estonia. Then, after traveling through the Baltic countries, I left Europe from Riga, Latvia, to Helsinki and back to New York: www.finnair.com.

Where to stay: I already mentioned the luxurious Padaste Manor (www.padaste.ee), but for something a little more proletarian, try one of the spa hotels in Kuressaare. I stayed at the Georg Ots Spa, www.gospa.ee, where I kayaked into Kuressaare Bay.

Where to shop: The small town of Kuressaare is in walking distance to the spa-hotel area on the coast and contains several local craft stores. Wandering around on my own, I found a couple of great antique stores, low- and high-end. I came away with a few treasures, a Russian enamel brooch for my wife and a Soviet-era poster for myself.

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