Saaremaa, the largest island in Estonia, once marked the Westernmost frontier of the Soviet Union. Under the Soviet regime, Saaremaa was declared a restricted zone, where even its native residents had to leap through a rigmarole of bureaucracy to get the right documentation to come and go from their island. Today, the island is easily accessible without any red tape, connected to the mainland via a regular ferry service that runs to the neighbouring island of Muhu and a 2.5km causeway that links the two islands.
Flat agricultural plains accented by wildflowers, thick fir forests, and Saaremaa’s chameleon coastline with hues ranging from deep blue tones to grey depending on the light, conjure up a sense of peace on the island. Despite the harmonious landscape and the islanders’ close connection with nature and the seasons, Saaremaa is anything but a simple place. It’s an island wrapped in centuries of complex history.
Relics of the Viking ships excavated in Salme testify to the island’s ancient history, where the ships’ outline lie marked to scale in gravel besides a local school, metres away from wooden carvings of Viking warriors, Toell the Great, a hero from Estonian mythology, and the appropriately named “Viking Burger” stall.
Just down the road, the echoes of more recent history lie in the Soviet memorial commemorating the Battle of Tehumardi that took place in the autumn of 1944 between the Soviet and German forces. Gravestones lie in angular proportions marking the names of the Estonians who fought on the red side of the line. Today, the monument’s Soviet heritage is uncared for, as an afterthought in modern and independent Estonia.
Saaremaa’s residents recall the Soviet era with little fondness, especially the time when the island was declared a restricted zone, closed to foreigners and even most mainland Estonians until 1989.
“When we travelled to the mainland and back to Muhu and then Saaremaa, we had to go through customs,” our guide Elle, a native to the island, told us. “When I studied in Tallinn I had to get special permission to re-enter the island with proof from the parish office that I live on Saaremaa. Estonians living on the mainland had to get special permission as well if they wanted to visit, but had no relatives. Foreigners were forbidden from the islands as well, except for perhaps some Latvians who obtained special permission.”
Today, Saaremaa is a peaceful escape for nature lovers, travellers looking for spa and curative treatments, history buffs and even gourmands.
Historic Kuressaare: A City Spas and Medieval Towers
Towering above Saaremaa’s southern coastline, the red topped turrets of Kuressaare castle reflect in the
mirror-like moat that surrounds the 14th century castle built by the Teutonic Order. Originally constructed for the bishops of Ösel-Weick as a fortification, its interior is marked by classic elements of Gothic architecture. Scaling up the stone steps inside the castle, today there is a museum dedicated to the island’s recent history, decked out with figures, maps, facts and artefacts that bring Saaremaa’s complex 20th Century to life, ending with a view across the sea to marshy islands lying flat in the blue sea miles off the coast.
Kuressaare, the island’s main town, is not only frequented for its impressive castle and its small stretch of sandy beach, but also for its spa culture.
Most of Kuressaare’s hotels have their own spa complex, however the Hotel Meri feels more like a sanatorium, think more Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain rather than a luxury spa. The spa complex lies lined with corridor after corridor containing treatment rooms. Names of doctors and nurses lie engraved on the door labels. Patients don’t come here for simple cosmetic pampering, but rather old world spa treatments and medical consultations from its in house doctors and on duty nurses who still run regular blood tests and hospital treatments.
The various rooms reveal a complex array of treatments from baths with warm, locally sourced mud from a 6km radius accented with pure local essential oils such as juniper or rosemary to various manifestations of hydrotherapy, paraffin wax treatments and more curious treatments.
“We mostly have Estonians staying here,” says in house Dr. Koppel, “but we have a loyal group of visitors from Gottland who charter a flight out here every year. They’ve been coming to the spa for the past 20 years. I think we had over 70 of them fly out together last summer.”
While Kuressaare sees visitors for its spas and castle, it makes a convenient base to explore the rest of the island from coastline to forested countryside.
Coastlines, Countryside and Cooking with Lime
The southern tip of Saaremaa sticks out in a distinctive peninsula towards the Latvian coastline on the Irbe Strait. Sõrve Lighthouse rises above the calm coastline on the tip of the land, with green grasslands and sandy coastline stretching along Sõrve Peninsula. There are few hills to be found on Saaremaa, where one of the highest points is the overgrown coastal fortress left over from the Imperial Russian era.
The original lighthouse built in the 17th century lay on one of the small, nearby islands, but was found unsuitable to signal ships safely during the autumn storms. An alternative took its place on the peninsula at the end of the 18th century, but was destroyed in WWII. Today, the black and white monolithic structure lighthouse dating back to the 1960s rises up over 50m high, making it a core landmark across the relatively flat stretch of land. Strolling along the overgrown sandy patches beyond the lighthouse house on the tip, with the Baltic Sea lapping against the beaches feels like one has reached the end of the world.
Heading up inland, back along the peninsula and the curving coastline towards Lõmala, the sea turns into a wine dark hue as the sun peers over the clouds, contrasting the light grass with the deeper shades of green from the island’s countless juniper bushes and stretches of sand.
“Guards used to patrol the beaches,” Elle tells us, “We once came out at night and we met some Soviet guards. We were lucky, they just told us to go home. This was the very front line of the Soviet Union’s most western point so it was all under heavy watch.”
Turning inland, the curving coastline moves into more forested territory accented with rocky and rugged limestone. The forests and rocks of the Vilsandi National Park is popular with avid birdwatchers and nature lovers, but toward Lümanda, the rugged limestone serves a more practical purpose.
Lümanda Limestone Park still produces quicklime using historic methods of burning lime in a stone kiln. The stone is handpicked for the best quality – where the darker rocks in the limestone quarry produce better lime yields and are burned for days in a wood-fired kiln.
While quicklime is used in things like lime-based paint, when mixed with water it also proves an interesting alternative to fire when it comes to cooking food. In a demonstration, quicklime was mixed with water before an aluminium plate was placed above and topped with an egg cracked sunny side up. Within moments, the egg sizzled in its makeshift pan from the chemical reaction that allowed us to cook with lime.
“Soldiers used to carry a stone of quicklime in their bags and use it in an emergency to cook with,” Elle translated for us as the demo went on. “It’s quite volatile though, I wouldn’t do this at home.”
We passed through the quarry, past ancient kilns and those still actively burning. The forested territory stretched high with pine and fir trees, moving up towards the sky blue sky. Birds with different timbres could be heard among the trees, and I am sure a passionate bird watcher would be savvy to their vocal differences.
Saaremaa is an island where its features are subtle. It’s landscape undulates along the Baltic Coastline and the forested interior, between patches of agriculture and wildflowers painting the landscape with dots of bright yellow and blue. It’s a place the captures the essence of the peace of the countryside, far from the traffic and fumes of urban life. Whether it’s in Kuressaare’s spas, along the coast of bird watching in the forest, Saaremaa is the ideal reset for the stresses of modern life.
How to Get There
The easiest way to get to the island is to hire a car and drive from Tallinn and take the ferry to Muhu and drive across the causeway. But there are also a frequent bus services from Tallinn to Kuressaare, you can find timetables here.
Where to Stay
GOSPA Georg Ots Spa Hotel (Kuressaare) $$$$ – This spa hotel is located across the harbour from the famous castle, where some of the hotel balconies even look out to its famous red turrets. The hotel has its own spa complex, including cosmetic treatments and a swimming and sauna area. The hotel restaurant also serves up a gastronomic selection of Baltic cuisine. A full buffet breakfast is included in the hotel price.
Loona Manor (Loona) $$$ – Ideal for nature lovers and bird watchers, Loona Manor lies on the grounds of the Vilsandi National Park, sharing it’s garden with the National Park’s visitor centre. The converted manor house still retains its neo-classical features typical for the Estonian islands’ grand 19th century manor houses.
Where to Eat
Ku-Kuu Restaurant at Kuressaare Kuursaal $$$ – This restaurant set on the banks of the castle moat, accented with beautiful stained-glass windows the restaurant capture the spirit of the early 20th century. You’ll find a selection of dishes from local produce with a French twist and includes fresh fish purchased from local fisherman that morning. Try the unique green-boned gar fish for something different.
Lümanda Tavern $$ – Located in an old church school, this traditional Estonian restaurant is the perfect place to try local, rural dishes the showcases Saaremaa’s unique cuisine. The dishes use locally sourced produce that are in season, such as beetroot salad mixed up with sour cream, cloudberry conserve, pumpkin conserve with spices, mountains of mash potatoes served with smoked pork in a creamy sauce and bread soup, made with local black bread that’s a sweat, heavy pudding mixed up with milk. Just be careful – the portions are huge!
Address: Lümanda village, Lääne-Saare vald, Saaremaa, Saare County, Estonia
Phone: +372 503 3019
Where to Shop
GoodKaarma – Set in the town of Kaarma, this small organic soap shop is a made in the farmhouse kitchen of an Estonian-British couple who make their soaps from organic, natural and vegetarian ingredients. All aromas come from high quality essential oils, but for something unique to the island, try their soaps made with local sea mud and essences of juniper and pine.
Juniper Syrup from Orbu Farm – Juniper is synonymous with Estonian island cuisine, and Orbu farm specialise in juniper syrup production. Try their various concoctions from classic juniper to more adventurous versions made with ginger and chili (perfect for marinating chicken). Juniper salt is another way to bring back a taste of Saaremaa, if you don’t want to carry jars of syrup home.