Estonia's largest island still lies covered in thick pine and spruce forests, while old windmills, slender lighthouses and tiny villages appear as if unchanged by the passage of time. Saaremaa, more than any other place in Estonia, offers a glimpse of 'old Estonia'. There are long empty stretches of sparkling coastline, juniper bushes slumbering beneath the ruins of a 15th-century wall, and stray sheep staring out from piles of old rocks. Don't miss the windmills, churches, festivals and beaches of Angla, Karja, Triigi & Tuhkana, the windswept charms of the North Coast or the mighty castle at Kuressaare.
This unique old-time setting goes hand-in-hand with inextinguishable Saaremaan pride. Saaremaa has always had an independent streak and was usually the last part of Estonia to fall to invaders. Its people have their own customs, songs and costumes. They don't revere mainland Estonia's Kalevipoeg legend, for Saaremaa has its own hero, Suur Tõll, who fought many battles around the island against devils and fiends.
Yet this vision of the idyllic clashes somewhat with the modernity that Kuressaare has thrust upon it. With its magnificent castle, charming Old Town and picturesque bayside setting, Saaremaa's capital has clearly established itself as a premier summer destination. When the long days arrive so do the crowds of Finns and Swedes, jostling for beach space beside Estonians arriving from the city. They flock to Kuressaare's spa resorts, art galleries and cafés, its restaurants and guesthouses. Meanwhile, it's easy to beat the tourist trail by heading out of town, where it's still possible to find gorgeous sandy beaches, mystifying old ruins and windswept peninsulas, with no other soul in sight.
During the Soviet era the entire island was off limits (due to an early-radar system and rocket base stationed there), even to 'mainland' Estonians who needed a permit to visit. This resulted in a minimum of industrial build-up and the unwitting protection of the island's rural charm.
Saaremaa is joined by a causeway to the neighbouring island, Muhu, to which ferries run from Virtsu on the mainland.