Saaremaa (literally ‘island land’) is synonymous to Estonians with space, spruce and fresh air – and killer beer. Estonia’s largest island (roughly the size of Luxembourg) is still mainly covered in forests of pine, spruce and juniper, while its windmills, lighthouses and tiny villages seem largely unbothered by the passage of time.
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.
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.
Kuressaare, the capital of Saaremaa, is on the south coast (75km from the Muhu ferry terminal) and is a natural base for visitors – it’s here, among the upmarket hotels, that you’ll understand where the island got its nickname, ‘Spa-remaa’. When the long days arrive, so too do the Finns and Swedes, jostling for beach and sauna space with Estonian urban-escapees.
More information is online at www.saaremaa.ee and www.SaaremaaEstonia.com.