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Saaremaa: the cool European island escape you’ve probably never heard of

The image shows the lighthouse located on the southern tip of the peninsula on the island of Saaremaa , aerial view
A real keeper: Sorve is one of the oldest lighthouses in Estonia - iStockphoto

I cycled through meadows of wild flowers and wild horses to the ­Baltic coast, and then, when the path ­faltered, left my bike behind and ­continued on foot. Enamel-bright dragonflies buzzed around my legs, while black cormorants and white egrets erupted out of reed beds as I approached, flapping lazily around the big sky before settling again.

It was the height of summer, yet I didn’t see another soul the whole morning. This is the island of Saaremaa, where ­Estonians go for off-grid holidays: a beautifully laid-back landscape of pine forests and windmills, lilac trees and juniper, pristine beaches and farm-to-fork food.

Those unfamiliar with Estonia may be surprised to learn it has more than 2,000 islands – some tiny islets, others more substantial; Saaremaa is the westernmost and the largest, ­threatening to plug the Gulf of Riga. But their obscurity is understandable, considering the islands were shrouded by the Iron Curtain for the second half of the 20th century.

Saaremaa, once part of a Soviet ­military zone, was off limits to most Estonians. Since 1989, however, it’s gradually come back to life. Families have returned and the population is rising – though to nowhere near its pre-war peak of 100,000.

I hopped here on a tiny propeller plane from Tallinn – a flight of just 30 minutes – but a far more fun route would be to catch the ferry, drive or take the bus down to Virtsu on the mainland and landing on Muhu, a tiny islet connected to Saaremaa by a causeway. “Next time you should do a road trip,” Maria Tamander told me when she met me at the tiny airport. “You can island-hop by ferry to Ruhnu and Hiiumaa, then on the way back stop off at the Arvo Pärt Music Centre.”

Maria was born in Sweden, but her family is from the island, and her ­narrative is entwined with Saaremaa’s recent history. In 1944, as the Red Army drove the occupying German forces into the sea, her grandparents and mother – then aged eight – escaped with hundreds of others by boat to Gotland.

It’s one of Saaremaa’s defining moments, a sliding-doors story of those who left and those who stayed behind. In the 1990s, Maria and her mother returned to reclaim their family estate on the far west of the island, and in doing so she fell in love with Saaremaa, buying an adjoining 17th-century farmstead and gradually turning it into a freewheeling hotel and creative retreat.

Ratsu Farm, next door to the hotel, has horses to saddle up
Ratsu Farm, next door to the hotel, has horses to saddle up

The Pilguse Residency was ­completed this year, and it seems to encapsulate the island’s slow ­reawakening. It’s set on 90 hectares of farmland nudging lakeside reed marshes, with bedrooms in the main house and outbuildings, and three striking mirror cabins planted among the trees.

There’s a swimming pool (with lily pads – more of a swimming pond) and a smoke sauna that takes five hours to stoke up. A local blacksmith was commissioned to cast door handles and table legs, and rooms are furnished with vintage Danish pieces that Maria picked up on her travels.

At the heart of Pilguse is the ­restaurant and bar. With sofas and a wood-burning stove at one end, it ­bristles with dried reeds, flowers and branches foraged by hotel manager Mark Goldberg, a former civil rights lawyer from New York who moved here with his husband for a new life.

It draws in both guests and islanders for a menu that makes the most of local ingredients – wild-garlic pesto, beetroot carpaccio, trout cured by the Dutch-born chef. When I arrived I was handed a bowl of linguine with chanterelles gathered from the woods that morning.

There are canoes available at the hotel to take to nearby lakes
There are also canoes available at the hotel to take to nearby lakes

It was easy to settle into the island’s slow rhythms, rising for a swim before breakfast on the lawn, and then a cycle ride before lunch. There are canoes to take to nearby lakes, while Ratsu Farm next door has horses to saddle up ­(bookable through Pilguse). In the ­evenings, I watched the sun make a shadow theatre of the trees, and joined Maria for an impromptu tasting of her family’s gin label, joined by her ­husband, John, an acclaimed cinematographer on leave from filming Gladiator 2 – in her previous life, Maria was a video ­producer, and the pair worked on the Spice Girls’ Wannabe together.

One night, I slept in a mirror cabin, its surfaces reflecting the big sky and the whooshing reeds of the wetlands; in the morning it felt like a bird-watching hide, for sitting unnoticed and spotting wagtails and goldfinches in the branches outside.

Despite being a period of darkness, Maria told me, the Soviet occupation meant the island’s natural landscapes were preserved. ­Pilguse is on the edge of the Vilsandi National Park, founded in 1910 by a lighthouse keeper and one of the world’s first bird sanctuaries – miles of wetland, islands and ocean for hiking, camping and kayaking amid diverse flora and fauna, including elk, grey seals and orchids (visitestonia.com).

The restaurant’s menu makes the most of local ingredients
The restaurant’s menu makes the most of local ingredients

Maria and John wanted to show me some of the island, so we drove along arrow-straight roads built to transport ballistic missiles back and forth, ­arriving in the capital, Kuressaare, just as locals were stepping out for the annual opera festival in the castle. It’s a huge presence with a wide moat and legends of walled-up priests, along with a museum that charts the island’s history – much of it devoted to its 20th-century hardships.

Kuressaare itself is a pretty town of ­clapboard houses topped by curved zinc roofs. There’s a good craft ale bar, Poide ­Grillhouse (poidegrill.ee), and I picked up wooden butter knives and an oak jewellery box from Pallopsoni craft shop (though, save space for the ­artisan shop at Tallinn Airport, where I later bagged rhubarb wine and sea ­buckthorn jam). On the way back, we stopped by Mihkli Farm Museum, a collection of thatched buildings where it was easy to imagine the Waltons-like existence of just a few decades ago, when the daily grind involved ­whetting scythes and yoking oxen (saaremaamuuseum.ee).

living room
The Pilguse Residency is set on 90 hectares of farmland, with a swimming pool on site and a smoke sauna

On my last day, we took a boat out with one of Maria’s friends, a retired teacher called Aivar Kallas, bouncing over the waves and drinking cold cans of Tuulik beer (00372 56490503 to book). Aivar pointed out medieval church towers and a rusting watchtower from the Soviet era. “That really should be pulled down,” he said. “It’s a different time now.”

On board with us were a young couple from Tallinn, Hannah and Silver, born in a newly independent Estonia, who were spending a few weeks hopping between friends’ ­summerhouses. They told me how more and more of their peers are ­leaving the city for a self-sufficient life in the countryside. Looking around at Saaremaa’s wild landscapes, in its ­sea-breezed rustic haze, I could ­completely understand why.

Essentials

Rick Jordan was a guest of Pilguse Residency (00372 454 5445; pilguse.com), which offers doubles from £100

Wizz Air (wizzair.com) and Ryanair (ryanair.com) both fly direct from London to Tallinn from £56 return. From there, it takes roughly five hours to drive to Saaremaa