On Estonia’s Saaremaa island: Where mainlanders come to play and stress melts away

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The Ekesparre Boutique Hotel on Estonia’s Saaremaa Island is only open for business from April to late October. Our room was on the second level where the two windows are open.

By Betty Gordon

© 2019 text and photos. All rights reserved.

This is the fourth in a series of posts about my two-week trip in May 2019 to Tallinn, Estonia; the country’s largest island, Saaremaa; and Riga, Latvia. See my June 1 post about making an edible marzipan mouse in Tallinn; June 10 about Salaspils, a former concentration camp on the outskirts of Riga; and August 15 about the revitalized Rotermann Quarter in downtown Tallinn.

Saaremaa is to Estonia as Gotland is to Sweden.

Confused? Let me put that in context: When Estonians dream of a nearby island escape, they often think of Saaremaa, to the west of their mainland, much as Swedes decamp to Gotland, off their southeast coast, to relax, soak up the sun and otherwise play away lazy days, particularly summer ones.

For Estonians traveling the 221 kilometers (about 137 miles) from Tallinn, their capital, to Saaremaa is an easy drive or bus ride of about 3.5 hours. Likewise, from Stockholm, Sweden’s capital, it’s about three hours by ferry to Visby, the population center of Gotland (191 kilometers or about 119 miles).

And its not just Estonians who are drawn to Saaremaa: According to tourism bureau statistics, the destination is popular with a good many Finns and Russians, with smaller numbers coming from the other Baltic states of Latvia and Lithuania.

When I travel, I like to mix better-known cities and attractions with ones more off the beaten path. Saaremaa certainly fits that latter description. In mid-May, it was uncrowded, unseasonably warm and surprisingly mosquito-y in the evenings. 

Its year-round population is just north of 33,000 people (98 percent of whom are Estonian by nationality), but on some summer weekends, that number and more make the trek to Saaremaa, which covers 2,673 square kilometers (about 1,032 square miles).

“On the Virtsu-Kuivastu route [see below], we moved a total of 45,563 passengers and 15,963 vehicles between Friday and Monday [June 21-24],” ferry company TS Laevad said in a report on ERR News, an English-language service of Estonian Public Broadcasting. 

“Compared to the same period last year, that is an increase of 22 and 18 percent, respectively.”

After four very busy days exploring Tallinn, my friend Sylvia and I took a comfortable and efficient bus to Saaremaa (I booked our tickets online months before leaving home). The bus, less than half full, featured seat-back monitors for movie viewing (included in the ticket price) or musical selections.

Once the coach had cleared the city streets, we motored on a modern highway southwest, passing farmland occasionally dotted with sheep, cows and horses, and forests of birch and other trees. We also made a few stops in the countryside to pick up passengers waiting at wooden huts. 

After about two hours, we arrived at Virtsu on Estonia’s coast, where the bus was driven onto a ferry. As the other vehicles loaded, we exited the bus and headed upstairs to the second-deck seating area, where food and beverages could be purchased.

Under a half-hour later, the ferry docked at Kuivastu, and we reboarded the bus. We drove briefly across the small island of Muhu, then over a causeway onto Saaremaa and followed Highway 10 southwest all the way into Kuressaare, its capital. 

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This section of road and decorative pavement is at the southern end of Lossi Street and is an example of what the whole project will look like when completed.

At the bus station, I got directions for walking to our hotel down Lossi Street, unbeknown to us in the midst of a major renovation. Parts of the road and sidewalk were dug up and releveled awaiting resurfacing or decorative stone pavers. That meant carrying our luggage over the dust in between the sections that were more tourist-friendly.

We later found out that the project had been started the previous summer. To say that progress was slow would be an understatement. While it has every indication of an appealing outcome, the proprietors of shops and restaurants we talked to said they had seen a large decline in patrons and were eager for the beautification to be finished. 

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The Weigh House, with its distinctive outline, is the only one of its kind in Estonia. It was completed in 1663. The building currently houses a pub. 

Lossi Street and its offshoot Tallinna Street are home to some distinguished old buildings, a few dating to the 17th century. The Weigh House, with its distinct upper-level step-stone profile, was completed in 1663, and was expanded in the next century. Goods were brought to the early Baroque building and weighed, so that taxes could be determined before sale at the adjacent market square.

The Weigh House, the only structure of its kind in Estonia, has also served as a guard building and horse postal station. Its most recent renovation was 1980-82. Today it is home to the eatery Pub Vaekoda. 

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Around the Allimann/Pallopson house, the street is torn up, awaiting its turn for renovation. The wooden house is the former workshop and residence of clockmaker Emil Ferdinand Allimann, and later another clocksmith, Jaan Pallopson.

One block west of Lossi, on the corner of Kauba and Lasteaia streets, is a clocktower-topped wooden building, fittingly the former business and residence of clocksmith Emil Ferdinand Allimann. Its weathervane is topped with a banner noting the year 1899; 100 years later the clock was restored to working condition. 

In the early 1950s, the building was sold to another clocksmith, Jaan Pallopson, whose descendants still own it today. Now its main business is called Grande Boutique, which sells women’s clothing. Do go inside; it has the most pleasingly melodious seven-tone chime over the front door.

If you are further interested in a historical walk, pick up the brochure “Journeys to Dignified Buildings in Kuressaare,” which highlights 18 structures in addition to the two I’ve mentioned. The tourist information bureau is in the former city hall, now painted light yellow with a red-tiled roof, but originally dating to the 17th century. It was destroyed in the Great Kuressaare Fire of 1710 and totally rebuilt.

A variety of accommodation is available on the island, from forest huts and camping, to guest houses to upscale hotels. I chose the 10-room Ekesparre Boutique Hotel because of its location within a stone’s throw of the imposing 14th-century Bishop’s Castle, one of the larger attractions to explore, and easy access to Lossi Street. 

(The Ekesparre is only open from April to the end of October. With so few rooms, it’s a good idea to book early. I made our reservation in January for our May stay.)

In a previous incarnation, the building was a boarding house, then a pension and home to a Bohemian group of writers in the early 20th century. When Estonia was more recently part of the Soviet Union (1940-1991), the structure may have been used during World War II for interrogations and later as a police station. 

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Four rooms in the Ekesparre Boutique Hotel have bathtubs. The other six have just showers.

In the post-independence years, the building reverted to a hotel, but several versions met with varied success before an architectural restoration movement prevailed. It reopened as the Ekesparre in the fall of 2007. No traces of the distasteful years exist — replaced by welcoming and helpful staff. 

The rooms favor art nouveau style (think design-heavy wallpaper and floral-themed carpeting), and it’s apparent how much time and effort went into tiling the bathroom walls.  

The bedding in our second-floor room was modest in both size and decor. The hotel is not air-conditioned, but we found that leaving the windows open cooled the space enough for sleeping.

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Dried cereal and a variety of dried fruits are available for breakfast. Some mornings we also had fresh fruit. Juniper syrup is the deep red liquid in the glass dish in the front.

Breakfast, included in the tariff, is served from 8 to 11 a.m. in the lounge, though accommodation can be made for room service for an extra 10 euros. Each morning, we chose to sit in facing wingback chairs beside a window that overlooked the garden. The bar top and nearby tables were loaded with buffets of dried cereals, dried fruit, platters of cheese, deli-style meats and fresh vegetables (lettuce, tomato, cucumber) and an assortment of breads, croissants and muffins, juice, smoothies, coffee, tea and champagne.

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Deli-style meats, cheese, smoked salmon and fresh vegetables were also part of the buffet.

Eggs can be made to order, or you can try the pancakes with deep red juniper syrup (made from island berries). The pancakes were thicker and heavier than crepes but not as light and fluffy as a buttermilk stack.

Later in the day, guests can relax in the lounge and order cocktails from the bar, or climb the steps to the attic where a cozy wooden-paneled library provides an even more secluded space. (This floor can also be booked for private events.)

Visitors to Saaremaa can be as active or as static as suits them. Hiking, cycling, swimming, horseback riding, sailing and seal-watching are among the many varied pursuits. 

Spa treatments are also available, with six hotels catering to the crowd that enjoys saunas, pools and deeply relaxing massages and other personal pampering. 

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The Ekesparre Boutique Hotel, as seen from the back. In fine weather, breakfast can be taken to the tables in the garden. Former presidents of Estonia Arnold Rüütel and Lennart Meri have been among the hotel’s guests.

The Ekesparre offers none of these services. But included in the room price was a ticket each day of our stay to partake of the sauna at the Georg Ots Spa (named for a Soviet-born singer and actor widely revered in Estonia). From the hotel, it’s a scenic walk of about 10-15 minutes, part of which can be done along the waterside. (A 15 percent discount was offered for other spa services.)

The idea of sitting in a steaming-hot sauna on a warm spring day was not terribly attractive. But it seemed silly not to go the the hotel and at least have a look. 

I had a staff member talk me through the rules of use, and even though I hadn’t brought a swimsuit, I decided to proceed with a wrap-around towel instead. A few people were in the outdoor pool or sunbathing on its deck, and I had the toasty sauna to myself. The sauna’s thermometer read 78.8 degrees (26 celsius) but seemed warmer. 

Fortunately, bottles of water and plastic cups were on a table just outside the woodsy-aromaed room, and I could leave to hydrate and then return. The benches were uncomfortably warm — maybe it was just that I rarely take a sauna and was unaccustomed to this kind of heat on my nearly bare rear — so I elected not to lie down or even lean again a wall.

I stayed in the sauna for less than 20 minutes, and was particularly glad of a bracingly cold shower afterward to neutralize the steamy heat.

Visitors with a car can easily get to the attractions around the island, which include the Kaali meteorite crater, the five windmills at Angla and the picturesque Panga coast on the island’s north side. We took a 3.5-hour tour of those sites with an entrepreneur, and guided ourselves through the Bishop’s Castle. I’ll discuss these in a future post.

Quick reference: Ekesparre Boutique Hotel, Lossi 27, Kuressaare, Saaremaa, ekesparre.ee. Breakfast is included in the tariff. If a bathtub is important to you, ask for rooms 1, 2, 4 or 5.

Georg Ots Spa Hotel: Tori 2, Kuressaare, Saaremaa, gospa.ee

Tourist information: Visit Saaremaa, visitsaaremaa.ee; Saaremaa tourism, saaremaatourism.ee (this will open on a page about the just-completed food festival).

Bus service: Lux Express, http://www.luxexpress.eu