A congregation of jovial boozy stag parties cavorted along the aisle as our flight approached Tallinn. Wild yes – and with its fair share of animals – but not quite the wilderness I was seeking. Despite Tallinn's status as a favourite stag do (bachelor party) haunt, the Estonia I was to discover had far more to offer than a boozy night out in a dinosaur outfit. In fact, it's Estonia's palpable wilderness, so highly prized by the locals, that draws many visitors here; it's a country of expansive space, abundant wildlife and a sense of pristine isolation.
A quarter of Estonia is a designated nature reserve; seemingly endless stretches of bogs and meadows are interspersed with woodlands, which themselves cover half of the country and provide a haven for wolves, bears, lynxes and wild boars. Marshes and bogs envelope a quarter of the land, and are important nesting grounds and popular stop-over points for migrant birds. Combine that with a population of 1.3 million people spread across a country of 45,227 square kilometres and you begin to understand the extent of land left to its natural devices.
It was this sense of space and remoteness that first struck me when we went seal watching from Haabneeme, on Estonia's northern coast. To the northwest, the country stretches out to meet the Baltic sea and the coastline is peppered with 1500 islands, many of which are uninhabited. One man lives alone on Aski island, while a number of mainland Estonians apply to be island guards in their holidays, staying for short stints to keep an eye on things.
Our destination was Malusi island, a protected breeding ground for seals; of the 30,000 grey seals that live in the Baltic Sea, around 300 can be found at Malusi. Drifting alone in the placid waters, the tranquillity was only interrupted by our boat's iPod, which blasted out jolly leelo folk songs and catchy pop tunes, a bizarre yet effective way of attracting the seals. The Estonians discovered that seals loved music in the 1920s when violin-playing traders realised their boats were being followed by these curious critters. It appears that seals are not only curious but also cultured – Beethoven was a firm favourite on our trip.
But isolation and peace were not only to be found when floating alone at sea. Our next stop was Sooma, Estonia's second largest national park, an area of rivers, brooks, bogs and woodland, that's home to 185 species of bird including golden eagles, owls and storks, as well as a number of mammals. From a viewing tower we surveyed the park; reminiscent of an African savannah, the expanse of flat land below us stretched seemingly to the horizon, a mix of grasses and mosses in hues of rusty red, bleached beige and earthy brown, fringed on one side by tall forest. Streams cut across a landscape pockmarked with small lakes and dotted with ancient, stunted, spindly trees, that despite being 200 or so years old stretched only to waist height. Keen to explore, we donned our bog shoes; these strange pointy flippers are an essential to avoid sinking in the quagmire.
Feeling the height of fashion we waddled across the spongy wetlands bouncing on the oddly marshmallow-like mounds of earth and despite having become strangely fond of our new giant feet we swapped them for canoes to row down the slowly meandering Riisa River. The waters were low this year, restricting the canoes to rivers and streams; however, Sooma is famous for its great floods, a springtime phenomenon, where the water level rises up to four metres, creating what the Estonians refer to as the “fifth season”, when much of the park is under water, making it possible to canoe through flooded meadows and magical, waterlogged forests.
For all its pristine wilderness, Estonia is not all about the rural outdoors. Much to my relief, after a day battling bogs, rivers and seas, there was no shortage of comfort and style when it came to putting our feet up to refuel. And what better place for it than Pärnu, a favourite destination for spa retreats that has also repeatedly received the title of Estonia’s “summer capital”? A charming city of wide streets lined with pretty wooden houses, cocooned by a stretch of long, white sandy beach, which – as it was out of season – we found to be perfectly empty. After roaming the quiet streets, we checked into Frost Boutique Hotel, a cosy yet achingly stylish place; in my room distressed-wood white-washed beams held up a lofty ceiling, plump pillows and a taupe crushed velvet bedspread transformed my bed into what felt like sleeping on a cloud, and downstairs a roaring fire and large flickering candles tricked us into whiling away the evening lounging with a glass of wine.
This sort of rustic charm meets Scando-cool seemed a theme in many of the hotels and restaurants we visited. A feeling that nature – pine wood furniture, washed-up shells, crackling fires and natural hues – was influencing the interiors. The food was a similarly intriguing mix that was inventive yet earthy, such as the intriguing basil ice cream at NOA, and ox with beetroot served with a surprisingly delicious moss at Cru. In most places we ate, what seemed to drive the meals was a pride in locally-sourced ingredients; organic produce in Estonia is not a trend but a core principle – many Estonians I spoke to still head to the forests to go mushroom foraging.
On our final day in Estonia, we returned to Tallinn to explore its UNESCO-listed old town. Set high above a medieval wall, it charms with its sloping cobbled streets, soft pastel painted buildings, red tiled rooftops, elegant spires and sweeping views across the city out to the harbour. That night, tucked away in Mull, a home restaurant decked out with kitsch style – the grandeur of candelabras and chandeliers gently offset by mismatched teacups and quirky trinkets – Tallinn felt worlds away from a stag party haunt and I realised that even in this bustling city, the sense of calmness and peace we had gained in Estonia remained.
Find out more about Estonia at visitestonia.com.
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