What difference a day makes! We woke up on day 14 to beautiful sunshine and blue sky outside and we were ready to start our island hopping tour.
There is very little information available about the route of the E9 hiking trail through Estonia. That left us room to plan our own route along the coast, and Estonia’s favorite places for spending the summer – the islands of Hiiumaa and Saaremaa – should not be missing. From mid-June to August, Estonians and tourists queue up for hours on weekends to get on the ferry to the islands and go to their summer houses or to one of the many holiday villages and lodgings. In mid-May, we did not feel any of this buzz; many cafés were still closed, as well as a number of accommodations. Sometimes it felt as if we had the islands all for ourselves.
We started hiking towards Kassari, an island of the island, connected by two bridges to Hiiumaa. As much as we tried, there was no path leading along the shore to appreciate the coastal scenery, so we were road hiking again. We passed some pretty villages and alleys and for the first time, we saw some four-legged animals (other than dogs) along the way: Sheep and cows grazing on the fields next to the road.
When we were in desperate need of a break, a traditional farmhouse appeared with a sign on it. As we approached, we saw the word we were hoping for – kohvik! We entered the house and found ourselves in a shop selling artisanal wool products. Really nice ones, but a coffee would have been nicer. The café which belonged to the shop would only open in June. The old fashioned spinning machines were quite impressive, especially when the shopkeeper turned them on for us, but it was time to move on.
After one and a half resting days, our goal for the day was quite ambitious, 23 km. It was not in order to break any records, but for pure necessity – there were no lodging places closer by. We reached Kassari village quite tired and without a booked place, only with a rough idea there should be lodging there. After passing some wooden farm houses, a museum and a historical windmill, there was a bright red modern building. When we got closer, we saw a restaurant with cool design. The building clearly was a hotel, maybe a bit out of our price range, but… A friendly blond lady appeared outside asking if she could help us. Yes, the hotel was open, and they had self catering rooms in a guesthouse just across the street. Those were affordable and very pretty, so we didn’t look any further. Best of it all, a pood was there as well, so we could do our grocery shopping for dinner and the next day.
When we went back to the hotel to pay for our room, we had the most special happy hour of our trip so far: Home-brewed beer, accompanied by Estonian sushi – tiny and delicious pickled herring.
We knew that the hike on day 15 would be one of the hardest we had until then: 29 km from Kassari to Sõru, where we would spend the next night. We had contacted a few people for Couchsurfing on the islands, and Katre and Paavo had been so kind to offer us a couch at their place. The weather forecast had announced rain for the second half of the day, so we decided to break up really early, to hike most of the distance in dry weather. At 6.00 AM we were ready to go and we really managed to reach Emmaste, a town 7 km away from our hosts’ place, before the rain started.
The first 6 km on Kassari island were very nice; we saw flocks of birds and even a deer along the quiet road. The next 16 km, however, were pure road hiking, hardly any villages along the way, and quite some traffic on the road. According to the map, we should have had the choice between two restaurants in Emmaste to eat and relax before walking the last stretch to Sõru. They were both closed. Fortunately, a small roadside café (which was not on our map) was open. We entered the tiny place and sighed with relief: A warm room with comfortable sofas, hot coffee and a very nice attendant who spoke perfect English. Here we could easily spend the next two hours! Of course we had to try the house special, a huge hamburger with a generous serving of cole slaw inside.
Leaving our business card with Kaie, the attendant, led to an interesting Facebook-moment: She shared our Coastline page and by the comments of her friends (translated from Estonian), we could see that quite a few people have noticed us passing by. Maybe, Kaie will appear again in this blog in one of the posts from Latvia…
It was time to leave the warm café and walk the last bit in the rain. When we arrived at Katre and Paavo’s home, we were amazed by the nice house and beautiful garden. We entered and were greeted warmly by the couple and little by little their children showed up; the two elder ones even spoke some English with us. The parents had spent more than a year traveling around the world, so we had a lot to talk about. After the nice family dinner, the children were still full of energy – after all, it would not be dark before 10 PM, so Paavo took us all for a walk to the nearby beach. Less than 100m away from the peaceful shore, there was an old cannon launch base from the Russians, still from WWII. They didn’t have time to destroy it, so one can still visit the underground corridors. We also learned a lot about wildlife on the island, as Paavo, whose family lives over 300 years on Hiiumaa, is a hunter and knows every animal track and every part of the forest.
Back at their place, we had dessert and chatted a bit more, when they suggested: “Are you sure you want to take the ferry to Saaremaa tomorrow morning? There is a village fair in Emmaste and Saturday is our sauna day, why don’t you stay another day?” That was not a hard decision to take. We enjoyed being with the family a lot and village fair and sauna had a very nice sound to it – we stayed.
Spending the Saturday in Sõru and Emmaste was a real pleasure. We had time for a calm breakfast with the family, then went with Katre, the three kids and a beautiful strawberry swiss roll to Emmaste for the village fair. Katre dances in the local folk dance group, and we enjoyed watching their performance. We tried homemade cakes, the Baltic version of Ginjinha (sour cherry licor), and solved our souvenir problem. As we can’t carry souvenirs for a year in our backpacks, we buy them (like the handicraft wooden spoons we found in Emmaste) and immediately send them off by mail.
Katre and Paavo do a lot of things themselves. One of their house specials is beer, the art of which Paavo has learned from his grandfather. José has followed the process step by step during our stay, unfortunately, we did not stay long enough to try the results.
After a late and delicious lunch of roast moose, José and the older son went for fishing at Sõru harbour. The boy could not understand how an adult like José had never been fishing in his life. Beginner’s luck or the boy’s good teaching, José even caught a 15cm fish. Unfortunately, this wouldn’t be enough for dinner, so it was offered to the neighbor’s cat.
Later, the family heated up the sauna. As in many Estonian houses, there is a separate house for the sauna, which is heated in the traditional way with logs. Theirs was located in a charming little house in the garden, which also hosts the brewery and can be used as a holiday house for visitors. Moiken is used to sauna since her youth, but for José, this sweating and cooling down ritual is a relatively new experience. We are beginning to get addicted to it, the relaxed and light feeling afterwards is just too good. While our host family enjoyed their sauna time, we enjoyed the after-sauna beer, another habit we might get addicted to.
On Sunday, day 17 of our hike, it was time to say goodbye to Katre, Paavo and their kids. They had made us feel so much at home at their place and it has been so nice exchanging ideas and experiences with them, that it was a bit hard to leave. But a lot of new discoveries were awaiting us, so off we went with the 08.15 AM ferry to Triigi, in the island of Saaremaa. We had a place reserved in Jaani, about 20 km from the harbour. The walk started quite pleasantly with good weather, but soon it began to drizzle and on the last kilometers, it was raining quite heavily. We had to have a lunch break before we arrived, so we sat down on a wet stone on the roadside, covered by our rain ponchos, and did our best to put together a sandwich from our provision bags and eat it before it would get too soggy.
When we arrived, we were shown to our wooden hut. As usual, we were the only guests there, so we had the shared toilet and shower all to ourselves. Only problem was, we had to leave the cottage to get there. Fortunately, the rain stopped in the evening, we slowly warmed up, and our clothes started to dry.
We had a small, but convenient breakfast brought to our cottage in the morning, and started our hike in two stages to Orissaare – the next town and gateway to the last island on our tour – and Nautse, located in Muhu island and where we would spend the night. We were a bit tired of road hiking, so we took every secondary road we could find, even if it added a few km to our hike. Thanks to Geocaching, we discovered a cliff of different stone layers on the way, as well as the ruins of an old fortress. When we reached Orissaare, we visited the most unusual soccer field in the world and had our lunch break in a local pub. Estonian pubs and small restaurants offer a daily lunch special for incredible prices (soup around 1.5 Euros, main dish around 4 Euros, plus complimentary bread, butter and water), so we took advantage of it. Orissaare also has a Konsum supermarket, where we stocked up for the next days and bought dessert for immediate consumption. If there are any Vana Tallinn lovers reading this, listen up: There is an ice-cream version of this delicious liquor! Mixed with creamy coffee ice-cream and covered with dark Belgian chocolate, this even beats a Magnum.
With full bellies and provision bags, we went off to Muhu island. This time, to our disappointment, we didn’t take a ferry to pass the Väike Väin Strait, because Saaremaa and Muhu are connected by a causeway, cutting the strait in two parts. There is a road on the causeway, but no proper walking or cycling path. So we kept on the left side of the road, hoping for not too much traffic on the causeway (yep, relatively few cars and trucks coming our way) and not too much wind (nope, wind became stronger and it even started raining quite heavily). When we reached the other side after 3 km, the weather became better and by the time we were at our lodging place for the night, the sun was shining again. We were very pleased when we were shown to our room – a spacious, nicely decorated apartment in the attic of an old farmhouse – no need to mention that we had the whole place for ourselves. The accommodation came with a voucher to visit the nearby ostrich farm. Although we were ready to just lie down and put our feet up, we were too curious to see the ostriches. Turned out that the owners of the farm also had alpacas, zebras, emus, kangaroos and wallabies. A private exotic zoo in the middle of a small island in Northern Europe!
Day 19 was the last day of our island hopping tour, entirely dedicated to the southern part of Muhu. We followed a nice bicycle trail which would lead us to Kuivastu, the port from where we could take the ferry back to the mainland the next day. It was a pleasant and sunny day, but unfortunately it was one of those 5 km days – we were quite sore and tired and had to stop every 5 km to recover. The landscape around us was green fields, meadows full of flowers and later a dense pine forest. Here, we had one of the strangest trails – a broad sandy road, waiting for the asphalt; it looked like there was a huge urbanization project on the way.
We reached the holiday farm where we had booked a wooden hut. To our surprise, we were shown to a narrow bedroom, all in pink and white, looked like Barbie’s trailer home. We were not too happy about this change, especially after coming from that charming farmhouse apartment for the same price. They ended up giving us the wooden hut, and it was actually quite nice, but the rest of the package, especially the sanitary installations, were much below the standards we had seen until then. But well, we can not be lucky with our lodgings every night and a hut with a bed beats our tent on a windy and cool day.
We are happy to have chosen to visit the islands on our hiking trip. The landscape is amazing and very varied and we have seen more wild animals than anywhere before. Lodging issues aside, being there in off season had the added charm of a very quiet and peaceful environment. It had been especially great being able to spend some time with an Estonian family, who told us so much about Estonia and the islands and made us feel so welcome in their home.