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Level best

From the historic beauty of Tallinn to the
remote wildness of its islands, Estonia
offers a short break with a difference

By Jennifer Hill

The Scotsman, August 26, 2006

We sailed on a fishing-boat
between these two shores
the Island of Lovers
and the Island of Whores.

You at the helm getting
soaked to the skin
taking me to places
I’d never been

Where are you tonight?
In the clouds or on the sea?
I’m thinking of you now
Do you ever think of me?

It was here in Estonia that the Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant was inspired to pen those lyrics. That this place acted as his muse for Between Two Islands is fitting. As the setting sun shimmers on the water, the silence is absolute and civilisation seems a million miles away.

A black limousine had waited for us at the airport to take us to our final destination and that source of inspiration: Muhu Island – an enchanting wilderness and one of the 1,521 islands that dot Estonia’s littoral.
With time to spare before the next ferry crossing, our chauffeur whisked us off on a whistle-stop tour of the capital, Tallinn – one of the most well-preserved medieval cities in Europe, and on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
Among our first ports of call is the promenade that overlooks the Gulf of Finland. Here we visit Kadriorg Palace, a grandiose, pink, baroque building, founded by Russian Tsar Peter I, which is now the residence of the Estonian president – and houses the Estonian Art Museum. The nearby Peter the Great House Museum is a humble cottage, bought by the emperor in 1714 to live in during the construction of his palatial home.

The picturesque Old Town is one of the greatest delights. A profusion of medieval walls, needle spires, red-topped merchants’ houses and twisting, cobblestone streets and courtyards give it an air of romanticism. It hosts a treasure-trove of medieval architecture. Much of it dates from the 11th century, but its origins span the following five centuries. Wandering the streets here, you feel as though you are journeying through the layers of time.  We head for a light refreshment at one of the best viewing points in town – the bar on the 24th floor of the Radisson SAS hotel. After that, we resume our journey to Muhu.

From the German "moon", Muhu is the third largest island of an archipelago off the west coast of Estonia, which separates the Gulf of Riga from the Baltic Sea. The nearest to the mainland of the trio of larger islands, it lies to the north-east of Saaremaa – the largest island, linked to Muhu by a causeway – and south-east of Hiiumaa.

A two-hour drive to Virtsu – where the ferry departs every hour in the summer, every two hours in winter and at the weekend – allows us to soak up the scenery. Outwith Tallinn, the landscape is very much Scandinavian in form. The flatness affords uninterrupted views that stretch for miles; with swathes of silver birch trees and grass meadows, peppered with small, wooden houses.
The ferry crossing to Kuivastu takes just 25 minutes. It is nearing summer-time and there is just a hint of chill in the air. Yet the boat glides past huge chunks of ice, floating like polar bears paddling silently beneath the surface. This stretch of water, we learn, freezes over to such an extent in the winter that the passage can be made by car.
We disembark. The limousine rolls into the stark remoteness; there’s not a single other person in sight. Soon, through a clearing, we catch our first glimpse of it: Pädaste Manor.

Baltic nobles settled here in 1227, and chose these 25 hectares of parkland, meadows and forests on the southern tip of Muhu to build one of the few manors in the region that sits directly on the sea edge.
The written history of Pädaste dates back to 1566, but the present manor-house was built around 1870 on the site of the original. Restoration is underway to give it 16 rooms and suites, and to add a second restaurant, Martin Breuer, the general manager, tells us. Much, however, has already been done to turn Pädaste into an elegant resort and spa – and it’s a member of the exclusive Small Luxury Hotels of the World club.

The Dutchman and Muhu native Imre Sooäär bought the manor in 1996 and started restoring it a year later. Once home to the baron’s riding-horses and carts, the carriage house now houses eight split-level suites, each with a private balcony. One of these is our base for the weekend.
What used to be the carpenter’s dwelling is now the Seahouse restaurant; the old dairy comprises four double rooms and the spa; while the ice cellar is now home to the manor’s extensive wine collection. There is also a private farmhouse that sleeps up to ten people, and comes complete with sauna, library and cinema.

The spa has a wood-burning sauna, and Roman steam baths. The body mask treatments on offer, which make use of mud and hay, are fabulous, but it’s the dining experience that really catapults Pädaste into the super-league.

Every course is a work of art; small, yet perfectly-formed. We greet each with a child-like relish, particularly enjoying the fresh local ingredients, including home-grown herbs and some superb salads.
Ginger-glazed Estonian quail, salmon roll filled with crayfish, dark beer marinated moose carpaccio, lightly smoked duck confit and oven-warm chocolate cake, not forgetting the assorted bread-basket that accompanies every meal, were among the spectacular dishes on offer.

Everything is faultless. It is astonishingly reasonable, too. A two-course table d’hôte lunch costs the equivalent of around £14 per person, while dinner ranges from £25 for three courses to £32 for five.

The island itself, with its 2,000 inhabitants, 52 villages and three churches – two Orthodox and one Lutheran – is worthy of exploration. When you’re shown its highlights by an informative local guide, the magic and mystery of Muhu comes alive: a stream in a glade in the forest has supernatural properties. Wash in it, and, legend has it, all ills shall be cured.

Spend half an hour here and soon you have little thought for the outside world. No wonder Tennant was moved to write:

Where are you tonight?
In the clouds or on the sea?
I’m thinking of you now
Do you ever think of me?

FACT FILE Estonia How to get there
• Estonian Air flies daily to Tallinn from Gatwick. Fares start at £20 one-way, excluding taxes. Tel: 00 372 6401163, www.estonian-air.com
Where to stay

• Pädaste Manor, Muhu Island, costs from EEK1,816 (£80) per night for a double room, EEK2,604 (£115) for a deluxe double and EEK3,045 (£135) for a suite, including breakfast. The farmhouse costs from EEK9,299 (£411) for two and EEK685 (£30) per extra guest. Full board, with a two-course lunch and three-course dinner, is an extra EEK798 (£35) per person per day.
Tel: 00 372 454 8800, www.padaste.ee

And there’s more

• Three nights at Pädaste Manor, based on two sharing a room in the guesthouse, costs £299pp with Baltic Holidays (until 1 October, or 26 Dec-2 Jan). Flights excluded. Quote "Scotsman" to book. Tel: 0870 7579233, www.balticholidays.com