The sky is a porous grey blanket, the Baltic summer air spiky and cold, as our minivan deposits us at the world’s most depressing ferry terminal, just outside Tallinn. Far from a busy transport node, the only seaworthy vessels I spy are a handful of battered Soviet fishing boats, roped to concrete brown jetties, whilst the rest of the port consists of no more than an unmanned crane and a miniature fork lift truck – their rusting yellow paint jobs affording a dab of colour to the landscape at least. Several damp-feathered seagulls huddle on the nearby rocks, their miffed expressions clearly stating: we don’t want to be here either.
Several damp-feathered seagulls huddle on the nearby rocks, their miffed expressions clearly stating: we don’t want to be here either.
If I were more awake I’d no doubt regret my decision to get out of bed this morning, but the 7am start required to join this trip has numbed my brain to such an extent that I’ve been functioning on autopilot since my alarm sounded. Sensing the imminent opportunity to fall back asleep however, I instinctively clamber on board our morning ferry and, curling up on a cushioned chair, pull my hoodie tightly over my head and plug my earphones in. The twenty-odd-seater bark is almost empty and, aside from our seven-person tour group, the only passengers are a young couple, their newborn baby… and their cat, which they store in a basket next to a guitar and several crates of beer. As we glide out onto a grim sea the colour of iron filings, men, women, babes and felines are blissfully silent, and I soon find myself drifting off to the dirge-like refrains of Beirut’s Rip Tide.
When I wake up there’s the welcome sight of a low band of green at the horizon, fighting its way into the otherwise black-and-white seascape, as slowly Prangli island reels us to its shores. Two cormorants skim the waves, and an artic tern flaps higher above. The micro nap has refreshed me and, spying my first signs of life – dogs and fishermen milling around on the jetty – my tiredness gives way to excitement about setting foot for the first time on an Estonian island.
In fact, Estonia boasts an impressive collection of 1,521 isles, more even than Croatia or Greece, and some of them have already embraced tourism. The largest, Saaremaa, is a well-known spa resort destination, frequented by the Finnish, Swedish and Latvians, whilst second larget Hiiumaa is a popular summer weekend get away for locals, who can take the ferry across from Rohuküla, or fly directly to Kardla airport. For travellers enjoying a short break to Tallinn however, a trip to either of these isles, on Estonia’s Western shores, is neither quick nor easy. Which is why Prangli Travel comes to exist in the first place. Established in 2011, they organise day trips four times week from Tallinn to the island, which lies just 25km off its coast.
Company founder and our guide for the day, Annika (whose surname co-incidentally is Prangli, although she claims no special affiliation with the isle other than her love of the place) started the project as she was keen to show travellers – who normally venture little further than the seductive pubs and clubs of the country’s capital- the untouched nature and ancient culture of Estonia. In this respect she really couldn’t have found a more perfect place to show visitors than Prangli: its 6.5 square kilometres is home to just slightly over 100 people, and boasts only one shop, one church and a single bar. But of course, this being E-stonia, you still have WiFi. “In fact if you search on your phone you should find three separate networks,” Annika assures me.
…its 6.5 square kilometres is home to just slightly over 100 people, and boasts only one shop, one church and a single bar. But of course, this being E-stonia, you still have WiFi.
As we clamber on the back of a clapped-out pick-up truck, our transport for the day, she starts to tell us some of the history of the isle; whilst I do my best to fend off the hordes of sparrow-sized mosquitos that are feasting on my hands and face. “In Soviet times, when the island was part of a fishing collective, three hundred people used to live here. In those times there was a watch tower in the port and, on one side (the northern coast), the island was fenced off with barbed wire, with smooth sand so that border guards could see any footprints. They often raked the beach. Members of the same family were not allowed to go in the same boat, in case they escaped, but in fact it was not necessary. People were happy in those times. Life was good, fishermen had good work with high pay. And the women worked in the Prangli fish smoking factory, so everyone had jobs.”
After a visit to the community house – a rather fetching wooden edifice with turquoise-tiled roof, where we see photos of the Estonian president’s visit, use the toilet and I apply all the insect repellant Annika has brought with her – we’re ferried along the isle’s dirt tracks to the next stop. The Prangli Museum. The museum building is a delightfully shabby shed with a pond outside and a classic orange lifesaver ring hanging on the outside. Venturing inside and we take a look at some of the everyday items of island life, such as sewing machines, musical instruments and of course plenty of fishing and hunting equipment. I’m amused to discover that many of the items on display bear a family mark denoting who it belongs to… the olden day equivalent, I suppose, of writing your name in Tippex on the office stationery. After a fun half an hour sifting through these rustic treasures, and admiring the black and white photos of villagers at everyday life, we emerge into the fresh air to discover the sun has come out from nowhere. The grey skies have magically broken up, leaving nothing but a scattering of white clouds and a big bright blue sky.
I’m amused to discover that many of the items on display bear a family mark denoting who it belongs to… the olden day equivalent, I suppose, of writing your name in Tippex on the office stationery.
Back on the truck and there’s plenty more to visit, such as the island’s only church. Built by a wealthy French merchant (who despite finding the cash to buy the entire island in the mid-19th century, funded the construction with a public whip around) this pretty little place of worship sadly attracts little in the way of a congregation (three old ladies are the only regulars, according to Annika), but there’s no time to dwell on God’s dwindling influence in Estonia as we climb the tower for views over the island. Here we can see the tops of the fir forests that characterise the isle, the roofs of a handful of rural cottages (some of which act as holiday homes for affluent mainlanders…), and the sunlight shimmering on the still Baltic Sea.
After climbing down we leave the pick-up van by the church and take a stroll out to the island’s shores. The deserted beaches are breathtakingly serene: narrow strips of rocky sand, backed with lush reeds and bright purple flowers and fronted by a mirror-smooth ocean. Here we also find a traditional Prangli-style boat, which has been dragged up the shore, under the shade of a tree.
“It’s a seal hunter’s boat. It doesn’t have a keel, it has a flat bottom with a kind of skis instead so that you can take it with you when you go on ice.”
“It’s actually one part of Estonian maritime history,” says Annika. “It’s a seal hunter’s boat. It doesn’t have a keel, it has a flat bottom with a kind of skis instead so that you can take it with you when you go on ice. Seals were hunted on ice, and they didn’t sail with it, but they dragged the boat with them, so that if the ice broke they could jump onto the boat. Also they used it for transport to drag the seal furs and fat, because sometimes those hunting trips lasted a week even, so they stayed on the ice during that time and slept under the boat. Nowadays seals are not hunted any more and they are used for fishing instead. Still every man on the island goes fishing nearly every day.”
After explaining to us that the daily catch is usually fresh plaice and cod, it definitely feels high time for Annika to treat her hungry tour group to lunch. We drive back towards the port, to a modern wooden bungalow, where a small team of Estonian matrons have prepared a delicious meal of the aforementioned grilled flatfish, along with Prangli-grown potatoes and veg, and a rather sweet homemade compot to wash it down with. Oh to have an Estonian grandma!
The rest of the day is given over to private exploration, and Prangli is small enough for me to trek all the way over the sandy dunes of the desolate Northern side of the island, where eagles fly overhead and I am able to contemplate a rare feeling of isolation. A lone sail boat gliding by at a distance is the only sign of human life. After a quick (and yes, I confess, naked) dip in the sea and a stretch on the sand, I idly check my phone for the time. Shit, only 25 minutes ’til the last ferry back to Tallinn. It’s time to lace my shoes up and test my dune-running skills. I like it here… but come on, there’s only one bar.
Other Estonian Islands
The largest of the Estonian islands, at 2673 square kilometres Saaremaa is comfortably bigger than Rhodes, Tenerife or Minorca and a giant in comparison to tiny little Prangli. Life on the isle dates right back to 5000 BC, whilst today nearly 40,000 dwell here, 15,000 in the capital of Kuresaare. Ever since the island’s first spa opened back in 1840, it has been a popular destination for tourists, and you’ll certainly find no shortage of wellness resorts and hotels. Bathing is far from the isle’s only pleasure though as Saaremaa is also popular with cyclists, nature lovers and bird watchers, whilst its characteristic windmills and Kuresaare castle provide attractions to admire. The island also plays host to a number of events such as Kuressaare Opera Days, Kuressaare Maritime Festival, Kuressaare Castle Days, Saaremaa Cycling Tour (June) and the Saaremaa Rally (October). Finally beer lovers will be delighted to know that the islanders are famed for producing home-brewed ales…. and, unlike Prangli, there’s more than one bar in which to sample them!
Forged from a meteor explosion around 455 million years ago, Hiiumaa is Estonia’s second biggest floating land mass, which like Saaremaa beneath it, is found on the West Coast of the mainland. With a population of just 9,000 friendly folk, and a less in the ways of tourist development, Hiiumaa is a great place for those looking for a quiet holiday in an idyllic natural environment. Apart from visiting the meteor crater, attractions include the isle’s famous lighthouses, the Hiiuma Military Museum and the Soera Farm Museum, whilst hiking and watersports (sea kayaking and sailing) are popular activities. And whilst both ferries and flights will get you there anytime of the year, Visit Estonia proposes a more interesting way of arriving during the colder months: “The most exotic and spine-tingling way to Hiiumaa is the winter ice road. Driving on the Hiiumaa ice road is a unique experience especially when the vehicle in the next lane is a boat!” Good luck!
…And The Rest
Whilst the majority of Estonia’s isles are uninhabited bits of rock, there there are certainly plenty more worth visiting (Muhu was a tip given to me by more than one local!). Many have completely different histories and cultures, depending on who spent the longest time living there (many were previously occupied by the Germans, Swedish, Finnish and Russians). The Visit Estonia website is definitely the best resource for researching your trip.
Duncan travelled as the guest of Prangli Travel, to whom he extends his thanks. You can check out their website Tallinn Day Trip, as well as their Tripadvisor reviews for even more details on the experience. He also stole several photos from their Facebook page (as his camera was sadly broken during this trip!).