Estonia includes more than 1,500 offshore islands. The largest, Saaremaa, is about 80 mi/130 km southwest of Tallinn and was off-limits to visitors for more than 50 years. That had the unintended effect of preserving much of the island's old way of life—except for fishing. The Soviets worried the islands would be an easy escape point to the West, so they restricted travel to them and even made boat ownership by locals illegal.

As a result of such restriction, Saaremaa remains the most indelibly Estonian part of the country. The island's attractions include beautiful natural scenery, beaches, 13th-century Gothic churches in the villages of Kaarma and Poide, spas and the beautifully preserved 14th-century castle in Kuressaare, built by the Teutonic Knights. The town also has a quaint but small old city and an outdoor market.

Saaremaa is also famous for its small wooden windmills. Many of them can be found between the villages of Leisi and Angla (which has a beautiful church with archaic frescoes and intrinsically sculptured pillars). And don't miss the scenic Karujarv, a pristine bathing lake with sandy beaches surrounded by wild berry bushes and forest. Even orchids grow on Saaremaa.

On your way to Saaremaa, visit the island of Muhu and tour the Koguva Outdoor Museum, a living-history museum focused on the life of rural Estonians during the early 20th century.

Saaremaa can be reached by ferry from Virtsu, stopping at Muhu on the way.

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