Romance is alive and well on the tiny island of Muhu, as Joanne O'Connor discovered when she gatecrashed a proposal at Estonia's loveliest hotel.
I'm standing next to a grand piano in a candlelit room singing backing vocals, while an Estonian man in a white towelling bathrobe and slippers serenades his fiancee. Imre, the hotel owner, is playing the piano, while my friend Carole and I fill in with the harmonies. I have no idea how this happened. And from the bewildered look on the fiancee's face, neither has she.
The serenade is the climax of, quite possibly, the most elaborate marriage proposal ever. It began with a meal for two on the hotel's wooden jetty, looking out across the sparkling waters of the bay. This was followed by champagne in the seawater hot tub on the beach under a pink twilight sky, where the question was popped. The dripping bride-to-be was then carried from the hot tub to the hotel lounge, where she was greeted by a rendition of Van Morrison's 'Have I Told You Lately ?' so flat that it made Holland look like the Himalayas.
Of course, she said yes. How could she not ? Padaste Manor is the kind of hotel that could squeeze romance from the stoniest heart.
On the tiny Estonian island of Muhu, just ..........
west of the mainland, the hotel is in a restored 19th-century manor house set on a beautiful bay and surrounded by juniper forests and reed beds. Though it's just a 90-minute drive and a short ferry crossing away from Tallinn, it feels a million miles away from the capital, with its boisterous bars and hordes (or should that be herds?) of stag parties. Over the past 10 years the crumbling ruins of the estate have gradually been reclaimed from the encroaching forest and sensitively restored by its owners, the Dutch-born Martin Breuer and Imre Sooaar, who doubles up as the local MP (and occasional pianist).
There are 12 guest rooms, including eight suites, in what was once the old carriage house and a further 16 will be added when renovation work begins on the original manor house next month. Also in the grounds is a beautifully secluded wooden cottage which can be hired by groups on a self-catering basis.
With stone floors, antique furniture, comfy leather chairs and open fires, the feel throughout Padaste is a blend of rustic charm and low-key luxury. The bedrooms, many of which are on two levels, are pretty with small balconies (only slightly let down, we felt, by the red corporate hotel carpet).
One of the highlights of staying at the hotel is eating at the restaurant which prides itself on sourcing ingredients locally. On a balmy summer evening we sit outside the old stone building and work our way through a platter of moose carpaccio, smoked eel, Baltic herring, beetroot, piglet tongue and ostrich. All of which comes from the island (even the ostrich - there's a farm here). The salad is grown in the hotel's kitchen garden and the lovely walnut bread is homebaked.
The same philosophy extends to the small but completely charming spa, housed in a stone outbuilding that used to be the estate's cheese factory. Marella, the therapist, explains that all the treatments make use of the island's natural resources. You can choose from an oatmeal and yoghurt scrub, a goat milk facial, a wood-burning sauna, or opt for the Muhu hay bath, as I did.
Marella wraps me up in a cocoon of dried grass and birch leaves (which she gathers herself in the forest) and lowers me into a warm bath. There's no incense burning, no New-Age music, just the warm, sweet smell of damp hay and the sound of birdsong outside. It's a profoundly relaxing experience and afterwards, I sit outside in a rocking chair on the wooden terrace with a cup of cowslip tea watching the dragonflies flit across the pond. Heavenly.
The next morning we meet up with a guide for a tour of Muhu. We learn that during the Soviet era the island was classified as a restricted area due to its two rocket bases, which meant that it was almost shut off from the outside world, including Estonians from the mainland. This goes some way to explaining its cut-off, timeless feel. We also learn that potatoes are the main crop.
As the guide takes us around, it quickly becomes apparent that Muhu's 'sights' are limited. There's an interesting open-air museum at Kugova that gives a feel for life in a traditional fishing village, the ostrich farm, an ancient burial site and not much else. And unlike the neighbouring island of Saaremaa, which is linked by a causeway, Muhu has no golden sandy beaches. The 'capital' consists of two restaurants, a supermarket and a church.
Which is all a bit of a relief frankly, because it means you don't have to feel guilty about not leaving the hotel. We foolishly hired bikes one day and, after half an hour of cycling along a hot, dusty road, turned back to the leafy sanctuary of Padaste. The hotel literature suggests taking a canoe across to the 'island of love', picking wild strawberries in the forest, or getting up early to spot moose or wild boar by the water's edge. But we are quite content to sit and rock in our rocking chairs on the jetty and read Hello magazine and muse on what a lovely place for A Romantic Minibreak this would make if one should ever happen to find oneself in a relationship able to bear the weight of heightened expectations attendant on said minibreak.
In the height of summer, when we visited, the hotel was bathed in Baltic light and cool breezes and the northern evenings seemed never to end. In the past, the hotel has shut down in the deepest months of winter but, this year, Martin tells us, he plans to keep the hotel open year-round. When the bay freezes over he will offer horsedrawn sleigh rides and ice fishing. There's also the added possibility of spotting the Northern Lights from the beachside hot tub ...
Which brings me neatly back to the romance thing. Elaborate marriage proposals aside, there really is something quite magical about this place. It's low-key and lovely and very well done. And with rooms starting from €116 a night in low season, it's good value too. Bring the person you love here. And if the urge to perform a romantic serenade should come upon you, I can recommend a very good backing singer.
Joanne O'Connor travelled with Baltic Holidays (0845 0705710; www.balticholidays.com). A three-night flydrive package departing on 15 November costs £269 per person. The price includes two nights at Padaste Manor with one night at the Kalev Spa in Tallinn, return flights from Stansted and car hire for four days. Departing on 15 June 2007 the same package costs £379pp. For further details on the hotels see www.padaste.ee and www.kalevspa.ee.