“This year we were not blessed with the ice road,” says Kadri Keert, the guest relations manager at Pädaste Manor on the island of Muhu, the most alluring hotel in Estonia, if not the entire Baltic.
That may come as a relief to anyone booked to stay there next weekend when it reopens after its annual four-month hibernation. Unless you charter a chopper, the journey from Tallinn usually involves a couple of hours’ drive followed by a half-hour ferry ride from Virtsu. When the sea freezes, however, as it tends to at this time of year, at least in colder winters than this, the only route in is to take a 20-minute drive across the gelid sea, along a path marked out in juniper branches with its own unusual highway code. You cannot drive it after dark, nor at speeds between 15 and 25 miles per hour, which cause vibrations that can crack the ice. You must keep a minimum 820ft (250m) from the car in front. And you mustn’t wear a seatbelt lest the worst happens, and you have to make a fast exit.
Safely arrived at Pädaste Manor, however, and any anxiety will surely melt away. For this is a place of rare enchantment, of snowy silent wastes and clear crisp starry nights, of deserted shores and aromatic juniper forests, big skies and empty landscapes populated by boar, moose, seals, swans and only 1,500 or so people, sustained by fishing (though there’s also an ostrich farm) and spread thinly through its 80-odd square miles. Off-limits even to mainlanders during the Soviet Union thanks to its now-derelict nuclear-missile base, it feels like a land that time forgot.
Not so Pädaste, which belongs to the island’s MP and his Dutch partner, an estate that dates back to the 14th century but is reassuringly 21st century in matters of comfort.
The optimum rooms are those in the Gothic stone Manor House, once the summer home of the Russian Tsar Nicholas II’s hunting master and his German wife, an heir to the Siemens engineering fortune. Here the pale Nordic austerity of their décor is tempered with sheepskins, oriental rugs and, at least in the superior junior suites, roaring wood-burners.
Better yet, though, is the thatched timber veranda-encircled Private Farm House (sleeps six), which has its own cinema and a sauna with a sea view.
One could happily hole up at Pädaste and barely set foot outside except to cross the garden to the restaurant, where Yves Le Lay’s fashionable Nordic cooking – moose, juniper, beetroot along, , depending on the season, with locally grown and foraged greenery – is held to be the best in Estonia. Or to make one’s way to the spa, all rough-hewn wood and embroidered blankets, with a wood-burning sauna, Siberian cold tub, and treatments involving hay, goat’s butter, local beer, sea mud, yoghurt and pumpkin seeds, as well as more conventional oils.
But even when the island is blanketed in snow, there is a lot to do outdoors. This weekend, for instance, they’re offering bird watching, ice fishing, tree climbing (Pädaste is perhaps the only hotel in the world to have a tree-climbing expert, Heiki Hanso, on its staff). And because the sea is frozen enough to support the wait of a person if not a car, adventurous guests can still slide across the ice, snowshoeing across the bay to neighbouring Armastuse saar, which translates as “Isle of Love”, where they’ll be roasting a wild boar over an open fire on the beach.
Doubles in the Manor House from €295 (£175), plus €90pp (£55) for full board.