Saaremaa, a sustainable island destination

Source: Visit Estonia

Saaremaa, a sustainable island destination

Sustainable, green and slow tourism are all popular trends in travel currently, but what really makes a destination sustainable? In 2020, Estonia's largest island Saaremaa won the "Sustainable Travel Competition" at the MATKA tourism fair in Finland – the largest tourism fair in the Nordic countries. Saaremaa proves that sustainability not only means reducing emissions, but is a broader concept. So, let's get to know Saaremaa!

Saaremaa is a paradise for birdwatchers

Photo by: Remo Savisaar

Nature of Saaremaa

Saaremaa, together with Estonia's other western islands, belongs to the UNESCO "Man and the Biosphere" programme. The environment here has been preserved for centuries, and the unique traditions and hard-working and humorous people here have received special recognition precisely because they have been able to live in harmony with nature. Saaremaa is home to one national park here – Vilsandi National Park – which is located in the oldest protected area in the Baltics. In addition, there are many nature and landscape reserves, nearly twenty protected parks and a few dozen nature and hiking trails.

There are a total of 38 flowering orchid species in Estonia, 36 of which grow on Saaremaa. This makes Western Saaremaa particularly popular among flower enthusiasts in spring. Saaremaa is also a paradise for birdwatchers in autumn and spring as birds stop by during their annual migrations.

A traditional reed roof

Photo by: Aron Urb

Island cultural traditions

In addition to nature, Saaremaa has its unique traditions. At more festive events, islanders still love to wear colourful folk costumes. For centuries, home-brewed beer and baked bread have been made in homes and still is today. Local young people who decide to follow in their parents' footsteps and become fishermen and -women contribute to the tradition of sustainable fishing. Therefore, from early spring to late autumn, smoked fish can be enjoyed on Saaremaa and nearby island Muhu, and you can find the catch of the day on restaurant menus.

A traditional local material is reed. Even today, you can see houses with reed roofs while driving around older villages. However, young and proactive islanders have discovered reed as an alternative to material to plastic for making drinking straws. As a result, several young families on the island have started sustainable and environmentally friendly businesses.

The circular economy is important to sustainability as well, and Lahhentagge Distillery gives new life to city Christmas trees by making them into a tonic. Their spruce-flavored tonics are made from Christmas trees from Kuressaare and Pärnu in Estonia, and Helsinki and Loviisa, Finland. Popular events also put an emphasis on sustainability, like music festival I Land Sound and its waste sorting, and the Saaremaa Food Festival with its use of biodegradable tableware.

Dark bread is baked at home and in restaurants

Photo by: Aron Urb

Saaremaa's coastal food

The forest and the sea play an important role in the diet of the islanders, and this is also apparent at local restaurants. Most of the food comes from local farms; often the name of the farm where the ingredients come from is also written right on the menu. Fish caught in the morning is on the menu of the local restaurant as soon as lunchtime. This skillful use of high-quality raw materials means that a whopping 10% of Estonia's best restaurants are located on Saaremaa and neighbouring island Muhu, according to the White Guide international culinary ranking.

The first hybrid ship in Estonia, Tõll

Photo by: Alexander Gu

Local transport

Local transport to and around Saaremaa also has a small ecological footprint. The most common way to get to Saaremaa is by ferry, which you can board on foot, with a bicycle, car or even as part of a long-distance bus ticket. The ferry departs from Virtsu harbour on the mainland and sails for about half an hour to Kuivastu harbour on Muhu island, which is connected to Saaremaa by a bridge. One of the two ferries sailing this route is the hybrid ferry "Tõll". It uses 20% less diesel fuel, saves 1,600 tonnes of carbon dioxide from being emitted each year, and produces less vibrations and noise which could disturb fish and marine life.

Public buses are free in Saaremaa County, including for tourists. You can spot them with the sign "FREE" in the window. Free public transport is mainly used by locals, but there are several buses per week to Kaali meteor crater and the Angla Windmills from Kuressaare. During the summer, visitors can also get to Mändjala, Keskrand or Järve Beaches on busses that run several times per day. If you prefer to explore by bike instead, Saaremaa is a great place for it with its flat terrain and quiet roads.

When it comes to sustainable travel, Saaremaa is a must-see. Welcome and come discover the island for yourself!

Last updated : 22.04.2021