Where in Tallinn's city center district can you camp for free, and observe white-tailed eagles along kilometers of near-deserted wild beach?
Not on the promenade running between the Russalka monument to the Song Festival grounds, or by hopping the fence around the city reservoir (which does qualify as pristine, but would be extremely illegal).
The answer to the trick question is the island of Aegna. It's well past the Pirita district and even beyond neighboring Viimsi municipality. But actually the densely forested island, measuring about 2 km by 1.5 km, is administered by the Kesklinn district.
That gives Aegna a number of advantages over, say, Naissaar, the largest island in the Tallinn region, which is administered by the Viimsi municipality. Aegna is served by a regular boat connection three times a day, six days a week. And being part of Tallinn means Aegna is covered under the city's free public transport for residents plan. The hour-long trip is free for green fare-card holders.
At the same time, Aegna is blissfully out of reach for casual picnickers or partiers. Some planning is necessary as there's an almost complete lack of services on the island, which has a permanent population of just two (15 in summer).
The kids and I - my wife busy with a thesis pitch - were considering an overnighter in a similarly-named woodsy place in northern Estonia, Aegviidu, but in the end, the idea of a completely car-free approach to a wild place we'd only been dimly aware of was too appealing. We printed out maps of the island, and e-booked our boat tickets (11 euros round trip for a non-resident adult and one older child, preschoolers are free).
Since Aegna has no cars and a good dirt road network, the kids brought their two bikes, which cost an extra euro to transport each way. Our ambitious plan was to explore all 24 numbered points on the map, many with particularly endearing place names (Krõnkasoo, Lemmiku nina).
First, though, came the biggest physical challenge of both days: getting to the Kalasadam port on the far side of the Old Town. With one child just recently learning to ride and not having fully grown into her 20-inch bike, our procession through the streets of the Old Town, with an overloaded Dad plodding along in the rear futilely barking out commands, must have been quite a sight. An hour and 15 minutes after starting out, we crossed the confusing ring roads by the port and were at the Kultuurikilomeeter, the gravel waterfront bike path.
The boat to Aegna departs from a real working fish market. It is as popular a place for amateur fishermen as the Pirita bridge. It was here that Dad, slow on the uptake, realized that the lack of a food store on Aegna also meant that there would be no bottled water. But the friendly woman who runs the fish market cafe gave us, with our purchase of dried fish, an empty five-liter water container that we could use to fill at the island's two water sources. Dad had forgotten something else, too, but the woman said she didn't have an license for off-premises consumption of alcohol to sell an unopened bottle of beer - a sign of how things have changed.
Aboard the Vesta, one of those EU funding signs informed us that the boat had benefited recently from a renovation and speed increase. It is hard to imagine how slow the going must have been before that. As the sheltering effect of Tallinn's bay wore off, the passage became surprisingly choppy. It was not easy to stand unsupported, which of course the six-year-old took as a premise for a game. Most of my hour was spent on keeping them away from the hatch to a below-decks crew area gaping open in the floor of the passenger area, surrounded by only a four-inch-high flange. I looked over at the only other passengers - a father and his daughter, around seven - sitting quietly and looking at us.
Our first introduction to Aegna was foresty - a few tidy wooden buildings and one of the two public potable water taps. Beyond lay deep woods with more ferns than I have seen elsewhere. Ninety percent of the island is forested these days, and much of it is dense.
Aegna has no spires or towers - that includes cell towers and observation platforms. There are some substantial summer homes, but much of the former architecture, it has to be said, is in need of restoration or past the point of no return. The biggest structure we saw, a 1920s Estonian army mess hall in the middle of the island, did have a cupola. It might be in use today as a holiday complex or lodge but is probably too far gone. We looked through the bars of a window. A book lay open on a table, and it looked like it hadn't been long since the table had last been cleared of dishes, but the ceiling was starting to sag and shed bits of plaster.
Neo-pagan types might be struck by the fact that the island has never had a church. But there are several lovely unofficial shrines here and there, with elaborate use of shells and driftwood, and the Stone Labyrinth, a restored version of a medieval site on Eerikuneem (Eerik's Cape). The 270-meter long spiral path is to be walked one abreast, quietly, either at dawn or dusk. Our kids were especially taken with it, although I became nervous at how the gods might take it when stopwatches and minotaurs entered the picture, and suggested they opt for war games in a nearby bunker built into a hill, which was accessible and had machine gun slits at the top.
But our eight-year-old made a return pilgrimage to the labyrinth early in the morning, alone, successfully following the coast for 800 m from the campsite and back. Soon after he returned, thunder oddly began pealing, and it was into the tent for more pagan activities, a dice and card game based on Andrus Kivirähk's book, "The Man who Spoke Snakish," which nicely lasted exactly as long as the rain.
There were a few larger groups on the island, generally in the rustic holiday villages in the middle of the island. With the weather a little unsettled, the beaches were practically ours. Our only fellow camper was Aldo, a 28-year-old Tartu law student, who said he comes out here several times a year for longer stints. With exams out of the way, he had brought a wheelbarrow full of food the night before and was planning to be here all week.
He said he had often gone to Aegna as a child, up to about 1991. Insisting on speaking English, he told us one day he hoped to "get lucky," by which he meant father his own kids he could come here with, and I said that was great.
Aldo, for all his talk of solitude, seemed to need companionship, as he either had his radio on or was visiting us, but that was fine. He was the one who alerted us to the eagle, the rarer white-tailed one, which sat on a rock for a long while. It was one of a pair that nests on the north shore. To our delight, it finally spread its wings and soared off.
Our only other visitors on Saturday evening were a pair of patrolling Rescue Board workers, another defining feature of the island. Aegna is orderly, with waste bins, and firewood deilvered Tuesdays, and has an extremely safe feel, due partly to the patrols. (I asked if they were city officials; they adamantly corrected me.) One of the two women said the Aegna patrol tradition was the reason she had joined the rescue service.
The north beach was one of those 1,000 places to see while you are still alive, with a lagoon, sandbar and a collection of boulders and stones and views of the sun setting and rising, so in the end, we came pathetically far from our goal of seeing every spot on the island. We did make it to the wild northeastern point, about a 4 km walk, through very different types of forest.
Perhaps we should have tried harder to see all of Aegna. When we arrived back in the busier mainland part of the city center district, the kids had energy to spare - too much. Suddenly free of the constraints of Aegna's often sand-trap-like dirt roads yet emboldened by the island's freedom, they blazed off down the hard gravel of the Kultuurikilomeeter and were out of sight. Mobile phones, having been switched off amid the spotty coverage on Aegna's north shore, had been left off. As I tried to jog after them under 15 kg of gear, I found to my growing unease that the Kultuurikilomeeter was far longer than its name and seemed to be heading toward Kopli, through industrial areas. Except for a few well-defined routes, the kids had never been out in Tallinn on their own. I was at the 1.50 kilometer mark when they finally re-appeared. "Where did you go, dad? We found another secret beach, with a bigger boat!"