These almost uninhabited islands near Tallinn are full of wildlife – and also plenty of reminders of Estonia’s cold war history

It’s well past midnight on the tiny Estonian island of Suur-Pakri and the sun is just setting, casting a pink hue over the sea. We’re camping close to the water’s edge – and nipping between the intense heat of our improvised sauna and the freezing waters of the Baltic. Kessu, our guide, has rigged up a heavy-duty tent with a hole for a chimney and we’ve collected firewood. With just the stars and six other travellers for company, it’s the perfect end to an energetic day’s sea-kayaking.

I’m here for a long weekend adventure, exploring by kayak Suur-Pakri (large Pakri) and Väike-Pakri (small Pakri), two wild islands 50km west of the capital Tallinn. Although Estonia celebrated 100 years of independence from Russia last year, it was reoccupied by the USSR (and briefly the Nazis) from 1940 to 1991. The islands were emptied of residents in 1940 and remained a closed military zone until the early 1990s – and now they are an almost uninhabited wilderness, teeming with bird life, rare plants and stark reminders of Estonia’s turbulent history.

Our expedition begins on the mainland at the tiny harbour of Kurkse. After packing camping gear and food into waterproof bags, Kessu warns us that while the water looks perfectly calm, the nearby open seas of the Gulf of Finland and western winds mean conditions can change very quickly.

We paddle out for 6km across the choppy Kurkse Straits against the wind. As we near Väike-Pakri we see swans and, in the distance, herons watching from rocks. Moving closer to the coast, we spy reddish cattle free-grazing on fields along the shore.

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