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Trip 32 -- Hiiumaa Walk

Day 1: Heltermaa to Suuremõisa
Saturday, June 25, 2022

Today: 20083 steps/15.57 km/9.67 mi/2h 54m

In Sweden's capital, I was on a quest for a moose fillet for lunch, thanks to inspiration from the moose meatballs eaten by Richard Ayoade and Sally Phillips in the hilarious 24-minute "Travel Man: 48 Hours in Stockholm" program I saw on the plane.

I kept thinking I was following the right moose tracks only to find out that places served them only for dinner. Even the cheesily named Meatballs for the People, featured in the program, was out of them.

At least it didn't cost me extra to keep zooming around the city in my pursuit. The Arlanda Express train from the airport costs a ridiculous $30, but for just over half that I could buy a one-day pass and make my way by bus and regional train. That also gave me the chance to check out the dazzlingly beautiful cavelike stations of the blue lines of Stockholm's subway, such as the red-and-green forest motif of Solna centrum, the bright flowery blue of T-Centralen, and the carved statuary at Kungsträdgården.

I finally found my moose on the Tallink Silja Line ferry. I had bought snacks at a supermarket before boarding, not knowing that the ferry had its own giant and heavily patronized supermarket of its own. Among all the ready-to-eat food were tins of deer meat, roe-deer meat, bear meat, and elk.

"Jesus," I exclaimed aloud.

On the label, the Swedish word for elk was what I had seen as the translation for "moose." In Europe, I hadn't realized, they are the same animal, whereas in North America an elk is a smaller species. I picked up a few tins, not sure when I would use them but somehow finding comfort and victory in my discovery.

I certainly didn't need them for dinner, as I had booked into the Grande Buffet. Just before eight, a couple hundred of us were clamoring for space in front of the entrance like shoppers on Black Friday. Most were teens who streamed into the space as soon as the door was opened, as if carried by the wind. The flow had pushed me close to the front, and it took just a couple minutes before I was assigned table 24 and made my way to the offerings.

It helped that I like herring, because there must have been 15 flavors, plus smoked salmon, poached salmon, trout roe, and shrimp. The meat dishes were less impressive, but I was pleased to find lingonberry juice in addition to the included wine. After a short nap I checked out the ship's nightlife options, which included two nightclubs (one with a song-and-dance show and then a live band), a pub, a cigar bar, and a piano bar.

Earlier in the piano bar a Bulgarian guitarist had been bestowing such wishes such as "I hope you've had the time of your life," reassuring us that "Every little thing's gonna be all right," and warning us that "Here comes the sun." It was already there, never to retreat to full darkness during this trip to northern latitudes just after the summer solstice.

I had a clean cabin to myself with an excellent shower, easy climate controls, and comfortable bedding. There was nothing to find fault with on the ship. I realized too late that the information desk had a map of all the Swedish islands we'd be passing and at what times and what they were known for; perhaps it was just as well, as I'd have been bobbing my head up and down like an oil derrick trying to match them with the view. They also had a magazine about Hiiumaa that was full of quotes from residents (including Douglas Wells) and explanations of developments on the island but notably lacking anything resembling a list of restaurants.

I happened to arrive in Tallinn the day before the celebration of Victory Day, the day Estonia finally defeated the Germans in World War I (June 23, 1919), confirming their short-lived interwar independence. The following day was Jaanipäev, the holiday misleadingly called midsummer as it's just a few days after the solstice.

The result was that most museums and some restaurants would be closed on my two full days in the city, but I would get to particulate in the festivities. I took in the City Museum, whose cavernous basement was crammed with more than 2,000 pieces of porcelain, faience, and tin, including a tin jug from the late 1400s. On the middle floor were records and posters associated with the Cold War years; despite the repression, Estonians knew what was going on in the west, largely because they could pick up Finnish radio stations and television programs, the latter sometimes on sets fitted with adaptors to convert the signal into a compatible one.

At the top of the Hotell Viru, I toured a room marked "Nothing to see here" on a floor to which visitation was long "not recommended." That's because for the two decades after the hotel's construction in 1972 it was an observation office of the KGB. They listened in on bugged rooms -- not all, just the ones assigned to guests of suspicion -- and bugged ashtrays in the bar, bread plates at meals, and cufflinks for whoever was worthy of receiving them. The communication was sent by cable to the KGB headquarters about a kilometer away, now a museum of political imprisonment.

The hotel towers over everything else nearby, and that was no accident: The KGB could keep tabs on the port, the Old Town, and the government buildings up by Toompea Castle. The hotel was the showpiece of Tallinn to present to the world the blissful life enjoyed under communism. Its restaurant and entertainment were renowned. It had 1,000 employees (far more than now), who had to be held to the strictest honesty. Multilingual applicants, who might have had the opportunity to speak with foreigners, were subjected to a more rigorous interview than those who spoke only Estonian. Fake purses were planted around the hotel, and employees who found them were expected to turn them in. If they opened them -- tempting as they might have contained hard currency -- red ink would splatter all over their uniforms, earning the finders a conversation with the manager.

I didn't have to look hard for wild-game dishes in Tallinn. Moose vindaloo was available just a few steps from my hotel, and the Olde Hansa medieval-themed restaurant has been a favorite of mine since my first time in the city, in 2002. I sat outside and pondered the menu, but I already knew what my main course would be.

"Are you ready, my lord?" my server asked. She was in a white cap, a white long-sleeved shirt, and a long ocher dress.

"I'd like to start with the meat tasting plate" -- smoked deer, jellied beef tongue, and "royal poultry liver paté" -- "and then the bear fillet."

"A fine choice, my lord."

"What kind of bear is it?"

"Brown bear from Estonia or Latvia."

She came back later with silverware. "My lord, some weapons for you, so you can battle the mighty bear."

I played along. "Have you got a latrine in there somewhere? Or an outhouse?"

"The W.C. is inside, just behind the curtain."

Bear meat is flaky and not as tough as one might expect. It manages to be dense but light. It's tender and not chewy. The sauce, which seemed to contain cinnamon and cardamom, brought out its flavor marvelously. I would eat bear more often if it were available -- and it was, again, just up on Town Hall Square, in the form of bear Stroganoff at the Troika Russian restaurant.

The midsummer celebrations took place in a park under Toompea Castle. There were bands and food trucks, the latter approached by long, slow-moving lines. There must have been thousands of people of all ages, and the fun was good-natured. I happened to sit at a picnic table with Timo and Paloma, a couple visiting from Helsinki. They had a few days off to drive around Estonia and Latvia before returning to Finland. I was ready to move on from the celebration, but they stayed to see the bonfire in the middle of the lake.

A bus took me across Estonia from Tallinn to the Rohuküla port at the western tip of the mainland and then drove right up onto the Hiiumaa-bound ferry. This cruise was a mere 75 minutes -- that tinned bear meat came in handy for lunch -- and dropped me at the Heltermaa landing. If Hiiumaa is the shape of a westbound flying goose, Heltermaa is at the tail.

The other passengers got back on the bus to continue to their destinations; I headed south along the road to the Sarve peninsula. On my left, short trails led to swimming areas. Up ahead a dog barked. Where? I saw no houses.

After the swimming areas, the road became dirt and then asphalt again. Google Maps suggested I turn off to the left along a trail, but it was so overgrown that I had doubts and instead took the following turn, itself marked as bicycle route 306 but more resembling parallel tractor marks separated by grass.

A signboard explained that I was entering an area of alvars, grassy patches of limestone covered by thin soil. This arrangement limits the species that can grow, and it also makes it prone to flooding. Estonia has a third of the world's alvars -- or did, but their land area has been reduced in the past century.

I reached Naistlaiu port, but there was no boat activity; the only creatures were the sheep resting under the trees. I saw only one at first and then realized they were all over the place, maybe ten under each tree, relaxing close to what had continued as a dirt road but unperturbed by my presence. Then the road swung around back to the north and there were no more sheep.

The dirt road merged back in with the paved road, which I followed almost until it connected with the main road west from Heltermaa. It would have been easy to reach my lodging via the main road, but Google Maps suggested a path instead. It was sometimes dirt and sometimes a road and sometimes grassy, with various branches of it turning off, but as long as I kept going straight I was headed in the right direction.

I had to make one more turn, to the right, and I could barely find it. I wouldn't consider it a path at all -- it was overgrown with grass up to my chest. I did find tire marks under all that growth, so perhaps it had once been an established way, but if so, it got scant regular use. This was going to be one long kilometer.

The grass got bigger and if I hadn't already had my eyes fixed on the faint stripe cutting across the field, I wouldn't have known I was on a path at all. I pressed ahead, the vegetation swishing at my bare legs, telling myself that stinging nettles are only on the Isle of Wight and poison ivy and ticks only in rural New York. I made friends with the bees and the blue butterflies and tried not to think about a sign way back near Heltermaa warning of snakes.

What remained of the path veered to the left, but the Google Maps route didn't. I could see my lodging ahead. I cut across the field -- the grass was now almost as tall as I -- and soon came to the apartment buildings of Suuremõisa.

I'd booked into an apartment similar to an Airbnb. Like most Soviet apartment buildings, this one had multiple entrances, each leading to a few apartments. Mine was on the first floor, a few steps up from the southern entrance. Inside all was modern: electronic kitchen appliances, electronic thermostats, and a washing machine. There was even a sauna.

But I didn't have time to linger. It was 4 p.m., and I had an hour to tour Suuremõisa's main attraction, the manor dating from the early 1500s and the baroque manor house built between 1755 and 1760 and expanded in the following 12 years. The house was commissioned by Countess Ebba-Margaretha von Stenbock; her son sold it to pay off his debts, and it came under the control of Otto Reinhold Ludvig von Ungern-Sternberg (his name is my name too).

The estate changed hands numerous times, sometimes private property and sometimes state, and it now houses a primary school and a vocational school. It was quite a juxtaposition to see the fading wall paint and elegant roof embellishments in a room full of computers. Nearby is Hiiumaa's oldest stone building, the Pühalepa Church, dating from 1255; it contains Maltese crosses associated with the Ungern-Sternberg family. It is also where Douglas Wells was married.

Suuremõisa's only eatery is a cafe in the manor house that closes at five, so I was left to buy dinner groceries at the village's supermarket and figure out how to use all those fancy appliances. I didn't want to cook, but there was a paucity of ready-made food at the market. Nearly everything required preparation. It also assumed an end result of more than one meal. And that's how I ended up with three breaded chicken cutlets, a third of a pound of sliced cheese, almost a pound of marinated salad, a Turkish seedless grapefruit, two liters of apple-cherry-chokeberry juice, and a chocolate ice-cream bar.

Outside my bedroom window, Pühalepa Church pokes through the trees against the pale-blue midnight sky.

Go on to day 2