One summer’s evening, I was kidnapped in Tallinn and driven across Estonia to where a speed boat was waiting near Tartu on Emajõgi (river).
I had actually planned to build a cupboard that weekend and thought I was on my way to the local DIY store, but instead Anni Oviir had a surprise trip planned on the opposite side of the country.
After being bundled onboard, we sped off east under the helm of Captain Kalle and into the complex network of river channels that make up Emajõe Suursoo bog. After 30 minutes of wondering whether I was being trafficked across the border, we turned behind reeds onto a wide river bend and arrived at our destination — one of Estonia’s most incredible saunas.
Veematkad Raft House is actually made up of two rafts with sleeping (and partying) space for 25 people. One raft has a dormitory, dining/meeting room and kitchen, while the other raft has the BBQ area and sauna, as well as additional sleeping space on top if you get really cold.
The sauna is located on a river called Kalli near a lake called Kalli, which means hug in Estonian. This can get quite confusing when the owner is called Kalle. I kept accidentally asking Kalli about Kalle, rather than Kalle about Kalli.
The permit for this place was granted before the bog was recognised as a national environmental protection area so it is the only human structure that will ever be built anywhere near here. There are only a few other inhabitants in the entire bog and they don’t even have electricity.
There’s no WiFi, no TV and the sauna is definitely not electric. If you need to charge your phone then there’s a small generator.
That remoteness also provides its challenges for access.
The only practical way to get here is through the river channels so, during summer, you’ll need to use one of Kalle’s boats or kayaks. We used the speed boat because there was only two of us and we were short of time after work on a Friday. Most visitors take his larger and slower craft though, which can accommodate groups.
Winter is a different story though. You’ll need to ski, hike or take Kalle’s Argo amphibious vehicles to get here across the ice.
This means that if the rivers are neither thick enough to travel on nor wet enough to glide — as happens several times a year — then access is either very complicated or impossible.
The actual sauna itself can fit about 6 to 10 people at a time and there’s also a washroom outside. The sauna heats up well and has a window looking out onto the bog.
The best thing about a floating sauna though of course is that you can jump straight into deep, wild water straight afterwards. Here’s a 360 degree video taken outside the sauna window:
The next morning we fried breakfast and ate it on the picnic benches while watching the occasional fishing boat sailing past.
Kalle’s phone number is painted to the side of the raft so that passersby can book a last minute visit. If he’s not there, Kalle simply texts his bank account details along with instructions for how to unlock the two buildings. The money is usually already in Kalle’s account by the time they’ve moored alongside and stepped onto the raft. The next morning they sweep up, lock up and sail away without ever meeting Kalle. All very Estonian.
When it was our turn to leave, we took the larger and slower craft that takes about three hours to complete the same journey back towards Tartu that took 30 minutes by speedboat. We decided to take the scenic route though and used the onboard map of the water channels to explore more of the bog, as well as Lake Peipsi.
You can just about see the sauna raft house in the top right corner here as we sailed away:
Despite crashing into the reeds a few minutes after taking that picture, we quickly got the hang of navigating the bog and were ready to take the vessel out into Lake Peipsi.
The water of Lake Peipsi stretches beyond the horizon so it’s hard to believe it’s actually a lake. As soon as we entered the open water, the sky darkened and the waves started to take command of our light craft. The current was pushing us towards the Russian side of the lake so if our small engine cut out then we’d need to have an awkward conversation with the Russian border guard.
We turned back into the bog and enjoyed the leisurely cruise back up onto Emajõgi. After a few hours, the river traffic started to build up and we spotted evidence of human settlement again — along with their saunas dotted along the river bank.
One group of people were working hard outside to renovate their house. Perhaps I’ll build that cupboard one day, I thought.
How to visit this Estonian sauna
If you’d like to stay at Veematkad Raft House then you can contact Kalle on +372 5110253 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Tell him we said tere. His company, Veematkad (Water Hikes in Estonian), offers a wide range of activities in addition to staying at the Raft House so you can find out more here.
About ‘Estonian Saunas’
Thanks for reading. The Estonian Saunas blog is run by Anni and Adam, explorers and exporters of Estonian saunas.
Anni is a green building specialist who grew up here in Estonia immersed in sauna culture, while Adam is a väliseestlane (‘foreign Estonian’) whose family were exiled to the UK during Soviet times but he has now returned and is still trying to understand the sauna — and everything else about his Estonian heritage.
Together, we love finding weird and wonderful saunas all over Estonia and telling the world about them. Check out our plan to make 100 Estonian saunas more famous around the world.
We also offer two saunas in Tallinn that you can visit. Both are based on the best of Estonian design and technology, although in very different ways. The first is our smoke sauna, Rangi saun, which combines an ancient sauna heating technique with a contemporary Estonian design. The second is our WiFi-controlled e-sauna, Tondi Saun, which is part of our apartment that you can book through Airbnb.
In addition to reading our blog, you can follow Estonian Saunas on Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. There’s also a Facebook group for fans of Estonian saunas where you can share advice and stories.
Finally, you can email us at email@example.com.