The Åland Islands are well known by Swedes. Many Stockholmers relocate to this archipelago of sixty islands for summer. But I suspect that few Britons, if presented with Åland’s blue, gold and red cross flag, would be able to identify these isles.
Åland is spelt with an A that has a circle over it. This is an extra Swedish vowel and it’s pronounced ‘or-land.’ Director of the Maritime Museum, Dr Hanna Hagmark-Cooper, told me that she worked in Britain for four months and nobody seemed to know where she was from. “When I said I was from Åland, people would reply, ‘oh you’re from Poland.’ No, I replied – Åland. Then they thought I said Holland. I used to tell people that they are like the Faeroe Islands, but in the Baltic!
The islands are unique. They’re part of Finland but lie halfway between Stockholm and the Finnish port of Turku. And Ålanders speak Swedish not Finnish. The archipelago was part of Sweden’s kingdom, but after a war in 1809 the Swedes were forced to give the islands, along with modern-day Finland, to Russia. When Finland became independent just over a century later, the islanders wanted to re-join Sweden, but instead, the Finns made them an autonomous region.
And Ålanders are keen to maintain this. Even though you’re technically in Finland, locals don’t like being called Finns. “Don’t call them Finnish because they are not. They are very independent,” advised Bitte Islander, Marketing Manager at Havsvidden Resort. “We have our flag. We have our own car number plates. We have our .ax web domains. We have a government of our own but we work in partnership with Finland. A person from Åland would never call themselves Finnish, they would say ‘I am from Åland.’”
Åland has been given a high degree of autonomy from Finland. The islands are recognised as a demilitarised area. It’s odd seeing that on signs when you arrive, given the tranquil nature of the place. It’s important because Åland is in such a strategic position in the Baltic. “We’re in an absolutely perfect position facing Finland, Latvia, Russia and Sweden. The country that had Åland had the power,” Bitte explained.
You can fly to Åland but the best way to arrive is by sea. Three Viking Line ferries sail from Stockholm to Åland’s capital Mariehamn each day, making the crossing in around five hours. Viking Grace is one of their newest ships and makes the journey part of the holiday. The huge ship can convey up to 500 cars and 2,800 passengers.
They are well fed in the seven restaurants. The fixed priced buffets are superb with a massive smorgasbord of fish, meats and desserts. There’s a range of entertainments from a kids’ disco to live lounge music. There’s even a sauna, spa and jacuzzi!
Åland is duty free and passengers can buy VAT-exempt booze. As you might imagine, these boats do a roaring trade in day-trippers who sail straight back to Stockholm having stocked up on spirits that are much cheaper than the usual sky-high Scandinavian prices. Just under a million ferry passengers visit Åland annually.
You sail between dozens of small islands in the Swedish and the Åland archipelago and the views are stunning. Some of the Åland islands are barren, some are thickly wooded. They’re mostly flat – the highest hill reaches just 130 metres. Mariehamn is located on Fasta Åland, the biggest island in the archipelago, and it’s a pretty but compact town, which is understandable given the small population of the islands. “There are 29,000 people and they live on sixty of the islands all year around,” Bitte told me. You can view all of Mariehamn’s leafy streets in a few hours. There are some impressive, brightly painted wooden villas but few historic sites because this capital city is relatively new.
Matilda Eriksson, a guide at the Kulturhistoriska Museum, told me why Mariehamn appears relatively modern, with its streets laid out in a formal grid system. “The city was founded in 1861 by the Russian Emperor who named it after his wife. You can see her statue outside the museum. Before that there were different centres of commerce, originally around Kastelholm Castle, from the 14th century.”
You’ll find a couple of trendy craft and vintage shops on Mariehamn’s short pedestrianized main street. Åland’s modern parliament building stands at one end of a long plaza, rounded off with a statue of a sheep and a fountain.
But Åland is really all about the water. “Mariehamn has two marinas,” Bitte told me. “It’s a peninsula stuck between two areas of water. Sailors from Sweden come to the west side, sailors from Finland come to the east side, then they walk between the two. It is less than a kilometre.”
Most of Åland’s shoreline is rocky and lined with pine trees but there’s a small beach on an island called Lilla Holmen, just a few minutes walk from Mariehamn centre. You reach it by walking over a gated footbridge. The clank of the metal catch will send the seabirds into a flurry of activity and the calming sound of waves gently lapping will be shattered by their screeches.
Soon you’ll hear the sounds of woodland birds as you stroll into a small waterside copse. And then you’ll hear parrots. There’s a small, free aviary filled with colourful finches and parakeets in a wooden building in the woods. Just beyond the trees, daylight breaks through and you’ll stumble across a tiny stretch of golden sand leading onto a wooden jetty where kids love to jump into the clear, refreshing waters of the Baltic.
I headed to Mariehamn’s favourite place to eat. There’s a cluster of hip bars and restaurants on one city centre block. Indigo offers a formal but cosy dining space in an historic stone building and there’s a more casual outdoor eating area where I met owner Stig Grönlund and admired his impressive retractable metal roof. I’d never seen that in a restaurant before. “Is that because your weather changes quickly?” I asked Stig. “That’s true,” he laughed. “When it’s windy or rainy you don’t want to sit outside. We can quickly close the roof and make it cosy.”
Indigo has been included in the prestigious White Guide Nordic restaurant reviews and is a sign of how the islands’ food is being recognised. “I think there are five Åland restaurants in the guide now,” Stig told me. “That’s good. Ten years ago local people didn’t even go out to eat during the week. In summer there are a lot of boats and tourists here. They expect high end food, drinks and wine.”
I was keen to discover uniquely Åland cuisine and Indigo offers a tasty fishy dish. “Tost skagen is bread that you fry in butter. You add hand peeled shrimps that you have mixed with some mayonnaise, dill, red onion, salt and pepper. You serve it with a roe and sometimes with smoked shrimps on top.” You’ll also find herring, cod, perch, whitefish and pike on menus here. But Stig suggested that I try the islands’ signature dish – Ålands pancakes – so I made a mental note to stop at a local café.
Åland now has two breweries but the benefits of duty free status are offset by the cost of Scandinavian life. A small bottle of beer will set you back around €9 in a bar. And recently islanders have been experimenting with champagne. Matilde told me that in 2010, some divers found a shipwreck in the archipelago that held over a hundred bottles of French champagne, some from Veuve Clicquot. “The champagne was perfectly drinkable as it had been stored in constant darkness, temperature and under pressure,” Matilde explained. “Two bottles were auctioned off for between €20,000 and €40,000. The rest are owned by the government of the Åland Islands and remain in a secret location.”
In Mariehamn, I stayed in the Park Ålandia Hotel, which is centrally positioned on the wide, tree-lined boulevard which links the town centre to the ferry port. The accommodation was built in the 1970s by the Viking Line ferry company and was recently bought and renovated by Zaida Blomsterlund and her husband, who have been busy refurbishing the rooms. “On the first of April the first guests checked into our new rooms!” Zaida told me proudly.
It’s a modern, comfortable and friendly hotel with a restaurant, pool and pub on site. “In the pub we have live music on Wednesday to Saturday year round,” she told me.
Zaida is happy to offer travel tips and I asked her for her recommendation on what to do on the islands. “If you’re visiting Mariehamn, you could borrow our bikes and ride out to Järsö, along the water. There’s a cosy café called Stickstugan with cakes and lighter lunches. Next door they sell knitted crafts.” The name Stickstugan means ‘knitting needle cottage’.
I took Zaida’s advice and borrowed one of the hotel’s bikes for the 13km ride to the café. Åland is a great place to go on a cycling holiday because the islands are relatively flat. Drivers are very considerate too. In Mariehamn the cycle paths are separated from the road and when one of those routes has to cross a road junction, the motorists will stop and let you pass. Outside of town, cyclists outnumber cars. There’s a nice sense of camaraderie and you’ll receive a friendly wave or bicycle bell ring from an approaching rider.
It’s a stunningly beautiful journey too. As you cycle down the island’s distinctive red tarmac roads you pass along a mini archipelago, crossing bridges as the waters lap along the side of the road. In summer there are plenty of white sails on the water. On land there’s green, rolling countryside, apple orchards and pine forests. When you do find a village it’ll just be a cluster of wooden cottages, many painted the red colour of orchard apples and with brilliant white door and window frames.
Stickstugan Café has a lovely big garden, perfect for relaxing on a sunny day. Its garden tables seem quite private, placed in small clearings cut into the pine and gorse next to the cottage.
I headed off on the bike but I didn’t cycle straight back to Mariehamn. I succumbed to a little advertising board by a road junction and made a detour down the lane because of a sign promoting a snack deal – Ålands pancake and a coffee for €5! As I cycled down a gentle incline I could see a red, wooden boathouse with a slipway going straight into a clear blue inlet. This was the café. At the front an elderly man greeted me. Through the tiny serving hatch I could see a boat bobbing behind him.
I sat on the benches alongside the rocky beach and ate my square piece of pancake. It was soft and moist with the consistency of a bread pudding and served with raspberry jam and whipped cream. This wasn’t the sort of pancake that Americans drown in maple syrup! It looked similar to a cake and tasted like an egg custard with the perfumed tang of cardamom, like an Indian sweet.
Back in Mariehamn, I boarded a bus for the fifty-minute journey through more rolling green fields to the small community of Geta – which means goat! Buses are infrequent and don’t all run at weekends so you need to plan ahead. Bitte Islander from Havsvidden Resort met me at my bus stop. She told me that we were about to drive through thick woods. “It’s like something from an American horror movie,” she laughed, adding, “but this trip will end well!”
As we drove through the woods, the pink tarmac gave way to a gravel track and then I could see the waters of the Baltic, slightly green from the reflection of the pines that run down to the ocean. Hidden away is the Havsvidden Resort, a collection of mainly single-storey, angular, grey wood and glass buildings. They are set between the boulders and trees around a small cove with its cliffs formed from the pink granite rock, which slides down the hillside in flat blocks. The rocks look like they have been poured and set hard.
Sitting on the wooden deck, overlooking the small yacht marina with its clear, tranquil waters, I spoke to Bitte. “We have over two kilometres of rocky shore and an open sea in front of us,” she told me. The hotel has an unusual design, which Bitte explained. “All of the hotel buildings were built facing away from the water. The hotel was founded by a couple who believed in Anthroposophy. That movement believes you should greet the sun in the east in the morning and rest your head in the west at night. I think of it as Scandinavian feng shui,” she smiled.
It’s just you and a handful of guests in this secluded part of the island. “People come here for the uniqueness of the nature and being somewhere that is so different from anywhere else. There are the colours – the red cliffs and the open sea are like a picture book,” said Bitte. In summer, the days are long with sunset at 11pm and it never really gets dark before the 4am sunrise. There’s plenty of time to spot deer, moose or raccoon dogs – locals call them mordhunt.
Suddenly, I could see why Swedish city folk are so fond of these islands. “For Stockholm people, I think that Åland is connected to childhood memories of summer holidays. It is extremely easy and very cheap to get her on the big ferries. It’s also very accessible because it is so small.”
Ålanders do share one interest with the Finns. They love their saunas and most homes have one. “I’d say that every household has their own sauna and many islanders will use theirs on a daily basis,” Lotte Gronlund told me. I walked from the small yacht dock up the pink gravel path and across the decking to one of the hotel’s saunas. Lotte, who works at the hotel, had explained that most islanders immerse themselves in the 80°C heat in the evenings. “It’s a social thing. You go with other people and traditionally use the sauna as a family.”
The resort offers a choice of saunas. “We have the original, wooden, electrically-heated sauna. We also have the really old fashioned smoke sauna. It is heated for ten hours using a wood fire. There’s no chimney so the smoke stays in. Then you open the door for a couple of hours to let out the smoke and it is ready to go.”
Being British, I have no idea how a sauna works, so I asked Lotte to explain. “You throw some water on hot stones that have been on the stove for many hours and you get more humidity and steam. There are also birch tree branches that you smash on your body. I don’t know whether they have any affect – I think it is just tradition!”
Lotte continued. “Most people spend an hour or two in the sauna, but you usually go outside once in a while – to take a swim in the lake or a short shower – and then you go back in. It is not an hour without any breaks. In Finland, there are competitions to try and stay in as long as you can but it is really dangerous. Some men have died doing that,” she warned.
Havsvidden offers rooms or self-catering villas that have their own private jacuzzis and saunas on the terrace. The resort is open between March and November.
I was keen to visit the island’s attractions and to find out more about its history. The best starting point is the Kulturhistoriska Museum. People have lived here for 7,500 years and this attraction tells the islands’ story back to the Stone Age and Viking days. “Åland is the only place in Finland that had Vikings. They came from Sweden, Denmark, Britain and Ireland. We have a lot of swords and spearheads. We’ve also got a clothing pin, which is probably from Ireland or Scotland, showing that islanders moved around a lot,” said Matilda Eriksson.
The islands have retained a high degree of self-governance and are proud of that status, but sometimes they try to see how far they can push it. Locals annoyed Finnish officials in 1991 when they launched their own currency without permission! You can see it at the museum.
Matilda showed me around the collection of traditional costumes. Each village had its own distinctive clothing. And you’ll see another local decorative tradition as you travel around the islands – there are large wooden maypoles decorated with colourful fabrics and ornaments. The poles are erected on Midsummer’s Eve as part of a tradition to encourage a good harvest. Some are decorated with knitted goods, some with wooden carvings or little boats.
A 16-mile bus ride from the capital is another museum. Jan Karlsgården is an open-air, traditional village. It is a collection of red wooden buildings, brought from all over the islands, that recreates rural life in Åland in the late 1800s. Three red wooden windmills look down across the village from the top of a granite outcrop.
Next-door is the island’s most historic site, Kastelholm Castle. This red stone fortress is tall, square and narrow and looks like a cross between a Scottish castle and a British woollen mill. It stands alongside a tidal inlet and was once on an island but the waters have since receded.
Tour guides, dressed in medieval clothing, will lead you around. I met up with Sheriff Pia, who claimed to have ‘lived’ on site for 700 years. The first records referring to the castle date back to 1388 and it’s thought that it was built 50 years earlier. It was constructed as a base from which taxes could be collected, rather than to ward off attacks. Kastelholm fell into disrepair and was used as a grain store in the 1800s and has been unoccupied since.
The 17th century was a dark period throughout Europe and America. Thousands of innocent women and men were tortured and executed on suspicion of witchcraft. Women were incarcerated in Kastelholm and you can visit the miserable, windowless dungeons and learn more about their fate.
The witches were said to fly on their broomsticks to a place called Brocken where they met the devil. It was said you could spot one from an unusual birthmark and if a nail was driven into the skin at that point, a real witch would feel no pain. You’d think that would clear most suspects, wouldn’t you? If you’re heading to the castle by bus, be warned that there are no weekend services and, surprisingly for Scandinavia, buses are infrequent.
Åland’s Maritime Museum, near to the Swedish ferry terminal, is the island’s most visited attraction and is highly regarded. Director Hanna Hagmark-Cooper proudly told me that it had been declared the best in Finland recently. I liked the museum. It is relaxed and friendly. Everything on display has a reason for inclusion in the exhibition and its place in the islands’ history is clearly explained.
Åland’s shipping industry started late, in the 1830s, when there was demand for timber from the Baltic. Islanders from all backgrounds benefited financially from this trade. Locals were offered shares in ships as ‘payment’ for their labour during the shipbuilding process. If the ships became profitable the cash could transform the life of a milkmaid or farm hand.
Soon Ålanders were circumnavigating the globe. The museum offers an interactive display where you can follow ships around the world on a map that plots the routes they would have taken. Some Åland mariners won competitions for their speed sailing with grain from Australia to the UK.
You can inspect the actual captain’s quarters of one of those ships. We crouched down to enter the doorway into the salvaged cabin of the four-masted barque ship Herzogin Cecilie. The boat was wrecked in fog at Salcombe in Devon in 1932. It was a sad end for a ship that had won the fastest journey from the New World eight times in a row, averaging a speed of 16 knots. The owner had wanted the stricken vessel returned because its parts still had value. A year later Ålanders agreed to start a maritime museum and the exhibition was built around the remnants of the Herzogin Cecile.
Inside, its wooden panelled quarters were large, rather plush and the captain enjoyed comfort. You can see his own private pantry and kitchen, where his meals would be prepared and the large, purple velvet day bed for relaxing. His luxurious experience can be compared with that of regular sailors, when you enter the preserved sleeping quarters of another vessel in the museum. It was crammed with tiny wooden cribs stacked three high for the crew to sleep in.
There’s also a cabinet of curiosities with artefacts and items that sailors brought home. You’d think there would be a better souvenir than a stuffed whale’s penis but one mariner gave that gift to his partner. It’s not the usual travel gift is it? I’d stick to giving a bar of Toblerone.
The museum’s team has erected a ten-metre mast and rigging to test your climbing and seamanship skills. Hanna darted up the ropes to show she could do it. As she effortlessly raced to the top she shouted that she’d recently had to do that for a Swedish prince who visited.
That’s popular with kids, as you’d expect. And while adults read some of the interesting documents and view exhibits, kids can play in a grotto made to resemble an undersea world. There they are encouraged to hunt for a hidden mermaid’s pearl.
The powerful, 20ft high, pea green steam engine should impress visitors of all ages too. It was originally used to power the lock gates in Bristol docks and spent time in Rotterdam before the museum bought it. As Hanna press a button, it stirred into action. It sounded like it was gently breathing – almost appearing to inhale and exhale.
My favourite exhibit is a genuine Jolly Roger flag. It has faded to brown and the skull and crossbones appear more homemade and childlike than the pirate flags that you’d see in Johnny Depp movies. “It is one of only two on display in museums anywhere,” Hanna explained.
There’s also a sensitive account of the massive loss of life that occurred in the islands’ waters in 1994. 853 people drowned when the Estonia ferry sank in bad weather off Åland. No Ålanders were on board but many knew the vessel. It had previously served the islands under a different name. The few survivors were treated at the island’s hospital. You can read islanders’ accounts of that terrible night at the museum.
If you’re interested in art, the Konstmuseum is next to the Kulturhistoriska Museum. They display a painting by The Moomins author and illustrator, Tove Jansson, who holidayed in Åland. A Swedish count living on a remote island befriended her and asked the artist to paint sea cliffs and sea monsters in her distinctive style.
If you’ve dreamt of a destination where you can experience wildlife and beautiful scenery away from the crowds by day, but you want return to comfort, fine food and Scandinavian orderliness in the evening, then Åland might be right for you. “There is something special about these islands. Time has stopped here. It is extremely safe. If you go to the airport car park, you’ll find a key on every tyre – if not in the ignition,” said Bitte, as she dropped me off at the bus stop for the start of my journey home.
During my time in Åland, I was kindly accommodated by the Havsvidden Resort and Park Ålandia Hotel. To book your Viking Line ferry go to VikingLine.com. There’s more island information on the official tourist board website, VisitAland.com.