Between Sweden and Finland in the Baltic Sea lies a blue-sky paradise.
We woke in the boathouse at dawn. The water lapped outside our window and an early boat puttered past in the distance, somewhere out on the sound. The soft morning mist was thinning and from it emerged a family of swans gliding past the wooden jetty. As the sky began to clear, a wide expanse of water was laid before us, glistening in the late summer sunlight. We sat on the back deck, watching swallows as they darted and swooped for insects, and listening to the bull rushes sighing contentedly in the breeze. It was one of the most peaceful and romantic mornings we could remember.
We were in the Åland Islands in the Baltic Sea between Finland and Sweden. As die-hard Scandiphiles, we love being up at the top of the world where the duck-egg-blue skies go on forever and the Nordic air cleanses the soul. We’d flown over the islands several times before and promised we’d explore them one day and swim in the Baltic, no matter how icy the water. There are more than 6,700 islands, islets and skerries in the archipelago. Some require most of a day to cycle across, while others are little more than large boulders poking their foreheads above the high-tide line.
The islands are part of Finland yet the vast majority of locals speak Swedish. A common reply when we naively apologised for not speaking Finnish was – in perfect English – “no problem, nor do we”. Yet the islands are autonomous. They have their own parliament, car registration plates, internet suffix (.ax) and flag, which must be flown from every boat but promptly taken down at sunset, for reasons we never fully grasped. Maybe it’s just another of those beguiling Nordic eccentricities.
Paradise at 60°N
We were blessed with the weather, catching the last days of one of the hottest summers the islands have known. For the first few days we sunbathed on the boathouse’s jetty, spent hours in the sauna gazing through the huge picture window overlooking the Baltic and the nearby islets, and sipped sundowners on the deck. We could hardly believe we were up at 60°N.
The boathouse is an Airbnb whose delightful owners, Jussi and Maria, live next door. The place comes complete with bicycles, which we used to spin about the islands, and a kayak and a rowing boat with an outboard motor. Jussi helped us with pronunciation (it’s uurr-land, not al-land or ar-land), gave us invaluable tips and even brought us a local perch, freshly caught and still warm from the smoking shed.
The long warm days had ripened the islands’ abundant apple crops and they were already carpeting the grassy orchards, weeks ahead of schedule. As we pedalled along the cycle paths, we drank in their sweet, cidery scent.
In the small capital, Mariehamn, we took ourselves on a self-guided architecture tour of the charming wooden-boarded houses along Skillnadsgatan and then set about shopping for our boathouse suppers – we were self-catering and determined to eat like locals. One stop was the Fina Fisken fish shop north of Mariehamn’s centre, where we bought tubs of fresh shrimp and skagenröra (a delicious dill, lemon and red onion mayonnaise) to make one of our favourite Scandi dishes – Skagen toast. We also threw in a haunch of traditionally smoked salmon, which was so divine we ended up adding it to every breakfast, lunch and dinner.
If you don’t fancy cooking for yourselves every night, or if you are staying in a hotel, Mariehamn is home to some charming restaurants and cafes. For a snack or tea and cake, try the delightfully traditional Kaffestugan Svarta Katten (Black Cat Café) on Norragatan. For a romantic meal of modern Nordic cuisine (think cured rainbow trout, buttered local perch, and lamb with white asparagus), try Nautical on Hamngatan , just north of the ferry terminal.
One day we ventured further afield, cycling south of Mariehamn along the 18km Järsö Route to the tip of a forested peninsula. There, we found a gloriously cosy cabin housing the Stickstugan Café , where we refuelled for the return leg.
The next day we headed north to Godby, famous for the Stallhagen brewery which produces a variety of beers, including one called Historic, also known as Shipwreck Beer. The recipe is based on a brew found in bottles salvaged from an 1840s wreck that were still sealed after spending 170 years on the seabed. It’s a moreish drop, but thankfully the ride home was largely downhill.
After two days in the saddle we gave the bikes a rest and took a boat tour out to Kobba Klintar, one of the far western skerries. The old pilot station and cafe had closed for the winter and the island was breathing a sigh of relief after a tourist-thronged season. The place felt enchanted, in that uniquely melancholic, Scandinavian way.
One perfect day
On our penultimate day in the islands, we packed some bread and yet more smoked salmon (to which we were now unashamedly addicted) and set out in our little boat. Not wanting to break the calm with the roar of the outboard, I rowed. Under a cloudless sky and lulled by the meditative sluice of oars through water, we glided serenely around the shores of the wooded islets we had been gazing at for the past few days from the boathouse deck.
One had a small beach so we moored and clambered over the smooth, warm granite rocks to a vantage point. This was Saltholm – unspoiled, uninhabited and ours for at least a few magical hours. We explored the interior, imagining where we might build our romantic fantasy cabin, dine out on mild nights under polar stars, and launch out on deep midwinter skating expeditions across the frozen sea.
We sunbathed, ate our smoked salmon sandwiches, watched a sea eagle hunting on its
stretch of still water and – keeping our promise – plunged into the Baltic. A perfect day!
The Åland Islands tourism website encourages visitors to “fall in love with the cosy island pace”. We did. And we’re going back next year.
The Åland Islands are easy to reach from major European capitals, with daily flights from Helsinki and Stockholm, and numerous ferries from all around the Baltic. From Australia fly to Bangkok or Singapore on Qantas and then transfer to codeshare partner Finnair direct to Helsinki. Finnair subsidiary Norra has two flights a day from Helsinki to Mariehamn (about 60 minutes), with a quick stop in Turku.
Where to Stay
Maria and Jussi’s boathouse Airbnb in Jomala is excellent if you are after peace and quiet, a luxurious sea-view sauna, a sun-drenched deck and romantic days rowing your partner around deserted islets.
Mariehamn has plenty of good small hotels and the Åland Islands official travel site has a good selection of guesthouses in bucolic rural locations. visitaland.com
Eat & Drink
Kaffestugan Svarta Katten : svartakatten.ax
Nautical : nautical.ax
If you’re after fish, head straight for Fina Fisken just off Godbyvägen, a leisurely 20-minute cycle ride north of Mariehamn centre. finafisken.ax
And don’t forget to try one or two Stallhagen beers, and the local cider. stallhagen.com
What to Do
To book a boat excursion to Kobba Klintar, head to visitaland.com
Cycle to your heart’s content along fabulous cycle paths and alongside arguably the most courteous cyclists in the world. RO-NO Rent has two cycle hire outlets in Mariehamn but it’s worth asking your hotel or Airbnb, as many rent bikes to their guests too. In high season try to reserve online in advance to avoid missing out on a set of wheels. rono.ax
The Varuboden City supermarket in Mariehamn (on Torggatan near the junction with Nygatan) is a great one-stop-shop, and has its own Stallhagen display stand. Don’t miss Salt, full of beautifully made local crafts. In half an hour we found almost all our Christmas presents for relatives. Pack some reusable shopping bags and be aware there’s an evening curfew on buying booze, which in some shops is as early as 6pm. salt.ax
Best Time to Travel
Take your pick: spring brings carpets of meadow flowers into bloom. Summer (high season) is rich with long sunny days and mild nights; villages celebrate midsummer by dining on pickled herring and new potatoes and dancing around their decorated maypoles. Autumn is when the islanders celebrate their harvest and unpack their winter woollies in preparation for the severe winter. Up here at 60°N, the Baltic can freeze hard, allowing locals to ski and skate across it to their friends’ islands for a sauna.