Awesome Åland Islands
Barking dogs, loud parties and fast trains are things you won’t hear in the Åland Island. Particularly when you arrive on the back of their “three-week” summer high season.
Getting to the Åland Islands
While staying with fellow motorhoming friends in Sweden, whom we had met in Greece in January 2018, we were advised to head over to Finland via the Åland Islands. We checked out the cost difference and worked out that it was a better deal and an opportunity not to miss, especially as we had plenty of time. The cost of traveling by ferry from Stockholm (Sweden) to Turku (Finland) was €321 during the day and €351 for an evening sail (8pm – 7am) including a cabin. We spent €65 from Grisslehamn (Sweden) to Eckero (the first main Island of the Ålands) and then €94.50 for all the ferries within and across the Åland Islands to Turku. This price included a 10% discount for booking online for two people and one 7.5 metre long motorhome. Here’s the link; www.alandstrafiken.ax/. So comparing our actual journey which cost us €159.50 to the more direct route of €321, we saved ourselves €161.50 and visited this wonderful area over twelve glorious sun-baked days. It is interesting to note that once you are inside the Åland Islands the ferries are all free, however, they do ask that you book in advance, especially in the high season (July). We booked and didn’t have any trouble, although we did see other motorhomes being turned away when the ferry was full (in August). The ferries reserve 17 metres only for motorhomes (ie two at any one time), hence the need to book ahead.
The Åland Islands are a popular tourist destination for the Finnish people during their summer break and we met quite a few during our travels. Here was our schedule 7/8/18 Grisslehamn to Eckero (1.5-hour ferry ride)
12/8/18 Hummelvik to Kumlinge
14/8/18 Kumlinge to Lappo 16/8/18 Lappo to Torsholma
19/2/18 Ava to Osnas
Aside from the ferries above that typically take less than an hour per journey, the other islands we visited are connected via either bridges, causeways, or by cable ferries. We lost count of the number of islands we actually set foot onto but believe it to be in the region of thirty or so. Once we arrived in Osnas it was a short ferry ride (free of charge) to arrive onto mainland Finland where we stayed at the small settlement of Kustavi.
About the Åland Islands
Åland is a Swedish-speaking, autonomous province in Finland and has its own flag. Its population boasts 30,000 people with around 11,000 living in Åland’s only town, Mariehamn. There are 16 municipalities of the Åland Islands, an archipelago made up of 6,700 named islands and over 20,000 unnamed. Whilst the islands are Finnish owned, the language spoken is Swedish and the currency is Euros.
The pace of life here is typical of island life. Cars meander at their own rather slow pace rather than forging ahead at anywhere near the suggested speed limit. No-one is in a rush, possibly because there are not many places to rush off to. To come to the Ålands is to slow down and breathe. I want or rather need a haircut and expect there will only be one hair salon on the island and I would be able to get an appointment quickly. Oh, how wrong was I? There isn’t one, two or even three salons in Mariehamn there are eight! What’s more, they are all fully booked until next week (it’s only Thursday). We are told the summer rush is over and tourists have already left to get their children ready to start school again next week after the six week mid-summer holidays. Hmmm, obviously the locals like to look well groomed around here.
Driving around we wondered what the mainstay or their economy is. There are apple trees in abundance, possibly more than is necessary for local consumption. Then there are tourists. The numbers swell from 11,000 in the winter to three times that number in the summer. Surrounded by water, one has to think fish would play a part in the Åland Islands exports. Apparently, timber is also up there. Granite replaces grass in people’s backyards and we see paddocks of granite rock where one would expect to see crops or livestock. The few white cows and a handful of shaggy Highland cattle we saw hardly constitute a dairy industry however, there was a lot of Aland Island milk and cheese on sale so there must be some decent sized herds somewhere.
The Aland Islands are one of the few places in the world where the honey industry is still free of the varroa mite, a fact which a local producer (apiarist) was very proud of. The Aland honey is apparently a very prized and valuable export product.
Winters are obviously harsh here and the barns which shelter the livestock animals over the cold winter months sport chimneys. The barns are built half from double layered stone insulated for housing the animals in winter and half from timber for the storing hay to feed the animals.
In every small settlement stands a church proud and tall. Visitors are welcome and a brochure in English explains the colourful history of each one. We unfortunately just missed the opening season for the Kumlinge church which is renowned for its unique wall paintings from the 15th century.
In common with many other churches around the coastal regions of Scandinavia, there were one or more models of ships hanging from the ceiling. These are ‘votive gifts’, were given to the church by sailors who had been caught up in some peril at sea and who had vowed to offer the ship if God delivered them home safely.
Our first night had us stopping in a very large and thankfully flat parking area outside the church just five minutes from where the ferry landed us at Eckero. In the morning, after Alan checked with the groundsman that it was okay to use the water from the cemetery tap, the opportunity to get our clothes and sheets washed was too good to resist. Deciding this was one of those times to ask for forgiveness rather than permission, Betsy was manoeuvred into a discrete location with the intention of minimising offence to anyone who might not like the sight of our dangling washing. The glorious sun had followed us from Sweden and combined with the wind, our clothes were dry in record time.
That afternoon we drove to the only town, Mariehamn to take a look around. The tourist information was open and the lady there was very helpful. With map in hand and points of interest noted, we headed off. We drove to Lemland and checked out our planned overnight stop which was also a local swimming spot. By this stage it was getting later in the day and I wasn’t so tempted to get cold. Alan braved the late afternoon sun and at 8pm dove into the brackish waters. Not to be out-done I swam the following morning when the sun was warmer and we enjoyed having this spot to ourselves before more visitors arrived.
The next day we drove to up past Geta north to the island of Dano and stayed beside the road for the night. There were not many options here but thankfully the road was a dead end so we only had one car an hour drive past us. One of these was the same car, so obviously a local.
The Maritime Museum
The maritime museum was calling our name, so back we headed to Mariehamn for some culture and education. The cost of €10 each for entry was reasonable when you consider how good the displays were. The Åland Islands have an vast nautical history This museum showcases the importance the sea had on life from yesteryear. We learnt about the genuine pirate flag. Apparently, there are only two authentic skull and crossbones flags known in the world. It is about 200 years old and came to the Ålands from North Africa’s Mediterranean coast where piracy existed well into the 1800s. It used to be black but has been faded by weather and time. The museum also tells the story of Wihelmina “Mimmi” Widbom, a rare female professional sailor who rounded Cape Horn eight times and was even torpedoed once in her long career.
Godby was next on our itinerary which once again provided a great swimming spot. Alan found this by scrolling around on Google Maps looking for somewhere near the water and big enough to park Betsy.
Ålands only castle, Kastelholm has been around since the medieval period with its heyday coming during the reign of the Swedish King, Gustav Vasa. At just €6 each to enter we headed in to see what all the fuss was about. First mentioned in writing in 1388, Kastelholm was strategically situated in what was once the middle of the Kingdom of Sweden. At that time Sweden extended to present-day Russia and the waterways united the realm. The landscape has changed somewhat in the 700-odd years since then. From the start, the castle was completely surrounded by water and was naturally sheltered by the Slottsundet’s steep beaches. Towards the end of the 1300’s Kastelholm was a typical fortress with a tower, residence and curtain walls. Following much rebuilding and extending, the castle ruins today consist of two sections, a higher main castle and a fortification that is surrounded by a curtain wall.
In the 1400s Åland became a castle fief of its own and during the troubled century that followed Kastelholm was also drawn into the war between Sweden and Denmark. The castle was besieged by the Danes several times but was recaptured by the Swedes in the end. In 1745 a devastating fire broke out that reduced most of the castle to ruins. Sweden lost Åland and Finland to Russia in 1809 and the centre of power moved to nearby Bomarsund. The most recent restoration was started in 1982 and was completed in 2001.
As with most museums we are visiting over here, the displays are not only visual but interactive and we get to try on some of the clothing and armour the locals used to wear.
We had also heard about the Russian Ruins in Bomarsund so decided to check it out.
The Bomarsund Fortress & Russian Ruins
The biggest military facility that had ever been built in Åland was the Bomarsund fortress. After the war between Sweden and Russia in 1808–1809, Sweden was forced to give up Finland and Åland as part of the peace. Over 2,000 Russian armed forces, fortress workers and convicts lived and worked in Bomarsund. A whole community developed in the area. The foundations of the empire-style wooden houses in Nya Skarpans show a small town settlement with a post office, school, shops and offices. The Crimean War of 1853–56 led to the English fleet sailing into the Baltic Sea and attacking targets along the Finnish coast. The most tempting target was the Bomarsund fortress and August 1854 saw the landing of 12,000 English and French soldiers. At the same time about 40 steam-driven warships approached from the south whereas the defences were built to withstand attacks from ships coming from the north. On 13 August the soldiers went on the offensive at the same time as the warships subjected the fortress to massive gunfire. On 16 August the Russian commander, General Bodisco, capitulated. Bomarsund was never completed and a few weeks later the fortress was demolished by the victors. The bricks from some areas were kept and put to use – they can be seen in buildings like Uspenski Cathedral and the Alexander Theatre in Helsinki. When the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1856, Sweden pushed through an international convention prohibiting the Russians from fortifying Åland. Since then Åland has been a demilitarised area and Ålander men are not obliged to do national service. Åland belonged to Russia until Finland gained independence in 1917.
We stayed the night beside the ruins of the Notvik Tower which defended the channel approaching Bomarsund. This took five years to build but just three days for the English to defeat.
The locals are all so friendly. On Bjorko island we parked up next to the rubbish recycling ‘house’ and found it’s a great way to meet the locals. That evening we were invited to watch the sunset over the water while drinking French liquor and soaking up the last of the day’s warmth from the smooth granite rocks.
What To Bring to Åland
I would recommend stocking up on your favourite groceries before coming across as some of the prices are on the tad expensive side. The cauliflower was €4.40 each and one wasn’t much larger than my hand. Coffee can set you back over €10 with a packet of biscuits just under €4. There is usually a store on the bigger islands but don’t expect to find a dairy at every corner. It’s remote here which adds to the charm. Looking around we see many of the locals tending to their own vegetable patch.
Would We Recommend A Visit To the Åland Islands?
If you have the time while heading between Sweden and Finland, and you are happy to enjoy a few peaceful days, then certainly make sure you take the opportunity to slow down a wee bit and meander your way across. There’s no need to take twelve days like we did, however, we have no regrets. The locals are friendly, so make sure you engage them and ask a little about how life on the island suits them and their family. You are bound to be richly rewarded with their stories.
Motorhome Facilities And Stopping Places
Water was relatively easy to find on most of the islands, however I recommend you taste this first. On two occasions the water was brownish and tasted ‘dirty’ – we drink straight from our tank so didn’t fill up there. Nevertheless, we were never far from the next island where we would try again. We filled up at marinas or cemeteries after asking permission first. We spent a minimum of two nights on each island group that we ferried to and never came close to running out of water.
Each island has its own rubbish collection area, so ridding ourselves of daily rubbish was a piece of cake. Grey water disposal again wasn’t an issue given the number of gravel roads and laybys away from the public.
Mariehamn Marina has facilities for emptying toilet cassettes. We used biological washing liquid in our cassette which made it environmentally friendly for carefully emptying into the public toilets we found along the way. Below is a map showing our stopping points. Click on each of the points to see a photo of where we parked and for more information.