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A long weekend on Finland's Åland Islands

For an alternative slice of Scandinavia head to the Åland Islands in Finland — an autonomous archipelago defined by its eccentric inhabitants, extraordinary landscapes and excellent cuisine

Finland's Åland Islands are scattered across the Baltic Sea.

Photograph by Getty Images
By Gavin Haines
Published 2 Apr 2019, 12:26 BST, Updated 31 Jan 2022, 15:46 GMT

Olof Salmi has a dream, the kind of dream only a bona fide eccentric could possibly have. "I want to sail away on the southern wind in my sauna," he says, staring out to sea. "And I'm going to make a film about it."

There's something in the water on the Åland Islands, I'm sure of it. Or perhaps it's the vodka they're drinking. Either way, this Finnish archipelago has a quirk in its character, which, like the cool Nordic breeze, is wholly refreshing.

Scattered across the Baltic Sea, Åland itself is something of an anomaly. An autonomous region within the Republic of Finland, the 6,700-island archipelago enjoys a kind of quasi-independence from the mainland. It has its own flag, uses its own postage stamps and can pass its own laws. To confuse matters further, it's Swedish-speaking.

Suffice to say, then, the archipelago is a tad eccentric, which brings us back to Olof. A serious looking man with a weathered face and short grey hair, he says: "I was the first person to build a floating sauna on Åland," hopping proudly aboard one of his buoyant baths. "I needed a sauna that was close to water, so I created this."

The concept is simple: when it becomes too hot inside the sauna, you jump into the sea, and when it's too cold in the sea, you jump back into the sauna. This is repeated until you get tired or your genitals go numb, whichever comes first. It's also done stark naked, which is customary in Finland, a country with more saunas per capita than anywhere else in the world.

Olof fires up the sauna for me, throws a handful of logs into the wood-burner, followed by a liberal squeeze of lighter fluid and a match. As the wood crackles, I ask if the sea will be cold. "No. It's about 3C," he says. I frown.

"In the winter, the sea freezes," he explains. "Sometimes I can drive across it." Is that not a bit dangerous, I ask. "Yes," he replies. "You have to know the ice."

But a steamy sauna is just what the doctor ordered. Last night had been a rough one — and I'm not just talking about the booze. It began calmly enough in the Finnish capital, Helsinki, where I boarded a Viking Line ferry to Åland. The overnight service takes 10 hours to reach  the archipelago, before continuing on to Stockholm. It's a lengthy voyage, yes, but more fun than flying — except, of course, when it's stormy, which it was last night.

The swell had been enough to keep even the saltiest seadog awake, although few passengers seemed to have sleep on their mind — this was the 'party boat', after all…

The naked truth

So I sit, naked in the sauna, sweating out last night's excess. Unable to handle the heat, I open the door and jump into the frigid Baltic Sea. As my body breaks the surface, the icy water steals my breath and smarts against my flesh. It's stimulating and shocking in equal measure.

You don't have to be a guest at Sandösunds — Olof's holiday park — to make use of his floating sauna, but non-residents should book ahead to guarantee a slot. If you can, go before lunchtime and reward yourself with lunch at Smakbyn. Opened in 2013, this contemporary Nordic restaurant is considered the best in Åland, which has an extraordinary concentration of fine-dining options, considering its population of just 29,000.

"We have a good restaurant school, which is why we have so many talented chefs," explains Annica Grönlund of Visit Åland, who joins me for lunch at Smakbyn.

Though competition is stiff, Smakbyn's owner, Michael Björklund, is regarded as not only the best chef in Åland, but the best in the country. "He was Chef of the Year in both Sweden and Finland, and is currently competing in Swedish Masterchef," says Annica. "It's very exciting."

The menu at Smakbyn revolves around regional produce, and I take great pleasure in devouring a dish of butter-fried perch and crumbled crayfish, served with seasonal vegetables and a rich mussel sauce. I accompany this with a glass of apple wine, made 100 yards away in Smakbyn's on-site distillery. Using Åland's famously delicious apples, the distillery also produces a Calvados-style brandy, which has been named, rather cheekily, Ålvados.

Hidden treasure 

Our appetites sated, Annica and I take a tour of the main island, Fasta Åland. Beautiful and barren, the archipelago's epic landscapes are the stuff of poetry. Glistening in the afternoon sun, I feast my eyes on shimmering fjords, where red and white houses cling to rocky shores and fishing boats bob in the water. The scenic tour continues through verdant pine forests, rambling apple orchards and quaint rural hamlets.

We stop for photographs at Kastelholms Castle, a medieval citadel built by the Swedes, and pause for a quick history lesson at what remains of Bomarsund Fortress, a defunct garrison built by the Russians, who took the archipelago from Sweden in 1809.

According to Annica, the Russians spent more time making love than war. "Most of the men were out at sea, so it was mainly women here," she says, as we admire the ruins. "I think a lot of people at this time probably had Russian blood."

As well as fostering local relations, the Russians developed towns, ports and roads, which helped boost the Åland economy. They also constructed Bomarsund, only for it to be blown to smithereens by Anglo-French forces during the Crimean War, which Russia lost in 1856.

The conflict ended with the Treaty of Paris, which agreed Åland would be demilitarised — this continued through Finnish independence in 1917 and endures to this day. Consequently, locals are exempt from military service (it's mandatory for men in the rest of Finland), freeing them up to follow whimsical pursuits, such as building saunas and distilling brandy.

Others have taken to the ancient art of brewing beer, namely the guys at Stallhagen Microbrewery, whose latest tipple can trace its DNA back to a 170-year-old wheat beer, recovered from a shipwreck in 2010. Discovered by local divers, the unidentified schooner, which is believed to have sunk in the 1840s, was found to be carrying a bounty of beer and Champagne.

"The beer was from Belgium and, through chemical analysis, we've been able to recreate the recipe," explains master brewer, Mats Ekholm, who looks like he might front a metal band in his spare time. "We've had a phenomenal response."

After knocking back a bottle of Historic Beer 1843, it's tempting to stay and sample the brewery's other tipples — all 21 of them — but I drag myself back to Mariehamn, which locals describe as 'the city'. In truth, with its leafy boulevards and colourful wooden houses, it's more like a small town than a city. Nevertheless, it's a charming spot to while away a day or two.

The Åland Maritime Museum is the star attraction. Located on the quayside, its curators have redefined the museum experience with interactive displays, tactile exhibits and real-life accounts. The museum even has a vessel that visitors can jump aboard in the summer.

The abandoned pilot station of Kobba Klintars is also worth exploring. A short boat ride from Mariehamn, I make the trip with a fisherman called Bo-Erik, who greets me at the harbour holding a half-eaten pike. "A seal has eaten my pike," he says, from behind his white fisherman's moustache. "They don't normally eat pike."

Pilots at Kobba Klintars, a small island in Mariehamn Harbour, used to navigate ships through these tricky waters, before technology rendered their lonely work obsolete in the 1970s. Today, a collection of lifelike sculptures pays tribute to these redundant pilots.

Back in Mariehamn, I head for dinner at Dino's Bar, which is packed with music fans. It turns out Michael Monroe — the Finnish rock star who fronted Hanoi Rocks and toured with the likes of Mötley Crüe — is finishing his latest tour here tonight. I stick around for the show, a glam-rock set by the androgynous rocker.

"It's good to be back in Åland," he gushes, between songs. "I came here on a camping holiday with my family when I was five." With the life he's led, I'm surprised he remembers, but then again, it's hard to forget the Åland Islands.


Getting there: Finnair flies to Helsinki from Manchester and Heathrow; British Airways flies from Heathrow, while Norwegian Air flies from Gatwick. FlyBe runs direct flights from Helsinki to Mariehamn, which takes 55 minutes. Alternatively, travellers can take an overnight ferry with Viking Line or Silja Line. Average flight time: 3h.

Getting around: The archipelago's main islands are linked by bridges and ferry services, which make it easy to explore by car or bicycle.

When to go: The best time to visit the Åland Islands is between late spring and early autumn when the days are long and the weather is fairly warm (16-18C). Midsummer is an exciting time to visit the archipelago — the sun never sets and festivals abound — while July is particularly busy with music festivals.

Published in the March 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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