I visited the Åland islands for the first time two years ago, soon after our move to Sweden. The archipelago is the region of Finland laying closest to where I am located, yet despite belonging to the Republic of Finland (and the eurozone) Åland has always been enjoying a status of almost independence, raising its own flag and speaking its own language – Swedish. The islands are notable for their peaceful rural landscapes, the red granite beaches and for having one of the highest employment rates in Finland. Quite an intriguing combination.
From Sweden, the most convenient way to reach the archipelago is by boat from the port of Kapellskär, about a three-hour drive from our place. The boat trip takes slightly over 2 hours; all the three times we have visited we have traveled with Viking Line. All their ships, including the one cruising between Kapellskär and Mariehamn, Åland’s capital, host a duty free that is one of the most notable places to buy alcohol in Scandinavia. On every visit we take advantage of their prices and stock up on Finnish beer.
I have always visited the islands in the summer – once in July and twice in September – which is when the archipelago enjoys its tourist season. Not so many restaurants and hostels are open during the rest of the year. We have a favourite place to be lodged while on the islands and on all our stays we have been renting a cottage at Djurviks Gästgård. Summer is a great time to take advantage of the sunny weather and enjoy the islands’ colours at their sharpest. The red granite contrasts beautifully with the green and the blue that dominate the landscape.
I personally like to “feel at home” when I am not at home, pretending that the place where I’m staying is my own, and the best way to have this feeling is to have access to a kitchen and make my own food there. This helps to keep the cost of traveling lower, besides giving me this lovely homey feeling. From time to time I also like to go out and try local eateries – eating out is one of my travel splurges. Sometimes, just stopping by a random place and deciding to give it a try can result in pleasant surprises, as it happened when we randomly stopped at Peggys Café for coffee and discovered such a beautiful decor:
Also the capital city, Mariehamn, boasts a beautiful café, Bagarstugan – the oldest café in town – where we sat down for coffee and cake. Every room is exquisitely furnished and entering the place feels like stepping into a different time setting. My cake of choice was a fresh blueberry cheesecake that tasted delicious.
Another notable place where to have a nice lunch is Niska pub in Mariehamn. Not much can beat the view on the sea while having lunch on a sunny day. They make a delicious thin crust pizza, my favourite being the one with goat cheese, cured ham and red onions. And the smell of sea air as side dish.
The Åland archipelago is very rural and farm animal sightings are a common feature. Wildlife can be spotted as well, with larger animals such as deer and moose inhabiting the larger islands, but I never got to see more than three playful raccoon dog puppies. Much easier to encounter are sheep, especially the friendly ones at Kastellholm.
Åland may not have the typical charm you’d expect a Scandinavian destination to have, with dramatic forests and mirroring lakes. But there’s much more to northern Europe than thick tundra and fjord stereotypes. This archipelago displays an authentic rural landscape, where the farmlands merge with the forest and the sea waves crash against smooth granite blocks. The islands still retrieve some memories of their Russian past, and their Swedish-speaking inhabitants are proud of their special land. These islands are full of surprises and to me they are the perfect getaway for a relaxing weekend. They’re definitely an off the beaten path destination, almost never included in one’s top ten places to see in northern Europe, but it’s especially for this reason that we love to take our guests there.
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