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Åland: a gem in Stockholm's back yard

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Åland: a gem in Stockholm's back yard
12:51 CEST+02:00
Alannah Eames visits Finland's Swedish-speaking Åland islands, and finds gorgeous scenery, great food and a fascinating history.

The Finnish-owned, Swedish-speaking demilitarized 6,500 islands which make up the Åland Islands, are somewhat of a mystery, even for many Swedes.

For some, they are best known as the place where the Finland ferry makes a midnight stop. The Ålandsbanken sign at Stockholm's upmarket Stureplan district hints at the islands' relative prosperity (the bank recently took over the Swedish operations of Iceland's Kaupthing). Yet the islands are so close to Sweden that during a very cold winter it's possible (though not recommended) to drive across the Baltic Sea from Åland to Finland.

It takes around six hours to reach Mariehamn, the islands' capital, from Stockholm on the regular cruise routes, which makes it feel like the islands are some far-flung outpost in the middle of the Baltic Sea. Yet in reality, the islands are only 40 kilometres from the edge of the Stockholm archipelago.

Many Baltic Sea passenger ships stop at Mariehamn, yet hardly anyone gets on or off. The reason lies in two very Nordic preoccupations: tax and booze. When Finland joined the EU, Åland was granted a special tax exception. This exception means the ferries between Sweden and Finland can sell tax-free goods on board provided they stop at the Åland Islands, giving them an incentive to offer regular transport connections from the islands to Finland and Sweden.

On my trip in May to Åland, I tried something new and flew with Air Åland – a locally owned airline with two Saab 340 propeller planes which fly several times a day from Stockholm and Helsinki. Flying is a good option if you don't fancy spending hours on the boat and if you're short on time or if you simply want to see the islands from above.

The flight is short – just 15 minutes up in the air and down. No sooner do we leave the Stockholm archipelago behind us, than we already see the Åland archipelago dotted on the horizon. We're lucky. It's the first time I have seen the islands from above and today, we are blessed with blue skies and sunshine.

Beautiful archipelagos are a common feature in Scandinavia and Stockholm, Turku, Helsinki and Gothenburg all boast that theirs is the best. But today, I can't help but think that really the Åland one is one of the most beautiful I have seen – partly because of the lack of traffic (on land and water) and the few houses around. It feels like it's untouched by human hand and its location smack bang in the middle of the Baltic Sea between Finland and Sweden makes it that little bit more exotic.

A page in the Åland Islands tourist board magazine in the seat pocket of the plane expresses the virtue of the islands' location with typically dry Scandinavian humour: “The conference island halfway between Nokia and Ericsson.”

From the airport, it's just a short three-kilometer hop to Mariehamn. The landscape resembles a mix of Skåne in southern Sweden, with red wooden farmhouses, apple trees, crops and sheep, combined with an archipelago and rolling hills.

Around 27,500 people live in the Åland Islands, of which 11,000 live in Mariehamn. The 6,500 islands in the archipelago, which are grouped into 16 communities – the smallest which has around 100 residents - are connected by government-funded archipelago ferries. “The ferries provide the same kind of service as highways, and are vital to connect the islands,” says Annica Grönlund at the Åland Tourism Board.

Mariehamn, a calm picturesque town with a compact centre and green, sleepy suburbs, was founded in 1861 during the reign of Russian Tsar Alexander II and is named after his wife Tsarina Maria Alexandrovna. Over the years Åland has been owned by Sweden, Denmark, Russia and for the past 90 years, Finland. Today, it's an autonomous region of Finland with its own flag, stamps and government.

One landmark you probably won't miss is the Ålandica conference hall. The locals have been discussing this project since the 1950s, but they finally managed to open the €16.5 million hall in February, in the middle of the economic downturn. Designed by a Danish architect, the building is built in the form of three ‘islands' – a red, white and grey one – to symbolize the red granite rocks typical to Åland, the air and the sea.

The locals work mainly in tourism, shipping, finance, handicrafts and marine insurance. In the past around 40% of the business used to be shipping, but this has dropped slightly.

One way to really get a feel for maritime Åland is to take a trip to the old pilot station at Kobba Klintar . This rocky island can be reached by kayak or on a regular boat trip. It's dominated by the pilot house which used to blow a horn to warn ships passing through the archipelago. It's 10.00 in the morning when we are there and the sun is shining. The ferries to Stockholm glide smoothly pass, seagulls are nesting and on the distant horizon there's a wind farm: 25% of Åland's electricity comes from wind power.

I can't put my finger on it but Kobbarklinter is just that kind of place where you could take a book, enjoy a coffee and just sit there and daydream for the entire day. I'm not so sure I would feel the same way if it was pouring rain but in today's sunshine, it has a “stuck on a desert island” feeling without the sandy beach or palm trees.

We enjoy a fantastic lunch of smoked salmon, local Ålandic bread and salads in the old pilot house – there's no running water or electricity here so everything must be brought from the mainland and cooked the old-fashioned way. The owners even have plans to launch theatre performances during the summer, in Swedish.

Tjudö Vingård is a rustic farm growing its own apples and cherries from which it produces liqueurs and wines. It's where liqueurs like Jagar Bongo and Ålvados, an Ålandic take on France's Calvados, are made. Owned by 70-year-old Ingmar Eriksson, a colorful character with a great sense of humour, he's not afraid to admit that he's had some run-ins with Germany's Jägermeister over the name “Jagar Bongo”. “If they continue to make a big problem for us, we might have to change the name to ‘Old Meister Bongo',” he jokes.

The use of the name “Bongo” is an important and emotional one for him. “Bongo” Peter Eriksson was the guy who originally set up the vineyard but unfortunately died a few years ago in a car crash. Commenting on the name Ålvados, he explains, what he says he has been trying to explain to the French for ages: “Ålvados is spelt with a Swedish ‘å' which sounds completely like an ‘o' and is completely different from an English ‘a',” he says with a glint in his eye, justifying that Ålvados does not sound at all like the French apple brandy.

The apple wines and liqueurs are surprisingly good. And the bottles they come in are beautiful – inside, they have blown glass sculptures of golfers, a bunch of cherries, an elk or an apple. Something which you might pay a price for, but which will look good as a table decoration once you've downed the contents. There's also a beautiful tasting area at the vineyard where you can purchase some of the wines.

Åland is definitely a must-see, and not just for a two-hour stopover on the ferry ride. Why not make a weekend out of it and relax in a small cottage overlooking tranquil waters. If you're into outdoor activities, take a kayak out for deep-sea kayaking, rent a bike for a few days, do a spot of deer hunting or fish for pike and perch.

Shipwrecks are abundant in the rocky waters of Åland's archipelago. Many ships sank in these treacherous waters before modern-day radar and technology was introduced so the area is a haven for deep sea divers, according to Riitta-Lee Värelä, our professional tour guide.

And you might also be surprised to discover that there's plenty going on to during the summer months. Åland hosted the Natwest Island Games at the end of June. Athletes from 25 island nations across the world took part in 15 different activities from judo to table tennis and golf. Then there's the Rockoff Festival from July 17-25. (www.rockoff.nu)

What to see and do in Åland

Kastelholm Castle – Åland's only medieval castle.

Traditional crafts - Buy Ålandic handicrafts at SALT in Sjökvarteret, the quaint old maritime area with little red cabins and old ships, in Mariehamn. SALT (www.salt.ax)is like a cooperative run by six local ladies and you'll find everything from knitted scarves to ceramics and jewellery.

The Bomarsund Fortress – a 19th-century fortress built by the Russians which was once a thriving village.

Stallhagen Brewery – housed in a building used formerly to house Russian soldiers, the first Stallhagen beers were brewed in 2004. If you like the local beer, you can also buy it on the Viking Line ferries. (www.stallhagen.com)

Maritime history - Visit one of the few remaining authentic four-masted cargo ships in the world. Owned by local shipping entrepreneur Gustaf Erikson, who has been called the “Last King of the Sailing Ship”, it's been to Australia and back until the outbreak of World War II when it returned to Åland. (www.visitaland.com/pommern)

Award-winning cuisine – check out Michael Björklund's restaurant ÅSS in Västra Hamnen, close to Pommern. He's been named Chef of the Year in both Finland and Sweden but like many Ålanders who've spent some time overseas has come back to his homeland.

Outdoor activities - Kayaking: www.getoutadventures.ax

; Cycling: RO-NO across the street from the ferry terminal offers bike rental. EUR 10 per day or EUR 50 per week for one with three-gears.

Where to stay: I stayed at Husfjärdens Stugor in Eckerö, a beautiful secluded spot around 30 minutes drive from Mariehamn. Check out www.destinationaland.com for camping, guest harbours, cottages, guest houses and hotels.

How to get to Åland

Viking Line,Tallink Silja or Air Åland all ply the route between Stockholm and Mariehamn.

Alternatively, take Viking Line from Kappelskär, it's around 90 minutes north east of Stockholm and buses go direct from the City Terminalen bus station.

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