photo © Visit Finland
Counting islands in Finland is a complicated matter, but the stated number is 179,584. Whether this number includes the 98,050 islands situated amid the country’s 188,000 lakes is not clear, but in any case Finland can lay claim to an enormous number of islands off its coast. The vast majority of these can be found in the four principal archipelagos; the Kotka archipelago in the Gulf of Finland, the Helsinki archipelago, the Archipelago Sea, and the Kvarken archipelago in the Gulf of Bothnia, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The Kotka Archipelago
Some 130km east of Helsinki lies Kotka, a town defined by the river that flows through it, the sea that surrounds it, and the archipelago of around 400 islands for which it is famous. The Eastern Gulf of Finland National Park, which is comprised of around 100 islands and islets, is situated in the outer archipelago, occupying an area of 60km wide and partly bordered by the Russian frontier. An area of great beauty, it boasts unique opportunities for birdwatching, and fishing in the brackish waters. Although landing on some islands is restricted, you can go ashore on the islands of Ulko-Tammio, Mustaviiri, and Suur-Pisi. The inner archipelago is far easier to visit, even if you don’t have your own boat, as there are regular boat services to many islands, usually leaving from the harbour in Sapokka. Perhaps the best island to visit is Kaunisaari, just an hour from Kotka, also known as the gem of the Eastern Gulf of Finland. On this picturesque island you’ll find a fishing village where the buildings and lifestyle have remained largely unchanged, with characteristic gardens, boat yards, and storehouses by the sea. There is a delightful restaurant where you can sample a traditional menu, a local arts and crafts store, and the archipelago museum. From the seaside storehouses you can buy freshly smoked salmon, and other delicacies.
Finland’s capital is surrounded on three sides by the sea, with over 300 islands in her unique archipelago. Many of these islands can be used recreationally, and are reached easily by ferry; the most famous of the islands is Suomenlinna, a UNESCO World Heritage site, which is very popular with both tourists and locals alike, many of whom spend summer days enjoying a picnic here. One of the best ways to explore the archipelago, if you don’t have a boat of your own, is to take one of the cruises that depart from the Market Square. These will usually skirt along the coast for a while, allowing you to see Helsinki’s oldest districts and the historical buildings, before cruising past the private island villas and out into the archipelago proper. Often you can choose to disembark on Suomenlinna and spend some time exploring that island, or relaxing in the sun, before taking one of the many ferries back to the capital.
The Archipelago Sea
Situated in the Baltic Sea between the Gulf of Bothnia and the Gulf of Finland, the Archipelago Sea is considered to be the largest in the world based on the number of islands within it. The largest islands are the found in the Åland Islands, an autonomous region within Finland, and most are inhabited and connected by roads and ferries. The Archipelago Ring Road is comprised of around 190km of public roads and 50km of waterways, and is one of the best ways of visiting the main inhabited islands in this beautiful archipelago. The starting point for a trip along the ring road usually begins, and ends, in Turku, and passes through Raisio, Naantali, Merimasku, Askainen, Mietoinen, Taivassalo, Kustavi, Iniö, Houtskari, Korppoo, Nauvo, Parainen and Kaarina. For cyclists this route is one of the best in Europe, passing as it does through ever-changing landscapes and nature, with several medieval churches along the way, as well as the picturesque Louhisaari manor.
The Archipelago Sea is home to many species not found anywhere else in Finland, including the Harbour porpoise, of which there are only an estimated 600 left in the Baltic. There is also a significant breeding population of the White-tailed eagle here, as well as such rare and endangered species like the Caspian tern, the Greater scaup, as well as Grey and Ringed seals.
The Southwestern Archipelago National Park is also situated here, as well as many small nature conservation areas, and landing on some of the islands is restricted to scientists only. Whether you choose to explore the region on a cruise, by car, by bicycle, or even by canoe or kayak, you won’t be disappointed.
In 2006, the Kvarken Archipelago was given the status of a UNESCO World Heritage site, becoming the first Natural Heritage site in Finland, because it is continuously rising from the sea, lifting at a rate that is among the highest in the world. Thanks to its advancing shoreline, islands appear and unite, peninsulas expand, and lakes evolve from bays and develop into marshes and peat fens. Kvarken is also a part of the Natura 2000 network which was established to conserve important biotypes and species, and to preserve natural diversity. The archipelago consists of wild, forested islands and a labyrinth of rocks and islets, its shallow waters home to birds and fish charecteristic to the region, such as the Black Guillemot, White-tailed Eagle, and the Greater Scaup.
Kvarken, which contains some 5,600 islands, is a tourist destination growing in popularity, especially for nature lovers who find it ideal for hiking, fishing, birdwatching, and canoeing. Visitors usually combine trips to the archipelago with a stay in the coastal city of Vaasa which is the ideal starting point for an excursion. Professional guides are always available, and can be booked in advance, but most people find their own way along the marked trails (there are four nature trails and two hiking trails in the Kvarken Natura 2000 area), the Björköby – Panike Trail, the Bodvattnet trail and the Sommarö nature trail in the municipality of Korsholm, and Västerö Trail in the municipality of Maxmo can all be reached by land.
At Svedjehamn in Björköby the long narrow moraines left by glaciers can be seen as long parallel ridges rising from the water. The perfect observation point is the brand new watchtower next to the nature trail. You can also take a guided slalom cruise from here that takes you between the moraines and through the archipelago. The sheltered inner archipelago, consisting of a maze of nearly closed, overgrown bays, between the islands of Björköby and Replot is ideal for canoeing, however experience, and good navigational skills, is needed if you are to explore the outer archipelago or the open sea. Fishermen from around the world come to the brackish waters of the Kvarken Archipelago because it is reputedly one of the best places for pike fishing.
Although the region attracts tourism primarily because of the nature here, there are some man made sights to take in, in particular the lighthouses of Ritgrund, Norrskär, Strömmingsbådan, and Valsörarna. The 36m high Valassaaret lighthouse was designed by Henry LePaute, who worked for Gustave Eiffel, and the structural similarities between it and the famous Parisian tower are obvious. Other interesting sights include the stone labyrinths which may have been used as places of worship, and the compass roses constructed of stones showing the points of the compass.
Throughout the islands there are guest houses, log cabins available for rent, and places for camping with designated locations where the lighting of campfires is permitted. There are five nature stations, formerly pilot stations or coastguard stations which have been renovated, which offer accommodation, and three rental huts run by Metsahallitus. For those arriving by boat, there are several guest harbours, service harbours, and excursion harbours.