Off Finland's south-west coast lies the Åland archipelago, an autonomous Swedish-speaking province of Finland with its own administration, flag and stamps, whose ancient Swedish culture can be traced back to pagan times. Åland is a demilitarized zone, so no armed forces may be stationed here and no fortifications may be built on the islands.
Comprised of as many as 6,500 islands and skerries, the archipelago is stunningly beautiful and includes among it's historical monuments some of Finland's oldest churches and manors. Mariehamn is Åland's only town, and is located on the main island, where you can find the SS Pommern - the world's only remaining four-masted bark, still in its original state.
There is much to discover in Åland including the medieval castle of Kastelholm, the port of Mariehamn with the SS Pommern, the fortress ruins of Bomarsund, 16 churches dating back to medieval times, and of course the archipelago itself. Åland attracts history buffs from around the world as it has a wealth of museums to visit, including the Bomarsund Museum, Åland Museum, Åland Art Museum, Hermas Farmstead Museum, and the delightful Jan Karlsgården Open Air Museum. Åland also hosts numerous music and cultural festivals over the course of the year, the most notable of which are the Mariehamn Winter Jazz Festival, the Åland Country Music Festival, Åland Sea Days, the Alandia Jazz Festival in the summer, and the Katrina Concerts where you can enjoy some of the best chamber music in Europe.
However, the principal reason visitors give for visiting this incredibly beautiful archipelago is to enjoy the unique natural surroundings of the sea and the skerries, and to bask in the peace this untroubled environment affords. It is the ideal location for nature and adventure holidays: whether you prefer canoing or kayaking, hiking or cycling, shipwreck diving, seal safaris or bird-watching, or even long distance skating - Åland has something for you. Fishermen will be delighted to find the fertile waters in and surrounding Åland teeming with pike, perch, zander, vendace, sea trout and salmon.
Dining out in the archipelago is a pleasure as the many restaurants here are known for their excellent service and a cuisine that is primarily based on the bounty of the seas surrounding them, on local produce grown here, and including many delicacies specific to the region. Of these, the traditional Åland pancakes with their classic accompaniments, prune purée and whipped cream, are available almost everywhere and are perfect accompaniement to morning coffee. Likewise the local black 'hemvete' bread is perfect with a fish soup for lunch, or topped with one of the ÅCA dairy's ripe and creamy cheeses.
Of course, the main culinary delights of Åland are its fish dishes; try newly smoked perch with new potatoes, chive crème and a cold beer, brewed locally, or sample the excellent whitefish, pike, pikeperch or Baltic herring. And if you get the chance to eat roe deer in autumn, you should definitely not miss the opportunity. Another treat to keep an eye out for in the restaurants is the surprising inclusion of ostrich - there is an ostrich farm on the archipelago, so even this healthy red meat is locally sourced! Another unusual local product is the selection of three hand made sheep cheeses from Skimra Gård, one natural spreadable, one spreadable with herbs and garlic and one feta-cheese that is sold in pieces pickled in oil.
Åland also has its own brewery and vineyard. Tjudö Vineyard produces wine, spirits and liqueurs from the farms own fruits and berries, including 'Västergårds Äppelvin', a wine made from apples, an apple vodka called 'Ålvados', a rum made from sugar beets called 'Kobba Libre', the apple liqueur 'Appleaud', and a new herbal schnapps called 'Jägar Bongo'. Guided tours of the vineyard include tastings.
If you visit the Åland Bryggeri you'll find Pub Stallhagen where you can sample five different beers brewed on the premises on a small scale by traditional methods. The beers available vary in both taste and strength and are the light beers Stallhagen III at 4.5% and Stallhagen Delikat at 4.7%, and the stronger Stallhagen Export and Dunkles at 5.5%, and Stallhagen Dark Lager at 6.0%.
The town of Mariehamn was founded in 1861 by Tsar Alexander II, named after his wife Maria Alexandrovna, when both Åland and Finland were part of the Russian Empire. Previously, Åland's main town had been Skarpans, which had been built near the Russian fortress of Bomarsund, but it had been destroyed along with the fortress in the Crimean War. Mariehamn grew around the old farm village of Övernäs which was located in the centre of the peninsula where the town is located today. The only remnant of that time is 'Övernässtugan' - the Övernäs cottage - situated in the eastern part of Skillnadsgatan.