The third part of our family break was an overnight stay in the Åland Islands, having already spent a day in Naantali, enjoyed a visit to magical Moominworld, and spent a night in the Naantali Spa Hotel. Our journey to Åland on the Silja Line cruise from Turku turned out to be another great part of our family holiday, as much fun as the previous day.
Following the fun cruise on the Silja Line from Turku, we got off the ferry and arrived in Mariehamn, the capital of the Åland Islands, just before 2pm. Located in the Baltic Sea, between mainland Finland and Sweden, the Åland Islands is an archipelago province consisting of around 6,500 islands, although just over 60 of these are inhabited. It is unique in Finland, being autonomous, demilitarised and the only region in Finland where Swedish is exclusively spoken. It is also the smallest region of Finland, and renowned as one of the most beautiful.
We’d never been here before and were excited to get exploring and see as much as we could squeeze into our overnight stay. We would be based on the main island, where the majority of the historical sites are located, but we also wanted to enjoy Åland’s unique nature and its many natural attractions. The main island is quite small, you can drive from one end to the other in about 30 minutes.
Touching History in a Medieval Castle
We set off from the gorgeous city of Mariehamn for Kastelholm Castle, one of Finland’s oldest preserved castles, and a highlight of any trip to Åland. The area around Kastelholm Castle, which dates back to the late 1300s, also includes the Jan Karlsgården open-air museum, and the Vita Björn prison museum – three fine attractions all within walking distance!
We visited the castle first, exploring the different levels and learning of the castle’s long and fascinating history from the tour guides we met along the way. The kids were delighted to discover that they could try on some medieval outfits, and amazed at how heavy the chain mail was. The camera was busy snapping as they strutted about in their ancient attire, playing at knights.
The Jan Karlsgården open air museum was took up quite a large area, and was just a stroll from the castle. We passed a herd of sheep (Åland is famous in Finland for its sheep), and the kids fed the friendly ones with long grass they plucked from the side of the path. The open air museum is a folk history museum, where the traditions of 19th century rural life on the islands is kept alive. It is also remarkably pretty, with ochre buildings that were open to be explored, stretching all the way down to the sea.
The windmills were particularly striking, and a definite favourite with the kids. In the open yards they found a wooden horse to play with, and tried their best to master stilt-walking, which was challenging to say the least. Within the grounds of the Jan Karlsgården open air museum our final stop was the small Vita Björn prison museum. There was a helpful guide who explained the history of the prison, and described how prisoners would have been treated back then, showing us artifacts and items from that time.
Fine Food & Pirate Snacks at Smakbyn
By this time we had all worked up an appetite, so were delighted to discover that there was a restaurant nearby. Smakbyn sits on an old inlet, close by Kastelholm, and with a lovely view over the red wooden buildings of the open-air museum. There is also a distillery, a shop specialising in Åland products, and a cellar for storage of the Smakbyn’s drinks. The distillery offers guided tours, but we passed on that, although I did visit the shop to buy some local artisan foods to take home – Åland’s black bread is famous throughout Finland.
We were happy to discover that Smakbyn is owned and run by chef Michael Björkland, with his wife Jenny; Michael is well-known from his TV appearances, and has been named chef of the year in both Finland and Sweden – no mean feat. The menu he has created has been inspired by his love Åland and of Nordic food, focusing on home-cooked meals using locally sourced ingredients and herbs. We had lamb shank and perch from Åland, while the kids ordered their favourites from the Pirate’s menu. The food was, as anticipated, excellent and the service every bit as good, with our waiter explaining patiently to the kids what the Pirate’s menu dishes were – they had weird names, like ships masts and things like that.
Hanging out in Havsvidden Resort
After dinner we hopped back in the car to make the short journey, about 30 minutes, to Havsvidden Resort where we had booked a villa for the night. The resort had two choices of accommodation – hotel rooms or cliffside villas, and we had chosen the latter. When we had checked out photos of Havsvidden online the resort had looked lovely, but they truly hadn’t managed to convey its real beauty. Situated at the northern tip of Åland, the villas faced out over the sea, and the views were simply stunning.
Our cliff house was right by the sea, a two-floor affair with two bedrooms, and a spacious terrace facing the sea with its own outdoor hot tub. The boys headed straight for the jacuzzi, leaving us to unpack and relax for awhile admiring the gorgeous view. Leaving the boys in the jacuzzi we went down to the seashore with the girls, enjoying the cool sea breezes as we watched a glorious sunset. Then, with the kids once again properly tired from the exertions of the day, it was time to get some much needed sleep – we had another full day ahead of us.
Taking the Trollstigen Gnome Trail in Geta
Morning came, and as we had a fine breakfast the kids chattered excitedly about the upcoming adventure, and the possibility of seeing either trolls or gnomes.
The trail was just 15 minutes from the resort, and is actually two different trails: a 5km hiking trail, and the 2km kid-friendly Trollstigen Gnome Trail, which was the one we took. Both begin next to Soltuna Restaurant & Café, and are well signposted with wooden arrows to keep visitors on track. Soltuna is the highest restaurant in the Åland Islands, and features a mini-golf course, and an observation tower that commands excellent views out over the sea and over Geta itself.
Maritime Mariehamn – Jewel of the Baltic
Having completed the Gnome Trail, it was time to head south to the port of Mariehamn to catch the ferry back to Turku, but with enough time to walk around the harbour, and have a bite to eat. Although we were travelling from one of the most northerly points in Åland to one of the most southerly the journey still just took 40 minutes or so.
In Mariehamn, we took a stroll along the west harbour promenade, where we passed the impressive SS Pommern, one of the last Clyde-built tall ships remaining in the world. A little further along we came to the ÅSS Paviljongen restaurant, where we decided to have lunch on the open terrace. The sun was shining, the food was excellent, and by pure luck we had happened upon some live entertainment – it was the final day of the Baltic Shanty Festival, and a duo from the west coast of Ireland were singing a lively shanty. Sitting on the terrace in the sunshine, sipping a cold drink, I could see that the restaurant would be the perfect place to enjoy an evening meal and watch the sunset. That would have to wait for another day, as our cruise ship was waiting to take us back to Turku, leaving at 13:45.
The most obvious thought was that we would return soon, but next time make sure we had more time to spend exploring. The Åland Islands is a unique destination in Finland; its cuisine, landscapes, and even its language. There is much to see here, a lot of which we missed out on as our time was limited. We would have liked to check out the Maritime Museum and the Åland Museum & Åland Art Museum, and to have visited Kökar, Bomarsund, Högskär, and Eckerö. Or to have explored Mariehamn more – it was a beautiful, compact city, and really deserved to have been walked.
One of the most noticeable observations was that there was very little traffic anywhere, the roads were quite empty as drove around, and we saw more cyclists than cars. I could see that the combination of good roads and relatively short distances would make this an excellent place for a cycling, hiking, and camping holiday. All in all, there is much to recommend in Åland, and it really deserves more time than an overnight stay.
For Car Rental contant: Rundbergs bil & service