The Secret Island Escape in the World’s Happiest Country

These enchanting Baltic Sea islands occupy the sunniest spot in northern Europe.

Kobba Klintar, an old pilot station in Aland Islands, Finland

The Åland islands are midway between Stockholm and Helsinki.

Photo by Curioso/Shutterstock

You probably don’t think of them as island nations, but between them, Finland and Sweden have 400,000 islands. (That number is not a typo.) Most are tiny and uninhabited, but the total is far more than any other countries. (In comparison, Greece has a mere 6,000.) Also between them: the idyllic group of the Åland islands, a scenic year-round Scandinavian getaway. Never heard of them? They are a popular destination for those in the know.

Where are the Åland islands?

You’ll find the Åland islands in the Baltic Sea, where the name changes to the Gulf of Bothnia, midway between Finland and Sweden, north of both capital cities, 25 miles east of Sweden. They offer an outdoorsy alternative or extension of a trip to Stockholm or Helsinki. A visit there will help you embrace the friluftsliv approach of Scandinavia. (The word is hard to translate but refers to an appreciation of nature that involves actively engaging in the outdoors, whatever the season.)

Who owns the Ålands?

Although known by its Swedish name, the Ålands are an autonomous archipelago belonging to Finland. Let that ring atop the A clue you into its pronunciation: “Oh-lahnd”. (The Finnish name is Ahvenanmaa, but Finnish is one of Europe’s odder languages; Swedish is the official language of the Ålands.) Of the more than 6,000 Åland islands, about 1 percent are inhabited; Fasta is the main one.

Some 11,000 people, about one third of the population of the Ålands, live in Mariehamn, the capital city, on Fasta Åland. It’s an historic port and shipbuilding locale, which you can learn about at the Maritime Museum. (Kids note: It exhibits an authentic 18th-century skull-and-crossbones pirate ship’s flag.) And fans of lighthouses (you know who you are) can make a day trip out of visiting the remote Säskär lighthouse, which dates back to 1868. Of the four lighthouses among the Ålands, the easiest to reach is Låkskär, 17 nautical miles south of Mariehamn. It dates from 1920 and is one of many islands you can visit via Shipland, which runs boat tours out of Mariehamn.

A traditional Aland windmill on a rocky hillside

Traditional Aland windmills take advantage of sea breezes.

Photo by Thomas Collett/Shutterstock

One of the reasons Finland is a repeat winner of the title “world’s happiest country” is because Finns are active outdoors, whether that’s kayaking on endless summer days or jumping out of saunas into winter’s snow. (Finns, like their neighbors, are power drinkers of coffee.)

Things to do on the Åland islands

Full of active options, the scenic islands are flat, making them easy to explore by bike. As the largest island among the archipelago, Fasta is also where you’ll find the most activities. Fishing, sailing, and hiking are among activities that you can top off with a visit to a sauna, summer or winter. Sandosund has two floating saunas, making it easy to add a dip to cool down. It’s about an hour’s drive northeast of the capital city.

Or you can leave arrangements to Åland Tours, which offers small, guided tours of one to four hours to highlights on the islands. Some are best suited to—or only available in—summer months, such as Kastelholm Castle built in the 1380s (one of the few remaining medieval fortifications in Finland) and Kobba Klintar (a ship pilot’s house, now a museum), complete with fog horn and spectacular views.

In winter, try your hand at kick sledding, sort of a mashup between skateboarding and cross-country skiing. It’s a no/low skill, ecofriendly, and novel way to explore. Åland Tours also offers photography trips to view and capture the northern lights.

When all that fresh air works up your appetite and thirst, local producers and restaurants deliver specialties using the islands’ bounty. Cooking with local ingredients was standard here long before that became a trend. And the sunny islands are home to pear, apple, and other fruit trees used in ciders and various fruit drinks. Check out Amalia’s Lemonade for a range of flavors with only natural ingredients, such as blackcurrant or raspberry lemonade. Another producer of note: the apple orchard, Peders Aplagard with a café and shop featuring local honey and ciders. And at Öfvergårds, you can taste all of its different varieties of award-winning apple juices, plus enjoy an Apple Safari or a picnic in the orchard.

The island’s fruits also star at the distillery at Smakbyn in Kastelholm. It produces pear and cherry liqueurs and apple wine. Smakbyn is also a top spot for fine dining, although it’s closed in the winter. In addition, it has its own bakery and cooking school, where chef Michael Bjorklund teaches classes.

Where to stay

Book now: HavsVidden Resort

HavsVidden Resort, with a bathhouse complete with pool, sauna, wood-fired hot tub (plus spa treatments), sits on the coast. In addition to hotel rooms, cottages (aka “rock houses” for their location) are on offer.

How to get there

A flight from Stockholm takes about 30 minutes. Or you can drive and use car ferry services. A direct ferry leaves Stockholm daily for Mariehamn. Ferries are also available from Finland and Estonia.

Pat Tompkins has written for Afar about movies, books, art, UNESCO World Heritage sites, and other topics.
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