I like islands. Not sure why but one reason is that they have defined edges. Maybe I just like edges. Stuff happens there. Islands have the obvious edge of land meeting the edge of the sea. It’s a transition zone. And going to an island is a transition in itself.
The thing about islands is they’re often not easy to get to. In the case of Åland, we had to take an overnight ferry from Stockholm. It was the fourth overnight ferry on our Baltic trip, and for a mere 44 Euros for the two of us, a great bargain as it included a spacious cabin with bathroom.
Once on an island, it just feels different. Other than the rush of traffic getting off the ferry, there are generally few cars on the road, making for relaxed cycling.
With more than 6,000 islands and skerries in the Skärgården, or Archipelago, there are different routes to choose from: a northern and a southern route, or a combination of the two. We chose the northern route back to the Finnish mainland.
There are many ferries connecting islands and a bit of research is required to get from one to another but that just helps slow things down.
A bit of history to put this place in context:
The funny thing about the islands is that they’re mostly Swedish, dating back to the 13th century when the Kingdom of Sweden ruled the Baltic roost. But through political wrangling following the First World War, the archipelago became an autonomous region of Finland despite overwhelming desire of the population to remain part of Sweden. The League of Nations sided with Finland but dictated autonomy and a right to maintain the Swedish language and local culture. At the same time, an international treaty established neutrality and demilitarisation of the islands. By far, most of the 30,000 people in the islands live on Åland where Mariehamn serves as capital of this Finnish autonomous region. People speak predominantly Swedish. The flag of Åland is the Swedish flag defaced with a red cross, symbolizing Finland. You can even pay with Swedish currency even though Finland uses the Euro.
We arrived in Mariehamn early in the morning, feeling well rested following our overnight cruise from Stockholm. The place was still asleep. We had a hard time even finding a coffee and some breakfast. We had planned to meet our friends Frank and Lindsay here to cycle back to Helsinki together for the final week of our Baltic Tour. They had taken an overnight ferry from Turku that landed on the other side of the island, so we hung out on a small beach waiting for their arrival.
Once reunited with Frank and Lindsay we did a bit of grocery shopping and hit the road north toward Godby and the promise of beer at the Stallhagen Pub, one of the island’s craft breweries. It did not disappoint.
After a refreshing beer, we pondered staying but carried on instead to Hällö, an island further north but connected by a causeway to Åland. A camp site materialized not far from the Hällö bicycle ferry dock. Calling it a camp site is a bit of a stretch. It was an empty hay field with a couple of outhouses and a water tap for a mere 20 Euros per tent. The bonus was a sauna, included in the price, so, we stayed. Frank fired up the stove in the sauna while we made camp and began preparing dinner. By the time dinner was over the sauna was humming along at 75 degrees Celsius. Nothing like a good sweat fest to wash the grime off after a long hot day on the bike.
We were not the only cyclists getting on the bicycle ferry in the morning. We were there an hour before and slowly other cyclists arrived, including a group of MAMILS out for a day tour on very light road racing bikes, making our steel two-wheelers look like the heavy-duty road warriors that they are. In all, about 20 of us got on the little ferry with our bicycles for the 30-minute ride south to Skarpnåtö.
Riding through the bucolic countryside of Hammarland and Eckerö was heavenly. Small roads through rolling farm land and forests with hardly any other traffic to compete for space.
A convenient café presented itself at the Eckerö museum near the western terminus of the road. We paused there with coffee and a treat while plotting our next move. We decided to head to the south end of the peninsula where there was a camp site but upon arriving there found it to be jammed with caravans and motorhomes and nary a space left for a couple of tents. Not really our scene. Camping in the bush is so much better than paying for a site amid holiday-goers.
We talked about our options over a refreshing beer from the camp site’s restaurant. After some sleuthing on Google Maps, we headed down a dirt road from the camp site that led to a few cabins and eventually a dead end in a forest clearing. A perfect place to camp for us dirtbag bike tourers and a slice of paradise compared to the jam-packed campsite. It was quiet, peaceful and all ours. The bicycle is a great way to explore small roads or trails to find a place away from the crowds.
We continued east across the island and hopped on a ferry at Hummelvik, landing on Kumlinge later that evening, and found Hasslebo gästhem, a B&B that offered camping in the garden. It was a great spot, a kind of hybrid of wild camping and campgrounds. We were the only campers.
In the morning we broke camp but left all our stuff to explore the island on unloaded bikes while waiting for a ferry to take us to Brändö later in the day. There aren’t that many roads on Kumlinge. We rode to the southern part of Snäckö which is connected via a causeway. From there, it’s possible to hop on ferries that sail along the southern route of the archipelago.
By the time we arrived back at Hasslebo and packed up all our gear, black clouds filled the northern sky and let loose just as we arrived at the ferry terminal. Thunder, lightning and a deluge hit us but only for a few minutes as the storm rapidly moved on. The ferry arrived and the sun returned by the time we arrived in Brändö.
We were now in the middle of the archipelago, cycling from island to island, all connected via bridges and causeways. Despite it being the height of summer, it was amazingly quiet. Almost no car traffic. It was almost like the islands were designed for cycle touring.
We found a grocery store to resupply our shrinking provisions and set about exploring, looking for another place to call home for the night. Privately owned land makes wild camping sometimes difficult but in Finland, like in many other northern European countries, people enjoy freedom to roam. In Finnish this is called jokamiehenoikeus, or everyman’s right, allowing one to freely roam and camp, as long as you do so in a respectful manner, respect people’s privacy and don’t camp too close to someone’s home. This means the freedom to roam and camp is codified in law.
The right to roam has most strongly survived in the nordic countries of Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Estonia, underpinning opportunities for outdoor recreation. For a further explanation of this concept, click here. Wouldn’t it be nice if this freedom to roam was legislated everywhere.
That day, we ended up camping on private land but paying a small fee to the land owner who showed up to unlock the bathrooms, a rudimentary kitchen and turn on the fresh water supply. There was even a sauna but we opted not to shell out for that.
Most of the islands are quite small and easily traversed by bicycle, giving us the opportunity to explore different areas and communities in the relatively short time that we had. Time seems to move quite slowly but as we near the end of a journey, we become more conscious of the fact that home and the responsibilities that go with it are calling, and I often begin to feel a sense of loss. Loss of the freedom offered by the road. I could do this cycle touring indefinitely, I think.
Another day, another ferry. This one to Vuosnainen, not far off the mainland, and immediately noticeable in the increased traffic, but we happily turned on to a back road to avoid cars rushing from one ferry to the next. In Kusavi, we exercised our everyman’s right by camping on a frisbee golf course in a forested part of town. Despite being close to homes and roads, we had the place all to ourselves without being disturbed by anyone.
We still had a couple of days and decided to take a circuitous route to Turku, hopping from islands to the mainland and back. It was relaxed riding and we tried to make the most of the time left to us. Of note was Naantali, one of Finland’s oldest towns built around a medieval convent. It’s a tourist town but despite it being the height of summer, not busy at all. We hung around the old town centre for a while before continuing the final 20 km on a dedicated bike path all the way into Turku, marking the end of our tour.
The tall ships were in town, making it a very busy spot. Ships of all sizes and from all over the world were moored in the city’s inner harbour. After a good lunch from a Thai food truck, we cycled and walked through the busy streets, taking in the sights, while waiting for our train.
We had to take two separate trains back to Helsinki as there was not enough space on the first one for all four of our bicycles. It’s great to have public transport that accounts for bicycles. The trains in Finland are modern and connect much of the country. It cost 20 euros for the 2-hour ride back to Helsinki. From the station in Helsinki, it was just a short ride back to Frank and Lindsay’s apartment.
Our month in the Baltics had flown by. It was time to pack the bikes in their boxes and get ready for the flight home. Jan and I both reflected that this was probably the easiest tour we’ve done. Mostly flat countryside, good roads and infrastructure. No shortage of great camping and beautiful, historic cities to visit along the way. We prefer more challenging terrain but for beginning cycle-tourers, this would be a great way to get some experience and confidence.