Published: PLANET CONFIDENTIAL, 4th August 2011
"Aland is tranquility defined: Thalia Allington-Wood gets giddy over swimming with salmon"
In 1854, Robert Edgar Hughes, English eccentric and man of the cloth, decided on a holiday to Aland, the main island of the archipelago between Sweden and Finland, and the central destination of my trip.
It was an odd choice. In choosing Aland in the year of 1854, Hughes had chosen the scene of a war. For in 1854, the Battle of Bomarsund, part of the action in the far-off Crimean War, shook the woods of this small outcrop of land.
Standing with the red Notvik tower and its remaining canons to my left, where shells were fired and rifles shot between the French, British and Russian, it is difficult to imagine the smoke and shouts, the billowing fire and the ‘hurly burly of shells passing’, which Hughes’ diaries describe.
Instead, the sky is clear and quiet the sun shines brightly, flowers are in bloom, a cool breeze blows from the sea, its water glistening and calm.
Hughes would have been disappointed. I, however, am in raptures. Aland is beautiful. Breathtaking even.
Despite his barmy pastime of packing a knapsack ‘freighted with wine, biscuits and condiments’ and heading in search a ‘splendid scene of havoc’, Hughes got one thing right at least. Aland, lush and wild, is the perfect location for a break filled with picnics.
I’m going to confess straight away: I fell in love with the place.
From Stockholm we took the over-night ferry: a giant boat that consumed 30 tons of fuel on an average journey and was capable of 32,000 horse power, yet was controlled by the smallest joy stick known to man. While a pleasant mode of travel, with sunset views over the archipelago, for those of you who would rather avoid an evening of mirror ball bedazzled dancing to cruise ship crooners, the two-hour ferry is a good alternative.
Stepping from the deck on to Aland soil is like shedding weights off your shoulders. Think of all you associate with the word metropolis: traffic, crowds, concrete, rush hour. Aland and the surrounding islands are the antithesis of all these.
Rush hour here consists of seeing another car on the road. In Mariehamn, Aland’s only town, and home to 11,000 of the total 28,000 inhabitants who live across all the islands, rush hour maybe consists of ten fellow road users. Local buses and ferries from island to island are frequent and free. Time passes at what ever pace you wish. Stress is a concept one can’t imagine existing.
While Mariehamn is quaint, with a museum and art gallery to keep one entertained, the real joy of being here is the outdoors: be it on land or water.
As such, for the first two nights, we staying in a small cottage set into a wood of evergreens. The setup was functional and nothing luxurious. But waking up, wooden rafters above your head, to a stroll through the trees, pines crunching beneath your toes as the high morning sun casts long shadows, down to a deserted cove for a swim, just you and the salmon, is an altogether different kind of luxury and one my city worn self soaked up like ambrosia.
The real way to explore land has to be by bicycle, easily rentable for around 10 Euros a day. This is place perfect for leisurely peddling. Winding paths, with only minor hills to climb, take you past forests, meadows filled with long grass, red wooden windmills, and glistening waters frequented by swans. Elk and deer roam. Each day we saw proud antlers raise their heads from the fields and bound through the grass. Poets beware. You will find it difficult not become instantly whimsical after a few hours exploring.
For water expeditions, my favorite boat trip had to be out to Kobba Klintar, a pilot station for guiding in coming boats through the rock filled water, now out of use. It is accessible either by private boat taxi for about 20 Euros return or on a kayak excursion. From the red rocks of this jut of land, covered in yellow and blue lichen, boats enter the horizon. First merely a hazy spot before their masts loom into view and protrude against the blue skyline. There is a museum, a small café, and the water is clear, practically saltless, and wonderful for a swim.
There is much more I could wax lyrical about: Kastelholm Castle, the beautiful saffron infused Aland pancakes to be eaten at Pettas bakery, saunas and ice cold sea dips before delicious dinners at Havsvidden (the place to stay if you’re looking for top end, jaw dropping accommodation), and, of course, I can’t forget to mention the beer. Stallhagen, Aland’s very own, with 13 different products ranging from Hunungsol, a delicious honey beer to Dunkles, a drink that gives Guinness a run for its money. The brewery offers tours and tastings in, again, beautiful surroundings.
My last morning came round all too quickly, spent at the wonderful Hotel Nestor (highly recommended) on the island of Korppoo. I dragged out my final morning swim for as long as I possibly could, the water gleaming, a white rowing boat gently rocking from the small wooden jetty, the birds singing…
People here look ten years younger than they are for a reason. These Scandinavian islands are food for the soul and I, for one, advise any to put them on their summer menu.