I always request the window seat when I fly. I like to catch the first sight of the country from the air, where you get a bird’s eye view. Flying into Finland, I was quite astounded at the number of islands, scattered like emeralds across the blue of the ocean. I had read about the area, but totally unprepared for the endless vista of islands sprinkled across the ocean in front of Finland. The Aland archipelago alone consists of 6,500 islands and skerries. A nice statistic to know, but actually seeing it spread out before you really brings the numbers into reality.
Our trip will start in Helsinki – a city of the sea. Helsinki was founded by King Gustav Vasa of Sweden (which Finland belonged to for many centuries) when he ordered the people of 4 burghers to pack up and move to the mouth of the River Vantaa in 1550. In 1640 a decision was made to move it further south to where it is today.
Until 1917, Finlad was under the domination of either Sweden or Russia, who fought over it for centuries. After more than 600 years under the Swedish crown and 100 under the Russian czars, Finland declared its independence in 1917. The act was immediately followed by civil war. In May of 1918, the war ended in victory for the government troops. The Soviet Union attacked Finland on Nov. 30, 1939, but were fought to a standstill in the 105-day Winter War of 1939-40. Finland holds the distinction of never being occupied by foreign forces, unlike all other states on the European continent that were involved in the Second World War.
Helsinki is built along a series of odd-shaped peninsulas and islands that jut into the Baltic coast along the Gulf of Finland. The streets curve around bays, bridges connect the peninsulas to islands and islands further offshore are connect to the city by a ferry system.
Helsinki was appointed the capital of Finland in 1812 by Czar Alexander I, supplanting Turku, which had been the capital since 1640. There was a great fire just before the proclamation, which destroyed many of Helsinki’s traditional structures. Carl Ludwig Engel, a German architect, was commissioned to rebuild the city, resulting in some of the purest neo-classical architecture in the world.
The city center of Helsinki is densely packed and most everything is easily accessible by walking. Some of the most interesting places are the food marts, as they can offer great insight into the day – to – day habits of the local people. The orange tents of the Kauppatori market make an excellent starting point for any exploration. Filled with fresh flowers, fish, vegetables and crafts, it is active both in summer and in winter. Not far from these distinctive orange tents is the Old Market Hall (Vanha Kauppahalli). This old brick market hall on the waterfront is a treasury of delicacies from piles of colorful fish roe to marinated Greek olives. Still up for another marketplace? The Hietalahden Tori is another brick market hall crammed with vendors selling fish, flowers, produce and meat. A simultaneous outdoor flea market has tables piled high with…stuff. If you have finally seen enough of the marketplaces, why not stop at a café for a cup of coffee? More coffee is consumed per capita in Finland than in any other country. Which probably goes a long way in explaining the staggering number of cafes that seem to be everywhere! Try some munskki (doughnuts) or pulla (sweet bread) with your coffee to make it an even better .
Ready to go again? There are all types of galleries and museums, a zoon and over 400 parks to occupy whatever energy you have left. One of the more enchanting of the museums is the Sinebrychoff Museum of Foreign Art (Sinebrychoffin Taidemuseo). Originally owned by a wealthy Russian businessman, this beautiful yellow-and-white 1840 neo-Renaissance mansion is filled with wildly opulent furniture. It houses not only the former owner’s foreign art collection, but also a staid collection of Dutch and Swedish 17th and 18th century portraits. Outdoor concerts are held in Sinebrychoff Park, adjacent to the museum. Art nouveau enthusiasts are sure to appreciate both Villa Ensi with its pale ocher color and twin bronze statues in front, and the delightful Villa Johanna, which features a carved roaring serpent above the door.
If you like Nightlife, your choices extend from a variety of noisy bars and late-night clubs to more intimate cafes. Only have energy for one place? Make it Storyville. This jazz club has live jazz and dancing every night. What a great way to start a holiday, dancing late into the night, returning to the quiet and comfort of your charter yacht to rest up for tomorrow’s adventures.
The next day, watch Helsinki fall astern as you sail for Hanko. The trip from Helsinki to Hanko will go quickly, as you sail along the coastline, with the many islands of the Gulf of Finland Archipelago littering the sea in front of you. Hanko is located on a penisula on the very southern tip of Finland. Noted for its long stretches of beaches (19 miles in total), some of which are sandy, other featuring sea-smoothed boulders. Some of Finland’s most elegant and fanciful private homes dot the seacoast, their porches edged with fairy-like gingerbread iron detail and woodwork, with crazy towers sprouting from their roofs. Quite often, a miniature version of the house is located directly on the shore, serving as a beach house for the owners and their guests.
Hanko serves as a customs port and has a rich history. Fortified in the 18th century, its defenses were destroyed by the Russians during the Crimean War in 1854. Later it became a popular spa town for Russians, but is perhaps better known as the port from which more than 300,000 Finns emigrated to North America between 1880 and 1930. If you want to take a nice walk and stretch your legs a bit once you have arrived in Hanko, take a stroll up to the Hando Water Tower. There is a telescope there through which you can get a grand view of the very tiny islands sprinkled around the peninsula.
Turku lies northwest of Hanko, and is reached via a wonderful sail through a myriad of islands. Founded at the beginning of the 13th century, Turku is Finland’s oldest and fifth largest city, and, as you remember, was the original capital. The site of the first Finnish university, it continues as an educational center with two major universities. In the summer months, the banks of the River Aura come alive with boat and ship cafes and various festivals, including Baltic Jazz and the Medieval festivals in July.
Rich in culture, there are several sites worth visiting. The Turun Taidemuseo is newly renovated and holds some of Finland’s most famous paintings. Works by Akseli Gallen – Kallela can be viewed there, as well as a broad selection of turn-of-th-20th-century Finnish art and contemporary works. A unique combination of both history and art can be viewed at the Aboa Vetus/ Ars Nova museum. The museum’s concept changed when workers discovered archaeological remains during an extension of the Villa von Rettig collection. The remains were excavated and incorporated into the museum and date back to the 15th century. Not to be outclassed by the historical findings, you can view Picasso’s The Swordsman among the artwork.
The Luostarinmaki Handicrafts Museum is loads of fun with its authentic collection of wooden houses and buildings containing shops and workshops where traditional handicrafts are sold. Take a tour or just poke about by yourself.
History buffs will delight in both the castle and cathedral located in Turku. The 700 year old Turun Tuomiokirkko (Turku Cathedral) remains the seat of the archbishop of Finland. It was partially gutted by fire in 1827 but has been restored and celebrated its 700th anniversary in 2000. The cathedral houses a museum which deisplay medieval church vestments, silver chalices, and wooden sculptures.
The Turun Linna (Turku Castle) stands close to where the River Aura flows out into the sea. The oldest part was built at the end of the 13th century and the “new” part dates from the 16th century. The vaulted chambers give a sense of the domestic life of the royals that lived there. Beautiful gardens surround Turun Linna and there is a very pleasant café there where you can sit and pretend you are royalty! The phone booth by the entrance is especially captivating – once you have figured out what it actually is!
There are several distinctive bars in Turku that are housed in historic buildings. The building’s former function gives rise to the names: the New Pharmacy (in the old apothecary), the Old Bank (housed in a former bank…and features 120 brands of beer), the School (in a former girl’s school, built in the 1880’s) and last but not least, the Toilet. Yes, it was formerly a public restroom. You just had to ask, didn’t you?
The Aland Islands are unique and autonomous, with their own flag, stamps, and culture. Virtually all the more than 25,000 locals are Swedish speaking, though some Finnish is spoken also. The League of Nations’ made a decision in 1921 that the Aland Islands would be self-ruling to settle a Swedish – Finnish dispute over sovereignty. Aland took its own flag in 1954 and started issuing its own stamps in 1984. The islands are popular for cycling and camping holidays, and the Midsummer celebrations here are reputed to be among the best in Finland.
Mariehamn, the capital and only major town, is located on Fasta Aland (the Main Island). Fasta Island, the largest island, is roughly 30 miles long and 30 miles wide, and comprises 70% of the total landmass of the entire archipelago. Further, 90% of the 25,000 inhabitants live on Fasta Island, with over half of them residing in Mariehamn.
The first settlers set foot on the Aland Islands about 6,000 years ago. More than a hundred Bronze and Iron Age cemeteries have been discovered and are clearly signposted as “fornminne”. There are also ruins of Viking Age fortresses. Medieval churched date from the 12th to the 15th centuries. Kastlelholm , established in the 14th century, is a medieval castle built by the Swedes to strengthen their presence on Aland and is one of Aland’s most striking attractions. Jan Karlsgorden Friluftsmuseum (Jan Karlsgarden Open-air Museum) is a popular open-air museum, with buildings and sheds from the 18th century that portray farming life on the island 200 years ago.
The real allure of the Aland Islands, however is not what man has brought, but rather, what nature has provided. Since only 65 of the 6,500 islands are inhabited, much of the archipelago is virtually untouched by humans, and there is an absolute quietness that soothes and calms. There are 6 “municipalities”, or groups of islands, sharing some characteristics, but also unique unto themselves. Brando, in the northeast section, is home to changing types of forests and fertile fields. The caves on the archipelago’s outskirts, mighty boulders, smooth rock beaches and hundreds of inlets give evidence of the inland glaciers. Foglo has cultivated valleys, deep pine forests, broad meadows and barren rocks. In the municipality of Kokar is the island of Kallskar where you will find the Kallskarkannen rock formation and Baron Akerhjelm’s gardens. There is also a nature preseve on nearby Ido that features rare vegetation. Diving is also available, with an opportunity to explore various shipwrecks.
There is nothing to do, and everything to do. You might want to explore close to the shore with a kayak, or have your captain anchor close to an island and everyone go ashore to have a picnic on the rocky beach. Or you might want to take advantage of the solitude by simply anchoring in the lee of one of the many islands, putting up the hammock, and pretending you are reading when all you are really doing is letting the gentle motion and the quiet sound of the waves lapping against the side of the boat.
Like all wonderful things, your time idling in the long, sunny days of the Scandinavian summer must come to an end. As your captain heads towards Stockholm for your flight home, you watch the islands as they recede into the distance. Knowing that the quiet will be there the next time you return . And knowing that the next time you board one of our Finland yacht charters will be very soon.
Day 1: You arrive at the airport in Helsinki and are greeted by your captain. He points out various interesting sights on the way back to the yacht. After taking a quick shower to revive you after your long flight, you are anxious to explore the near-by delights of Helsinki. Since it is a very compact town, there is much to see and do within a short stroll.
Day 2: The sun went down late, and you with it, and came back up very quickly and you…well, it took a bit longer. You take a quick trip to the Old Market Hall to see the early morning rush of activity. Back to the boat, the lines are thrown off, and your adventure begins. First stop: Snappertuna, about 45 miles southwest of Helsinki. You arrive there by late afternoon, with plenty of time to explore this tiny farming town.
Day 3: You decide to explore Raseborg Castle, believed to date from the 14th century, before you depart Snappertuna. Hanko lies about 33 miles to the southwest, and is known for its long stretches of sandy beaches. A lovely town to wander about, perhaps even going for a bike ride.
Day 4: You wake to the gentle motion of the ocean as you sail along. The sail to Turku is about 85 miles, though a myriad of small islands. The captain stops and anchors by one at noon, taking everyone ashore in the tender for a beach picnic. You arrive in Turku by late afternoon, in plenty of time to visit some of the local pubs.
Day 5: The morning is spent exploring Turku, and pretending you are royalty while at Turku Castle. Sail away to the Alands after lunch, where the captain chooses the perfect island in Brando group of islands to anchor next to for the night. Spend the rest of the day kayaking among the inlets, around mighty boulders and stopping on smooth rocky beaches.
Day 6: Sail to Kallskar in the island region of Kokar. Explore the Kallskarkannen rock formation and Baron Akerhjelm’s gardens. For the divers, the captain can arrange a dive with the local dive boat to explore some of the shipwrecks in the area. Finish the day by sailing on to Mariehamn, the largest town in the Aland archipelago for your last night.
Day 7: Leaving the Aland Islands behind, you sail on to Stockholm where you will catch your plane home. As the plane gains altitude, you will look down and know that next time, you will make your charter holiday 2 weeks, not one.