California-sized Finland is home to nearly 180,000 islands. 800 of these are over one square kilometer in size and most of those permanently inhabited. With 188,000 lakes and vast areas of swamp, the entire country could be considered a water-world. That watery feel stems from the ice age.
Finland’s landscape is defined by the last glaciation. For thousands of years, it was covered by a layer of ice miles thick. Then the earth warmed and as the glaciers began to retreat, Finland literally rose out of the sea, beginning as solitary islands before becoming strings of islands then peninsulas and isthmuses.
Today, many of the island areas are National Parks, Biosphere Reserves, or World Heritage Sites created not only to protect unique natural resources but also to preserve the culture and the lifestyle of the islanders. The thinning population and its unique blend of Finnish, Swedish, German, and Russian cultures has made the appeal of Finland’s islands all the more powerful.
Finland’s islands are a paradise for outdoor enthusiasts. This is the place where the sky meets the sea and where the feeling is that of being at the edges of the Earth. The air is quiet and the sea relatively calm. On the aquamarine waters of the inlets, sailboats glide under candy blue skies filled with playful terns and cotton-ball clouds. Sea geese pass overhead, eagles turn far above, swans crowd on an outer edge next to pink masses of granite. Steer a small rented boat – or better yet, a kayak – through groups of eiders to fish for large pike and trout. Then there is the silence and the peace, the sound of the waves, the breeze off the sea.
In 2010, after a stringent two-year certification process, the Archipelago National Park (ANP) was the first maritime area certified as part of PAN Parks system set up by the European Union and the World Wildlife Fund. To date, seven local companies have been certified as PAN partners, meeting strict ecological standards. 57,000 people come to the park each year but you would never know it. Solitude is easily achieved here. The entire coastline of Finland is dotted with these island treasures. These five examples, all in close reach of one another and within the National Park, are a great place to start understanding just how special this place can be.
As the story goes, 400 years ago, a Swedish king had every tree on this island cut down and the entire island burned over to rid the place of the pirates that harried the trade routes between Sweden and Russia. Except for a small number of planted pines, a few alders and birches, most of the island is bare. Still, this is a spectacular hunk of rock. Located straight south of the island of Korpo in the Turku Archipelago, Jurmo is about 5km in length but never more than one kilometer in width and hosts no more than fifteen year-round residents. Until relatively recently, Jurmo did not have a proper harbor and access to the island was very difficult. A pier and small dock now offers shelter to boats, kayaks, and a nice little café that serves fresh-baked bread and smoked flounder fresh off the boat.
The easiest way to get to Jurmo is from Kasnäs, a 2.5 hours drive west of Helsinki (4.5 hours by bus). Kasnäs hosts one of the two Visitors’ Centers for the national park and also serves as the hub for ferry traffic and tour operators. Another option is to pick up the ferry from Nagu or Korpo islands, also 2.5 hours by car from Helsinki, (one hour from Turku). Korpo hosts the other Archipelago Centre. The ferry trip to Jurmo takes about three hours and is the same ferry used to reach Aspö, Nötö, and Utö.
Jurmo is a great layover for kayakers and a wonderful spot for swimming. For birders, this is the place to be in the spring as hundreds of species move up from southern Europe to summer breeding grounds in the Arctic. You can also take a nice easy walk along the southern tip of the island that takes one through the planted pines, through a rocky lunar-like surface and across the sandy beach to an abandoned fishing village. Be sure to check out the inscriptions on the headstones in the tiny graveyard near the church. You’ll get a sense of how rough life was here in the past. Not so now, because ending the day with a beach-side sauna and another swim can’t be topped.
Although I tend to tent camp when visiting, there are two families who rent very nice cottages on Jurmo, Klas Mattson and Aino Mattsson. Be sure to bring your own food and beer if you need it. Yes, there is a small store to resupply from – and the fresh smoked flounder of summer is fabulous – but there is little beyond the basics.
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About thirteen kilometers south from Jurmo, this little island is the last inhabited outpost of Finland before the Baltic Sea and mainland Europe. As the story goes, when, in 1530 the Swedish King Vaasa ordered Jurmo destroyed, one teenage boy was said to have escaped. He hid under a rock and then made his way south to Utö. He found a nearly bare, rocky island with just enough fish and birds to survive. There may have already been a tiny Bishopric on Utö when the boy arrived – possibly of Bishop Henrik’s doings during the initial Swedish crusade into Finland. But there may have been nothing more than the random and dilapidated huts of a few seasonal fishing families. Whatever it was he found, he must have found it irresistible, for on Utö, he established a large family from which nearly every native islander claims descent.
The best way to Utö is from Kasnäs, a 2.5 hours drive west of Helsinki (4.5 hours by bus). Another option is to pick up the ferry m/s Eivor from Nagu or Korpo islands, also 2.5 hours by car from Helsinki, (one hour from Turku). The ferry trip to Utö takes about three hours and is the same ferry used to reach Aspö, Nötö, and Jurmo. Ferries do not run both ways every day so plan accordingly.
Utö hosts an interesting array of historical features from the intact pilot house, the old military barracks, Finland’s first lighthouse, the graveyard, and the excellent little museum in The Stonehouse. The small village, dating from the 1750s, is largely intact and the museum is well worth the visit, but it is the rough beauty of the island, the fabulous autumn storms, and the shipwreck diving that are the real reason to visit.
For such a small place, Utö nowadays has an elaborate array of good services to offer: a hotel, a restaurant, rental cottages, and several bed and breakfast options. Visit the Uto website for up to date contact information.
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If you don’t go so far as to run straight from the sauna and throw yourself off the cliff into the bay…well then, you haven’t really visited Nötö. So do it. One of the larger islands in the area, Nötö was once an important center of the outer archipelago and home to nearly 300 people. Not so these days. The dearth of modern inhabitants makes a trip to this island a step back in time. The village looks much as it did one-hundred years ago and many, including the chapel, date from the mid 1700s.
Nötö is served by the ferries m/s Eivor and m/s Fisko. The best way there is from Kasnäs, a 2.5 hours drive west of Helsinki (4.5 hours by bus). Another option is to pick up the ferry m/s Eivor from Nagu or Korpo islands, also 2.5 hours by car from Helsinki, (one hour from Turku). The ferry trip to Nötö takes about two hours and is the same ferry used to reach Utö, Aspö, and Jurmo. Ferries do not run both ways every day so plan accordingly.
A top spot for the white-tailed eagle, boating, and a great place to pull in some pike, Nötö also boasts great walks for those with a keen eye to history. The remains for human habitation peak from the forests, the marshes, and the meadows. Intact historical structures appear from the forest and the scent of sea milkwort rushes to your nose with every step. Really, everything on this island runs out of the bed and breakfast Backero. They rent the sauna, boats, run guided fishing tours, and serve up some fabulous food. Even if you plan on camping out, do contact them for some guidance.
I passed one pleasant night at Backero but much preferred to camp on the grounds of the old school. In the summer, you can buy food and beer from the shop (if you’re going to stay for a few days, they will gladly put in an order for you from the mainland) and if you’re boating they sell fuel. Backero serves up some fine traditional island meals – lots of fish and potatoes. If you are staying there and tire of that, they do have a kitchen for rent.
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Like most of Finland, Aspö was once the home of giants. On the island’s eastern edge sits the throne of the King Giant. When the first church was built on Nötö, just across the sound, the giant, a pagan, took up a boulder and lobbed it at the church. It fell short, crashing into Bönholm Straight where it lies to this day. Aspö was first mentioned in a series of Danish exploration and trading chronicles in 1270. The old papers even listed population numbers in those days. There were more people in the archipelago in 1270 then there are now. Aspö is actually hundreds of small islands and skerries massed around one large, pinwheel shaped island supporting three families of fifteen people.
The village and island of Aspö, Finland lies in a sheltering cove, about fifteen miles north of the island of Utö. The best way to Aspö is the same as for Jurmo, Nötö, and Utö. Get the ferry from Kasnäs (a 2.5 hours drive west of Helsinki or 4.5 hours by bus). Another option is to pick up the ferry m/s Eivor from Nagu or Korpo islands, also 2.5 hours by car from Helsinki, (one hour from Turku).
Relaxation is the thing to do here. Take a stroll along the nature trail. Begin on the edge of the cove near a row of short, twisted docks punctuated by red boat-shelters, then up through wide grassy spaces and a scattering of smoothed, rounded boulders that fall away from the church and into the straight. A solitary path leads through the grass to a diffuse band of houses spilling lazily away from the water and disappearing into shades of juniper, alder, rowan, birch and pine, and beyond, where an attenuated lagoon stretched, choked with duckweed and cat-tails. After a morning of birding or fishing, sauna and swim the afternoon away.
Tore and Marika Johansson run a bed and breakfast on Aspö with a nice little sauna overlooking the water. They also run a taxi-boat service, rent summer cottages, sell fresh bread, ice cream and smoked fish that they themselves caught and smoked, and they can offer up some good advice on fishing. Oh, and Tore plays the accordion – well. Given notice they will host dinner for groups. Camping is also an option and Marika can direct you to the best spot. Give them a call at 358-040-7667092.
Three colors hit you on a summer’s day as you approach Houtskär: the black of the rock, the blue of the sky and water, and the two shades of green that distinguish the grasses from the forest. This Swedish-speaking island is one of a group of islands known as the Jungfruskär Biosphere Reserve spilling into the Kihti channel just north of the island of Korpo. At the centre of the main village is the Greek-cross style wooden church of Santa Maria, one of the oldest churches of this style, dating to 1704. The center also hosts traditional dance events throughout the year – and you’re invited!
By car or bus you arrive to the beginning of the Archipelago Road in Kaarina (10km east of Turku) via E18 from either Helsinki or Turku. Take the Archipelago Road through Pargas, Nagu and Korpo, with three yellow ferries connecting them. The last ferry takes you from Korpo to Houtskär.
There are not a lot of people around here, and the islands are heavily forested, offering days of traipsing through moss-covered fairylands picking blue-berries, lingon berries, and mushrooms. The rocky coastline and multiple protected coves and inlets makes this a perfect place for a kayak trip. You can also visit the Otterbote Bronze Age settlement where you don’t have to have a keen eye to spot age old foundations peaking from the heather.
Accommodations are plentiful but be sure to book in advance if you plan to go in July or August as that is the one time the island is full. Multiple cottages are also available on tiny Berghamn island, which is right close by.
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Read more about author Jim O’Donnell here.