Breaking Travel News investigates: Åland Islands, Finland
While there is plenty to do in Helsinki-proper, savvy travellers to Finland should consider escaping the hubbub of the city with a trip the Åland Islands.
Situated half-way between the Finnish city of Turku and Swedish capital Stockholm, the destination is that rarest of travel curiosities - an undiscovered gem.
Well, at least to those living outside of Scandinavia.
Officially part of Finland, but self-governed and Swedish speaking, Åland is a community of nearly 30,000 people spread over 20,000 islands, only 6,000 of which are named.
It is something of a tourism paradise, with everything from wholesome outdoor pursuits such as cycling, canoeing, sport fishing and even skiing, to more sedate sailing, free-camping and golf on offer.
Visitors must simply choose what they wish to do - as much or as little as they like.
Åland-based Viking Line is the most leisurely way to travel
Visiting in early April this year, I arrived via Åland-based Viking Line, which was an adventure in itself.
Sailing from the Katajanokka harbour on the edge of Helsinki, it is a near 12 hour journey to Mariehamn, the capital of Åland.
While that might sound like a series voyage, time on board ship flies by.
Conditions are comfortable - think cruise ship rather than ferry - with a double bed, shower, television and ample space in the private cabins.
A porthole also offers a window out onto the passing world.
Sailing is remarkably smooth: I left a pile of coins standing on my bedside dresser and they were undisturbed when I woke the following day.
On deck there are plenty of bars and restaurants on offer, while a kids club keeps the little ones entertained.
For dinner, I chose to eat at the buffet, which seemed to be the most popular option.
It is easy to see why, with delicious red meats, fine fish, caviar and unchecked wine and beer all included in the price.
Considering it is €8 a pint in Helsinki, a serious drinker can cover the cost of the trip in the two hour window allowed before the next sitting.
All too quickly it was over and while it seemed the karaoke bar was just getting started, I thought it wise to head for bed at around 23:00, mindful of the 04:00 start the next day.
Prices on Viking Line are very affordable, with fares effectively subsidies by the low-cost duty free on sale in the shops on board.
Mariehamn has a strong nautical heritage
Arriving at Mariehamn I made the five minute journey to Arkipelag Hotel.
A smart, modern property, it offers both excellent views over the sea and easy access to the centre of the town.
Revived after a quick nap, the first stop on the agenda was the Åland Maritime Museum.
Tracing the nautical heritage of Åland, the exhibition does an excellent job conjuring up a sea-salted past.
The museum reveals the great wealth the islands have drawn from the sea through the ages, while also telling the tales of those who lost their lives to the ocean.
A must see for any visit to Åland.
Other highlights in Mariehamn include the Åland Islands Art Museum and the Cultural History Museum of Åland, both of which trace the heritage of the destination.
The Åland Islands are a haven for adventurous travellers
But it is out in the countryside Åland really comes alive, and meeting Annica Grönlund from Visit Åland, we head off to explore.
“Rush hour is from four until five past four,” she explains, as we drive along the nearly clear roads.
Our first destination is HavsVidden, a luxurious hotel and conference centre on the northern coast overlooking the Baltic Sea.
It is here you can really see the attraction of Åland.
Private houses are dotted along the cliff, with each offering a unique sanctuary from which to enjoy the destination.
Guests can relax in the bathhouse for a while or in the famous Finnish sauna, stroll along the pier, or warm themselves in a wood fire heated bath.
There is a real feeling of closeness to nature; while modern technology is seamlessly blended into the accommodations to create a wonderful hybrid.
A great place to take friends for a weekend break in order to truly escape from the world.
Get close to nature at HavsVidden
On route to our next stop, I learn the story of Åland’s Champagne harvest.
Nearly a decade ago, some 145 bottles of the French wine dating from the 1840s were discovered in a shipwreck in Föglö, in an outer archipelago of the islands.
Owing to the constant temperature, dark surroundings and pressure, the Champagne was in excellent condition, with each bottle uncorked, tasted and classified by expert Richard Juhlin.
The man who made this discovery - Christian Ekström - now runs the Stallhagen brew pub, which offers a fantastic range of beers.
Most famous is an ale recreated from five bottles of beer lifted from the Föglö shipwreck along with the Champagne.
Analysed by VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, it has been reproduced to modern standards; with this ‘wreck beer’ now on offer to connoisseurs.
Find freedom on a private island in Åland
Of course, with so many islands uninhabited, visitors can seek out a completely private retreat.
Sviskär, for example, offers sublime relaxation on a ‘hermit island’.
Made from red granite rock, the island has a small forest lake where the water lilies flower, a meadow with many types of wildflowers, and red buildings that have been modernised with a gentle touch.
In the heart of Silverskärs lies a fisherman cottage where people lived a simple archipelago life until the 1950s.
This is now on offer to holidaymakers looking for a unique break, and is a great place to literally get away from it all.
For something a little less remote, although still very much in tune with nature, Sandosund offers both an excellent camp site, as well as both a hotel and private lodges.
It is a great place from which to explore the surrounding area, on bikes, kayaks or even on foot.
Ask about the floating, wood fired sauna for the most authentic Finnish experience.
Åland is a collection of nearly 20,000 islands in the Baltic Sea
With so much to see, guests will need more than the one day I had in Åland, many more.
But before boarding the boat back to Helsinki, there was time to enjoy a quick drink in downtown Mariehamn.
No matter the destination, however remote, there will be an Irish bar, and Åland is no exception, with Molly’s floating serenely in the Baltic on the edge of town.
For something a bit more local, try F.P. von Knorring or Kvarter 5.
Time to leave and I made the journey back to board the Viking Line to Helsinki.
While it might seem to be a little remote, Åland is actually a nexus between Stockholm, Tallinn and Helsinki, offering a world of adventure in a pocket sized space.
Find out more on the official website.