Put Åland on your travel radar
Entrepreneurs find inspiration in the rustic beauty of the archipelago.
The landscape of Åland is a patchwork of forest and meadows bordered with the occasional wooden windmill, barn, and farmhouse. This is no agrarian theme park, however, but a home to a thriving yet relaxed community.
The Swedish-speaking Baltic archipelago, nestling between Finland and Sweden, belongs to the former but boasts a culture that’s much closer to the latter.
“It is like Sweden back in the 1950s or ‘60s. The pace of life, the way people speak, their more leisurely way of doing things,” says Hans Lindmark, who owns and manages the Björnhofvda Gård guesthouse with his wife Jackie.
“It’s very rural yet close to both Stockholm and Helsinki,” says Jackie. She pokes a thumb westward, towards the 50-kilometre stretch of Baltic that separates the islands from the Swedish mainland.
Björnhofvda is at the end of a lane peppered with red barns and farms on the eastern edge of Åland’s main island, known as Fasta Åland. Short forest walks lead down to rocky shorelines and little beaches. Guests are housed in three buildings, each of which includes a common lounge area, and there is an elegant restaurant.
“There are many places in the Stockholm archipelago which are a bit posh and expensive and more up-to-date in terms of fashion and interior design. Here it’s much more slow-paced and not so aware of the latest trends,” says Jackie.
The happy potter
The Finnish way, which in spite of its Swedish connections is also the Åland way, is to express satisfaction in a calm and restrained manner. The ebullient cheerfulness of ceramist Judy Kuitunen when asked about life in Åland is a clue to her origins.
She arrived in Finland from London as a 22-year-old at the tail end of “an unhappy love affair.” After opening her pottery business in an old dairy building in Mariehamn, where she still lives, she moved her studio and colourful showroom to Gölby, a village 12 kilometres out of town.
“I absolutely love it here,” she says, beaming. “It’s been a great move. I get a lot more peace and quiet which is good for my creativity.”
Zero hassle is her worthy aim. “I want to be less stressed and make the pots that I like, not the ones that I have to make.”
Dive of a lifetime
One of Christian Eckström’s many active pursuits is diving. Every dive is different although not even Eckström was prepared for his life-changing underwater experience in 2010.
“There are thousands of wrecks around the shores of the islands,” he explains. “I was in a diving group and in summer 2010 we investigated a wreck, the position of which I had known for some time. It turned out to be a spectacular dive that changed my life.”
In the wreck, dating from the 1840s, the divers found 168 bottles of champagne and five bottles of beer.
Since Eckström is an investor in Åland’s Stallhagen brewery, the discovery of the beer turned out to be a jackpot.
“The Baltic is one of coldest places in the world to go diving,” says Eckström. “This cold and the low oxygen and salt content mean everything is well-preserved. In the area between Mariehamn, Turku in Finland, and Riga in Latvia there are more wrecks than the Bermuda Triangle!”
The art of craft
The magnificent Pommern four-mast windjammer, launched in 1903, is one of Mariehamn’s proudest icons and has moved to a new dry-dock berth outside the city’s Maritime Museum.
Craftsmen from the Mariehamn’s Maritime Quarter, a cluster of traditional boatyards and artisan workshops on the eastern shore, have fitted the ship with a new deck.
One of these craftsmen is Petter Mellberg, who came to work in the Mariehamn yards as an 18-year-old apprentice from Kauniainen in the Helsinki region in 1994. Traditional boatbuilding is a specialised trade, kept precariously afloat by Mellberg and his colleagues.
“There are a few boat builders in Finland, but not so many that are experienced in the older boat types,” he says. “My customers are usually from Finland, and I repair boats as well as start from scratch with new ones.”
He walks down to the quay and points at the handsome wooden galeas-class replica boat, the Albanus, the first traditional boat to be launched here in 1988.
“Not so many young people are interested in boat building,” he says. “It takes a lot of time, in an age when everything moves so fast. Even with four builders working on a single boat, it can take as much as four years.”
Text and photos Tim Bird