Island hopping on the Finnish Archipelago – Scotland on Sunday Travel
The Finnish Archipelago is one of those gems we hope to discover on our travels. It is authentic in its charms and easily reached from a capital city. The economic hub is Turku – once the capital of Finland and now its fifth city. It sits on the River Aurajoki with the archipelago of 40,000 islands laid out in the Baltic Sea to the south and west. It lies on almost the same latitude as Shetland but the temperature averages about 20C and can reach 30C in the long summer days. This combination of climate and natural landscape makes the archipelago the summer destination of Finns - many own summer cottages – or cabins – on the islands where they spend the long days fishing, cycling, hiking, sailing and probably having saunas. It’s the area where the Finnish president has his summer residence too. At Naantali, the gardens of the Kultaranta villa are a tourist must do although they won’t be open again until 2025 due to renovations. The reasons are probably more complex than the winters’ cold and long nights, but the Finns really do cherish their summer homes.
And, as we skim across the water of the archipelago towards one, it’s easy to see why. However, the journey to the boat was very much part of the experience. I’d left the bustling city centre of Helsinki by train. On the two-hour journey to Turku you are quickly in the countryside and I get my first glimpse of the small painted wooden houses which seem to cling to a fold in the landscape or perhaps congregate in a woodland clearing.
In Turku, I enjoyed the mix of history and gastronomy in the elegant town centre beside the river. I had visited the city in its year as European Capital of Culture in 2011 and then it was obviously a place with “potential” but now those green shoots are flourishing and its foodie culture is a bright beacon. There’s a Michelin star and two other restaurants listed in the gastronome’s Bible. The restaurants I visited make the best of this fertile part of the world serving imaginative food, using seasonal ingredients from close by. Beside its edible temptations, Turku has enough museums, galleries and historical attractions to get a sense of its history and work up an appetite.
However, it was driving south-west into the archipelago towards the island of Nagu that the real adventure begins. At one point, as we island hop, we cross a substantial bridge and we are properly in Swedish-speaking Finland. Our 50km route passes Pargas where ancient wooden houses, narrow streets, canal and harbour mark a town with Viking roots. The old town centre is in sharp contrast to its neighbour: the largest limestone quarry you can imagine. Intriguingly, it is becoming a leisure destination with a “fitness staircase” climbing up to a viewing platform.
We next cross the water on a ferry and what a ferry it is. The ten-minute crossing is free – as are all except the leisure routes in this area – and the bright yellow ferry is electric. What a lesson for a Scot at a time when repairs to the Corran ferry in the Western Highlands have added over an hour to journeys.
We cross the water to Nagu island with camper vans, motorbikes and double-bogie timber lorries. It is quite surreal not to have the rumble of a diesel engine as we glide across the strait on Finland’s first-ever hybrid ferry. In operation since 2017, Elektra charges its batteries at the quayside – even as the vehicles load.
First stop on the island is a gin distillery. Down a side road in a former boat factory, Jonathan and Christine Smeds and Anton Lindholm have resurrected an old family still and built a distillery. In another interesting conversation, I learn how much Finland’s alcohol industry is tied up in red tape. From 1919 to 1932, the distribution and consumption of alcoholic beverages was forbidden and up to 1970 a person’s monthly purchases limited. Until the 1990s a state monopoly distributed, imported and manufactured alcohol.
When Finland joined the EU in 1995 things changed, but you can still only buy strong – over 4.8% ABV – alcohol at the state-owned Alko stores and there is a ban on advertising drinks stronger than 22% ABV. This makes the model for craft distillers dramatically different from Scotland. Still Nagu Distillery is forging a brand with a gin that’s inspired by the ingredients which grow on its doorstep. The signature gin features spruce shoots and rosemary and works both as a sipping gin and with tonic. And with their family running bars and restaurants in the archipelago, it’s a good fit.
It is in Nagu town that I get the taste of summer cabin life as we pick up milk and chocolate from the local store. Then my host, his dog Joppe and I pile into a small open motorboat for the 15-minute crossing to his house. At first it’s calm as we swish through reed-fringed water with Joppe at the bow. There are birds to spot and geese thumping overhead. In the open water, we speed up and the wind bites and as we chop through the current, Joppe snuggles up to me as I zip up my coat. It’s now I learn to spot the sauna cabins – they are the small buildings close to the water’s edge. We turn into a sheltered inlet and slow as we approach the jetty, Joppe is back at the bow keen to show me her summer kingdom. In the clearing among the trees there is a substantial wooden house.
It’s only as I explore the grounds that I realise there is a guest house, greenhouse, wood store and a sauna as well. For my host this is not just a weekend bolthole: now the ice has gone he will live here all summer and commute to work by boat. As we have coffee and that chocolate, he tells me the tradition is that you manage the woodland around your house for fuel. It’s the end of April and over the Mayday weekend there are seeds to plant and chores to do before the weather really improves. He also needs to find another boat so he doesn’t turn into a taxi driver ferrying his student daughter to her summer job in Nagu town.
The attraction of the off-grid life is clear, especially as I notice the signs of spring around me – the palette of lichen, moss-capped stones and intense blue gentians. The silence is deep and gently filled as nature creeps into your consciousness. The breeze rustles through the tress, a bird flutters past as the crystal clear water laps the beach.
Returning to Nagu town we make a circuit past more summer houses – some are large, grey and modern, others the traditional style in rusty red and white – landing jetties, even a boat yard, before we “park” in the marina beside a restaurant (owned by the distillery family). We take a walk around. There’s a church and a museum, plus a selection of bars and cafes and there’s a sense of expectation for the holiday weekend and approaching
summer season. It will soon be filled with hikers, cyclists and sailors enjoying the long warm days. If they don’t have access to a summer house, they may stay in the Köpmans B&B. At its cafe we feasted on a delicious soup packed with fish and vegetables, accompanied by dark archipelago bread. We only just manage to resist the fresh pastries.
My taste of Finnish summer life is a mere coffee break but definitely enough to sell me on the concept.
Travel arranged by Regent Holidays. Regent Holidays offers a two-centre five-day tour to Helsinki and Turku which includes flights, transfers, train travel, accommodation
(two nights at the Kakola Hotel in Turku) and a private walking tour of Turku. It costs from £1,145 per person sharing. www.regent-holidays.co.uk/tour/helsinki-turku-twin-
centre For more information and to book see www.regent-holidays.co.uk or call 020 7666 1290 Visit Turku en.visitturku.fi
Visit Pargas visitparainen.fi/en/