Island hopping in Finland
Jurmo island, Turku Archipelago in Finland. (Osma Harvilahti)
Finland may be known as “land of a thousand lakes” but it could also be described as “land of tens of thousands of islands”.
On the southwest coast alone, the Turku Archipelago is made up of 20,000 islands and islets (just a bit smaller than the population), molded by the Ice Age. The islands close to the mainland are covered in lush vegetation and get rockier and more barren the farther you travel out. Stunning nature and idyllic fishing villages draw travellers who want to enjoy the peace and beauty of the mosaic-like archipelago. And there is something the Finns call “the Nordic Oddity”.
Island hopping requires a bit of organising and suits independent travellers best. But there are also ready-made trips available through outfits like Archipelago Booking Finland. Locals used to make their living by fishing but since the area’s rise in popularity as a tourist destination in the last fifteen years, many of them are now concentrating on tourism.
Sailing is a choice way to get around but the most convenient way to explore is by bike. You can rent one in Turku, a relatively large city on the mainland, and take the bridges and ferries that connect to and between the islands in a circular route. Ferries stop at the main islands and make request stops at smaller harbours, and are either free or charge cyclists just a few euros.
If you start the route from the north, have lunch at Kotisatama, located in the Vuosnainen harbour on Kustavi island. The enormous buffet table, packed with delicious, homemade dishes like gravlax (salmon appetizer), mustard herring, potatoes and dark and sweet rye bread, typical of the archipelago. The dessert table bends under the huge variety of different cakes. Note that you are charged by weight, so think carefully before deciding to taste everything.
Once you have left the mainland, the dining and accommodation options will become more rustic. In Mattas (visitors sleep in an old granary by the strand and beds are made out of grain containers. That may sound odd but they are actually comfortable. After a good night’s sleep you will wake to a calm morning view and can take a dip in the sea directly from the shed.
While on the archipelago the sea is everywhere and so are swimming options. The beach on Jurmo island is particularly nice. On that flat and barren island, there are exported alpacas grazing and locals sell alpaca products and delicious smoked fish. The latter makes for a good picnic-on-the-beach lunch.
After Jurmo and its wind beaten bushes, head south to tiny Nötö. The island is lush and the small summer café at the old school serves pulla (cardamom buns). Midsummer is celebrated here at the end of June, just as on every island, and it is the biggest summer event in the Finnish calendar. Villagers build a midsummer pole, which is decorated with flowers and colourful ribbons, dance and, at midnight, bonfires are lit.
After eating fish for a few days you will welcome the surprising alternatives on Iniö and Houtskari. Bruddalsviken on Iniö serves authentic Thai food. The owner, who is Thai herself, said it took a few years to get Finns to try the spicy dishes but now they ask for extra chilli. In Houtskari, Grill Café Skagen, prepares the best, and perhaps only, hamburgers on the archipelago.
Getting closer to the mainland, Nauvo, is worth a stay because of its wide range of restaurants and places to stay. From there, take a day trip to Seili, a beautiful island with a less than beautiful history. From the 19th Century until the 1960s, it served as a secure mental hospital and before that, it was an island for leprosy patients. A hundred years ago there were boat trips arranged for tourists looking to see “the mad".
In Nauvo, the bed and breakfast Martta invites tired cyclists to rest in an old house whose interiors represent perfect archipelago-romanticism. Candelabrums light the rooms and rag rugs cover the squeaky wooden floors. It is a perfect last night spot to dream of coming back the next summer.