Rarely visited by outsiders until recently, this Baltic Sea archipelago 175 mi/280 km west of Helsinki has distinctly different terrain, culture, tradition and language (Swedish) from the mainland. Most Alanders associate themselves more with Sweden than Finland, and there may be some tension between the locals and Finnish tourists who expect Alanders to speak Finnish (the language is not mandatory in schools). More than 6,500 islands make up the chain, and they are sparsely populated. It's a rural, peaceful region, so plan a four-night stay.
Anglers can enjoy excellent fishing (permits are required, but can be purchased at post offices and in some stores), and everyone can enjoy summer festivals, tennis tournaments and neat-as-a-pin boarding houses and cottages. It's also a pleasant place to hike or bike, stopping every so often to chat with the locals. Although there are good beaches, the water is very cold.
The major port of this island chain is Mariehamn, founded by Russian Czar Alexander II in 1861. Among the sights in town are the four-masted museum ship Pommern (Tuesday evenings in summer, one of the sails is raised) and the Alandsparken amusement park. Nature lovers should visit the nearby Ramsholmen Nature Reserve, which protects some of the islands' many scenic meadows and forests.
Other attractions in the Mariehamn area include Viking cemeteries, the fascinating ruins of Lembote Chapel (13th century), the excellently preserved 14th-century fortress of Kastelholm and its museum (in Tosarby), and the nearby open-air Jan Karlsgarden Museum (displays of ancient rural life). The westernmost point of Aland, Eckero, is a charming small town whose post office was designed by the German architect C.L. Engel.
Shoppers should know that the European Union designated Aland a tax-free zone, which is why the enormous cruise ships between Finland and Sweden call in there to carry on lucrative onboard shopping. Midsummer celebrations, focusing on decorated midsummer poles, are also colorful there. July is a popular time in the islands for weddings, and if you visit then you'll probably see many of them, complete with processions, dances and traditional ceremonies. If you're there during the months of August and September, you'll be able to participate in the Aland Culture Festival.
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