Finland: Island Hopping
Life in the Turku archipelago is easy to fall in love with, says Andrew Spooner. Especially when the sun is shining
Sunday 06 August 2006
How much cake can one man eat? I've tried the plump, succulent rhubarb tart, moved on through the gorgeously spiced apple cake and am now attempting the sticky chocolate pie. "Don't forget to try the blueberry cake," says Ylva Enberg, owner of the Farmors Café, whose name is a play on the Swedish word for paternal grandmother. It's a hostelry of epic proportions sited on the tiny island of Hogsara, deep inside Finland's Turku archipelago. "It's our speciality. I make it myself."
As with any good food, the problem is knowing when to stop. I'd already eaten a massive bowl of sea bass soup, laced with dill and tasty vegetables. At the Farmors Café generosity of spirit rather than pleasing the accountant appears to be the determining factor. "I don't do this to get rich," explains Ylva, as I plough into the blueberry cake. "I do this because I love the lifestyle."
Life in the Turku archipelago is easy to fall in love with. At least it is during the summer, when this complex assemblage of 40,000 islands and skerries, shattered from the south-west corner of Finland as if by giant hammer blows, becomes the warmest part of this cool, Nordic country.
My love affair had started at 6.30am in the most popular summer destination in Finland: the seaside resort of Naantali, home to the famous Moominworld. "We're going to see the Unikeko," said my host, Anne-Magret Niemi, as we strolled past the handsome clapboard houses that rim Naantali's harbour. The purpose of the annual Unikeko, or "Sleepy Head" festival, is to throw someone - supposedly a prominent person - into the sea at 7am on 27 July.
Proceedings had begun with several large Moomins moving through the crowd, heralding the arrival of Sleepy Head, who was carried through the mêlée covered, corpse like, in a white sheet and laid out, stock still, on a stretcher. Then the Finnish president, Tarja Halonen, arrived on her official boat, waving regally as Sleepy Head was slid from the stretcher into the sea. "Did you enjoy the Unikeko?" asked Anne, as we left Naantali. I wasn't sure what would be a polite response, so stayed quiet.
In bright sunshine, Anne drove me on to the first of many boats. "Most of the ferries are free in the archipelago," said Anne. "The state gives large subsidies to keep the island communities alive."
On the first island, Kasnas, I am transferred to the care of Mikeal Hagg, a jovial Swedish-speaking Finn who runs a tour company, Archipelago Adventures. From Kasnas we jump on to another ferry to the island of Rosala. "You'll be spending the night here in a cabin by the water at a small holiday village known as Peti and Puuro," said Mikeal. "But first we need to get something to eat."
There's not a lot to do on Rosala except look at the sea, take a sauna and eat; a perfect introduction to the archipelago. Thankfully, the food, bought from an unstaffed village shop - "Very little goes missing," said Mikeal - turned out to be tender halibut steaks and local new potatoes. That evening with my belly filled with a delicious DIY meal and my back warmed by a wood-burning sauna, I began to embrace the serene charms of island life, staring out across the ocean.
The next day brought a trip on a 45ft yacht, the Minea, courtesy of local charter company Midnight Sun Sailing. "We're heading to a small island called Uto," said the captain, Leif Westman. "It's going to take about seven hours." As it turned out, that was seven hours of endless blue skies framing myriad forested islands and giant, sparkling seas. Our voyage seemed too short.
Uto is Finland's most southerly point, a tiny two-mile wide island, far out in the Baltic. A community of pilots and lighthouse keepers - a giant 200-year-old lighthouse dominates the skyline - have been on the island for almost 300 years. In more recent times, half of Uto was taken over by the Finnish army. Last December the army left and island life is now under threat. "I would really like to see more tourists," said Hanna Korvanen as she led us to her family home. "My mother was born on the island - her father was a pilot." Serving plates of home-smoked flounder, she added: "Now we're selling food to visitors and have a couple of rooms for rent." Hanna's food was sensational - salted haddock and new potatoes followed by rhubarb cake and fresh mint tea. Then, with the sun setting across the vast sea, I decided to walk the length of Uto.
Apart from the whisper of the almost still water and the sound of sea birds, little intruded on my meditations. Parts of the island were carpeted with wild flowers, others had huge, flat rocks, perfect spots from which to absorb the coming night. With a cool breeze picking up off the sea, I realised it was time to return to the Minea. After all, there were more islands to explore and more goodies to eat.
Andrew Spooner flew to Turku via Stockholm with SAS and its Finnish airline Blue 1 (0870 60 727 727; www.flysas.co.uk). Return fares start at £218.50. For more information contact the Finnish Tourist Board (020-7365 2512; visitfinland.com). For the Turku archipelago contact Turku Tourist information (00358 22627444; turkutouring.fi)
1. Smoking fun
A trip to Finland is incomplete without a visit to the Finns' greatest export - the sauna. Mikael Hagg runs Saunarantti, a traditional "savu" or smoke sauna in a purpose-built complex overlooking the sea near Airisto. It also has hot tubs set on a balcony with fantastic views over the islands. Booking is essential.
CONTACT: Saunarantti (00 358 208 300 999; saunarantti.fi)
2. Harbour lights
Uto is a strange island at Finland's most southerly point. The bewitching light and remoteness attract many to the boathouses and wooden dwellings that line the harbour. Stay overnight to sample the local food with Hanna and Solveig Korvanen and climb the lighthouse.
CONTACT: Hanna and Solveig Korvanen (00 358 400 143 814; hanna.kovanen @uto.fi/). Uto tourist information (uto.fi)
3. Viking history
Easily reached by car, the island of Rosala is a quiet and dreamy place to stay. Check in with the Erikssons, who let out their cabins at Peti & Puuro. They can also be relied on to put on a veritable feast of local goodies. And make sure you find time to visit the Viking Centre.
CONTACT: Peti & Puuro (00 358 405 050 912; petipuuro.com). Viking Centre (00 358 2 466 7227; vikingislands.com)
4. Cake alfresco
Ylva Enberg's labour of love, Farmors Café, is one of the best places to eat in the whole of the south of Finland. The café's setting is idyllic: a red clapboard farmhouse surrounded by gardens, equipped with swings. Undoubtedly, the top choices on the menu are Ylva's fabulous cakes. So don't forget to bring your appetite.
CONTACT: Farmors Café (00 358 2 466 5639; farmorscafe.fi)
5. A river lunch
The city of Turku is the gateway to the archipelago. If you've got a little time spare visit Vaakahuone, a restaurant set next to the impressive Aura river. Here they serve up a scrummy lunchtime buffet: try the wild salmon, smoked perch, forest mushrooms and home-made black bread.
CONTACT: Vaakahuone (00 358 2 515 3300; ukkopekka.fi/vaakahuone)
6. Naantali stroll
Buy strawberries from one of the harbour-side stalls and watch the world go by in Finland's favourite summer retreat. Alternatively, stroll the atmospheric backstreets, eating steaming waffles, smothered in ice cream, which you can pick up at one of the many cafés. There are also some great little b&bs to stay in next to the sea.
CONTACT: Naantali tourist information (00 358 2 435
7. Moomin time
Meet all your favourite characters from Tove Jansson's whimsical children's books, pictured left. Moominworld adds to the fantasy by its setting on a wooded island just outside Naantali. It's well thought- out and low key, with forest trails and Moomin dwellings to explore. But its season is short, closing this year on 20 August.
CONTACT: Moominworld (00 358 2 511 1111; muumimaailma.fi)
8. The simple life
Do you dream of holing up in a fairytale wooden cabin on your own private island? Try Archipelago Booking, which provides accommodation that will suit all tastes, including a choice of b&bs and hotels. All cabins come with private saunas. But beware, the facilities can be basic, with eco-toilets and no electricity.
CONTACT: Archipelago Booking (00 358 2 465 1000; archipelagobooking.com)
9. Sail away
The very best way to experience the Turku archipelago is by taking to the sea. Midnight Sun Sailing charters a range of boats - from two-berth yachts to eight-berth cruisers - for fairweather sailors. The company can also offer the help of a "friendly captain" should you need one. Sail from Turku or Airisto.
CONTACT: Midnight Sun Sailing (00 358 2 428 100; midnightsuncharter.com)
10. Fish and kips
Stensskar is a tiny island run by just one family - the Janssons. This friendly little unit smoke their own fish and grow many of their own vegetables. The father, Stig Jansson, also provides passing travellers with a choice of cabins on both Stensskar and on a collection of tiny islands nearby.
CONTACT: Stig Jansson (00 358 465 5290). Archipelago Adventures (00 358 208 300 999; archipelago.fi)
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