The Complete Guide To The Baltic Islands

From the white sands of Bornholm to the party towns of Rügen, the calm waters of the north are scattered with scores of gorgeous resorts and villages
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The Independent Travel

I'M IN THE DEEP

If you have never heard of the Baltic islands, you are not alone. There are literally thousands of these lovely segments of land in the Baltic Sea, which remain very little visited by the British. Yet a great many of them offer wonderful sandy beaches, picturesque fishing villages, nature reserves and unspoilt stretches of forest. There are ruined castles on some, lighthouses and windmills on others. And if the gentle delights of an old-fashioned seaside holiday start to wane, there's a soft buzz at many of the resort towns of the larger islands. Indeed, while the Brits head south to find the sun, in the long days of the northern summer the islands of the Baltic become playgrounds for the locals - Scandinavians, Germans, Estonians and more.

THE MEDITERRANEAN OF THE NORTH?

Well, to an extent. But the Baltic Sea is quite a bit smaller, and clearly the climate is cooler. In a manner of speaking the various cultures of the area are, too: this arm of the Atlantic Ocean is bordered by Sweden, Finland, Russia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Germany and Denmark.

The Baltic Sea is ecologically unique. In fact, some might say it is hardly a sea at all; with some 200 large rivers draining into it, this is the world's largest area of brackish water. Much of the salinity remains below 40m, so if you swim here you'll barely taste any salt. You'll also be struck by the stillness of the water - the tides are tiny. The Baltic Sea is almost entirely surrounded by land: its in- and outflow to the North Sea is through shallow straits around Sweden and Denmark. This, in turn, limits the drainage of the Baltic Sea. Astonishingly, it takes between 25 and 30 years for all the waters to be renewed, making the area vulnerable to pollution. For the last 25 years it has been carefully monitored and protected by a marine environment body known the Helsinki Commission or Helcom.

BRING ME SUNSHINE

For the brightest days, make for the Swedish islands of Gotland and Oland, which are said to have the most hours of sunshine in the Baltic Sea. Gotland, about 88km from the mainland, is the largest of the Baltic islands and one of the most historic. Traditionally the homeland of the fearsome Goths, it was important in Viking times and subsequently became a large medieval trading centre. The Hanseatic town of Visby, with its ancient walls and cobbled streets, is now a Unesco World Heritage Site. A huge medieval festival is held here every August (this year from 6-13 August). Head east of Visby to see standing stones and the extraordinary Gothem church, dating from 1300. The island's best beach life is south of Visby at Tofta. Comfortable accommodation here includes Hotel Toftagarden (00 46 498 297 000; www.toftagarden.se), its 70 cabin-style rooms set in parkland and offering a range of options from budget (doubles from SEK580/£43 including breakfast) to luxury with terrace and satellite TV (SEK1,490/£111 including breakfast).

You can access Gotland by plane and on high-speed ferry from Stockholm or Malmo, which themselves are accessible on Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com); it serves Malmo, Stockholm Skavsta and Vasteras ("Stockholm West") from Stansted, and Skavsta from Prestwick. The main airport for Stockholm is Arlanda, served from Edinburgh, Heathrow, London City and Manchester by SAS (0870 60 727 727; www.flysas.com). British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) flies from Heathrow and Manchester. For onward connections visit www.gotland.info.

Oland, connected to Kalmar on the mainland by a 6km-long bridge, is quicker to reach. The 400 or so windmills here are no mean indication as to the bracing breezes that accompany the sunshine on this long, thin island. Evidently, the wind factor does not deter the Swedish Royal family - and the two million or so other tourists who arrive in July and August every year. They make mainly for the beaches in the north, and come south to visit nature reserves and the fortified settlement of Eketorp, dating from the fourth century. The town of Borgholm on the mid-western coast has the best range of places to stay including the Hotell Borgholm (00 46 485 770 60; www.hotellborgholm.com), a boutique establishment where 33 stylish double rooms cost from SEK1,190 (£89) with breakfast.

AND FOR CHILL-OUT CHARM?

Head east from Stockholm. Sweden's capital lies at the edge of a large and very lovely group of islands where wild grasses grow between sand and rock, and blueberry bushes carpet the ground beneath fir trees. Some are inhabited - such as Namdo with its farmland and twisty lanes, and Moja with its fishing villages. Some are no more than rocky skerries. Depending on your definition of an island, there are between 10,000 and 30,000 of them in the Stockholm Archipelago. The area is a much-loved destination for Stockholmites and there's a gentle, almost nostalgic atmosphere here: this is the Cornwall, or Isle of Wight, of Sweden.

In the summer the islands are served by ferry from Strandvagen and Slussen in the city centre, or from slightly out of town at Stavsnas, where you can leave a car. A boat trip anywhere in the archipelago is a gloriously relaxing experience, the waters around you plied with sleek yachts as you wind between islands and call in at tiny harbours. Sandhamn, the stop furthest east, is where the most glamorous locals go. This is the main settlement on the tiny island of Sandon, which is ringed with sandy beaches and dotted with clapboard houses. August Strindberg was among the first of the tourists who started visiting Sandon in the latter part of the 19th century. Today, a chic yet laid-back atmosphere prevails at Sands Hotell (00 46 8 571 530 20; www.sandshotell.se) just above the harbour. This boutique outfit offers elegant dining as well as 18 rooms costing from SEK1,850 (£138), including breakfast. Alternatively, you can rent a cottage here and get a real sense of how the Swedes relax.

One of the few UK travel companies operating in this area is Scantours (020-7554 3530; www.scantours.co.uk), which can tailor-make self-catering packages to the Stockholm Archipelago. The accommodation is in attractive, simply furnished wooden cottages, often with a boat included. A seven-day holiday on Sandon, for example, costs from £365 per person, based on four people sharing and including cottage, car hire and return flights from Heathrow to Stockholm.

I'D LIKE TO BE A WORLD AWAY

Then look no further than Finland's Aland islands. Set in the Gulf of Bothnia, more or less between Grisslehamn in Sweden and the Finnish port of Turku, this intriguing archipelago is literally a law unto itself. Aland has its own parliament, flag, stamps, and even car licence plates - although by and large you'll find that bicycle and boat are the preferred modes of transport. Such independence and autonomy is not unlike that of the Channel Islands, except that in Aland few people actually speak the mother tongue of the mainland: the official language of this region of Finland is Swedish.

The looming hulk of Russia lies behind the special status of these 6,500 islands. In the early 1700s, Russia conquered much of Finland. The Alanders received particularly brutal treatment, and most of them fled to the Swedish mainland. In due course they returned, although the Russians occupied the islands again in 1809. After the Russian Revolution of 1917 the Alanders, fearing another invasion, lobbied to become part of Sweden. Finally, in 1921, the matter was resolved by the League of Nations, which granted Aland autonomous - and demilitarised - status within Finland.

The main island, also named Aland, is linked by air to Turku, Helsinki and Stockholm, and* *ferries from various Finnish and Swedish ports as well as Tallinn in Estonia call in here and at the island of Eckero. Other than isolated, scenic villages, the attractions of the archipelago include its miles of cycle routes (bikes go free on the inter-island ferries); the medieval churches; and perhaps most of all Kastelholm Castle, dating from the 1300s, on the island of Sund, where you can also see the remains of Bomarsund fortress built by the Russians.

Today the islands have a resident population of about 26,000. This more than doubles in the summer when nature-loving crowds descend, most of them retreating to the joys of waterside log cabins. From the UK, you can rent such accommodation through Scandinavian Holidays (0118 931 4196; www.scandinavianholidays.org.uk): at Skag on the northern tip of Eckero, for example, a comfortable cabin sleeping six and equipped with sauna and TV costs from €575 (£410) for a week in June. The company can also organise flights or ferry trips from the UK via Gothenburg or Stockholm - it recommends travel via Sweden since prices are cheaper than in Finland. For more information on the Aland archipelago see www.visitaland.com.

BALTIC ISLANDS, BALTIC STATES?

Three small republics bordering the Baltic were part of the USSR until 1991. From east to west, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania border the south-eastern coast of the Baltic Sea. All three became members of the EU in 2004 (very passionately so, too), but only Estonia has a significant island group.

The West Estonian Archipelago is a place of old windmills, sleepy fishing villages and thatched cottages. Saaremaa, the largest of the hundreds of islands here, has a permanent population of about 40,000 who still celebrate folk traditions with gusto. It also boasts a large 13th-century castle, Kuressaare, now an absorbing museum, and a liberal sprinkling of medieval churches. Hiiumaa offers one of the oldest working lighthouses in the world and some stunningly long sandy beaches.

Tiny Muhu is a place of wild orchids and colourful folk art. It also has one of the best hotels in the country: dating from the 14th century, Padaste Manor has been beautifully restored and has a gourmet restaurant and spa with sauna and herbal steam room. Baltic Holidays (0870 757 9233; www.balticholidays.com) offers three nights here for £359 per person. The price includes breakfast and transfers from Tallinn airport, but not flights.

Most significant of all are the diverse landscapes and eco-systems of the islands, and since 1990 much of the West Estonian Archipelago has been protected as a nature reserve. Indeed, the Earthwatch Institute (01865 318831; www.earthwatch.org) is running a research project here, and welcomes paying volunteers to help survey the grasslands and birdlife of Vormsi island.

The next 12-day expedition starts out on 20 July: participants are asked to contribute £1,150 each towards the project. The cost covers training, meals and farmhouse accommodation. You will need to make your own way to the expedition rendezvous point at Haapsalu on Estonia's mainland, south of the Tallinn. You can reach Tallinn from Gatwick or Manchester on EstonianAir (00 372 6401 163; www.estonian-air.ee) or from Luton on easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyjet com).

HOW ABOUT A BIT OF PARTY SPIRIT?

Germany's Rügen Island was a favourite holiday spot of Berlin's party crowd in the 1930s. As part of East Germany it became inaccessible to the West, but since the 1990s it has rapidly come back into fashion for both West and East Germans. And with good reason. Germany's largest island offers sandy beaches - the best being in the south and the east; dramatic cliffs; large expanses of beech forest; and some glorious, fin de siècle spa towns. Granted, you won't exactly find Ibiza-chic throngs, but the handsome resorts of Sellin, Baabe, Göhren and Binz offer lively restaurants and elegant, belle époque promenades lined with white villas and gracious old guesthouses. They are fairly easy to reach, too: the island is connected by a bridge with the city of Stralsund on the mainland.

One of the best places to stay is just beyond Binz on the east coast. Just a pebble's throw from a magical stretch of sandy coast, Seehotel Binz Therme (00 49 383 61510; www.binztherme.de) is a slick spa hotel complete with two thermal pools, steam baths, saunas, two excellent restaurants and 143 well-appointed rooms. Doubles cost from €125 (£89) including breakfast. For more information on Rügen visit the website of the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern tourist board: www.auf-nach-mv.de.

The closest airport is actually across the border in Poland, at Szczecin, with flights from Stansted on Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com). But Berlin, with flights from many UK airports, is a handy alternative.

WHERE'S BEST FOR SANDY SHORES?

The beaches of Dueodde on Denmark's Bornholm island used to supply sands for Europe's hourglass industry. The remarkable, ultra-fine white sands stretch for several kilometres around the southern tip of the island with lots of dunes and hollows on the widest stretches. Near the southernmost point Dueodde lighthouse, at 45m the tallest in Scandinavia, offers stunning views over the Baltic Sea. But this is by no means the only great beach area on Bornholm. The island has about 140km of coastline, generously dotted with sandy shores and sheltered coves. The place is compact enough to explore in a day or so, but the scenery and chill-out atmosphere will make you want to stay far longer. Besides, there is quite a bit to see here. You'll come across Bronze Age monoliths and rock carvings as you tour the island, with a particularly well-preserved cairn at Almindingen in the middle of Bornholm. The fortress of Hammershus, on the island's northern tip, is north Europe's biggest castle ruin, its remaining medieval walls adding drama to the skyline. Gudjhem is a bustling fishing port where you can see herring and salmon being brought in.

For an idyllic outlook check in at Hotel Skovly (00 45 5695 0784; www.hotel-skovly.dk), a few kilometres north of the island's small capital, Ronne. Set in a nature reserve, and close to a wide stretch of sandy beach, this charming, 30-room family hotel offers doubles from DKK640 (£60) including breakfast. There is a small airport at Ronne but you can also reach the island by ferry, either from Denmark or Sweden. For details of all the options visit www.bornholm.info.

CAN I TAKE A CRUISE?

Indeed you can. A large number of cruise ships tour the Baltic Sea in the summer, visiting St Petersburg, Tallinn, Copenhagen, Stockholm and Helsinki. Voyages of Discovery (01444 462 150; www.voyagesofdiscovery.com), for example, offers a 15-day cruise in the area, leaving Harwich on 3 September and costing from £1,299 per person including all meals, entertainment and talks. Other Baltic cruise options include Archers Direct (0870 460 3894 www.archersdirect.co.uk) and Fred Olsen Cruise Lines (01473 746175; www.fred olsencruises.com).

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