Difference between revisions of "Åland"
Revision as of 18:16, 19 December 2013
Åland  (Finnish: Ahvenanmaa) is an autonomous area in the Baltic Sea, consisting of one main island and a surrounding archipelago. While legally a part of Finland, in practice the islands run their own affairs and are rather different from the mainland.
Åland is divided into 15 municipalities and one city Mariehamn.
There are a few other small communities on the main island such as Godby or Eckerö, but use care when planning activites or reliance on community services. Outside Mariehamn the communities are tiny and seeing them on a map does not tell the whole story. A so called town might consist only of a few buildings at a cross roads!
The Åland Islands (pronounced "Oh-lahnd") are a group of small islands officially belonging to Finland but awarded a wide degree of autonomy by a League of Nations decision in 1921 that settled a long-running dispute between Sweden and Finland. Still at the time when Åland was under Russian sovereignty, a treaty was concluded between Russia, France and the United Kingdom at the issue of the Crimean War, by virtue of which the islands were demilitarized. Finland assumed the same obligation upon achieving independence. Among other things, Ålanders have their own parliament, publish their own stamps, are exempt from military service and maintain a special tax status in the European Union.
The archipelago consists of around 80 inhabited islands plus around 6000 uninhabited islands, islets and rocks. The total population is only 28,649 (2013), 90% of which lives on the main island Åland (also known as Fasta (Mainland) Åland), which includes the capital Mariehamn.
The islands are monolingually Swedish, a point of some contention in otherwise bilingual (or, in practice, frequently Finnish monolingual) Finland: Närpes, Korsnäs and Larsmo are the only mainland municipalities to be monolingually Swedish.
Although Finnish is optionally taught in schools, most Ålanders choose not to study it, and while some commercial signs (not any official signs though) are written in Finnish in addition to Swedish and often English during the tourist (summer) season, you should not attempt to get along in it. For your information, communication between Finns unable to speak Swedish and Ålanders is done in English, which is very widely spoken, even by many elderly, so stick to it if you can't speak Swedish or something closely related to it. The relationship to all things finnish, whether spoken or written, is complicated to say the least.
There are plenty of ferry connections between Åland and mainland Sweden and Finland. Primarily for tax reasons, ferries plying between Helsinki and Stockholm all stop off at Mariehamn or the nearby (30km east, approximately) jetty of Långnäs, making this the easiest and cheapest way to get in (although docking often happens at inconvenient times in the middle of the night - the Långnäs stops). Mariehamn also has a small airport that serves flights to mainland Finland and Sweden.
Ferries from Sweden
It takes two hours from Grisslehamn to Eckerö. From there the line 1 bus connects to Mariehamn.
It takes two hours from Kapellskär to Mariehamn. This is by far the fastest route between Stockholm and Mariehamn, unless flying.
NOTE: If you wish to travel with Viking Line Rosella between Kapellskär to Mariehamn, you should avoid using the international Viking Line website and instead use the Swedish  or Åland website . The prices differ a great deal between international bookings and bookings from domestic websites. For example, the price of one-way ticket from Kapellskär to Mariehamn from the international website is greater than a return ticket which includes bus journey. The downside is that the website is then not in English.
Ferries from mainland Finland
Ferries from Estonia
A combination of ferry between the islands and a bicycle on the islands themselves is the most popular option. There are well developed facilities for bicycles including dedicated cycle paths along many roads and ferries exclusively for bicycles.
There is a good road network and the island can be crossed by car in less than an hour between furthest points. Traffic is very light all over the island including in Mariehamn. Car rental should be arranged in Sweden or mainland Finland although it might be possible to rent a car at the airport. Fuel is widely available at organized points around the island and is similar in price to say mainland Sweden.
The trip to Åland through the archipelago is something you will never forget. Choose a route through either the southern or northern archipelago. Bookings can be made for trips to and from an intermediate port. Trips from one destination port to another can only be made if you spend a night on the some of the small islands. The archipelago ferries is served by Ålandstrafiken .
The nearby island of Vardo can be reached by free cable ferry.
Note many major tourist spots are only open during late spring and summmer and during closed times can only be viewed from the outside.
Hiking, bathing, enjoying the silent countryside.
The official currency is the euro (€). Swedish krona (SEK) is usually accepted in most shops and restaurants during the peak season, but the exchange rate is typically not very good, so it is typically significantly cheaper to pay in euros or by card. Compare rates with local banks first.
Please note: Shopping in Åland is very expensive. Due to import of most goods, with sometimes unsurmountable difficulties in filling the stores with enough supplies, prices in most stores are in the EU highs, mostly 10-50 percent higher than in the Stockholm or Helsinki metropolitan areas. Prices on some groceries can be even higher, with oatmeal and gruel selling at more than double the price in, say, Stockholm or Helsinki.
SALT, in the maritime district of the east harbor, Mariehamn has a selection of local artisan crafts including textiles and glassware, made in Åland. Next to a maritime museum and local jewellery shop.
Åland has its own postal service and stamps unique to the island, these make excellent inexpensive souvenirs. Post offices are in several towns and in Mariehamn.
In general, souvenir shopping in Åland is difficult. The island is not well presented for international tourists and there are only small displays of the typical souvenirs such as keychains, postcards and mugs. A few of the stores along Torggatan in downtown Mariehamn have these, as well as museums and some of the larger grocery stores.
Local beer and apple liquors are tasty and available.
Most restaurants are in Mariehamn. There are absolutely no fast food outlets on the island. Some restaurants have limited hours of service and some aren't open every day.
This brewery also has a good lunch from 10:30 to 2pm, around 15-20 euros per person including beer. And, you can have more food if you weren't filled up with what they bring you.
Åland has its own parliament, its own executive government and is generally autonomous from Finland. The cultural heritage though is mostly Swedish.
Speaking Swedish and being a part of Finland, the people of Åland regard themselves as a separate and autonomous part of Finland, and appreciate if you refer to them as one.
The relationship with mainland Finland is somewhat complicated, the language and culture being the greatest hurdles. Many Ålanders refer to themselves as simply just that; Ålanders (or "Ålänningar"). There's also a growing movement towards full independance, although general consensus is for a more independent autonomy from Finland.
The reason for all this; the swedish language, culture and the differences with mainland Finland lies in the history. Åland was an integrated part of Sweden until 1809, and then fell in Russian hands until 1917 when Finland declared independence. Without any previous ties to Finland, the island group fell in finnish hands in a League of Nations vote in the 1920's. In a referendum 96 per cent of the Ålanders voted for reunification with Sweden.