It’s a crisp May morning and I’m bound for the busiest cruise port in the Baltic. You’re thinking Copenhagen, where about 300 cruise ships dock each summer. Or maybe St. Petersburg, the mecca of most Baltic cruises. But it’s neither.
Åland is all about ships. It is an archipelago of 65 000 islands and skerries, just counting the ones with names. In a full year, millions of people sail through these beautiful islands, although most never see them, because they do it in the middle of the night.
Tax relief The reason so many ships go to Åland can be told in two words: duty free. In 1999, the European Union abolished tax-free shopping by passengers travelling between member countries but Finland had negotiated an exemption for the Ålanders. Spain has a similar get-out for the Canary Islands.
By calling at Åland, a ship can avoid adding taxes to on-board sales of wine, beer, spirits, tobacco and all the other things that make life worthwhile. I suppose airlines could do the same if they routed their flights via Åland, but planes are for people in a hurry to arrive. A cruiseferry is for enjoying the journey.
With all the ships that call, it’s not hard to get to Åland. The problem is to do it at a reasonable time. Passengers don’t have to go ashore to be eligible for tax-free concessions, so many ships arrive in the middle of the night and stay for about 20 minutes. The evening ferries from Helsinki to Stockholm get there at four in the morning. It’s not the best time to look around.
To get there at a reasonable time, I had to leave Helsinki Central Railway Station at 5:45 in the morning, to catch the first train to the west coast town of Turku, where the first ferries leave for Åland in the morning. After stopping at Turku Central, the train comes right down to the harbour, by Turku Castle.
The first ferries Turku faces Stockholm across the south end of the Gulf of Ostrobothnia, and Åland lies between them.
Hundreds of years ago, sump boats travelled regularly from Turku to Stockholm, transporting fish in their sumps to the fine restaurants of the Swedish capital. Ordinary folk who wanted to go to Stockholm would hitch a ride. You had to allow about a week for the journey.
In the 21st century Viking Line and Silja Line each have two departures daily, in the morning and evening, and cover the distance in about 12 hours. Roughly halfway they call at Åland, where I will be getting off. I’m taking Viking’s Amorella, which leaves Turku half an hour after Silja’s Galaxy and follows it all the way.
After Turku Castle fades into the mist, we pass the island of Ruissalo and, from here on, the view is just islands, hundreds upon hundreds of them. Some are just a rock. Others are big enough for a forest and a few houses. Occasionally we overtake a yacht. Mostly, the company is just seagulls.
As we get farther from the Finnish mainland, the channel becomes wider and the islands smaller and sparser. About three hours out of Turku, we cross a great expanse of blue sea with no islands and pass from Finland Proper into the Province of Åland. Then the islands begin to thicken again, until the Port of Mariehamn comes into view.
It’s just after 2 p.m. when I disembark. The sunny morning has turned into an overcast and ominous afternoon. Some of my travel companions have booked cycles for the afternoon and are wishing they hadn’t.
Others are setting off on an expedition to Bommarsund, a great fortress built by Russia in 1832, when it controlled these islands. Bommarsund was destroyed by Britain twenty years later, during the Crimean War. I’m giving it a miss because the British force did such a good job. There’s practically nothing left.
Not that there's much to see in Mariehamn either. It looks like any small Swedish town, except that it’s even more remote. Most of the houses are wooden, few buildings are over two storeys and all the gardens are meticulously cared for.
Rocks and wrecks Instead I'm heading out to sea again, this time in a smaller boat, to visit the old pilot station of Kobba Klintar. Everyone who sails into Mariehamn by day marvels at this strange green three-storey house on a few rocks.
Ships have always sailed these rocky waters and many have fared badly. Six hundred sinkings have been recorded and at least 50 wrecks have been explored. The Plus, an iron barque that sank off Mariehamn while on her way home for Xmas, is ranked by divers as one of the best wrecks in the world.
It’s detail that makes a wreck good, says Christian Ekström, who arranges scuba dives from Kobba Klintar each summer. Most of the main mast of the Plus is still standing, and divers can peer through the skylight into the Captain’s salon. The rule is that you can look but you can’t touch.
This sea is a treasure trove of wrecks. In saltier waters, old timbers are eaten by the ship worm, teredo navalis. In the cold Baltic, where there is no tidal movement, wrecks age very slowly. Often they just look a bit dusty.
Luck ran out for the Plus on 14 December 1933, when she hit a rock in a violent storm. She was sailing home from London with only ballast. If it had not been snowing so hard, Mariehamn would almost have been in sight..
“Doesn’t it get lonely?” I asked when we were sitting later in his kitchen. No, he said, as an enormous Viking Line ferry sailed past the window, almost close enough to touch.
Pat Humphreys, 18 May 2009