We refused to accept that summer was over. Even though the season had already clearly changed towards the common fall weather, we decided to arrange a long weekend to go for one more bike tour as long as it still was reasonable. The destination was chosen quickly: the Åland Islands half-way between the Finnish mainland and Sweden.
However, it soon became clear that bike touring in Åland, while one of the more popular forms of tourism on these islands, comes with some extra challenges after August. The tourist season has a very distinct end, after which many camp sites and restaurants are closing for the winter and the public connection ferries – inevitable for travelling in the archipelago – reduce their traffic to primarily serve the need of the locals.
So, planning the trip turned out a little more complex than we expected, but with the help of a few maps, timetables and booking websites, we soon were ready for our departure with the Viking Line ferry from Helsinki to Mariehamn, the capital of Åland, on Friday evening, 7 September.
It was a short night. Not only because of the scheduled arrival at 4:30am (the ferry boats between Helsinki and Stockholm only briefly stop at Mariehamn, primarily serving the longer route), but also because the cabins turned out to be the site of loud drinking parties on a Friday night. Boat security eventually managed to silence the neighbouring cabins and while not fully rested, we had gotten a few hours of sleep as we disembarked the car deck on our trusty aluminium steeds into the empty streets of Mariehamn. The 24/7 gas station downtown, our first destination, was crowded with party goers grabbing a snack on their way home, while we were probably the first customers of the day to buy coffee and fresh-baked cinamon rolls.
After a breakfast by the marina, we then set out on the country roads towards the north, since we had an archipelago ferry to catch, a mere 50km away. It was fun to ride in the almost total darkness in the center of the empty country road, and experiencing the slowly insetting dawn was an experience to remember. And while the schedule was tight and two short boat connections on the way added some insecurity, we made it to the harbour of Vardö, even with half an hour to spare.
The next 2.5 hours were spent relaxing on the ship, sitting in the sun and gazing at the beautiful archipelago. After arrival at Torsholma, we had another 30km to ride – interrupted only for a few photo stops and for a traditional pancake snack at one of the few cafes open at this time of the year.
At the end of the day stood another 10 min boat ride, after which we checked in at the hostel of Brändö – which, to our great joy, we found to have all for ourselves. The keeper of the hostel even was friendly enough to briefly open the village store for us, so we were able to get ingredients for a delicious dinner.
The next day, we had to backtrack to Torsholma, since we had reached the northeastern edge of Åland. We had pre-booked the short ride on the early morning boat from Brändö (since it only operates if there are any bookings) and followed back the same road we had already come the day before. The weather was at its best, and we did not mind seeing the same beautiful landscapes again. We even had time to hang out in a small harbour for a while, to get out of the sun.
From Torsholma, we took the same ferry back, but this time we got off on the island of Kumlinge, where the camp site with our reserved cottage was only 10km away from the harbour. We were once again the only visitors, so the entire camp site and all its facilities were opend only for us. Already on the way, we had found the local restaurant to be closed for the season, so we luckily were able to buy a few cans of food from the reception and cook ourselves a nice dinner at the well-equipped kitchen.
Day three already was the last morning on Åland. We got up early again and rode the two km down to Kumlinge’s southern end’s harbour from where another ferry took us to Överö. We again had to call the day before and announce that we want to get off there, since at this time of the year the boat would skip Överö unless somebody wants to get off there. Not to our surprise, we were the only ones to get off, as everybody else where locals commuting to the main island.
It was a joyful ride, again in the sun, and looking at the many orchards with apple trees we finally understood why so many of the apples back at our grocery store in Helsinki originated from here: this is a big apple-growing area! We had a nice lunch (surrounded by workers, as it was Monday) as we had good time to wait for the next, and final, connection ferry back to the mainland. This turned out to be the biggest and most modern on we had been on, and crossing path with two of the big cruise ships from Turku to Stockholm added to the experience.
Back on the main island, we soon got on our way to ride the remaining … km to Mariehamn, not without enjoying a little picnic in the shade of a park half-way. Traffic was much more significant here than on the smaller islands, and we were happy when separate bike paths appeared at the outskirts of the city. We still had an entire afternoon and evening, so we did some explorations in the area, mailed our postcards from the local post office, soaked our tired bones in the local swimming hall and had a celebratory dinner at one of the nice restaurants downtown.
Briefly before midnight, we then found ourselves back at the harbour where the tour had started, ready to board the big red ship arriving from Stockholm to take us back home.
Åland is always worth a visit, and even more so a cycling trip, and even though the off-season challenges made this tour at time a bit too much of a schedule-hunting operation, we found September to be a wonderful time to be on these islands. We will be back, no question.