Archipelago Sea

The Archipelago Sea, Finnish Saaristomeri, Swedish Skärgårdshavet, is the part of the Baltic Sea between the main islands of Åland and the Finnish mainland. It is one of the largest archipelagos in the world, by count of islands and islets, with the biggest islands being some ten to twenty kilometres across, some of the inhabited islands less than a kilometre and thousands of skerries. It lays more or less between Uusikaupunki in the north and Salo and Hanko in the east.

Nötö, traditionally one of the bigger villages in the outer archipelago.

The nature varies from sea washed rocks and skerries with bushes creeping by the rock to survive the harsh conditions (in the less sheltered regions) through lush vegetation (in the inner parts of somewhat bigger islands) to countryside like that in the mainland (in the biggest islands). The flora and microfauna is varied even on smaller skerries, as rocks and cracks in the rock give shelter and create small ponds. Also bird life is rich.

The Åland archipelago partly (by some definitions entirely) belongs to the Archipelago Sea. Much of the general description applies, but Åland is not described below.

Most of the Archipelago Sea described below belongs to a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. The Archipelago Sea National Park is in the outer archipelago south of the main islands of Pargas, Nagu and Korpo.

Municipalities

Entry to Pargas centre.

There are several municipalities in the region, earlier more than a dozen. Their centres provide services and each has sights of interest (there are "city" articles on some of them). The administrative division does not correspond to different characteristics, as those vary more by size of individual islands and island groups, and distance to population centres. The administrative borders do count for medical care and such.

Other destinations

Archipelago National Park

View from Kråkskär.

Archipelago National Park covers most of the archipelago south of the main islands of Pargas with its "interest area". State owned land in the area mostly belongs to the park proper, but there is cooperation with the inhabitants, so the distinction is of little importance for visitors. Much of the description of remote islands and outer archipelago is about this area. The park is part of the PAN Parks network and forms the core area of the Unesco Biosphere Reserve.

On some of the islands (partly or in whole) belonging to the park there is limited service, such as nature trails, tent sites, campfire places and toilets.

There are limitations to the right to access in parts of the national park, even entry totally forbidden in one remote area and to several bird islands in the season. Care should be taken also in many non-protected areas, not to disturb nesting and out of consideration for locals.

Minor islands of interest

Harbour of Innamo.

Many islands are worth visiting, but some of the most famous are described below. There are guest harbours on all of these, but on Bengtskär. Some have full service, some only provide a jetty.

The outer islands have little shelter. Utö.

Understand

Also the industrial centres are close to the sea. Dalsbruk.

History and people

The archipelago has been rising from the sea since the last ice age. People have settled in the bigger islands and made journeys to outer islets for fish, seal and water fowl. The present villages are often from the middle ages.

As the expected standards of living have risen dramatically since the World War, many have left for the towns. Islands that had two hundred inhabitants may now have only one or a few families living there permanently. But those who left often return for vacations (perhaps also when retiring, at least to islands with services), together with large crowds of tourists, yacht cruisers and summer guests.

In the last decades there has also been young families moving out, even to remote islands. Some find a local income, other work on distance or on ships with week on/week off schemes, still others just take a year off.

The conditions in the archipelago differ significantly from those in the mainland. People have a strong local identity. Services are often far away and people are quite self sufficient. Farmland areas are small even in the main islands and people have always got their living in small pieces, such as from fishing, agriculture, sea fowl and seal hunting – and seafaring. Today tourism is an important side income for many. Fishing and navigating the archipelago is in the blood.

There is a huge difference, though, between conditions in the main islands, with road connection to services, and the remote islands, with only daily connections – weather and ice conditions (and whatever) permitting. The remote islands are often inhabited by just one or a few families.

Most businesses are small. Advance bookings are appreciated, and often necessary to get some of the service. On the other hand there is much flexibility; things can usually be arranged, if asked for in time.

Climate

Halikko bay in February 2008.

Day temperatures in the summer are typically 15–25°C. The sea has a moderating effect on the weather, especially when not frozen, giving warm autumns. There is more sunshine and less rain in the archipelago than in the mainland. Winds are varying with westerlies dominating. Storms are unusual, at least in spring and summer.

In the winter ice covers the Archipelago Sea (often all of the northern Baltic Sea), but there is not always enough snow for skiing (other than on the ice, conditions permitting). Shipping continues, sporadically also by some minor lanes, so check locally if you intend to venture out on the ice.

Right to access

Right to access is in practice somewhat restricted in parts of the archipelago. The right comes with the duty not to disturb or cause harm, and where islands are small and rocky, the areas where the right can be exercised may be limited. The nature is often fragile.

Where berries are sparse, they may be better left to locals. There are even locations where wild berries are being taken care of and the land thus also legally regarded as farmland.

When nesting birds or birds with chicks are disturbed, eggs and chicks often get into the beaks of crows and gulls, which are waiting for such opportunities. Thus landing on islets with nesting birds or driving near swimming bird families – or letting even a friendly dog loose – may cause significant damage. Land on islets too unsheltered even for birds or bigger wooded islands instead.

Visitor information

Talk

While the northern part of the archipelago (Naantali, Kustavi etc.) and the mainland are Finnish speaking, the rest of the archipelago is traditionally Swedish speaking, now officially bilingual. The remote areas are still nearly monolingual. Among those arriving for the summer a majority is Finnish speaking, but Swedish is common. Tourist businesses often advertise in Finnish regardless of language. Minor businesses sometimes use only their own language. Elder people are not necessarily fluent in languages but their mother tongue, but you will survive on English or Finnish.

Place names are sometimes an incomprehensible mix of Finnish and Swedish, as the language border has wandered around. Names of minor islands are often comprehensible and can give a hint on the characteristics of the island (e.g. kobbe, haru, skär, holme, ö and land are all Swedish words for different types of rocks, islets and islands). Maps and charts may use either Finnish or Swedish for any place name, not necessarily corresponding to local majority language. Some maps are more consistent than others.

Official information to tourists and mariners (including yachts) is nearly always given in Finnish, Swedish and English. The marine authorities are expected to be fluent in all three; many shipping companies and much crew are from the Swedish speaking regions, as is much of the coast guard crew.

Get in

Cruise ferry behind former pilot station off Mariehamn.

Turku is the main starting point for exploring the archipelago.

Coming from Sweden you could opt for getting off already in Åland and using the ferry connection from Långnäs to Korpo or through much of Åland with several ferries from Hummelvik to Iniö or Kustavi.

Coming from the east or north, Kimitoön or the northern parts of the archipelago, respectively, are reachable directly.

If arriving by yacht, there is no reason to head for the towns. Just use a suitable channel and start exploring.

By plane

The nearest airports are in Turku and Mariehamn. The region is also easily reachable from Helsinki (by coach or train) and from Stockholm (by cruise ferry).

By train

Turku has good connections from the rest of Finland.

By bus

Turku has good coach connections.

Kimitoön can be reached by coach from Turku or Helsinki.

Pargas, Nagu, Korpo and Houtskär are reachable by coach from Turku and, mostly with transfer, from Helsinki.

The northern archipelago is reachable by coach via Turku. Transfer earlier is possible from some coaches from Uusikaupunki.

By car

Turku has good road connections. You can also reach the archipelago directly.

From Sweden you take the ferry to Turku, Eckerö, Mariehamn, Långnäs or Naantali. See below.

There are ferry connections from Åland to Korpo, Kustavi and Iniö. See below. The connections to Houtskär are by minor boats, which may not take vehicles and may not drive in winter.

By boat

From Sweden by ferry

Cruise ferries from Stockholm (Viking Line and Silja Line) pass through the archipelago each early morning and evening on their way to Turku. They call at either Långnäs (not much but a pier) or Mariehamn before reaching the Archipelago Sea. You may opt to get off there and continue from Åland by smaller ferries, or head for Turku. There are also ferries from Kapellskär to Eckerö in western Åland.

If you have a vehicle (e.g. a car or bike) you can also use the more quiet ropax ferries twice or thrice daily from Kapellskär to Naantali (Finnlines). Some of the ferries call at Långnäs. Lunch and dinner is included at least in some tickets, which makes price comparisons with the cruise ferries a bit convoluted.

From Åland by ferry

There are a few ferry connections from Åland directly to the archipelago, either from Långnäs to Korpo, or from Vårdö through much of the Åland archipelago (via Brändö) to Kustavi, Iniö and possibly Houtskär. The fares on the ferries of Åland depend on whether you are staying a night on one of the islands en route. If you have the time it is probably worthwhile to do so (you might need a receipt from the hotel or campsite to get the reduction). Ålandstrafiken phone +358 18 525-100, e-mail info@alandstrafiken.ax, administers ferries and coaches in Åland.

You can also board a ferry from Sweden at Mariehamn or Långnäs.

From Turku by ferry

In summertime there are a couple of minor ships going from Turku to Nagu Kyrkbacken (m/s Autere; via Själö; return ticket 44 €), to Utö (m/s Aspö; via Pärnäs in Nagu; 25 €/person one way) or to other islands in the Archipelago Sea. Some of these routes are suitable for a one day return trip, the one to Utö for a weekend. As a way to get out to Nagu they are clearly more expensive than the bus, but the joy of the cruise is included. They depart from Aura river, downstream from Martinsilta bridge. These vessels do not take cars.

Large sheltered waters. Yacht by spinnaker in a shipping lane between Houtskär and Korpo.
By yacht

The Sea of Åland is narrow enough for a passage with nearly any vessel on a day with good weather. Over the Gulf of Finland the passage is a bit and directly from Gotland much longer, but no problem for most yachts (with a competent skipper). Regardless where you are coming from, you do want to use official channels to enter the archipelago, unless arriving in daytime and nice weather. You may also need to follow these until you have cleared with immigration and customs; visiting customs is seldom necessary, but you may have to call them.

You need detailed coastal charts (1:50 000). The archipelago is a maze, you do not want to enter or navigate it without them. Finnish charts now (transition done for the relevant charts) use WGS84 and standard INT symbols with minor deviations. The detailed charts come in two versions: single standard charts (à 20 euro) or as series of a format more handy for small craft. The series include a brief symbol explanation (few recreational boaters use Chart 1) and other useful information. Series D (47 euro) covers most of the Archipelago Sea, series C the Åland islands. Electronic charts can be used, but should normally not be the only ones: pleasure craft generally lack necessary electronic backup systems and have too small displays – essential details may be hidden when zooming out. Notices to Mariners are available online (index in Finnish, notices themselves trilingual).

Information on charts and publication by Trafi, authorized reseller Karttakeskus. The charts and books are available also at e.g. yachting shops and bigger book stores.

You might also want a book on guest harbours, e.g. the semi-official Käyntisatamat-Besökshamnar (Finlake.com, the Finnish coast volume, 23 €) or The Great Harbour Book by a local sea scout troop. The former is updated yearly and covers all official guest harbours. The latter has two volumes of interest, with 140 harbours each: Part IV (73€), in English and German, with an assortment of harbours covering also the Stockholm region and Estonia, and Part I (63€), about the Archipelago Sea in Finnish and Swedish, with more minor harbours and even some natural harbours (part II is Åland, part III is Gulf of Finland). Charts and symbols should be comprehensible regardless of language.

See Cruising on small craft for some general advice.

Get around

The Archipelago road in Nagu in the light summer's night.

The best way of getting around is by boat, but few visitors are lucky enough to have one handy. You might want to go on a boat tour of some kind anyway, see "By ferry" and "By yacht" below. Many cottages have at least a rowing boat available.

Major villages on the major islands are generally reachable by car and coach. For minor islands ferries or even small craft (taxi, chartered or own) may be needed. Distances are not too great, so bikes are useful (two or three hundred kilometres in total for the Archipelago ring road).

The archipelago consists mainly of large islands by the coast, a band of large island from east to west in the middle (connected by the "Archipelago road", regional road 180) and minor islands and island groups everywhere. The Archipelago road is in summertime connected with the northern coast by ferries, to something called the "Archipelago ring road", marketed to tourists.

There are "road ferries" connecting the major islands with the mainland, and also connecting some minor islands to adjacent larger islands. These are considered part of the road infrastructure, even a few that are privately operated.

There are also more ship-like ferries servicing remote inhabited islands typically once or twice a day. They typically have capacity only for a few cars and were earlier operated by the maritime administration.

There are also some comparable boats partly or entirely for tourists. They sometimes have additional services, such as guiding, a bar or a proper restaurant.

For uninhabited islands you usually need a boat of your own. There are taxi boat services available.

By coach

Coach connections are usually adequate to reach the intended destination, with some planning, but not very good for getting around.

Vainion Liikenne operates many of the coach connections in the area, either directly or through e.g. Skärgårdsvägen Ab. Timetables are also available through Matkahuolto. For Naantali, see also Föli.

From Turku, there are connections at least to

On schooldays you may be able to use buses intended for school children, often not mentioned in the timetables and sometimes by another company. Ask locally.

By car

On the main islands you can get to most places by car. There are some ferry passages that may have considerable queues or where car capacity is severely limited.

The ferry connections along the Arhipelago road are very busy when people are heading for their summer cottages or returning, i.e. Friday evenings outbound and Sunday afternoons inbound in late spring and summer. The worst passage, "Prostvik" between Pargas and Nagu, can have queues of several hours.

On non-road ferries car capacity is often very limited. You should consider leaving your car on shore if you intend to return. There is often not much road to drive on the minor islands anyhow. Large vehicles, such as caravans, can be a special problem. You might want to call the ferry in advance to ask for advice.

By taxi

Taxis are available, often minivans for 1+8 persons in the countryside. You might want to check phone numbers of local taxi drivers, calling them directly is sometimes more effective than going via the central system.

By bike

The roads generally have quite little traffic and are thus good for biking. The main problem is the practice of speeding from one ferry to the next along the Archipelago road. There are bikeways near towns and major villages, e.g. from Turku to Pargas centre and somewhat farther (watch out for tight turns where the bikeway changes sides, often just after a good downhill stretch).

Distances are not too great and the landscape is mostly flat. There may be a long way between services, so e.g. accommodation and dinners should be planned in advance.

You can usually get the bike on a bus, but at the discretion of the driver. Price for a bike is about half of a normal ticket.

By ferry

Shiplike ferry by Innamo.
Café of the road ferry Stella. Breakfast and lunch available.

There are several types of ferries, tour boats and similar.

Road ferries (Swedish: landsvägsfärja, Finnish: lautta or lossi) connect the main islands and some near-by islands and are considered part of the road system (no fees). They usually drive by timetable except when there are queues, with a stop for some hours in the night. The size varies from cable ferries capable of a lorry, connecting islands over a sound of a few hundred meters, to the 66 metres Stella of the half-an-hour Korpo-Houtskär passage, taking tandem trailers, lots of cars and 250 passengers, and with a café serving meals.

The coaches are allowed on board past any queues, as are other vehicles of locals with a special permit. Where queues are expected there is often a kiosk, where you can take a coffee or ice cream while waiting (but the coach will drive directly on board).

When aboard, step out of the car or coach, feel the fresh air and enjoy the landscape, at least on the longer passages. There are passenger lounges on some ferries (sometimes well hidden), where you might be able to have a coffee.

Shiplike ferries (Swedish: förbindelsefartyg, Finnish: yhteysalus) connect the remote inhabited islands with the major ones, typically once or twice a day. The starting points are mostly reachable by coach. They take passengers, bikes, freight and usually a few cars (leave your car on the shore if you are going to return). The trips are free or heavily subsidised on most routes. The ferries often call at the islands only when needed (make sure you are noticed!), at some islands only on special request beforehand.

These ferries can be used for island hopping or for a one day tour in the outer archipelago. There is usually some kind of spartan café and nice views, but few other attractions on board. With some luck there are locals willing to chat. If island hopping, make sure you can get back or have accommodation for the night – there may be no spot to put a tent without permission and you probably want to ask for hospitality before there is a fait accompli.

Tour boats and similar private vessels service some popular destinations. They are more probable to have guiding, restaurants and other additional services.

By taxi boats and crewed charter motorboats

There are taxi boats or crewed charter boats available for most areas, and other vessels can sometimes be used in a similar fashion. You may want to ask locally. Most places with accommodation have contacts or boats of their own.

If you pay per mile or per hour you should ask for an estimate beforehand, as the service probably is quite expensive.

Some taxi boats:

By yacht and small boats

The archipelago is a wonderful place for small craft cruising. Mostly the waters are open enough for relaxed sailing, but the landscape is constantly changing. There are myriads of islands to land on when you feel like, and guest harbours not too far away.

You might come by yacht (one or a few days from Estonia or the Stockholm region, a week from Germany or Poland), have friends with a yacht here – or charter a yacht or other boat.

Most waters are sheltered, so with some care and checking weather forecasts you might get along with any vessel. Small boats are ideal to get around near the place where you are staying (a cottage, pension or the like). For longer journeys a yacht with cooking and sleeping facilities is probably what you want (but an oversize yacht will make mooring in nature harbours difficult).

Crewed chartering is considered expensive. Usually full service charter is offered for a day trip, while bare boat chartering is the norm for longer journeys. You might get a skipper for your one-week charter by asking, but unless you ask for (and pay!) full service, you should not assume he will wash your dishes.

Some companies:

Prices for bare boat yacht charter can be expected to be in the 1000–5000 euro range for a week, depending on boat, season etcetera.

Navigating the archipelago is not like navigating the open sea. It is a maze. Take a good look at the (large scale) chart before deciding whether you are up to it. GPS is a valuable tool, but you should not trust the navigation to it. If you have local friends they might come (or find somebody willing) to act as skipper or pilot. For charts and harbour books, see Get in above.

Beware of traffic in the main shipping lanes. Cruise ferries will approach in more than 20 knots (40 km/h) and will often not be able to stop or turn. Listening to VTS, VHF channel 71, you can get early warnings (after first noting the names of relevant locations, and getting a feel for the communication).

There are some areas protected for military reasons, where anchoring is restricted and deviating from official channels prohibited, especially when there are foreigners aboard. In these areas also chart markings are partly lacking, with depth figures more sparse (and perhaps more unreliable) than usual. There are also military shooting areas (any actual shooting will be broadcast and ignorant vessels will be chased away, but some care is due).

The permanently inhabited islands, at least the remote ones, tend to have some kind of guest harbour and service for tourists. For electricity, waste bins and showers you should head for the bigger ones, but sauna, freshly smoked fish, handicraft or a nature trail may be available anywhere.

Weather reports are available on VHF (check Turku Radio working channels for your location beforehand), Navtex, FM radio, TV and Internet, by SMS and at bigger marinas. Use the forecasts for mariners, as weather on land may be quite different. Wind in the outer archipelago is usually much stronger than in sheltered waters.

For emergencies at sea (or anything that might develop into one) the maritime rescue centre (MRCC Turku), VHF 70/16 or phone +358 294-1001, are the ones to contact. The general emergency number 112 often has a pretty obscure picture of the conditions in the archipelago (you tell coordinates and name of island and they ask for a street address; try to stay calm), but can also be contacted, especially if you have no marine VHF and mobile phone signal is bad (for 112, the phone can use any operator), they will send the coast guard to help you if needed.

By canoe or kayak

The perhaps best way to explore the Archipelago Sea is by sea kayak. Renting one (and getting it trailered to a place of your choosing) should be easy. If you do not have much experience, you should try to get on an organised tour. Kayaks and tours e.g.:

Some of the advice for yachters is equally adequate for canoers, but some is not. You should look out not only for the big ships, but also for powerboats. Staying near the shore and traversing channels quickly is the standard advice. Many think topographical maps are more useful than sea charts when canoeing (you'll mostly be on the shallow non-chartered waters), but copy the relevant info from charts or harbour books.

See

Church of Dragsfjärd, 18th century.

You should get a grip both of the main island countryside and the harsh outer archipelago. Some kind of boat trip is higly recommended.

There are many medieval stone churches and wooden chapels from the 18th century.

Itineraries

Do

Eat

Vegetables, salmon and mashed potatoes, served at a festival in Pargas.

Drink

The night life is mostly lame. For real action visit a festival or Turku and Naantali on the mainland. There is some action in a few population centres and by some guest harbours. There are restaurants and bars in most village centres.

Potable water is scarce in the wild. The sea water is not too salty (up to about 0.5 %, less in the inner archipelago) and clean enough for most purposes, except in harbours and when there are large amounts of cyanobacteria. Ask for water e.g. at camping sites and gas stations (or at any house). Water is always available in major guest harbours.

Sleep

There are few hotels in the archipelago, but quite a lot of small businesses offering accommodation: pensions, guest houses, bed and breakfast, cottages. Clean and nice, but not many stars (there probably is no TV or toilet in your room). Booking in advance is highly recommended as there may be few rooms. Some service (even dinner!) may be unavailable unless ordered in advance.

Many places are closed off season. They may still be able to arrange something.

Here are some of the bigger ones (see also the destinations above):

Hotels and hotel like
Camping

There are camping sites, but not everywhere. In the national park there are camping sites with some service on twelve islands, without service on four more.

The right to access gives you permission to put your tent nearly anywhere except in people's yards and on cultivated land, but there are two problems: you have to get drinking water from somewhere and there may not be any suitable spot (in the remote islands all land that is not too rocky may be put in use).

Yachts

If cruising around you will probably sleep in your yacht, like everybody else in the harbour. Choosing the right anchorages, you can also use your tent.

Stay safe

Water is cold, especially away from the shore, typically 10–15°C in open waters in the yachting season. Even an able swimmer will often not be able to make it to the shore after falling overboard. Use due care – including life jackets. For children the most dangerous place is the (rocky) shore and the pier.

Do not trust ice without local advice. There may be spots of open water, cracks or even shipping lanes obscured by thin ice and snow. Driving on the ice, even on official ice roads, requires special safety measures. See also ice safety.

Attached tick (and thumb for scale). The tick's head is buried in the skin.

Ticks in the area may carry Lyme disease (borreliosis) or TBE (tick-borne meningoencephalitis). Especially when in high grass you should put your trousers inside your socks, and inspect your (or – preferably – your fellow's) body before going to sleep, to remove any ticks found (often not yet attached). You might ask for tools and advice at a pharmacy. Insect repellents containing 50% DEET applied to skin mainly around ankles, wrists, neck and hair, where tick usually enter first, contribute to prevention also against ticks. Borreliosis is easily treated in the early stage, while symptoms are mild or lacking, but both are nasty at a later stage. If you get neurological symptoms later, remember to tell about the ticks.

In warm calm periods there may be "algal bloom" of cyanobacteria, which are potentially poisonous. Drinking even modest amounts of such water can be unhealthy and it is irritating for the skin. Small children and pets should not be let into the water (adults probably keep away anyway, just looking at it). The phenomenon should not be confused with pollen, which also can aggregate in surprising amounts.

The nearest pharmacy, health care centre or ambulance may be quite some distance from where you are. Try to be prepared to help yourself for quite a while. The Emergency Response Centre (phone 112) is responsible for a huge area and probably asks for municipality and street address – but they are equipped to use any other way to tell where you are, such as GPS coordinates or GSM cell locating. They are able to send any help available, such as coast guard vessels or helicopters, but they will decide for themselves what help to send. Try to be calm and answer their questions.

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