Åland Islands Finland Finnish Staycation Travel

Three Hours on Kobba Klintar…

Kobba Klintar in the Åland Islands

… is not enough!

Last week, I flew with my husband, Otto, to Mariehamn, a place neither of us had visited even though it’s only a 45-minute flight from Helsinki. Mariehamn is the capital city of the Åland Islands, an archipelago province of 6,700 islands (about 80 inhabited) and 20,000 skerries situated between Sweden and Finland in the Baltic Sea. Although under Finnish sovereignty, Åland was granted autonomous status by the League of Nations in 1921 and allowed to preserve its culture, local customs, and Swedish language.

As a native English speaker used to hearing Finnish daily, the idea of listening to a different language during our four-day staycation was an appealing plus. After months of lockdown in Lauttasaari, the urban island where we reside in Helsinki, and still feeling skittish about overseas travel, flying to Mariehman felt like embarking on an exotic adventure.

On the day of our arrival, I spotted an ad offering a “Skärgårdsturer,” or “Tour of the Archipelago,” which seemed the perfect and affordable (20 euros/pp) introduction to our new destination. I phoned the skipper, Bo-Erik Westberg, who agreed to taxi us out to Kobba Klintar the next morning and pick us up three hours later. I knew nothing about this “rocky islet” other than the ad photo showing an old pilot house and a white pyramid perched on barren rock in the open sea. It looked alien and light-years away from lush Lauttasaari, but I was eager to explore this new terrain.

Warning: “Do not trample on my friends”

On a glorious sunny day, Otto and I arrived at Mariehamn’s west harbor, where Bo-Erik met and motored us and a few other tourists in his boat, Fiskelyckan, past remote islands lined with summer cottages and saunas. As we approached desolate-looking Kobba Klintar twenty minutes later, the lyrics to the “Gilligan’s Island” theme song popped into mind: “A three-hour tour… a three-hour tour…” (Fans of that ’60s TV show may understand the fear of being stranded on a desert island without a proper wardrobe and beach accoutrements.) I half-wondered if a strong gust of wind or a swell created by one of the passing cruise ships might toss us into the sea.

Any concerns soon floated away when we disembarked and were warmly greeted by a local (I’ll call him “Lars”), who told us he was a volunteer dishwasher at the island café. My ears perked up. Café? Lars explained that he and his family had come to the island for one week to help out in the kitchen and in return, were allowed to stay on Kobba Klintar overnight, a real “treat,” since there is no tourist accommodation. He recommended starting our tour at the pilothouse, now a museum, and continuing to the white pyramid, which is used as an exhibition hall and events venue. Afterward, we were welcome to stop by the café; there was no doubt we would.

Old pilot statue in front of foghorn

The most recent pilot house, built in 1920, houses an enormous foghorn in the attic above its two floors. (The original from 1861 is home to the café.) Powered by compressed air machinery on the first floor, the foghorn once helped sailors navigate through poor visibility en route to Mariehamn, four nautical miles away. The pilots lived on the second floor, where visitors can view their original belongings and photographs capturing the challenges of the rough life they faced on the former pilot station.

After a quick visit to the white pyramid, a copy of the original red beacon that once guided boats into Mariehamn harbor, Otto and I stood still for a few minutes and inhaled the fresh salty air, along with the view: smooth rocks and windswept bushes, colorful wildflowers, a velvety sea full of swaying green algae. An attractive outhouse and cabin were connected by sturdy wooden planks, making it easy to walk around without jumping from rock to rock. We looked for a swimming spot, but the rocks were too slippery for entry, so we opted for a foot bath. As we soaked our legs in the warm glittery seawater and watched swans circling a few meters away, I felt months of pandemic-related stress drift away. That hour was the most relaxing and peaceful of 2020 so far.

Before boarding the boat back to Mariehamn, Otto and I enjoyed coffee, tea, and rhubarb pie at the café, where Lars was washing dishes outside and smiling at the panoramic vista he was lucky to gaze at all day. With some envy, we bid him “Adjö!” and promised to return. His enthusiasm and our three hours on Kobba Klintar inspired us to consider volunteering for a week there in the future. One prerequisite of the position is surely a working knowledge of Swedish. Maybe it’s time to go back to language school 🙂 Vi får se hur det går. (Let’s see how it goes.)

Till nästa sommar!

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