Very few people who live above the equator think of heading north for an island holiday. When most people think of the islands, they envision palm trees, crystal blue waters, warm sunshine, umbrella drinks, and sandy beaches. A cool ocean breeze and the sweet sounds of calypso music playing in the background often come to mind as well. I recently visited the Åland Islands, a beautiful archipelago that is located in the Gulf of Bothnia in the Baltic Sea between Sweden and Finland.
This group of islands (6,757 named islands in total) is a region of Finland. The national language of Åland, however, is Swedish, not Finnish and the Swedish influence is quite apparent. At these latitudes, there are no palm trees or sweet sounds of calypso music but you will find a wonderful blend of Swedish and Finnish cultures. What really makes this place so very special is the people. The locals are proud to show and tell you all about their homeland with its stunning nature, great history, and delicious food.
I was invited to this beautiful part of the world as a guest chef for the Åland Island Hotel Group last month. I stayed at the newly-renovated Hotel Pommern (one of three hotels that are part of the group) in the capital town of Mariehamn. This exciting event took place in their flagship restaurant, Kvarter5, where I spent most of my time.
When I first arrived at Hotel Pommern I was pleasantly surprised to see myself on a large pull-up banner at the entrance to the restaurant and this instantly excited me. I knew it was time to rock! I was warmly welcomed by their Executive Chef Dennis Lindqvist and Hotel Director Liisa Niemi. Chef Dennis and his teams are such a talented group and a pleasure to work with. Together, in a day and a half, we prepped the 5-course tasting menu. An excellent wine-pairing menu was also offered. By the end of the first night, this menu proved to be a perfect surprise for the guests and was well-received by all. We served 700 dishes! Cheers to a job well done!
I did, however, get to venture out a little and I’m very glad that I did.
One afternoon I took a short break to walk around the quaint port town of Mariehamn (Mary’s Port) and took a nice walk along the harbor. As you can guess, in the spring and summer months, this port is bustling with cruise ships and island ferries bringing tourists in and out of this island community. Shopping, sightseeing, biking, fishing, hiking, camping, and, of course, eating are all fun things to do during a visit.
My event was during mid-March, not a perfect time for the great outdoors, but it proved to be a splendid time to visit the coffee houses and indulge in some Swedish cakes and pastries. The quickest track to understanding a town is to go where the locals meet, eat, have their daily coffee, and talk with one another. I instantly gravitate to these places. Boy, did I find some real gems!
I was pointed in the direction of Bagrstugan Cafe. It is a charming old red wooden house that serves a great variety of cakes, coffee, and teas in a turn-of-the-century decor. It is a very comfortable cafe where you will get a taste of Åland Island coffeehouse culture. I highly recommend it when visiting. And remember to bring a good camera; the place is very inviting and offers great photo opportunities.
The pastry and cakes here are great!
They even made me a Laskiaispulla, a sweet cardamon-spiced bun cut in half and filled with strawberry jam (or almond paste) and lots of whipped cream. This was not on their menu, but within a matter of minutes, I was served a real special treat.
The following afternoon I went back and had a delicious slice of Tosca Cake (Toscakaka).
This is a classic Swedish light sponge cake topped with caramelized almonds. I was in heaven! So much so that it drove me to dig out my old Tosca Cake recipe and I am looking forward to making it very soon.
On another short excursion, I had a personal tour and chocolate tasting at Mercedes Chocolaterie, located in the historic old Post Office.
Mercedes is originally from Venezuela and has spent the last 10 years living in Åland creating delectable handcrafted chocolate treats for all to enjoy. She offers chocolate classes during the summer season and can even host small group parties. She’s an interesting lady, very passionate about her chocolate work, and super informative as to the “what to do’s” while visiting Åland.
The vast varieties of chocolates made by Mercedes are too many to mention. She honestly does an ineradicable job.
You can get an idea from this picture of some lovely chocolate works of art this chocolatier makes by hand. They are truly amazing! It was a great day trip while visiting the area and you can buy delicious treats to bring as gifts for your family and friends back home.
Only a short distance from her chocolate shop is the ferry stop that will take you to Sweden in just under 2 hours.
Also, from these Islands, you can easily visit other Nordic and Scandinavian countries by either cruise ships, ferries or if pressed for time, a short flight to your next place of interest, such as Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Estonia, or Norway.
The Åland Islands are a special place just waiting for you to explore. Spring and summer are when you’ll see this place really shine. As you venture, you’ll enjoy a culturally rich island full of great outdoor activities, maritime history, and fantastic food. So, next time you’re thinking of changing your latitude, head north; it’s “warmer” than you think.
Åland is a great place to get a taste of island life in northern Europe. I suggest checking out all you can do while visiting Åland here.
Click here to view the special Kavarter5 menu and more on Åland.