Finnish islands are a great place for a bicycle tour
Take your bike to the Åland Islands and Turku archipelago in Finland and ride the roads and ferries
And my underwear.
It was about a quarter past 10 on a mid-June evening. There was a cool, light breeze blowing as I sat drip-drying in the bright light of "night," looking out through the trees to the sun reflecting off the waters of the shimmering Baltic Sea.
I was one happy camper.
"This is awesome," I said to my new friend.
"Welcome to Finland," said Katariina, who along with her husband, Serge, were giving me a taste of the Finnish experience.
And what does this have to do with me sitting in my underwear?
I'll get to that.
We were on Brändö Island, one of more than 6,000 skerries (small, rocky, uninhabited islands) and islands of the Åland (O-land) Islands that form an archipelago at the entrance to the Gulf of Bothnia between Sweden and Finland. I was on a 35-day bicycle-camping trip in Finland, where I spent a great deal of my time in the Ålands and the Turku archipelago.
The Turku archipelago is about 20,000 skerries and islands that stretch from the city of Turku on the southwest coast of Finland to the Ålands, which are 24 miles off the east coast of Sweden. Both the archipelago and Ålands are stunning in their beauty and attract a lot of people like me, who travel by bicycle, riding the scenic countryside, hopping on and off the ferries that link the islands.
The ferries are an integral part of the experience. I rode 20 ferries -- including seven in one day -- of different types and sizes during my journey. My ferry trips ranged from a few minutes to one -- from Galtby in the archipelago to Långnäs in the Ålands -- that was almost 51/2 hours.
The Ålands ferries are free to passengers and bicycles, but from about mid-June to early August there is a one-time five-euro (about $6.25) bicycle fee. The yellow ferries in the archipelago are free. Twice I paid fares to ride privately-run ferries in the archipelago.
One afternoon, after a 21/2-hour ferry trip, I was rolling off the boat at the Torsholma ferry stop on Brändö when I met Katariina and Serge, two people in their mid-30s who were also traveling by bicycle.
We had boarded the ferry on different islands -- I got on at Vårdö, they rode on at Kumlinge. I waved to them as I disembarked, they rode over and we struck up a conversation in English. Two hours later we were still standing at the ferry stop, straddling our bikes, talking away.
Serge is a tall, lean man from Paris, whose father emigrated to France from Cameroon. He is preparing for a career as a physical therapist. Katariina is a short, blue-eyed Finnish blonde from Tampere who speaks several languages and whose specialty is world affairs. They were married in Paris in June of 2011, moved back to Finland, and were on a short trip celebrating their one-year anniversary when we crossed paths.
It was closing on five in the afternoon when Katariina said we needed to move if we were going to get to the only store on the island -- which was a few miles away -- before it closed. When you travel in the islands, three things are important. Where is the store? What are the store hours? And what time is the ferry?
Serge and Katariina rode down the road in search of the store while I remained behind to take some photographs. I told them I would catch up. After a few minutes, when I was done fooling around with my camera, I set out in pursuit of my new friends and got my first taste of what it's like to ride on Brändö.
I've ridden roads in 14 European countries, but Brändö is a little different. The sun was twinkling off the water as I rode the narrow red-granite road, which was surrounded on both sides by the Baltic. It's like riding on a sandstone-colored ribbon slicing through a sea of blue.
If you want an illustration of what I experienced, Google Brändö Island, Finland. Don't Google Brando Island -- unless you're a fan of Marlon Brando. If you Google Brando Island, the first thing you'll see are photos of the late actor, who leased an island in the south Pacific.
If you Google Brändö Island, Finland, one of the first things that pops up on the search is an aerial photo of a section of the island. When you see the photo you'll understand why I think this is a special place. And it may start you thinking of making plans for a bicycle trip to Sweden or Finland that includes the Ålands and the archipelago.
The beauty of Brändö is stunning. The 20-mile stretch of road between the ferry port of Långnäs and the city of Mariehamn on Fasta Åland (the main island) is beautiful. As is the stretch between the town of Godby and the ruins of the Russian fortress at Bomarsund, also on the main island. But for me, Brändö is the best part of the Ålands. The flat roads are a kick to ride.
I'm a quarter-of-a-century older than Serge and Katariina, but since my bike is a little better than theirs, it didn't take me long to chase them down.
Katariina spotted the small, obscure sign that led us to the country store. The store was tiny, and with the three of us, plus another couple of customers, it was difficult to move about. But country stores in the Ålands are a delight. They're like going back in time. They have a little bit of everything.
After we stocked up on provisions, the three of us headed down the road, riding in the sunny, but cool early evening in search of the campground on the island. We had the road to ourselves. There was virtually no traffic. Less than 500 people live on Brändö, and since the June weather was cold and wet, there wasn't much tourist traffic rolling off the ferries that docked on either side of the island. We rode the quiet, deserted road for a few miles before Katariina's sharp eyes once again found a hard-to-find sign that marked the campground.
Serge and Katariina had reservations for a cabin and I planned to sleep in my tent. We parted at the reception office/restaurant and planned to meet at the camp kitchen for dinner and more conversation. But plans changed when Serge and Katariina reached their cabin.
After they went inside, Katariina told Serge, "Go get Teem."
I was in the process of unloading my gear from my bike and setting up my tent when Serge rode up and invited me to stay the night in their cabin. They had expected a cabin that slept two. This one slept six, including two bedrooms. It had a stove, dining area and bathroom complete with shower. Outside it had a wooden deck with patio table and chairs. After sleeping on the ground for weeks, for me, this was living the high life.
I offered -- multiple times -- to pay for my share of the cabin. But Serge and Katariina refused to let me pay. As far as they were concerned, I was a guest, and that was that.
The two of them combined to cook dinner. It was a great meal. One of the highlights was a plate with several different kinds of breads, including a couple that were only available in the Ålands.
The campground had a sauna and Serge and Katariina had booked it for an hour, starting at 9 o'clock. The Finnish sauna is an integral part of Finnish culture. The country's population is about 5.3 million people and it is estimated there are more than two million saunas in Finland. Most Finns take a sauna at least once a week.
And as it turned out, so was I.
Serge and Katariina invited me to go with them to the sauna, but I didn't want to intrude, so I said I'd think about it.
A short while later I was outside the cabin sitting on the deck, enjoying the late evening sun of the Scandinavian summer night, reading a book on my Kindle, when Katariina returned.
She had decided I was going to add to my Finnish experience.
"Teem, you have to come to the sauna," Katariina said.
So off I went, walking with her down to the shoreline and the sauna. I didn't have a large towel and I hadn't packed a bathing suit. But Katariina had an extra towel and stripping down to my underwear was not an issue.
I hadn't been in a sauna since my college days. When I walked in the door it felt as if I was hit with a wave of heat from a blast furnace. Katariina and Serge thought the heat might be too much for me and suggested I sit on the lower wooden bench. But I felt fine, so I climbed to the top bench and sat down next to my friends.
The traditional Finnish sauna has a wood stove. This one was electric. There was a bucket with a ladle sitting next to Katariina, and she showed me the wrist-flip technique used to toss water on the stones on top of the stove. This produces steam, which increases the moisture and heat within the sauna.
I immediately got into the spirit of the Finnish sauna. I enjoyed it immensely. My muscles, tired from weeks of riding, started to relax. My pores opened up and I was drenched in sweat.
Part of the Finnish sauna experience is to jump in a body of water when the heat becomes uncomfortable. When Serge and Katariina went outside to jump in the Baltic Sea, I worked on my ladle technique. I enjoyed the rush of steam rising from the stones, smacking me in the face. It was pretty cool. Actually, it was pretty hot. But you know what I mean.
When Katariina and Serge returned from their dip in the sea, they told me I needed to jump in the water.
So I marched out of the sauna and down to the dock in the swimming area and jumped in.
What was I thinking?
I've been described as lean, and after a few weeks on the road and riding hundreds of miles, I was leaner and had less body fat.
I sank like a stone.
I hit bottom, which was about eight feet deep, kicked and came sputtering to the surface. The first thing I noticed about the Baltic is it's salty. But as the heat from the sauna rapidly dissipated from my body, I began to notice how cold the water was.
I was told the month of June, even for Finland, was unusually wet and cold. And that was because the winter had been harsh, and the Baltic Sea was still very cold.
Was it ever.
I made the short swim over to the ladder on the dock and climbed out of the water into the cool night air. I walked back to the sauna and when I walked in the door was greeted with surprised looks on the faces of Katariina and Serge.
What did I do?
Did my underwear fall off during my freezing-water world experience? Was I standing there buck naked?
I took a discreet peek.
Nope, I'm good.
So, what's up?
"We were watching you," Serge said, glancing at the window in the sauna that looked out to the sea. "You jumped right in," he said.
OK, I get it. I guess they expected me to stick my toe in the water.
"Look," I said, "if you're going to do it, just do it."
Now, where's the ladle?
I need more steam.
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