At the end of this summer, I suddenly realised that the Finnish archipelago remains a mystery to me, even though I’ve been living on the southwest coast of Finland since 2012. What a sad state of affairs. I immediately employed a “two birds with one stone” tactic and took my stressed-out fiancé Chef on a relaxing three-day birthday vacay to the Archipelago National Park. Chef was delighted about the mini-break while I got to educate myself. Win–win!
(Disclaimer: This post is longer than the Pan-American Highway. Might as well take the day off if you’re planning to read it all in one sitting. If you’d rather skip the travel babble, just scroll down to the bottom where you’ll find a condensed itinerary and a bunch of useful links to help you plan a similar trip of your own.)
Creating the Itinerary: Googling This Stuff Is a Bitch
Before we could embark on our epic adventure, I first had to figure out where exactly we would go and how we would get there. Since the trip was meant to be a surprise birthday present for Chef, I naturally had to do all the planning by myself. I had naively assumed this would be a two-hour job, three hours max, but it turned into more than a week of pure pain and suffering. I mean, the information is out there, but it’s all scattered around the internet. I’m sure it would be even worse for any foreigners, because most of the info I found seemed to be offered in Finnish and Swedish only.
There are rental cottages, rooms and saunas on the inhabited islands of the Archipelago Sea, but most hosts don’t bother with any 21st-century online booking tools, supposedly because that would be just too darn convenient. No no, you must arrange your accommodation by phone, email or messenger pigeon, or simply show up and hope for the best. For example, I had originally wanted to take Chef to the island of Aspö, but the person in charge of the cottages never replied to my email query and didn’t have a phone number listed anywhere. Do you people not want my money?! Back to the drawing board. I must have clicked through hundreds of websites. Keep going, Sloth, find out where the legal camping spots are located. Check if there are any shops or restaurants around. If yes, how expensive are they and what are their opening hours? Stop tearing your hair out, Sloth.
My budget was limited and I had to work around the specific days I had been given off work. In addition, the plan needed to be executable by public transport. Imagine my surprise when I found out that the ferry between Pärnäs and Utö started to run on winter schedule already on the second week of August – smack dab in the middle of our hottest summer in living memory! As if that wasn’t enough, I also had to keep gently threatening Chef’s family and friends just so the SOBs wouldn’t even think of arranging any competing activities for the same weekend. After going through all this hassle, I, too, started to feel the need for repose, but at least I managed to perfect the plan. Or that’s what I thought, but there were some unexpected variables I didn’t even think to take into consideration. More on those later.
Excursions to the Archipelago National Park seem best-suited for the wealthiest 5% of the population, seeing as many of the islands and therefore camping areas can only be reached by one’s own boat or kayak. There are some taxi boat services available, but none of them have their prices posted. Now, we all know what that means: it means that the prices are exorbitant for the average joe. On the plus side, planning gets a whole lot easier when it’s no longer about where you want to go, but where you’re realistically able to go. Through this type of elimination process, I finally came to the conclusion that we should simply follow the free ferry route. So, for practical reasons alone, our final destinations were the three islands of Nötö, Utö and Jurmo.
Nötö: Home of the Ringing Rock
On Friday, our first vacation day, we were supposed to catch the archipelago bus from Turku to Pärnäs, but ended up getting a shared ride all the way to the ferry port with our friends who just happened to be heading in the same direction. At the port, we still had a nice little chunk of time left to visit the port restaurant for burgers and drinks. I wasn’t hungry yet, but when it comes to Chef, it is critically important to stuff his face with food at regular intervals. Take it from me, the secret to a successful couples holiday lies in hanger prevention.
It took the ferry around two hours to reach our first destination, Nötö. Time flew by while we were sipping on another round of drinks and making friends with every four-legged creature we met on the deck. Upon reaching Nötö, a friendly guy (whose name I forget) from the Backaro Guesthouse was there to meet us and lead us a couple hundred metres to the guesthouse, where I had booked us a double room for the first night. I also booked us the outdoor grill shed and put Chef to work. The result was a perfect barbecue dinner for two, made from the supplies I had brought along from the mainland. Chef wanted to end the evening with a quick dip in the
freezing refreshing sea, and somehow managed to manipulate persuade me to join him.
The Backaro guesthouse has a warm ambience, but it could use some extra maintenance. For example, when you have to pay extra to use the grill shed, you might expect to find enough clean cups, plates and utensils instead of empty spice containers. There is something wrong with the grill igniter, too – probably an easy fix for a professional. It was also left unclear how and when guests would be able to contact the manager or staff, apart from randomly running into them in the yard. Everything else in the main building is clean and well-maintained, but the indoor toilet (which can only be used at night) and the adjacent shower really need a good scrubbing with the strongest detergent legally available. A crack in the tiling is covered with duct tape, and water from the shower pools in front of the toilet because an unnecessary doorsill makes it impossible for the puddle to drain properly. Eventually, you’re no longer sure if the dirty puddle is water or something yellower left by the other guests, which doesn’t exactly encourage you to tippy-tap around in your socks (shoes are not allowed indoors). There’s no lock on the bathroom door, instead you’re meant to hang up a little sign. The only problem is that nobody will be able to see the sign in the dark. All of these tiny annoyances could be easily fixed with a little money and effort, and it would greatly improve the value for money. Left in its current state, I might not stay at Backaro again, even though the experience as a whole was still ok. I’ve seen a lot worse.
On Saturday morning, we woke up to the included breakfast buffet. Then the sky suddenly went dark and we got our first taste of the notoriously fickle island weather. It was actually quite fun to watch the thunder and lightning from the shelter of the upstairs balcony. The storm only lasted for a little while, so we were still able to do some sightseeing before catching the ferry to our next destination, Utö.
The ringing rock of Nötö must be one of the island’s biggest tourist traps. In other words, I bet dozens of people flock there every year. It’s a big rock with differently sized dents on it. You beat the dents with smaller stones, and the result is music that sounds a bit like church bells. The demonstrative video above is not mine, I just randomly picked it off Youtube because I was too lazy to make my own.
We also checked out the prehistoric graves (=piles of stones) found in the forest and met the island’s famous highland cattle out at pasture, before hanger started to creep up on us again. We ended our Nötö visit on a high note by having lunch at the much vaunted Café Skolan. Now there’s a summer café well worth all the praise it gets!
Utö: Where Finland Begins
It’s difficult for a landlubber like myself to fully comprehend the distances in the archipelago. To reach Utö, Finland’s southernmost inhabited island, it takes about 4.5 hours on the ferry from Pärnäs. Add to that the extra 1.5 hours by car to travel between Pärnäs and Turku, and we’re at about six hours total for a journey that, on a map, doesn’t look much different from the route between Turku and Helsinki (which only takes around two hours by car). From Nötö, it still took us around three hours to get to Utö, but that was okay as we spent the whole time napping aboard Eivor.
Nötö didn’t impress me that much, but there’s something about the tiny Utö that I really love. Those long and lazy summertime evenings in Finland always have a special air about them, and the maximum chill factor was even more pronounced on the island. However, a self-appointed village sheriff was eagerly working against it. We had barely set foot on the island when we already ran into the Sheriff, who at first only wanted to make sure we knew where we were allowed to put up our tent. Of course we knew, that was one of the most important details I had uncovered during my research week from hell. All in order, adios for now. We made it another couple hundred metres before we heard the Sheriff huffing and puffing behind us again. This time the tone was different, notably more cranky.
Hey, hey! Did you notice the “Keep the archipelago clean” outhouses over there? So, yeah, keep the archipelago clean is what it means. And as you’re probably aware, the forest fire warning is in effect. Even though it has been raining last night, it’s still forbidden to make any kind of open fire. That means no campfires, and no camping cookers either. All clear?
And the same in plain English:
Don’t you goddamn arsonists dare come here and shit all over our island! Making your own meals is forbidden, go spend your money at our restaurants or go home!
Now, someone might construe that ramble as nothing but a helpful and concerned local sharing useful tips with us, but the Sheriff’s tone and gestures told a different story. At least for me, it felt like we as campers were automatically seen as useless, unwanted idiots. I suppose campers don’t bring enough money to the island, as they don’t pay for accommodation or restaurant meals. Can’t think of any other reason to hate on us right off the bat. As I’ve already mentioned, there is only one spot on Utö where you’re allowed to put up a tent. We and a handful of other campers stayed neatly packed up on this tiny and remote piece of land, well out of the locals’ sight and way. And we didn’t leave a trace. I’d also like to point out that actually you are allowed to use a camping cooker even when the forest fire warning is in effect. However, arguing with the Sheriff seemed pointless, so we just kept smiling and nodding until we were left in peace. Then we set up camp and cooked our evening meal on our cooker as usual.
Utö is so tiny that it’s possible to see pretty much the entire island on a short evening walk. As we were approaching the rocky seashore, we ran into a lady who was a tourist herself. She kept staring at my hiking sandals and deemed it necessary to comment on my choice of footwear.
Hey, hey you! Those shoes leave your feet quite exposed. Are you aware that there are snakes around here?
I was aware, but thanks for the concern. Quite amusing coming from someone prancing around in her ballerina flats, though. Oh well, when in Rome – at least you don’t need to spend any energy minding your own business, since there’s always someone else to do it for you over there.
The Finnish military used to have one of its bases on Utö, but they relocated a few years ago, leaving behind several now abandoned structures – and even cannons! Parts of the old military area are still restricted from civilians. So much potential lost right there! Just imagine how cool it would be to get some of the old bunkers and watch towers remade into camping shelters.
At night, the unpredictable island weather made a glorious comeback. All the beauty and tranquility surrounding the sunset was nothing but calm before the storm. We were out brushing our teeth when we started to hear a low rumble from the distance. Dark clouds rolled over us, and soon we saw the first lightning strike in the horizon. I have to admit that right then and there I might have been ever so slightly scared, especially when the violent rain started lashing against our tent and the thunder grew stronger. What if the storm was moving right in our direction? All we could do was crawl into our sleeping bags and hope to wake up alive the next morning. Luckily the thunder stayed out at sea, but the gusty wind and rain kept trying to pierce our tent throughout the night. We had brought our brand new Jack Wolfskin tent out on its maiden voyage, and its quality was really put to the test right away. I’m happy to announce it passed with flying colours – we stayed 100% dry and cozy despite the raging storm around us. Excellent value for money, thanks Jack!
On Sunday morning, we ignored the Sheriff’s earlier advice again and cooked ourselves some tasty breakfast porridge before heading out for a little morning swim. There are no beaches, as the shoreline is very rocky all around the island, but we did find a nice little spot behind the lighthouse, right next to the fenced-off military area, where you can wade into the water along a flat piece of rock. The sea didn’t even feel too chilly anymore, it was actually quite a comfortable temperature for a hot summer’s day.
I had originally planned to take Chef for lunch at the Utö Hotel before leaving for our last destination, Jurmo, but my research had failed me: the hotel restaurant was closed on that Sunday. I thought weekends would be the best time for emptying tourists’ pockets, but I guess not, then. While we were at the little village shop filling up our water bottles, I quickly bought us some ice-cream before hanger got the best of Chef. In the afternoon, we boarded Eivor once more and went straight for a traditional nap at sea. I had started to feel a strange kind of nausea a bit earlier, but managed to get some sleep anyway.
Jurmo: Alpaca Kingdom
If Utö is charming, then the rugged landscapes of Jurmo are positively fascinating, like something straight out of a fairytale. I cannot really even describe what it is that makes the island so special – apart from the free-roaming alpacas, of course. Jurmo is something that has to be experienced first-hand. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to get to know the island as well as I had hoped. Those unexpected variables I mentioned earlier? This is where they came into full effect.
(Disclaimer: If you’re easily grossed out by gory details of bodily functions, I suggest you stop reading right about now.)
As soon as we arrived on Jurmo, the nausea got the best of me. I still managed to keep myself together long enough for us to set up camp again. The wide open Moringharu juts out of the island about a kilometre’s walk from the port of Jurmo, and it’s also the only area where you’re allowed to camp on the island. There are only a handful of lone trees out there, and three of them form a sheltered little nook, just big enough for a tent. So that’s where we set up camp, and then walked back to the port.
Right after my lunch plans for Utö fell through, I had already done a quick google search which informed me of a popular hamburger restaurant on Jurmo. Well, you always learn something new: for some incomprehensible reason, there are actually two islands in Finland that are both called Jurmo. One of them is located at the Archipelago Sea, where we were, and the other one near Åland. Naturally, I had been looking up information on the wrong island of the two. It never even occurred to me that I would have to double-check the exact coordinates. Sure, there is a restaurant on the “Alpaca Jurmo”, as well, but it isn’t one of those walk-in businesses. No, you have to order your meals in advance by phone or email. Oooff, so much for lunch, then. I sent Chef to the port café to get some coffee and pastry before we’d start bickering. Myself, I felt too nauseated to even think about eating. While Chef was enjoying his coffee, I was suddenly struck by a bout of explosive diarrhoea. Well, we’d been eating all kinds of crap as snacks, so it was probably just payback for that… right?
I wasn’t going to let a little stomachache stop us from exploring the island, so Chef and I headed out for a little self-guided walking tour. I had to keep stopping every couple dozen metres, because the cramps were so intense they nearly brought me down to my knees. That’s when I finally started to wonder if maybe the pain derived from something more sinister than your average, run-of-the-mill faucet butt. But hey, at least we got to see some of the best of Jurmo: the 19th century chapel, the old windmill and the super chill alpaca gang.
When we got back to the port and took a quick glance at our camping spot, my blood ran cold. The storm from the previous night was about to come back with a vengeance. The sky darkened in the blink of an eye and the wind was picking up. How would you feel about enjoying a thunderstorm camped under the only trees on a flat piece of land, all the while suffering from debilitating stomach cramps with a 1 km hike to the nearest outhouses? Probably not the greatest idea, right?
Thankfully, the friendly café owner also has several rental cottages on the other side of the island, and one of them was still available on Sunday. Chef even managed to negotiate the already reasonable price down and got us a nice little “thunder discount”, so there really was no question left about whether or not we should give up on camping for the night. We rushed to the tent to pack up our belongings and hurried back to the café. At that point, the wind was already so strong that it was difficult to move forward while lugging our backpacks with us, and the stomach cramps made it extra difficult for me to stay on my feet. Rain started pouring down right before we made it to shelter and it soaked us to the bone. Below is a short video that Chef shot while we were fighting our way back to the port.
We waited a bit for the heaviest downpour to subside, and then got a ride to the cottage. Our helpful host tried to make small talk during the short drive, but I had to focus all my energy on not throwing up all over the backseat. I probably seemed a bit rude. Sorry.
The cottage was very warm and cozy, and it had its own fireplace and sauna. However, neither one of us got to enjoy the amenities, because by then, Chef too had started to feel a bit weak. The situation soon escalated to the point where Chef was indoors throwing up in a bucket and I was doing the same outside by the bushes. Our bodies completely dried up and drained, we spent the night shaking on our bunk beds. It took me hours to muster up enough energy and willpower to crawl for two metres into the kitchen and pick up our water bottles. We still don’t know if the whole thing was caused by a violent stomach bug or food poisoning. Nevertheless, our romantic couples holiday sure got a memorable climax right there. So, yeah, I really don’t think this whole mess was something I could have reasonably anticipated or prepared for.
On Monday morning, life was beginning to look worth living again. We even managed to eat some breakfast porridge and keep it down. There was still a couple hours left before we would have to leave, so we heated up the sauna and washed off the horrors of the past night. Unfortunately, the waves were too big for swimming, but I could have stared out to the sea forever. One of the bravest alpacas hanging out in the yard even let me pet itself! Jurmo is absolutely breathtaking, and I’m sure we will return there many times in the future – hopefully with a little more success when it comes to health and safety.
Summarized Itinerary and Some Helpful Links
For those of you who don’t want to read 3,500 words on fake island sheriffs and diarrhoea, I’ve made this brief summary of our itinerary. I’ve also listed some of the prices (August 2018) and linked some of the most useful websites to help you plan a similar trip of your own. Perhaps it will save you from the week-long pain of googling that I had to endure.
- Archipelago National Park: general information, maps, rules and instructions. Read this very carefully, especially to find out what is and isn’t allowed in the area.
Day 1 (Starting in Turku, Finland)
- Turku–Pärnäs, Archipelago bus, buy tickets from the driver, à 13.70€, cash only. The bus runs year-round. To check the timetable, use the Matkahuolto connection search (From: Turku / To: Pärnäinen)
- Hamburger meal and drinks, Pärnäs port restaurant, à 15.20€. Their Facebook page has no info in English.
- Pärnäs–Nötö, M/S Eivor. The free ferry runs year-round and you don’t need to reserve a spot, just show up on time (at least 10 minutes before departure, preferably earlier). Cars must be left at the parking lot in Pärnäs and cannot be brought on board. The timetable has information in Finnish and Swedish only, but here are some of the most important things to take into account:
- Each weekday has its own schedule. The timetable starts with Monday on the left and ends with Sunday on the right.
- Yellow highlighting means there is a matching bus connection to take you to and from the Pärnäs port.
- x means that the ferry will only stop at that port “if necessary”
- y means that if you want to get on or off at that port, you must call Eivor 1.5–0.5 hours before departure. Their phone number is +358 44 5000 503. Don’t text them, they won’t read your messages.
- Weather conditions may lead to changes and cancellations.
- Beer and cider at the restaurant aboard Eivor, 12€ in total.
- Accommodation on Nötö: Backaro Guesthouse, 80€/night/double room + 7€ fee to use the grill shed / 2 people. Only open in the summer season.
- We brought our own barbecue supplies from the mainland, as the island shop is closed in the evening.
- Breakfast at Backaro Guesthouse, included in the price of accommodation.
- Nötö sightseeing, e.g. the ringing rock and prehistoric graves. There are signs on the island which point you in the right direction.
- Lunch on Nötö: Café Skolan. Fish, drinks and desserts for two, 59.50€ in total. Only open during the summer season.
- Nötö–Utö, M/S Eivor
- Camping on Utö: map of the only allowed campsite
- Dinner from our own supplies (pack a gas cooker or something similar!)
- Breakfast from our own supplies. Utö handel village shop has limited opening hours year-round and you can replenish your snacks and water supply there.
- Utö sightseeing
- Utö–Jurmo, M/S Eivor
- Accommodation and sightseeing on Jurmo: e.g. Ethels Bastu cottage with its own sauna, 85€/night, sleeps up to 4 people. Available year-round. The same website has a lot of useful info on the island, but unfortunately everything is in Finnish and Swedish only. Email jurmo(at)jurmo.com for cottage reservations.
- Alternative accommodation on Jurmo: free camping in Moringharu. Look it up on Google Maps before arriving on the island, or ask someone at the port to point you in the right direction.
- Dinner from own supplies (port café offers a selection of fresh food and vegetables etc.), or book a homemade meal in advance from Jurmo Inn.
- Morning sauna at Ethels Bastu cottage
- Coffee and pastry at the port café, à 4€.
- Jurmo–Pärnäs, M/S Eivor. Lunch and a juice box at the Eivor restaurant, à 11.50€.
- Pärnäs–Turku, Archipelago bus, à 13.70€.
In total, I spent around 350€ on three nights for two people. Amazingly enough, that was also my original budget and I managed to stick to it despite the, uh, unforeseen circumstances. I suppose you could technically do it even cheaper, e.g. by camping every night instead of paying for accommodation. However, as in our case, things don’t always go according to plan and you can never fully predict the island weather. I strongly recommend leaving some slack in your budget to cover for any last minute surprises and catastrophes.
If you made it this far: however did you even manage to read everything?! Let me know in the comments. :)