Cycling adventures through Finland’s southwest archipelago
With its relatively level terrain, long summer days and fabulously scenic archipelago landscapes, southwest Finland is perfect for two-wheeled exploration.
Cycling offers fresh air, exercise, zero pollution, a sense of freedom and an effective and affordable way to get from A to B. All of this is true wherever you are, but some places lend themselves better to jumping on a bike than others.
The potential is well established in Finland’s southwest archipelago with a number of marked routes that combine manageable cycling segments, passing regional attractions and served by a variety of restaurants, cafes and accommodation. In 2023, one of these routes, the shorter of the two Archipelago Trail loops, marked the 20th anniversary of its conception.
I set off on my own Archipelago Trail adventure in early July, my departure from the Kupittaa suburb of the city of Turku timed perfectly in a spell of fine weather. I’ve brought my own bike on the train from Helsinki but could have rented one from a number of outlets in Turku. Bike paths, separate from other traffic, take me out of the suburbs through the small town of Kaarina. Before an hour is up, I’m starting to pass red farm barns and pastures, with road signs announcing strawberries, peas and new potatoes for sale, and crossing bridges with sprawling archipelago views.
The old town of Pargas (Parainen in Finnish), with its medieval church and cluster of preserved wooden buildings and verdant gardens, makes an ideal first stop. I indulge in a sinful slice of cream cake and a coffee at Cafe Fredrika, a historic yellow building with a pleasant garden. The historic, traffic-free milieu of the old town contrasts with another, quite different local attraction. Pargas is the home of the gaping Nordkalk limestone quarry, a 150-metre deep, 70-hectare pit concealed right on the edge of the town. I head to a viewing point where I gawp in awe at its scale, peering down at the toylike trucks.
I pedal onwards to my next stop, the mini-resort of historic buildings at Sattmark. The co-owner, Marika Lavonen, walks me through the adjacent forest to my shelter for the night, one of three chalets. Marika explains that the walls of my hut, which can sleep four, are constructed sustainably with walls of straw bales harvested from a nearby meadow. There’s a utility block close by.
After devouring an ample meal of fish and chips on the restaurant terrace – a successfully innovative version using locally-caught pike-perch for the fish – I follow one of several nature trails through the woods and close to the water’s edge. Yachts and motorboats are moored at a small harbour, and the low evening sun picks out swans and geese on the meandering inlets. On returning to Sattmark, I visit the gift shop, stocked with local handicrafts.
Unspoilt environment, wonderful food
Following breakfast in the cafe, an 18th-century building originally built as a naval quarter, I chat to three French cyclists on their own Archipelago Trail break. “We’ll take four days to cycle the route,” says Vincent Charpentier, a Helsinki resident. “I didn’t realise how many islands there are on the Finnish coast,” says Laetitia Sextus, a first-time visitor along with partner Clement Laffage. “I’m amazed at the unspoilt natural environment here, and the wonderful food.”
Their next stop will be the little harbour town of Nagu, and I’m heading there too. On route, I pause for a short hike through the oak trees in the Lenholmen nature reserve and watch swans and lapwings from the bird-watching tower. A public, free-of-charge ferry takes me on a 15-minute island-hop and soon I’m sitting in the garden sipping a coffee at Nagu’s Köpmans Cafe and Restaurant.
From here, it’s possible to continue along the longer of the two Archipelago Trails, but I’m opting for the shorter option. Before lifting my bike onto the small launch to the island of Seili, I have time to cool down in the 18th-century stone church, where rehearsals are underway for the town’s chamber music festival.
Själö (Seili in Finnish, in an area where Swedish is the ‘first’ language) is an island idyll but has a traumatic history, serving as an 18th-century leper colony and later, up until 1962, as a women’s asylum. Nowadays, its former hospital houses a museum, archipelago biodiversity research facilities and a bistro grill and restaurant.
I use my bike to explore the trails, where cattle graze in meadows, glorious island views open up from rugged headlands, and boaters moor their yachts to overnight at the guest harbour. My room for the night is in one of a cluster of wooden houses, and in the morning, fuelled by a buffet breakfast, I’m taken on a guided tour, including a visit to the all-wooden 18th-century church with its tiny, touching cemetery, the resting ground of some more recent asylum inmates.
I load my bike onto the boat to take the meandering archipelago voyage to the village of Röölä, where I peep into the herring museum, illustrating the culture and industrial history of this classic Baltic ingredient. Then I settle into the 18-kilometre ride to the exquisite seaside town of Naantali, lured on the way to a roadside stand by the aroma of flame-grilled salmon and refreshed by local strawberries. Approaching Naantali, I glimpse the imposing Finnish President’s imposing summer residence, the stone mansion of Kultaranta.
The main street of Naantali’s wooden old town leads down to a busy marina lined with restaurant terraces and overlooked by the handsome stone church, with a promenade leading to a foot bridge, at the opposite end of which is the Moominworld theme park. A steady stream of excited families heads across to this island, where they are greeted by characters from the much-loved Moomin books by Finnish author Tove Jansson.
Before settling for the night at the Hotel Bridget, a lovingly renovated old wooden house on the edge of the old quarter, I dine on salmon and new potatoes on the seaside terrace at Tavastin Kilta. In the morning I have time to drop into the church where a confirmation rehearsal is in progress. Before jumping back on the bike, I call in at the Cafe Antonius, with its chintzy antique interior and melt-in-the-mouth cakes and oven-fresh doughnuts. All that remains is to negotiate the remaining 18 kilometres back to Turku, just in time for the train from Kupittaa back to Helsinki, full circle completed.