Twenty years ago, something happened that put Åland Islands on the map. This archipelago of 6,500 small islands and skerries off the coast of Finland is a quick blip on ferry trips between Stockholm and Helsinki, and many people weren’t even aware of the autonomous Finnish territory. But in 1998, it became the only part of Europe that is duty-free.
This tax exemption was negotiated as part of Finland’s induction into the European Union, and it was an important one for tiny Åland. “Some 2,000 of Åland’s 25,000 inhabitants work for ferry companies, and about 60 percent of the companies’ income is made from duty-free sales of alcohol, cigarettes, and perfume,” noted The Irish Times.
With the exception of two weeks in Morocco and Tunisia, we’d been traveling in Europe since June, and the prices were eating our budget alive. We knew this would be one of the most expensive legs of our year-long journey, but $15 beers and gas prices as high as $7.73 a gallon ($2.05/liter) were wearing us out.
So when Mike was researching a way to get us from Sweden to Finland, he came across an overnight ferry that would stop at the port of Mariehamn in the Åland Islands. Transportation plus accommodations with the added bonus of cheap cocktails for a single European night. Score!
The weather was perfect when we arrived in Stockholm, Sweden. After the long summer heatwave that had followed us around Europe, a day of breezy early fall weather was uplifting.
We feasted on Chinese food for lunch (of course), then walked around the city enjoying the interesting architecture, colorful street art, bustling waterfront, and cooler temperatures.
Our ferry didn’t board until the following evening, so we spent another day wandering around the city and visiting the sights of the old town, including Storkyrkan (also known as the Church of St. Nicholas and the oldest church in Gamla stan), Kungliga Slottet (the royal palace), and the House of Nobility, an impressive 17th-century great hall displaying 2,330 coats of arms representing historic Swedish families.
The ferry itself was nothing to speak of. A cafeteria-style buffet, tiny staterooms with fold-down beds, and a live band that really loved ABBA. But shortly after midnight, we docked at Mariehamn for a brief visit to Åland before continuing our journey to Finland.
It was a fairly rough crossing, particularly after a couple of duty-free cocktails, and we arrived in Helsinki exhausted and ready for a good sleep in a bed that wasn’t rocking.
We were a couple of hours early for check-in at Clarion Hotel and were afraid we’d have to fight sleep in the posh lobby. But they offered us an upgrade to a suite that was already ready, and we took luxuriously long showers, slipped on the plush bathrobes, and lowered the blackout shades.
A few hours later, we ventured downstairs for dinner at celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson’s Kitchen & Table restaurant. I ordered a glass of wine to accompany my steak, and as the waiter poured the glass, he gave me the last of the bottle.
“Ah! When you finish the bottle in Finland, it means you are going to be married,” he exclaimed.
Happily, sir. And celebrating our first decade together all year long.