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Biking through Finland with the kids

The Turku Archipelago is criss-crossed with a network of scenic ferries routes and quiet roads; perfect for families exploring on two wheels

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Carolyn Beasley on 26 Sep 2018

The Straits Times

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We have not come to Finland for an adrenaline rush. This family cycling trip is supposed to be a soft adventure, shared together in the great outdoors.

 

But when my eight-year-old daughter catches her tyre on the side of the road, my heart is pounding double time.

 

Her fall happens in slow motion - first the wobble, then the over-correct, then finally a sideways topple onto the dirt and bushes beside the road.

 

A couple of tears and a plaster on the knee and she's soon laughing again. And more happiness is to come.

 

"Mum, look at this," she cries from the road-side bank. "It's tiny strawberries."

 

My two sons, aged 14 and 11, discover the roadside bounty also includes wild blueberries, and the whole family gorges on the extraordinary sweetness that cannot be found in any packaged berry.

 

TURKU ARCHIPELAGO

 

My family is cycling in the Turku Archipelago, which consists of 20,000 islands in south-west Finland.

 

We are on a self-guided tour, allowing us the flexibility to travel at our own pace, but with the luxury of luggage transport between pre-booked accommodation.

 

Our tour will take five days, including four days of cycling, and starts and finishes 170km west of Helsinki in Turku, Finland's oldest city.

 

We will cover at least 150km, zig-zagging across 10 islands interspersed with fingers of mainland, using nine car ferries and too many bridges to count.

 

Our route explores village streets, cycleways, quiet backroads and a variety of Finnish accommodation.

 

But why tour the archipelago by bike?

 

Unlike driving, where scenery flashes by the car window and kids stare at an iPad, cycling will immerse us in this slow-paced, natural environment. The terrain of my chosen tour is fairly flat, and the ferry journeys will provide welcome rests on the Baltic Sea.

 

THE ADVENTURE BEGINS

 

Tom Carling of Vastergard Outdoors (vastergard.fi) arrives at our hotel with a utility vehicle full of bikes.

 

He arranges panniers (saddle-bags) to carry our rain jackets, cameras and water bottles, then hands us maps, ferry timetables and accommodation vouchers. All we need to do now is pedal.

 

With much excitement, we set off from Turku. After a stop at the mediaeval Turku Castle, we proceed to the postcard town of Naantali.

 

Historic houses built from wooden planks and painted pastel colours exude charm and flowers burst from over-sized pots on cobbled streets.

 

Those with more time can visit the theme park Moomin World (moominworld.fi), where much-loved children's book characters are celebrated.

 

Located 5km south of the town, our accommodation is a modern family unit attached to Kultaranta Golf Resort (kultarantaresort.fi/en) with a delightful view of the forest.

 

CRANES AND STRAWBERRIES

 

We wake to the invigorating smell of pine, and gingerly climb back on our bikes.

 

In the sleepy village of Merimasku, a tiny guest marina incorporates a cafe full of deliciously home-baked cakes, and that's where we stop for breakfast.

 

The road continues through pine and birch forest, interspersed with small farming hamlets. A pair of long-legged common cranes promenade in a glossy green field of wheat, and a wild deer leaps into the forest.

 

Discovering a road-side strawberry stall, I call a halt. Bigger than the wild variety, these strawberries are just as sweet, and we greedily devour a large punnet of them, along with freshly picked peas, popped straight from their pods.

 

At a small supermarket, we stock up on smoked salmon, sliced cheese and dark rye flat-bread and picnic by the ocean as we wait for our first ferry crossing from Teersalo to Hakkenpaa.

 

FINNISH FERRIES ARE FREE

 

Riding our bikes onto the ferry is a great novelty.

 

Finland has approximately 180,000 islands, spread across the ocean and enormous freshwater lakes.

 

With the population of many islands being tiny, the government provides free car ferries instead of bridges.

 

Larger ferries have a cafe, toilets and indoor seating, while on smaller ones we wait on the deck with our bikes.

 

After our first ferry crossing, we cycle along a slightly nerve-racking busier road, and by the time we arrive at the quiet Peterzens Boathouse Hotel (peterzens.fi/en), a light drizzle has started. Our cosy waterfront cabins are a welcome sight.

 

FLOWERS AND CINNAMON

 

Glorious sunshine greets us the next morning for another ferry ride, this time to Jumo Island.

 

Cycling across this island, it's then on to Inio Island.

 

As with much of the trip, spectacular wildflowers line the roadside. Masses of lupines in pinks and purples mix with vibrant summer bluebells and white daisies, buzzing with fuzzy bumblebees.

 

If Finland had a national morning tea dish, it would be korvapuusti - cinnamon rolls with a hint of cardamom and a sprinkling of pearl sugar.

 

My family has been eating lots of them and we declare the korvapuusti in Cafe Gamla Banken (facebook.com/cafegamlabanken) in the village of Norrby the best.

 

From the cafe's leafy deck, a fellow korvapuusti-eater points out a midsummer pole.

 

Towards the end of June, the residents of every town erect the pole and cover it with flowers, vines and ribbons for the midsummer festival. The festival involves dancing and a midnight bonfire.

 

Although the flowers are now wilted on the pole we see, the flag at the top will continue to wave jubilantly all summer.

 

HOUTSKAR ISLAND

 

The ferry to Mossala weaves through islands, past summer cottages and waterfront docks where families are seen paddling kayaks.

 

Skipping across several more idyllic islands on ferries, we reach Houtskar, where we stop for a break at a lookout tower.

 

It is a breathtaking panorama - verdant pine forest, low rocky islands and calm ocean extend in every direction, with barely a trace of humans.

 

Our historic bed and breakfast in the hamlet of Hyppeis (hotelhyppeis.fi/en) is a former school house.

 

The whole family decides to brave a swim here, but when I jump in from the dock, the freezing water is like a vice around my lungs, forcing out a shout as I surface.

 

It is 13 deg C, but the locals, who in winter cut a hole in the ice to swim, consider this toasty.

 

My daughter and I warm up in the sauna during the "ladies only" timeslot.

 

We meet a friendly middle-aged Finnish woman, from whom I try to learn Finnish sauna traditions.

 

"Is it about getting clean, relaxing muscles or socialising?" I ask.

 

"It's all of that," she answers with a laugh and proceeds naked to the semi-sheltered deck outside for the cooling phase of the sauna ritual.

 

But my daughter and I prudishly enjoy the cool air wrapped in towels before steaming up again.

 

Dinner at the hotel is a gastronomic affair. A guest chef from Helsinki whips up innovative dishes with local produce, and the menu includes herring creations and lamb tartare with matching wines.

 

Later, we retire to our antique-style room, with barely enough energy to admire the view of a late-night Finnish sunset.

 

THE LAST LEG

 

We wake up to the journey's final leg, a stretch of 54km.

 

After traversing the remainder of Houtskar and Korpo, the route continues to Nagu. Quiet gravel roads wind through fields of green wheat and golden canola, dotted with rusty-red wooden houses.

 

We picnic on a small dock beside an ocean inlet under an especially blue sky, complete with high, wispy clouds of pure white.

 

Later, we coast into quaint Nagu Village. Bars, cafes and boutiques spill onto the foreshore promenade and we join the Finnish tourists milling around with ice creams.

 

A final 12km reunites us with Tom Carling at Vastergard.

 

He serves dinner in his home, including homemade cheesecake, and we collapse happily in his converted-barn guest house.

 

The next day we're on a bus to Turku and I passively observe the scenery while the kids are glued to the iPad. Frankly, it seems a little dull compared to the days before.

 

But the family memories have been made, and the shared adventure is a gift we will treasure forever.

 

• Carolyn Beasley is an Australian freelance travel and environment writer based in Singapore.

 

Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.