The Åland Islands are a mid-sized archipelago with full autonomy, but connected closely to Finland. The islands cover 5,270 square miles (13,510 sq. km), making them a bit smaller than Hawaii. The Åland Islands consist of more than 300 small islands, near both Finland and Sweden.
The Åland Islands were first inhabited some 6000 years ago, with advanced cultures appearing around the 2nd millennium BCE. By the 10th century the Åland Islands had become significantly populated, and engaged in trade with much of the Western world and the Middle East.
Because of the strategic location of the Åland Islands in the Baltic Sea, particularly their control of one of the major entrances to the port at Stockholm, the Åland Islands were the site of a number of early castles and forts. In the 14th century Finland took control of the islands, and erected Kastelholm Castle.
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Over the next few hundred years, the strategic importance of the islands for Russia, Finland, Denmark, and Sweden meant that the islands switched ownership many times. In the early 19th century Sweden handed over control of the islands to Russia, which made them part of the Grand Duchy of Finland.
Russian control of the islands was of concern not only for Sweden, but for Britain as well. Britain was engaged in a great deal of maritime trade in the Baltic Sea, and worried that if the Russians built up a large military presence on the Åland Islands, if hostilities broke out British trade would be severely hampered. The British spoke up, but Russia ignored their complaints, building a number of fortresses on the islands.
When the Crimean War broke out in the mid-19th century, the British and their French allies attacked Russian bases on the Åland Islands, destroying a number of the major fortresses. Two years later it was agreed that the Åland Islands would henceforth remain demilitarized, effectively acting as a maritime demilitarized zone between Northern Europe and Russia.
In 1917, Finland declared its independence from Russia, and the Åland Islands became a part of the now sovereign nation of Finland. Sweden immediately reopened the issue of the islands, pushing to have them ceded to them to become a part of Sweden. The vast majority of people on the island, who spoke Swedish and considered themselves in many ways Swedish, supported a transfer to Sweden, but Finland refused for strategic reasons. The issue was ultimately put to the new League of Nations, which decided that the Åland Islands should be granted full autonomy, but remain a holding of Finland. Swedish culture was allowed to flourish under the new autonomy, with Swedish being the only national language, and Swedish culture dominating the landscape.
The natural history of the Åland Islands is their main draw as a tourist attraction. There are literally hundreds of islands in the archipelago, and although only about eighty are inhabited, many of the others are home to beautiful wildlife and unspoiled scenery. Many of the islands are protected nature areas, with well-maintained paths guiding visitors through beautiful meadows, rich pine forests, and rugged cliff-sides to view the diverse flora and fauna of the islands, including many rare species of orchid.
A small airport connects the Åland Islands to both Sweden and Finland. Boats also connect the islands to the Finnish mainland and Sweden. Once on the islands, there are inter-island ferries which run regularly and are free for those on foot.