A Visit to the Headless Colonel and “The Valley of Death”

Nothing can beat a day sailing in the Helsinki Archipelago

While many will think of Helsinki as being a snow bound city that spends much of its time in darkness, you may be surprised to hear that it is also a beautiful harbour capital with many stunning beaches tucked into an incredible archipelago of nature covered islands.

Last Friday saw our office have their annual “Kyöstin kesäpäivät” (a celebration of one of our bosses name day), so in true Finnish style we hired an old wooden sailing ship and spent the day sailing around the Helsinki Archipelago.

Our transport for the day was “M/Aux Astrid” a traditional 2 masted wooden sailing ship built in 1949 in Porvoo as a coastal trader.   We set out from Pohjoissatama (North Harbour) under the watchful eye of one of Helsinki’s most notable landmarks, Uspenski Cathedral.   The sails are soon unfurled and we are at one with nature as we glide through the water under full sail.  We spent the morning sailing around the archipelago, past Korkeasaari (home of Helsinki Zoo) and on towards Vallisaari, which has only recently been opened to the public.

Uspenski Cathedral
Parked up for lunch

Home of Pilots, Soldiers and Ghosts

After parking up at Vallisaari we enjoyed a delicious lunch on board then went for a walk around the historic island whose history dates back to the 17th century when it was first inhabited as the island home of the harbour pilots who guided ships in and out of Helsinki Harbour.  Through the 18th and 19th Centuries the Island fell under Russian control and fortifications were built in the cause of the war against Sweden.

Map of the Island

In 1906 some rebels of the Russian Revolution took over the island and bombarded Viapori causing a huge explosion of the gun powder supply, killing dozens of people, with the area now being referred to as “Hell Valley”.   In another explosive incident in 1937, twelve lives were lost after an accident at an ammunition manufacturing facility which apparently spread so much explosive material around the area that it is still dangerous to venture off the marked paths due to the risk of igniting it….  This incident resulted in a number of chain reaction explosions in adjacent buildings and this area is now known as the “Valley of Death”.   Also during the rebellion of 1906 a Colonel A.D. Notara was gruesomely killed after being shot several times then being thrown with a stone hanging around his neck from the bridge between Iso Mustasaari and Susisaari into the sea.   His ghost has supposedly roamed the island ever since and was scary enough for soldiers on night patrol to avoid that part of the island…   The island was inhabited until 1996 when the last regular residents left and has been under the auspices of the Finnish Defence Forces until recent times.

View across Suomenlina towards Helsinki City, with its 7 spires

The island is now open to visitors for day visits, with camping and overnight stays prohibited due to the delicate natural environment and danger associated with unknown deposits of gunpowder.   From Vallisaari you get some beautiful views across to Suomenlinna and back towards Helsinki as well as the rest of the Archipelago.   The island itself is home to a beautiful array of flora and fauna, including bats and badgers.  It is amazing that you can be in such lush stands of vegetation within 20 minutes of Helsinki City.

Forest on Vallisaari

After enjoying the lush beauty of Vallisaari, it was back onto Astrid, sails up and enjoy the sail back to the city with a few beers and wines.

Heading Home, with Helsinki Cathedral in the distance

Vallisaari Fact File

Getting there

A regular water bus service runs from Market Square to Vallisaari and operates from May till September.

Return fares (at time of writing) are

  • adults € 7
  • children 7-16 yrs. € 3.50

First departures are around 10:15 am with the last return around 8:00pm, check here for exact schedule as it varies throughout the season.


The island is suitable for the whole family, although care should be taken.   It is recommended to wear suitable hiking boots or sturdy shoes and take suitable clothing as would be sensible when out day hiking in case of bad weather.


There are a couple of cafes on the island along with numerous watering stations, toilets and picnic areas.  Also note that the southern part of Vallisaari is off limits to the public.

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Tony Fitzpatrick
Architect, Dad, Traveller & Head Rover at Around Rock 3
After a brief flirtation with Japan in the early '90's, and some occasional trips to Australia since, I have had an unrequited love affair with Japan and general desire to explore the world for the next 20 years while reality prevailed and I found myself pretty much stuck in my home country of New Zealand (not that is an entirely bad thing...).After a chance opportunity arose in mid 2012 to relocate our family to Moscow, Russian Federation I finally set off on my OE with my family in tow. It has been an amazing journey that has seen us experience life in Russia, Japan and now Finland, as well as visiting around a dozen countries so far in our adventure to date.While my family situation has changed along the way, I am continuing to explore the world with my tri-lingual son and enjoy sharing the adventures we have had with my followers.

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