The Baltic Sea was formed at the end of the last Ice Age, so it's fitting that most of the 24,000 islands that make up the Stockholm archipelago feel like ancient, rocky worlds of their own. They're also a summer playground for Stockholmers—some of the world's most wired urbanites—who abandon their march toward progress in favor of islands that would please a Luddite. They rent rustic red cottages or sail from island to island, mooring wherever the wind takes them, and swimming—naked, of course—in these cold, brackish waters. Given the variety of local produce, great restaurants have sprung up here and there, though there are no designer resorts or boutique hotels. Like Cape Cod 50 years ago, or the Outer Banks when it was still safe for wild horses, the place seems ripe for development. But so far, for better or worse, the Ian Schragers of Sweden have yet to notice.
I took a turn through the archipelago with my Swedish friend Petra, a graphic designer from Malmö who went to sailing camps out here as a child. She told me that Swedes prefer their nature straight up—fishing for their dinner, washing in the sea. When the only intrusions are minks eyeballing your picnic or eider ducks competing for your catch, who can blame them?Petra and I picked a half-dozen islands, from the popular to the stark, and checked out the rough-and-ready inns along the way. We also spent a few nights on a chartered sailboat—the ultimate archipelago experience.
GRINDA: OVER THE HILLS AND THROUGH THE WOODS
A sign near the public ferry dock, where we alight, is meant to indicate the path leading to Grinda Wärdshus, an inn famous for its restaurant. We think the dirt road we're on, which winds into the woods, is probably the right way, but it looks like a long walk. Inspired by a troop of Boy Scouts industriously setting up their tents on a beach near the dock, we hoist our bags over our shoulders and start up the trail. Grinda, known as the Green Island, is lush with ferns and pines and birch trees. Steady rain has muddied the path and we're not sure where we're going, but the wild blueberries and raspberries we eat along the way begin to make up for the feeling that we're lost. (For a second, I consider leaving a trail of Swedish kronor in our wake—just in case.) After only 10 minutes of hiking, we emerge from the woods and spot a stone building across a big field. No trail leads to it—none that we can find, at least—so we cut through the knee-high grass.
We're thrilled to find a fire going in the candlelit lobby. The inn, a Jugendstil villa, was built around 1906 as the summer residence of the chairman of the Nobel Foundation, and the woodwork still shows traces of painted flowers. Used for years as a summer camp for underprivileged children, it was made into an inn in 1995, but not a whole lot was changed. The 11 rooms are spartan, the bathrooms shared, the beds hostel-like cots. But among Stockholmers the rooms matter little; Grinda's big draw is the food.
Near the entrance, a sticker in the shape of a white wave announces that Grinda Wärdshus has received the Skärgårdssmak ("taste of the archipelago") seal of approval. Formed five years ago by a group of chefs, restaurateurs, and other Scandinavian foodies, Skärgårdssmak is dedicated to encouraging the use of local produce and fish. Grinda Wärdshus is one of 21 approved restaurants, and Stockholmers are willing to sail for more than an hour just for a meal here. It's worth the trek.
Tonight, even the foul weather hasn't kept away the faithful, who arrive on their own yachts. (That means they can pull up close to the restaurant and skip the hike through the woods.) The dining room is aglow with flickering candles that create the requisite Bergmanesque shadows on the mustard-colored walls and farmhouse furniture. Around us are doe-eyed couples cooing over champagne and lobster, a family with a squirmy child, and a foursome of urban trendies. In a nod to history, the menu lists a few dishes from the former Nobel chairman's chef, Miss Ingebord, such as her herring with dill mayonnaise. The rest is a spiced-up assortment of homey foods like cod and crab with coriander mashed potatoes, or roast chicken with sun-dried tomatoes and mascarpone cheese, and, for dessert, cheesecake with hawthorn berries and smoked raspberries.
Despite my rickety cot, I fall asleep easily and dream of Swedish Boy Scouts chasing us along endless paths through dark woods.