UTÖ: AT PLAY ON SOLID GROUND
We haven't been at sea very long, but we've heard Utö is a must-stop for long bike rides and afternoons at the beach. So Petra and I tear ourselves from the Josephine for 24 hours on terra firma.
In mid bike ride, a flock of sheep, bleating in concert, stampedes after us. We pedal like mad, sure that an angry farmer can't be far behind. We're still laughing when we get to the wooden deck of the Båtshaket, a fish shack on Ålö island, which is connected to Utö's southern end by a causeway. Except for a Swiss man and his teenage children and an elderly couple, everyone at the fish shack looks like a member of a film crew—black T-shirts, sneakers, walkie-talkies hanging from their jeans. Our lunch arrives in wooden boxes: thick potato salad and mounds of plump smoked shrimp, salmon, and eel, dressed up with fresh dill and lemon. All I can say is, I'm sorry I won't be around for the Båtshaket's upcoming Eel King and Queen party, in which the first couple to catch an eel with their bare hands will be crowned.
We're just about to get on our bikes when Samuel Fröler, a.k.a. the Archipelago Doctor, comes into the restaurant. They've just finished shooting a scene behind a nearby promontory. Petra and I dream up the next episode: The Eel King and Queen coronation ceremony is interrupted by a young farmer who brings the news that two beach-bound girls have been thrown from their bicycles and stampeded by his flock of sheep. The doctor cuts through the crowd and runs to the rescue.
Back on the bike path, we head to one of Utö's wild beaches and find it almost deserted. The ride from one end of Utö to the other takes almost an hour. At the village harbor, I find the perfect ending of a perfect day at the bottom of a double cone of lingonberry ice cream.
HALLSKÄR: EVIDENCE OF A LOST WORLD
We spend an afternoon sailing to nowhere in particular, stopping for swims in the cool water of the Baltic. We chat about a moose that swam from Sweden to Denmark, Gustav's adventures in the Swedish Navy, Cold War encounters with Russian submarines in these waters. Watching Joel and Gustav navigate the sea's black surface, I can't help but think of the Little Prince exploring some fantastic planet. The northern summer sun casts an ethereal haze, but when the sky clouds over, the hundreds of flat landmasses seem petrified and bleak.
Yet up close they're full of life. Moss, shrubs, and hearty wildflowers thrive in crevices. Swans, in white feathery clusters, hold firm against the Baltic gusts, dipping into the shallow shores for seaweed and grass. Flocks of eider ducks, which can dive as deep as 35 feet for food ("without gear," Gustav jokes), quack and squawk. We even spot a mink slinking around on one small skerry when we disembark for a walk.
On our last night, we moor at Hallskär, worthy of Strindberg's description of these islands as "primeval." The Baltic crashes and churns angrily against the island's eastern edge, but on the west side, where we're anchored, all is serene. We have only one neighbor, a skinny-dipping couple on a lovely wooden yacht just down the shore from us. It's a clear night, and it's eventually dark enough to see stars and the moonlit glow of some swans facing into the wind. Tomorrow we sail back to the city, but for now the world is this island, watched over by regal birds and guarded by nymphs in wooden sailing ships.
On the way back to Stockholm, we stop at Vaxholm, still an hour from the city. A tiny sign at the end of an alley directs us to a hembygdsgård, which Petra tells me means, roughly, "historical information center and snack shop." The translation strikes me as inauspicious, but the place turns out to be a charming bakery and fishing museum in a 19th-century cottage. Best of all, there's a table covered with trays of traditional Swedish cookies and cakes and juicy blueberry tarts. In finer weather we'd have gone outside to the hedged garden, presided over by shady asps, and watched the boats go by, but the rainy day brings a wistful end to our odyssey.