Generations of Swedes, from August Strindberg to Abba, have found refuge in the Stockholm archipelago. These Baltic islands remain the Greta Garbo of Swedish landscapes: steely and remote, and just as unlikely to be left alone
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.
SANDÖN: SHIPS AHOY
Sandön's village of Sandhamn is the epicenter of the Stockholm sailing world, about a half-hour from Grinda by ferry, toward the outer edge of the archipelago. The Royal Swedish Yacht Club (the KSSS), which runs one of Sweden's largest sailing schools, is headquartered here. (More than one person has pointed out to me that for Sweden's 9 million people, there are 6 million boats.) Had we arrived two weeks earlier, we would have witnessed the Gotland Runt—an annual 500-mile regatta from here to the island of Gotland and back. But all season long, the harbor is busy with boats.
Appropriately, Sandhamn is where we'll meet the skipper of our chartered boat. He won't arrive until the next morning, so we spend the afternoon lingering on the docks. Petra spots Olof Stenhammer, who, she says, is known in Sweden not only as the founder of the OM Bank and a friend of the king but also as the man who led the failed campaign to bring the 2004 summer Olympics to Stockholm. In a threadbare Polo pullover and Docksides loafers, he looks like any seasoned sailor. Younger types in Henry Lloyd sailing parkas (chic Sweden's offshore brand of choice) coil ropes, swab decks, chat with the neighbors. Later, we see many of the same people at Dykarbaren ("the divers' bar"), a hipsters' hangout with techno spilling out of the sound system. The sky is cloudy, but an orange-red sunset illuminates the windows. If I can trust the single adage I remember from my childhood sailing days on a Colorado lake—"Red sky at night, sailor's delight"—then we're in for a break from the overcast weather of the last few days.
After a morning stroll around Sandön and a stop at the island's 150-year-old bakery, Sandhamns Bageri, for some "sailors' buns"—swirled with cardamom, raisins, and butter—we head to the docks. There we find our skipper, Gustav, and his first mate, Joel, busy arranging ropes and winches on the deck of the Josephine, a 46-foot Swan. Gustav and Joel are both in their twenties, reserved, almost formal. Joel, tall and blond with determined features, extends a hand to help us step aboard; Gustav wastes no time showing us where things are—the life jackets, refrigerator, CD player, TV. The idea of sitting belowdecks watching TV seems absurd, but I suppose it might be a welcome diversion on a rainy day. "You wouldn't want to miss Ally McBeal," Gustav says dryly.
He and Joel are industrial design students at a university in Sweden's far north. Both spent summers here when they were growing up, and Gustav was stationed in the archipelago while in the navy. As it happens, the Swedish Navy's two gorgeous double-masted schooners, Gladan and Falken, were anchored in the harbor overnight; this is a rare sight, I'm told, since they're almost always training on the open ocean. As we cast off, Petra and I wave at the fetching naval apprentices. We get a few salutes in return—and a ribbing from our own two-man crew.
In a couple of minutes we're out on the open sea, skimming past small islands that are barren but for clusters of red cottages, each with a Swedish flag hoisted high in front. Petra thinks the ubiquitous flags signify not a deep-felt patriotism but a general appreciation for good design—the simple beauty of a yellow cross on a blue background. Suspecting some kind of collective color consciousness, I ask why the cottages out here are invariably red, whereas the large houses on islands closer to Stockholm are almost always yellow. My Swedish companions surprise me by knowing the answer, which is disappointingly simple: in the early 1900's, red paint was the cheapest; Stockholm's nobility saved the more precious yellow for their châteaux, closer to the city. Of course, nowadays it's far more chic to have one of these red fishing cottages—the more rustic and remote, the better.
STORA HUSARN: RX SAUNA
Eugen Wikström, a third-generation resident of the archipelago, is the owner of Thindra Charter, guardian of our Josephine. It was Eugen's grandfather who helped found the Royal Swedish Yacht Club and organized the races in the 1920's that evolved into the Gotland Runt. After a career as a music producer and manager of the eighties rock band Europe, Eugen started Thindra Charter in 1987. The latest addition to the fleet of luxury yachts and speedboats is an 80-foot racer that has been sailed by the Olympian and America's Cup winner Robbie Doyle.
"I wanted to offer an authentic experience," says Eugen. "Sandhamn and Vaxholm are what Bourbon Street is to New Orleans, or Fisherman's Wharf is to San Francisco. I wanted to take people to places they couldn't get to otherwise, where they can water-ski or just stop for a sauna on a private island." One such outpost is Stora Husarn, where we're headed for a sauna and lunch. We're joined by Eugen's wife, Malin, who used to be a professional wind surfer, and their six-year-old son, Edgar.
The island belongs to a physician friend of Eugen's, who could have inspired the main character of one of Sweden's most popular TV dramas, Skärgårdsdoktorn ("archipelago doctor"). In the show, Samuel Fröler (who starred in Ingmar Bergman's Best Intentions) is cast as a dashing medic who races around in a speedboat saving lives and resolving messy entanglements. Alas, the real doctor's not in today, but we still get a look at his 19th-century wooden house.
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.
The only way to really see the Stockholm archipelago is by private boat, but the public ferry (Waxholmbolaget; 46-8/679-5830) makes regular trips to major islands. An Inter-Skerries card, good for 16 days of unlimited ferry travel, is $30. For maximum sun exposure, go between late June and early August.
Thindra Charter 1 Sjövillan Örlogsvägen, Stockholm; 46-8/611-5690, fax 46-8/611-5635; skippered charters on a Swan sailboat (sleeps six) from $1,350 per day, $5,200 per week. Privacy, flexibility, and expert guides. With a dozen sailboats, four RIB's (rigid inflatable boats), and two J-class wooden motorboats (new this year), Thindra can take you just about anywhere. Owner Eugen Wikström is the ultimate insider, granting access to private islands and little-known sights; guests are also free to plan their own itineraries.
Lindblad Expeditions 800/397-3348 or 212/765-7740; nine days from $2,490 per person, double. Lindblad's Impressions of a Swedish Summer trip includes three nights in Stockholm, with day trips, and four nights on the islands in hotels and inns. Groups (which can include as many as 49 people) travel aboard a 128-foot yacht and can enjoy guided walks with a local naturalist, saunas, kayaking, and lunches on private islands.
Sweden House 27 Hamngatan, Stockholm; 46-8/789-2495, fax 46-8/789-2491. Sweden House's Excursion Shop can arrange day trips or weeklong itineraries for any budget, or help to charter a boat or rent a cottage.
Grinda Grinda Wärdshus Södra bryggan; 46-8/5424-9491, fax 46-8/5424-9497; doubles from $157; dinner for two $69. The restaurant is popular, so book your table even if you're staying at the hotel.
Sandön Sandhamns Värdshus 46-8/5715-3051, fax 46-8/5715-3240; doubles from $165; dinner for two $27. Hearty fish-and-potato dishes. Dykarbaren 46-8/5715-3554; dinner for two $50. Try the duck breast with leeks and chanterelles, or halibut with applesauce. Great cocktails. Sandhamns Bageri This bakery has remained largely unchanged since opening in 1850. Try the sailors' buns and the rum-filled "vacuum cleaner" cakes.
Utö Utö Värdshus Gruvbryggan; 46-8/5042-0300, fax 46-8/5042-0301; doubles from $156; dinner for two $50. Avoid the prefab cabins and ask for a room in the 18th-century stone house. The restaurant serves good, substantial food such as fish cakes with spinach and caviar, and chicken mousse with apple chutney and bacon. Have a drink at the inn's bakfickan, or "back pocket," bar and disco, housed in an 18th-century outbuilding. Cyclerent Utö harbor; 46-8/5015-7450. Rent your sturdy, three-speed, black Skeppshult, the Swedish bike of choice, from here. Hamnmagasinet (and kiosk) Utö harbor; 46-8/5015-7450. Striped cotton T-shirts and linen pants and shorts, as well as carved wooden ducks and boats, are sold at the store, while the kiosk sells Lejonet & Björnen, the same ice cream that's served at the Nobel Prize dinners. The lingonberry is a must. Båtshaket Ålö; 46-8/5015-7463; lunch for two $25. This place is owned by a husband and wife: he does the fishing; she does the cooking.
Vaxholm Vaxholm Hembygdsgård 19 Trädgårdsgatan; 46-8/5413-1980; tea and cakes for two $10. Try the mazarines (marzipan confections in baking cups), vanillajärta (cakey, vanilla-flavored heart-shaped sandwich cookies), or grädd bollar (round chocolate cakes filled with marshmallow, rolled in coconut flakes). Waxholms Hotell 2 Hamngatan; 46-8/5413-0150, fax 46-8/5413-1376; doubles from $149; lunch for two $29. The herring bar offers a dozen kinds of the salty fish. Magasinet 1 Fiskaregatan; 46-8/5413-0505. House and kitchen objects by Swedish designers, such as handblown glass from Design House, and fabrics by Hills & Knowles.
DAY TRIPS FROM STOCKHOLM
Hotel J 1 Ellensviksväg, Nacka Strand; 46-8/601-3000, fax 46-8/601-3009; www.hotelj.com; doubles from $196. This small, stylish hotel is a convenient base for day trips to the islands by public ferry. The nautical touches are set off by blond wood and white paint. At breakfast, a cook is on hand in the open kitchen to make pancakes and omelettes.
A tube of Kalles Kaviar. It looks like children's toothpaste, but it's the ketchup of Sweden. Made of cod roe,sugar, and salt, Kalles is best squeezed onto eggs, crackers, and sandwiches.