These Tiny, Car-free Swedish Islands Are Your New Dream Summer Destination

With its cycling and strawberries, South Koster Island — part of Sweden's Koster archipelago — is the quintessential Scandinavian summer idyll.

View of cottages near Ekenas, South Koster island, Bohuslan County, Sweden.
Photo: Knut Ulriksson/Alamy

The Swedes have a word for it: smultronställe. Literally "wild strawberry spot," it's best translated as a quiet, almost mystically beautiful haven, somewhere hidden away from the rest of the world — a place that feels like it exists only for you. I knew the term from studying Swedish in college, but the meaning never sank in until I traveled to South Koster Island last year for a taste of how the Swedes summer. Though it's less than three hours by car and ferry from either Oslo or Göteborg, the Koster archipelago, which sits within a protected marine preserve off Sweden's wild western coast, feels light-years away from Scandinavia's legendary coolness.

It's a place of waves that lap at rocky outcrops and hilly pine forests that yield to meadows of vividly named flora, like delicate orchids the Swedes call Virgin Mary's keys and a moss known as goblin gold that glows a cartoonish neon green. The area around the preserve is one of the most biodiverse spots in Sweden, home to 12,000 different species. All the usual suspects — sheep, foxes, hares — are accounted for, and there's plenty for bird-watchers to cross off their lists (keep an ear out for the eider ducks' hilariously sarcastic calls). Kayaking in the fjord is one of the best ways to appreciate the wildlife, especially when the freckled, blobby harbor seals are sunning themselves on the shore.

You can visit either North or South Koster, both of which are essentially car-free. South Koster, the larger of the two, is only about three square miles and eminently hikeable. There are bikes for rent at two of the island's three ferry landings, some days just a few cruisers leaning beneath an honesty box. I hopped on one to get the lay of the land with Stefan von Bothmer, a marine biologist who has lived on South Koster for nearly 25 years and is one of the island's most enthusiastic boosters.

We kicked off our tour at what Stefan told me were the ruins of a late-Viking settlement, then pedaled down to the fishermen's harbor, which is lined with cute little A-frames in earthy colors. We biked past beach coves sheltered by wild roses and picture-perfect farmhouses, ending with a climb up to Valfjäll, South Koster's tallest "peak." It's a modest 160 feet, but on a clear day you can see forever — or at least as far as Norway.

Our bike ride ended at Stefan's vegetable garden and restaurant, Kosters Trädgårdar, which he runs with his wife, Helena, and a cooperative of other sustainability champions. Washed-up seaweed fertilizes the organic gardens; composting toilets nourish the surrounding forest; the farm is irrigated by a pond dug to catch rainwater and attract frogs, which in turn eat the insects, and — you get the idea.

But, as Stefan often says, the restaurant's ethos encompasses more than just ecological principles. He wants his customers to feel comfortable, to be treated well, to experience the pleasures of the Kosters' fresh tomatoes. There are no foraged micro-garnishes — just excellent, humble food, cobbled together from whatever's in season. In late spring, that could be slices of stellar seeded rye layered with cheese from down the coast, tiny strawberries, and a few peppery flowers from the front yard. Then maybe a rhubarb compote with almond meringue, all perfumed with lemon thyme.

If it's too nice to eat inside, swing by the von Bothmers' farm stand for picnic fixings: oat-fennel loaves and heady cardamom buns, little pots of plum-whisky jam, lingonberry juice sweetened with birch sap. You can supplement your haul at Kosters Rökeri, a restaurant and fish shop across the island that packs up treasures like smoked shrimp with aioli for takeout.

You can do a lot here in a short time, but hurried day-trippers might miss the point of the Kosters: to slow down, do less, savor more. I opted to stay the night at the recently rebuilt Kostergården, in a handsome clapboard stuga just off Kilesand beach. (Definitely pay the extra $20 for an unobstructed sea view.) All 22 cottages have two bedrooms plus a comfy, modern living room and kitchen, but my favorite feature was the large deck off the front. I stayed out there until long after the last ferry had gone, listening to the water and taking in the salt-and-juniper air. Looking up I saw, for the first time in my life, the Milky Way, streaked through with a zillion stars. It struck me that people have been drifting off to this same scene for thousands of years now, as long as the Kosters have been inhabited. Whatever it is that makes Scandinavia so cool, in that moment I felt very close to it, and very far away.

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