The Stockholm Archipelago, off the coast of Sweden, is home to about 24,000 islands.When I was a kid, my parents used to take the family to Fire Island, a narrow stretch of sand off the coast of Long Island, where no cars were allowed, for a couple of weeks of bodysurfing in the Atlantic. It was pure heaven. I could run free for days on end, play softball, listen to baseball on the radio,and even drop dimes into a pinball machine at the luncheonette — and my mother didn’t have to fret that I would get run over. Of course, I’m sure she did find something to worry about, that being part of her job description. We had no contact with the outside world except through my little red transistor radio, which brought in the Yankees games. ¶ Now that I live in Europe, I’ve been trying to find a way to recreate that experience, partly for my wife and myself, and partly for our 10-year-old, who has to be watched whenever she goes out on the streets of London. I checked out maps and travel guides about islands off the coasts of France, Italy, and Greece, but nothing jelled. Then a friend of a friend — a member of the Swedish parliament, no less, and an expert sailor — came over unexpectedly for dinner one night and told us about the islands off the coast of Sweden.
Leaving from Stockholm was a bonus. Many of the ferries depart from the heart of town, directly across the street from the fabled Grand Hôtel, which is the country’s finest hotel, and I felt I was trading one of the world’s most distinctive urban landscapes for points unknown. The boats depart with Swedish precision — right on time, not five seconds early or late. There were many smiles on board — for Swedes, this trip is a reward for enduring a long, harsh winter. Some come for an afternoon or a weekend; others stay for the entire summer.
From the ferry, you can admire the fine old steamships still in use a century after they were launched. The waterways are lined with many old wooden sailboats and fishing trawlers that are lovingly maintained and jealously guarded from savvy foreign purchasers. You can see the museum housing the Vasa warship, which sank in 1628 and was retrieved from the sea in 1961. Also visible are the gracious three-and four-story homes alongside the canals and the medieval architectural treasures of the Old Town. The skyline is still dominated by church spires, not high rises. Just half a mile from Stockholm, the waterways and the vistas open up. There are pine-covered rolling hills and sparkling blue seas, and the air is clear and crisp.
Once the islands come into view, you’ll see that they defy the popular image of island retreats as tropical paradises. They are not home to sandy beaches surrounded by coral, with a few palm trees thrown in; these are low-lying islands covered with pine forests that slope down to the sea. It is almost like a fairy tale: There are pretty little red cottages, beautifully trimmed lawns, boats tied up and ready for use, swans gliding near the boats, and, most of all, an overwhelming sense of quiet and calm, the total absence of hustle and bustle.
These islands on the northern fringes of Europe have a character that’s opposite that of the French Riviera — they’re not chic or show-offy, but casual through and through. Boaters are judged on their seamanship, not on their clothes or their watches or the sizes of their crafts. And the islands are incredibly welcoming to foreign tourists, even though 85 percent of the property is in private hands. In many countries, such private areas would be closed to outsiders, but in Sweden’s archipelago, visitors have the right to use the land and the waters, provided some sensible rules are followed. People are allowed to walk and to ride bicycles across private property as long as they don’t damage crops or trees, and they may not enter the area around private homes without permission. Camping is allowed for a limited time on property that is not being farmed and is also allowed on nature reserves. Rowing, sailing, kayaking, and swimming are allowed just about everywhere, and boats can be easily moored.
My arrival was slightly comical. Despite all my preparations, I didn’t quite expect to be dropped at a small jetty on the northern section of the island of Grinda to find nothing more than an empty shed, a wooden bench, and an unmarked path leading into the woods. There was no welcome committee, no tourist-information booth, nobody at all. Luckily, the path does indeed lead somewhere. After an easy 20-minute hike, I found the island’s only hotel and picked up a small map that made things clear. There were, in fact, cottages to rent, beaches to explore, and people on this island.
Grinda has a primeval beauty. The walking paths are wet with dew; the glades are filled with bright sunlight and dark shadows cast by the high trees. A deep quiet allows the sounds of the birds to amplify and take center stage. There are many small cottages, tents, and campsites half-hidden in the woods. A pump provides fresh water for drinking and cooking. Children run free, scrambling over lichen-covered rocks. During high summer, it stays light until almost 11 p.m.
This is an island noteworthy for what it is not. There is no gym, no disco, no hot tub, no Pilates class here. No one is fighting for the last ice cream bar in the store. Deep inside every wired, e-mailing multitasker is someone yearning to enjoy the sights and smells of the natural world, and this is the perfect place to find that part of yourself.
But lest it sound too rustic, rest assured that the single hotel here, the Grinda Wärdshus, offers some of the finer aspects of civilization, namely a restaurant that overlooks the sea and serves excellent wines as well as fresh fish and other Swedish delicacies. It is remarkable how much better food tastes when you can enjoy it while watching sailboats heeling in the distance.
The cottages for rent here are basic and inexpensive, and many who reserve them for a short visit end up wishing they could extend their stay indefinitely, or at least until the fall chill sets in. It seems to be a crime-free environment — people leave their kayaks lying around the shore, not even attempting to secure them, and cottages are left open.
“The archipelago has been and still is a bit of a well-kept secret,” Palmblad says. “The purity is one thing. The population here is quite small — you have the ability to be alone with nature, and that is very rare. And it’s nice to swim here, because it’s not that salty; it’s such a fresh experience. If we had the same weather as Greece, this would be one of the most visited places on earth, because when the weather is good here, there is nothing that can compare with it.”
Although the islands are close together, each seems quite different. Some are uninhabited and wild, offering visitors nothing more than a place to kayak or to camp or to hike through low hills. Others get a large number of visitors by day but quiet down again at night, making it easy to enjoy the long twilight that stretches almost to dawn during the summer months. And some, like Sandhamn, attract a fair number of serious sailors, which gives them a party feel at nighttime, when the boats are moored in the marinas. On Sandhamn, there are a few restaurants and nightclubs and guesthouses to choose from, but just a block away from the harbor, lovely small homes and flower gardens can be found on the paths cutting through the forest and leading to Trouville, a popular sandy beach. The scale of the small homes, seemingly built almost on top of each other, gives the village a warm, easy, intimate feel.
It is startling when the sunlight finally starts to fail at the end of a marathon summer day in Sandhamn. The air is soft and cottony. Above the water and to the east, the sky darkens to a blue-gray hue, but to the west, it still remains light blue and pink, a beautiful aura that will linger for an hour or so before true darkness falls.
It is relatively rare to run into other Americans on these islands, but I did spy some intrepid sailors flying the Stars and Stripes in a tiny cove on the island of Finnhamn, which offers new arrivals a restaurant and a general store at its harbor before giving way to its wilderness interior , where a handsome hostel awaits. From Finnhamn, it is easy to row to other islands, but the Americans I found had other plans — they were living aboard three impressive sailboats and slowly exploring the archipelago on an extended summer break.
Nick and Phyllis Orem invited me on board the Wassail, their 44-footer. It turns out that their winter home is in landlocked Lyme, New Hampshire, and their summer home — this year, at least — is afloat. They feel some loyalty to Sweden because their boat was built at a Swedish boatyard, and they leave it in Scandinavia each winter so it will be in place for summer explorations. It made sense to me — they were tied up in one of the loveliest spots I’ve ever seen. And Nick said the sailing in the archipelago is unlike any he has experienced in his extensive trips along the east and west coasts of the United States.
“It’s gorgeous,” he said. “The archipelago is just beautiful — you get plenty of wind, but there are no waves, because the water is always protected by islands. I don’t think there’s anything like this in the States. The coast of Maine is a little like this, but [there aren’t] nearly as many islands. It doesn’t have thousands and thousands of islands.”
They both raved about the quality of the food on the islands — fresh fish, beautiful meats and produce — and Phyllis said she would love to vacation on the archipelago even without her boat.
“This is fabulous,” she said. “The Swedes all speak English, so communication is very easy, and we’ve had no problem getting fantastic food. The cottages are very simple but usually well designed, so if you don’t need a lot of luxury, this is a great place to come.”
Like many Americans, I had never thought of spending a summer holiday in Scandinavia. I’d associated Sweden with long, cold winters, not with warm summer days — that is, until my surprise dinner guest told me about the thousands of lovely, accessible islands where progress and development has been held at bay. I found everything I was looking for there, except for the ball games on the radio.
If you go
Stockholm, the capital of Sweden, is the perfect jumping-off point for the islands of the Stockholm archipelago. Many of the main ferry companies leave from the dock in front of the Grand Hôtel; other ferry lines leave from docks that are within walking distance of the hotel. Information about departures is available in English at all the ticket windows, and ferry personnel speak English. Departures are frequent, and island-hopping is easy.
American Airlines flies to Stockholm in cooperation with oneworld partners British Airways (via London) and Finnair (via Helsinki).
In Stockholm, the Grand Hôtel (011-46-8-679-35-00, www.grandhotel.se) is perfectly situated and relatively expensive, but there are many midpriced hotels within walking distance of the docks. July and August are peak vacation months for Swedes, but the islands are accessible and lovely in late spring and early fall, as well, although swimming may be difficult at those times.
The official Stockholm tourism website, www.stockholmtown.com, has plenty of information about traveling to Stockholm and to the islands, including info on economical multiday ferry passes. Click on the British flag at the top right to access the English version of the site, and then on the “Archipelago” button on the homepage menu bar to learn more about the islands. This useful site has individual pages for many of the most popular islands, complete with hotel and restaurant guides.
Another excellent clearinghouse for information about lodging and restaurants on the islands is the website of the Archipelago Foundation, www.skargardsstiftelsen.se. This site lists hotels, youth hostels, campgrounds, and rental cottages. It also explains the guidelines for public access to the islands. Click on the British flag at the top right of any page on the site to access the English version.
The two main ferry lines are Waxholmsbolaget (011-46-8- 679-58-30, www.waxholmsbolaget.se) and Cinderella Båtarna (011-46-8-587-140- 50, www.stromma.se). Again, click on the British flag to access the English version of each site.
Some of the islands have well-equipped general stores, but some do not. It is probably wise to travel with sun protection, rain gear, and mosquito repellent. Comfortable walking shoes are essential. Visitors who are prone to seasickness should bring whatever medication they need to combat it. It isn’t necessary to bring bottled water or food unless you are planning an extended hike into remote areas.