“Face your demons head-on,” beams Patrik, my rugged kayaking guide who had me swooning before the philosophical sound bites kicked in. “Fear lingers until it’s conquered.” Although I trust him, every bone in my body wants to disobey.
We’ve been bobbing along Bohuslan, a chunk of West Sweden’s fragmented coastline, for a couple of hours. Sheltered by rocky outcrops, the water is so calm that seagrass, starfish, jellies and shells are visible shimmering far below. Curious seals occasionally pop up to survey goings-on, and seagulls soar overhead.
I had worried that West Sweden would be too perfect and pristine, but there’s a bleakness to the landscape that feels exhilaratingly wild. Rock grey and sea blues stretch as far as the eye can see, peppered only by red cabins perching precariously above the water. “I want you to feel the ferocity of the open sea, so you understand the landscape,” Patrik continues, ushering us towards a rising swell.
There’s reason to the madness: the Gothenburg Archipelago is made up of 5,000-odd islands stretching 174 miles from Gothenburg to Norway. Some are forested and populated with pretty fishing villages; others are seemingly lifeless, craggy outposts (only up close do you notice rainbows of lichens and mosses). Beyond the Skagerrak, a strait between Denmark, Sweden and Norway, the North Sea broils all the way to Aberdeen. Despite my fear of capsizing, we head straight for it. Rolling about like a rubber duck, furiously paddling and heart pumping, freezing sea spray hits my face and I beam with adrenalin. “Life is all about contrasts,” Patrik shouts above the waves before we retreat to more hospitable waters.
My journey started 48 hours earlier in Gothenburg, Europe’s greenest and Sweden’s second-largest city. Switching roads for centuries-old sailing routes, I waved goodbye to the neoclassical streets and artsy canals from the deck of a Stromma ferry. Although a couple of hours slower than by road, sun loungers, sea views and a buffet help to while away time on board. Being car-free comes with another bonus, too; as a foot passenger, it’s possible to island-hop by ferry all the way to the Norwegian border.
The first stop isn’t quite the remote idyll I’d expected. Thanks to centuries of fortunes rolling in from herring and Gothenburg’s elite, the yachting island of Marstrand has never been short on cash – hence its ornate shop fronts, fancy boats and towering mansions. The 13th-century church is one of the region’s oldest, and the looming fortress of Carlsten is a reminder that these islands once fluctuated between Danish, Norwegian and Swedish rule. Today the vibe is jet-set; beer and crayfish flow as freely as people around the cobbled harbour front, although it’s possible to find solitude on an around-the-island hiking trail.
After a two-minute ride on the Lasse-Maja – a ferry named after an 18th-century fortress inmate famous for cross-dressing and stealing from the rich to give to the poor (“like Robin Hood in drag”, the ferry master utters) – I’m back on the mainland, and checking into Marstrands Havshotell. This 144-room stalwart is my first taste of how effortlessly hipster Swedish hospitality is; light dances around minimal interiors, food is proudly local, and health and beauty radiate from every nook of the spa. Feeling somewhat inadequate, I head straight to the floating sauna to cleanse while watching yachts come and go. Some visiting Finns welcome me into their heated (in every sense of the word) debate about art and climate change, but before reaching consensus heckle me into the freezing water.
The next day terra firma calls and I jump on a 20-minute ferry to the car-free hiking idyll of Dyron, which is greener than its neighbours and has had inhabitants for more than 3,000 years (Stone Age settlements have been found on the west of the island). Since then, it has hosted farmers, fishermen and today 250 permanent residents share the island with a herd of elusive mouflon sheep. The three-mile walking trail around the island is the best way to take it all in. Heather and gorse-clad tracks meander up and over smooth boulders and down into deep, granite ravines. At one point a snake scuttles out of my path, and a blue tit joins me for a picnic of pickled chanterelles, herring and sourdough bread from the island shop.
The highest point offers unparalleled views over Marstrand Fjord, where endless islands – some grey slabs, others, like Astol, impossibly chocka with neat wooden houses – jut up out of the deep blue. Inland, the residential melee has a Truman Show air about it; silver-haired men run errands on electric tricycles, and robotic mowers keep lawns intact.
Next stop is Kladesholmen, a sprig of an island off Tjorn, which is famous for the unlikely combination of watercolours and herring. I feast on the latter at Salt and Sill, Sweden’s only floating hotel with award-winning sillplankan (herring tasting plate), alongside algae chips, cured cod and crayfish broth. After a morning dip, no more than two steps from my bed, I head across the road to meet Patrik and embark on the “World’s Sweatiest Art Tour”.
Contrasts aplenty, we spend the day kayaking and mountain biking between sea and forest, feasts and art. After surviving the kayaking episode, the bijou little port of Skarhamn and its vast Nordic Watercolour Museum – hosting Louise Bourgeois and Lars Lerin – feel worlds away. Salt-crusted and windswept, we restore civility over loaded plates of meatballs, cranberries and mash at Paternoster Krog and Café, named after the archipelago’s much-loved lighthouse that, for centuries, fishers have prayed to on their way out to sea. Full and exhausted, we’re beckoned inland by a white tower glistening on a hilltop. We hurtle down country lanes, through farmland, and over bumpy forest tracks to Pilane – an unassuming village home to Pilane Sculpture Park. As we stomp past Neolithic graves and eerie Laura Ford and Johan Creten installations, Jaume Plensa’s Anna soars into view – a 14-metre-high face looking serenely out to sea. It’s one of the most staggering pieces of art I’ve ever seen, yet the place is deserted. “People are drawn to the sea, and it’s surprisingly hard to pull them inland, but we’re trying to open minds, for locals and visitors alike,” our guide tells us.
After a restorative fika (midafternoon hot drink and snack), I head back to the mainland and north to Ljungskile. Derived from ljunge (heather) and kile (bay), its unique climate, where sea and pine forest meet, has been sought-after since Victorian times. A rainbow of mansions lines the steep-sided bay up to Villa Sjotorp – my fairy-tale digs for the night. Already teetering on the edge of a full-blown love affair with Sweden, I’m pushed over the edge by Villa Sjotorp. Forget any contrived notions of hygge; this is the real deal – soft sunlight billows on to eclectic antiques and arts and crafts furnishings, creating an old-world atmosphere. Built by forebears of the current owners in 1901, the house was shipped in pieces along the Gota Canal to this lofty spot overlooking islets, forest and the sea.
Over a five-course feast – all local and organic, including mouth-watering langoustines fried in brown butter served with marigold leaves, and cauliflower pave – head chef Patrick Stromvall enthuses about Sweden’s slow food ethos: “It’s how we’ve always done things: pickling and curing to preserve local flavours for use year-round.” Even the language seems to be in tune with this inherent respect for the land. “On its journey to the coast Villa Sjotorp passed smultronstalle, which means the place where wild strawberries grow,” Patrick continues. It seems everything here has its time and place.
The next day I saunter down the hill to local institution Musselbaren, a seafood restaurant that takes willing guests out on a 30ft fishing boat in search of lunch. Depending on the season, this could be any one of Sweden’s big five: lobster, oysters, prawns, mussels and crayfish.
With coffee on the go, chief seafood collector Anton and I putter out into a thick sea fret to find some juicy mussels. Underwhelmed at the prospect of mussel farming, I’m soon enthralled. These carbon-neutral, water-filtering, brainless little morsels of protein could answer many of the world’s problems. Only if you go about it like the Swedes, mind. “The Danes scrape the mussels from the seabed causing much damage along the way – we prefer to grow them on belts,” Anton explains. “The French eat with their eyes and like them dainty, but we like them big and juicy, which gives them more time to filter toxins out of the water.”
After picking through spider crabs, razor clams and sea slugs we slurp down three-year-old mussels straight from the belt. They are tastier cooked, especially at Musselbaren in a vast pan filled with rapeseed oil, white wine and a mouth-watering brunoise. We feast in Musselbaren’s iconic clock tower, once donated by King Oscar, and discuss Greta, living off-grid and travel philosophy while watching the sea fret dissipate under a warming sun.
Back at Villa Sjotorp I reluctantly pack up, and flicking through a dog-eared guest book a comment jumps off the page: “Narrow thoughts and small ideas would get this house to crumble.” Beneath the pretty pictures and squeaky-clean reputation, these small islands aren’t afraid to think big – a contrast that, from broiling seas to elk-filled forests and eco-minded chefs to sculpture parks, could be easily missed if you’re not going slow.
Holly Tuppen travelled pre-Covid-19. Original Travel (020 3582 4990; originaltravel.co.uk) offers a four-night trip to West Sweden from £1,680pp based on two people including return flights London to Gothenburg. The train via Hamburg with overnight stops each way costs an extra £670pp.