Sailing the Swedish islands

by Jonathan Lorie

“You eat it with a knife and fork,” smiles Jane, my blonde-haired Swedish cousin, as I peer into a bowl of dauntingly named Summer Meadow Soup. Blobs of orange and brown vegetable matter float in a puddle of grey froth, sprinkled with what might be woodshavings. So this is the famous cutting edge of Scandinavian cuisine. I lift half a meadow onto my fork and pray.

We’re dining in Matbaran, a Michelin-starred bistro in the Grand Hotel in Stockholm, across the water from the classical facade of the Royal Palace, in a dark-wood room that’s lit till late by the silver gleam of a midsummer sun. Around us a buzz of smart city folk are crowding the tables, ordering ice-cold beers and wooden trays of avant-garde food. It’s the night before I sail into the choppy waters of the Stockholm archipelago, and I’m catching a last taste of urban sophistication.

The soup tastes fabulous – a midsummer medley of woodland flavours like artichokes and bitter leaves, rooted in a truffle broth. Jane leans across and says: “Where you are going, it is like nothing you have ever seen.” Her blue eyes sparkle. “The archipelago is so beautiful. I want to live out there myself.”

The cluster of islands off eastern Sweden form the biggest archipelago in the world, with more rocks, skerries, islets and habitable chunks than Indonesia or the Canadian arctic. Stockholm itself is the start of a chain of 28,945 of them, stretching 60 kilometres towards the open waters of the Baltic Sea. That’s where I’m heading in the morning, following the track of the midnight sun.

The morning dawns clear. Before the boat leaves, there’s just time to explore the Grand Hotel where I’m staying. It’s the only 5-star hotel in Sweden – and deserves those stars. For its elegant neo-classical rooms are where the Nobel Prize winners stay each winter, and where the first Nobel awards banquets were held, in a fairytale salon modelled on Versailles, glittering with mirrors and gold panelling. 

I wander through a series of gorgeous rococo rooms leading out of the Hall of Mirrors, and downstairs I find a complete contrast: the uber-modern Nordic Spa – a shrine to the art of sauna, with a swimming pool lit by flaming torches and a jacuzzi built like a foaming rock pool. This is Scandinavian culture on an epic scale. Should there be some Vikings?

But I’m heading for simpler pleasures, and I trip across the quay outside the Grand to the landing stage for a ferry to the islands. As I walk up the gangway I notice that this is a working boat: on its deck are bundles of timber and roofing felt, bound for the isles. 

A toot of the whistle and off we go, thundering past the seventeenth-century alleys of the old town, then a cluster of warehouses, and quickly out to a landscape that is a seascape: rocky islets dense with pines, and hidden among the trees the first of the wooden summer houses – a rust-red cabin with white shutters, a sea-green bungalow with a red roof, a shell-white bathing hut on a boulder above the water, then a stone-grey villa with white carved balconies. Motor boats zip past, bouncing off waves. Yachts race at full sail. Swans glide on the swell. 

We pause at a tiny island where a girl in blue dungarees ambles down a granite jetty to greet her sister off the boat. A man pushes a wheelbarrow of logs across a lawn by the sea, where a table and chairs wait under a silver birch. It’s another world, and another pace of life.

My first stop is at Grinda, a large island two hours’ sail into the middle archipelago. The ferry clangs against the jetty, and I am met by Lars Sunekvist, a big man with a bigger smile, who chucks my bag into the back of a dusty golf truck and takes me on a bumpy ride towards the island’s only hotel. We putter through rippling woods where he says there are roe deer and foxes. Red chalets sprinkle lush meadows that sweep down to the sea, where rugged boulders break the surf. 

Lars shouts over the engine, “I brought up my kids on this island for two years. It gives them a different perspective. They don’t have 24/7 shopping, but it is so peaceful. We just spent time together.”

As are many families playing outside their cottages or tumbling in the water. “The whole island is owned by Stockholm city council,” says Lars, “so you can roam everywhere and the cabins are for rent to anyone. It’s not like other islands.”

He drops me at my room, in a wooden house with bleached floorboards but an iphone sound dock. I head straight downhill and find a tiny harbour full of yachts, where a trio of blond-haired dudes in shades are running a kayak shack. 

I ask if I can hire one. They hand me a paddle and a life vest. I explain that I haven’t really done this for a long time and should I have an instructor? They look at me and at the sea. One drawls, “Well, it doesn’t look like rain. You’ll be OK. Here’s a map.”

On the pebbly shore I twiddle my legs into a slender kayak and the dudes shove me off. I wonder how to hold the double-ended paddle. I look straight ahead and take a deep breath and pull. Magically the craft moves forwards. Its hull is orange against deep green water.

I paddle out of the sheltered bay and along the edges of the island, out of sight of people and houses, along a waterway fringed by dark trees and pink roses and jagged granite. A seagull soars overhead. The world is silent except for the splash of my blades. 

In a wider channel dotted with islands I stop and let the kayak drift, silent, staring at the milky sky of midsummer and the rolling water. It’s just me and the sea. I wonder whether my Swedish ancestors paddled or rowed around here, among fjords or islands like this, in the millenia before petrol engines.

My grandfather came from Stockholm and I was brought up on family tales of pre-war summers that lasted forever, among tall trees and sparkling lakes. But I never saw it for myself before.

Up until the 1950s these islands were home to 3,000 people, fishing and hunting from water-bound villages. The narrow twisting channels guarded the approaches to Stockholm, too, and Grinda has had a sailors’ inn since 1777. Its ruins can be seen near the ferry dock. Today that inn has been replaced by a fine old hotel, the Wardshus – and that’s where I’ve promised myself dinner tonight.

The Wardshus is a gem of Arts and Crafts architecture, all cream stucco and steep roofs, built in 1906 by the architect of Stockholm’s Grand Hotel. The owner here was Henrik Santesson, first head of the Nobel Foundation, and he brought his family to spend their summers in the heyday of Swedish grand society. Their idyllic holidays are captured forever in photos on the dining room walls: toddlers, servants, fishermen, patriarchs – another world again.

Tonight it’s too hot to eat indoors, despite the hotel’s fine interior like a Carl Larsen painting, all wooden panels and curving stairs and a big log fire beneath elk’s horns. I need fresh air, and where better than the garden terrace, with its trailing silver birches and its view across the pewter waters to island after island after island.

The outdoor tables are filled with healthy-looking yachting folk, and I order a seafood special: Arctic chard dressed with bright green roe, huge mussels that taste of the sea, slivers of apple and fennel. The delicate flavours of fish are lightened by the bright fruit flavours and a sprinkling of aromatic dill. I’m lightened too, by a glass of chilled Sancerre. Finally the midsummer sun sets, setting a trail of golden shimmers from white sky to grey shore. Sometimes I wonder why my grandfather left.

Next morning I take a change of pace, on board a big ferryboat packed with holiday-makers headed for Sandhamn – the smartest, busiest of the islands. It’s an hour further out towards the outer archipelago. Half way there I tap on the captain’s door and am allowed into the bridge, where grey-bearded Nils Gunnar is sitting among the flashing lights and levers that guide the ship. He’s been a ship’s captain for 40 years and lives on the boat for a week at a time. “I live in the archipelago,” he smiles. “This job, it’s alright.” At a steady 25 knots, he brings us into harbour.

After the quiet of Grinda, Sandhamn feels crowded. It’s only a wooden village built round a small marina, but there’s a hot dog kiosk selling Le Monde, a deli offering baskets of crusty oysters and scarlet lobsters, and shirtless boys on yachts flirting with languid girls in Hollister t-shirts. Blue and white boats nod at anchor and blond children in orange life-vests skip along the sandy streets.

I’m here to meet one of the few fisherman remaining in the archipelago, Anders Naslund. I’m told his house is “behind the bakery”. I wander into the backstreets. They’re a jumble of white picket fences and wooden cottages painted rust red, pistachio green or mustard yellow, among fruit trees and grass paths. When I find it, the bakery is a red cabin surrounded by white flowers, and beside it is a path blocked by a weather-beaten oar. That must be the place.

I walk past the oar and down a curve of path between clouds of marguerites and poppies. There’s a brown house by green water and a yellow-haired man in blue oilskins. A knife dangles from his braces. Anders. He smiles, a twinkling smile in a sea-creased face, and we sit beside the shore and talk. 

He tells me of growing up on the island, when there were only seven families here, and piloting the cargo boats, and his fish trap that takes three days to build every spring, and the biggest fish he ever caught – a 22-kilo salmon as tall as his shoulders. 

Then he shows me where he smokes the fish, in an outdoor cupboard that creaks open to reveal blackened walls, treacly from years of smoke and fish oil. He holds up a handful of pine branches and explains that these give a special flavour. Beside them is a tree stump with an axe buried to the hilt. 

He doesn’t have any fish on the go just now, so I seek out lunch at the Sandhamn Yacht Hotel. It’s another fine Arts and Crafts building, its restaurant a spectacular barn of a room lit with ships’ lanterns above the marina. Their speciality is a dish of three types of herring, the best one sluiced in vodka and succulent with vanilla and lingonberry sauce. 

This hotel was originally the headquarters of the Royal Swedish Yacht Club, and still houses a pine-panelled clubroom and the harbourmaster’s office. The young harbourmaster, Paul Henriz, shows me around and tells me about a race last week, the biggest of the year, which broke records for its speed. “It took only three days,” he smiles. His office is crammed with flags from every nation, “in case a visiting team might win.”

I wander outside to meet two more locals: Adam Svensson, a long-haired skipper who will take me to the last of my islands, and Lisa Lindskog, a slender student with a delicate smile who lives out there and needs a lift. We tramp down the jetty to Adam’s motorboat, which he guns into top speed as soon as we hit open water. “I used to sail for the navy,” he grins, and heels the boat to avoid a rock. 

Twenty minutes on and we are in a different world. A ridged rocky island appears, dense with trees, and Adam cuts the engine as we drift slowly around an inlet into a secret anchorage. There are cabins among the pines. Lisa waves. A jetty appears, below a tiny shop with a handpainted sign: Haro Lius. Outside are her mother and two sisters, and we’re greeted with whoops and embraces as we hop ashore.

Haro is an island way off the beaten track. There’s nothing here – and nothing beyond it to the Baltic. It’s a long way from the Grand Hotel. Lisa’s mother Kirsten shows me round her store. “We can’t get fresh meat,” she says, “and vegetables come in by boat.” But she does sell Italian olives and frozen steaks.  “We’re having a party later,” she smiles, “ but first let’s take you out in a boat.”

The boat is a little motor launch skippered by her husband, Bjorn. He’s a soft-spoken man in his sixties, happy to see his daughters Lisa and Katarina enjoy the breeze as we whizz out of the haven of Haro and head for the open sea. “Forty knots!” he shouts as we bounce on the front deck. Ahead of us the islands thin out and then there is void – just stone-blue water shading imperceptibly to stone-blue sky, and somewhere past that is Finland. The end of the archipelago feels like the end of the world. 

Bjorn cuts the engine and we bob there, silent, savouring the sunshine and the solitude. Nothing stirs.

Then we race back to tie up on the jetty below their summer home, a pretty red house on a hill above an inlet. Bjorn spreads a nautical chart and shows me where we’ve been. He coughs and murmurs, “I’ve been coming here for 65 years. As a boy I used to row from house to house selling fish. In winter the water froze over, so we used to skate between the islands. I was very lucky to have this.”

Below their house is a midsummer maypole, left from the dances two weeks ago. Beside the path I find a circular crown of leaves, worn by some midsummer maiden and left here in a moment of revelry or freedom.

Back at the island’s store, the party is a community affair. Islanders chug over in open boats, balancing plates of quiche or berries on their laps. There are old guys in checked shirts, students back for the hols, women in combat trousers. Kirsten and her daughters welcome them all with open arms. Bjorn pours me a beer. His neighbour Urban says that 20 per cent of Swedes have a summer house like this. 

We sit late in the silver light on the shop’s deck above the sea. Then Lisa says, “How about a sauna?”

So her girls and their boyfriends and I untie a boat and slip down the creek. Below their house, an old brown hut hides among long grass by the shore. Inside is a glass-fronted burner where they light some logs. We sit outside, lingering over cool white wine, then change into our swimmies and brave the heat.

It is roasting. My skin seems to crisp and then they make more steam. They tell me about the World Sauna Championships, in which the runner-up died. Sweat runs down our naked skins. We chatter brightly about England and Sweden, then ask the questions we really want to know, in the closeness and the dark. Then someone opens the door and we run out to the twilight, down to the water’s edge, and plunge straight in.  

The waters of the Baltic close over me. They are black and thick and cool. They feel like milk. I bob back up. The others are around me, laughing and joking, and around us all stand ridges of pine trees black against the never-ending sky. Just for now, there is nothing else.

I lie on my back and stare into blue. A single fish jumps.