They were not only blown away by the contrasting, eye-poppingly picturesque settings, but thoroughly enjoyed immersing themselves in the Swedish way of life – a lifestyle that is all about slowing down, taking in the great outdoors and eating healthily, with bundles of exquisite treats along the way. Stephanie shares her travel diary…
Thursday, 19 May – Gothenburg
I’d been told that West Sweden was accessible from London, but I didn’t realise quite how simple it was to get there until I had experienced the speedy two-hour flight from London Gatwick to Gothenburg Landvetter airport for myself. By the time we’d taken off, it felt like it was time to descend. And, as we drew closer to land, Karen and I caught our first glimpse of scattered islands along the west coast’s archipelago and of the sunlight bouncing off the dark blue lakes. Wow. It was a breathtakingly beautiful welcome from the sky.
Sweden’s second city, Gothenburg, is incredibly easy to reach from the airport, too – a quick and typically-efficient 30-minute bus ride. Upon arrival, we were treated to our first introduction to this relaxed, very pretty city, with an interesting walking tour led by Gothenburg Tourist Board’s Lena Larsson. We wandered along cobbled streets, stopping to sample ‘Göteborg’ dark chocolate (the locals’ favourite – it’s lightly seasoned with sea salt and, rather surprisingly, tastes divine!) as well as trying to resist the temptation to step into every super-cool, independent fashion or design shop we passed along the way.
Fika – coffee and a cinnamon bun – is one of the Swedes’ favourite pastimes, made even easier to enjoy by the abundance of outdoor cafés dotted across the city. And, as someone who appreciates quality coffee, I had to fight the urge to stop at all of the cafés, too. I could have spent the entire day touring the city’s fika hotspots. A special mention to da Matteo – a local secret, tucked away down a hidden side street and kindly recommended by Lena. I insisted (demanded) that Karen and I returned later on to sample the rich brew – only for research, of course. It didn’t disappoint.
As a major fishing port, Gothenburg knows all about fresh seafood, with our tour taking us to the famous indoor fish market, Feskekorka, meaning ‘Fish church’ because of its setting in an old, elegantly-restored church.
We then advanced up hill to Skansen Kronan fort to take in a wonderful vista of the city, followed by a potter along the ridiculously quaint streets of the Haga district, especially popular with tourists thanks to its gorgeous wooden architecture and countless more places to eat and drink outside. I admire the Swedes’ resilience against cooler early and late season temperatures and their determination to breathe in fresh air whatever the season, with blankets or outdoor heaters available at most cafés to ensure all guests are as cosy as can be!
That evening we indulged in a fantastic meal at The Taste of West Sweden accredited Restaurant Familjen with its glamorous interior, soft lighting and mouth-watering food – the asparagus was especially tasty. We then retired to what could possibly be the world’s most comfortable beds, found at the friendly, family-owned Hotel Flora, with its retro Swedish design, suites fit for a rock star and the sweetest-smelling toiletries. We both also really loved the cool handle-less cups used to serve our breakfast coffee and tea…and spent our last few hours in Gothenburg scouring the shops for similar crockery to take home (sadly, to no avail).
Friday 20 May – Gothenburg
We began another day’s exploration of the city, with a fascinating tour of the iconic Göta Canal Steamship Company’s cruise boats, docked at the harbour (Packhuskajen) as they undergo final preparations for the summer sailing season. These boats are a proud piece of Swedish history, taking lucky guests along the famous Göta Canal, including a coast-to-coast route that winds all the way to Stockholm. The collection includes the M/S Juno which was built in 1874 and is the world’s oldest registered ship with overnight accommodation.
Peeking at the traditional cabin-style accommodation and wandering along the decks, it was easy to imagine journeying at a leisurely pace along the incredibly scenic canal route, a sure-fire way to shake off the stresses of everyday life.
We enjoyed lunch at the Michelin-starred Fond restaurant – oozing sophistication but without a trace of the snobbery so often associated with eateries of this standard. It’s one of five foodie hotbeds in the city to enjoy Michelin status and what’s unique is that they offer special yet unstuffy dining, with customers not required to reserve a table months in advance. Compared to London, where waiting lists can become all-consuming, this makes a refreshing and welcome change.
After a stroll along Gothenburg’s main street, we soaked up more of the city on board the Paddan boat sightseeing tour, gliding along the canal and into the harbour, giggling as all passengers were asked to duck down in order to get under a few of the bridges without losing their heads.
That afternoon we took a dip in a sublime outdoor pool, spectacularly set on the roof of our next home for the night – the boutique Avalon Hotel. Part of the pool hangs over the front of the building, with a glass floor giving swimmers a surreal view of the sheer drop below. Stay at the opposite end of the pool if you’re afraid of heights! Avalon showcases eclectic Swedish designs, sculptures and artwork throughout, and it often took us a while to reach our bedrooms because we kept stopping to admire exhibits along the hallways.
Evening dinner was a real treat at the swanky seafood buffet, Fiskekrogen. Set in a lavish hall with luxurious deep green interiors and scattered candles, we helped ourselves to a vast array of seafood and were taken aback by the efficient and friendly staff, serving up the best wine to complement the food, as well as additional dishes (including amazing chocolate truffles for dessert).
We ended the night in style – sipping wine in the Avalon’s chic outdoor bar, wrapped in those thick blankets…
Saturday 21 May – Bohuslän west coast (Marstrand)
Today it was time for us to leave Gothenburg to discover Sweden’s west coast – driving, what else, but a Volvo. It was the time first time I’ve ever driven on the right-hand side of the road. It didn’t go as smoothly as I’d hoped. It took a while to accept that the gears weren’t to my left and that the ‘E6 Malmo’ (south) wasn’t the ‘E6 Oslo’ (north). After a few accidental returns to Gothenburg’s centre (we just couldn’t keep away, obviously), we were finally heading in the right direction.
Our first stop was another Taste of West Sweden lunch at Villa Sjotorp in Ljungskile – once a grand family home that has been restored, decades later, by a descendant of the original owners who re-purchased the property. It’s now a splendid guest house, with the pretty décor bursting with Swedish tradition.
Lunches don’t get more perfect that this. Actually, life doesn’t get more perfect than this. With the sun blazing down on us, we ate yet more flavoursome, locally-sourced food whilst admiring a jaw-dropping view through lush, dark green trees to the sea beyond, islands scattered in the distance, as a lone boat bobbed its way in and out of sight. “In Sweden, we say ‘life is like a prawn sandwich’ when we enjoy moments like this because it’s so delicious, so wonderful,” Lotta said, as we marvelled at the scene.
Marstrand island was our final stop for the day – Sweden’s version of Hollywood as the playground of royalty and celebrities, boasting a rich, intriguing history. We were treated to another impressive vista after making our way up to Carlsten’s Fortress, looking down upon the island’s colourful collection of wooden holiday homes and sailing boats of all shapes and sizes, alongside rugged rocks and the navy-blue ocean.
We stayed at the sleek, new Havshotellet Marstrand, just opposite the island, which has a superb spa (designed to reflect its natural coastal setting, with treatments to match) and a restaurant that lets guests watch the sunset over Carlsten’s Fortress. For those looking to delve further into the history of Marstrand island, the Grand Hotel Marstrand is another great place to stay – the former residence of King Oscar II, who apparently fathered 350 children!
Sunday 22 May – Bohuslan west coast (Tjörn, Grebbestad and Lysekil)
We kicked off the day with a visit to the Nordic Watercolour Museum in Skärhamn on Tjörn island, boasting another incredible coastal setting. This centre for contemporary art showcases a range of unique and sometimes challenging paintings, and we were interested to see that the centre offers visitors of all ages the chance to partake in art lessons, with five incredibly cute guest studios available for hire on the waterfront.
I was almost lured into its reputable gourmet café (yes, it was the coffee aromas again), but we were due to experience the famous Salt & Sill floating hotel and restaurant in Klädesholmen. What a delight. Built on floating pontoons, we peeked into some of the hotel rooms, the decor characterised by modern Scandinavian simplicity. I especially liked the suite, with its own private hot tub, offering yet another majestic view across the west coast. And I can’t forget to mention our excitement at seeing the world’s fastest moving sauna, SS Silla!
Before we left the Salt & Sill (and we really didn’t want to; that speedy sauna looked too much fun!), we tucked into another scrumptious meal – a smörgåsbord buffet that kept us going back for more, especially the homemade berry pie and vanilla sauce. Amazing.
The afternoon was spent visiting the extraordinary Sculpture at Pilane 2011, a unique site that mixes thousand year-old ancient remains in the countryside with avant-garde sculptures. We were lucky enough to meet the renowned sculptor of one of this year’s exhibits, Keith Edmier, chatting to him about what inspires his work as we wandered past sheep grazing freely and trekked to the highest view point to be transfixed by yet another awe-inspiring view. There are some high-profile exhibits being showcased this year, including work by the British artist, Tony Cragg, currently exhibiting at the Louvre Museum in Paris and the Irish artist, Eva Rothschild, creator of the cutting-edge ‘Empire’ sculpture in Central Park, New York.
We then continued our unique day to meet the oyster safari guru, Per Karlsson, in the fishing village of Grebbestad (from where 90% of Sweden’s oysters originate). Per offers eco-friendly seafood safaris and tasting sessions from his restored 19th-century boathouse. Within minutes of us arriving he hauled some fresh oysters from the natural oyster bed – located directly under the boathouse – and offered them to us to sample with Grebbestad’s very own seaweed crackers, ‘Grebbestad Tångknäcke’. I eyed the hot tub overlooking the shore right next to the boathouse, a sublime place to toast your new oyster knowledge after a safari.
That evening we stayed at the lovingly cared-for and characterful Strandflickorna Havshotellet in Lysekil, built in 1904 as a holiday retreat for tired, rich nurses from Stockholm and then refurbished into a guesthouse for tired, not-so-rich travel PR women from London! We were greeted with lobster soup and warm bread (I must stop talking about food but it’s rather difficult when it’s that good!). What’s more, there’s also some waterside accommodation – and, when I say waterside, I mean right by the ocean’s edge with ladders leading into the sea – it gives private access into your own enormous swimming pool.
Monday 23 May – Bohuslan west coast (Fjällbacka) and Dalsland
Well-known as the setting for Camilla Lackberg’s crime novels, I’d been told Fjällbacka was a dream fishing village but I was taken aback by just how pretty it is. Boats sway gently in the harbour against lines of red wooden houses, with wind chimes singing in the sea breeze. It is perfection.
We then moved on to visit the Vitlycke museum, inspecting the fascinating rock carvings created during the Bronze Age period and the specially-recreated Viking farm, all set in yet another naturally-beautiful green landscape. The museum also offers archaeology classes for children so it’s a great place for families – and entrance is free.
In the afternoon we ventured to the wilderness of Dalsland, with its wild forests and shimmering lakes, for some energetic adventure at Dalsland Activities centre. Visitors can try all sorts of exciting activities here, including kayaking, canoeing and tipi adventures. And it was then that the highlight of my trip was decided as we went horse riding around the serene landscape, feeling so close to nature. At one point we climbed a steep hill to be surprised with a striking and unforgettable view across Lake Ivag. To see this on horseback was an experience that I will remember forever.
That evening, we rested at the magnificent 100-acre Stenebynäs estate, owned by the lovely Maria and Staffan and featuring tranquil accommodation right by the shores of Lake Ivag. But only before we were spoilt further with a four-course meal at another Taste of West Sweden restaurant – Falkholts Dalslandskrog (translated as ‘the best in Dalsland’ and it really is). If you’re lucky enough to visit, make sure you check out the ceiling of wine corks in the bar area, too. Our West Sweden visit then culminated with another quintessentially Swedish experience – as dusk settled, Staffan took us on an exhilarating elk safari by open-top jeep, where we may not have seen an elk but were met by inquisitive ponies, saw a Viking graveyard and came across an unexpected abundance of sweetly-scented lily of the valley.
Life in West Sweden really is a prawn sandwich.
For more photos from this trip, take a look at this Flickr stream.