It was my first time in Sweden and I had an admittedly unusual agenda for a first time visitor. I didn’t visit Stockholm or it famous neighborhoods, instead I was in West Sweden; a beautiful part of the country famous for its coastal getaways. Even better, I had a car giving me the best opportunity possible to explore and experience all on my own. A few people have asked about our driving route so I thought I’d provide a blow-by-blow account that anyone can replicate, including the photos to tempt you into doing it on your own.
I was in Sweden as part of the Car Plus Vacation promotion, highlighting Volvo’s program that allows overseas buyers to receive complimentary tickets to Sweden and to drive their new car around before Volvo ships it home for them. They’re also running a sweepstakes right now that will give one lucky winner and guest the opportunity to experience the Swedish Road Trip of a Life Time just like I did. Even though Swedish Tourism and Volvo sponsored this trip, all opinions are of course my own and as you’ll see I had carte blanche in how I experienced Sweden.
Driving north from Sweden’s second largest city, Gothenburg, we stopped for lunch at Villa Sjötorp , a Gothic seaside villa looking down on a wonderful seascape of small islands and peninsulas. The views were amazing and I instantly understood why Swedes flock to water, any water, in the summer months. It was early spring and even those first glimpses of green explosions of color were amazing. I could only imagine what the country must look like in its full floral wonder. Our goal wasn’t the Villa, no matter how good the food was, we were driving towards Norden’s Ark.
I detailed our experience last week in this post, but Norden’s Ark is home to endangered Nordic and exotic animals in a beautiful and dramatic coastal setting at Hunnebostrand. Many of the creatures, from tigers to owls, are part of conservation breeding and recovery programs. It was one of the highlights of our visit to Sweden and a great addition to the road trip.
By that time it was getting late, so we pointed the car south again towards our unusual hotel for the night, the Salt & Sill. Fittingly located on Klädesholmen, herring island, this is Sweden’s first floating hotel. Yes, floating. Built in 2008, the hotel features a few dozen rooms on giant floating platforms, permanently moored to the dock. Walking into the rooms though, the hotel feels more like a ship. The rooms are comfortable but about the size of a cruise ship berth and the fact that everything is nailed down completes that perception. At night the hotel moves ever so slightly and I found myself quickly lulled to sleep with the gentle motion of the sea. The best though are the views; walking out onto the deck and watching the sun rise over the rocky and austere island isn’t just a nice moment, but one that grabs you by the lapels and screams SWEDEN in your face.
There’s not a lot to do on herring island to be honest, especially if you’re like me and don’t eat seafood, so the next day we packed up the car and once again hit the road. We spent a fair amount of time driving, but I loved every second of it. It was the best way to see the country and to get to know it on a more personal level. There’s nothing like driving when you travel; I love the ability to do what I want, when I want regardless of train or plane schedules. I could also see why the US has so many people of Swedish descent amongst our ranks. The countryside looked a lot like Pennsylvania, or somewhere in the Midwest. It wasn’t foreign or alien, it was comfortable. All of these thoughts were racing through my head as we approached a slightly unusual destination, Marstrand Island.
Only 45 minutes from Gothenburg, Marstrand is a popular sailing and summer getaway destination. Please note the word summer; more on that in a second. The only way to get there is by ferry, but quite literally the ferry ride is less than five minutes long. You’d think they would have just built a bridge, but it is what it is.
Marstrand is a higher-end, island community with beautiful shops, restaurants and cafes. None of which were open when we visited in April however. Apparently they take the concept of off-season very seriously and we walked around wondering what the hell we were doing there. The one thing that was open was the massive castle that dominates the island’s skyline, Carlsten’s Fortress. But even after walking around the castle, we found ourselves back at the docks less than an hour after we arrived. I think Marstrand must be a great destination in the warm, summer months, but if you find yourself there at any other time of year, there’s really no reason to stop.
A little disappointed we prepared for a longer drive to a different part of the country, Skåne, home to many of the idyllic holiday towns Swedes flock to every summer. The first stop was the well-to-do community of Båstad on the Bjäre peninsula.
Båstad is best known for its dedication to tennis; this small town is where the Swedish Open takes place and has been host to some of the world’s top players. But that’s not what I enjoyed the most. Walking along the beach behind the Hotel Skansen at sunset, I witnessed one of the most beautiful displays of natural beauty I’ve ever seen anywhere in the world. I wasn’t expecting the explosion of pinks and purples that filled the sky as this unfiltered photo shows. It was stunning and I nearly lost my breath. More than anything that day, that very personal moment made me fall in love with Sweden if I already hadn’t.
There’s honestly not a lot to do in Båstad though, at least not for the casual tourist. Like so many other small, coastal towns in Sweden they are popular summer rental destinations; the town’s population increases tenfold when it’s warm. But it was nice. It was nice to walk around town, stop at a bakery, gawk at the prices in the grocery store and to just enjoy everyday life.
I thought that’s what I would see again the next day when we arrived in another bedroom community, Mölle, but almost right away I was proven wrong. Just across the peninsula from Båstad, Mölle is another posh summer town but with an adventurous twist thanks to nearby Kullaberg Nature Reserve. Kullaberg is great not just from a nature lover’s point of view (incredible biodiversity) but it’s also one of the best adventure sports venues in Sweden. In and around Kullaberg you can do everything from hike, mountain bike, abseil, spelunk, snorkel and scuba dive. Usually you have to travel around entire regions to get all of that, but here it’s all in one spot. Of course I did none of that, but what I did do was see the coastline from the water on an adrenaline pumping jet boat ride. Led by an able driver, the jet boat hit speeds I dare not even consider as we took in the stunning and massive cliffs of Mölle and Kullaberg from the water. It was exciting, fun and a fantastic way to get out of the car and see the coast from a different angle.
Intellectually I knew that our time in pastoral Sweden was rapidly coming to a close. We were due in to a hotel in the port city of Malmo later that day, but I just couldn’t quite let go of the earthy goodness I’d come to love. We decided to take some back roads and at several points found ourselves in people’s backyards, waiting for the livestock to clear the road. But it was great to drive through massive farms, stop to take photos of baby lambs and bask in the dappled sunlight that filtered down. As a last nod to this calm side of Sweden we stopped for lunch at a countryside hotel in Skåne, Rusthållargården. The food was fine, but that’s not why we were there. The hotel, its surroundings, everything looked like it had come out of a storybook and once again another piece of the Swedish puzzle fell into place. While many Swedes may call cities their home, their hearts clearly lie elsewhere. They lie in the coves of the coast and the rolling hills of the farmlands; the forests of the north and the beaches of the west.
That’s all I could think about as we drove to Malmo, the final stop on our great Swedish driving tour. On one hand it was nice to be back in a big city, but almost immediately I missed the calm, pastoral feeling of relaxation I had in Skåne and West Sweden. I now know why so many Swedes retreat to these wonderful villages and inlets, not to escape but to go back home.