I have always been drawn to islands. The journey to reach them is half their allure, and the approach to each is different. If they have a sense of peace and solitude and aren't too taken with themselves, I am smitten.
Sweden, I discovered, is an island lover's dream. Stockholm alone boasts 14 islands. But the one that claimed my heart was Uto. It's a near-perfect little isle that, among other delights, takes a pleasant while to reach.
My trip last July began in Stockholm, an elegant city with wonderfully ornamented ochre buildings. Its museums and cultural amenities alone would take weeks to explore. In summer, cafes move out onto the streets, and the bike lanes buzz with traffic. But for me, the real allure of Stockholm was the abundance of water that surrounds it and that winds through its miles of canals. The more I saw, the more I wanted to follow it, past the locks and docks that are its city mien, to where it opens into the Baltic Sea and the vast stretch of an archipelago that promises 24,000 islands.
After four days of visiting with Swedish friends, my husband, John, and I boarded a ferry for the archipelago — specifically Uto, the island at its southern tip. Our friends told us that, besides kayaking and biking, which are common on the other islands, Uto has good food, which isn't.
We waved goodbye in the early morning sunshine as the ferry, which had enclosed seating on a lower level and a spacious open deck above, eased away from the dock and headed for open waters.
Sweden's islands are sprinkled over an area 35 miles wide and 90 miles long that skirts the coast at the edge of the Baltic. Most are uninhabited, many too small for anything but birds to call home. Outside Stockholm we picked our way carefully through a narrow channel between islands lush with green lawns, gazebos and brightly painted summer houses. Children waved, and the two dozen or so passengers — all Swedes — on the sunny upper deck waved back and snapped pictures. The houses slid past us, and we emerged from the shade of the channel to a dazzling panorama of sea and sky.
The 3 1/2-hour trip took us out onto open water but always within sight of an island. Some were a speck with a pine tree or two; others had houses and steepled churches. The temperature was in the low 70s, with just enough breeze for the sailboats that crossed our wake.
Our guidebooks had almost nothing to say about Uto, and as we neared our destination we wondered what a Swedish version of a vacation island would be like. Would there be signs for massages? Would restaurants offer competing smorgasbords?
Uto was the last of the stops, and as we pulled into the harbor a cluster of rust-colored buildings loosely strung along a main street came into view. Blue and yellow Swedish flags fluttered against the bright noon sky, and behind them rose a small hill with a picturesque windmill. Check-in time for our accommodations was an hour away, so we left our bags by the room that served as the ferry terminal and ambled through town.
It didn't take long to spot the differences between Uto and its international counterparts. There were few signs of commercial bustle: no pictures of a Swedish lass in clogs enticing you to buy an ice cream, no shop windows filled with trinkets and T-shirts, no massages, no smorgasbords. The simple wooden buildings felt more like a well-kept summer camp than a resort.
There were perhaps a dozen people on the streets, all Swedes. Here and there were vehicles that looked like a shallow crate on wheels mounted at the front end of a moped. These, we learned, are flakmoppes, used to ferry children, groceries and whatnot, there being only two cars on the island. Flakmoppes, alas, were not for hire, so tourists either carry their bags or arrange for the island's only taxi to take them.
The fisk delikatesser — really just a kiosk — caught our eye. It had a bed of ice with smoked salmon, trout, shrimp and other delectables at reasonable prices. A neighboring hut was the information center for cabin rentals and island activities. After Stockholm, it was a shock to see no written English on Uto, although, as is usual in Sweden, most people spoke it well. Dozens of cabins were for rent at a modest $50 a night, and campsites were available just south of town.
Beyond the biking and kayaking our friends had promised, Uto offered tennis, horseback riding, swimming, tours of the island, fishing trips and boats for hire. We crossed the street to the Cykelboden, which had sturdy road bikes for rent. Most visitors, we were told, see no need for gears on the largely flat island, so most bikes didn't have them. My husband, who is thinking of adding more gears to the 12 on his bike at home, took a picture of this novelty while I paid $2 extra, which got us three speeds for $10 a day.
Next door, the Hamnmagasinet sold smart-looking boating attire and nautical-themed gift items. A cafe, pub, grocery store, post office and bakery rounded out the town.
Our friends had reserved a room for us at the Uto Vardshus, an inn built in 1890 for the summer pleasures of Stockholm's social set. A large wooden building with a veranda housed the dining area and conference rooms.
The accommodations, including a youth hostel and individual cottages, were scattered about several acres. We had a sunny room in the Windmill House, which had white walls, blond wood floors and a sweeping view of the archipelago. In the middle of the night, I discovered another amenity as my bare feet padded over the heated floor tiles in the bathroom.
From our room, it was a short walk through the pine trees to a small museum with photos of the island and its inhabitants, mining tools and exhibits on Uto's geography, flora and fauna. Iron was mined here from 1150 to 1879, and the mines are among the oldest in the country. Samples of holmquistite, a rare, lithium-bearing mineral discovered on Uto in 1913, are displayed in the museum.
Half a mile from the Vardshus is the settlement of Lurgatanone, where you can wander among mineworkers' shacks from the 1700s that are now summer homes.
Uto has one of the more interesting histories of the archipelago islands. The Russians invaded in 1719, burning down many houses and destroying several mines. By the 1890s Uto had made a name for itself as a summer destination, drawing artists, writers and celebrities from Stockholm. It was owned by E.W. Lewin, a merchant, who kept exotic animals and shooed the miners out of their homes when he needed more room for visitors.
When Lewin died in 1943, Uto was sold to several owners, and the Swedish military used it for target practice.
Families left, and by 1968 there were fewer than 100 inhabitants. In the 1970s a nonprofit organization bought the northern part of the island (except for the military base) and created a nature reserve. Buildings were rehabilitated and facilities upgraded. The island flourished and now has 240 residents year-round and about 300,000 visitors in the summer.
Uto's colorful history can be explored on walking or bicycle tours run by the information center. The walking tours are not long, half a mile or so; there is one of the town and another of the area around the windmill. The bike tours cover the northern and southern parts of the island. The guided tours are in English and are free, we were told. Regrettably, we couldn't squeeze one into our visit.
That evening our friends' promise of good food got us to the dining room early. Outside large cities, Swedish food tends to be bland: Boiled potatoes, herring and overcooked meatballs are so ubiquitous that we began to think all the restaurants were supplied by the same caterer. The Vardshus' menu, to our delight, ranged from local to international and included several vegetable dishes, a rarity even in Stockholm. John's white fish stuffed with lobster mousse and a curry sauce was superb, as was my grilled lamb with balsamic vinegar.
When we finally licked the last spoonful of our shared hazelnut and white chocolate parfait it was near 11 p.m., but there was no need for flashlights on the path back to our room. The sky was a shimmering turquoise seeping into rose where it met the sea.
The sun rose before 4 a.m., but we snoozed blissfully under the thick down comforter. After dinner the previous night, food was the last thing on our minds when we finally awoke, but we were curious about the breakfast included with our room.
The dining room had been rearranged and now had a 20-foot-long table at its center, laden with cold cuts, cereals, salads and, of course, herring. I swore I would have only coffee, but as we made our way to a table by the window we passed the self-serve waffle maker, a huge bowl of whipped cream and a dish of lingonberry jam. Sublime.
We spent our first full day exploring Uto on our trusty three-speeds. We biked five miles to the southern tip of the island, past strands of conifer trees, rocky coves and meadows where horses grazed. The center of the island is still used by the military for target practice, but that is suspended for four weeks in June and July, when the restricted area is open to the public. As we pedaled through it, we didn't see much more than fields studded with bull's-eyes. It was a pretty ride to the secluded beaches at the other end.
We had the roads to ourselves, passing a horse and cart and a few flakmoppes but no cars. Uto's charm, we began to appreciate, was in its quiet isolation.
The Vardshus' staff had mentioned the Bats- haket, a fish restaurant at the far end of a neighboring island that was the source for the fisk delikatesser in town. We rode over the short bridge to Alo and six miles later arrived at a cluster of shacks at the water's edge.
Conical fishing nets lay strewn over empty crates, and dinghies bobbed quietly against their tethers. In a large cove rows of rope just below the water's surface marked the boundaries of a hatchery. We wondered whether we were in the right place.
Finally we saw a chalkboard menu tacked to a hut where orders were taken. It was a short walk to a large wooden deck with a sweeping view of inlets, coves and the archipelago beyond. Potted red geraniums brightened the railing, and water lapped against the rocks that stretched beyond the deck. We weren't surprised that we were the only customers; we had come to expect and welcome the island's solitude.
Lunch arrived in a pale wooden version of a Japanese bento box stuffed with gravlax, smoked shrimp, salmon pâté and smoked trout from the hatchery. Tucked among the fish were little bowls of flavored mayonnaise and mustards, herbed crème fraîche and a delicious dill-infused potato salad. Maybe it was the bike ride or the sea breezes, but this was perhaps the best meal of the trip. We lifted our glasses in yet another appreciative skoal to our friends.
Farewell to the archipelago
Clouds hung over the horizon the next morning as we walked north out of town. Sheep grazed, and deer occasionally darted across the deserted road. We lingered at a rocky cove, where the sea spray mingled with the mist and the light was the soft gray of dawn.
We lunched on tom yam goong, a delicious Thai soup, at the Dannekrogen cafe. When the sky brightened we rented kayaks and explored the channel between Uto and the mainland. It was a microcosm of the archipelago, dotted with specks of land that seemed barely to keep their flat rocks and small clusters of trees above water. The air was moist and still, the water smooth, and the only sound was our paddles. After seeing so much of the archipelago, it was good to finally get out into it.
That evening we even had a taste of it at the Vardshus. The restaurant won a prize in 2002 for a soup it described as "of the archipelago, Finland and Sweden." Carrots, artichokes and smoked fish blended their flavors in a divine cream base.
We stuffed ourselves on waffles again at breakfast and walked back to town to board the ferry. At the Uto Bageri (bakery) we picked up an Utolimpan, a loaf of the bread made only on Uto, to give to our friends, and we looked out at the archipelago sparkling in the morning sunlight.
The wide open sea, we knew, would narrow to a channel and twist its way through Stockholm, where we would continue our explorations. And maybe, only maybe, eat as well.