The moment the motor turned off, I was hooked.
It was 20 minutes into my first Swedish sailing trip on a blazingly sunny morning in late June. I’d set sail with two friends from their summer house on Kilholmen, a wooded islet in the central archipelago, about an hour by bus (then a five-minute boat ride) from Stockholm. After motoring through a narrow waterway, past smooth, rounded cliffs backed by pine forests and the occasional red timbered cottage, we entered a wide-open bay, steered the bow into the wind and raised the sails. When the puttering motor was cut, it was suddenly quiet, just the wind in my face and the sparkling archipelago all around.
The sheer magnitude of Stockholm’s archipelago is astounding. Shaped like a fan spreading out from the capital into the Baltic Sea, this watery region spans over 650 square miles — more than twice the area of New York City’s five boroughs — with somewhere between 24,000 and 30,000 islands and islets.
“The innermost islands are quite big and populated,” said Jeppe Wikström, a photographer and book publisher who has lived and worked in the archipelago for decades. “The farther out you go, the smaller the islands get, the lower they get. And in the outermost archipelago, there are only low slabs of rock.”
In Swedish, there’s a specific term for each archipelago landmass, from the large islands covered with pine trees and stately 19th-century summer houses to tiny islets with nothing but a few shrubs and lichen.
“I could probably give you 30 different words for an island and most of us would know what the island looks like because of that name,” Mr. Wikström said. “Skär, kobbe, haru, ö — it’s like the Inuits and snow.”
For Swedes, the archipelago is a quintessential summer destination that has often served as the backdrop for movies and television shows, from Ingmar Bergman’s film “Summer with Monika” to Astrid Lindgren’s children’s series “Vi på Saltkråkan” (“Seacrow Island”). But few foreign visitors find their way to these idyllic isles.
“It’s a cliché, the hidden gem, but those are 24,000 hidden gems,” Mr. Wikström said. “It’s jewelry stores of hidden gems.”
Many of those natural treasures are accessible by ferry, bus or car. But the vast majority can be reached only by motorboat or sailboat, which one can rent with or without a skipper.
For me, the decision whether to travel by engine or sail was easy.
“This is probably the most extraordinary place for sailing in the world,” Mr. Wikström said. “The variety of the landscape, the right to public access, the lack of strong winds and tidal currents makes it wonderful.”
It’s also an eco-conscious choice, relying solely on the wind for power.
“You are one with nature when you go sailing,” said Patrik Salén, the commodore of the Royal Swedish Yacht Club, a 193-year-old organization based in the archipelago. “It’s the wind, it’s the water and it’s your boat.”
Or it’s your friend’s boat.
My friendship with Viola Gad, a journalist for Sveriges Radio, began several years ago at a creative co-working space in Stockholm. In June, she and her husband, Henke Evrell, invited me aboard their sailboat: a 33-foot Smaragd, a lithe Swedish racing boat designed in 1973 and constructed in Sweden through the mid-1990s. The boat has been aptly described as “built for energetic sailors.” Their rambunctious 2-year-old, John, was also along for the adventure.
The goal for our first day on the water was to push as far out into the archipelago as possible, sailing upwind in the direction of Biskopsön, a nature reserve in the outer islands. Zigzagging back and forth across a wide bay, Henke was in constant motion, adjusting a pulley, letting out a rope, tightening a sail and consulting the sea chart to ensure the route was clear of underwater rocks — an ever-present danger in the archipelago. A seasoned sailor with years of racing experience, he confidently steered Bird — the same name Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law’s character) christened his boat in the movie “The Talented Mr. Ripley” — to overtake larger sailboats with ease.
Meanwhile, with John sleeping in the bow, Viola peeled tiny Baltic shrimp for a snack piled on Swedish crispbread with mayonnaise and dollops of salty roe. Passing a modern glass-walled mansion on its own tiny island, we traded guesses as to which start-up founder was the likely owner.
It was late afternoon when we finally moored in a natural harbor on the islet of Tistronskär, where Viola leaped onto a barren cliff to pull in the boat, which was then tied to metal hooks hammered into cracks in the rock face. Once ashore, the whole sweaty crew decided to take a dip in the refreshingly chilly sea, wading through sea grass and slippery moss-covered stones to reach the cool, clear depths beyond.
Dinner was a bit of a fiasco — I broke a bottle of pinot noir on the rocks, someone else smashed a glass, John rolled a head of lettuce into the water — but afterward, sitting on the smooth, sun-warmed cliff we watched a chestnut-colored mink dive into the sea as an Arctic tern gracefully circled overhead. The nearest island was wooded, with a small house and a dock visible through the pines, but in the distance, the horizon was interrupted only by low humps of rock.
“See, the sea and sky blurred,” Henke said after the sun set at 10 p.m., dusk erasing any distinction between the two.
I’d long thought of sailing as something only other people did — wealthy people, to be honest — but in Sweden, that’s not necessarily the case. Allemansrätten, the Swedish right to public access, means that everyone has the right to roam — and moor — on any land or island, no matter who owns it.
“It’s very egalitarian,” Henke said. “Anyone can come to an island like this if you have a boat. And you don’t have to have a big boat. It’s even better if you have a small boat because the smaller the boat you have, the better access you have.”
“It’s like you have this island for the night, and it’s just yours,” Viola added.
That said, not everyone has a friend with whom to sail or the means (or desire) to rent a boat to experience the archipelago. But alternatives exist.
“If you’re not an experienced sailor, I would recommend starting on one of those wonderful archipelago ferries,” Jeppe Wikström told me earlier. “And it’s possible to do even if you’re in a wheelchair, so it makes the archipelago really accessible.”
Before sailing, I’d only explored the archipelago by ferry, taking day trips to the Artipelag art museum, or to a beach on the island of Grinda to escape my sweltering Stockholm apartment.
But a daytrip to the archipelago is like dipping only a toe into the sea.
My first overnight visit was to the island of Svartsö in the northern archipelago. I’d long known about a seasonal restaurant there, Svartsö Krog, because the owners also run one of my favorite restaurants, Matateljen, in the suburbs of Stockholm. These days, the property also has a glamping operation, Svartsö Logi, with five canvas tents clustered on a wooded hillside beside the water. Reserving a tent usually requires advance planning; this year, the entire season sold out the same day bookings opened in February. But cancellations are announced on Instagram and that’s how I snagged one the first time I went two summers ago (this year it costs 5,200 Swedish kronor, or about $500, which includes dinner for two at Svartsö Krog and a morning breakfast basket).
On that trip, my husband, Dave, and I packed a bag and biked to the quay in front of the Grand Hotel in Stockholm where the Waxholmsbolaget ferries depart for the archipelago. The crowded ferry thinned out after Vaxholm, a popular destination for day trips with its colorful town center and 16th-century fortress. As we approached Svartsö, the islands we cruised past became smaller, with fewer cottages, occasionally just a solitary cabin on its own islet surrounded by a few knobby pine trees.
On the island, we spent an entire day biking along gravel roads, picking wild blueberries in a mossy forest, plunging into a tranquil lake and enjoying a leisurely dinner on the deck at Svartsö Krog. Then we crawled into a cozy tent with a comfy bed and sheepskin rugs, and fell asleep to the sound of water gently lapping against boats docked at the nearby pier.
Glamping, like sailing, is an appealing compromise for those who long to be near nature without forfeiting a bed. But there are myriad lodging options for a longer stay in the archipelago, from bare-bones camping sites and rental cabins to hostels and full-service hotels.
Many of the properties belong to Skärgårdsstiftelsen, the Archipelago Foundation, a non-profit organization that owns some 42 square miles of land — about 12 percent of the land in the archipelago — as well as 2,000 properties, ranging from hotels, restaurants and hostels to farms, lighthouses, cottages and saunas. The foundation was created in the 1950s to preserve public access to land and water for future generations.
“People understood that all the land in the archipelago would eventually be bought to build summer houses out there,” said Ulrika Palmblad-Wennergren, the head of communications for Skärgårdsstiftelsen, which also maintains recreational areas for outdoor activities, from hiking and swimming to snorkeling, sailing, and more.
Let the wind decide
With so many islands, so many things to do and see, the hard part is often deciding. And on a sailboat, we could go anywhere.
“It’s like the feeling of getting on the highway,” said Viola, as we sipped tea at twilight, discussing where we might sail the next morning. “Your sails are up and the opportunities are endless.”
When it was time to start heading back to Stockholm with Viola and Henke, we let the wind dictate our course and wound up stopping for lunch and ice cream on Kymmendö, a small island that served as inspiration for the novel “Hemsöborna,” by the celebrated Swedish author August Strindberg. Then we set sail for home.
This time, with the wind at our back, Henke unfurled a royal-blue spinnaker, a lightweight three-cornered sail perfect for the present wind conditions. While Viola and John napped below, he instructed me where to steer and nimbly hoisted the spinnaker and adjusted the ropes and when the wind caught the sail — what a thrill! — it filled like a giant parachute flying through the archipelago.
Just as I had been awed by the passing nature while standing on the stern of a ferry chugging slowly toward Svartsö, I was again enraptured by the ever-changing scene: a sea gull sitting on an islet that was nothing more than a small rock, a narrow bay framed by sloping cliffs, a rocky peninsula covered with tiny yellow flowers, a small red cottage on an island all its own.
“It’s not just where you’re going, it’s the journey there,” Henke said.
It’s also the journey back, I thought, as we made our way through this stunning archipelago.
If you go
For sailboat rentals and skippered excursions, the Archipelago Foundation has a list of operators on its website. You can expect to spend from around 1,500 kronor (about $145) per day for a small four-person sailboat to about 10,000 kronor for a skippered yacht that can accommodate eight people.
Waxholmsbolaget ferries depart from Strömkajen in central Stockholm. (Fares range from 57 to 173 kronor one-way, depending on the destination.) There are also departures from locations outside the city center that can be reached by car or public transportation.
Cinderellabåtarna (Cinderella boats) are often faster, but more expensive, from 165 to 210 kronor one-way. These ferries depart from Strandvägen in central Stockholm.
When deciding where to go by ferry, Jeppe Wikström recommends Sandhamn with its charming town center and sandy beaches, Bullerö for beautiful nature walks and the lighthouse on Landsort, the archipelago’s southern tip. Ulrika Palmblad-Wennergren suggests Nåttarö and Utö, larger islands with loads of activities. When sailing, Viola Gad and Henke Evrell prefer the remote islands of the outer archipelago, from Stora Nassa in the north to Huvudskär and Borgen in the south.
On Svartsö, hope for a cancellation at Svartsö Logi, or stay elsewhere and stop by for lunch at Svartsö Krog, which is open daily through mid-August and on weekends through the end of September. (Lunch for two, about 1,200 kronor, not including drinks.)
Open daily through mid-August, Båtshaket is the archipelago outpost of the Stockholm restaurateurs Jim & Jacob, where house-smoked seafood and fresh grilled fish are served on a wooden deck beside the sea (lunch for two, about 600 kronor). It’s located on Ålö, an islet near Utö, a large island in the southern archipelago that’s home to Utö Bakgård, one of the best bakeries in the archipelago (open daily through mid-August, then reduced hours; lunch for two, about 300 kronor).
The Archipelago Foundation’s website is a good place to find cottages and cabins to rent, guest harbors to moor for the night, as well as hotels, hostels, camping sites, restaurants, shops and activities.
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