Ingela leads our small flotilla of four kayaks out through the narrow gap between Nordkoster and Sydkoster islands in Sweden's Kosterhavet National Park. Cars are not allowed on the islands here, so bikes and kayaks are the way to get around. The September weather looks stable as we paddle from the inhabited islands out into the wild archipelago dotted with small rocky islands to explore the heart of this, Sweden's first national marine park. By early afternoon we are ready for lunch, and paddle up onto a sandy beach as the weather begins to change suddenly.
Ingela and her husband Marcus run a kayak guide service on the West Coast of Sweden, a dramatic 100-mile coastline of islands and rocky headlands known as the Bohuslan Coast. As we drag the boats up on the beach, Ingela already is setting up an elaborate spread for me, and Kirstin, a client from Santa Barbara. Sweet rolls, bread, cheese and salami, topped off with a special caviar from nearby Smogen that comes out of what looks like a tube of toothpaste.
The decadent lunch help us refuel, and it looks like we're going to need it. A serious squall starts rolling in from the south, so we load up and start the long paddle back to the village of Ekenas, aptly named for the giant oak trees on Sydkoster. When the swells surge and start getting whipped into white caps, and the rain pelts us and the boats, it gets a little exciting, but we all just hunker down and keep paddling into the storm. We use the lee side of the island of Brattholmen to shelter from the wind as we paddle south, and soon are pulling the kayaks up the ramp at the Hotel Koster.
The paddling trip was just one highlight of my three day visit to Sydkoster, where quaint doesn't begin to describe it. The main road is mostly unpaved, the place is that rural, so each day I would try to see all the island I could, either by hiking around with a box lunch, or borrowing a bike from the hotel. I found beautiful secluded beaches and rustic trails through the trees, and came upon genuine finds like the relaxed organic restaurant at Koster Gardens, not far from the old church, probably the island's most famous landmark. And each night, the Hotel Koster welcomed me back to the elegant dining room or the casual bar for outstanding meals and the warm atmosphere.
It was only after days of hiking and biking around the island that I joined up with Skargardsidyllen, the outfitting company run by Ingela and Marcus. It's a great way to get out on the part of the North Sea known as Kosterhavet (Koster Sea) and see a side to Sweden that few tourists even know about. Kosterhavet National Park is almost as far north as Norway, so it's not surprising it has an out-there feel to it. With regret, once our kayaking group is safely back at the dock, I say good bye to Ingela and Marcus, and head back to my room at the historic Hotel Koster, the premier lodging in the park, and one that's been here for more than a century. I'll enjoy another dinner of extra-ordinary Swedish cuisine, with an emphasis on seafood, before preparing for my departure by ferry in the morning.
One could easily spend weeks out here on the coast, and that's the best plan. But I've only got a few days, so tomorrow I'll take the scheduled ferry back to the mainland town of Stromstad and head south to the other national park in West Sweden, about an hour south, at Smogen. But if the wild coast and the rocky islands out here really define West Sweden, the other major highlight of any trip to the far west of this country is the city of Gothenburg. With a vibe totally different than that of Stockholm, the smaller but cosmopolitan "second city" of Sweden is laid back, cut through with canals and medieval walls, famous for fashion and fine dining. And if you want to pick up a Volvo while you're in Sweden, this would be the place. The factory is just outside of town.
Like me, most international visitors to West Sweden come and go via Gothenburg's Landvetter Airport. On my arrival a few days ago, I took time to walk off the jet lag by exploring the older parts of the city. Gothenburg has a reputation for being extremely friendly and easy going, and that's exactly what I found as I grew more familiar with its charms. The manageable size of Gothenburg makes it easy for first time visitors, and I was able to walk to all the places I wanted to see firsthand. Not having to take cabs or figure out the transit system made for a relaxed visit.
Food is a big part of the lifestyle of this coastal city, as I discovered at its famous restaurants, such as Familjen and Kungstorget. And my hotel, the Goteborg City, was run by the Swedish Tourism Federation, or STF, an organization I got to know well while hiking among the huts and mountain stations of Arctic Sweden on earlier visits. I think the casual and relaxed nature of this downtown hotel comes naturally, as the STF is more accustomed to running hiking huts and elaborate mountain stations. The place was also easy to find each day: Just walk until you come upon the famous sculpture known as the Copper Mayor, and turn left.
Some things you just have to do, such as take a boat ride to explore the city's canals, where bridges are so low (one is actually called the Cheese Slicer) you have to lay down on your seat to keep from losing your head. And the Fish Church (the Feskekorka), a centuries old building that looks like a church but is actually a seafood market with seemingly a mile of fresh seafood from the coast laid out on ice around the perimeter. And while you can marvel at the building, it's even more fun to enjoy lunch at the Restaurant Gabriel up on the mezzanine, and taste some of shrimp, fish and shellfish, all just hours out of the sea and exquisitely prepared. The building itself reflects much of the heritage of Gothenburg, which was founded in the 1600s and grew up on maritime industries such as seafood, shipping and ship building.
But even in this civilized city, the call of the coast can't be ignored. Several clusters of islands, collectively called the Gothenburg Archipelago, beckon with startling beauty and easy access. I chose the Northern Islands, a little more remote than those to the south, but easily accessed by a large fleet of public ferries. I rented a car to get there, but later realized I could have gotten around by bicycle. I visited Halso and Ockero before finding a lovely hiking route along the western coast of the island of Hono, which turns out to be a preview of my final destination in this part of Sweden, the stunning Smogen National Park.
After the ferry from Sydkoster deposited me at Stromstad following my visit to Kosterhavet, I got back on the E-6, the main highway between Gothenburg and Oslo, Norway, and headed south toward the Smogen Peninsula. Driving in Sweden is very much like driving in North America, except for the place names. Getting around by car is easy, the highways are in better shape than ours, and are well-marked. After getting my car at the Hertz office in Gothenburg, the drive to Stromstad to catch the ferry to Sydkoster took about two hours. Now back in Stromstad and about to head south, getting down to Smogen, about halfway between Stromstad and Gothenburg, was only an hour. West Sweden is compact, about the size of Belgium, and with so much to offer the region makes for a travel experience that is remarkably easy yet full of unbelievable variety.
Smogen is surrounded by unique rocky headlands of pink granite. Set against the blue waters of the Bohuslan Coast, it is a magical combination. I was fortunate that the Swedish writer and photographer Par Axelstjerna, with whom I had worked previously on a book about Kebnekaise, Sweden's highest mountain, happend to be in Smogen with his boat. To really explore this unique landscape of rock and sea, a boat gives you a tremendous advantage. From the village of Smogen, we filled the tank with diesel and Par steered us north between the islands and headlands up to the historic seaside village of Hunnebostrand, where the famous Bella Gastis restaurant served us up a lunch of seafood and pizza.
From there, Par took us "outside" of the more sheltered waters, where we docked on one of the remote islands to hike the pink granite. For hours we wandered around the barren landscape, which takes on an ethereal beauty against the blue water of the ocean, with an occasional lighthouse to add interest. When we motored back to town, Par dropped me off at Smogens Hafvsbad, my accommodations for the night, with a terrace that offers a view of both the village and the sea.
It was one of the best views I've ever had from a hotel. As much as I hated to part company with my friend Par, it was time for me to start getting organized for the long flight home. In the morning, I'd drive my black rental Volvo back to the Gothenburg airport and start my journey across the Atlantic.
Even though I have spent a lot of time hiking in Sweden's far north, and explored Stockholm and its archipelago at length, I found the multiple charms of Gothenburg, and the unexpected beauty of the marine parks here on Sweden's wild west coast, to be among the most interesting places I've seen in the country. As I packed for the trip home, I was already working on strategies for a return visit here.
The city of Gothenburg is only two flights from most North American cities: the hub flight to Frankfurt or Stockholm or Copenhagen, then a short hop to Gothenburg. For more informatiion on this unique part of Sweden, visit the West Sweden website. The national web site for travel to Sweden, Visit Sweden, also has information on getting here. And for more information on kayaking with Ingela and Marcus, visit the Skargardsidyllen site. For lodging information, see the websites for the Koster Hotel and Smogens Hafvsbad.