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Swedish Ferry Tale

The Stockholm archipelago is home to some of the most delicious seafood—and eccentric characters—in Sweden, Brett Martin learns.

There is a fortune to be made by tracking both the weather in Vaxholm, a small seaside town 45 minutes north of Stockholm, and the futures market for sunburn cream.

At least that's the get-rich-quick scheme that occurs to me on a brilliant summer afternoon while waiting at the ferry pier in Vaxholm, the gateway to the vast network of wooded islands that stretches out like a naval flotilla into the Baltic Sea. All around me are blonde Swedish families and young couples clutching backpacks and picnic baskets. All the faces are smiling. They are also very, very red.

But who can blame them for being unprepared for the sun? After all, for seven months of the year Sweden lies shrouded in cold and darkness. That's why when summer comes, with sunlight suddenly so abundant it almost feels liquid, Stockholmers and other Swedes rush outdoors with a biological urgency. "If the sun is out, you're outside. End of story," says my cousin Dale, who lived in Stockholm for five years and, along with my girlfriend, is with me in Vaxholm. And one of the best places in the world to be outside when the sun is out is the archipelago.

It's also one of the best places to eat. Spread out over hundreds of miles, the archipelago (in Swedish, skärgård; trickily pronounced something like HAR-gord with the first sound emerging like a cat's hiss) is dotted with restaurants that range, in typical Swedish style, from simple and rustic to daring and modern. Thanks to the ferries that perpetually crisscross the smooth surface of the Baltic, it's possible to spend days sailing from one spectacular meal to another.

Over the next week, equipped with an unlimited-ride ferry ticket, I will come to love these boats—big, muscular ships that always seem to be coming around the corner at the very moment you decide they're late. I begin to think of them as my own private fleet of yachts.

But first, with an hour to kill before our first excursion, we explore Vaxholm. Down the pier a bit is a small wooden boat selling home-smoked fish. We pick up a few pieces of glistening mackerel, covered in black pepper and garlic, and a bag of smoked shrimp, and then move on to Melanders Fisk, one of Stockholm's most venerable fishmongers, which has a shop near the harbor. Here we get our first taste of strömming, small herring that's fried and then marinated in vinegar and served cold with red onion and buttered flatbread called knäckebröd. Finally, we stop at the hot dog stand attached to the ferry ticket office and pick up some "Stockholmers": garlicky sausages topped, per tradition, with a scoop of mayonnaisey shrimp salad.

Grinda, a small dot of land about a 30-minute sail from Vaxholm, will be our base for the week. The island is largely given over to a nature preserve—wooded hills full of hiking trails and meadows of wildflowers—a fact we learn while dragging our luggage from the ferry landing up a long hill, on the way to our hotel, Grinda Wärdshus.

The hotel's main house was inhabited in the early 1900s by Henrik Santesson, the first director of the Nobel Foundation. The dark-wood interior is perfectly suited to some Gothic storytelling. In fact, Santesson's wife, Alfhild, drowned herself in the sea below. Her ghost, owner Jan Pfister tells me, is said to haunt the old library where, in these happier days, lavish breakfasts of cold cuts, smoked fish, liver pâté and fruit are set out daily.

Grinda has long been a favorite destination for Stockholm day-trippers, but Pfister, who took over in 1995, has been slowly expanding the property into something approaching a resort. He's opened a grocery store, convenient for hikers and picnickers, as well as a casual restaurant near the hotel's private dock and, last year, some dormitory-style buildings with cozy, albeit somewhat spartan, accommodations. Perhaps my favorite part of the complex is the wooden sauna at the water's edge, where guests who book ahead can work up an appetite by alternately steaming and plunging into the icy Baltic.

We sit on the porch for dinner and sip cold glasses of snaps (Swedish for schnapps), observing the elaborate Swedish ritual for consuming these herb-infused vodkas: First, make eye contact with everyone at the table. Then raise your glass and toast with a hearty "Skål," sip, and once again look everybody in the eye. (This process becomes increasingly difficult as the night goes on.) The excellent meal employs a mix of native and exotic ingredients: sautéed Baltic pike perch surrounded by chanterelles from western Sweden; a beet salad topped with goat cheese from the nearby island of Ljusterö; a duck liver terrine, smooth as the glasslike Baltic, spiked with Swedish punsch, a sweet, arak-based liqueur.

Sitting there, we watch the water turn from pale to an almost Caribbean blue and then finally a deep purple. It looks like dusk until, all of a sudden, it looks like dawn, without ever having gotten truly dark, and we have to draw the curtains tight in a hopeless bid to fool our internal clocks and get some sleep.

Early the next morning, we jump a ferry to head northeast for about an hour to the island of Möja. Watercraft of every imaginable size and shape are out on the sea—from powerful cigarette boats to graceful wooden schooners to massive cruise ships and freighters.

Möja is one of the more inhabited islands of the archipelago, with a population of some 200 and a town, Berg, large enough to accommodate a local-history museum, a supermarket and a doctor who visits once a week. At Berg, we head to Möja Bageri, a bakery and bed-and-breakfast where owner Lotta Sundberg offers pastries called mazarins—spongy oval towers of almond paste—and classic cardamom-studded cinnamon rolls.

But Möja's real attraction lies farther up the island, at Wikströms Fisk. To get to the restaurant, we follow wooden signs, emblazoned with a pictogram of a fish, from the Ramsmora ferry landing and up a hill. The humble wooden house is hardly the kind of place one would imagine is busy all summer, but the Wikström family has become famous for serving some of the finest, freshest seafood in the archipelago. Wikströms Fisk started as a picnic stop, with four outdoor tables, in 1990 and evolved into a full-blown restaurant in 2000. The family patriarch, Rune Wikström, is the last commercial fisherman on Möja—the Baltic having been badly overfished in recent decades. Wikströms Fisk's menu consists almost entirely of whatever he's happened to catch the night before, and what his wife, Inga-Lyll, chooses to make of it.

This can prove a little nerve-wracking to a hungry visitor; the food supply runs low when the previous night's fishing has been bad. To ensure first dibs, guests can stay in one of the bungalow cabins the Wikströms rent out at startlingly cheap rates. Today, however, we're lucky and trek uphill from Ramsmora in time to grab the last empty table in the Wikströms' garden. We order the "archipelago plate"—a platter of cold fish, including strömming, gravlax, baked whitefish, a variety of herring and pieces of eel and whitefish smoked with alder and sweet juniper branches, in a blackened smokehouse behind the main house. For main courses, we get delicate fillets of flounder and perch, dusted with breading and pan-fried. The food couldn't be simpler—or fresher and more pleasurable.

It's coming on four o'clock, which means it's time for the daily ritual that accompanies Rune's departure. The fisherman is a tall, extremely shy man; every time I approach to ask a question, all I see is a flash of blue denim disappearing around the nearest corner. Wikström's daughter Stina and I walk back down to the tiny harbor, where a scene to chill the blood of Tippi Hedren in The Birds awaits. On every post, every tree and along the roof of the wooden boathouse, large white seagulls are silently waiting. From up the hill comes the almost inaudible sound of Rune's ancient moped starting and all the birds take flight at once, heading to escort the fisherman to his small boat. "If it gets past four, they will come and get him," Stina says as Rune throws some nets and traps on his boat and putters out of the harbor, all but covered by a squawking mass of gulls. Aside from a small TV, the flock will be his only company through the long, bright night. "I think he likes them," says Stina, as we walk back to a dessert of strawberries with ice cream. "I don't believe he has seen this Hitchcock movie."

If Grinda feels like a national park and Möja like a New England fishing village, Sandhamn, on the archipelago's easternmost edge, is the jet-set resort—Sweden's answer to Ibiza and St. Bart. On the way east from Möja to Sandhamn, the islands become more rugged, their stones smoothed by thousands of years of winds from Finland and Russia. But Sandhamn's harbor is crowded with yachts flying Swedish, German, Norwegian and Danish flags.

Fronting the water is Dykarbaren. Literally translated as "diver bar," for the scuba enthusiasts who were once its main customers, Dykarbaren aims at once to be a local tavern, a seaside snack bar and, now under owners Niclas Loom and Jeanette Floria, a hip restaurant. In recent years, they've taken the onetime salty sailor hangout and added a sedate upstairs dining room and a wine bar, where club music pounds from the house iPod.

Loom, who spends his winters in the Canary Islands, brings Mediterranean influences to the menu of modern, geometrically arranged dishes he creates with chef Henrik Rettrup. Dykarbaren's strömming is sometimes served layered on ciabatta and dressed with Dijon mustard; the fiskgryta, a traditional Swedish fish stew, is shot through with the flavor of lime leaves; a pink disk of chopped tuna, salmon and crayfish is flavored with chile pepper and topped with beets and dill aioli. ("That's the Swedish part," Loom says.)

That this might be the hippest corner of the archipelago is confirmed by the Sands Hotell around the corner. An imposing gray building with a maritime facade but a sleek interior (imagine a W Hotel placed wholesale on a barge and shipped halfway to Finland), the Sands, which opened in 2002, eschews such trappings as a lobby or reception desk for the feel of having a room in a private villa—though last summer the hotel opened a high-end restaurant.

Riding back on the ferry on our last night, after a few more rounds of snaps at sunset, we're surrounded once again by pink, smiling Swedes—and it's easy to believe that there has never been, nor could ever be again, such a thing as winter.

Brett Martin lives in Brooklyn and has written for GQ, Vanity Fair and the New York Times.

Published August 2006
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