First published in Condé Nast Traveller magazine, 2013
It's a Swedish summer ritual that will leave you fresh as a daisy. Head out of town with friends and family and dip into the countryside for a week to slow down. Pick berries and swim wild in the sea and lakes
'HEJ-HEJ' WAVED OUR NEIGHBOUR from his tractor as we emerged from a shed on his dairy farm. Our daily routine would begin like this: fill churns with milk that tasted like melted vanilla ice cream; jot down how much we'd taken and leave a few krona. Then we'd walk home, past swaying wheat, hay baled in plastic like giant mozzarellas, and glossy, chocolate-brown horses.
Our new home was in the hamlet of Jakobs, on Gotland, Sweden's largest island. Most of the clapboard cottages in these parts are still inhabited by farmers, and although it was wired for all things digital, our pretty, chalk-washed, renovated farmhouse seemed to cast a spell and magically foster an unplugged, outdoors spirit. Alfie and Harry were always outside, playing hide-and-seek among the wild orchids which grow here like weeds; Kitty was blissfully happy exploring the barn and picking wildflowers to press. We couldn't have been more content; tensions melted away with each breath of oxygen-rich air.
MENTION GOTLAND TO THOSE IN THE KNOW, AND THEY WILL GUSH ABOUT THE SPECIAL LIGHT, THE FRAGRANT AIR AND THE DESERTED BEACHES
Mention Gotland to those in the know, and they will gush about the special light, the fragrant air and the deserted beaches, the reason why painters, sculptors and glassmakers flock here. And indeed, the landscape might remind you of an Ingmar Bergman movie, with good reason; just to the north of Gotland is the diminutive isle of Fårö (pronounced 'phworer' and meaning 'sheep island'), where the filmmaker lived for his last three decades.
Every day we set off along the empty lanes, in a direction dictated by what we fancied for supper or where we wanted to go for a swim. We'd visit the best place for organic lamb, or explore the market at Sysneudd for just-caught crayfish or smoked-that-day flounder, turbot and salmon. Cooking for ourselves immersed us in the authentic flavours of local life, through buying food at the markets and farm shops, and stocking up with booze which can only be bought from the government-run systembolaget. (Beers from local microbreweries are delicious, but stick to non-Swedish wines for now.)
There's a strong sense of independence here and an old-fashioned community spirit. Many of the 58,000 islanders are still yeomen. When the Vikings were off wreaking havoc, the people of Gotland were paddling their longboats to Russia and Constantinople and their legacy is an exotic larder. Medieval imports are still found in delicacies such as cardamom buns and saffranspannkaka, saffron rice pudding served with cream and dewberry jam. Ancient grain varieties that flourish here can be traced back to the Bronze Age.
Every excursion promised fresh curiosities, from abandoned windmills to medieval churches. Bleak but beautiful, the rocky, reedy terrain in the north is punctuated by curly-grey-fleeced sheep, the distinctive, diagonally-bound rough-wood fences and the occasional café such as Kutens Bensin with its vintage trucks parked outside. Hunting for fossils among the raukar, the island's famous sea-sculpted limestone formations, won hands down on any over-priced theme-park outing. And it is true to say that the stretches of white-sand dunes and crystal waters could rival any Mediterranean coast (despite being a few degrees colder).
Signs for 'loppis' abound (loppa in Swedish means 'flea'), and many owners hold garage sales even if they're not at home. This open-door ethos extends to the honesty-box farm shops. When we paused in Burgsvik for the loppi, stallholders urged us to help ourselves from the piles of bric-à-brac. 'Really? We can have any three toys for free?' marvelled Alfie. Recycling and sustainability are paramount here, and the islanders are justifiably proud of their pristine environment. It takes a little longer to get here than other bits of Sweden, but that's part of the adventure. Gotland exists in a free-spirited world of its own.
This is a holiday house with the soul of a boutique hotel. A fully fitted kitchen, larder and large dining-room table mean entertaining here is a pleasure - and there's a great barbecue space outside. It's well suited for a multigenerational family, with two spacious double bedrooms and a single room, although with only one bathroom downstairs you won't want the house to be too full; the delicate decor and spiral staircase are not suitable for toddlers. Owners Anna and Andi Granger also have exciting plans for the huge barn at the back.
Eksta Jakobs 409, Klintehamn (www.jakobsgotland.com); from £600 a week
A mountain of gravel marks the unlikely and dramatic setting for this 17-room hotel and restaurant at an abandoned quarry. Set on a remote eastern peninsula, it's hard to believe Furillen was in military use until the 1990s. The hotel is the brainchild of photographer Johan Hellström, and every inch of the interior is staggeringly stylish. Concrete floors and heavy chains are nods to its previous life, but instead of the whirr of industry, the only noises you're likely to hear in the restaurant are the clatter of heavy cutlery on handmade Scandinavian pottery and the murmur of discerning guests appreciating the artfully arranged ingredients that were plucked just metres from their seats. Sheppskult bicycles encourage you to explore this hauntingly beautiful terrain. For utter solitude, book one of the contemporary freestanding suites in the woods.
Lärbro (+46 498 223040; www.furillen.com); doubles from about £200
Karin Cedergren has transformed a few farm buildings on the main road south of Visby into a popular restaurant with six stylish bedrooms. It's come a long way since 2012 when Cedergren, a teacher by day, was dishing up traditional dishes such as home-made soups. There's a two-acre plot of woodland with rope swings and curly haired Gutabaggen ram to feed, and you're only minutes from the beach. Instead of hi-tech design, there's yoga and cinema screenings in the barn. Don't miss the Sunday barbecue of juicy lamb and fresh-herb salads -produce here is extra sweet as Gotland gets so much more sun than the rest of Sweden - or the breakfasts of nut-rich muesli, smoked hams and kicking filter coffee.
Västergarn Stelor 117 (+46 707 960128; www.stelor.se); doubles from £190