Sweden's Summer Escape
One day last August, my wife and I borrowed some bikes to head to the beach. We were staying with friends in a converted schoolhouse in Vamlingbo, a tiny village on the southern end of Gotland, a 1,200-square-mile island in the Baltic Sea. The day was typical Swedish summer — blue sky, 70 degrees, 17 hours of sunlight — so it didn't matter much when we missed the turn to the beach. Instead we found ourselves zipping down a back road that felt like the south of France.
We turned right, rolled downhill under leafy trees and came out onto the shoreline headed south. Now the landscape looked like the cover of Zeppelin's Houses of the Holy — ancient rocks, moss, waves. We kept going until we hit Hoburgen and fields dotted with 700-year-old churches — like the English countryside, only with better weather. Three landscapes. Two hours. The best bike ride of my life.
If you want to vacation like a Swede, go to Gotland. "It's the only place in Sweden where Swedes feel like they can really leave normal life behind," says Carin Rodebjer, a fashion designer who lives in Stockholm. "Instead of going to Crete, you take a boat or plane to Gotland and you're somewhere else completely, surrounded by water and sunlight."
The island is prized for its natural features, including the limestone bedrock that retains heat well enough to sustain everything from windswept pines in the north (not far from where Ingmar Bergman lived, on another, tiny island) to lusher green in the south. (Flights from Stockholm to Visby — the island's major city, with steep hills and a medieval wall — run about $150.)
An hour northwest of Visby is Fabriken Furillen, a minimalist designer hotel in a converted limestone quarry that lies next door to one of Gotland's 100 nature preserves. Hop onto a bike or hike across the bridge to Legrav Fisk & Cafe, and eat herring and smoked salmon on picnic benches by the sea. The light bounces off the water with so much warmth you'll have to remind yourself the colors are real.
It's a two-hour drive from Visby to Gotland's southern tip, where there are few people and lots of farmland, making the area a haven for creatives. Photographer Jakob Axelman — who grew up in Sweden and spent summers on Gotland — compares it with upstate New York. "People come from Stockholm, see how much space they can have, and stay," he says. The town of Burgsvik is Gotland's Woodstock, with a comfort-food diner, Fiket i Burgsvik, and a good hotel, Pensionat Grå Gåsen. Down Route 142 is Razzle Dazzle Glass, a homemade ice cream and sandwich spot and the beginning for the best bike ride of my life. Any turnoff will take you past cows and horses and leave you by the water. Don't be surprised if you're tempted to stay.