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I Visited This Little-Known, 30,000-Island Swedish Archipelago During ‘Magic Season’ — and You Should, Too

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In Sweden’s Stockholm Archipelago, one travel writer finds a “gentle season where blueberries are still ripe, the water retains a streak of warmth, saunas are still firing, and the seas are almost empty of sailors.”

Like anyone who devotedly waits for summer all year long, the end of the season always strikes me as an inevitably tragic transition. And at the end of this year’s summer, I found myself not in Washington, D.C., where I live, and where the summer’s heat and humidity permeate long into the fall, but in Sweden, a country where the seasons are defined with the demarcation of crisp lines. 

In Sweden, summer is embraced like the return of a prodigal son. After a long winter and days of near 24-hour darkness, Swedish summer is observed with a legendary fastidiousness. In the summer, the longest day of the year, Midsomer, is celebrated as its own holiday, parties are held to peel and feast upon crimson crayfish while crooning drinking songs and toasting with elderberry schnapps, cities empty as residents migrate to summer cottages or boats. It’s a season that annually makes me wonder: is there another country in the world whose government encourages its citizens to take at least four weeks of vacation between the months of June and August?

I came to Sweden in part to chase its idyllic summer, in part to search for its early fall, but really, to slip between the two seasons and into the country’s oft-missed magic season. In Sweden, the arrival of September, and with it, a certain foreshadowing of winter, seems to ushers in a micro-season that merges the summer warmth with autumn’s inevitable sense of Nordic noir. It’s the time when the daylight slowly shortens, the air softens, the leaves begin to change, most tourists return home, and a seasonal mist that has been likened to an effect from an Ingmar Bergman film rolls in. 

As always is the case, within the confines of a city, the nuances of the subtle changes of the seasons can easily be missed. As such, in Sweden, the time between the seasons is less visible in Stockholm than in the area directly outside of it: the Stockholm Archipelago. And so, to the Archipelago I went. 

Made up of more than 30,000 islands across 650 square miles, and ranging in size from boulders to islands large enough to house a village, the islands in the Stockholm Archipelago are a world unto themselves. In the 19th century, wealthy Stockholmers built homes on the islands closest to the country’s capital, commuting to work in the warmer months. While many of these homes have been kept within families for generations, the Archipelago extends Sweden’s “right to roam” policy, meaning all land, private or otherwise, is open to hikers and campers. There are also inns, guest houses, and boutique glamping spots within the Archipelago. I’d recommend Finnhamn cottage rentals, Harö Natur glamping huts, and Idöborg, which has both.

To experience the Archipelago in the in-between days of summer and fall is to experience a gentle season where blueberries are still ripe, the water retains a streak of warmth, saunas are still firing, and the seas are almost empty of sailors.

From Stockholm’s lush island neighborhood of Skeppsholmen, I boarded a boat to the Archipelago. With rocky and often shallow waters, the Stockholm Archipelago is difficult to navigate, and the expertise of those who learned to sail in the pre-GPS days is still heavily relied upon. Almost immediately upon sailing, the city begins to slip away, and the world of the Archipelago opens. The shoreline becomes more rugged and only grows more so the further you move away from the capital, and the homes are nearly all painted falu red, Sweden’s iconic deep copper–based color. 

Even in the in-between season, when fall has yet to take full hold, a gray softness can cover the islands. But unlike the gray of a rainy day, the gray of the Archipelago settles in with a misty quality that feels almost planned, planted romantically to grace your route. “It’s ‘the 50 shades of gray,'” says Ulrika Palmblad-Wennergren, a guide with the Archipelago Foundation, an organization that owns roughly 12 percent of the islands in the archipelago, who joined me on the ride. “You have to have a passion for it.” For Palmblad-Wennergren, there’s a magnetic attraction in seeking out the islands of the Archipelago without the crowds. A few minutes into the boat ride, as Stockholm slips out of sight, I understand. 

Whether intentionally or not, the Archipelago, which a New Yorker might liken to a wilder, more water-filled version of the Catskills, feels out of bounds to visitors from afar. Yet the Archipelago is open, as I discover, to anyone. In 2025, a national park will open, across several islands, including Bullerö, a nature and bird preserve. The creation of the park is not without its opposition, and it’s a move that requires the weigh-in of farmers, land owners, and the government. Yet its creation will, inevitably, hopefully, help unleash the Archipelago to those who might feel it’s off limits. That’s a message people like Jakob Rudberg are trying to share. In 2019, Rudberg co-founded The Stockholm Kayak Trail, which has mapped routes through the Archipelago which experienced Kayakers and novices could enjoy. His company plans kayak journeys ranging from day paddles to week-long explorations where kayaks are loaded with everything you would need — camping gear, food, safety equipment — for days in the Archipelago’s waters. Visitors stream into Stockholm in droves (15 million a year in some counts). Yet few leave the bounds of the city and its many charms.

Making a mental note to come back to kayak for a week (and work on my paddle skills in the meantime), I hiked across Finnhamn’s three connected islands. In the summer, Stockholmers come here to sunbathe and picnic, and as many as 75,000 boats can be moored in the island’s inlets during a typical season, a staggering number made possible, in part, thanks to its close proximity to the city and the presence of a public commuter boat. Between the summer’s rush of local visitors and the fall’s quietude, I find the wooded island almost entirely empty and I have the wooded islands’ 5.5-mile-long trail, the Båtuffarleden, to myself. 

I could smell the coming fall on my hike, as I walked past cows, sheep, and tree-rimmed dales. At the end of the Båtuffarleden I moved by rowboat to the island Ingmarsö, whose main draw is the remarkable Ingmarsö Bakery. Opened in 2020 by Lina and Victor Wahlcrantz, a young couple who gave up life in Stockholm in favor of a more rural life in the Archipelago, the bakery appears off the hiking trail almost as if in a dream, with set tables and floral-cushioned chairs and the scent of fresh kanelbullar wafting in the air. Perhaps the Walhcrantzs are playing along, adding some florals and fresh baked goods to the fairy tale of the Archipelago, or perhaps that feeling exists because of people like them.

It’s a feeling that the magic, like the mist, is inevitable. Perhaps it’s a secret, too. That summer isn’t the only season. The sun pokes out just momentarily as I board another boat bound for the island of Gummerholmen, where I will spend the night in an A-frame glamping hut and feast on a dinner harvested from late summer’s bounty: chanterelles and toast, pickled herring with dill and potatoes, cod with västerbotte cheese and lobster sauce, and skagen, a specialty served often at New Years, that’s a symphony of shrimp with homemade mustard and mayonnaise with fresh dill and caviar. I was shocked to find this meal in the woods on an outer island in September. But I seem to be alone in that surprise here, where the good life of fine food and a sauna on the edge of the sea feels more of a Swedish-given right than a privilege.  

Before the sun goes down, I join in the required ritual of the Swedish sauna, sweating out the last of the day before jumping into the sea. Still warmer than elsewhere in the country, the water is getting colder as the evening crawls in. The dropping temperature hits you less like a breeze than like a knife. It’s the slap of a new season on the horizon, an alarm to wake up and keep your eyes open to the slice of summer left, the first glimmer of fall, to wedge yourself in between the seasons before winter again reaches back in with its icy fingers.

Source : Travel Leisure

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