HI-LIFE ON UTÖ & ÅLÖ

August 20, 2010 in SWEDEN | Comments (8)

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Living it up in the Stockholm archipelago – cycling and dining

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14 August – Båtshaket & Utö Värdshus

My best kept secret is out: I found a rave review on Båtshaket (Boat Shed restaurant), so might as well tell all.

We discovered Båtshaket in August on the perfect combination – Utö and Ålö. A night at the inn on Utö – and a cycling jaunt over the bridge to Ålö to a rustic fish restaurant – makes a perfect weekend to savour good Swedish food and the haunting charms of the archipelago.

Båtshaket is due to close for the year on 5 September. Still, September and October are great for cycling. The Utö inn is open at weekends. And all the spirit of the archipelago reaches out to you – coming and going in boats, gleaming sea, clean wind, rippling rocks, little white beaches, ancient trees…and other typical island scenes with wooden piers, offshore islands and little red and white cottages.

Areas of limestone bring fauna and flora that you find on the island of Gotland – and some of the chalky lightness. Strands of metamorphosed volcanic ash called leptite streak the extraordinary sculpted rocky shores.

On Saturday 14 August we took the 9am boat Silverpilen to Utö from Årstabrygga, a 20 to 30 minute car ride from Stockholm (or suburban train to Västerhaninge and then bus 846).

The waters were silk, a dove grey, lilac blue shimmer. Sun shone through the vaporous clouds. The islands seemed to float, and rocky edges ripple.

It was hot when we got to Utö. First thing on landing, was to hire cycles at Gruvbryggan – to be sure we had bike baskets to fill with picnic goodies at the small supermarket. We had a café latte at the yacht harbor, and dropped our luggage at Utö Värdshus where we would spend the night, then set off to discover Ålö. It was 22 degrees C, but felt very hot in the sun as we cycled…

ÅLÖ AND BÅTSHAKET

The road to Ålö takes you past the camping site and its little beach, through forest and along the shore with glimpses of wooden piers, yachts, little summer houses. At Spranga Brygga (another ferry stop) there was the smell of waffles cooking and I noted that a late breakfast might have been enjoyed there at 10am.  But it would have been filter coffee, not the espresso enjoyed at the yacht harbor.

Past the little church and some 7 km of undulating terrain (including surprising glimpses of beaten up battle tanks from military exercises and warning signs by the military) you come to the bridge over to Ålö.

Ålö has its own feel. It is a nature reserve but has a hay farm and little green areas. The guide book makes a lot of the varied terrain. Swedes treasure open spaces as they live with “wall-to-wall forest” (or plantation) over most of the country, so to speak.

So while other countries in Europe get excited about a patch of forest – a wood or copse – Swedes get excited about a pasture or a field of wheat. Songs are sung about open country “öppna landskap” (e.g. Ulf Lund ell).

In this context Ålö is idyllic with its mix of forest, green meadows, solitary trees and a blue channel between it and the next island. It’s the sense of island life, lazy days and pastoral Europe, with the magic of some stones placed as if for ancient rituals. The forest includes shaggy conifers, drily withdrawn from foolish extravagance, and leafy dancing trees that forget for a moment the threat of autumn and winter.

Our gravel road curved gently up and down round rocky knolls until we came to a crossroads offering us Storsand (big sands) versus the ferry stop and painted by hand a nother sign to Båtshaket.  Cannot resist a hand painted sign in a world where modern technology stares at us with determination and blank eyes, so we chose Båtshakets restaurant and relinquished the beach.

Båtshaket. It was love at first sight.

Three ways of getting to Båtshaket were evident – bikes, bikes and more bikes; small boats tied up in front; and the ferry boat that arrives a short walk away (from Nynashamn). Theoretically you can also get here by motorbike or kind taxi from Utö.

The menu was written on a lot of different black boards. Fish is the dish. In seven variations, including 4 types of herring for 125 sek, smoked salmon and homemade potato salad (125 sek), also meatballs on a stick (60 sek).

Båtshaket is an original boat house. This one perches on the rocks and opens out onto a deck with canvas tent for shade. From simple rough wooden tables you had a view that was five star. Smooth rocks, white boats, and silky water, clear enough to reveal the green underwater world with seaweed and stones. Sometimes the Baltic is not like that – it’s dark and secretive – perfect for hiding submarines…

But this was a friendly sea sharing its secrets.

And across its shimmering surface a bright white ferry boat came in from Natttarö and Nynashamn, like a visitation.

The freshly smoked salmon was just totally delicious. Our picnic lunch was quite forgotten. After some yummy local beer, we dropped our idea of cycling another 3km to the beach … and returned to Gruvbyn and Utö Värdshus to relax in our accommodation before dinner.

UTÖ VÄRDSHUS

Up on the hill above the yacht harbor, it is housed in one of those charming buildings with angled roof common in the counties around Stockholm. This features a veranda restaurant, fine dining restaurant and breakfast room. An old-fashioned timber building painted traditional Falu-red and housing a café and shops, hung with flowers, makes up one side of a sheltered courtyard. The accommodation is in annexes built like cottages layered down the hill to the sea.

Our package was booked a month ago  Utö Värdshus is very popular – no last minute bookings likely in the summer. 2900 SEK included 2 people in a cottage for 1 night, breakfast and a nice 3 course dinner. Considering the accommodation (basic and comfortable not classy) it was not cheap – but considering the nice meals and the alternative of hostel it was worth it.

In fact compared with the campsite it was total luxury.

There were two other restaurants to dine at down at the harbor – both well liked, the lively and more casual Seglarbar where the boat set hang out, and Dannekrogen (where they no doubt also hang out). The Utö Värdshus has less excitement perhaps but more style and elegance.

Two rooms were laid out with long tables for festive groups. A wedding party, a big birthday and a crayfish party were in progress, (Crayfish parties are a traditional August event in Sweden – and the partakers in a room by themselves were more informally dressed and possibly jollier). People come from faraway country towns to Utö to enjoy special events and corporate or family togetherness. Very authentically Swedish…

The couples sit on the closed in balcony with view of a traditional villa and the sea. It was a nice atmosphere. You cannot fault the marine smartness of blue and white. White chairs, blue cloths. Chandeliers, silver and glass adding glitter and glamour to the cottagey.

Our waiter was excellent. My disappointment over being given shrimps (räkor) as my starter was smoothly dealt with. He brought me a nice balsamic vinegar salad immediately. Second course – rödtunga with mash looked and tasted good. Not gourmet frontline with an exciting difference but very nice. Dessert delish.

We wandered out into the 10 pm sunset. Down at the yacht harbor the masts of the boats in the channel sliced a fluffy pink sky, and the still waters got more and more rich with reflections of reds and purples like wine in a bottle.

It was dark when we got to our separate cottagey accommodation. comfy, cosy and very petite. We had the cottage lowest down the slope at sea level, which gave us a view of the yacht harbor and the back of Seglarbaren. I laughed and reminded Pelle that I had once asked for take-away at Seglarbaren with a faulty  translation: ”ta bort maten.” (take my food away)

Confusion. I should have used the English un-translated “takeaway”.

The noise (the expected noise) from the jolly restaurant was not disturbing, though the heat made us leave our window open.

Though the public areas of the inn might be four star – the “stugby” (cottage village) accommodation is more three star. Clean, very clean and neat. Cosy, blue and white theme, but rather petite and too much plastic. This is family accommodation with a second single bedroom and a bed sofa in the small lounge, as well as a wall cupboard that opens out into a kitchenette.

The inn does also have ordinary double rooms in villa accommodation which are slightly more expensive.

The cosy comfortable mood is extended to the breakfast. There is a waffle making machine where you can (and teenagers do) make your own waffles, and a juicer where you can (and the mothers do) squeeze your own orange juice, and toaster where you make your own toast…apart from the usual buttermilks, yoghurts, mueslis, grains, and hams and cheeses to go on bread…

Nice but a bit crowded.

15 August – lonely sea and the sky

Moist air, warm and scrubby grey sky. Water with a gleam of green churning as we turn. I am on the ferry, leaving Spränga Brygga, opposite the little church and Kyrkbrygga.

This morning we walked to Rävstavik a couple of km down the hill from the inn. Past the old mine pit now filled with water – for hundreds of years Utö had an iron mining industry – hence the windmill. Past former workers cottages. Down through a tall forest to the coast facing the Baltic.

Grey glittery scene, sweeping views with gnarled pines on the worn, smooth rippling rocks. A lonely feel (lonely sea and the sky).

We studied the sky as a rainstorm threatened. A distant growl, like an animal warning from the sky,

At breakfast we’d wondered if it was a military exercise or thunder. The waitress guessed military as it came out short almost mechanical, without the soft edges of thunder (I thought). But we dared to walk nervously (me afraid of lightning) with picnic and umbrella, ready for eventualities, sun or rain.

Maybe 15 minutes there, enjoying rich solitude, the lighthouse on an islet adding an oceanic touch. The vik (inlet) was calm though trembling with temptation of winds to open its gleaming surface to broken ripples.

Then it started. We walked back up the hill with umbrellas furled which did not prevent feet, pants, sandals, legs from dripping and squelching as the warm air gave us its gifts of hard rain,

We gave up our weekend, fetched our luggage from Utö Värdshus luggage room, and trundled down in lighter rain, but equally sopping around the feet, to the harbor.

And now we are on the ferry home…misty window, pinkish or bluish haze – ah lilac haze. Surface running with wavelets. A pale white glow on the horizon over Utö.

Maybe we should have stayed.

See my previous post on Utö…


Out to Utö

July 17, 2010 in SWEDEN | Comments (4)

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Saturday

Barnens bad - beach on Utö

Today we travel out to a special island among the 24 000 islands and skerries in the coastal waters off Stockholm.

Life was made for moments like this. Waiting for a boat to the archipelago, with legs swinging over the quay. Focus on water. Cool, green and dreamy depths…and fish.

A baby girl who bears a striking resemblance to her clutched doll says excitedly: “Mycket vatten” (lots of water). She too sees the fish floating around the pier, and would just leap off the edge and fly too (or sink) if mamma did not hold her.

Over the glittering water, the boat Silverpilen (silver arrow) comes in to Årstabrygga. How much nicer than flying. An unshaven guy leaps off the boat and says informally to the waiting passengers “10 minutes to tidy – then we are off”. You love him. If an airline pilot was so nonchalant you’d be really worried about the coming takeoff.

Silverpilen comes in

We’ve had heat – lush lazy heat since before midsummer. We are sweltering.

But now it is Saturday and we are heading for Utö, where not many tourists go. It’s a long four hour boat ride from Stockholm and the Grand Hotel. The normal way the locals get to Utö involves a half hour self-drive from Stockholm to the pier or 50 minute train and bus ride, and then half an hour ferry boat ride to the island.

Utö is undeniably special.

Hoary lichen, spruce and water

It is one of the most varied islands in the archipelago. The outer edge of Utö faces the Baltic and has the look of the outer islands of the archipelago  – worn smooth first by the ice age glaciers, and then by waters lapping and slapping. The rocks seem wavy, light and free in their lines, striped with white leptite  – beautiful places to lie.

Smooth rocky shore

The inner edge of Utö is more like the coast it faces – rich vegetation close to the seafront, rougher rocks. And some beaches. On this side lies Gruvbryggan – one of the main ferry stops and guest harbours. A long line of yachts and glittering masts is sheltered by an offshore island. Up on the hill is the “famous” sight of a windmill, though famous is perhaps too strong a word for an island that is more in the best-kept-secret bracket.

Utö Värdshus - the inn includes 2 restaurants

Restaurants, inn, guest house, shops and a beachside camping site make Gruvbryggan the undisputable centre of Utö. This sleepy little place can seem quite exuberant in the evenings with live music and the smell of grilling meat.

Iron was mined on Utö for 700 years up there on the hill. Related “sights” include a small museum, the 250m deep pit (containing water), a line of workers cottages – and I guess the windmill, now restored.

The best news about Gruvbryggan is that one can hire bikes – so the first thing we did after a café latte at the pier café was to queue for a bike. It is better not to have coffee first, as the best bikes get snapped up. You can cycle many pleasant kilometres to the far ends of the elongated island and to another island, Ålö, over a bridge.

Parts of Utö are national park much of Ålö island – with elk and deer and other gentle Nordic creatures. Old hoary pines and spruce, and rarer species bring a special feel that differs from the rest of Sweden as (like Gotland) it has large areas of limestone – not just granite. Between the shaggy arms of spruce there is paler earth along with flashes of blue water in any and every direction.

As we head off from Gruvbryggan we use our three gears to get up gentle hills (which in the heat feel quite steep), passing a small public bathing pier.  Utö is all about water and swimming.

Now we were in view of a quaint church over a bay.

Utö church across the bay

We stopped at a little shop and café by the water where the locals were buying strawberries and eggs. I overheard someone explain to another that at Utö church today a couple would be getting married in the presence of all their kids. Typical Swedish wedding – the kids are present.

Later, amazingly, on our return journey we saw the bridegroom or best man fiddling with his buttonhole/carnation, standing by the roadside under a tree, waiting…

No limousines or anything boring like that. The probable wedding guests came down the paved road wheeling overnight bags. There is a ferry stop close to the church.

The sad truth of our cycling is that we gave up on three routes when I got deterred by gentle hills…(too hot). So turned back (1) before reaching the beach at Alléviken, (2) before the bridge over to Ålö, and (3) before the northern tip at Kroka. But we cycled at least 18 km…

Some favourite places on Utö: barnens bad (the children’s beach) – pale sand and strokes of long grass with the water sheltered by islets – surrounded by forest. No toilet – only a recycling shed. Very ecological.

Rävstavik. Didn’t get there on the bikes but by walking in a previous year – only 3km from Gruvbryggan.

Rävstavik