You've probably never heard of Sweden's Höga Kusten (High Coast). It's flooded with folklore magic. Over the last 20,000 years, shifting tectonic plates and the many forces of nature have carved its dramatic, Unesco-protected coastline - the world's highest of its kind.
Sweden has been in and out of the UK's travel-safe corridor throughout the pandemic. Me? Trapped in a #minksituation in my now home country of Denmark.
In this alien time, we've all craved access to the raw nature that our urbanite lives don't deliver on the daily. And so, I made the journey from Copenhagen, via Stockholm, to Sweden, reaching the northern town of Umeå - the "City of Birches" - by nightfall. I couldn't believe I wasn't at home. In those early hours of adventure, the skies turned purple and I journeyed deep into the wilderness. I stayed guarded and reticent, cloaked in Aesop hand sanitiser and a face mask.
Sweden, Covid and micro-vacationing
The Swedes have not only seemingly tackled the first and second waves of the dreaded virus, but have also optimised the notion of "micro vacationing". These otherwise terrible times have seen sleepy Swedish towns, guesthouses, restaurants and historic landmarks with few virus cases and minor restrictions come to life like never before. Unlike the suffering hospitality industry in many parts of the world, businesses here have seen their revenue exceed usual annual expectations as healthy smatterings of Swedes explore the parts of the north they usually neglected in favour of more aspirational global travel. Nationals here have embraced their country's northern nature in the north in a big way, and made the most of the infrastructure that gives its residents such easy access to it.
In these northern parts, I find the people incredibly world-curious, inviting and relaxed. They're sensitive and resourceful. And also hilarious, full of stories, and with striking wide-eyed, high-cheekboned beauty. I met many people with strange, otherworldly faces, weathered gorgeously by the great outdoors and often paired with a deep year-round tan.
Money here goes a lot further than in Stockholm or Gothenburg, certainly Copenhagen or Oslo. Unpretentious, clean and cosy stays nestled in fishing villages and rural areas where it's impossible to eat or sleep badly. Let's be frank: this northern hemisphere is getting a lot colder and darker before we see the warmth again. Our sights for the foreseeable are due north, and here's how to do it.
Stay: Granö Beckasin
A lot of flights north arrive in the evening, so you'll want to be well rested for the hiking, climbing, laughing, talking and eating you're about to do on a high-coast mini break. A strange and wonderful little smattering of tree-house hotel rooms set deep in a forest an hour's scenic drive from Umeå airport, where you can see the aurora borealis on the right occasion. The guesthouse's creator was an obsessive ornithologist and taxidermist, and today the residence has deep interests in cosmology, astrology, Nordic daylight research and indigenous history.
In its impressive structures, slumber after a gorgeous dinner (chanterelles, chard and blueberries were chief desirables when I visited). By dawn, spy on the science-fictional Photon Space, a unique glass daylight suite dedicated to study environment-human interactions. It can be (and has been) moved around Europe. Enjoy a breakfast of eggs, homemade rye, Västerbotten cheese and of course, Kalles Kaviar from that deliciously kitsch blue-and-yellow tube. The owner is chatty as anything - be prepared for more warm welcomes along the coast.
Walk: shrooms and lore
You can't not hike and fika in Skuleskogen National Park. Expect the kind of foggy beaches and woods that one can picture full of colour and laughter and picnics of wild strawberries come summer. The coastline unfolds on the drive there; submerged in the greenery, bird spotting is a moving experience. Early autumn here offers a sea of fungi and the pines are lusher than ever, with burnt-orange and canary-yellow leaves that tumble below the scarlett and mauves. I died at all this, after the flatness Denmark offers. I imagined teeny vittror (folkloric) underground creatures scampering quietly underfoot trying not to be found.
It's believed that gargantuan giants threw rocks the size of their heads at one another many years ago - that's why things supposedly look like this. That, or a cool 10,500 years ago tectonic shifts formed a deciduous forest near the sea. Expect steely mountains, hidden caves, pink granite, mossy mire, pine, spruce, hazel, maple. I marvelled at "troll's" slime on logs, and the three-toed woodpecker with a yellow head.
There are old tales of robbers and bandits looting and hiding in these forests. A park ranger told me about meadowsweet, as it was hurtling towards the end of its season - a wispy elderflower-esque, celebrated herb in Celtic times, representing the "flower bride" or "Blodeuwedd" - the maiden aspect of the triple goddess. If you're really keen to grind up against Mother Nature, set your sights on ArkNat's impish-chic huts. You can camp overnight in these structures for free.
Restore: kitsch country club
I consider myself a grand-dame hotel fetishist, but the family-run Norrfällsviken Rum & Kök, with its on-request sauna, burgundy swirled carpets and home cooking speaks to me. In summer, I imagine it being like a small version of a 70s American holiday camp. By winter? Twin Peaks. Here I enjoyed one of the best dinners (tartare, trout, chocolate torte and berries) I had on the entire trip.
An outdoor village, Friluftsbyn, is dedicated to the philosophy of friluftsliv (meaning "free air life"). It's run by Jerry Engstrom, a sort of Mark Zuckerburg meets David Beckham type, but with a Swedish accent and the ability to talk me (a first-time climber) out of throwing myself off a sheer cliff face in equally sheer panic. He's assisted by a beautiful former dancer who left her life in New York to come back to her northern motherland and hike daily. High up on a mistless mountain, the adrenaline and view was a hundred times worth it. My screams can still be heard boomeranging into future centuries. Probably.
Try Mjälloms Tunnbröd for lunch. Mountain-cow stew, mash and lingonberries (and local beer) proved the perfect fuel after an insane climb. Jubilant and light, this family-run flatbread bakery (Sweden's oldest) makes its own crackers by hand - about 100m worth of them an hour. I snacked on blood crackers and whitefish roe before swanning off to catch a boat to Ulvön Island.
Ulvö Island: legends, lights and fermented delicacies
Many ferries travel between the mainland and Ulvö. Höga Kusten-Båtarna depart from Ullånger, Docksta and Mjällom while Örnsköldsviks Hamn och Logistik depart from Köpmanholmen. After a bumpy nap through the Gulf of Bothnia (or the Bay of Serpents in Norse mythology), I realised I was still coated in mountain body dew and only a cold dip and sauna would refresh me. But not before a peek into the island's historic fishing village's offerings: a rickety old chapel with frescoes among the dark wood; a small museum dedicated to mining and herring fishing; panoramic views from the top of Lotsberget.
I checked into the gorgeous Ulvö Hotel, where Head Chef Tobias Andersson served the famed surströmming (fermented herring). Each year, on the third Thursday of August, casks of the fermenting are opened, noses are shocked, and everyone delights in the season's bounty. The smell is like rubber, metal and a fine cheese combined. We had it served on tunnbröd with pickled red onions, washed down with snaps glasses of straight Hernö Gin, before a dinner of moose steaks in blueberry sauce and almond potatoes.
Finish in a Finnish archipelago
Before catching a boat back to Stockholm via the Finnish Åland Islands, I took a swift dive into Hernö's famous gin distillery, complete with hand-hammered copper stills named Kierstin, Marit and Yvonne. Founder Jon Hillgren uses only natural, organic botanicals and is opening a "gin hotel" in Härnösand and a bar in Stockholm next year. I stocked up for a potential lockdown booze-athon in the near future.
Cruising overnight south from the High Coast is a majestic experience. Weird things always reveal themselves to me on boats. I don't really suffer from seasickness, rather I get a sequence of strange visions and memories and everything feels incredibly cinematic. Suites on a Silja Line ship look like a Poirot set; everything I saw outside was almost monochromatic, like an Ingmar Bergman tableau in the whirls of the wind and rain, stoney islands and night birds fluttering fast and hard next to every porthole. In the gift shop, I bought a pink and blue Moomins x Silja Line tin mug, and everyone I looked at the rest of that night looked like Little Red.
In the morning, Captain Ola Bengtsson showed me the view from the bridge, where the sun had kindly reappeared ready for our sail into the Stockholm archipelago. He pointed out Pippi Longstocking writer Astrid Lindgren's house, among the many scattered across these headily-beautiful islands. He told me about plans for future metal sails and their lowering fuel consumption each year. The buzz of people and children laughing below deck made me happy and almost forget a pandemic was in motion. "I love the autumn colours," said the captain. "You picked the perfect day."