Simple pleasures in West SwedenComment on this story
From a distance, Styrso is a wash of bleached greens and greys, splashed with brightly painted wooden huts. As the boat pushes into the tiny harbour from Gothenburg - where it tips out half a dozen passengers, plus dogs and bikes - you spot a sliver of dirt path leading up from the road; beyond that, a white clapboard house perched a little way up the hill.
This is Styrso Bed & Breakfast, owned and run by husband-and-wife team Bo and Pia Lindquist, two of just 1,400 people who live year round on this beautiful island in the southern Gothenburg archipelago.
The weather-beaten guesthouse, built in 1938, stands a little up the hill at the end of a long path and has become one of the island's biggest draws for visitors. The Lindquists bought the B&B from Ola and Ylva Tulldah, the couple who run a hotel and restaurant, Pensionat Styrso Skaret, next door, which is treated as an extension of the B&B. Here, the Tulldahs serve an award-winning, largely locally sourced restaurant menu from head chef Jerker Albrechtson.
There is nothing glamorous or hi-tech about Pensionat Styrso Skaret, but therein lies its charm. The house, built in traditional clapboard, has four double rooms and one tiny single, all well kept, cosy and sweet, with whitewashed floors, pretty paintings of flowers and boats and vases of tulips scattered about the place. In keeping with the getting-away-from-it-all theme, there is no radio or TV. There is a shared wet-room with a power shower, two separate toilet rooms and a communal sink/fridge area in the hall.
Our room was homely with hand-stitched blue and white checked curtains framing tiny windows, reminiscent of a doll's house. In the hallway there are cupboards stocked with colourful blankets and board games. Up a winding staircase, a balcony overlooks the harbour, and the neighbouring island of Donso. Until just a few years ago these two islands were arch enemies, their segregation steeped in centuries of rivalry; today, a single bridge joins the two communities, though older residents are still said to snarl at one another.
Breakfast is served next door at the hotel, Pensionat Styrso Skaret, in a glorious dining room with high ceilings and windows overlooking the water. Stock up on freshly baked breads, cake, porridge with stewed apples, cured meats and fish, yoghurt - and something that looks worryingly like smoked seal.
Bo and Pia Lindquist, who also run a small conference centre not far from the B&B, are immaculately dressed, larger-than-life characters, who appear when you need them, to offer a hand-drawn map, bikes and a picnic basket for our day out, and then disappear again.
As we arrived, Bo escorted us the 150 metres from the dockside to our room on the back of a golf buggy - aside from the odd workman's van, combustion engines aren't allowed on the islands. “Breakfast and dinner are served up there,” he shouted over a whirring noise which got higher and louder the faster the cart moved, pointing to the hotel, a grand, characterful building set partly on stilts. “If you'd like to explore the island, we can draw you a map!”
Looking out across the waters of the Kattegat, tall grass swaying in the distance, it was easy to see why the dramatic landscape of the Swedish islands have proved a popular setting for thriller writers such as Camilla Lackberg, whose best-selling crime novels are set not far from here on the Fjallbacka archipelago.
It is hard to believe you are just an hour from Gothenburg; from the central train station it is a short tram ride to Salthomen, where a regular boat service deposits locals and a smattering of tourists at one of two small harbours on Styrso. The journey is stunning and takes only 15 minutes, just enough time to enjoy hot chocolate and snacks served onboard. This island feels particularly remote: while pockets of land near the water are tightly packed with clapboard houses in various faded shades of red, grey, blue, yellow and white, you can walk for an hour at a time without seeing another soul.
Styrso has just one community, sharing a couple of grocery shops and a café serving traditional fika - the Swedish equivalent of a cream tea, but served with coffee. There is little to do here but explore the island on foot or by bike, so, as the sun pierced a bright sky and wind whipped at our knees, we took off - slowly - on borrowed fixed-wheel bikes to explore, with a superior picnic basket (including fresh prawns) in tow. A three-hour ride took us past isolated jetties, an eerie white church, shipping yard, mounds of craggy rock with amazing views to the other islands, and a forest, where the only signs of life were bird boxes for the owls, and a lost glove set on a rock.
Feeling like we were the only people left in the world, we followed an inconspicuous pathway past a babbling brook, the occasional hand-painted sign reassuring us of our direction, and arrived at a forest opening overlooking the sea. Not a bar of phone signal; the only sound was of the water lolling against the shore. As daylight fell, I was glad we had the map.
THE PIT STOP
In the main hotel, you can stretch your aching legs in front of an open fire with a stiff drink. A hotch-potch of traditional Scandinavian woodwork and French antiques fills the lobby, where you can help yourself to books or packs of cards.
In the beautiful, waterside dining room, Jerker Albrechtson, the chef, who moved here from an acclaimed restaurant at the ski resort of Salen, serves up a sumptuous menu with mains starting at Skr270 (about R3 300). We ate entrecôte of halibut (hand sliced, once the fish is nearly frozen) followed by cod loin with loganberry sauce, and white-chocolate crème brûlée. The wine, which at about Skr700 a bottle is not cheap (as you come to expect in Sweden), is sourced from small vineyards known personally to the hoteliers.
Styrso B&B, Skaretvagen 55, Styrso, Sweden (00 46 31 97 02 15; www.styrsobedandbreakfast.se). Double rooms start at Skr990, including breakfast. - The Independent on Sunday