Scandinavia is an incredibly well kept secret. As I entered the waterside café in Vaxholm, I felt as though I’d entered the Garden of Eden. The Swedish flag sailed in the gentle breeze and dark blue waters lapped all around. Tanned Swedes sat at white painted tables enjoying the languid Sunday sun as tree branches rustled overhead. Pear cider and a delicious strawberry confections completed the ensemble. "It's perfect!" I said, and so began a surreal experience. Tucked away from prying eyes, this café was as far from the madding crowd as you could ever imagine. Sailboats and yachts drifted past and the sunlight glinted off the waters. People spoke gently or not at all, tipping their faces to the sun in silence. And just when we thought it could get no better, the strumming of a guitar signalled a series of melodic acoustic numbers that melted seamlessly into the surrounds.
The Stockholm archipelago comprises an astonishing 24,000 islands, with the capital itself spread over 14. Tourists naturally head to the latter to enjoy the charms of this peaceful and classy urban space but a journey into the farther reaches of the mysterious navy waters reveals a haven of Swedish utopia. Board the Waxholmsbolaget on a sunny summer day (May to September) and take your place among Swedes heading to their holiday homes. The ferry stops several times, offering fleeting glimpses of storybook wooden houses with verandas and trailing flowers.
An hour into the journey, we disembarked at Vaxholm and did a quick lap of the main town. The sun was scorching and the colours of the houses seared in reds, pinks and yellows. We took shelter under the umbrellas of a small café and enjoyed some traditional Swedish meatballs, lingonberries, pickled beetroot and cider. Venturing back into the burning sun we passed locals, small businesses and telephone boxes that would not have looked out of place in an early 20th-century tale. The surrounds were so quintessentially perfect that my imagination ran wild as I wondered at the stories playing out behind the walls of the homes lining the gently inclining streets. We reached the harbour and people-watched, dodging energetic sea gulls and XS and XL dogs. Yachts circled blasting the dance music Sweden is known for, while others departed for isolated spots with the weekly shopping. We eventually moved on to a jetty jutting into the waters and spotted the beautiful café–garden that inspired this post.
The golden sunlight, impossibly beautiful Swedes and curious illusion of emptiness give Sweden something of a dreamlike quality. Strolling through the Djurgården island in central Stockholm on a Friday evening, there was not a soul to be found—until we turned a corner and stumbled upon a glitzy nightclub. This archipelago is magic in the way it fuses urban life and nature so effortlessly. The people are polite, fluent in English and among the happiest in the world according to the OECD’s Better Life Index. One taxi driver suggested it was because Swedes had been spared the misfortunes to have befallen many other countries. —Or because the people still make eye contact in the streets. Either way, it is surreal and fascinating.
Some experiences pass us by and vanish before ever forming memories while others remain in our minds in vivid colour. We may even realise mid-experience that it is something and absorb every detail, shoring up our memory bank for a rainy day.
With a cider in hand and the sun and sea at my back, last Sunday afternoon at Vaxholms Hembygdsgårds Café was the standout memory of a wonderful stay in Stockholm; a memory to light up a dark winter’s day with the welcome promise of Swedish utopia.