“I hate the goats,” says Charlotte Schröder, her eyes twinkle with a hint of mischief from below her soft white bangs. I look at the faces around me listening intently, then back at her face where a pursed smile has begun to play faintly, and wonder if with her two neat braids, warm demeanor, and storytelling prowess, she also reminds others of the favorite aunt who knows many a secret but only reveals one at a time, for effect.
Here on the island of Utö in the southernmost part of the Stockholm Archipelago, a group of 30,000 islands, I am glad to have Charlotte as my guide. She knows the island like the back of her hand and is eager to share more than just her dislike of her daughter’s goats and other pets, “I hate parrots too, they sound like car-alarms.” Luckily for her, there are no cars or motorbikes on Utö; the only modes of transportation on the island are boat, ferry, and bicycle. “This is the only island with as big a population that isn’t connected to the mainland by a bridge,” she says with a sense of what feels like relief mixed with pride.
Before I’d actually got myself on a ferry and visited the Stockholm Archipelago, I’d expected the islands to be something of an extension of Stockholm, perhaps less urban, but just as developed and commercial. Thankfully, this was not always the case. Once I’d discovered remote islands that had less than 15 year-round residents, islands where I could hike in forests, grassland, and swamps all in a single day without seeing another person, and islands where in winter, children went to school on a hovercraft riding across a frozen sea, I was hooked.
I returned again and again, each time to a new island, new adventure, and new tale to scribble into my little white notebooks. Obviously, my advice to anyone visiting Stockholm is to take time to explore the Archipelago, even if it’s on a day trip. And Utö, with just the right amount of tourism infrastructure, is an excellent place to start.
A Perfect Day in Utö
Just 223 full-time residents live on Utö in the Baltic Sea, along with 47 dogs (the Swedes love dogs). But expect summertime to be busy; 300,000 tourists visit the island each year, 90% of these are Swedes. International tourists are slowly arriving lured by the charm of quaint summer cottages and promising afternoons of walking, fishing, swimming, and biking around the island.
As Charlotte leads a short trek around the island, she points out fresh strawberries and blueberries. We gather around picking them like little children and pop the tiny strawberries into our mouths. Wild mushrooms are also found on the island.
“Utö is different from other islands,” she lets on, “here people are employed by the owners of the island, of which there are three (the military, Archipelago Foundation, and an individual), as opposed to other islands where people go to neighboring islands or Stockholm to work.”
As is typical of seasonal employment in the islands, most residents on Utö do many things for a living such as carpentry, boat repairs, painting, gardening, managing the restaurant, and writing etc. Take Charlotte for example, she’s an authorized tour guide, a horse-riding instructor, vet, and wedding organizer. “Utö is called the island of love and children,” she says. With its sublime beauty, the island must make for a gorgeous wedding location.
We pass by cute windows of red and yellow houses dressed up with pretty pink flowers and potted plants. “The yellow houses are summer houses,” says Charlotte. At the end of the 18th century, the old miners’ cottages began to be replaced by summer houses for well-known creatives and the island built a reputation as a resort. In 1889, a man from Stockholm bought a part of the island for 140,000 Swedish Krona, built five hotels, and invited famous people over. “My grandfather was an author and he was invited,” says Charlotte, “he rented a house called Paradise.” Today, writers, architects, painters, and artists own the summer houses on the island.
It’s hard to get lost in Utö; there’s only one main road that is connected to other islands south of the island by a bridge. The local school has just 24 students. There is no hospital on Utö but in cases where medical assistance is needed, a helicopter arrives in no time.
Visitors can go fishing or swimming, rent a bike or canoe to explore the island or hike along one of its beautiful forest trails.
History of Utö
Utö is home to the oldest iron ore mines in Sweden. Mining on the island started as early as 1150 when Vikings settled here. The industry prospered for 500 years and iron ore was shipped from the Utö harbor all around the Baltic Sea. In 1790, a Russian invasion turned the island’s fortunes around; the invaders burnt down homes, dumped the iron ore into the sea and rocks into the mines. The residents fled to Stockholm and took with them a revered centerpiece painting from the local church.
As we walk by the closed mines, Charlotte talks of the days when the central part of the island (that is now the largest of the 2000 islands) owned by the Archipelago Foundation used to be owned by a mining company. After mining silver in Utö for a decade, the company shut down in 1878 leading to a wave of unemployment.
Much later, the Archipelago Foundation bought the land and developed tourism infrastructure creating jobs and a boost to the island’s economy.
All The Boys
Charlotte shares a curious fact about the island: the pregnant women on the island mostly gave birth to boys. It’s widely believed that the mines resulted in high levels of iron, zinc, silver, uranium, and arsenic in the drinking water that somehow translated into the high population of boys. This has changed since the residents started drinking desalinated seawater to result in the birth of girls. “Perhaps we should start selling water from the mines to China,” jokes Charlotte.
Where to Eat in Utö
When it comes to eating out on the island in summer, visitors are spoilt for choice; Utö is home to many cafés and restaurants, a bakery, fish shop where you can buy smoked treats for a picnic by the marina, and a well-stocked grocery store.
Our lunch features typical fare at Utö värdshus, a hotel and restaurant. The meal begins with a platter of pickled herring dressed in various sauces served with chopped red onions, chives, and cheese, accompanied by a bread basket and a side of potatoes. While I’ve tasted pickled herring before, it has never been with sauces like these, and I relish every bite. The fresh bread is delicious too and there’s one I particularly enjoy; dark, soft, and a little sweet, it reminds me of walnut banana bread.
Main course is fried sea trout served with potatoes, capers, gherkins, a caviar sauce and a lemon wedge. I’ve never tasted caviar before and now I know what I’ve been missing. The dish is fresh, easy on the palette, and hugely satisfying.
Later in the day, we’re treated to a fika (afternoon snack of pastries and coffee) by Utö Bakgården bakery and the lovely fruity, nutty, and chocolaty treats are a welcome delight.
How to get to Utö
There are a number of ways to get to Utö from Stockholm by regular ferry or using a combination of bus, boat, and ferry, details here.
A super exciting and fun way to get to Utö and explore the other islands in the Stockholm Archipelago is by RIB or Rigid Inflatable Boat, a speed boat experience packed with stomach lurching twists and turns. It’s a completely different way of seeing the outer Archipelago. I had only been on the ferry before and I couldn’t be happier that I got to experience the RIB on my trip to Utö. Oppet Hav offers a whole bunch of RIB Tours to choose from. Here’s a short video from my experience:
I visited as a guest of Visit Stockholm and Oppet Hav during TBEX 2016. All opinions, as always, are my own.
Looking to visit Stockholm? Here’s a guide to Stockholm hotels.
Have you been to any of the islands on the Stockholm Archipelago? How was your experience?