‘Good Gotland!’ I declare this the exclamation for discovering wonderful places you never knew existed. It’s a rare treat in an era of having been there and done it, or at least seen it on the TV or the Web, to experience an extraordinary under-the-radar destination in the continent in which we live. How has Sweden’s largest island on the Baltic Sea managed to keep its holiday-perfect persona a secret from so much of the travelati? So it is when we landed at the airport by Visby, its mediaeval capital – we aren’t sure what to expect. We’ve been primed by those in the know how charming the island where filmmaker Ingmar Bergman spent his last four decades is – but what no brochure or friend’s gushing conveys is just how wonderfully unfettered by tourism Gotland is.
July: even in high season there’s barely anyone else on the flat, well-signposted roads as we head south along the west coast. We pass leafy green trees, livestock-speckled fields, millpond-still waters off the pebbly and sandy coast – nature in all its northern European glory. Traces of Gotland’s Middle Ages heritage poke through via rocket-like Gothic churches and cute clapboard and chalky whitewashed farmhouses punctuated by white signs for loppis sales (from loppa, meaning ‘flea’ in Swedish).
Twenty minutes’ drive from Visby, we arrive at our intended two-acre plot of woodland, a few minutes from the beach. There’s nothing glitzy to lure us into the six-room hotel, just a cluster of lovingly restored farmhouses and barns on the main road. Wandering into what looks a charming café, a pretty blonde behind a long bar counter smiles and welcomes us to Hotel Stelor. A few shelves of hand-picked Swedish homewares and stylish children’s books act as hotel giftshop; beyond this, under the hatch to the kitchen, plates of very tempting salads ensure we’ll be staying for supper.
Check-in is relaxed: the mention of our booking elicits a key and more warm welcomes. A deck out back with dainty antique white metal tables and chairs looks ideal for late-afternoon tea; our daughter is swiftly diverted to the typical grey Gotland lambs in a huge pen just beyond. As I pour some fragrant rose-infused tea, she plies the super-soft sheep with leafy snacks. I ask Tin, our handsome young waiter what’s on the menu for dinner. It’s the Sunday-night barbecue. Lamb. (Cuddly and, as we soon discover, also outrageously succulent – sorry, guys.) Locals flock here to pile their plates a few times over with juicy watermelon-and-feta salad and to ‘skol!’ each other with a Wisby Pils.
Light as it is until late, this Scandinavian air is so fresh and oxygen-rich, its soporific effect nudges us over to the neighbouring farmhouse and up the wooden hill to our bedroom early. Blue-and-white floral duvet covers, mid-century chairs, curios such as a vintage draftsman’s board and retro books. We were almost grateful that there were no TVs to jar with this wholesome scenario. Old-fashioned quality holiday time – just what the doc had ordered. We fall asleep with our books listening to sheep baa-a-a outside.
Agriculture is still a big part of the island’s activity, so it seems suitable we make like farmers and get up bright and early. Although as we arrive at breakfast it seems we’re the only ones – even with many of the other guests families too. Still, we’ve only got a few days to explore all of this 106-mile-long island. Loaded up on nutty muesli, smoked hams on fresh bread and caffeine-rich filter coffee, we are as strong as Vikings. And almost as intrepid – thanks to owner Karin taking time to speak with all her guests to help them plan the most of their time here.
Instead of boring you with the chronologically accurate minutiae of our schedule: here’s a cheat-sheet of our highlights… Visby is the capital. It’s how you imagine Walt Disney’s fairytale towns would be if you banned neon, MDF, plastic, and had actual craftsmen build them using traditional materials. Think terracotta-tiled rooftops, ruins of old stone churches, winding cobblestone alleyways, half-timbered houses now boutiques… But it’s not all olde-worlde cuteness: we emerge harbourside and discover that, even though it is only the afternoon, an open-air club is in full swing. An army of handsome blond men and women is punching the air to booming basslines and the occasional deafening spray of dry ice.
Another day we make it up north and catch the car ferry to the smaller island of Fårö – pronounced Four-er. Ridiculously filmic, from the manmade to the nature finessed. The first place we hit on the main road is the Ingmar Bergman centre – back home, chances are your first encounter would be a Wild Bean Café or post office peddling Happy Shopper grocery goods. Not here in Gotland, where almost everything is independently owned and easy on the eye.
Now, it’s obligatory to queue for crêpes at Kutens Berens. Eating them in a yard surrounded by rusting Fifties cars, a phalanx of Smeg fridges and overlooked by a doll with no arms sat at the wheel of the wreck of a pick-up is a tableau that would be a Portland blogger’s Instagrammable dream. We strike our own poses next alongside the limestone-rock formations, ensuring our social media posts earn more Scandilusting from followers. Leva, with its interiors-magazine-dream homewares shop, horsechestnut-sheltered treehouses, kids’ art room and bakery-café is a Utopia that almost tips them over the edge. Truth is, nowhere we stop during the whole trip is anything less than edifying. Sure, the food can be eye-wateringly pricy for foreign-currency converters – but there’s less of a rub when everything is such high quality.
We even do that thing I usually make fun of – we eat at our hotel both nights. Sure, since there is WiFi we give in to the siren of technology but compromise by watching an Ingmar Bergman film on YouTube, The Passion of Anna, filmed in 1969 on Gotland. Decades on it is uncanny how the landscape and furnishings are so redolent of today’s pancake-flat terrain with tightly packed evergreens, diagonally wound fences, colourful hand-woven rugs, mid-century-modern bookshelves. The landscape, the people, the interiors are all so beautiful we only wish we could take this eye candy home with us. And we did. 1) Via Instagram – every inch of this pretty isle cries out to be captured in pixels. 2) With many houses opening their garages as loppis, or mini flea-markets, souvenirs are begging to be sifted through and bagged up to give your own home a little Swedish soul beyond Ikea’s creations. 3) And the true signature: a grey curly-wool Gotland sheepskin. (Sorry again, guys.) Still, you can be sure this flea-bitten family will be returning to Hotel Stelor to savour the real deal again soon.