For as long as I’d known her, the nearest Mrs Smith had been to open water was driving over London Bridge. But here in Stockholm, her eyes were fixed on one of the sleek motorboats bobbing gently in the marina, and she whispered conspiratorially: ‘I know how to hotwire a Princess 440.’ Had there been a misspent youth she hadn’t told me about? Stockholm was serene, bathed in the warm light of a watery midsummer sunset, yet it seemed to have transformed my companion into Cut-throat Jake. I quickly steered her toward the Hotel J, not wanting to spend our romantic weekend in a Swedish prison on a charge of high seas piracy.
It could have been the voyage from the city centre that had brought about this change in Mrs Smith. 15 minutes earlier we’d been sitting beneath the spires and palaces of the Old Town, two perfectly law-abiding citizens. We boarded a white steamboat straight out of the pages of Swallows and Amazons – all varnished wood, flying pennants and brass fittings. What better way to arrive at the Hotel J? As we chugged down the broad Saltsjön waterway that links Stockholm to the Baltic I could feel myself unwind with each spin of the propeller. Mrs Smith seemed to be in her element.
Hotel J stands on the shore beyond the marina, tucked snugly against a rocky headland. The smooth lines and fine craftsmanship of yachting guide the hotel’s design (its name refers to the elegant J-Class America’s Cup yachts of the Twenties and Thirties). The glow from reception beckoned like harbour lights, and we found a bright and airy interior, with furniture and cabinets made of light oak, chairs covered in thick white cotton, offset by dark wood flooring. A faint summer breeze billowed in from the garden, carrying the smell of pine trees and the sea. As our host Inger greeted us, I almost expected her to say, ‘Welcome aboard.’
There is a distinct feel of New England in the red, white and blue scheme. Our room in the older red-brick part of the hotel, built in 1912, had a thick star-spangled blanket draped over the enormous bed. Yet when I flung open the windows, instead of Nantucket Sound or Martha’s Vineyard, the beautiful view was of the mile-wide Saltsjön. The sound of waves drifted up from bottom of the garden and, beyond the tilting masts of catamarans at the sailing club, the northern horizon was ablaze with a burning sunset. Fortunately I’d booked a room with a sea view, otherwise I may well have been made to walk the plank.
Mrs Smith had already set off for the honesty bar, no doubt looking for a tot of rum. I found her in the little candle-filled garden enviously eying the passing pleasure craft. Summer in Stockholm is all about the great outdoors, there being plenty of cold winter months when you can sit by Hotel J’s cosy fireplace trying to remember what the sun looks like. For now, staying indoors seemed very wrong; switching on the TV felt downright criminal. It was past midnight and the sun was still loitering just below the horizon. Even at this late hour the waterway was abuzz with speedboats and ferries making their way back in the twilight from the archipelago between Stockholm and the open sea.
Hotel J could convert even the most ardent landlubber to the romance of sailing – not the blazers and yellow wellies scene of the Solent, but the effortless grace and style of a bygone era. At breakfast in the clubhouse atmosphere of the lounge, I caught myself contemplating one of the many photos of elegant sailing boats and wondering how I’d look at the helm in a thick cable-knit jumper, studying clouds and pulling on ropes, or whatever it is that people do on yachts. There is something wholesome and healthy, something deeply Scandinavian, about the Hotel J, with its use of natural materials, its fresh design lines and its easy-going informality. I vowed to give up a whole host of unhealthy habits once I got back to London.
I managed to get Mrs Smith past the marina without incident, and we waited at the waterfront Restaurant J, the sister establishment of the hotel, for a ferry to take us into the archipelago. Like the hotel, the restaurant attracts an egalitarian mix of young couples, families and style-conscious bon viveurs. We settled into the deckchairs, the only two brunettes in a crowd of athletic blonde Swedes, as a remixed Abba tune drifted over from the sundeck. Short of adding some flat-pack furniture and liquorice fish, the scene could not have been more Swedish.
The ferry took us down the Saltsjön, back past the hotel and out into the maze of islands, their shores dotted with gingerbread summerhouses among the pines. With 24,000 islands to choose from, there seems to be enough peace and seclusion for everyone. Each house got an ‘ooh’ or an ‘ahh’ from the both of us. First we wanted the one with the balcony, then the one with the turret, then the one with the turret, balcony and boathouse on its own private island. ‘Do you know what I’d really like?’asked Mrs Smith. I tried to think. A parrot? An eye patch? A wooden leg? ‘No!’ she said. ‘I’d like to visit the Hotel J every summer, in endless sunshine, with Stockholm on one side and the beautiful archipelago on the other… and a Princess 440.’