Travel: Europe - Islands in the stream

The galaxy of specks east of Stockholm are the perfect venue for island hopping
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At a time when El Nino was still a babe-in-arms, before growing up to be the unruly child currently terrorising the planet, an enterprising British tour operator seized upon the rising temperatures to nominate the Baltic Sea as the "new Mediterranean".

Nonsense, of course; even in August the Baltic, with its low salinity, is no match for, say, the Aegean. But as a venue for island-hopping, the Stockholm archipelago can outdo Greece any day - not least because of the absurd British Airways deal this weekend (pounds 89 return to Stokholm if you book by midnight tomorrow), and in the longer term good fares on Ryanair and SAS.

Those who have been to the Swedish capital but no further may be perplexed about the notion of the Stockholm archipelago; the city itself is built on 14 islands, at the point where the freshwater Lake Malaren meets the Baltic Sea. But the city is a launch pad for a marine galaxy of islands, 24,000 of them, splattered across the water for 40 miles in the direction of Finland.

Most are uninhabited, and those that do have a permanent population find it fluctuates wildly, as the holiday-makers arrive in force at the beginning of the summer and head for home again as the weather cools down and the nights begin to draw in. The archipelago is to the residents of Stockholm what Long Island is to New Yorkers: a place in which to avoid the heat of the city in the height of summer, and where they can have a change from the routine of the rest of the year.

You do not have to sail your own boat out to the archipelago, but an interest in sailing is useful if you want to find much to do there. The Royal Swedish Yacht Club has had its headquarters on Sandon (which means, accurately, "sand island") for 100 years, and it is still the main centre for the sailing community. In the past, being close to the point where Swedish waters merge into Finnish, the small harbour of Sandhamn was an important customs point and quarantine centre. Since the 1600s, it has been one of the main seapilot stations, guiding boats through the maze of islands to the capital.

Most of the summer activity in the archipelago is centred round Sandhamn. The houses around the harbour are small and close together, with little alleyways between them. On the quayside is an inn, the Sandhamn's Vardshus, which has been catering for visitors to the island since 1672. A few yards away is a small supermarket that stays open throughout the year; a sign stuck on the door of another indicates that it operates only during the warmer months. About 100 people live on the island all year round, with a large influx of tourists for two months in the summer.

A walk around the island takes almost no time at all, and it is worth striking out along the coast, or through the pine forests, where you feel beyond the reach of normal life. The sands are usually deserted, and all you hear are the birds and the sound of the waves on the shore.

The cool climate this far north - the same latitude as Orkney - means that if you are going to go island-hopping it is probably better to consult the timetables to make sure a brisk-ish pace can be maintained. It is rarely hot enough, except in the height of a good summer, to laze around at an outdoor cafe all day hoping a boat might arrive.

There are three amazingly complicated timetables, which I think (Swedish not being a language in which I excel) cover the northern, central and southern parts of the archipelago. Since most of the names will be unfamiliar, it is almost impossible to work out where to go but, as this is Scandinavia, the service is well organised, and it is easy to get advice in English.

Whether you decide to jump on a boat and take pot luck, or try a day- trip that is guaranteed to bring you back to where you started from, the easiest departure point is Stromkajen - the quay in front of the Grand Hotel in Stockholm. There is an illuminated departure board in front of each boat telling you which stops it is planning to make, and you can buy tickets on board.

Most of the boats leave between eight and nine in the morning, which, if you are on a day trip, means you can get quite a long way before it is time to come home again. The vessels are enclosed, but they have large windows, which offers uninterrupted views of the scenery - even if you are making a trip out of season.

Like a country bus service, the boats stop here and there around the archipelago. The first stop is at Nacka Strand, little more than a suburb, where commuters pour out to go to work at the Ericksson factory on the quayside. At Klippudden, there are often school parties that use the service when the pupils go on field trips. And inhabitants of the smaller islands use it when they go on a shopping expedition.

One of the wealthiest looking islands in the archipelago is Vaxholm. The first thing you notice as the ferry approaches the harbour is the old fortress. Built for King Gustav Vasa in the middle of the 16th century, it has seen off Danes and Russians, and still looks as if it could protect the inhabitants from any modern-day invasion. But it failed to prevent the 19th-century incursions of the wealthy burgers of Stockholm, who built flamboyant holiday homes on the island.

The fortress protects the best part of Vaxholm. Walk around the water's edge, along Strandgatan, and then clamber up on to the Battery, and look down over the north harbour to a pretty cluster of houses below you, and the steely sea beyond.

The closer you are to Stockholm, the more densely packed are the islands; they thin out considerably as you go further and further east. As soon as you leave Vaxholm to head deeper into the archipelago, the landscape becomes softer. The houses look as though they were built to cope with a climate that is harsh for most of the year; there is more dependence on boats and less on the city. The Swedish islands may not be as sun-drenched as those in the Aegean, but they have a remoteness that few Greek islands manage to achieve.

Stockholm is included in this weekend's BA promotion, at a fare of pounds 89 return from London; see page 19. Cathy Packe paid pounds 119 return for a flight from Heathrow on SAS (0845 607 2772). She stayed aboard the vessel Rygerfjord Sodemalarstran, moored in Stockholm harbour, where she paid pounds 50 a night for a single room with breakfast. Swedish Travel & Tourism Council, 11 Montagu Place, London W1H 2AL (0171-724 5868).