Style and substance

Sweden has named 2005 as its official Year of Design but, as Harriet O'Brien discovers on a luxurious trip to Stockholm and its archipelago, the country has been at the cutting edge of creativity since the days of the Vikings

Smooth and gleaming, the stainless-steel shape looked like an enormous grey pearl. It had never occurred to me that a bathroom plug could have such potential as a style icon. Nor could I imagine where else such an object would be on display besides Stockholm, designer city par excellence. At the modern art museum, I had wandered through rooms hung with an impressive line-up of Picasso, Matisse, Dali, Munch and more, before coming across the designer plug in the gallery's shop. It retails for the equivalent of £26 and it even has its own website,
www.sinko.se. Pretentious? Well, yes. But I had to concede that the shape and the sheer practicality of the object are immensely pleasing. Its creation coincides with Sweden's 2005 Year of Design, which is not only a celebration of how design permeates everyday life here but also - according to the Minister for Industry and Trade, Leif Pagrotsky - a quest to make the Swedish people "the best design users in the world".

I had come to Sweden's capital to get a flavour of the Year of Design and then to join "the world's best design users" at play, enjoying the endless days of the Scandinavian summer. With its galleries and glorious mix of styles, from medieval to contemporary, Stockholm is a wonderfully civilised city. Built over islands, it diffuses into an archipelago that stretches 50 miles or so into the Baltic Sea. So in the summer you can get your fill of culture and then follow the locals into a watery playground, sailing to ever-quieter islands of wild grasses, clapboard cabins and rocky outcrops. The more exclusive of these idyllic retreats also offer a sprinkling of good restaurants and stylish hotels.

At first it all seemed a world away from my last trip to Sweden, when I had set out in winter on the trail of Vikings. I had been researching a book about Viking Age England and at the time was looking into the background of King Cnut (a more phonetically correct if risqué spelling of Canute). He was the Viking who conquered England and who is said to have got his feet wet when showing that he could not turn back the tide. Cnut was in fact Danish, but during his lifetime 1,000 years ago his homeland encompassed part of southern Sweden. Vikings are still alive and well in this area, and on my visit I met several of them. A wacky group of individuals, they had recreated a Viking village and spent weekends, even during the winter, dressing up and reliving the life of their fierce forebears.

From Viking re-enactment to designer plugs seems a bizarre leap, but there is a connection. The Vikings were Scandinavia's first great designers: their sleek ships were brilliantly conceived, the best of them built with astonishing expertise from wood planks of unbroken grain that had great elasticity in water. With flexible, shallow hulls, Viking ships could ride almost on top of the waves - ideal for negotiating difficult passages such as Sweden's rocky archipelago.

Just one Viking ship was plying the waters around Stockholm when I was there. It was a large replica vessel fully motorised and making sightseeing tours of the city. For all the myriad forms of sea transport available - elegant yachts, bustling ferries, jet skis weaving past whacking great cruise ships that were setting out for Finland - the Viking tourist ship looked by far the most serene and stylish shape on the water. I passed it several times on ferry trips to and from my hotel.

Set on Nacka Island about a 20-minute ride from the centre, Hotel J offers what is probably the city's most picturesque accommodation, coolly combining those two striking attributes of Stockholm: water and design. It is part of a complex that includes a marina featuring a gigantic fountain, and a highly rated restaurant emphasising seafood - the likes of smoked prawn starters and grilled halibut mains.

The hotel itself is set in a 1912 building with more recent additions. With its play of white furnishings, fine cottons and nautical stripes, I thought it positively oozed contemporary designer appeal. But no no, the staff said, and patiently explained that both the name (from a yachting measurement) and the look are a nostalgic throwback to 1930s New England, when the America's Cup came to Newport on Rhode Island (and where it stayed until lost to the Australians in 1983). It seemed perverse that a style originally brought to America by Scandinavian immigrants had been so deliberately re-imported, especially since it looks little different from what is on offer locally. But such contrivance aside, the atmosphere of the 45-room hotel was beautifully relaxed: the waterside lawn is partly bordered by wild flowers and grasses; the outdoor seats are equipped with soft blankets that you wrap yourself in on chilly evenings that magically never get dark; and the breakfast buffet is so abundant you dreamily drift into extra cups of coffee and croissants and are almost thankful when the feast is cleared away at 10am.

It was a wrench to leave such sybaritic comforts in order to sample some of the many other design venues of the city. Stockholm's architectural museum is housed in the same neat building as the modern art gallery - complete with designer plug - where even the cloakroom lockers look like style statements. Here, among a permanent exhibition of architectural models through the ages, you learn how half Sweden's housing stock has been built since 1965 and how today the Swedish people are said to enjoy the world's highest standards of living space. Moving on to the National Museum, you see how they furnish their accommodation: bearing a familiar resemblance to an Ikea showroom, much of the first floor is devoted to a display of modern domestic design.

For an up-to-the-moment take on life you make for the Kulturhuset, a vibrant arts centre locally described as the city's living room. Drama, dance and exhibitions take place here but probably more importantly there is also a much-loved comic library (with Tintin, Asterix and others translated into Swedish) and a chess area well populated with silent players. In addition, the arts centre also houses an information office for the Year of Design, where you can pick up a leaflet of designer walks in the city. These guide you not to formal museum displays but to shops, from the harbourside Svenskt Tenn with its Gauguinesque fabrics, to the glass and ceramics of blas&knada on the designer heaven of Hornsgatan.

As I got down to the serious business of window shopping the sun shone, the city sparkled in its wealth of waterside streets and inland fountains and the temperature rose. Inexorably so, to over 32C. But it wasn't the heatwave so much as the quality of light that worried one local resident, who remarked that global warming must be to blame for the colour of the day: it was much too white. This was not the normal Nordic light, he said, which even at the height of summer should be a far greater shade of yellow.

The Swedes' affinity with nature is evident even in Stockholm. Noticeboards dotted around this clean, green city announce that visitors are welcome to fish its waters for free - they are even directed to particularly deep stretches, notably around Norrbro, where salmon and sea trout cluster. But I noticed only a couple of people out with rods - presumably many others had made for the island wilds beyond.

The archipelago comprises about 24,000 islands and islets, those directly to the east being the most accessible by ferry from Stockholm. Pretty Moja still retains its traditional fishing communities; fashionable Finnham offers good swimming from waterside rocks and small beaches; Namdo is a place of working farms, its twisty roads running along pastureland of wild flowers.

A meandering three-hour ferry trip from central Stockholm passes numerous sharp, white yachts and stops at a half-dozen tiny harbours before landing me at Sandon - literally sand island - on the very eastern edge of the island group. About two miles long and one mile wide, Sandon has no roads and is fringed with sandy beaches, its interior for the most part covered in fir trees and carpeted with low blueberry bushes. In the summer you can explore it virtually at any time: when I was there daylight was still lingering at 2am and dawn pinking the sky about an hour later.

The island has two settlements: Trouvill, a small summer-holiday village in the south; and Sandhamn in the north, an appealing place of winding lanes and clapboard houses, where the majority of the 100 permanent residents live - although in the summer the population swells 10 times and more. The writer, photographer and painter August Strindberg was among the first of the tourists who started visiting the island in the latter part of the 19th century. Even then it was considered something of an exclusive spot.

Today, Sandhamn has become the yachting haven of the Baltic Sea, drawing a glamorous crowd for summer regattas - the highlight of which is the Gotland Runt at the beginning of July. But for all the bronzed and beautiful throng, there is still a delightfully old-fashioned atmosphere. Landing here is like stepping back 40 years. Families arrive with armfuls of children and strings of well-behaved dogs; elderly couples stroll along half-deserted shores; in the courtyard of Sandhamn's little bakery, orderly queues form every morning, waiting for oven-hot pastries. A great many visitors have been coming to the island for years, if not decades, and would blench at the very idea of change.

If you're very lucky you can find vacancies for cabin-style holiday lets and B&Bs. But Sandhamn also has two hotels, both of them catering for business clientele in winter and in the spring changing tack for leisurely holiday custom. Right on the harbour front, the 84-room Sandhamn Hotel is usually full-to-bursting with the summer sailing brigade and offers all the formal comforts of well-established accommodation. In complete contrast, Sands Hotell is a boutique outfit with just 18 rooms and an atmosphere so laid-back you feel you might have walked into a private home by mistake. This has been a hotel since the 1890s but was completely rebuilt three years ago, and is now constructed of stone rather than timber. Yet the interior, in part the work of designer Olle Rex, is a chic vision of bleached wood floors and white linens. Staying here was like living on a yacht, and not just in terms of design features: with the exception of a couple of suites, the bedrooms are so compact that for all the sense of style you inevitably feel cramped.

All the more reason to strike out for the island's gentle attractions: the best beach for swimming, in the south near Trouvill; the chapel above Sandhamn with Viking ship weather vane; the little museum run by volunteers and displaying a wonderful mix from antique fishing tackle to stuffed ducks. Formal entertainment is minimal: you buy prohibitively expensive drinks at the three harbourside pubs (a glass of wine costs in the region of £6) and eat at a handful of restaurants nearby. The newest opened just a few weeks ago at the Sands Hotell and serves pricey modern Swedish dishes (the likes of roast beef with pickles and potatoes). The oldest, Vardhuset, serves less costly salmon and seafood and dates back to 1672 when the island was a base for pilots who guided ships through the rocky archipelago to the capital.

Best of all, though, you simply amble around the island absorbing its charm. On a sun-soaked morning I wandered to the quiet west of Sandon and sat on the shore watching a yacht set out. It was evidently one of the first such trips for a couple of children on board and the water gently resounded with the happy cries of young Viking descendants being taught how to sail.

'Queen Emma and the Vikings - a history of power, love and greed in 11th-century England' by Harriet O'Brien is published next month by Bloomsbury, price £16.99

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Harriet O'Brien flew to Stockholm on SAS (0870 607 2772; www.flysas.com), which has flights from £99 return.

STAYING THERE

Hotel J, Ellensviksvagen 1, Nacka Strand, Stockholm (00 46 8601 3000; www.hotelj.com). B&B from SEK1,225 (£90).

Sands Hotell, Sandhamn (00 46 8571 53020; www.sandshotell.se). B&B from SEK1,650 (£121).

GETTING AROUND

Ferries to Nacka Strand are operated by Stromma (00 46 8587 14000; www.strommakanalbolaget.com) and leave from Nybroplan in central Stockholm roughly every half-hour (from 10am to 11.30pm) during the summer. The 20-minute journey costs SEK50 (£3.70).

Ferries from central Stockholm to Sandhamn are operated by Cinderella (00 46 8587 14000; www.cinderellabatarna.com) and leave from Strandvagen twice a day (thrice Mon-Thurs) during the summer. The journey of between two and three hours costs SEK140 (£10.30). Many residents take the 433 or 434 bus from Stockholm's Slussen station to Stavsnas (a 55-minute journey; SEK45/£3.30) and from there catch a ferry to Sandhamn operated by Express Batarna (00 46 8571 53555); the half-hour journey costs SEK65 (£4.80).

VISITING THERE

Moderna Museet, Skeppsholmen, Stockholm (00 46 8 5195 5200; www.modernamuseet.se). Opens Tuesday and Wednesday 10am-8pm, Thursday-Sunday 10am-6pm; admission free.

Arkitekturmuseet, Skeppsholmen, Stockholm (00 46 8587 27000; www.arkitekturmuseet.se). Same hours as Moderna Museet, admission free.

Nationalmuseum, Sodra Blasieholmshamnen, Stockholm (00 46 8519 54300; www.nationalmuseum.se). Opens Tuesday 11am-8pm, Wed-Sun 11am-5pm; admission free.

Historiska Museet, Narvavagen 13-17, Stockholm (00 46 8519 55600; www.historiska.se). Opens daily 10am-5pm; admission free.

Kulturhuset, Sergels torg 3, Stockholm (00 46 8508 31508; www.kulturhuset.se). Opens Tues-Fri 11am-6pm, weekends 11am-4pm; admission free. Information and free guides on the 2005 Year of Design are available here.

Sandhamn Museum, Sandhamn Harbour. Open daily during the summer 10am-5pm depending on availability of volunteers; admission free.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Swedish Travel and Tourism Council (020-7108 6168; www.visitsweden.com).

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