Swedes are well-known for migrating in their droves to winter sun destinations, but in the summer many of them choose to stay put, in the knowledge that their own beaches, weather and unexpectedly temperate waters can be hard to beat.
And here's a couple more surprises: prices can be lower than the Mediterranean, and the Swedish concept of open access to land and coast, enshrined in law as Allemansratten (Every Man's Right), means that snooty exclusivity is rarely to be found – you'll see plenty of VW camper vans parked next to the more top-end Saabs.
Sweden's beaches nudge up towards the Arctic Circle in the upper reaches of the Gulf of Bothnia, but for practical purposes the ones where you'll want to kick back, sunbathe and drink akvavit, can be found in the large U-bend of coastline that connects Gothenberg in the west with Stockholm in the east.
Here, the wild coast backs up against pretty seaside and fishing ports, with secluded coves and vast beaches in between, fringed with fragmented archipelagos. This landscape is pockmarked with windmills, wooden cottages, turreted villas, pretty meadows and fields of poppies, dramatic cliffs tumbling to the sea and, as you'd expect, no shortage of Viking sites to explore if the beaches begin to pall.
Most of the best beaches are to be found in Skane, where crescent-shaped coastlines with a backdrop of forested hinterlands lure visitors throughout the summer. But wherever you visit, the coast will not disappoint, from the red-rock sandstone of the Bjare peninsula south of Gothenburg, to the pretty town of Kalmar, spread over a lattice of islands as the coast turns north towards Stockholm, and the islands of Gotland and Oland, which get as close to the Costa del Sol experience as anywhere can in Sweden.
Some destinations can just get too crowded, but what is striking about the Swedish coastline is the scale of space and tranquillity. One June morning I woke early and headed for the elongated sausage of beach at Sandhammaren in southern Skane. A light film of mist ran along the beach, perfectly parallel to the shoreline, two metres wide but seemingly as long as the beach. I sat down, enchanted by both the spectacle and the sound of songbirds. Two hours later, the mist started to evaporate and revealed the first advance parties of holidaymakers as they tumbled down the high sand dunes to the beach.
Arguably the most delightful of all Sweden's beaches is Sandhammaren, near the southernmost tip of the country in Skane – with dunes at the back, and a long, linear stretch of fine white sand pushing out west and east along the cape towards the horizon. Alternatively, Mossby beach near Ystad is a beautiful stretch, popular with Swedish families. Gotland has many delightful beaches, too. Head for those around the resort of Ljugarn, which cater for all tastes, from partying sunworshippers to spots for a quiet beachside drink. Wonderful Tylosand stands by the west-coast village of the same name and suits both those in search of partying and those looking for relaxation, though the crowd here tends to be slightly older than on Gotland. Nearby Svarjarehalan has a bathing beach adapted for people with disabilities. Ostra Stranden, close by, has shallow waters and is a good bet for children.
There are 24,000 or more islands in the archipelago extending from Stockholm. But for a mix of leisure and culture, take the 30-minute boat ride to the island of Ven, located off Landskrona on the west coast of Skane, south of Helsingborg. Ven is a pint-sized gem, just three miles long and two miles wide. Beaches, sports and museums are the key attractions for the many Swedes who visit the place. A gently sloping plateau, the island is ideal for taking a bicycle and exploring the artist and craft studios that dot the landscape, though horse-drawn carts and tractor-drawn wagons can also be hired. Views are outstanding: in good weather you can see all the way to the dramatic Oresund bridge connecting Sweden and Denmark. Another curiosity worth visiting is the museum, dedicated to the pioneering 16th-century astronomer Tycho Brahe.
Simrishamn, in south Skane, is a charming port, with a picturesque harbour, excellent cafés, pastel-coloured houses and a 12th-century church. Even in summer it is far from overwhelmed, and it's popular with Swedish painters and authors – a low-key St Ives. Further west, sleepy Ystad is Skane's main market town. Ystad is the centre of the Inspector Wallander novels by Henning Mankell. The town was built around St Maria's church that dates from the 13th century. The town's night watchman still sounds a bugle on the quarter hour. Bastad is a small but exclusive resort at the top of the Bjare peninsula, with a picturesque waterfront and fine restaurants. This is the Swedish equivalent of Sandringham – the Swedish Royals holiday here – it's also where the Swedish Tennis Open takes place, with an attendant social set. Visby, Gotland's main city, is a superbly preserved medieval Hanseatic town that almost seems to have been relocated here from Ibiza in the summer months. It is hugely popular with fashionable Stockholmers.
A day off the beach
You just can't avoid prehistoric and Viking sites either along the coast or in the hinterland. Sweden's answer to Stonehenge, Ales Stennar, is a megalithic site of standing stones erected in the shape of a Viking longboat and dramatically perched on high cliffs overlooking the Baltic Sea, on the southernmost coast of
Skane. An hour's drive north from Ales Stennar lies the intriguing Bronze Age burial cairn of Kungagraven, or King's Grave. A cobbled path descends into an inner sanctum where eight runic slabs are etched with animal figures, including seals. Wherever you are based along the Skane coast, it should be easy enough to divert to Olof Viktors Café, well signposted from main roads north of Sandhammaren. This café routinely wins national awards for its drinks, ambience, and food. An in-house bakery makes delightful cakes, the café sprawls around a wooden conservatory, and the gardens are a delight for children to explore.
How to get there
Mark Rowe travelled to Sweden by train with Rail Europe (08448 484 064; raileurope.co.uk). It offers return fares to Malmo from London St Pancras via Brussels and Copenhagen from £205 per person.
Skane Tourism (00 46 40 623 98 00; skane.com).