Small and Swede: The secret of the Bohuslan Coast's unique appeal is its islands

Many of the islands off Sweden's Bohuslan Coast are tiny and uninhabited. Ingrid Bergman once fell in love with their wild charm - and Siobhan Mulholland is similarly smitten

Seeing the Scandinavians on their summer holidays, emerging after a long winter of hibernation to lap up the light, is a fascinating spectacle. For these most northern of peoples, worshipping the sun appears to be more than mere vanity - it's fundamental to their survival. They seem programmed to seek out any hint of a solar ray that gives their skin a deep brown glow.

Into the long evenings, white-blond children buzz like fireflies around the beaches and cafés, women stroll along the quaysides as if modelling for yachting catalogues, and men make the local beer look like a health drink. And the best place to watch this performance is the Bohuslan Coast - the stretch of Baltic shoreline that runs from Sweden's second city, Gothenburg, north to the Norwegian border.

It is broadly as the guidebooks describe and the postcards depict: an indented rocky coastline with picturesque towns and fishing villages along its shore. It is pretty, sparkling clean, neat and tidy, benign and safe: classically Scandinavian. I say "broadly" because describing some of the smaller towns as fishing villages is a bit of a stretch. Fishing has long ceased to be the dominant industry in the area; tourism is now what makes the place tick. The fishermen's huts still stand, the odd boat is still used for its purpose, and the nostalgia has been carefully preserved rather than destroyed. However, the coast has metamorphosed over the past half-century into an affluent holiday location, with hotels, guest houses, restaurants, bars, and a large yachting fraternity. There is little that's "village-y" about the place.

In early summer, the area is bustling with holidaymakers. It can even get a little crowded. But, as you would expect of this nation, a well thought-out infrastructure copes well with the numbers. Everything works, runs on time, functions beautifully.

It's the Swedes themselves who mostly come here, with the odd Norwegian in the mix as well. But beyond this shoreline is the real secret of the Bohuslan Coast's unique appeal: the islands.

Invariably, whichever town or harbour you find yourself in, there will be a boat or ferry. Anyone who knows the area will urge you to get on a boat and head west, to tour the archipelago, leave the busy seafront behind and sit in splendid isolation on a rock in the middle of the Skagerrak Sea.

This is what the coast's most celebrated summer visitor, the actress Ingrid Bergman, sought when she holidayed here after her marriage to a fellow Swede, Lars Schmidt, in 1958. Bergman spent many summers on the island of Danholmen, near the coastal town of Fjallbacka. It is little more than an outcrop of rocks with a holiday cottage plonked on top. The Hollywood star cherished Danholmen for its seclusion and simplicity. She described it thus: "So lonely. Huge skies, immense seas. An island full of enormous rounded boulders and little coves - the sea everywhere. In the summer, everything so bright and shining - sea and rocks and sky. And such a feeling of isolation."

The island and house belonged to Schmidt. Such was his love of the place that, in her autobiography, Bergman claims that an appreciation of Danholmen was a prerequisite to their getting married: "There was one thing that was very important to Lars: Danholmen, his island. If I wanted to spend summers in St Tropez, Capri or Monte Carlo, then the marriage was off. If I liked his island, we would get married." Although Bergman's marriage to Schmidt did not last, her love of the island and its surroundings did. The three-times Oscar-winning actress made her final visit to the area just weeks before her death in 1982. After the cremation, her ashes were scattered in the sea there.

You pass close by Danholmen on your way out to the other islands in the Fjallbacka archipelago. The most well-known are the windy Vaderoarnas - the "Weather Islands". It's a half-hour boat trip from Fjallbacka's small harbour to the biggest island in the group. Here, visitors are dropped off on a small quayside and left to get on with life in a remote settlement - just a couple of houses, a guest house and a tiny café surrounded by huge sea. There is a bathing area from where you can dive into the deep, sparkling green waters, and some smooth rock slabs for sunbathing. But remember the name: clouds and rain hurtle across the sea at a speed designed to catch out the unsuspecting tourist. And when the heavens open, there is only one real place of refuge: the Vaderoarnas Pensionat guest house. An oasis of elegant Swedish charm, it welcomes many a bedraggled, underdressed visitor to spend an afternoon hanging out, eating lunch and drinking coffee while waiting for a pause in the weather before venturing out again.

Less isolated island-hopping can be found by heading north up the coast toward the Norwegian border and the town of Stromstad. Full of Norwegians in pursuit of cheaper (if not exactly cheap) alcohol, groceries and clothes, it is also a well-established seaside resort, with several hotels and plenty of seafood restaurants.

Many holidaymakers visit Stromstad en route to its surrounding islands, in particular the Koster islands. From the harbour at Stromstad, it's a half-hour boat journey to the Kosters, Sweden's most westerly inhabited islands. This pair (straightforwardly differentiated by being called "North" and "South") are sleepy, car-free nature reserves that visitors can tour on foot or by bike. Nordkoster has a permanent population of around 40; it's barren and easy to get around on foot. Sydkoster, the larger of the two, is much greener and a joy to cycle around. Conveniently, wherever the ferry stops there is a cycle-hire shop, so you can pick up a bike at one location and drop it off at another. With its wooden houses and unhurried atmosphere, Sydkoster feels locked in the 1950s, but it has all the amenities: beaches, bathing spots, ice-cream stalls, cafés, guest houses, a hotel, even a shop selling fresh fish to day-trippers.

It's at bathing spots such as Hamburgo, an island - but only just - across the strait from Hamburgsund, that you can witness more interesting Scandinavian summer-holiday behaviour - their entry into the sea. It goes something like this: they arrive at a beach or chosen rock; they change into their swimsuits very fast (usually doing a mean strip behind a towel without revealing any flesh); their towel is draped over a rock; and without hesitation they plunge into the bracing water. There is nothing tentative, timid or tortured in the Swedish approach to enjoying the Skagerrak - they embrace their sea with confidence.

After her first stay on Danholmen, Ingrid Bergman told her husband-to-be: "I love your island." His reply was "Right, let's get married." Although his prenuptial agreement might seem extreme, a visit to this beautiful part of Sweden makes it less so: failure to appreciate the islands is something that those who spend time on them just cannot comprehend.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

The main gateway is Gothenburg, for which the most convenient airport is Saeve, served from Stansted and Glasgow by Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com). Gothenburg's main airport, Landvetter, is served from Heathrow by SAS (0845 607 2772; www.scandinavian.net); and from Birmingham and Manchester by City Airline (0870 220 6835; www.cityairline.com). To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" from Equiclimate (0845 456 0170; www.ebico.co.uk); or Pure (020-7382 7815; www.puretrust.org.uk).

STAYING THERE

In Stromstad, the writer stayed at the Laholmen Hotell (00 46 52 619 700; www.laholmen.se). Doubles from Skr1,390 (£103), including breakfast.

In Fjallbacka, the writer stayed at Café Bryggan (00 46 52 53 1060) in Ingrid Bergman Square. Doubles from Skr980 (£73), room only.

Vaderoarna Pensionat (00 46 52 532 001; www.vaderoarna.nu). Doubles from Skr1,200 (£90), including breakfast.

MORE INFORMATION

West Sweden Tourist Board: 00 46 31 818 300; www.west-sweden.com

Stromstad Tourist Board: 00 46 52 662 330; www.stromstadtourist.se

Koster Islands Tourism: www.kosteroarna.com

Visit Sweden: 020-7108 6168; www.visitsweden.com

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