Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Big adventures in little Sweden

My travel feature about the Swedish province of Halland has been published in the Spring 2008 issue of The Scandinavian Insider magazine.
Photo: Jesper Pettersson
Destination Halland
Big adventures in little Sweden

If you had to choose just one province in Sweden to visit, it would have to be Halland. No other can give you the soft sandy beaches and agricultural riches of the South, the smooth rock archipelagos and abundant seafood of the West and the misty lakes, rushing torrents and silent pine forests of the North all in one neat package, roughly the size of Delaware.

Halland is just 150 kilometres from end to end and, at its widest point, 80 kilometres from side to side but this is a crossroads where the endless forest that dominates the rest of Sweden, tumbles down to the undulating fertile plains and sandy dune beaches of the south. For over 750 years, it was also where Sweden met Denmark, along Halland’s eastern border, until Halland was ceded to Sweden at the Treaty of Roskilde in 1658. Hiking, biking, horseback riding and paddling trails crisscross the province, link in to the North Sea Trial and North Sea Cycle Route and make this a mecca for outdoor adventurers. The four mighty rivers, the Viskan, Ätran, Nissan, and Lagan, famous for their salmon, offer fishing and rafting opportunities as they carve their way to the Kattegat where Sweden’s best windsurfing spots bristle with colourful sails year round.

The combined population of the tiny province’s mere six municipalities, Halmstad, Falkenberg, Varberg, Kungsbacka, Hylte, and Laholm, is not quite 300,000 but Halland has boasted the greatest percentage population growth of all the Swedish provinces for the last 30 years running and it is no wonder. Tourists flock to the gorgeous sandy beaches, practically doubling the population every summer, and many stay when they find out that Halland residents live the longest and enjoy some of the lowest taxes in the country. The local food is another magnet and Halland’s superb agricultural base has also produced no less that seven winners of Sweden’s esteemed Chef of the Year prize. The best restaurants are in Halmstad, the province’s largest and liveliest town, and your perfect home base for an adventure in Halland.

Earthly pleasures in Halmstad
Halmstad has stood guard at the mouth of the Nissan River in southern Halland for 700 years and offers visitors 45 kilometres of beach to choose from in addition to the riverside walks in the heart of town. Most of the main sights are on the northwest bank of the river including the striking russet-red Halmstad Castle built in the early 1600’s by Danish King Christian IV and where you will conveniently find the tourist information office. The beautiful full rigger Najaden, built in 1897 as a sail training ship for the Swedish Navy, is moored out back and welcomes visitors to a café and museum on board during the summer.

Head upstream to the main square, Stortorget, set one block back from the river and duck into Saint Nikolai Church, as old as the town itself, to catch candy-coloured rays of sun from the prized stained glass windows. Then follow the pedestrian street, Storgatan, past shops, cafés, bars and restaurants to Norre Port, the preserved northern gate and ramparts of the city. Through the gate is the green oasis of Norre Katt Park on the banks of Nissan River with its sweet summer café and the Museum of Halmstad. The museum hosts permanent exhibitions on the art and history of Halmstad and Halland and also runs the open air museum, Hallandsgården, a short walk away among the beech trees on Galgeberget Hill. Climb the Rapunzel tower on top of the hill for spectacular views of town and the bay and then treat yourself to fresh waffles served with whipped cream and jam at the Hallandsgården Café.

Book your table for dinner at Pio Bar & Matsalar, Lilla Helfwetet or Fridolf’s Krog, the three most popular restaurants in town. Pio is famous their giant planked steaks, exhaustive wine list and locally rooted menu which features pike-perch from nearby Lake Bolmen and venison from Ulvered’s Deer Park in Laholm’s municipality. At Lilla Helfwetet (Little Hell) black walls and gilded swaths set the netherworldly mood and ghostly chandeliers illuminate the cavernous interior of a former electric company. The original steel beams and huge hooks are still there, and may or may not see action when the restaurant becomes a nightclub after dinner on Fridays and Saturdays. Their extensive list of wines by the glass reveals happy surprises and the flambé trolley keeps the dining room warm, turning out one succulent fillet of beef flambé diablo after the other.

Halmstad is, perhaps more than anything, synonymous with summer days on the sand and after beach parties with live music on the big outdoor stage in Tylösand. The king of the sand is none other than Per Gessle, he of Roxette fame, whose own resort, Hotel Tylösand, is set right in the dunes. The hotel is also Sweden’s largest art gallery, a luxury spa, and an entertainment palace with bars, live music, and several restaurants including the gourmet Akvarell, considered one of the best restaurants in Halland. Visit the spa at least, if you choose to stay elsewhere, for a spell of sublime relaxation in the warm, saltwater balcony pool. As you gaze out to sea you may glimpse one of Tylösand’s wild foxes loping silently through the dunes. A few steps from the beach is the Halmstad Golf Club, the best of Halmstad’s 13 courses, where LPGA elite played for the prestigious Solheim Cup in 2007.

Forgo the downtown hotels in favour of the irresistibly cosy Hovgårds Bed & Breakfast, set right between Halmstad and Tylösand and at easy biking distance from either. Your friendly hosts, Tore and Eva, have converted their old stall building into 12 charming, airy double rooms, decorated by Eva who is also a designer. Bicycles are included in the price of your room so off you go for homemade Italian ice cream and sorbet at the World of Riccardo ice cream parlour down the road. Stop in at the Mjellby Art museum nearby to see fifty years of cubist and surrealist art by the famed Halmstad Group and exhibitions of modern and contemporary art.

A little further on, but still easy biking distance, is Heagård. This massive, magnificent stall building from 1877 is now home to a gallery for local artists and artisans, a country café and one of Halland’s finest restaurants, Heagårds Skafferi. The dining room’s ambience, so arresting with its crimson-coloured, vaulted ceiling, and the menu, so carefully in step with each season and so reverential of local delicacies, make this a veritable temple to Hallandian gastronomy.

Before you leave Halmstad, be sure to try the local Kvibille cheddar and blue dessert cheeses, which won the highest international honours at the 2007 World Cheese Awards in London, and the milk, yogurt and creamy fresh cheese from Wapnö Dairy just outside town. Visitors are welcome to dairy’s shop and are encouraged to view their happy cows riding the milking carousel and to look in on the calves.

Go directly to Falkenberg, do not pass go
Cruise north on the scenic coastal road from Halmstad to Falkenberg, to explore the new town on the Swedish Monopoly board. Stop in at the beautifully thatched and Falun-red Ringsegården Konst & Café on the way, for expansive sea views and natural art. Then continue to Falkenberg, where the Ätran River flows into the Kattegat and where you can fish for salmon in the heart of town. Stroll the rounded cobbles of the old town, past a rainbow of little wooden houses, and follow the river upstream from the ancient Tullbron Bridge on the Doctor’s Promenade trail. Have lunch at Gustaf Bratt’s, under the beams in the old granary, or at every salmon lover’s favourite restaurant and delicatessen, Laxbutiken. Finish off with some of the luscious local Sia ice cream and a walk on sandy Skrea beach.

Head out of town and into Falkenberg’s back country for some special self-catering places to stay. Alvhaga Vildmark Ecoturism rents rustic cabins and quaint summer cottages around Lake Fegen and offers sustainable fishing and hunting activities. If you love a bargain, join the price-conscious hordes of shoppers at the legendary Gekås Ullared, Sweden’s largest low-price shopping destination. Last year 3.8 million shoppers bought, among other things, 12 million pairs of socks and 2,000 tons of candy and a delivery truck arrives to the story every ten minutes of every day just to keep the shelves full.

A perfect day in Varberg
Varberg’s coastline curls into sandy coves separated by the rocky outcrops that dominate the shore from here on up. Ride the waves in Apelviken, Sweden’s premiere windsurfing beach, or just admire the show from your table at Majas Vid Havet gourmet beach restaurant. Hike around the colossal 14th century Varberg Fästning, once a fortress, then a prison, and now alive with museums, a unique hostel where you sleep in former prison cells, and the snug Hus Nr 13 Vin & Skafferi restaurant and wine cellar that serves meals in the sheltered little garden when the weather is fine. Below the fortress, fishing boats and ferries to Denmark weigh anchor and the ornate sauna and bathhouses offers a wholesome retreat.

Party-central is the nearby Moorish style Societetshuset, built in 1880, with two great restaurants, a café, pub and nightclub. For the best live music, best beach views and great brunches make your way to Fridas Mat & Musik restaurant in Kärrdal’s cove. Or for one of Halland’s most unusual dining experiences venture into the beech forest near Tvååker to the Öströö Sheep Farm. Go on a sheep safari to meet one of Sweden’s largest herds of Gotland Sheep with their soft corkscrew curly wool. Pick up a picnic basket, a bottle of wine in the café and find a quiet spot in the park or enjoy a gourmet spread of organic lamb dishes and homemade, spiced schnapps under the vaulted ceiling down in the old distillery cellar.

Time travelling in Kungsbacka
Kungsbacka is Halland’s northernmost municipality, the town proper lies just 20 kilometres south of Gothenburg, and is the horseradish capital of Sweden. Virtually all horseradish consumed in Sweden is grown here and most of that at Anderssons Pepparotsodling, an organic horseradish farm in Fjärås. Come for the harvest in early May and horseradish-themed dinners at the local restaurants with such improbable delights as horseradish pickled herring and horseradish ice cream. For more local gastronomy try the goat cheeses from Skogagårds Mejeri, probably Sweden’s smallest dairy, and visit Högens Gård, an organic dairy and farm that offer guided group tours.

Mount the rise past Fjärås church to see another of Kungsbacka’s treasures, the spectacular Fjärås Bräcka ridge, and gasp in astonishment when the misleadingly tame landscape suddenly drops 55 metres to Lake Lyngern. Take the little road that runs along the crest of this ancient land bridge for lake views that will have you craning your neck for more. Continue your journey through simpler times at the immaculately preserved hamlet of Äskhult nearby, where a cluster of beautifully weathered houses huddles around a cobbled square and the fields of heirloom crops spread out beyond.

Spend a sunny afternoon at Tjolöholms Slott, a grand Tudor manor house, built at the turn of the century on little peninsula in Kungsbacka Fjord. Take a turn around the manicured garden, go for a swim, join a guided tour of the sumptuous Art Nouveau interior and hire a one of the former staff cottages for spring getaway. Another special place to stay is near the seaside village of Åsa at Freadals Trädgårdscafé Bed & Breakfast, with cosy, country chic rooms, a garden café and popular Sunday dinners.

Water water everywhere in Hylte
Hylte, the only municipality without Kattegat coastline, more than compensates with its 300 lakes that offer excellent fishing, swimming and canoeing waters. Unnaryd, a spruce little village on the banks of Lake Unnen, is worth a journey to take the waters of the Alebo mineral spring and unwind at lakeside Alebo Pensionat, a butter coloured, gingerbread trimmed guesthouse and restaurant with slow food ideals. Take the little forest road out of town to Tiraholms Fisk, a unique fish restaurant, music pub and fish and farm shop on the banks of Lake Bolmen. Borrow a boat and catch your own dinner and stay in their darling self-catering country cottage.

Laholm, the river pearl
The great Hallandsåsen Ridge marks the border to Skåne in Laholm, Halland’s southernmost municipality. Hike the ridge, try the toboggan track at Kungsbygget and plan to come back in late summer for the seas of blueberries and in winter for powder on Sweden’s most southerly ski slopes. Stay at the Vallåsen Lodge up on the ridge (which also has a great restaurant) or in town at the delightful Laholm Stadshotell, where you can choose which decade you would like to live in. Each room is decorated in a different decade from 1920 to today, down to the last detail.

The town proper of Laholm is Halland’s oldest and smallest. It is set on a little rise at a bend in the Lagan River and is home to the inimitable Björn Hellberg, Sweden’s favourite crime writer, tennis oracle and TV personality. Hellberg still lives in his childhood home, logically situated right between the hospital and the church, on one of the tidy, winding lanes in the old town. Hellberg loves the friendly village atmosphere here, which he gleefully describes as “perfect for killing”, and a walk along the river and around the heart of town will charm you too.

Laholm is also a thoroughly artsy place. It boasts one of the highest public art per capita statistics in Sweden and the exceptional Tecknings Museet, the Nordic drawing museum with over 15,000 drawings on display by the finest Swedish artists from the past four centuries. Find chocolate heaven at Cacáo, an old-world chocolate shop purveying artisan chocolates including the special Laholm truffle, the Laga Pearl, inspired by pearls once found in the river clams.

During the summer months, hop on the dainty SS Lagaholm steamboat from 1881 that carries 12 passengers at a time down the river to Melbystrand, Sweden’s longest sandy beach, and the Lagaoset dune preserve. Pack your picnic with freshly smoked fish from the smokery, the famous Laholm potato chips, some chilled Hallands Fläder (elderflower flavoured schnapps), and Sweden’s finest goat cheese, Boels Blå from Holmana Gårdsmejeri Dairy. The gastronomical wonders and great outdoors experiences of this province are endless and the art begins where nature ends. In Halland the good life is a way of life.

Mark your calendar
1st – Premiere for salmon and trout season on the Lagan River, Laholm
8th – Riverside Jazz Band at Stora Enens Harbour Clubhouse in Onsala, Kungsbacka
9th – Day of Silence at Dagsås Yoga in Tvååker, Varberg
15th – CajsaStina Åkerström in concert at Kungsbacka Teater, Kungsbacka
19th – Invited to Labero show in Varberg
21st – Easter market at Wapnö Gård, Halmstad
24th – Burning of the heath and guided tour of Fjärås Bräcka ridge, Kungsbacka
27th – August Strindberg’s ‘Dödsdansen’ at Laholms Teater, Laholm

4th – Cheese and wine tasting at Tjolöhoms Slott
10th – Björn Skifs at Halmstads Teater, Halmstad
18th – Chocolate and whisky tasting at Tjolöholms Slott, Kungsbacka
20th – Moonlight tours of Fjärås heath and Tjolöholms Slott, Kungsbacka
31st – Walpurgis concerts, bonfires and festivities throughout the province

1st-4th – The Konstrundan, artists and crafters hold open house throughout Halland
1st – The 30th annual classic car and motorcycle rally around Lake Lyngern, Kungsbacka
1st – Betessläppardag at Wapnö Gård to see the cows celebrate spring, Halmstad
5th – Horseradish harvest festival on Fjärås Bräcka ridge, Kungsbacka
25th – The Tjolöholm Classic Motor at Tjolöholm Slott, Kungsbacka
23rd-25th – The Lax March walking festival along the coast and the Nissan River, Halmstad
23rd-25th – The Home and Garden Show at Wapnö Gård, Halmstad
25th – Mother’s Day dinner in Wapnö Manor, Halmstad

More information for avid trip-planners
Halland Tourism
Halmstad Tourism
Museum of Halmstad
Lilla Helfwetet Lucifer
Pio Matsal & Bar
Fridolfs Krog & Bar
Hotel Tylösand
Halmstad Golf Club
World of Riccardo ice cream
Heagårds Skafferi
Hovgårds B&B
Mjelby Konstmuseeum
Wapnö castle and modern dairy
Falkenberg Tourism
Ringsegården Art & Café
Gustaf Bratt’s restaurant
Sia Ice Cream Factory
Alvhaga Vildmark Ecoturism
Gekås Ullared
Varberg Tourism
Majas vid havet restaurant
Hus Nr 13 Vin & Skafferi
Fridas Mat & Musik restaurant
Öströö Sheep Farm
Kungsbacka Tourism
Anderssons Pepparotsodling/horseradish farm
Äskhult 18th century village
Tjolöholms Slott
Freadals Trädgårdscafé Bed & Breakfast
Hylte Tourism
Alebo Pensionat Guest House
Tiraholm’s Fish
Laholm Tourism
Ulvered’s Deer Park
Vallåsen lodge
Laholm Stadshotell
Tecknings Museet
Holmana Gårdsmejeri dairy

Excerpt from The Wonderful Adventures of Nils, by Selma Lagerlöf:
Finally, one morning, the geese started out and flew toward Halland.

In the beginning the boy took very little interest in that province. He thought there was nothing new to be seen there. But when the wild geese continued the journey farther south, along the narrow coast-lands, the boy leaned over the goose's neck and did not take his glance from the

He saw the hills gradually disappear and the plain spread under him, at the same time he noticed that the coast became less rugged, while the group of islands beyond thinned and finally vanished and the broad, open sea came clear up to firm land. Here there were no more forests: here the plain was supreme. It spread all the way to the horizon. A land that lay so exposed, with field upon field, reminded the boy of Skåne. He felt both happy and sad as he looked at it.

"I can't be very far from home," he thought.

No comments: