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Sweden's treasured isle

There's much to like on Uto, a speck of land in the Baltic Sea that feels a lot like summer camp.

June 08, 2003|Susan Miller | Special to The Times

Uto, Sweden — Uto, Sweden

I have always been drawn to islands. The journey to reach them is half their allure, and the approach to each is different. If they have a sense of peace and solitude and aren't too taken with themselves, I am smitten.

Sweden, I discovered, is an island lover's dream. Stockholm alone boasts 14 islands. But the one that claimed my heart was Uto. It's a near-perfect little isle that, among other delights, takes a pleasant while to reach.

My trip last July began in Stockholm, an elegant city with wonderfully ornamented ochre buildings. Its museums and cultural amenities alone would take weeks to explore. In summer, cafes move out onto the streets, and the bike lanes buzz with traffic. But for me, the real allure of Stockholm was the abundance of water that surrounds it and that winds through its miles of canals. The more I saw, the more I wanted to follow it, past the locks and docks that are its city mien, to where it opens into the Baltic Sea and the vast stretch of an archipelago that promises 24,000 islands.

After four days of visiting with Swedish friends, my husband, John, and I boarded a ferry for the archipelago -- specifically Uto, the island at its southern tip. Our friends told us that, besides kayaking and biking, which are common on the other islands, Uto has good food, which isn't.

We waved goodbye in the early morning sunshine as the ferry, which had enclosed seating on a lower level and a spacious open deck above, eased away from the dock and headed for open waters.

Sweden's islands are sprinkled over an area 35 miles wide and 90 miles long that skirts the coast at the edge of the Baltic. Most are uninhabited, many too small for anything but birds to call home. Outside Stockholm we picked our way carefully through a narrow channel between islands lush with green lawns, gazebos and brightly painted summer houses. Children waved, and the two dozen or so passengers -- all Swedes -- on the sunny upper deck waved back and snapped pictures. The houses slid past us, and we emerged from the shade of the channel to a dazzling panorama of sea and sky.

The 3 1/2-hour trip took us out onto open water but always within sight of an island. Some were a speck with a pine tree or two; others had houses and steepled churches. The temperature was in the low 70s, with just enough breeze for the sailboats that crossed our wake.

Our guidebooks had almost nothing to say about Uto, and as we neared our destination we wondered what a Swedish version of a vacation island would be like. Would there be signs for massages? Would restaurants offer competing smorgasbords?

Uto was the last of the stops, and as we pulled into the harbor a cluster of rust-colored buildings loosely strung along a main street came into view. Blue and yellow Swedish flags fluttered against the bright noon sky, and behind them rose a small hill with a picturesque windmill. Check-in time for our accommodations was an hour away, so we left our bags by the room that served as the ferry terminal and ambled through town.

It didn't take long to spot the differences between Uto and its international counterparts. There were few signs of commercial bustle: no pictures of a Swedish lass in clogs enticing you to buy an ice cream, no shop windows filled with trinkets and T-shirts, no massages, no smorgasbords. The simple wooden buildings felt more like a well-kept summer camp than a resort.

There were perhaps a dozen people on the streets, all Swedes. Here and there were vehicles that looked like a shallow crate on wheels mounted at the front end of a moped. These, we learned, are flakmoppes, used to ferry children, groceries and whatnot, there being only two cars on the island. Flakmoppes, alas, were not for hire, so tourists either carry their bags or arrange for the island's only taxi to take them.

The fisk delikatesser -- really just a kiosk -- caught our eye. It had a bed of ice with smoked salmon, trout, shrimp and other delectables at reasonable prices. A neighboring hut was the information center for cabin rentals and island activities. After Stockholm, it was a shock to see no written English on Uto, although, as is usual in Sweden, most people spoke it well. Dozens of cabins were for rent at a modest $50 a night, and campsites were available just south of town.

Adventures await

Beyond the biking and kayaking our friends had promised, Uto offered tennis, horseback riding, swimming, tours of the island, fishing trips and boats for hire. We crossed the street to the Cykelboden, which had sturdy road bikes for rent. Most visitors, we were told, see no need for gears on the largely flat island, so most bikes didn't have them. My husband, who is thinking of adding more gears to the 12 on his bike at home, took a picture of this novelty while I paid $2 extra, which got us three speeds for $10 a day.

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