Fjord focus
Seals in the fjord near Svanesund / Picture: Gemma Nisbet

Sitting in the back of a speedboat as we zip through the fjord, it's hard not to feel a little disorientated. Only a few hours earlier we were returning our seats to the upright position and stowing our tray tables as we neared the end of our long journey from Perth via Singapore and London to Gothenburg, Sweden's second city.

As I pull my borrowed waterproof jacket more tightly around me against the cold air, we pass clusters of houses, many of them summer residences belonging to people from Gothenburg, an hour's drive away, and even Copenhagen and Oslo, each a three-hour trip in opposite directions.

Most of the homes are traditional in style and clad in cheery yellow or red or navy-painted wood with steeply pitched roofs, like gingerbread houses wrought large, but a few are sleekly modern with large windows and softly weathered timber cladding - the latter being very nearly as distinctly Scandinavian as the former.

Like these modern homes, the landscape is striking in its simplicity: green forests running down to the glassy water, interspersed with huge rocky outcrops worn smooth by the weather and dusted with moss and lichen and tufty grass. As we approach one seemingly innocuous cluster of rocks, our host Hans slows the boat: a family of seals is basking in the weak autumn sunshine. There's a big one with spots, a smaller adult and a little baby, all three of them lined up in a row and eyeing us warily as we cautiously approach. Just a little further on we encounter another group, a family of four which slide about the rocks on their bellies as our boat draws near.

Although a keen sailor, Hans says he doesn't bother with fishing as there's not much left to catch in the fjord. Nevertheless, there are the telltale buoys, indicating the presence of crayfish nets below the surface, and we see the occasional fish leaping out of the water - much to the interest of the seals, I should think - as well as a few eerie, brownish jellyfish bobbing in the shallows.

I also can't fail to notice a large petrochemical plant looming over the fjord as we pass the town of Stenungsund. Aggressively ugly and resolutely industrial, the contrast it strikes with the natural beauty of the fjord and its surrounds is stark.

We're in Gothenburg to stay with the ebullient Hans and his wife Irene. The pair hosted my boyfriend when he lived in Gothenburg on exchange some years ago and they welcome the both of us back like long-lost family before whisking us off to their summer house, in the village of Svanesund on the large island of Orust, north of their home in Gothenburg, and on to the boat.

Given Gothenburg's long maritime tradition, it seems an apt beginning to our stay.

Later in the week, we continue the nautical theme, catching a ferry to visit Branno, the best known of the numerous islands that dot the coastline around the city.

Far more ruggedly coastal than the sheltered fjord at Svanesund, Branno is imprinted on the Swedish imagination thanks to a popular folk song celebrating the joys of dancing on the Branno pier on a summer's evening. There's a small memorial to the late Lasse Dahlquist, the singer responsible for the tune, in the little harbour where our ferry docks.

We amble across the island to the other, larger harbour from where our boat back to Gothenburg will depart. On our way, we pass a brewery with open-air seating and a waterside alfresco eatery called the Happy Cafe, which is decorated with an odd assortment of maritime equipment interspersed with a few Swedish flags. Both are closed for the season, a little lonely looking under the low grey sky, but it's easy to imagine they would be exceedingly pleasant on a warm, sunny day.

There are a surprising number of houses on the island - people commute into the city from here - and most are in the postcard-perfect Swedish style we saw at Svanesund. All are surrounded by well-kept gardens featuring the ubiquitous apple trees, which are currently shedding the last of their late-season fruit on to the grass.

Plenty of residents, then, but no cars: bicycles and a kind of small, three-wheeled motorbike with a flat tray at the front are the preferred means of transport here. This is illustrated to impressive effect when we arrive at the main harbour to find hundreds of bikes lined up and awaiting their owners' return from the mainland on the evening ferry.

That night, Hans and Irene throw us a crayfish party. A Swedish summertime tradition, the crayfish party seems to involve three key elements: the eating of crayfish, which here refers to small yabby- sized creatures rather than big lobsters, as well as the hearty consumption of akvavit (a Scandinavian spirit) and the singing of snaps songs, or "snapsvisor". The latter are particularly beloved by Hans, who is a successful opera singer and the kind of born entertainer wont to whip out a ukulele at the dinner table or launch into a rousing version of O Sole Mio at a party.

He leads us in a few of the songs, translating for my benefit. Most seem to advocate a positively heroic intake of alcohol in a manner that, I suspect, would cause many a public health advocate to expire with horror.

A week after our arrival, it's time to move on. Before we clamber in the taxi, Hans encloses us both in an affectionate hug, urging us to come back soon.

And given the good time he's shown us, all the drinking and feasting and bobbing about in boats, how could we say no?


The West Australian

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