Our modern-day Viking ship is a 2012 Volvo XC70 T6 AWD crossover vehicle. It's been 10 centuries since the Norsemen, who originated from Norway, Iceland, Denmark, and Sweden, piloted their "drakkar" or "dragon" boats. These explorers, traders, and warriors raided the coasts of the British Isles, France, other parts of Europe, and North America, and were famed for their navigational prowess and long ships.
Our long ship, an attractive meld of station wagon practicality and softened sport/utility styling, has an Ikea-like simplicity and beauty in the interior; plenty of stowage in the cargo hold for our five-day tour of Sweden; and a well-spoken woman's voice that guides us at the touch of a few buttons, as we journey from Volvo's worldwide headquarters in Gothenburg to the most westerly islands along the coast. It also has the fuel on board to power us for nearly 600 miles, without stoking the fire.
We have come here to see a swath of Scandinavia and to take a closer look at Volvo's Overseas Delivery program. Designed for American consumers, diplomats, members of the military, and European expatriates who have taken up residence in the U.S., this program bundles a package deal of a U.S.-purchased Volvo, with a pick-up of your vehicle in one of 13 European countries. Called Volvo's "best-kept secret" by Anders Robertson, manager of Overseas Delivery for Volvo Cars North America, it's been in operation since 1956, and will attract some 2000 buyers annually. Volvo hopes more will learn about this program and take advantage of an "easier, safer way to see a part of the world." Your purchase price is even discounted! (See sidebar)
My traveling companion and I began our trip at the birthplace of Volvo, in Gothenburg, the second-largest city in Sweden and the largest port in Scandinavia. Dramatically influencing the city is the wide Goeta Aelv River that flows through its heart to the sea beyond. Today, former shipyard property sports smartly designed apartments, offices, and educational buildings; and Gothenburg is now home to major sporting, entertainment, and cultural events. Annually over 6.5 million people are attracted to events at Ullevi stadium, Scandinavium arena, the Swedish Exhibition and Congress Centre, Liseberg Amusement Park (the most popular tourist attraction in Sweden, drawing three million visitors annually), Universeum Science Discovery Centre, and the Museum of World Culture.
Sightseers can enjoy restaurants, cafes, nightclubs, and shops, as well as the Gothenburg Art Museum, with one of the world's finest collection of turn-of-the-century Nordic art; Roehsska Museum of Fashion, Design and Decorative Arts; Klippan culture reserve with the Roeda Sten contemporary arts exhibition hall; Gothenburg Opera House; and the new Wheel of Gothenburg, which provides a thrilling 360-degree view from glass-enclosed gondolas. Paddan boats, specially designed to pass under low bridges, also provide a unique perspective of the city from the old moat, canals, and harbor.
Motoring north to the picturesque west coast, we visited Tjoern Island's Salt & Sill, with Sweden's first floating hotel (six two-story buildings on floating pontoons) and the world's fastest floating sauna (a motorized miniature copy of the floating hotel with a relaxation area, conference room, and wedding suite). Tjoern Island is also the home to Pilane burial ground, with thousand year-old ancient remains of judgment circles, raised stones, and other stone circles dating from the Iron Age in a cultural landscape now juxtaposed with Pilane Sculpture Park's contemporary art.
Motivating the Volvo's silky but powerful turbo, we traveled to Fjaellbacka, an idyllic fishing village, surrounded by a breathtaking archipelago near Norway's border. Scenic beauty and agreeable weather aren't the only attractions; notoriety also comes from Swedish crime writer Camilla Laeckberg's books that are set here, and famous actress Ingrid Bergman spent her summers on the hamlet. (Laeckberg's books are being adapted for a TV series, "Fjaellbacka Murders," and a movie and film production on the investigations of Inspector Patrik Hedstroem and his wife, Erica Falck.)
Our next stop was the small village of island Fiskebaeckskil, where commanding granite cliffs create a dramatic backdrop. Once a fishing settlement, it grew during the 19th century into a prosperous shipping community and then converted into leisure and bathing destination in the 20th century as residents started renting out rooms to summer guests. Today, visitors can see the town's well-preserved wooden structures designed in various styles.
As our drive came to a close, we spent our final night along the North Sea, on Marstrand Island, a 45-minute-drive from Gothenburg. It is home to an active international sailing culture and the prestigious Match Cup Sweden, which is part of the World Match Racing Tour. Crowds of 100,000 line the craggy cliffs and landings to follow the GKSS Match Cup sailing races in anticipation of spotting a favorite Olympic and America's Cup caliber competitor. Hiring sea kayaks, diving, and taking boat trips are also favorite pastimes of visitors.
The island has a long history of being a playground of royalty, who enjoyed its spa baths tradition so much they built a clubhouse in 1843 so they could meet in private. Dominating the landscape are the Grand Hotel Marstrand, built in 1892 as a summer residence for King Oscar II, and Carlsten's Fortress, a stone fort constructed atop of the island after King Carl X Gustaf ordered labor prisoners to build it, in 1658; for a time it was considered one of Europe's strongest maritime defense fortifications. Today, the Grand Hotel continues to offer high-class accommodation and magnificent views of archipelago scenery.
After dropping off our 2012 Volvo XC70 and heading to the Gothenburg airport to return stateside, we began to plan another European vacation, driving another Volvo vehicle through a quadrant of the world we have yet to explore.
FAST FACTS ABOUT SWEDEN
- One of the world's northernmost countries, Sweden stretches nearly 1000 miles north to south and slightly more than 300 miles east to west -- it's comparable to California in size.
- Sweden's location creates extreme contrasts between hours of day and night, with equally long summer days and winter nights.
- The Gulf Stream brings warm currents from Norway's west coast making a pleasing climate. Temperatures are so mild, in places like the east coast islands of Gotland and Oland and the Scandinavian mountain range, that numerous varieties of orchids can grow.
- While the primary language is Swedish, many citizens also speak Sami or Lapp, Finnish, Meankieli or Tornedalen Finnish, Yiddish, and Romani Chib. English is also commonly spoken.
- Sweden is a leader in innovation and technology. Major exports include road vehicles, machinery and transport equipment, wood and paper products, chemicals and plastic products, electronics and telecommunications equipment, and minerals.
- Forests dominate 53 percent of the country; pine and spruce in the north provide a perfect territory for bear and wolf. In the south, deciduous trees, like aspen and birch, are home to roe deer and wild boar. Moose are increasingly becoming a hazard for drivers.
- Vast flocks of migratory birds come from the south in summer; the long coasts and many lakes bring a rich variety of aquatic life, including cod and mackerel in the Atlantic, and salmon and pike in the far less salty Gulf of Bothnia and in lakes and rivers.
- Herring were once not only an important food staple but source of income. Today herring is consumed as a delicacy at almost every meal.