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.
- Swedes love to spend their kronas on coffee; after Finland, Sweden ranks second in the world in individual coffee consumption.
- Savoring a cup of joe goes hand in hand with a social tradition called fika ,meaning a coffee break from the workday and special time when old friends gather to chat and make new friends.
- Don't expect most stores -- except petrol stations -- to be open past 5 p.m., even on weekends. Do anticipate taking a number and waiting in line for services, and, during July, forget most shopping as nearly the entire country is on vacation.
- Ingmar Bergman may unquestionably be among the best-known Swedes and renowned filmmakers in the world, but younger moviegoers will more likely sing the praises of Alexander Skarsgard, who plays the blood-thirsty Viking vampire in "True Blood," or his father Stellan Skarsgard, who has starred in movies such as "Good Will Hunting," "Mamma Mia!," "Angels and Demons," and "Pirates of the Caribbean."
- Pop star Robyn may have been named Swede of the Year in 2010, but it was Swedish singing sensation ABBA (an acronym of the first names of the two couples composing the band and, coincidentally, the name of a Swedish canned fish company that agreed to lending their name to a pop group) that captured worldwide attention, when the group won the Eurovision Song Contest on April 6, 1974, with their song, "Waterloo."
- Sweden has codified land use for hiking, camping, berry-picking, and mushrooming. Citizens can do so without the landlord's permission. This right of public access, or Allemansraetten, is in keeping cultural ideology, as Sweden became the first European nation to establish national parks, in 1910.
- Sweden is considered laid back: Professionals can don jeans and long-sleeved shirts in place of suits in the workplace -- except when meeting with foreign clientele! Also, don't be late for appointments or overly expressive in demeanor, as that violates Swedish personal code.
- Want to swim in the nude? Visit the Kallbadhuset baths, in Gothenburg. Don't worry; there are separate men's and women's sections.
- Eager to see a stuffed blue whale? The only one in the world can be found in Gothenburg's oldest museum: The Natural History Museum.
Sidebar: Volvo Overseas Delivery Program
This Swedish carmaker's Overseas Delivery Program is designed for American consumers, diplomats, members of the military, and European expatriates who have taken up residence in the U.S. Perhaps the most amazing thing about the program is you actually save money on your Volvo purchase!
Here's how it works: American buyers wanting to travel to Europe, as well as members of the U.S. military and diplomats stationed in Europe, can order a Volvo in the U.S and take delivery at one of 13 locations in Europe, from Sweden to Spain. They can drive their U.S.-spec vehicle during their time in Europe, and then have it shipped, with no extra fees to their residence in the U.S.
In addition, expatriates -- Europeans who have relocated to the U.S. for an extended period of time -- can order a U.S.-spec Volvo and have it delivered in the U.S. for use here.
Volvo buyers, who are at least 18 years old and have a driver's license and passport, can combine their purchase with a vacation to Europe. The package comes with a Volvo factory tour, a visit to Volvo's Safety Center, and a walk-around of your vehicle with a personal demonstration of all of its features and technologies. The package includes airport pickup and transportation services before the time of your car's delivery; a hotel stay in Volvo's hometown, Gothenburg, Sweden; and concierge services to assist with setting up travel on the European continent.
The program bundles the purchase price of a vehicle through a U.S. retailer with round-trip flights to Sweden and a waver on the 25-percent value-added tax that would ordinarily be levied on a car being exported back to the U.S. Buyers who participate in the program have to take their vacation and return home within two or six months, depending on the official shipping site in Europe where they drop off the car.
In addition to the opportunity for a unique vacation, participants can choose colors, wheels, interiors, inlays, and other features otherwise available in Europe only. Plus, there's a discount of up to eight percent off the U.S. MSRP, depending on the model.
WHAT YOU'LL NEED TO DO
When you sign up for the Overseas Delivery program at the time of vehicle purchase, you'll need to fill out an order form, a Swedish Application for temporary registration, and a Power of Attorney form. A $2000 deposit and photocopies of your passport and driver's license also are required. About two weeks later, an order confirmation package arrives in the mail. Within two weeks, you must finalize your plans, and you have six weeks to head to Europe.
For diplomats who participate in the program, the benefits include discounts on the vehicle's MSRP, the choice of vehicles with specifications designed to meet the requirements of many different countries around the world, a wide variety of pick-up locations, and direct shipping/return of models to and from the U.S., depending on where diplomats are posted and when they'll return to their home countries.
Active-duty military who are U.S. residents and serving in Europe can also participate in the program, which offers savings on the MSRP on U.S.-model Volvos, as well as free return shipping for military personnel returning to the U.S.
Vehicles available through the Volvo Overseas Delivery Program are the C30 and C70; the S60 and S80; and the XC lineup including the 60, 70, 90 and 90 R-Design.