With each methodical stroke, your sea kayak glides across the dark water. It’s December on the west coast of Sweden, and movement on the water is limited to a few fishing boats and the occasional ferry spotted off in the distance. You and your guides have the waterway to yourselves.
During the summer months, these waterways bustle with activity as tourists and locals flock to the coast to enjoy the long, sun-filled days. In winter, though, the population of many of these towns declines precipitously, as many of the colorful houses are vacation homes that will sit empty until spring. You’re left with a uniquely desolate landscape, interrupted only by the occasional small coastal village with vibrant houses in red or yellow that have become characteristic of Nordic countries. If it’s snowy solitude on the water you’re after, a wintertime kayak trip off the coast of Gothenburg to its surrounding islands is the perfect place to find it.
What makes this section of Sweden so unique
Sweden’s coast consists of over 200,000 islands. Only a fraction of these isles are inhabited; the rest are a vivid reminder of the ruggedness of this Nordic country. The region that comprises much of the western coast between Gothenburg and Norway is called Bohuslän. It’s marked by a rocky coastline protected by a plethora of largely bald islands that rise above the sea.
Sweden lacks the abundance of fjords of its western neighbor, though those they do have shaped the development of the country’s western coast. The geologic history and look and feel of the landscape date back to the Ice Age, which left hundreds of inland lakes and coastal islands as the giant sheets of ice retreated northward. More recently, Vikings roamed these coastal waterways.
Today, most visitors might opt for a summer trip on the water. But in winter, the cold air heightens your senses as you paddle, and the only company you’ll have nearby seals searching the waters below them for their next meal. You’ll savor the solitude and enjoy the entire coastline largely to yourself.
Arriving at the shore
As a seasoned kayaker, I’ve paddled some of the most rugged and remote stretches around the globe — and the west coast of Sweden has been beckoning me for years. The western coast of Sweden can be easily reached by flying into Gothenburg (Göteborg), the country’s second-largest city. The northward drive from Gothenburg to the rocky island of Skaftö, reachable via bridge, takes less than two hours. When I arrive, the day is overcast and, although it’s mid-afternoon, the sun is just beginning to dip below the horizon. Knowing that I’ll be meeting my guide early the following morning, I take time to enjoy a relaxing afternoon and evening along the Swedish coastline.
The Slipens Hotel serves as a veritable oasis from the frigid air outside, where temperatures typically hover in the mid-to-upper 30s from December through March. It’s located at the water’s edge, and each room has been created as a tribute to the colorful individuals that have called this island home. Rooms start at 1,295 Swedish krona, or about $133.
In the morning, I arrive to meet Christina Ingemarsdotter, my guide and the owner of the Grundsund Kayak Center (Balanspunkten). She quickly invites me inside where we sit down over hot tea to discuss my kayaking experience and our plan for the next two days. As trip plans are outlined, the overcast skies outside give way to a misty rainfall. No worries, I’m assured, as this is winter in Sweden after all.
I had been instructed to pack an overnight bag with essentials (interpreted as dry clothes and toiletries) for our trip. I quickly stash these items into a dry bag that would be placed inside of a sealed hatch while on the water. All attention then turns to final preparations before heading to the put-in. I don my merino wool base layers and opt to wear two pairs of wool socks. I slip into my drysuit and zipped the waterproof closure. We are now ready to begin our trip on the water. After sliding into the cockpits of our kayaks and attaching our sprayskirts, we paddle out of the protected marina, now us against the elements for the next two days.
While it’s possible to paddle in the slightly protected areas behind the rocky islands, our more experienced group takes the opportunity to skirt along the western coast of the archipelago where there’s little protection from the wind and waves. As we round the island of Härmanö, we navigate our kayaks between the breakers towards the backside of the island. Once there, we come ashore in a protected area for lunch and a reprieve from the wind. This stretch of the trip has taken much of the morning and, given the weather has proven to be a good exercise, even for the seasoned paddlers in our group.
If you come, gauge the abilities of those you’re traveling with before making the decision to leave the protected spaces. Your guide will address this during the pre-trip meeting and assist with planning a route that makes everyone happy without pushing them too far.
A warm welcome on the island of Orust
Once back into our kayaks after lunch, we begin the final stretch for the day, which will take us to our luxury accommodations for the night. This warrants an explanation. While it’s possible to camp at the end of each day — something you might do in a warm-weather kayaking excursion — winter kayaking can be especially brutal as the cold seeks to thwart you with each stroke. And while you’re encased in a dry suit and enveloped in warm base layers, you’re still spending hours breathing in the crisp, icy air and surrounded by cold water. A thermal chill seems to permeate through all of your protective covering. It can be physically draining and makes a warm bed sound all that much better.
Therefore, I’ve opted for a little bit of comfort to go along with kayaking through this intense landscape. I’m still paddling solo — and you would be expected to do the same. The “luxury” aspect entails only the accommodations that await us at the end of our five-hour paddle.
Darkness is just beginning to descend as we paddle toward the distant coast. As the sunlight fades behind us, we can make out the faint flickering of a bonfire on the beach ahead, the light from the fire acting as a lighthouse calling us in. Our kayaks glide through the shallow water and onto the beach where we are warmly greeted by the owners of Lådfabriken.
Located on Orust, one of Sweden’s largest islands, Lådfabriken, translates as “the fish box factory,” is a boutique, eclectic bed and breakfast that engages all of the senses. The owners, Johan Buskqvist and Marcel van der Eng, have rebuilt and renovated the former factory in a labor of love that is evident in both its exterior and impressive interior details. After our long day on the water, nothing sounds better than a home-cooked meal. The lodge serves a three-course seasonal menu built around seafood from lobster to oysters to crayfish, depending on the month in which you stay. Rooms start at 1,600 krona per night, or about $165.
Continuing on to Grundsund
After a body-warming breakfast the following morning, we suit up and descend back to the beach, where we bid farewell to our hosts and begin our migration back to Grundsund. The paddle back takes us north around the more protected side of the archipelago, where several small villages are located. A tall church steeple is likely to be the first recognizable feature you’ll see in these small villages, as it’s typically situated at the high point of the landscape and in the center of each settlement. We pass along the village of Gullholmen, its coast dotted with red and white traditional homes that evoked a sense of timelessness.
Our journey comes to a close as we reach the historic Grundsund Harbor en route to the marina where we had departed the previous morning. I’m already thinking about coming back, perhaps for a longer trip — as kayak guided adventures here can take as long as an entire week.
What to wear
Kayaking in winter has its rewards, though they can come at a hefty price if you aren’t dressed appropriately for the conditions. Fortunately, your guide will outfit you with a dry suit that will prevent any water from entering its tight-fitting gaskets around your neck and wrists. Your feet are encapsulated within the suit itself. While the suit will prevent water from coming into contact with your skin, it’s important to wear thermal base layers under the suit to provide warmth from the air and from the cold water below the kayak. Whether you prefer synthetic or wool, this layer (or layers) is as essential to a successful outing as the drysuit. In addition to the drysuit and base layers, it’s important to wear, or at least to have readily accessible, a wool hat. Gloves and water shoes are also provided by the guide.