Coasting Through West Sweden's Koster Islands - Page 2
|The Strömstad-to-Koster passenger ferry plies the channel separating Syd-Koster and Nord-Koster (West Sweden Tourist Board)|
As the ferry chugged out of Strömstad's picture-postcard harbor, I started to feel like I was gradually beginning to see the place through Swedish eyes. It was a sunny Friday afternoon and groups of Swedes and a few other Euro tourists were making their way out to the islands for an end-of-season weekend of exploration and relaxation. Holiday cottages on the lakes, coasts, and islands throughout Sweden are a mainstay of this famously cosmopolitan country, and Koster is no exception.
In a country that's synonymous with universal land rights, the Swedes clearly treasure the private holdings that put the best of this land on their own doorsteps. One holiday villa on Koster reportedly went for a cool $1 million in 2009. At the end of my weekend there, I'd made friends with a group of Stockholm businessmen who were gathering for their annual high-school reunion at the holiday home of one of their crew, an architect and artist from Stockholm out to close up their cottage for the season, and a middle-aged couple who were enjoying their country home before returning to work in Uddevalla as part of their Monday commute. Other conversations I had with some locals pointed begrudgingly to the fact that Norwegians, minted from the country's decades-long oil bonanza and taking advantage of favorable exchange rates, were snapping up the best of the Koster Islands' property and pushing prices up even further.
The main habitation on Koster is found on the larger of two main islands, Syd-Koster; smaller Nord-Koster is mostly protected wildlife habitat but does includes a few small hamlets on its southern end, a campground, and the new national park visitor center. The two are connected by a narrow waterway and cable-operated toll ferry funded by the European Community to connect the island communities. Everywhere you look, you see traditional wood-paneled stuga, Sweden's version of the humble vacation cottage, all but a few painted a distinctive red and practically begging you to stop in for a cup of warm cocoa and chat by the woodstove.
On Syd-Koster, you'll find several good hotels and guesthouses, a smattering of restaurants, summer-vacation homes, and a small general store for supplies and local gossip. Between them, these islands have a permanent population of fewer than 500 souls, a number that swells tenfold during the islands' July-August peak. About 350,000 visitors travel to the islands by ferry from Strömstad and other private craft throughout the summer. But visit in the spring and fall shoulder seasons and you'll practically have the place to yourself, not to mention lower prices that will stretch your Swedish krona that bit further.
I traveled to the Koster Islands with the autumn colors beginning to pop and the place in the throes of its annual lobster harvest, which starts in late September and runs through April. During this time, and in particular before things get too frigid out on the water, you can hitch a ride on a local fishing boat to help pull up the captain's cache of lobster "tins," after which you get to enjoy your fresh catch washed down with some bracing hits of aquavit. If you can't make one of these lobster safaris, restaurants around the island roll out lobster-themed menus to get you in full lobster—hummer in Swedish—mode. You can even join a scientist from a nearby marine-biology research station for a free evening of "Standup Biology" at Hotell Ekenäs, where you'll learn much more about crustaceans than the best way to cook them.