Take one Volvo, a Swedish girlfriend, 500 kilometres of near-empty roads and endless vistas and you have the perfect Nordic road trip, writes Tim Bryan.
WE ARE pootling along the smooth, rolling A-roads of Sweden's west coast, past lakes, red clapboard farmsteads, assorted summer houses with woodstacks piled high, granite escarpments, dense pine forests, sweeping meadows, green fields lined with regiments of lupins and warning signs for moose. Then it dawns. Something is missing. Never mind the moose, where are the cars?
It's 11am on a Monday, nearing midsommar, a big Swedish holiday, and we are but 65 kilometres from Gothenburg, the second city of 600,000 inhabitants, in a big tourist area. The roads here, in Bohuslan province, aren't post-apocalypse empty - two or three cars have passed in the opposite direction - but there have been no rivals in our lane for eons. Eight kilometres, 10 kilometres, 12 kilometres. None. 14 kilometres, 16 kilometres. None. Then, on 18.8 kilometres, we spot a bus. It quickly turns off.
I live in London, I'm used to traffic. OK, I mean gridlock. But driving in Sweden is as effortless as rural France on Bastille Day; as easy as the endless, eerily empty, south-west US highways. In fact, it's so empty I'm beginning to recall images of the bleak movie The Road, except the forests aren't on fire and people aren't eating each other.
My Swedish girlfriend, Emma, and I are here for 10 days, driving in a hired Volvo from Gothenburg towards the Norwegian border, hopping around the Bohuslan archipelago before arcing down and around the coast to Malmo and Falsterbo for midsommar, where sensible Swedes let their blond hair down, cavort around a maypole, eat copious inlagd sill (pickled herring), boiled eggs, new potatoes and caviar from a tube and get trashed while singing slightly rude tongue-twisters about farting Finns.
Well, we would be driving, if we could start the engine (NB: with automatics, you press the brake then turn the key! Very sensible). The night before we were in a Gothenburg hotel opposite Scandinavia's biggest funfair but now, 20 minutes from town, we're cruising along country roads, hopping between islands such as Tjorn and Orust, past rolling meadows and rocky inlets. And, it seems, past classic American cars. Buicks, Plymouths and a Ford Gran Torino are parked outside a kiosk whose owner says Swedish folk like their old American cars. He neglects to mention the classic car convention nearby.
However, we are destined for the village of Lahalla on Orust - where friends are renovating an old farmhouse, slowly - for a barbecue, songs, wine and insect repellent: the area is known for ticks that burrow into your skin spreading Lyme disease, hence the sensible, pre-bedtime, chimp-like ritual of checking for their presence.
I'm told Germans love Bohuslan, for the clean air, open space and wildlife - so much so that they're buying up summer houses. I haven't seen any "D for Deutschland" car stickers, but for locals the Germans are easy to spot with their cartoon moose stickers.
A short hop north, resting at bayside cafes for fika - coffee, cake and chat - we board a ferry for the fishing port of Lysekil. Here I'm told of Sweden's lesser-known, sensibly observed rules such as not letting your engines idle for more than a minute and letting the bus go first.
Thirty kilometres away lies Fjallbacka, a beautiful, increasingly des res village of clapboard fishermen's huts and cottages, set beneath an imposing granite cliff and perched on a wide tranquil bay dotted with rounded skerries that float into the horizon like thought bubbles. It boasts the hotel and restaurant Bryggan (brygganfjallbacka.se), which serves pickled herring on its jetty at sundown (10.45pm, Swedish time), bliss with a bottle of chardonnay.
Ingrid Bergman lived here - her statue adorns the promenade - but it's set to be more famous as the setting for local girl Camilla Lackberg's best-selling murder mysteries, soon to be filmed here.
On the drive south we listen to Mats Eriksson's modern folky jazz on the CD player, interspersed with bouts of easy listening Swedish Dansbandsmusik on 93.8FM (think Herb Alpert on Prozac meets Cliff Richard: the 1970s and '80s Svenska bands sporting sideburns you could wipe your feet on). The scenery doesn't need a soundtrack, with valleys like mini-Yosemites dotted with farmsteads, many with traditional wooden milk tables where farmers would leave urns at the gate.
Coastal campsites abound here, with full amenities and swim decks in sheltered bays (for example, Trellebystrand - trellebystrand.se - in Lysekil). A two-bed cabin with en suite is 500 kronor ($70) a night. A tent is less than three beers at the bar - 150 kronor.
Ah, Sweden and alcohol. What's that joke again? "Sven, you get the mortgage, I'll pop to the bar." OK, it's pricey, at least 50 kronor a pint in the cheapest pubs, plus it's restricted - any takeaways over 3.5 per cent proof must be bought in a monopoly state shop, the Systembolaget, a sort of East India Company selling booze; you have to be 20 and organised; and vigilant, because they often close early. We've stocked up on duty free but a trip to the "systemet" is fun; you should see the panicked queues near closing time. Perhaps the healthy-eating, sensible Swedes make up for the lack of booze with lollies - they are everywhere you go; supermarkets devote whole aisles to all manner of pick'n'mix.
If buying alcohol seems tricky, the language appears impenetrable. I'm told I sound like an addled moose when speaking Svenska. As expected, virtually everybody speaks perfect English, gleaned from endless British programs subtitled in Swedish - dubbing is a serious nej-nej: the Swedes are supreme Anglophiles.
Still, you can have fun on the road pronouncing the signs. Try saying Tvaaker and Krapperup without crashing. There are many similarities in the languages, too. At lunch in a "restaurang" ask for the "lunchmeny", or at fika, try "blabarspaj" (come on, it's blueberry pie).
Driving south past the cities of Falkenberg and Halmstad in Halland county, the homes have changed, from clapboard boxes to intricate, Tudor-beamed stone houses. Welcome to Skane, southern Sweden. The hill at posh Bastad (pronounced "borstad", please) demarcates the geography perfectly. Cafe Utsikten (cafeutsikten.com/webb /english.htm) gives you a view over the long, sandy, gorse-lined bay below, which is dotted with bathing huts, and the villas by the marina. It's 160 kronor for coffee and cakes; expensive but the blankets are warm. Blankets are offered free to customers everywhere.
The next day we motor to Angelholm, where we indulge in a bout of kubb-throwing - the Swedish answer to skittles, using sticks thrown at logs - in the garden before a boozy dinner with the in-laws, then a night at the Gallerihyttstigen B&B and some bracing fun in the outdoor shower. Nearby in Kullaberg nature reserve is one of Sweden's wackier attractions, Nimis, a colony of towers honed from 75 tonnes of driftwood, accessible only by foot through the forest.
Soon we are on the island of Ven in the Oresund Channel between the municipality of Landskronor and Denmark. Cars are banned for visitors, so we park and pluck a bike from Ven's "bike plantation" - a field with 1000 yellow bicycles, everything from child bikes to tandems (for rent from 80 kronor a day).
Ven is a gem. Never will you see so many hares hopping out of quaint cottage gardens or pheasant strutting through wide open fields. There are also lovely B&Bs - the beautiful Bo-Ven is one - and quirky restaurants such as Tuna Krog (13 Sankt Ibb, +46 4187 20 19, tunakrog.se).
Further south sits Malmo, Sweden's third city, unfairly derided as the poor cousin of Stockholm and Gothenburg. I'm told Malmo isn't seen as Swedish for its less than spotless streets. I like it, especially the hip Bastard restaurant (11 Master Johansgatan, +46 4012 13 18, bastardrestaurant.se) - pronounced "bastard" (it's a joke!) - and the old Kallbadhus (en.ribersborgs kallbadhus.se) on the pier for a nude sauna (women one side, men the other). Here I ditch my Englishness (and my trunks) and go native, sunbathing on the deck, in the nip, after a dip in the sea.
From here, we could drive to Copenhagen over the Oresund bridge but we're off to spend midsommar at Falsterbo, an upmarket colony of summer homes and villas at Sweden's southern tip for more new potatoes, more dill, more silly songs, schnapps-fuelled tongue-twisters and naughty children's ditties about throwing cow dung.
The Swedes, it seems, aren't quite so sensible after all.
The effortless, 500-kilometre scenic odyssey makes me want to attempt the ultimate Swedish road trip, 2100 kilometres from Malmo up to the barren, wild, untamed north and beyond the Arctic Circle. Emma is not keen: "There's nothing there. Nothing! For hours!"
Exactly. Even fewer cars.
Guardian News & Media
Scandinavian Airlines flies from Sydney to Gothenburg via Bangkok and Copenhagen. flysas.com.au.
On Orust, Slussen Pensionat is a Bohemian band & breakfast joint offering dinner, live music and room for about 1000 kronor ($140). +46 3043 75 25, slussenspensionat.se.
In Angelholm, Gallerihyttstigen B&B has rooms from about 500 kronor. +46 4311 05 54, gallerihyttstigen.se.
On Ven, Bo-Ven has doubles for 600 kronor a person. +46 737 426 990, bo-ven.se.