On this tiny archipelago island, there are berries, boys, and bikes a plenty - and a few goats too!
There are precisely six goats on the Swedish archipelago island of Utö and as far as Charlotte Schröder is concerned, that's more than enough. Goats are one of the few things in the natural world by which she can't abide. The parrots her daughter breeds are another. ("They sounds like a car alarm!") But when it comes to the people of Utö (there are 223 full time residents) or the dogs (47 - Charlotte acts as the veterinarian's nurse during their quarterly visits), she knows and loves them all. Or nearly so!
As an authorized archipelago guide, riding school owner, wedding officiant (and don't forget, veterinary nurse), there's not much that happens on Utö that escapes Charlotte's eye and in my opinion, the tours are the better for it. Charlotte provides the perfect introduction to the island, one of the southernmost in Stockholm's archipelago chain and, as one of the hundreds of thousands who visit Utö each year, I was one of the lucky ones to have Charlotte as my guide.
A trip to Utö makes for a perfect day trip from Stockholm. The island is home to the oldest iron ore mines in Sweden which, as Charlotte explains, have done much for the island's sense of hospitality. Utö is one of the very few islands in the archipelago which had an economy dominated by one industry and as mining waxed and waned over the years, the resident population grew and shrank accordingly. A revolving door of workers meant the island never got boggled down in the idea of old families or the significance of being able to stake a claim to family land.
The mines influenced the demographics of Utö in more ways than one. Utö is famous for a birth rate dominated by boys. For centuries, an expectant mother could well expect to give birth to sons and a generally accepted theory was that the drinking water from the wines contained iron, silver, zinc, and arsenic and these contaminants somehow contributed to the curious gender gap. Today, the islanders drink desalinated sea water and the birth patterns are now more typical.
Iron ore has dominated Utö since 1150 when Vikings landed on the island and for 500 years the industry thrived. But a 1790 Russian invasion ended badly for the industry - and for Utö. The houses were burned down, the inhabitants fled to Stockholm, and the mines were sabotaged and blocked by rocks.
Over the course of the 1800s and 1900s the island slowly rebuilt with charming cottages thanks to wealthy (and likely opportunistic) investors who encouraged artists and writers to spend the summers, as well as the military ("Worse than the goats") who occupy the southern part of the island for a training facility.
But while modern day visitors will be mostly out of luck if it's iron ore they seek, Utö still has many other treasures to share.
Our guided walk with Charlotte led me to one of my favourite treats of all time - wild strawberries! It turns out that Utö is covered in them, if you just know where to look (and you can bet that Charlotte does!) I also feasted on wild blueberries and tried many wild herbs under Charlotte's guidance. I overheard her say that she was spending the rest of her afternoon helping her young granddaughter forge for wild mushrooms. If you know your wild plants or are eager to discover more, Utö is the place to be.
If local lore and endless berries aren't enough, Utö can keep you busy. With just one main road but plenty of paths, biking is a popular past time - one that I took up for the afternoon. In my true wimpy, anti-adventurist spirit, I found the paths slightly less flat and smooth than I'd like (though any person with just an ounce of moxie will do just fine), and the "bikes with no breaks" were a challenge (they DO have breaks - you just have to peddle backwards to stop.) The island is just 15 km long, so it's hard to get lost and easy to pass an afternoon at a leisurely pace. If conditions are nice, there are also plenty of options for swimming and boating.
For a small island, Utö has a number of well reviewed eateries, especially in the summer months. I ate at the largest and best known of them all, the Utö Vardshus. My first course was a selection of different pickled herring bites, each in a different sauce, and served with the traditional sides of bread, rusks, boiled new potatoes, cheese, sour cream, chives, and chopped red onions.
While I appreciated the beautiful presentation, I have to admit that pickled herring is not for me. But judging from the feedback of the rest of my group, it was incredible. I'd encourage anyone to give it a try - if any place can tempt you with proper pickled herring, it's this.
The main course of fresh fried sea trout with potatoes, gherkins, capers, and a caviar cream sauce was more to my taste. The fish was exceptionally done and it was the perfect balance between being hearty and light.
Stockholm is a hard city to tear yourself away from but I think it's well worth taking a day away from the city to explore the archipelago - and it's no secret which island is my favourite! Utö has all the makings of the perfect summer getaway and with the warm welcome that Charlotte and so many others provide, you'll never want to catch the boat back to the mainland again.
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My visit to Uto was part of the TBEX conference. All research, writing, and opinions are my own.
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