Several years ago, during a long weekend in Manshausen, a Norwegian island high above the Arctic Circle, I learnt why every Nordic person dreams of being king or queen of their own patch of floating land. Thousands of islets and skerries dotted glassy waters along the Steigen region’s fractured coastline. Rough and windswept, many were governed by the elements. But I was surprised to discover a number had been snapped up and shaped by human hands.
A seasoned explorer, Borge Ousland, who made headlines as the first man to complete a solo, unaided journey to the North Pole, purchased 55-acre Manshausen as a private escape for fishing, kayaking, diving, hiking and climbing – all his favourite pursuits, which could be done at a much more leisurely pace. Later, he would build cabins for tourists to rent.
He was in good company. On neighbouring Naustholmen, Randi Skaug, the first Norwegian woman to scale Everest, had also bought land and opened a hostel.
Both veteran adventurers were drawn to the region’s emerald waters, golden mountain-backed beaches and limitless opportunities for adventure. Despite their CV of achievements, I had the impression this was their most rewarding expedition to date.
Across the Nordics and Scandinavia, where space is worshipped with religious fervour, owning an island is about much more than land rights – it’s become a state of mind.
Every summer, Finns, Swedes, Danes and Norwegians head off on an annual pilgrimage to their summer cabins, often located in remote, off-grid locations. Hopping on ferries or driving over bridges, they weave through a jigsaw of granite outcrops, leaving any stresses, worries and commitments back on the mainland.
This far north, temperatures rarely rise above the mid-20s. But with the mercury soaring in southern Europe, the idea of an Arctic beach break sounds increasingly appealing.
In reality, any ice has melted away, leaving behind a sculpted landscape of jagged mountains, steep cliffs and smooth granite boulders rolling into an almost unbelievably clear sea. Beaches rival the sparkling white sands of Antigua and the boulder-strewn stretches of the Seychelles. The only difference here being reliably crowd-free silence and solitude.
At this latitude, longer daylight hours allow activities to be done at a slow Caribbean pace. And although the solstice has passed, there’s still a chance to paddle before breakfast, hike after dinner and fall asleep in the blue twilight hours.
So many islands in northern Europe’s archipelagos barely register as a fleck on the map. Yet, these tiny dots promise a world of possibilities. Following are the islands to suit every type of traveller.
Bornholm: best for foodies
Plump blackberries, sweet-scented strawberries, delicate chanterelle mushrooms… nature’s pantry overflows on this sun-soaked island cast far into the Baltic. Master of Nordic cuisine Rene Redzepi had his first foraging epiphany here and other chefs have followed suit. Dine at Michelin-star restaurant Kadeau in the dunes of Dueodde beach; snack on herring cooked over alder wood; and pop into the store where posh liquorice brand Lakrids started.
How to do it: Stay at Green Solution House, Denmark’s first climate positive hotel. Doubles from £154 per night with breakfast (0045 56 90 44 44; bornholmhotels.dk/en)
Romo and Mando: best for wildlife
Part of the Unesco-listed Wadden Sea National Park, these tiny islands are part of the largest continuous system of intertidal sand and mud flats in the world. While a water-lapped road dam connects Romo to the mainland, Manso is best accessed with a tractor bus at high tide. Once there, it’s possible to drive along compact sandy beaches or join organised tours to spot seals and white-tailed eagles. From August until November, starlings flock to create a phenomenon known as the black sun.
How to do it: Hotel Kommandorgarden on Romo has self-catering cabins from £154 per night, sleeping a family of four (0045 74 75 51 22; kommandoergaarden.dk)
Mon: best for stargazing
Although nights are growing longer, temperatures show no sign of dropping, providing ideal conditions for sleep-outs under the stars. Free from light pollution, Scandinavia’s first Dark Sky Park is a window into an astronomical world of constellations, fiery meteor showers and galaxies far, far away. Climb to the top of Aborrebjerg mountain, or walk along Mons Klint, a four-mile stretch of chalky cliffs plunging into a turquoise sea.
How to do it: Pitch a tent at Camp Mons Klint, from £55 per night for a family of four including electricity (0045 55 81 20 25; campmoensklint.dk)
Laeso: best for wellbeing
Inhabitants of this North Sea island, offshore from Jutland, truly are the salt of the earth. Since the 12th century, fine crystals have been evaporated from ground water collected in wells, eventually finding their way into restaurant dishes and spa menus. At Laeso Kur, a grass-roofed resort built around a former church, guests can book skin-enhancing treatments using salt, clay and sea algae sourced from sea and shore. Even the name Laeso translates as peace and quiet, an indication of what’s in store.
How to do it: Laerkely hotel offers a two-night half-board stay from £177pp, two sharing (0045 98 49 83 44; laerkely.dk)
Samso: best for sustainability
Some of the biggest global nations could learn a lot from this fleck in the Kattegat. Sparking a green revolution more than 20 years ago, entrepreneurial residents clubbed together to buy a collection of wind turbines to provide electricity and now sell excess to the Danish grid. Waste straw from farms is burned for heating, electric vehicles are powered by solar and in the future there’s talk of a ferry powered by pig manure. For now, it’s a pleasant place to hike, cycle, and breathe clean, emission-free air.
How to do it: Rental site Landfolk has a self-catering thatched, half-timbered sea-view cottage for six from £398 per night (landfolk.com)
Gotland: best for Viking history
Raiders and pirates or traders and entrepreneurial explorers? Whatever your opinion of the Vikings, they did once rule Europe’s roost. Now a hot spot of archaeological finds, this sleepy, meadow-filled Baltic Sea island was their trading base and later became a centre for the Hanseatic League. Walk along the medieval ringmuren of towers and gates that once fortified Visby, drink historic juniper-flavoured ale “gotlandsdricka” and sample saffron pancakes – a throwback to those days when east would meet west.
How to do it: Best Served Scandinavia offers a six-day fly-drive twinned with Stockholm from £1,395pp (two sharing), including flights (020 3318 9747; best-served.co.uk)
Vrango: best for car-free escapes
Wave goodbye to traffic lights and busy roundabouts on the hour-long journey from Gothenburg to the southernmost island in its archipelago. The only way to explore this nature reserve of granite-curved golden beaches is by foot, boat or bike. Stroll slowly, searching for wild asparagus, sea holly and waterfowl who breed on tiny islets. Stay close to the sea in a private boathouse at Kajkanten, where guests have access to a floating sauna. Neighbouring Fiskeboa is one of several great restaurants serving local catch. Alternatively, join a local skipper and fish for your own food.
How to do it: Where The Wild Is offers a six-night island hopping tour of the Gothenburg archipelago from £1,300pp. Flights extra (0117 450 7980; wherethewildis.co.uk)
Sandhamm: best for Nordic noir
A sun-dappled harbour and quaint flower-fringed villas don’t exactly set the scene for dark encounters. Nevertheless, this popular stop in the Stockholm archipelago inspired one of Sweden’s best-selling crime novels. Trace a trail of deception and intrigue on a themed Sandhamn Murders walking tour with Sandhamsguiderna or follow the lead of well-heeled Swedes by focusing detective skills on picking the best place to swim. Choose Trouville for its white sands, Skarkarlshamn for its sailing club or forest-backed Fläskberget for the glorious scent of pine.
How to do it: Sandhamn Seglarhotell offers doubles from £146, with breakfast (00468 574 504 00; sandhamn.com)
Bohuslan archipelago: best for getting active
A string of jewels glistening in clear water; 8,000 skerries and islets illuminate Sweden’s prettiest coast. A kayak is often the best way to explore this northern stretch from Gothenburg to the Norwegian border, especially at sunset when its signature Bohus granite glows amber and rose. Join an art-themed water tour on the island of Tjorn or glide alongside the red clapboard houses of Mosholmen. Once your arms are tired, swap paddles for pedals on a bike ride through the Iron Age settlement site in Pilane, weaving through stone circles.
How to do it: Original Travel offers a five-day island-hopping break from £1,285pp (two sharing), including flights (0203 958 6120; originaltravel.co.uk)
Saint-Anna archipelago: best for camping
Enshrined in Swedish law, everyone has the right to roam, sleep and eat wherever they choose – if respect is paid to nature. There are plenty of options for pitch-ups, but few places could beat the wild east for nights spent under canvas in solitude. Shaped during the last Ice Age, smooth, curvaceous boulders sink into the Baltic, providing a comfortable spot to camp, cook and command a private island.
How to do it: Much Better Adventures offers a four-night Kayak and Wild Camp self-guided trip from £760pp (3-8 people), including kit. Flights extra (020 3966 7597; muchbetteradventures.com)
Vagsoy: best for surfing
Ride waves in an amphitheatre of emerald mountains at one of the most unexpected surf destinations in the world. Swells regularly break in the bay of Hoddevik, on the Stadlandet peninsula, where beginners and pros gather to wax their boards. The village sits at Norway’s most westerly point, a five-hour ferry from Bergen. But a plunging hairpin road, often used by daredevil skateboarders, is the most iconic way to arrive. Set in the bay, Lapoint Surf Camp offers courses for all levels, with opportunities to hike, do yoga and cook beach barbecues in between lessons.
How to do it: A four-day package costs from £276, including self-catering accommodation, lessons and kit (0046 188 008 125; lapointcamps.com)
Lofoten: best for cabin life
Shaped by the sea both environmentally and economically, this scenic archipelago owes its good fortune to fish. For 1,000 years, fishermen have caught and dried cod along fragmented shorelines at the base of arrow-head mountains. A sense of pride and nostalgia is still as strong as the Arctic Ocean’s fierce, irrepressible waves. Tap into the past by staying in a rorbu, a converted fisherman’s cabin painted in trademark Scandi red. Find a high concentration in sleepy Nusfjord, once a centre of the thriving trade, and inexhaustibly photogenic Reine.
How to do it: Black Tomato offers a seven-night B&B stay from £3,200pp. Flights extra (020 7426 9888; blacktomato.com)
Spitsbergen, Svalbard: best for adventure
It doesn’t get more extreme than Norway’s most northerly archipelago, only 800 miles from the North Pole. Frozen for most of the year, on paper it’s uninhabitable, yet an adventure-seeking community thrives far above the treeline in Longyearbyen, which only has one road. Spend days spotting walruses, Arctic foxes and polar bears on RIB boats. At night, sample tipples from a well-stocked local champagne bar and a beer at the most northerly brewery in the world.
How to do it: Up Norway offers a seven-day trip from £2,679pp, including activities. Excludes flights (0047 412 62 960; upnorway.com)
Senja: best for hiking
From hushed, serene pine forests to angry, razor-sharp mountain peaks, all manner of emotions play out in one of Norway’s most varied landscapes. Refreshingly dramatic, hiking trails weave high and low, although it’s the steep, challenging climbs that deliver the best views. Take the path to Hesten for a view of Senja’s postcard peak Segla, before tackling the sail-shaped rock to watch clouds rolling at your feet. When the sun only rests for a few hours a day, there’s no rush to reach the top.
How to do it: Inntravel offers a seven-night half-board stay from £1,495pp (two sharing), including car hire. Flights extra (01653 617000; inntravel.co.uk)
Sommaroy: best for tropical beaches
Once favoured by cattle farmers for its seasonal grazing pastures, Summer Island in Troms has far many more attributes to justify its name. Although water temperatures will never be tropical, pearl-white beaches and turquoise waters could easily be mistaken for the Indian Ocean, while the laid-back, easy-going 300-strong community live life at a distinctly Caribbean pace. Hire a SUP or kayak from outdoor centre 69Nord (69nord.com) to paddle through aquarium-clear water, marvelling at a cabaret show of lipstick-red starfish and the dancing tendrils of kelp.
How to do it: Arctic Holiday offers doubles at the Sommeroy Arctic Hotel from £60 per night, including breakfast (020 3761 7078; arcticholiday.co.uk)
Aland islands: best for freedom
Follow Finnish rules while listening to Swedish voices in a place where national identity is as changeable as the sea breeze. Currently celebrating a centenary of autonomy from disputing motherlands, these 6,700 islands (of which only one per cent are inhabited) are a shining example of keeping the peace. Discover the archipelago, at the entrance to the Gulf of Bothnia, on a six-hour cruise from Stockholm, splitting time between main hub Mariehamn and wild, gorge-filled Geta.
How to do it: Best Served Scandinavia offers a seven-day trip from £850pp (two sharing), including flights (020 8125 3183; best-served.co.uk)
Kvarken archipelago: best for geological wonders
While climate change threatens sea level rises around most of the globe, here the reverse is happening. Crushed by an ice sheet 10,000 years ago, the land is slowly rebounding at a quarter of an inch per year. Although you won’t feel the earth move, effects are obvious: once-submerged boat houses are stranded on land, beaches are turning into forests and many more islands are surfacing from the sea. Climb an observation tower on Svedjehamn to study the snaking De Geer moraines, another geological curiosity.
How to do it: Watch the scenery unfold from Kalle’s Inn Glasshouses on Soderudden. From £264 per night for two with breakfast (coolstays.com)
Hailuoto, Oulu: best for birdwatching
Throughout the year, more than 300 bird species have been spotted in the wetlands of this northern Baltic Sea island. Towering above the meadows and reed beds, several bird hides provide excellent viewing platforms. Spread your own wings a little further by visiting a crumbling lighthouse, colourful fishing villages and an organic craft brewery. And discover why lichen-laced forests and sculpted dunes have been luring artists since the early 1900s.
How to do it: The Luotsihotelli – Arctic Lighthouse Hotel has doubles from £92 with breakfast (expedia.co.uk)
Suomenlinna: best for history
It takes less than 20 minutes to reach one of Finland’s most important Unesco world heritage sites from the mainland, but a visit will take you back more than 200 years. Originally built by the Swedes, a sea fortress straddles several islands in the Helsinki archipelago, with museums, bunkers and a Second World War submarine open to the public. Guided tours take place throughout August, along with short voyages in a traditional sailing ship.
How to do it: For the full maritime experience, stay in Villa Silo, a 19th-century wooden home in the Russian merchant’s quarter. From £211 per night for four (airbnb.co.uk)
Pellinge: best for Moomin fans
As Finnish as saunas and Santa, Moomins embody a national Nordic spirit. Creator Tove Jansson found inspiration for many of her stories on the tiny island of Klovharun, where she owned a summer cottage. Now managed by a heritage group, the artist’s former home is only open for one week every July. But it is possible to explore the landscapes that inspired her work. A two-hour drive from Helsinki, the Pellinge islands are part of the Porvoo archipelago.
How to do it: Pellinge Cottages have several properties to rent, including the beachside Dalen cabin (sleeps six) from £493 for a week (+358 400 670 785; pellingecottages.fi)
Five places to eat
Innovation and a natural larder helped transform a beachside cottage into one of Denmark’s top new Nordic Michelin-star restaurants. From the food to the forks, everything here is locally made and the view is unbeatable. Lunch tasting menu £208; kadeau.dk/bornholm
Sandhamns Vardshus, Sandhamn, Sweden
Pleasing diners for decades, a menu of shellfish and steak remains unchanged at one of Sweden’s oldest inns. Listen to sail masts clatter from the harbourside terrace, or sneak inside the 17th-century building to find a cosy spot. Mains around £16; sandhamns-vardshus.se
Krakas Krog, Gotland, Sweden
Plucked from soil or sea and taken directly to the table, Gotland’s finest flavours shape an ever-evolving Scandinavian menu. Enjoy warm summer nights dining on a veranda, where the comforting smell of fresh bread drifts from a wood-fired oven. Tasting menu £113; krakas.se/en
Alderfelt, Suomenlinna, Finland
Using seasonally foraged berries, local fish and vegetables, dishes served in this bistro are as bright and fresh as its vibrant interior. Neon signs hang from 250-year-old timber walls, while an outdoor terrace is the place to sample biodynamic wines. Mains around £25; adlerfelt.fi
Polarhagen, Lofoten, Norway
Using veg organically grown above the Arctic Circle, pizzaiolo Parsa and his partner Lisa run summer pop-ups on their farm in Leknes. During dinner, the couple share their philosophy for climate-focused sustainable food production. From £50pp; polarhagen.no
Six tips for getting around
- In essence, the Nordics are a patchwork of islands stitched together by bridges, making it easy to access most regions by road. But in some further flung places, such as Bornholm or Gotland, the only way to get there is by air or sea
- Ferries are the most economical and environmentally friendly option. They also double as sightseeing cruises
- Routes can be complicated so plan in advance. Fylkestrafikk.no has a useful travel planner for northern Norway. In Sweden, try waxholmsbolaget.se for the Stockholm archipelago and vasttrafik.se for the west coast. Many Finnish routes and timetables are listed at lautta.net, while Denmark is served by multiple ferry companies, depending on the route
- In popular destinations, it’s often possible to purchase tickets at the harbour. If travelling on a car ferry, it’s better to buy tickets in advance
- In some cases, it’s easier to access islands from another country. The best way to reach Bornholm, for example, is by crossing the Oresund Bridge into Sweden and picking up a boat at Ystad
- Most islands are small, so once onshore, cycling and walking are excellent ways to explore