Coast stories

Sweden has thousands of kilometres of coastline. But there’s one place where it's so dramatic and unique – and, in many ways, so uniquely Swedish – that it’s become world-famous. Welcome to the High Coast.

Matt O’Leary

Aerial shot of Volvo XC60 with two kayaks on the roof


Just look for the man-size troll

Situated in Northeast Sweden, the town of Docksta is a small place with only a few hundred inhabitants. It’s home to a slipper factory and a nice little café where you can get a good plate of panfried fish. Nearby, on a motorway exit marked by a man-sized cutout of a cartoon troll, there’s a tiny collection of houses and streets called Berg – the Swedish word for mountain. No prizes for guessing what this hamlet lies at the foot of.

The mountain is called Skuleberget and it’s well worth climbing. You begin by picking your way through a band of thick pine woodland and clambering over mossy rocks. Then, halfway up, the trees thin out and the small rocks give way to bare boulders, forming ledges and crags. The hillside is dotted with bilberry and lingonberry bushes, as well as clusters of unreal-looking fly agaric mushrooms. Shimmering pools of water catch the light. It’s a bit like being on a film set or in a picture from a children’s fairy tale.

And then, if you turn your gaze southeast, you’re presented with a remarkable sight – the mountain falling away, a thin strip of land, a hilly peninsula stretching out into the distance, and then, suddenly, the sea. Here and there, you can see islands that look like hills dropped into the water. And on a good day, you might notice something else: small, brightly coloured darts moving over the surface of the water. Kayaks. It’s one of the things people come here for: to paddle across the calm waters of the natural fjords, cradled and protected from the elements by the steep slopes all around them.

This place is paradise for anyone with a passion for the outdoors. It’s so beautiful, striking and unique that it’s been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site – one of only two in the country. We’ve come here to learn more about the area, to paddle our kayaks, and find out first-hand what makes it so unique. Welcome to Höga Kusten – the High Coast of Sweden.

Portrait of Jerry Engström: owner of the Outdoor Village camp
Eva Engström helps carry the kayak to the water’s edge
Jerry and Eva Engström paddle out to sea in their kayak

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Ocean deep, mountain high

Outdoor Village is a camp for outdoors enthusiasts, run by Jerry Engström. Jerry and his partner Eva, who works with local food and countryside development, are our hosts for the trip and great ambassadors for the region: enthusiastically describing all of the local delicacies, from prizewinning gin to the best foraged ingredients. They also know every inch of the coastline, telling us where to explore, where to hike, where to eat – and, of course, where to paddle.

Jerry and Eva took us to a high vantage point called Högklinten, located a kilometre or so inland. Here, if you park your car near the bottom of a hill and stroll up to the summit, you’ll discover something very strange – a 9,000-year-old stony beach a couple of hundred metres above sea level. The rocks that cover Högklinten’s slopes are weathered smooth but also encrusted with centuries-old lichen, giving them a unique green marbled tone. These rock beds are also framed by stretches of mountainside covered with pillowy mosses and rich green bushes. It’s beautiful and distinctive – a striking, quiet, dream-like place.

From the top you get a magnificent view of your surroundings. Look north, and you’ll see two things that immediately stand out – the dense forest of Skuleskogen national park, and the mountain island of Mjältön. Mjälton is the highest island in Sweden, with a summit that’s further above sea level than the whole of Denmark.

To the east, you’ll see the island of Ulvön, another great place for hikes. Ulvön is also famous for being the home of a delicacy called surströmming – fermented herring in a can. Surströmming is what you might call an acquired taste. It has a powerful and unique stench, and because of this it’s recommended that you open the bulging can outside, underwater or deep in the forest, far away from human habitation. But it tastes good, dotted onto a flatbread with onion, potato, cheese and sour cream.

Safe from harm

Between the high islands and the steep drops of the coastlines, the sea lies still and smooth, protected from the elements. This is where you’ll tend to find people paddling. The coastline islands form an ideal kayaking and hiking route – either a longer expedition that takes you on and off dry land, or a day-long trip around one of the islands. You don’t need to be an expert, either. Paddling here, on still water that’s cradled by steep forested slopes, is pleasant and safer than striking out into the open sea.

What’s more, the Skuleskogen national park and Mjältön are great places for adventure. Both contain easily accessible cottages that overnight visitors can stay in, and you’ll even find a few saunas dotted around as well – perfect for warming up and winding down after a long day in the water. (Just watch out for bears.)

The bays of the High Coast are formed by stretches of crinkled coastline, home to places like Norrfällsviken, a little village with a long stretch of stony beach. Here, our kayaks pick up pace over the calm, slate-grey surface of the water. In one direction, there’s a steep section of coast that’s covered with forest, echoing any sound you make right back at you. In the other, a stony beach of rust-coloured, green, speckled and marbled rocks provides room to disembark and relax.

The big beach

Anyone setting out to experience the unique landscape of the High Coast can start at Storsand. Storsand is located in an a place called Nordingrå, an area that Jerry describes as one of the top destinations in the region, together with Skuleberget, Skuleskogens National Park and Ulvön. However, beginners and moderate kayakers are recommended to explore the dramatic Norrfjärden just outside Skuleberget.

Along the High Coast, the forest creeps all the way to the water’s edge. Pines actually grow on the beach. It’s a strange – and, somehow, a very Swedish – thing to breathe in the warm sea air with a bed of cones and needles beneath your feet.

Getting into the water with our kayaks at Storsand is easy, thanks to the long sandy beach. It demonstrates one of the things that the area is best known for – that these kinds of landscapes can be open to everyone. Park your car, and you’re five minutes away from nature, beauty and peace. Our host Jerry describes Storsand as “one of the top three destinations in the High Coast” because of its accessibility. As well as kayaking, it’s a good place to set out into the protected woodland for a gentle hike, or to pick some berries.

It’s worth noting as well that although the water here is calm and tempting, you’re still in the north of Sweden. It can get a little bit chilly while you’re paddling. When you’re in the water, knowing that you’re right next to a car that you’ve pre-heated from your smartphone is an almost unimaginable luxury. Being in the wilderness is even more attractive when you understand that you’re only minutes away from getting the warmth back into your toes.

A truly unique character

Sweden has no shortage of beautiful natural landscapes. And we agree that, among them all, the High Coast has a unique character – defined by the sharp ups and downs of the landscape, complemented by the fact that it’s so accessible. It’s easy to make the most of a walk in the woods and over the beaches, a gentle hike up a mountain, or a day or two spent paddling on the calm, slategrey surface of the sea.

 

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