Two tales of one island

A curious thing has happened in the
Baltic Sea. The Swedish island of Gotland – a singular, sparsely populated
place – has become a magnet for two disparate groups: party-crazed club youths
who unleash Champagne showers inside neon-lighted nightclubs, and stressed-out
solace-seekers who retreat into the island’s untamed wilderness. It is a
strange dichotomy, and one that is becoming ever more acute.

Gotland, the largest island in the Baltic
Sea, lies about 96 kilometers off the southeastern coast of Sweden. Its
geographical size is comparable to Long Island’s, but with a year-round
population of less than 60,000, the island is largely undeveloped. Within 10
minutes of leaving Visby, the only sizable town on the island, an idyllic
landscape dotted with rustic cottages and rural farmhouses starts to unfold.
Before the summer revelers discovered Visby on Gotland’s western coast, this
Unesco-protected medieval town attracted primarily one kind of tourist – the
quiet kind, prone to bike trips and solitary strolls.

But recently, Visby’s relative
proximity to Stockholm – 35 minutes by air or three hours by sea – has made it
an easy getaway for young city dwellers throughout the summer. First drawn by
an annual weeklong, bubbly-soaked dance party called Stockholmsveckan (to the
relief of residents, this year’s iteration ends this weekend), revelers are fueling
velvet-rope nightclubs in the middle of town and the freewheeling “after beach”
scene at Kallbadhuset beach club overlooking the sapphire sea.

“Before, Stockholm brats just came
to Gotland for one week in July to drink Champagne and act like pigs,” said
Alex Schulman, a Swedish author and Stockholm native who has spent the last two
summers in rural northern Gotland. “That was the only time that Stockholmers
came to Gotland.”
But in recent years, the rest of Gotland – and the tiny neighboring island of
Faro – has caught Stockholm’s collective eye.

“There’s been an enormous
explosion, particularly with Stockholmers buying houses in Gotland,” Schulman
said. “Part of that has to do with more celebrities coming here. Up on Faro,
there are loads of politicians. In southern Gotland, there are a lot of media
people. And as more and more celebrities come here, the cooler it becomes.”

And therein lies the root of
Gotland’s tourism paradox. As more bold-face names escape the city by
retreating to second homes on the peaceful island, its cachet grows, which in
turn attracts the larger crowds that inflate the Visby party scene.
Fortunately, the island is large enough to please everyone.

Lingering over a latte at Rute
Stenugnsbageri, a rustic bakery and cafe housed in an old limestone barn,
Schulman gestured at the handful of other patrons soaking up the bright morning
sunshine at tables scattered around the gravel yard. “People come here and this
is nowhere,” he said, referring to the bakery’s rural location about 50
kilometers north of Visby. “This is a little dirt road out in the middle of

But sometimes, nowhere is exactly
where people want to be.

Rute Stenugnsbageri’s owner, Erik
Olofson, baked at some of Stockholm’s best cafes but decided to trade city life
for a pastoral one after being enchanted by Gotland. “It’s quite barren, and
everything grows a bit shorter and is a little smaller,” he said, describing
the area’s vegetation.

Indeed, when driving through the
vast openness of Gotland, the ribbon of road unfurls across a flat green
landscape. There are no billboards, no guardrails, just country churches and
grazing herds of indigenous gray, curly-haired sheep. Occasionally, a squat,
decommissioned windmill appears in a meadow, or a sleek, modern wind turbine
twirls slowly on the horizon.

But everywhere, Gotland’s haunting
beauty follows. Inside the gate of the Narsholmen nature reserve on the
island’s east coast, a dusty road plunges through a scene like a savannah to a
red-and-white lighthouse on the edge of a rocky coast emblazoned by waves of
indigo wildflowers, fittingly called blaeld, or blue fire.

A few kilometers farther north in
the small town of Ljugarn, the beach is a snapshot of calm, untrammeled nature:
a long stretch of fine sand fringed by tall grass and cold, clear water lapping
gently at the shore. With idyllic settings like these, camping is an
understandably popular activity in Gotland. But nature-loving escapists can
also bed down in small luxury hotels scattered around the island in improbable

On the west coast, 40 minutes south
of Visby, the new eight-room Djupvik Hotel pampers guests with sea views from
plush lounge chairs resting in a grassy field. The remote spot is near the
rocky shores of the Ekstakusten nature reserve, a cluster of wooden fishing
huts, and not much else.
Down a desolate stretch of dirt road on the northern tip of Gotland, another
luxury retreat, Farosunds Fastning, is situated in a converted stone fortress
with views across the water to the island of Faro, a 10-minute ferry ride away.
Pontus Frithiof, Stockholm chef and restaurateur, is behind the tranquil
16-room hotel and top-notch restaurant, where guests seek solitude coupled with
high – quality food and service, an experience Frithiof described as “Gotland’s
relaxed summer luxury.”

A few kilometers south of Farosunds
Fastning, Lergravsviken nature reserve is home to a hillside of raukar, odd
limestone formations found along the coast on Gotland and Faro. Molded by
erosion over millenniums, the strangely shaped, hulking gray stones contribute
to the spooky, dramatically cinematic landscapes that inspired the director
Ingmar Bergman, who lived and filmed on Faro. It’s easy to imagine Bergman’s
famous image of Death personified lurking behind one of the eerie stones. Past
Lergravsviken, a narrow, dusty dirt road leads to Fabriken Furillen, an old limestone
factory that has been converted, improbably, into a luxury hotel unlike any
other in the world.
The austere, industrial property is a mystifying, post-apocalyptic dreamscape
cluttered with incongruous objects, their meanings begging to be interpreted. A
shiny silver camper is parked at the base of a high mound of stones. At the end
of a cement pier jutting out over the water, a rusted crane hangs motionless.
Old railroad ties lead straight to the door of a small wooden house. An
abandoned multistory structure of indeterminate purpose looms over the entire
desolate scene.

But what does it all mean? And who
would want to stay here?

“We get a lot of businessmen who
want to get away from everything, enjoy the nature and unwind,” said Johanna
Hellstrom, the hotel manager. “It’s the mix of isolation and luxury.”

Those who need a complete break
from the world can retire to one of the hotel’s four tiny hermit huts hidden in
the rocky wind-worn wilderness, far from the road and any sign of civilization.
Though the wooden huts are thoroughly rustic, certain comforts are afforded:
hand-built Hastens beds, outhouses stocked with fashion and design magazines
and, perhaps predictably, a copy of Thoreau’s “Walden.”

But the ultimate luxury is the
simple, timeless pleasure of spending a sun-soaked afternoon surrounded by
mossy rocks and glittering sea, accompanied by nothing more than a good book
and one’s thoughts. In complete, glorious solitude, this is Gotland at its

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