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Travel

Whisky on the West Coast

Having lived in Scotland for eight years, I've drunk my fair share of whisky. Most of it sitting in a steaming, peat-stained bath attempting to thaw out after a long, rain-soaked walk around a loch or up a munro. And although that's a pretty fine way to enjoy a dram, I can report that it's also rather fantastic reclining on a sun-warmed rock on an island in Bohuslän, on Sweden's west coast.

Which is exactly what I was lucky enough to do this week when I joined a 24 trip to Fiskebäckskil organised by Talisker. After a two hour bus journey from Gothenburg, we donned full overalls, jumped straight onto a fishing boat and set out on the glittering water to the nearby island of Flatholmen for lunch.

Idyllic Fiskebäckskil

Lunch is served

After kick-starting us with some freshly-shucked local oysters with a dram of Talisker (it had been an early morning), Brygghuset's chef Jonas Svensson served up heavenly bowls of creamy seafood broth. And if there's a better way to spend a Tuesday lunchtime than that, I'd like to know what it is.

Island nature on Flatholmen, one of some 8,000 islands and skerries in the Bohuslän archipelago

After lunch, it was back onto the boat for a bit of shellfish fishing. Lobster season isn't until late September so the crustacean queen we caught had to be thrown back but plenty of crab and langoustine (along with the odd muddy fish) came up in the pots.

According to Bobo, our fabulously-coiffed fisherman who's fished these waters his whole life, the weather conditions weren't great - fishermen like it nice and rough as they get better prices at the fish auction - but for us lucky landlubbers it couldn't have been better as we bobbed about in the sunshine spotting porpoises and watching Bobo and his wife Janni haul in the pots.

Once back on dry land in Fiskebäckskil, we gently swayed into Brygghuset's impressive whisky bar for a whisky tasting session. I've drunk whisky everywhere from Sydney to Skye while knowing shamefully little about the spirit but after an hour tasting, I felt significantly better informed.

But if there's one thing I like even more than neat whisky, it's a whisky cocktail. Happily, Emil Hed, recently named Nordic Bartender of the Year, was on hand to mix up some outstanding original drinks, all using Talisker.

Emil adding the finishing touch - porcini oil - to his 'Burnt Butter' cocktail

When you get to my advanced age, truly fresh and exciting flavour combinations come few and far between, but each of the four tailormade cocktails blew my mind in different ways. Porcini mushroom oil added to caramelly, maple-syrupy butter-washed whisky in 'Burnt Butter' was next-level delicious, 'Roasted Tomato' was a new take on a Bloody Mary, 'Honey', a refreshing long drink with meadowsweet liqueur and saffron honey came with a sprinkling of seaweed salt on the glass, and 'Coffee and Polypody' (it sounds better in Swedish) was sweetened with a sugar made from dried stensöta or polypody (a type of fern).

Four phenomenal courses. From left to right: scallop paired with 'Burnt Butter' cocktail, steamed bao bun with langoustine paired with 'Roasted Tomato' cocktail, cod with trout roe paired with 'Honey' cocktail, and 'Coffee and Polypody' dessert cocktail (Photo credit: Jennifer Kivinen)

After dinner, we listened to Danish adventurer and soldier Lasse Hansen talk about his life-changing experience rowing across the Atlantic last winter. Inspired by Lasse's adventures and fuelled by a healthy dose of Dutch (or rather, Scottish) courage, we rounded off an unforgettable day with the first sea-swim of the year in the bracing waters of the Skagerrak, from the hotel's floating sauna pontoon.

If you'd like to book this trip yourself (and believe me, you do), it'll be taking place on two weekends this summer - 28-29 June and 23-24 August. Visit Scandinavian Detours.

Chasing The Scream: 48 hours in Oslo

Many moons ago, I wrote my A Level History of Art dissertation on the amazing, angst-ridden Norwegian artist Edvard Munch, and ever since then I've longed to see his paintings up close and personal. So, after six years in Sweden, I felt it was time to pay our respects to our Norwegian neighbours and make a little weekend trip to Oslo.

A six hour train journey from Södertälje later, I dragged my family through howling wind and incessant rain to the Munch museum, thrilled at the prospect of finally getting to see works like Madonna, Young Woman on the Beach, the Dance of Life and, of course, The Scream.

Postcards from the gift shop: the closest we got to seeing any of these paintings

We queued up and paid our money and worked our way round the exhibition "The Swan Princess: Russian Art 1880-1910", which was full of paintings by Russian and Nordic artists like Mikhael Vrubel, Carl Larsson, Anders Zorn, and, yes, the odd painting by our man Munch. But no Evening on Karl Johan Street, no Summer Night, no Jealousy and very definitely no Scream.

In the final room I asked the guard "Is that it?" "Oh, you want to see The Scream", he answered wearily. "Well, yes, that would be nice, but also all his other paintings." "They're in storage in the basement," he helpfully informed me. "But you can see them next year when the new Munch museum opens. And you can see another version of The Scream and some of his other works at the National Gallery." "Great, we'll go there then."

But before I dragged my distinctly unimpressed family back out into the rain and over to the National Gallery, I checked their website. Closed until 2020. 25 years of waiting and I was a year too early. I did a little silent scream and moved on to see what else Oslo had to offer.

Oslo highlights:

  • Street art. Oslo has a slightly rawer, more edgy feel than Stockholm and some fantastic street art, particularly around the Tøyen and Grünerløkka districts.

  • Kon-Tiki museum. If you've never read the book or seen the film about Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl's epic crossing of the Pacific on a balsawood raft, The Kon-Tiki, do it now. A truly inspiring adventure.

The actual raft used by Heyerdahl and his crew on their 1947 expedition

Ferry across the Oslo fjord to the Bygdøy peninsula and museums (Pic: Joe Maclay)

  • Palmyra Cafe Masala Dosais and mango lassis at this great value Sri Lankan restaurant in Grønland were a taste of the tropics on a rainy day in Oslo.
  • Vigeland Sculpture Park. An easy walk from our Airbnb in Majorstuen, I didn't expect my children to get too excited about a load of sculptures but actually they loved it (possibly because of the nakedness).
  • Holmenkollen Ski museum On our last day, we took the underground (which is mainly overground) up into the hills to the north of the city, past suburbs of gorgeous wooden villas with views over the fjord, to Holmenkollen.

After admiring the terrifying downwards views from the top of the slope and out over Oslo from the jump tower and watching tall, fit Norwegians dashing about on cross country skis for a while, we walked about half an hour up to the restaurant at Frognerseteren which is worth a detour not so much for the food as the views and the traditional, tar-scented wooden building.

Oslo: you were a delight in the winter sunshine but you've left me not only pining for the fjords but screaming for my Munch hit. I'll be back.

Fear of flying and a Japanese spa

Wanderlust and climate anxiety is a frustrating combo. I want to see the world, and show it to my children - but how to justify jetting around the planet when I'm destroying it for them in the process? We've recently come back from a month-long trip that involved flying across the Atlantic, thereby using up our carbon allowances for pretty much the rest of our lives, so no more foreign travel for us any time soon.

(Have you ever used an online calculation tool to measure your carbon footprint? Even if you consider yourself fairly green I guarantee you'll be shocked by the result - check out the WWF's one here, if you dare.)

Anyway, instead of getting too morose about all this, I've decided to focus on making the most of the Swedish winter (and not just by getting "mysig" by an open fire, but really getting out there and embracing it), as well as finding ways to experience the world without leaving the country.

First stop, Yasuragi Hasseludden, the Japanese spa just outside Stockholm. I'd visited once before about fifteen years ago, but it's had such an extensive revamp since then that I barely recognised it. The Japanese theme and aesthetic runs strong throughout, from the walkway up to the building and surrounding Japanese gardens to the food (there are three different Japanese restaurants and a sake bar), the yukatas (cotton robes) that all guests wear and, of course, the spa.

I must admit I'm not a massive fan of spas per se. Too much hush-hush, dodgy music, unripe fruit and icky things floating in hot tubs, but Yasuragi's new spa area is on a whole new level. It's the shogun of spas, the emperor. There are indoor saunas and hot tubs and cold plunge pools and salt scrub steam rooms and three outdoor hot pools and an outdoor sauna and a sparkling water pool and it just goes on and on. You could sauna and bathe here for hours and barely park or dip your bits in the same section twice.

If, like me, you get a bit claustrophic in saunas and hot baths, the outdoor pools are the highlight, especially in the winter. Sitting emerged in atmospherically steaming hot water with your face exposed to the cold, fresh air and a view out over the icy water and snow-covered Scots pines and villas of Hasseludden is a pretty hard experience to beat.

The whole place is gorgeously designed in a modern Japanese/Nordic aesthetic with masses of concrete and panoramic windows and everything felt sparklingly fresh and clean - partly achieved, I would imagine, by giving all spa guests brand new, complementary (and rather flattering) black swimming costumes to wear and instructing us all on the proper pre-spa washing ritual. I expect state-of-the-art filtration technology plays its part, but either way I'm happy to report I didn't spot a single unidentified floating object or rogue body hair.

Since I've never visited a Japanese onsen (hot spring baths) I don't know how Yasuragi compares but there's no getting away from the fact that it's huge, with some 600 rooms, and a lot of conference guests. But the size and design of the spa, together with the the fact that everyone is dressed in anonymous swimmers or the yukata you're given to wear at all other times, including meal times, means it never feels too crowded or corporate. There's also a ban on using mobiles in all public areas, which is a revelation in phone-obsessed Sweden (and explains why these pics are all high-quality press images and not my own iPhone snaps).

I'm planning on an annual winter visit, at least until someone invents a zero-emissions way to fly to Japan. Keep an eye out for their special deals and an overnight spa package can be surprisingly good value. Definitely cheaper than a return ticket to Tokyo in any case, plus better for your skin and easier on the conscience.

(No) movie Sunday at Hobo

A distinct drawback of living in a different country from most of your family is that babysitting opportunities are few and far between. Having as many children as we do also rather reduces the pool of people prepared to take on the job, so when my mother was visiting last week we grabbed the chance and snuck off for a rare grown-up night in the big city.

I'd stayed one night at Hobo Stockholm on Brunkebergstorg on a press trip last year and their outstanding breakfast has remained a happy memory ever since. I regard pretty much any hotel breakfast as one of life's great pleasures, but Swedish ones can be a bit samey and limited if you're not into pickled herring and raw peppers first thing. Hobo's mini cheesy egg muffin/soufflé things were calling to me so I snapped up their "Movie Sunday" deal, which includes a night in a superior room, the aforementioned breakfast, plus popcorn and movie tickets - all for 1090 SEK.

What is this hipster hell? I could see Joe thinking as he took in the hydroponic plants and photo booth in the lobby, the pop music on ear-bleed volume and various niche products for sale in their mini-shop. Hobo's uber trendy but it's also fun, unpretentious, centrally located and I'm not sure there's any other city centre hotel in Stockholm where you can get a huge room with panoramic views of the skyline for under a hundred British pounds.

I'm such a sucker for a deal that I forget to ask myself whether or not I (or Joe) actually wanted to go to the movies but the SF tickets laid on our beds were valid for a year, so the pressure was off and we decided to wander the Stockholm streets in a haze of giddy child-free bliss instead.

Popcorn that is in no way Indian

Lazy/knackered parents that we are, we decided to eat in the hotel restaurant (hey, it was Sunday) and were glad we did as the slow-cooked lamb with creamy, dill-y beans, grilled salad (who knew hot cucumbers were a thing?) and chargrilled hunk of bread (also a thing) were all delish. It also turned out that our deal included 20% off the food and drinks bill which Joe, being Scottish, was especially pleased about.

The breakfast buffet the next morning was every bit as classy and creative as I remembered. Chia pudding with vanilla, cold-pressed beetroot juice and, praise the Lord, those little eggy muffins, topped with smoked salmon. A cracking way to start the week.

Breakfast bliss

Re-open: The National Museum's new lease of light

It's been a long time since I last visited the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm. The fact that it's been closed for refurbishment for the past five years is one good reason, but my memory of it as a somewhat gloomy old building stuffed with Old Masters wasn't pushing it to the top of my To Do list.

I was tempted back, however, when it re-opened last month as I was curious to see the results of the £100 million refurb but also to visit the huge, specially-commissioned glass chandelier I had seen being made at The Glass Factory in Boda last year in situ.

 

Ten glass designers, including Åsa Jungnelius and Carina Seth Andersson, collaborated on the project and each element was hand-blown at The Glass Factory. Photo credit: Tina Stafren/VisitSweden

Admiring the assembled chandelier before it makes the journey from Småland to Stockholm Photo credit: Tina Stafren/VisitSweden

 

Modern Swedish glass design and craftsmanship at its best: the eye-catching chandelier in its new home in the museum restaurant

The Old Masters are all there, of course, re-displayed against walls painted in surprisingly un-Scandi rich jewel colours. Artworks are also now collected by period rather than genre - so paintings and other decorative arts from, for example, the 17th century are now exhibited together which provides a nice simple cohesive timeline for lowbrow visitors like me.

Oddly, Sweden doesn't actually have a dedicated museum of design (there is a virtual one, though: Swedish Design Museum). But the National Museum has its own impressive collection and the furniture, glassware and other objects specially commissioned for the re-opening serve as a living, interactive lesson in contemporary Swedish design - the cutlery used in the restaurant was designed by Note, hand-blown glass vases by Carina Seth Andersson and chairs by Matti Klenell and Peter Andersson.

The totem-like "Venus in glass" by artist Frida Fjellman, specially commissioned by the Bengt Julin fund for the museum re-opening

Whatever bizarre thought process led to the rooms at the front of the building being used for offices and storage in the "old" museum has thankfully been reversed and the glorious, light-filled space with views over the water and the Royal Palace is now occupied by the restaurant. More than 300 windows have been opened up and the rooves over the two atria have also been replaced by glass-panelled ceilings, filling the sculpture park in the southern atrium with light and triangular-shaped shadows.

Photo credit: Nationalmuseum/Bruno Ehrs

Photo credit: Nationalmuseum/Bruno Ehrs

The new museum has blown away all its cobwebs and brought a new lease of life to two of the museum's (and Stockholm's) most important resources - its design credentials and stunning natural light.