13th December 2017
David Atkinson takes his daughters on a family stay, a city break and a country escape in west Sweden
It was a picture of simplicity. A rustic platform with iron steps down to the gently rippling waters, the surface warmed by the orange-hued rays of the evening sun. West Sweden’s Bohuslän archipelago stretched out before us – tranquil and sparsely populated. The girls were busy making friends with the children from the nearby farm, bonding over collecting crabs and shrieking with delight, while I breathed in the fresh air and paddled nearby.
We dried off on the rocks and returned to the Lekander family farm, our home from home on the island of Tjörn and a member of the Meet The Swedes group of family homestays. A sign by the door said ‘välkomna’.
We felt it. Grandmother Gerda was preparing dinner as we arrived, platters of smoked salmon with a dill sauce, followed by steaks on the barbecue with potatoes and tomato salad. We sat down to eat together – kids at one end, guests and family interspersed, swapping words in English and the local Swedish dialect. Cold beers nestled among the crunchy ice cubes, savouring the cool evening air.
‘This is a working farm, not Airbnb,’ laughed Gerda, producing a huge bowl of freshly picked farm strawberries for dessert. ‘We love to share with our guests the culture and traditions of the countryside, such as making a traditional egg-cheese dessert on Sundays.’ The Lekander family has owned the farm for 10 generations, the first farmstead built just before the Treaty of Roskilde between Sweden and Denmark-Norway in 1658. A few years ago, the family took the decision to convert the erstwhile piggery into a series of self-contained chalets for guests. The visitors now hail from Europe to Australia via Canada. ‘It’s good for the kids to learn about other cultures,’ added Gerda. ‘At a time of conflict in Europe, it keeps our minds open.’
Maya (10), Olivia (six) and I had started our journey a few days earlier in Gothenburg, the hub city of west Sweden. We had come to see how Sweden factors families into all aspects of life – from travel to city planning.
Earlier this year, Sweden introduced new legislation to recognise the importance of paternity leave in children’s lives (see panel). Travelling as a single dad with the girls, I was keen to know if Sweden lived up to its liberal reputation.
Based at a city-centre hotel belonging to the Scandic group, where the Kids Concept family package includes use of the games rooms with PlayStations and kids’ menus in the restaurant, we set off to explore amid a Scandinavian summer heatwave.
The Alfie Atkins series of storybooks is huge in Sweden and the author, Gunilla Bergström, is regarded as a pioneer for tackling issues such as divorce and single parents in her much-loved children’s books.
Since the first book, Good Night Alfie Atkins, was published in 1972, the series has stretched to 30 titles and has been translated into 30 languages. Little Alfie lives with his dad, Pappa Åberg, and his imaginary friend, Malcolm.
Gunilla’s work is celebrated at the interactive Alfie Atkins’ Cultural Centre, located near Gothenburg’s central station. ‘I always loved the stories and read them to my own children,’ said museum CEO Anna Forsgren, showing us around the hands-on activities, such as the climbing tree, and taking us to the reading corner. Olivia, meanwhile, had already discovered Alfie’s helicopter and prepared for take-off. ‘I think,’ added Anna, ‘the reason they do so well in translation is the way they tackle the eternal questions all families face. And they do it in a very pro-children way.’
Maya and I headed to the theatre to catch a show by Caligari, a star turn from Swedish kids’ television. His Mystery Show was a circus-themed magic display, delivered in a blend of Swedish and English from under a jauntily waxed moustache. After the show, Caligari, real name Tord Sandström Fahlström, explained why he has built his shows around family dynamics. ‘I’m not making a statement, just saying it’s good to be kind to each other,’ he told us between posing for photos with his toddler fans. ‘I celebrate the spontaneity of little ones,’ he added. ‘In Sweden, we just try to treat kids like kids.’
The next day, we headed to Liseberg, Sweden’s biggest amusement park and a cousin to Copenhagen’s Tivoli, which we had previously visited for Family Traveller.
While the big new attraction for this summer is Loke, Europe’s tallest Gyro Swing ride, we opted for some of the more traditional attractions, the Wave Swinger swinging carousel proving a particular hit with the girls for combining a gentle frisson of flying with some old-fashioned fun-park fun.
We also spend a while in the Rabbit Land section, best suited for younger children, riding the Teacups and introducing Olivia to the Rabalder kiddie-coaster, having first fuelled up on the biggest, pinkest candyfloss in Scandinavia. However, what the girls loved most of all about Gothenburg were the simple things: ice creams from the kiosk on the corner of canalside Kungsportsplatsen, playing on the seesaw in the ornamental gardens managed by The Garden Society of Gothenburg, the exotic plants of the ornate Palmhouse towering above us, and running through the cooling plumes of the tropical-shower fountain across from the Stora Theatre.
We could walk everywhere, everyone spoke English and the infrastructure in place for families made city life feel very easy.
We ventured out into the countryside after a couple of days in the city. A hire car would be useful for exploring the west Sweden archipelago but, armed with a travel pass, we opted for a National Express-style coach tour of Bohuslän archipelago. The journey snaked from Gothenburg, via a series of wild flower-strewn landscapes, tiny harbours and rustic, red-painted summerhouses, where the Swedes traditionally celebrate the midsummer season. We reached the Nordens Ark Ecopark, located in the northern archipelago near Smögen, and finally arrived at our homestay in Tjörn. Nordens Ark is home to 80 endangered species from the northern climate, including snow leopards, wolverines and the Amur tiger. We followed the gentle two-hour Ecopark Trail around the enclosures before winding up back at the playground for ice creams, followed by a dip in the nearby lake.
Back at the farm on the last morning of our stay, father Björn was showing me the collection of black-and-white family photos in the dining room. Maya and Olivia were playing hide-and-seek outside with Ammy (11), Allan (nine) and Hugo (four), darting around the red-painted chalets with their white wooden balconies and window frames. ’It was a hard existence but my ancestors always cherished the closeness to nature of country life,’ said Björn. ‘Living in Gothenburg, I now really appreciate the feeling I have when I come back to farm – I find my own space here.’
We reluctantly packed to leave, the children hugging their goodbyes and the family waving us off for the 90-minute journey back to Gothenburg. On the bus, I was thinking about what Björn had said while the girls snoozed under their sunhats. We had been talking about the differing attitudes between Britain and Sweden to raising children and sharing our experiences as hands-on fathers with fast-growing kids.
From screen time to pressure-cooker school exams, we had shared many concerns. But there was one difference: ‘In Sweden,’ he said, ‘we allow kids to be free.’
How to get there: Scandinavian Airlines flies to Gothenburg from Manchester via Copenhagen from £274 return, including taxes. British Airways flies direct from Heathrow from £53
one-way, including taxes.
Where to stay: Scandic Hotels has properties across west Sweden.
Getting Around: A Gothenburg City Card costs £45 per adult and £30 per child (under-fives free) for two days, including use of public transport, parking and entrance to many museums.
For more info