… from my pied-à-terre in Toronto…
Seasons Greetings and Happy New Year to you!
Stockholmers by and large spend their holidays in the Stockholm Archipelago or Stockholms skärgård, which, with over 30,000 islands and islets, make it the largest of Sweden. There are some 50,000 cottages but it’s pricey to have a summer residence along that particular stretch of the Baltic nearest the city so they are mainly owned by the wealthy or inherited. (However, even the not so well-to-do in Sweden have access to summer homes – that’s the Swedish social welfare system for you). An excursion from the capital to the outer reaches of the archipelago through the Strömma Kanal requires a boat that can navigate its shallowness and the passages densely bordered by tall grasses that can narrow considerably at points. Cruising between the small islands reveals lovely archipelago-style houses with elaborate woodwork and beautiful gardens, oftentimes dotted with matching secondary and tertiary structures like guesthouses, boathouses, and sheds, all ever-so-tastefully done.
The island of Sandhamn, a natural harbour in the outer archipelago, has historically been a meeting place for international sailors and a key piloting station. Now it’s a popular vacation spot with a vibrant summer party scene. Though it has only 100 permanent inhabitants, 3,000 avid yachters and holiday-goers take up residence each summer and thousands of visitors flock to the island to experience its maritime terrain, its taverns and B&Bs, and to see and be seen at the marina and the prestigious Royal Swedish Yacht Club. Even from the innermost parts of the village can you find picturesque views to the sea, along characteristic gravel alleys framed by picket fences and native flowers. It’s the Martha’s Vineyard of Sweden, folks! (Even Mikael Blomkvist, a central character in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, is known to have a cabin there that he uses as a place to relax and write.)
The clichéd deep red is in full force here. Known for its use on wooden cottages and barns, the traditional Falu red paint, which dates back to the 17th century, is still widely used in the Swedish countryside.
Accessible only by sea, Las Caletas is an enchanting cove one-catamaran-hour’s ride from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. The fact that American film director John Huston had kept a private home here need not be its main claim to fame. Facing the crystal blue waters of Banderas Bay, its back is to the steep, jungle-clad Sierra Madre Mountains.
The beach is now owned and operated exclusively by a tour provider. In addition to bringing visitors daily to this semi-secluded haven, Vallarta Adventures stage the ‘Rhythms of the Night’ spectacle on a nightly-basis. After dining alongside the gently lapping waves, guests are guided down torch-lit trails past re-enactments of ancient rituals and customs to a natural amphitheatre under the stars. Deep in the shadowy jungle, enveloped by pulsating drums and flutes, a pyramid is the backdrop for a contemporary dance performance.
But during the day, that haunting atmosphere isn’t quite there. The nature reserve is strewn with eager tourists and jam-packed with water and land activities: snorkelling, kayaking, clay modelling, and paella cooking lessons. There are photographers in place ready to capture you in the thrills of every moment, for a price, of course.
Overall it’s a nice outing, albeit short, though when is a beach staycation ever long enough? The boat ride back along the coastline passes quickly, probably thanks to the open bar and theatrical skits. Nothing says fun like manly Mexican men in drag…
North of bustling Puerto Vallarta is a pristine residential-resort development with lush tropical gardens lining winding waterways. Built up over the past 15 years, this modern adjunct called Nuevo Vallarta boasts the most important commercial area of the Riviera Nayarit, with high-end hotels and condos, terraced outdoor restaurants, sprawling pools, marinas, and rambling golf courses. A stroll through the landscaped grounds reveals a manmade paradise complete with canals, footbridges, flora and fauna, and if you’re lucky, a crocodile sighting. And even with all that, the construction continues.
Skeptics leery of the ‘gated community’ need not worry – beyond the luxuries and comforts of a resort, Nuevo Vallarta offers the proximity to the Old City and endless excursion possibilities. Mexico’s premier Vallarta Adventures – these guys are pros – facilitate all the expeditions one can muster: zip lining, jungle hikes, off-road drives, swimming with dolphins, colonial town visits, and dance performances that recreate the country’s mythological past. Super-organized, the region’s tourism and hospitality staff doesn’t miss a thing, especially not the opportunity to nudgingly remind its chiefly American and Canadian visitors: “We are working for you.”
While there are growing numbers of recreation options, some holiday-goers are perfectly content to lounge with a cocktail in hand at the hotel complex and immerse themselves in the tranquil, sanctuary-like atmosphere (if they can tune out the cacophony of pool and beachside activities).