Described in the principle tourism publication as “the Swedes own Little Paradise”, Öland offers an abundance of things to see and do, for all ages: unusual topographical and geological features, beautiful scenery, wetlands and nature reserves, prehistoric sites (Iron and Bronze Age), and medieval churches and ruins. There are pebble and fine sandy beaches, and dozens of old windmills.
The island is linked to the mainland at the ancient port of Kalmar, on the southeast coast of Sweden, by a 6 km-long bridge.
The island is 137 km in length and 8-16 km wide. Two excellent maps, provided by the tourism office and at various sites, of Northern Öland and Southern Öland, are the best guide for exploring this fascinating corner of the country. Each are marked with numbered sights and activities, divided into categories such as activities, sports, ICA supermarket outlets, camping and accommodation, food and drink, and shopping.
There are plenty of outdoor activities to enjoy: bird-watching, camping,
golfing, walking, swimming, sailing, and for the more adventurous, hiking, wind- and kite-surfing. As the island is almost entirely flat, cycling is a popular means of getting around and exploring.
Touristic infrastructures on Öland are highly developed – almost too much so, for there is a profusion of museums, craft and souvenir shops, farm stalls, restaurants and cafés. There are open farms, a zoo with lions and tigers, and an amusement park with a “tivoli”, exciting rides and a haunted house, a Pirate Island, a water adventure park with pools and slides, and chairs for relaxing in the sun.
The Kalmar Sound lies to the west, between the mainland and the island, and the Baltic Sea to the east. Öland enjoys more hours of sunshine than almost anywhere else in Sweden. During the peak summer season the main north-south roads, bordered with a profusion of blue and yellow flowers, are beleaguered with camper-vans. But then no-one should be in a hurry in this popular sunny place.
Öland is a haven for artists, some of whom can be seen at work with paints, textiles, ceramics, needlework, photography and furniture – in both modern and Classic Swedish designs. The unusual light and rich textures of the island continue to inspire authors and artists, the shifting shades of which reflect the different seasons.
The unusual landscape is due to the limestone bedrock – the sandstone, slate and limestone layers formed 600 million years ago beneath the depths of the ocean. Visitors can learn how the island came into existence in the GeoPark Öland, and enjoy a journey through time in which each millimetre of limestone represents 1000 years. This reveals man’s relatively short time here on earth. Station Linné offers guided tours, courses, and a nature school for children, while Southern Öland is a World Heritage Site with an internationally operational research centre. The unique geological features of this island provide the conditions for rich flora, while rare natural phenomena, such as seaside pastures and alvar fields, pebble beaches, klints, rubble-stone fields, sea-stacks and dunes create a landscape different from the rest of Sweden.
If there is plenty of time and the weather is fine, the best way to relax on Öland is on the long sandy beaches, or walking through the flower-strewn meadows. The coniferous and deciduous forests, fragrant with the scent of heather and lavender, differ from those on mainland Sweden, which are granite-based and predominantly dense pine. If the weather is less clement, sight-seeing by car is a better option.
Highlights include the Alvar plains in the North, and the Great Alvar in the south which is rich in flora, unusual colours, textures and aromas. There are also some significant stone ships on the Alvar plains.
There are five lighthouses on Öland altogether, two with amusing names: Långe Jan (Tall John) in the south, and Långe Erik (Tall Erik) to the north:
The northern tip of the island has two pincer-like extensions that embrace the Grankullaviken (Fir Bay). Trollskogan (the Troll Forest) is a nature reserve on the eastern tip, with a pine forest and clumps of ancient oaks.
Halltorps hage also harbours protected ancient oak trees, some as old as a thousand years. This beech grove is also home to white wood anemones and the Capricorn beetle. Try as we might, we could not find any.
The Neptuni Åkrar (Neptune’s Fields) nature reserve lies just south of Långe Erik on the northwest coast, and is ablaze with fields of flowering Viper’s bugloss during the summer. These shingle pastures were thus named by the Swedish taxonomist Carl von Linné (Linnaeus), who visited Öland in 1741 on behalf of the government. He was in search of clay that would be suitable for making china – an expensive import at the time – and plants for dyeing cloth.
At the foot of the hill, its slopes covered in a rubble-stone field, is an area of extensive limestone quarries. The fields were ablaze with blåeld (Viper’s bugloss.)
In Byrum’s Nature Reserve, further down the northwest coast, lies Öland’s largest concentration of limestone and sandstone sea-stacks. Worn and shaped over the millennia by the sea, they stand on a sand-and-shingle beach which is flanked by sand dunes.
On the cultural side, there are more interesting sites than can be listed in this article, but the best of these include Skäfterkärr, a cultural experience centre with a museum, a recreated Iron Age farm, an arboretum, and hiking trails.
Solliden was my favourite spot. This beautiful little chateau has been the summer residence of the Swedish royal family since 1906. It was built by German-born Queen Victoria of Sweden in 1903, and inherited by the current King, Carl Gustav XVI in 1960. It was inspired by Victoria’s Mediterranean haunts – especially Capri – whither she fled the Swedish winters on the advice of her doctor, Axel Munthe. She was a talented artist, photographer and sculptress, and played the piano. But she suffered from a weak chest – possibly asthma, bronchitis and/or tuberculosis, and Munthe believed that the abundance of sunshine and fresh air on the island would benefit her health. (There were rumours that they were lovers – not surprising, as her husband, King Gustav V, was thought to “bat for both sides”.)
Visitors may not enter the chateau, but the magnificent gardens are open from May until September, and provide an endless sourceof beauty and wonder.
The property is divided into many separate areas, each in a different style, one following upon the next in a marvelous adventure of the senses: There are rose, tulip and herb gardens, an English park, an Italian garden, exotic trees, glorious flower-beds everywhere, and immaculate lawns, all adorned with sculptures, ponds, waterfalls and fountains.
There is also a palace café, a gift shop, and a pavilion with exhibitions.
Attracted by the sound of music and a loudhailer beyond the chateau precincts, I came upon another favourite Swedish summer pastime: large old cars!
Parked beneath a grove of spreading trees was the largest array of magnificent vintage vehicles I have ever seen.
Rågbilar – big, ostentatious American cars, mostly dating from the 1950’s and ‘60’s, are a regular sight on the Swedish roads in summer, but the sight of so many splendid automobiles in one place was quite an experience.
Our accommodation for the weekend is also linked to Queen Victoria; Drottning Victorias Hotell och Vilohem (Queen Victoria’s Hotel and Rest Home) is located in an area with a history dating back to the Middle Ages.
During the 16th century the great King Gustav Vasa established a number of “King’s Farms” all over Sweden. The intention was to improve food supply throughout the country. The farm on this part of Öland became an example for the farmers living and working there. During the 17th and 18th centuries the entire island became one large royal hunting ground. The numerous dry stone walls constructed to keep the game from encroaching on farmland can still be seen all over the island today.
The hotel, approached through an avenue of birches, has beautiful gardens. There are a fountain, a sheltered gazebo, ancient mulberry trees, and an apple orchard.
Upstairs are several rooms for guests, a library, and a salon with an upright piano.
These rooms have a magnificent view over the fields and Borgholm town towards the Kalmar Sound, the sea just visible on the horizon.
Each morning we enjoyed a delicious buffet breakfast which included fresh fruits, pastries, a variety of breads, cheeses, cold cuts and condiments, as well as hot oatmeal porridge, tea and coffee.
The hotel stands just outside the island’s “capital”, Borgholm. This little town is nothing special, but is a popular tourist centre in summer, with its many restaurants, cafes and shops lining a pedestrianised main street that leads down to a pleasant harbour.
The church on one side of the street looks more like a town hall than a church for it began as a school building in 1872. The style is Neo-Renaissance, and a tower stands in the centre.
There is also an attractive little park, complete with bandstand.
We enjoyed two good evening meals in Borgholm, the first at The Veranda,
and the second was a sumptuous buffet at Robinson Crusoe, overlooking the little harbour.
An evening stroll was rewarded with a surprise discovery: an avenue of delightful 19th century villas – vestiges of a bygone era of seaside holidays.
The imposing ruin of Borgholm Castle stands on a high cliff just south of the town, overlooking the Kalmar Sound.
The different architectural styles represent almost a thousand years of occupation.
Skedemosse, which lies due east of the chateau and castle ruin, is a bog containing the largest horde of archaeological finds in Sweden. A sacrificial site since Iron Age times, it has revealed secrets covering a thousand years of Öland’s history.
Another fascinating building is the old church at Källa to the north, which dates from the 11th century, and is the best-preserved medieval church on the island. The original wooden building burned down soon after construction, and was replaced by a limestone one during the 12th century. Here the parishioners could seek refuge during turbulent times. It has been empty since 1888, its contents having been relocated to the new church in the nearby village of Vi.
Entry is only possible with a guide, but visitors are rewarded with a quiet mystical atmosphere, and the vestiges of a few fine frescoes in the chancel. The harbour nearby used to be a significant base for sea trade between Öland, Gotland and Germany, principally in limestone, used for floors, steps and gravestones.
The parish derived its name – källa means “source” or “spring” – from an ancient sacrificial spring located near the church. When Sweden became Christianised, the spring was consecrated and dedicated to Saint Olaf, the patron saint of seafarers.
Another church dating from medieval times stands at Föra in mid-Northern Öland, and boasts a well-preserved defense tower.
Nearby stands a 15th century stone cross which was erected in memory of the parish priest “Herr Martinus”. Hereby hangs a tragic tale, of an event that took place during the summer of 1431 when the bishop’s bailiff came to collect the church taxes. Herr Martinus held in his hands a hand-held scale used for weighing grain. It consisted of a long metal staff with a weight at one end and a measuring vessel at the other. Mistaking the good priest’s actions as aggressive, the bailiff killed him on the spot.
The flavours, the magical light, the fresh sea breezes, and the sweet fragrances of Öland make it a unique and enjoyable destination not to be missed. Fresh vegetables, dairy products such as goat’s and cow’s milk cheeses and ice-cream, sea buckthorn, brown beans, virgin rapeseed oil and honey are cultivated there.
On the sweet side are Ölands Choklad and Ölands Karameller – Café & Karamellkokeri, Bredsättra. It was great fun watching the candies being made at the tiny factory – a popular tourist attraction for all ages.
An abundance of excellent tourist information is provided at various centres all over the island. After the summer comes to a close, there is the Harvest Festival to look forward to in the autumn. And at any time of the year, fika – the endearing Swedish pastime of coffee, conversation and something sweet, is always available!