THE AIR IS crisp, the afternoon bright. A fishing boat braces itself against the strong easterly wind, sending bucketloads of briny spray slopping across its salt-encrusted portholes. A weasel bursts from a hedgerow and darts across the trail, startled from its hiding place by voices and torchlight. Seagulls circle, caw and divebomb as a fisherman in bright orange overalls slings baby crabs back to sea from a battered old lobster pot. Wood smoke billows from the chimney of a sauna as the moon rises above a gently rippling lake. A cormorant shelters from the rain beneath its own wings on a small bathing platform. A young man strips down to his boxer shorts as the sun rises, falling to a seated position before crab-walking down the algae-covered rock and slipping with a neat plop straight into the bracingly cold water.
In many ways, the coast and lakeland of West Sweden is little more than a succession of moments, each ebbing and flowing before your eyes. And all of them lead to this one: I'm floating towards a tiny islet in the water off Henriksholm, a privately owned island in Sweden's Dalsland lake district, which is about a two-hour drive (and two-minute boat ride) from Gothenburg Airport.
In the water, I walk out, arms propelling me in a gentle breaststroke, until my toes can no longer get any purchase on the slimy pebbles beneath them. The water, both surprisingly shallow and surprisingly sun-warmed for 7am, is crisp and pure. I do about 12 strokes before reaching the islet, which is home to a pair of gnarled, leafless trees, a few tussocks, a rock encrusted with bird shit and some short muddy grass. From the vantage point of one of the trees' lower branches, I look back at Henriksholm, watching the sun rise above the woodland to my right as a man slouches from the wide-open doors of a glass cabin in a small wooded cove 300m across the water.
This is the culmination of a four-day trip to West Sweden, on which I've done absolutely nothing. Or at least that's what my host Staffan Berger would say. Since September 2017, he's been hosting world-weary travellers in five glass cabins on his island home, letting them get back to nature and reset the clock.
"Most people who come here say that they have done nothing. They say that they've just been relaxing," says Staffan, speaking of the kind of clientele he's received on the island since opening – the exhausted office workers and disillusioned city dwellers who want to switch off their phones for a weekend of soft adventure. "And that's exactly what we wanted," he continues, "that makes us incredibly happy."
I RISE, SLIP FROM MY CABIN AND YOMP THROUGH WOODLAND UNTIL I REACH THE LAKE, WHERE I BRUSH MY TEETH WITH THE WATER
Conceptualised by Visit Sweden, realised by Staffan's architect daughter Jeanna and maintained by Staffan and his wife Maria, the 72-Hour Cabins are perhaps the perfect way to experience the wilderness in security and comfort: the glass-panelled huts – elevated a couple of feet off the ground on stilts and completed with cosy double beds and huge, barn-style wooden doors – protect you from the elements without disconnecting you from them. And they work: a pilot group made up of people in jobs selected from Forbes' list of the world's most stressful occupations were medically tested for the duration of their stay, and saw their stress levels drop by 70%, and their systolic blood pressure by 9% in just 72 hours.
The concept comes from a form of nature therapy known as Shinrin-Yoku, or forest bathing, which sprung out of Japan in the 1980s, and continues to become more and more popular in a world that increasingly leaves us with less exposure to natural light, physical labour and fresh air than previous generations and more time spent staring into screens for both work and play.
Here, instead of itching to check emails, sitting contorted in a desk chair or endlessly scrolling through Twitter and Instagram, you'll spend your days at ease on the island. You can forage for mushrooms, wild cook on an open fire in an outdoor kitchen in the woods, borrow a fishing rod and a rowing boat from the Bergers' boathouse or just take a dip in the crystal-clear lake. For the most part, I opt for walking: creeping through the 5km-long, 500m-wide island's woods, criss-crossing through fallen trees and grinning as the sun completes its arc through a sky that's just visible through the canopy above. As I go I'm attuned to the forest floor – acorn shells, pine cones and tiny mushrooms are everywhere. Usually glossing over these things for the bigger picture or full scene, I feel my mind sharpen and my inhibitions fade.
Now heading for a barbecue dinner in a sheltered clearing by the boathouse on the island's east side, I walk, stop, and listen to the rustle of the oak leaves in the trees. Looking down, I pick a mushroom that meets Staffan's specifications for cep that we'll be cooking later, and before I know it I'm wandering down the dirt track, absentmindedly exfoliating the dirt from its base with the rough edge of a pinecone.
I drop the mushroom into a trug brimming with others we picked earlier and sit down as the thick, smoky haze of steaks browning on the fire fills the air. Sitting against a tree, the cabins' architect Jeanna tells us that her creations have been so successful and lauded that they're currently in the process of manufacturing flat packs that can be put up in other nooks of nature across the globe, with interest coming from everywhere from Scandinavia and the Mediterranean to luxury resorts in the Caribbean.
Currently, though, there are only three more, and they're all in Dalsland: a pair sit overlooking a lake at country house hotel Baldersnäs Manor, and another stands alone on a dramatic crag beside a lake in nearby Dalsland Aktiviteter adventure park.
Later, back at my cabin – a lakeside outpost at the edge of the woods with a tree trunk for a chair and a low-hanging branch perfect for drying my soggy swimming shorts on – I stretch out, staring up through the stars, eyes peeled for a rare showing of the Northern Lights that the Bergers' had heard about over the radio earlier. I listen to the rustle of the reedbed ten feet below me, staring out at a strange greenish glint on the horizon, struggling to work out if it's a reflection in the window or the aurora my tired eyes are desperate for. I sleep.
I wake at dawn, watching the sun rise out east on the other side of the lake, casting the sky pink, then orange, before glimmering across the lake's surface like a thousand flickering candles. I rise, slipping from my cabin and yomping through the woodland trail until I reach a slender peninsula at the southernmost tip of the island. I brush my teeth with lake water, strip down to my boxers and slide into the water. You know the rest.
Off the island, the land is covered in mile after mile of boreal forest. In fact, north of here Sweden is almost all woods, all of it part of the world's second largest biome, the taiga. As we drive, the roads twist through the woods as the trees fade into a misty wet haze. Then, after an hour or more, we hit the 165 motorway and everything changes: the road carves past a cliff of towering black gneiss topped with a smattering of pines that hang erect over the edge, and things all start to get a bit more pastoral.
In these westernmost reaches of Sweden, below the border to Norway and above the coastal outpost of Gothenburg, the landscape begins to resemble a strange version of the Cotswolds painted by someone with a slightly over-enthusiastic love for the Scottish highlands. These undulating hills and rugged-looking meadows are dotted with characteristically Scandinavian houses made of colourfully painted corrugated iron and topped with gigantic red apex roofs.
Half an hour further and you hit the coast, farmland giving way to a string of cute towns full of chalet-style homes by the waterside, some of them having their lawns cut by robot mowers now that their summer residents are out of town for the low season.
Here, we board a small fishing boat and head out to sea, crashing through waves for eight nautical miles until we reach Storö, which is the largest of Sweden's Weather Islands – a 365-strong archipelago at the uttermost end of the country.
More a tiny archipelago of smooth rocky humps than a single island, Storö is easy to explore in a few hours, but to properly commune with the island's rhythms, light and micro beauty could take you several days or more.
In my 24 hours on the island, I do very little in real terms: I pull lobster pots on a boat with my host Pia's husband, eat langoustine cooked in boiling seawater on the island's jetty and watch as the wood-fired hot tub gets lit. Just before sunset, I jog and scramble across the island's many dramatic hillocks, searching for a compass carved in the hilltop by seafarers who lived on the island as early as 1400. On my return the sky bruises itself pink and purple above the clay-red huts of corrugated iron, signalling the time to gather in the wood-panelled dining room of Pia's guesthouse, Väderöarnas Värdshus, to eat local cod and enjoy a log fire while discussing the island's colony of Nordic bees (and their slightly saline honey) as well as the return of the bluefin tuna to waters in nearby Norway.
Early the next morning, I'm standing overlooking a bathing platform on the western side of Storö. My shoes are off, my socks rolled into a ball by their side.
According to Pia, there's a form of alternative therapy known as earthing: to take off your shoes and socks and expose your skin – achy sinews, weary being and all – to the sand, earth, grass or rock beneath your feet. In doing so, apparently, you fill your body with the Earth's electric charge, hooking yourself up to a global grid of energy that's normally cut off by the insulating effects of manmade materials like rubber soles, nylon socks, carpet or (God forbid) lino.
At my host's behest, I'm giving it a go, rain jacket zipped against the wind and drizzle, toes curling against the cold of the rock, trying to soak up one final moment before I get on a boat and head back to the mainland.
Barefoot, I close my eyes. Moments from the last three days start ebbing back to me: a twig breaking underfoot, causing a deer to dart deeper into the woods beyond; being startled awake in the middle of the night, a gale blowing loudly at my window; walking in darkness down an old farm track, I turn off my head-torch and gaze upwards – the stars are clear, undiluted and panoramic.
Later, as my plane ascends towards grey clouds, I look down on a stream of pylons carving a straight line through the heart of the forest. A slender highway snakes through rugged country before disappearing into the heart of Gothenburg. From there, it's coast, then islands, then sea.
Three nights at the 72 Hour Cabins on Henriksholm costs from £590. stenebynas.se; Stay full board at Väderöarnas Värdshus in the Weather Islands from £180pn. vaderoarna.com; Norwegian flies from Gatwick to Gothenburg from £62 return. norwegian.com; For more information on holidays to West Sweden, head to westsweden.com