Swede dreams are made of this: wild swimming and forest walks in West Sweden

<span>Splendid isolation in Dalsland, where you can canoe across the lake to uninhabited Björken island.</span><span>Photograph: Agnes Maltesdotter</span>
Splendid isolation in Dalsland, where you can canoe across the lake to uninhabited Björken island.Photograph: Agnes Maltesdotter

As I slip off the jetty into the chilly water of Lagmanshagasjön, the world loses all distinction. Low mist blurs everything; I can’t see where the lake ends and the sky begins. It is like breaststroking into a silvery infinity. I haven’t bothered with swimwear. Between the tannin-dark water and early morning brume, I can barely see myself, let alone be seen. And dissolving into nature feels delicious: wearing nothing and seeing nothing, I am feeling everything.

I eventually climb out (flashing an unsuspecting heron), dress quickly and walk back to my “room” – a dazzling cabin made of glass hidden among mossy mounds, blueberry bushes and pine trees. Before long, Katarina arrives with a basket of home-baked sourdough and local cheese. She leaves, and I eat in a silence so loud it seems to vibrate.

That’s partly because I’m well off the tourist trail in Västergötland (West Gotland). Though that may change with places to stay as lovely as this. I’m at Erikson Cottage, a fourth-generation family farm two hours east of Gothenburg. It is a perfect marriage of Swedish taste and sustainability, with three greenhouse-like cabins scattered around the grounds. It’s run by sisters Elisabeth and Katarina, and everything is just so: from the lovely linen to the hygge-ness of Elisabeth’s bakery-cafe – all fresh flowers, candlelight and coffee in handmade mugs.

But there’s substance to the style. The glasshouses are off-grid, and if lifted away would leave no trace. The site has solar panels and its own well. Food is mostly from local suppliers, the bread made with heritage grains. There’s an EV charging point and two nearby train stations from which guests can be picked up.

Activities on offer at the farm are low-impact, too. Guests can swim (naked or otherwise), kayak and paddleboard out on the lake, walk in the forest and learn to make pizza.

“But 90% of guests do nothing,” says Elisabeth. “They read, lie in bed, read some more. They enjoy slowing down.”

Which is, increasingly, what West Sweden is all about.

In 2021 West Sweden launched Stepping Up Sustainability, a tourism programme looking to minimise the industry’s environmental footprint. But it’s more than a nice green manifesto: West Sweden has put its morals where its money was. The tourist board has ceased marketing to North America and Asia, instead focusing on domestic and European travellers who don’t have to fly from far away. Or even fly at all (I travelled by train).

It is a perfect marriage of Swedish taste and sustainability, and everything is just so. But there’s substance to the style. The glasshouses are off-grid

Then, last year, the region launched “climate smart holidays”, a tourism industry initiative working with a handful of low-carbon accommodation providers to create experience-rich itinerary ideas for exploring western Sweden. The places to stay are between 0.2kg and 1.5kg CO2-equivalent per person per night; the average Swedish hotel creates 6.8kg. (Erikson Cottage scores 0.3kg.) Which is all great, but could be boringly worthy if they weren’t also exceptional places.

I drive to Erikson Cottage in an electric car as part of a tour of several of West Sweden’s climate-smart spots. After a few days of green-chic forest living, I head north, into the land between two huge lakes, Vättern and Vänern, for something different.

Lugnåsberget Ekohotell is a guesthouse converted from a 19th-century farm on one of West Gothland’s hills. Indeed, I barely realise it is on a hill at all until Pia Åkesson, co-owner of the Ekohotell, takes me into its bowels.

The bedrock below the hotel – 1.5bn-year-old gneiss – is especially suitable for making millstones, which people have been doing here since the 12th century. I walk the Stonecutter’s Trail and find the scars of old quarries (about 600 were dug here) and millstones scattered like loose change.

Then Pia leads me into Minnesfjället, one of the area’s mines, now a small museum. She sweeps her torch across the floor: smooth round holes, like cookies cut from pastry, show where men had hacked out the stones using simple picks. Next, she raises her light to the ceiling: “Here you have the first life on Earth – animals that lived 540m years ago.”

We are essentially looking up at an ancient sea floor, left rippled by waves and flecked with fossils of brachiopods and trilobites. “The miners called them planets, moons and stars,” says Pia. They didn’t know, or care, how rare and extraordinary they were. They were too busy trying to extract a livelihood.

This is what Pia and her partner Jesper Persson are doing. “There’s no tradition of B&Bs here,” Jesper says, back at the Ekohotell, over homemade cinnamon buns. “But we long dreamed of having a hostel, and we wanted to show people there are different ways of living.”

Best of all, guests who stay here, exploring the biosphere reserve, are pumping money into this little-visited region

For this couple, sustainability isn’t a fad – it’s fundamental. Their solar panels generate more energy than the Ekohotell uses, and produce for the kitchen comes from the couple’s own smallholding or local farms. I plug my car into the on-site charger, but there’s a train station a few miles away, on the scenic Kinnekulle Line. Best of all, guests who stay here, exploring the surrounding biosphere reserve, are pumping money into this little-visited region.

My next stop is in Dalsland, a province between the west bank of Vänern lake and the Norwegian border. It is awash with lakes but has few people. Swedish Country Living, a stylish group of “hermitages” and holiday cottages, looks fresh from a photoshoot, which, as owners Marie and David Naraine previously worked in fashion, is perhaps no surprise. My cabin, the Slate House Hermitage, looks plucked from a fairytale: a little gingerbread home with smoke twirling from the chimney.

But it isn’t just good-looking. It was handmade using wood felled on site, recycled slate tiles and salvaged antique doors and windows, and insulated with wool from the Naraines’ sheep. The shower block runs on a circular system that takes water from the lake, purifies it after use, then pumps it back into the lake. Waste from the toilet becomes compost for the permaculture garden or feed for the apple trees.

David also used to be a chef, and his food – the lamb he rears, goodies from the veg patch – is delicious. There are pilgrim trails and nature reserves on the doorstep. And guests are free to use the lake as they choose.

One day I borrow a canoe. These waterways are sleepy now, the domain of ducks and reeds. So it’s hard to fathom that this was once a trade highway, part of the Dalsland Canal system, linking Lake Vänern with the North Sea. There are no other vessels in sight as I paddle over to uninhabited Björkon island, hauling ashore at the remains of an 18th-century shipyard.

I have the place to myself and spend a while exploring the ruins amid the toadflax and wild strawberries. I clamber through the overgrown dry dock where, a sign reveals, the 28-metre schooner Clara was constructed in 1867. And I sit on a stone slab – part of the old forge, maybe? – trying to imagine the hubbub when Clara set sail for the Black Sea.

Eventually I paddle back. I can see smoke coming from Swedish Country Living’s outdoor spa, the hot tub – hidden discreetly behind the reeds – being fired up for my return. But I am in no rush. I’ve slowed down to West Sweden speed.

The trip was provided by the West Sweden tourist board and Sustainable Journeys. Erikson Cottage’s 48-hour package is £563 (7,500 krona) for two, including breakfasts and dinners. Doubles at Lugnåsberget Ekohotell from £119 for two nights. A two-night package at Swedish Country Living is £796 for two, full board. Sustainable Journeys offers a 14-day Low Carbon Grand Tour of West Sweden, staying at five climate-smart places and including EV hire, from around £1,920pp. The author travelled from London to Gothenburg by train via Brussels, Cologne, Hamburg and Copenhagen; the journey time (with an overnight stay) is from 32 hours