Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in late 2000, HÖGA KUSTEN, or the High Coast (w hogakusten.com), is the highlight of any trip up the Bothnian coast. This stretch of striking coastline north of Härnösand is elementally beautiful: rolling mountains and verdant valleys plunge precipitously into the Gulf of Bothnia, and the rugged shoreline of sheer cliffs and craggy outcrops gives way to gently undulating pebble coves. The dramatic landscape of Höga Kusten is the result of the isostatic uplift that has occurred since the last Ice Age; as the ice melted, the land, no longer weighed down by ice up to 3km thick, rose by 286m. There’s nowhere in the world where the uplift has been so great as in this part of Sweden, and, in fact, it is still rising at a rate of 8mm every year.
Off Höga Kusten are dozens of islands, some no more than a few metres square in size, others much larger and covered with dense pine forest. It was on these islands that the tradition of preparing the foul-smelling surströmming is thought to have begun. A trip here is a must for anyone travelling up or down the Bothnian coast; from out at sea, you’ll get the best view possible of the coastal cliffs which (as the very name High Coast suggests) are the tallest in the country. The islands themselves are havens of peace and tranquillity, offering the chance to get away from it all. Among the most beautiful in the chain are, from south to north: Högbonden, Ulvön and Trysunda. Each of these islands can be visited using a combination of buses and boats; before setting off, make sure you’ve understood the boat timetables (available at tourist offices), which are in Swedish only and can be confusing.
After a mere ten-minute boat ride from Bönhamn on the mainland, the steep sides of the tiny island of HÖGBONDEN rise up in front of you. Although the island can feel a little overcrowded with day-trippers in peak season (July to mid-August), at its best it’s a wonderfully deserted, peaceful haven. There are no shops – so bring any provisions you’ll need with you – and no hotels on the island; in fact the only building here is a former lighthouse, now converted into a youth hostel. It’s situated on a rocky plateau at the island’s highest point, where the pine and spruce trees, so prominent elsewhere on the island, have been unable to get a foothold; Högbonden’s flora also includes rowan, sallow, aspen and birch trees, as well as various mosses that compete for space with wild blueberries.
You’ll only get to know the special charm of Högbonden if you stay a couple of nights and take time to explore: a narrow gorge runs north–south across the island, and there are also forested hillsides and a shoreline where eider ducks glide by with their young. The views out across the Gulf of Bothnia are stunning; on a sunny day you could easily imagine you’re in the middle of the Mediterranean.
At any time, you can head for the traditional wood-burning sauna down by the sea, two minutes’ walk from the jetty (it’s signposted “bastu” off the island’s one and only path); you’ll need to book your slot with the youth hostel staff, who keep the sauna’s key. Afterwards, you can take a quick skinny-dip in the cool waters of the Gulf of Bothnia. The sunsets, seen from the boardwalk in front of the sauna, are truly idyllic.
Mention the word surströmming to most Swedes and they’ll turn up their noses in disgust. It’s best translated as “fermented Baltic herring” – though to the non-connoisseur, the description “rotten” would seem more appropriate. The tradition of eating the foul-smelling stuff began on Ulvön sometime during the sixteenth century when salt was very expensive; as a result just a little was used in preserving the fish, a decision which inadvertently allowed it to ferment.
The number of salthouses producing the herring has dwindled from several hundred early in the twentieth century to around twenty to thirty now. Today, surströmming is made in flat tins containing a weak salt solution. Over the course of the four- to ten-week fermentation process, the tins blow up into the shape of a soccer ball under the pressure of the gases produced inside. Restaurants refuse to open the tins on the premises because of the lingering stink that’s exuded, not unlike an open sewer; the unpleasant job has to be done outside in the fresh air.
The season for eating surströmming begins on the third Thursday in August, ending around two to three weeks later, when supplies run out. The fish can be accompanied with the yellow, almond-shaped variety of northern Swedish potatoes and washed down with beer or akvavit; alternatively it’s put into a sandwich, perhaps with onion or tomato, all rolled up in a piece of tunnbröd, the thin unleavened bread traditional in this part of the country. More information at w surstromming.se.