Living out a Swede fairy tale

The story of Stedsans in the Woods, as told on Instagram, reads like a modern-day fairy tale: a rural retreat deep in the forest of southern Sweden where the sun is always setting over a lake, campfire gatherings glow nightly and every meal is a nourishing Nordic feast of food foraged and farm-raised.

The wholesome appeal of this remote utopia among pines and old-growth oaks beckons through even the smallest of digital screens. But is social media enough to convince anyone to drive hours for a night in the woods?

Apparently so.

Before opening in the summer of 2017, Stedsans in the Woods was a pie-in-the-sky project dreamt up by Ms Mette Helbak and Mr Flemming Hansen.

In 2016, the Danish couple closed their Copenhagen restaurant, Stedsans OsterGRO, and uprooted their family from the Danish capital to plant new roots in Sweden. The destination: 7ha of woods next to Lake Halla, about three hours north of Copenhagen. The nearest town of even modest size is more than 40km away.

“Stedsans has always been a communication project,” said Ms Helbak, a cook, stylist and cookbook author, who explained that the name, in Danish, which means “a sense of location, a sense of where you are”, conveys the importance of place in the couple’s philosophy.

To fund this dreamy forest retreat, a Kickstarter campaign raised more than 1 million Swedish kronor (S$144,547). Before long, hundreds of supporters were offering to volunteer.

“When it was craziest, we actually had people from every single continent, except for Antarctica, working here at the same time,” Mr Hansen said. “People from Venezuela, Chile, the United States, Canada, Mali, Iran, different places in Europe, Taiwan, New Zealand and Australia.”

Today, the property has evolved into a rambling nature retreat with Bedouin tents and minimalist wooden cabins, as well as a restaurant powered solely by fire and supplied mainly by what’s found in the woods and grown in the gardens.

“In the forest, it’s amazing to see how you have food around without having to do anything at all,” Ms Helbak said.

The staff is a multinational coterie of volunteers, interns and young idealists who farm, forage, cook, serve and construct most of the resort each season, and the atmosphere hovers somewhere between summer camp and commune.

Many of the workers view shoes as an unnecessary encumbrance and guests are encouraged to follow suit. Signs posted outside the cabins read: “Walking barefoot reduces stress and boosts immunity (an unverified claim).” And what’s lacking at Stedsans – namely electricity and running water – is considered part of the appeal. This is a place to disconnect from the larger world and reconnect with nature.

On two separate occasions last summer, I journeyed from my apartment in Stockholm to Stedsans in the Woods via Copenhagen – admittedly not the most direct route – driving hours through southern Sweden to the forest retreat.

On my second visit, a Saturday in late June, my husband steered our rental car down a long, gravel road lined with birch trees. At the end of the road, a hand-painted sign indicated that we’d reached our destination. It was the beginning of a heat wave that would scorch Sweden all summer, but the surrounding fields and forests were still mostly green.

The reception at Stedsans was a paper-strewn table in a cavernous old barn where a tanned young staffer with bare feet and a clipboard handed out cabin assignments, as at summer camp. She directed us to the Lake Trail.

The trail was an immediate immersion into the forest, winding through dense underbrush and across wooden planks – a perilous obstacle course for any guest who overpacks. After about 10 minutes crunching twigs and dodging branches, we caught sight of the lake peeking through the trees. Another sign in loopy script pointed the way to the cabins, sauna, outdoor showers and restaurant.

Cabin No. 2 was similar to the others: a simple, fir-wood hut with a steep sloping roof, sheepskins on the floor, a comfortable bed piled with blankets and floor-to-ceiling windows facing the forest.

There were candles, basic side tables, two organic cotton towels and little else in the snug space. But what more does one need? After dropping our backpacks and applying bug spray (it was not my first visit), we strolled to the blackened-timber boathouse by the lake where the other guests had begun to gather.

As daylight began to fade, dinner was served in the forest restaurant, a large glass-walled tent that seated 30-odd guests around three long communal tables. The six-course meal was determined by what grows on the property, which operates on the farming philosophy known as permaculture.

“It’s growing vegetables together with nature and taking care of nature somehow while you’re doing it,” said Mr Henno Matzen, a dreadlocked Danish gardener and cook whose bare feet bore evidence of his dedication to the job.

“We’re so close to nature, there’s an abundance of things you can find and use,” he said. Those things include berries, apples, mushrooms and wild herbs such as horsetail and sorrel.

The following morning, the forest was serene with only the sound of twittering birds and rustling leaves. There was a slight chill in the air as we walked to breakfast at the barn where we’d checked in the afternoon before.

Inside, a buffet was arranged on a long wooden table: loaves of Danish rye studded with raisins and apricots, an array of cheeses and yogurt, homemade granola and a warm pot of sprouted porridge. Over a small campfire outside, a worker fried eggs on cast-iron skillets, a slow task as flames lagged in the morning breeze.

While we waited, I scrolled through the few photos I’d taken the previous day, none of which compared with the magazine-ready images in the Stedsans feed. But I did find one shot that I eventually shared on Instagram. How could I not?

The following week, friends kept mentioning that picture, asking about that gorgeous place with the floating sauna in the lake. Every time, without fail, I said it was Stedsans in the Woods, and that it was magical. I always forgot to mention the bugs.


• Stedsans in the Woods (Bohult 109, Hyltebruk, Sweden; is about two hours by car from Gothenburg or Malmo in Sweden and less than three hours from Copenhagen.

The retreat is open May through October, with accommodations ranging from a campsite to private cabins. This year, a one-night package for two in a private cabin includes snacks, a six-course dinner with wine pairings and breakfast and costs €750 (S$1,150).

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