Going to the Swedish Woods to Live an Instagram 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 dreamed up by Mette Helbak and 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: 17 wooded acres next to Lake Halla, about three hours north of Copenhagen. The nearest town of even modest size is more than 25 miles 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 one million Swedish kronor (or around $107,000). 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,” said Mr. Hansen. “People from Venezuela, Chile, the U.S., 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. (When she calls, there are outdoor compost toilets.)

Both Ms. Helbak and Mr. Hansen are quick to admit that life in the woods is never as tidy as social media suggests. There was the first summer when, Ms. Helbak said, “we were up to our knees in mud,” and warned guests to bring rubber boots. And last summer, Ms. Helbak moved off the property to a nearby village, a difficult decision precipitated in part by the imminent arrival of the couple’s third daughter.

Like many guests, the first interaction that I had with Stedsans was on Instagram. I had admired the wooden A-frame sauna floating on the lake. I had scrolled past colorful flower-dusted salads served in the rustic restaurant. I had clicked on images of the cozy, carefully styled cabins.

What Instagram didn’t show me were the bugs. Fat flies swarming over the breakfast table, clouds of gnats at dusk, creeping spiders, buzzing mosquitoes and ferocious little black biting flies that Swedes call knott. But let me assure you, they’re there.

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 inside 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 over packs. 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.

Bottles of sparkling cider were uncorked on a bench — a self-service cocktail hour — accompanied by bites from the garden: curls of parsnip, crisp cucumber and crumbles of salty cheese from a small dairy in the nearby town of Falkenberg.

While others took fishing rods out in a canoe and fired up the floating sauna, my husband and I pushed out a rowboat for a lazy loop on the lake. Soon it was time for dinner.

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,” explained 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.

As guests began to congregate in a clearing beneath old sails strung from the treetops, Mr. Hansen poured aperitifs and introduced himself to the crowd, which that evening was all couples, a mix of younger and middle-aged pairs, almost all from Denmark. A few cooks scampered among the open-air kitchen, fire pits and a crackling grill suspended from a tree. And when the final stragglers had glasses in hand, our host launched into an impassioned welcome speech-cum-manifesto.

At a time when every new restaurant is expected to have a concept, Stedsans instead has a cause. More than simply a restaurant, or a nature resort, this place in the wilderness is “a political project,” said Mr. Hansen, an attempt to change the world by example in some small way. The meal we would eat that night would produce no waste. Leftover food would be fed to the chickens, and since no chemicals are used, the water for washing would be reused in the gardens. The implicit goal is to prove the Stedsans hypothesis: that all-natural food grown nearby is not only nourishing, it also tastes better.

“It’s an Italian approach to food through a Nordic filter,” said Mr. Hansen of the low-interference preparations. Consider it laissez-faire cooking.

Once we found seats on sheepskin-draped benches, the dinner that followed was a communal feast orchestrated to draw guests together. Large platters were passed back and forth family-style, plates of grilled spring onions and fried nettles, soft-boiled eggs from the chicken coop, pike perch baked in embers, tender greens and new potatoes pulled from the garden just hours earlier. Pairings of natural, biodynamic wines from Europe accompanied the increasingly convivial meal.

“Free food is our favorite food,” Mr. Hansen bellowed, bearing a platter piled with foraged herbs. Whatever isn’t available on the property, like fish and dairy, the kitchen sources from suppliers in the area. The evening’s flaky white fish had been caught a few miles away.

The final two courses — cheese from the nearby dairy and a dessert of rhubarb, cream and elderflower blossoms — were served outside around a campfire ringed with rough-hewed benches and wood-stump stools. Many of the Danes had become fast friends, laughing together in the twilight, balancing dessert plates on their knees and eagerly raising their glasses for refills of sweet orange wine. Soon Mr. Hansen slipped away, the staff retreated to a far corner of the forest, and my husband and I stumbled through the darkness aided only by an iPhone flashlight to find the way back to our cabin.

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 to 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 that 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; stedsans.org) 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. In 2019, a one-night package for two in a private cabin includes snacks, a six-course dinner with wine pairings, and breakfast for 750 euros.

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