Winston Aldworth

Winston Aldworth is the Herald's Travel Editor.

Stockholm: The Auckland of the north

In the Swedish capital, Winston Aldworth finds some surprising parallels with home.

The old town of Stockholm is seen in beautiful light during autumn.
The old town of Stockholm is seen in beautiful light during autumn.

Flying into Stockholm from the east, you meet the land incrementally. Dots of soil appear in the Baltic Sea, signalling your approach to Sweden just beyond the archipelago at the city's doorstep. The dots get bigger; soon they're fully fledged inhabited islands. There are 30,000 islands out there and they make a stunning welcome mat to Stockholm.

Wallpaper magazine called Auckland "the Stockholm of the South Pacific", but if there's a scorecard running the Scandinavians' archipelago has them ahead by about 29,900 islands over our own Hauraki Gulf.

That "Stockholm of the South Pacific" tag emerged again in the recent discussions about Auckland's draft unitary plan - remember that thing council-watchers debated before the mayor's sex scandal?

So what would it mean to be "the Stockholm of the South Pacific"?

Heading into town from the airport, Jose, the Mexican-Swedish cabbie (long story), tells me boating is popular.

Locals reckon one family in three has a boat.

He also says things are too expensive and house prices are skyrocketing - sound familiar? Also, there's a thriving craft beer scene after decades of dominance by a couple of large breweries - bro! Tu meke!

Stockholmers definitely like a drink. On a beautiful sunny autumn day, locals are out alongside Lake Malaren, the open bars are thriving, in parks the barbecues are sizzling.

Cycle lanes are everywhere, with big hoary bikes the order of the day. The city-run rental system is a snazzy way to get between Stockholm's main islands.

To the south, Sodermalm is hipster central in what's already a pretty damn hip town. In the crime books of Stieg Larsson, the girl with the dragon tattoo and her fellow goodies hail from Sodermalm; the villains dwell in the island to the north, "where the rich people live with their banker friends," says my guide, Lisa.

Locals reckon the southern island has the highest ratio of single people in the world, a statistic boosted by small single-room apartments that were once working-class digs.

"On the eastern island, they are wealthy, well-educated and healthy," Lisa adds. "But they have small dogs."

As Lisa describes the socioeconomic breakdown of the suburbs, I'm briefly distracted by a beautiful young woman in cut-off denim shorts and a singlet. Wearing roller blades and pushing herself along with ski poles, she zips past us down the road. OK, more than briefly distracted. Such sights aren't unusual here. Stockholm is a hectic town for a wandering eye.

"It's been four degrees warmer this summer," says Lisa.

"Hmm? Four degrees?"

"We count everything."

A number Lisa is proud of: You'll wait no more than three minutes for any underground train. Sheepishly, I tell her the Stockholm of the South Pacific is still without underground rail.

The great underground, the generous maternity leave and the free tertiary education don't come cheap. We pass a giant building - seemingly as wide as it is tall and recently converted into student flats. This formidable edifice once held the tax department. Nowadays the taxman occupies an entire city block.

"We are the world champions of paying tax," says Lisa.

Prams are everywhere.

With its Nordic genes, cool European styles and 15-month maternity-leave provisions, Stockholm might just be the Yummy Mummy capital of the world.

Like Auckland, there's a controversial new convention centre - though, being Scandinavia the controversy centres on a debate about architectural style, not a dirty deal between the government and casino owners.

"If you're building these things, you should build them right," says Lisa ... referring to the design.

Much of Stockholm is deceptively young. Architects, town planners and civic leaders returned home in the late-1800s and brought with them visions of other European cities.

Looking along a street in Kungsholmen, you could imagine you're in a provincial German city. The apartments by the drama theatre on the waterfront (once home to Ingmar Bergman and Bjorn Borg) are straight out of Vienna and the eastern island looks like a Parisian arrondissement, which must make the little dogs happy.

Many of the residences are painted in burnt oranges and yellows that suit the late autumn light beautifully.

Most of these little chunks of other European capitals were built around the turn of the 20th century - around the same time that Auckland started its suburban sprawl. But while we went for one-storey houses and quarter-acre dreams, the Swedes went upwards, with four or five storeys the norm. They quickly connected their communities with trams and ferries.

Basically Stockholm got a 100-year headstart on the unitary plan.

Still there are similarities. They like a drink and love to be on the water. Bogans whip about on jetskis as families head off for a day pottering around the archipelago in fizz boats.

Among the yachts are some wooden beauties that must be close to 100 years old. One cuts a tight line across the bow of our large tour boat and gets a long blast of the horn. Shades of the Waitemata on Auckland Anniversary Day.

So, the Stockholm of the South Pacific?

Comparisons with home end when it's time for coffee. The locals are quite content with bottomless cups of stewed muck.

Vive la difference.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Emirates flies daily from Auckland to Stockholm, via their hub in Dubai.

Accommodation: The Courtyard by Marriott on Kungsholmen Island is an excellent base from which to explore the city. It's five minutes' walk from a Metro station, but the 20-minute lakeside stroll into town is fantastic.

Further information: See visitstockholm.com.

Winston Aldworth travelled as a guest of Emirates and Visit Stockholm.

- NZ Herald

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