Whatever floats your sauna

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: 7 wooded hectares next to Lake Halla, about three hours north of Copenhagen. The nearest town of even modest size is more than 40km away.

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A boathouse at Stedsans in the Woods, a rural retreat in the remote forests of southern Sweden. The New York Times

“Stedsans has always been a communication project,” said 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 (or around R1.5m). 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,” Hansen said. “People from Venezuela, Chile, the US, 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,” Helbak said.

Helbak and Hansen are quick to admit that life in the woods is never as tidy as social media suggests. There was the first summer when, Helbak said, “we were up to our knees in mud”, and warned guests to bring rubber boots.

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.

I journeyed from my apartment in Stockholm to Stedsans in the Woods via Copenhagen, driving hours through southern Sweden to the forest retreat.

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

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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 meal.

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.

The following morning, the forest was serene with only the sound of twittering birds and rustling leaves. Inside the barn, 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.

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.

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