Posted Wednesday, Jan. 02, 2013
When my husband visited the car dealership to order a new Volvo XC60, he had more to do than simply choose his favorite shade of silver and check the box for adaptive cruise control. He also had to pick travel dates for our free trip to Sweden.
That trip, which became a magical Scandinavian adventure for our family of four, came courtesy of the Volvo Overseas Delivery Program. Offered since 1956, the program is so comprehensive and so beloved that its promotional video is titled "It's Too Good to be True."
WHERE TO GO
Göteborg Naturhistoriska Museum
WHERE TO STAY
Sodra Hamngatan 59
+46 31 7585000
Clarion Hotel Post
Centralposthuset Prosjektkonto, Drottningtorget 10
+46 31 619000
Elite Hotel Marina Tower/Stockholm
Saltsjoqvarns Kaj 25
131 71 Nacka
+46 08 55570200
+46 31 138616
To learn more about Volvo's Overseas Delivery Program, contact Alan Edwards at Autobahn Volvo Fort Worth , 2910 White Settlement Road; 817-390-3223; www.shopauto
Even we were skeptical when Autobahn Volvo Fort Worth sales rep Alan Edwards gave us the details: two free round-trip tickets to Europe, a tidy savings off the car's sticker price, the chance to choose from a wider variety of paint colors and options, complimentary European car insurance for 15 days, and free shipping and transport from Sweden to Cowtown, including all excise taxes and import duties. The only downside seemed to be the six-to-eight-week wait time for the car to arrive. Not a bad deal, we thought, especially when Grandma offered us her pristine, low-mileage sedan.
Because we decided to pick up our car in Volvo's hometown of Gothenburg, we received even more perks: a free night at a downtown hotel, complimentary car service transportation between the airport, Volvo and our hotel both arriving and departing, and an afternoon at Volvo's Torslanda factory that included a tour of the facilities and a traditional Swedish lunch in the company cafeteria.
The program does more than build brand loyalty, Edwards explains. It creates an "almost fevered-pitch enthusiasm that turns people into Pied Pipers for the brand."
Each year, Edwards says, he sends between five and six Fort Worth-area customers to Europe to pick up their new Volvos (he and his wife were among those customers a few years ago). "It really is an exciting, red-carpet experience and a highly memorable way to buy a car," he says.
We were sold, and in November, we set off to visit the land of Vikings, meatballs, red candy fish, Lisbeth Salander ... and Volvo. First stop: Gothenburg, to pick up our new ride.
Gothenburg (Göteborg in Swedish) hasn't always been high on the Scandinavian must-visit list. But that's changing thanks to chefs, fashion brands and an undercurrent of creativity that's turning the country's second-largest city from a gritty, shipping-industry outpost into a thriving, hipster mecca.
Before we could experience the city, however, we had to pick up our car. Our driver was right on time to take us from our downtown hotel -- the Radisson Blu, where Volvo had provided us with a quiet, comfortable room with a lavish breakfast buffet included -- to Volvo's corporate campus, about a 20-minute drive from the city center.
Our car rolled into the Visitor Centre pickup area exactly as my husband had ordered it. A Volvo representative walked us through its features, then had us sign various forms, explaining to us in perfect English and in a very serious tone that, while Volvo would pick up every duty, custom charge and even the mandatory congestion fees levied on cars in Stockholm, we were entirely on our own when it came to speeding tickets.
We then joined a group of 10 or so other Americans for the factory tour. It was a diverse bunch -- a hospital exec from Galveston picking up his new convertible, a middle-aged couple from Houston who wished they'd brought thicker coats, an Atlanta dad treating his soon-to-be 16-year-old daughter to an unforgettable birthday present. An amusement park-style tram (called the "Blue Train") motored us to the main factory, where we toured our way through a laboratory-clean, almost fully automated manufacturing landscape filled with pre-galvanized steel sheets, rolls and parts, the air thick with sing-song accents and the rhythmic thumping of giant stamp presses.
After a tasty meatball buffet, we hit the road for the six-hour, west-to-east trek through forest and farmland to Stockholm. The landscape was as charming as it looked the guidebook photos -- azure skies, picturesque hamlets of white-trimmed cottages clustered around a single stone church, miles of tall, straight birch trees. We knew that traveling during the winter months would preclude, to some extent, many guidebook activities like boating, hiking and visiting outdoor museums and parks (most of which were closed from late fall to early spring). What caught us by surprise, though, was just how short the daylight would be. In the summer, the daylight can last well into the evening, and nightfall is more like twilight. In November, not so much. By 4 p.m., it was pitch black. And so it was when we entered the capital city of Stockholm.
There are 14 islands that make up the Stockholm metropolitan area, and each one boasts a distinct character and array of unique sights. It would be easy to spend weeks exploring the city -- the largest in Scandinavia -- visiting museums, discovering Mikael Blomkvist's apartment on a Stieg Larsson "Millennium Trilogy" walking tour and wandering through the stunning Millesgården sculpture garden.
With two elementary-aged kids and only three days, however, we decided to focus on a single island: Stadsholmen. This is where Stockholm began back in the 13th century, and its Old Town, called Gamla stan, is a magical, time-bending wonderland of winding cobblestone streets lined with tall, narrow 17th-century buildings. On the advice of a travel-savvy friend, we set off one morning in search of Mårten Trotzigs Gränd. It's the narrowest street in the entire city, but it's more like a high-walled shaft. It took us an hour to find (including a hot chocolate break) and we easily spent that long running up and down its slope and trying to climb the walls.
Our rowdy morning turned regal as we moved to our second destination, the royal palace. The Swedish monarchy dates back to the 10th century, and the current rulers are His Majesty King Carl XVI Gustaf and Her Majesty Queen Silvia. They weren't home when we stopped by (they actually live in Drottningholm Palace, a World Heritage Site in the Stockholm suburbs), but we toured a portion of the 600-room baroque estate with the help of a guide who, like every single person we met in Sweden, spoke flawless English. My husband and I enjoyed learning about the architecture, but I think our kids were more impressed to learn that, in the 17th century, having dinner with the king meant watching the king eat his dinner. We assume things have changed since then, especially since Crown Princess Victoria married a commoner in 2009.
Not surprisingly, hotels are plentiful but expensive in Stockholm. We found a reasonable rate at the Elite Hotel Marina Tower, a majestic red-brick mill right on the waterfront that had been converted to a convention center with a recently opened luxury spa. It wasn't the most convenient location -- although the city center was directly across the inlet, it required a 15-to-20-minute car or bus trip to get there. The first day, we drove downtown and paid steep prices to park; the second day, we got smart and hopped on the commuter water taxi -- which stopped just steps from the hotel's front door -- and relaxed and snapped photos during the quick cruise to downtown's Central Station.
Despite the minor complication, our room was modern, well-appointed and roomy enough for four, and the free breakfast each morning was a lavish, multicounter smorgasbord of smoked salmon spreads, multiple mueslis, platters of cheeses and cold cuts, piles of fresh croissants and a Belgian waffle station. There was even an electric blue tube of Kalles Kaviar, a roe spread that's been a breakfast mainstay for generations -- on a chrome and marble stand, no less!
Like more than a million people this year alone, we ventured to the verdant island of Djurgården to check out one of the most popular attractions in Scandinavia, the Vasa Museum. The Vasa was a new type of warship that set sail in Stockholm Harbor one fine morning in 1628 and sank within 20 minutes. Marine archeologists rediscovered the wreck in the 1950s and were able to raise it in 1961. Thanks to the freezing temperatures and low oxygen content of the harbor, the vessel remained in near-perfect condition, complete with eerily intact bodies on board and a treasure trove of everyday items. We spent hours learning about this majestic ship and its place in history, and the museum is set to offer even more when a major expansion is completed by mid-2013.
But Stockholm isn't just about culture, it's also about style, and we did log a few hours window-shopping at the boutiques that line the pedestrian-friendly street, Drottninggatan. Located just a 15-minute jaunt from the medieval old town in the Norrmalm district, this is the part of town where modernity takes over and the architecture morphs into an urban cityscape of angles, glass and chrome. Woe be unto the sneakers-wearing tourist who gets caught up in the fast-moving throng of chic downtowners dressed in designer uniforms of black wool, black leather and black boots!
One of the biggest shopping destinations in this district is Åhléns City, the flagship store of the country's largest department store. Here, everyone in the family found something to love -- and to eat, courtesy of two in-house restaurants and a basement bakery counter and grocery store. The kids oohed and ahhed over the incredible Lego selection (Denmark is next door, after all), and my husband found the backpack he'd been looking for. I got to browse an entire floor filled with mini boutiques dedicated to independent designer labels, including many Stockholm-bred luxury brands like Acne and Whyred. I also fell in love with the Goth-chic aesthetic of a new-to-me brand, V Ave. Shoe Repair.
Bags packed with new and old, we were ready to return to Gothenburg for the final two days of our vacation. Two days is never enough to explore a city that's coming into its own with five Michelin-starred restaurants and a thriving indie design scene led by Röda Sten Art Centre, an expansive exhibition and performance space-slash-restaurant-slash-nightclub housed in an old power station.
Because we were traveling with kids, however, we first had to check out the famed Liseberg amusement park. Home to what it touts as the world's best wooden roller coaster, the city-owned park is among the most popular attractions in Scandinavia, although with its design and prices, you could have told us we were at a Six Flags, aside from an occasional umlaut on a sign, and we wouldn't have known the difference. Still, there were smiles all around. The park celebrates its 90th birthday in 2013, and when it opens for the season in April, there will be myriad new attractions and updates, including a completely revamped and expanded Rabbit Land.
After a quick trip back to Volvo to drop off our car for its trans-Atlantic trip to Fort Worth and a stop at the Volvo museum (a must for any auto enthusiasts), we returned to the city center to spend the afternoon at the Göteborg Naturhistorika Museum. Housed in a rambling 1920s-era building, the fascinating collection blends modern, educational exhibits with endless cases filled with specimens that seem untouched since great-grandpa's day. Worth seeing is the world's only stuffed blue whale (be sure to read the multipage English translation about how this enormous creature came to be preserved back in 1865) and a gallery of beautifully mounted African animals, all of which seemed to have been mounted around the turn of the 20th century.
We did, however, get a sense of Gothenburg's new vibe at our hotel, a stylish joint called the Hotel Flora that boasted the kind of design features -- old brass candlesticks fashioned into funky pendant lamps, black-lacquered vintage furniture -- that you want to photograph and copy at home. And when we ventured to eat at Norda Bar & Grill in the recently opened Clarion Hotel Post, we felt like we had stumbled into the hottest party in town.
People, music, art, color, cocktails -- it was all happening right there in the stories-high atrium lobby of the Clarion, which began its life as a post office in the 1920s before getting a major overhaul into an ultra-hip 500-room hotel that opened last January. There is no hotter place in town for happy hour, or, as the locals call it, "after work."
Norda, nestled in grand mezzanine space, is a lushly appointed restaurant, with velvet cushions, craft cocktails and a pianist. The chef behind the concept is New York City restaurateur Marcus Samuelsson, the Gothenburg-bred, James Beard Award-winning celebrity culinary master who vaulted to fame at Aquavit before heading to Harlem to open the groundbreaking Red Rooster. Samuelsson's bestselling autobiography, Yes, Chef, published last year, detailed his astounding journey from a village in Ethiopia, where he was orphaned, to Gothenburg, where he was raised by his adoptive family, to Manhattan.
Samuelsson was in the house that night, and he was kind enough to spend some time talking to our kids, who knew him from watching him compete on the Bravo TV cooking competition Top Chef Masters (he won it in 2010). After making sure we were enjoying our meal (we were, of course!), he surprised us with a tale of his trip to Fort Worth a couple years ago as a guest of fellow Top Chef Masters chef Tim Love, and he won our hearts by raving about Angelo's Barbecue -- one of our favorites, too. Just when the world seems so vast, suddenly, it isn't.
We're going to keep an eye out for Samuelsson the next time we head to Angelo's. And if we do see him, we hope he feels at home when he sees the small white oval "S" sticker on the back window of our new Volvo -- an authentication mark of sorts that shows that we, too, carry a little piece of Sweden with us wherever we go.
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