A Nordic country with a considerable chunk of its real estate above the Arctic Circle may not suggest miles of white sand beaches baking in the summer sun, but Sweden's southernmost province, Skane, provides just that. The first place in Sweden to thaw out at the end of the last Ice Age, Skane (pronounced SKOH-nah) - with its low-20°C summer temperatures - has been drawing Swedes ever since sea bathing became chic more than a century ago.
These days, ask a local to name his favorite beach, and he'll end up naming several - each with a qualifying sobriquet: the Swedish Riviera, say, or the Hamptons of Sweden, or the local Provence, Ibiza and the even less likely Phuket. The beaches are all about an hour's drive in various directions from Malmo and just a bit farther from central Copenhagen across the Oresund Fixed Link, the road and rail connection between Sweden and Denmark. Discount air service to Malmo from cities across Europe makes for easy exploration when the Mediterranean overflows with summer crowds.
The resort of Bastad has recently found the confidence to forgo international comparisons and just call a Swede a Swede. Home to the Swedish Open tennis tournament every July, tiny Bastad has an outsize reputation as a party town and has been a must-do destination for the Swedish elite for over a century.
With its red and white clapboard houses sheltered in the north-facing crook of the hilly Bjare peninsula about 112km north of Malmo, Bastad may at first look a dead ringer for Jessica Fletcher's Cabot Cove on Murder She Wrote. But take a seat at one of the communal tables at the rocking Pepe's Bodega and the vibe is decidedly more MTV's Spring Break in Cancun.
The social nexus of Bastad, Pepe's serves food (US$70 lobster pizza anyone?) and drinks, but also serves as the conduit to an upstairs disco, the Loft, which stays packed until 3am. The tennis courts, the beach and the marina are all about 10 steps away.
"Other beaches farther south may be prettier, but this is definitely the most fun," said Filippa Jernbeck, in from Stockholm like much of the well-toned, well-tanned and decidedly well-fixed crew crowding the tables around her in early July. From across the table, Jernbeck's friend gave a polite socialite's wave as she talked on a cell phone.
My companion, Roger, and I had to take Jernbeck's word about the beach, because the rain that had flooded northern England had arrived in Bastad and our beach day got rained out. Pepe's, however, was fuller than ever.
We moved on to Torekov, driving about 16km west through picturesque potato fields and golf courses - there's a total of 117 holes in that relatively short stretch. The Torekov Hotel, which has a spa, had just expanded, and we were drawn by the prospect of proper fitness facilities to help sweat out the high-end pizza.
Torekov - even tinier than Bastad - seems to cherish its distance from the latter's rowdy rich, though local taxis seem to do quite well making runs between Pepe's and Swensen's Krog, a restaurant in Torekov. Daytime ferries head in the other direction toward the small island of Hallands Vadero, a tranquil nature preserve just offshore.
Even without a Swedish Lizzie Grubman incident to draw attention to the class distinctions that can rise with the mercury in such exclusive resort towns, it seems that egalitarian Scandinavia has a few of its own summer rites, rituals and locals-only codes of behavior. A daily swim in the sea is de rigueur in towns like Torekov, and it's tacitly understood that those who mosey down to the sea for their brisk morning swim in their bathrobes are those fortunate enough to own a house in town.