Yes, Northern Europe has more museums, cuisine, and historic city centers than you can cram into one trip. But here's a good reason to go rural: It also offers some of the world's best adventure.
Go Out of Bounds in Finland
Woodsy, hilly, and peppered with lakes, Finland feels a lot like Maine but with more saunas. To experience the best of it, fly to Helsinki and get a room at the five-star Hotel Haven—berry breakfasts!—and spend an evening at nearby Kaurila, a traditional wood-fired sauna set inside a 19th-century cottage ($125 per hour for up to six; 011-358-50-597-3359). From there, hop an 80-minute flight north to Kajaani and the start of an eight-day guided canoe and hiking trip along the Russian border (from $2,000). You’ll start off trekking eight to fifteen miles a day through Martinselkonen Nature Reserve and the surrounding spruce forests, home to bears, moose, and wolverines. Farther north, you’ll paddle canoes while looking for reindeer near the rivers and lakes of Hossa Hiking Area, or trek to Color Rock to view 4,000-year-old art etched in the stone. Expect to sleep in tents near Lake Kovajärvi or in cottages in the park, beating yourself to sweaty bliss with birch branches at sauna sessions along the way.
Ride for Food in Denmark
Unlike much of Scandinavia, Denmark is mostly flat, with lazy hills, mushroom-rich forests, and gentle farmlands—all of which scream for two-wheeled exploration. The food's not bad, either. Start in Copenhagen, home to Noma—voted the world's best eatery by Restaurant magazine for the fourth time last April—and its unusual plate of beef tartare and ants. Then set off on any of the country's 7,500 miles of clearly marked bike routes on little-trafficked roads and paths. National Route 3 is particularly worthy: spanning 250 miles along an ancient path from Padborg in the south to Ålbaek in the north, it runs through the heart of the fertile Jutland peninsula past ancient burial mounds, runestones, and medieval churches. You can stay in places like the Niels Bugges Inn near Vibor, a repurposed 18th-century mill (from $105), and Plesner, a hotel and restaurant in Skagen where you can enjoy foodie fare like barley-mushroom risotto (from $146). Hundreds of bike shops rent rides—including electric bikes and kid trailers—and taking bicycles on trains is commonplace. VisitDenmark.com and the Danish Cycling Federation offer free maps, booking tools, and shop listings.
Explore a Wild World in Sweden
With 8,000 islands, hundreds of cavernous fjords, and rich marine life, the Bohuslän coast of western Sweden holds a lifetime’s worth of spectacular sea kayaking. Start in Göteborg and beat jet lag at First Hotel G, a 300-room ode to sleek Swedish aesthetics located in the city center (from $240). Then spend five days exploring the best of the region with local outfitter Pathfinder Travels on a mission that glides past centuries-old fishing villages and into nature reserves and lagoons for brisk evening swims ($1,420). The paddling begins about 80 miles north, in the fishing village of Lysekil—buses make the journey from Göteborg hourly—and ends in Strömstad, a village near Sweden’s only national maritime park, Kosterhavet, close to the border with Norway. Each day guests drift 15 miles through placid seas, under towering cliffs, and past seals plying the bracing black water of the Fjällbacka archipelago, coming ashore for fresh fish, coastal hikes, and comfy beds at quiet hostels along the way.
Take a Booze Cruise in Scotland
Everybody knows the Scots do whisky right. But over the past decade, they've developed another specialty: a system of mountain-bike trails that rivals anything in the States. H&I Adventures' new eight-day trip ($1,777) through 1,750-square-mile Cairngorms National Park, the biggest in the United Kingdom, showcases the best of both. You'll start in Dalwhinnie, at the village's eponymous 116-year-old distillery, where you'll sample the 15-year whisky paired with artisanal chocolate. Then savor the singletrack highlights, like a pleasing two-hour climb through the foggy foothills of the Cairngorm Range and a ripping four-mile descent from the top of Glenlivet Estate (with a stop for whisky) to Tomintoul (more whisky). Ride about 20 miles per day and end with a visit to a working cooperage, a cask-making factory, in the village of Craigellachie. Each night, after bombing through heather-filled valleys along narrow singletrack, wobble yourself into places like the Old Bridge Inn to feast on pork belly and black pudding.
Enter Ireland's Chill Zone
It’s been half a century since Kevin Cavey paddled a homemade plywood board into the chilly waves near Dublin to become the grandfather of Irish surfing. These days, some 40 surf schools dot the Emerald Isle’s coast, where muscular Atlantic swells peel over myriad breaks. One such hub, TurfnSurf Lodge and Surf School in the town of Bundoran, 130 miles northwest of Dublin, rents boards and five-millimeter-thick wetsuits for the 50-to-60-degree water and offers year-round lessons at manageable breaks like Tullan Strand and Strandhill. Once you get your skills dialed, try more powerful spots like the Peak, a reef with both left and right breaks in front of town. The TurfnSurf has double rooms on a two-mile-long beach, but ask about the three-bedroom house that’s a five-minute walk away, near Maddens Bridge Bar, a cozy wood and stone tavern with bird’s-eye views of the Peak. Lodging from $32, lessons from $65.
Walk About in England
The specialty here is a gentleman’s form of adventure: a good long walk. The Viking Way, a 147-mile route through eastern England, offers country strolls past wattle and daub cottages and mossy rock walls in an area once occupied by Norse invaders. Linger in the Lincolnshire Wolds, a hilly, bucolic region of limestone escarpments and rare trout-filled streams that percolate up from chalk beds. Just yards from the route are places like the Black Horse Inn, a classic English stopover with hearty ales. The Long Distance Walkers Association has free maps, downloadable GPS points, and information on food and lodging.
Make a Polar Play in Norway
Take the Tetons, flood them, and you get Norway’s Lofoten archipelago. The seven-island chain stretches 120 miles into the Atlantic at roughly the same latitude as Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay, but because Lofoten catches the warm waters of the jet stream, it’s 20 degrees warmer than any other polar place on the planet. Stay at Lofoten Ski Lodge, a tastefully renovated former cod-fishing camp where the houses are red and the views are Tolkienesque (from $942 for four nights). See the mountains by climbing 3,000-foot Vagakallen Peak ($500 for a private guide) and the sea by kayaking through the Risvaer Islands ($227). After that visit Å, a village named for the last letter of the Norwegian alphabet that sits on the archipelago’s terminus and is the literal end of a newly finished highway that hopscotches between the islands. The scenery gets more stunning the farther west you travel, and the food doesn’t get better than Maren Anna’s dockside restaurant, where you can enjoy delicate stockfish and views of Å’s millennium-old working harbor.
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