Norrvikens Trädgårdar – a timeless Swedish garden

Towering sentinels sway and rustle in the wind. A downward-sloping ridge causes the magnificent beech trees to lean over the sprawling estate. The blue waters of the Kattegat Sea create a stunning contrast to the intensely green landscape spread over 14 hectares in an east-west direction. Norrvikens Trädgårdar, or Norrviken Gardens in English, on the outskirts of the Swedish resort town of Båstad, represents a sense of childlike adventure for me. The winding mountainside Italian road, which I begged my father to drive, snakes above, while the park itself is another exotic world in itself. My mother, perhaps attracted to the Mediterranean-style gardens of her youth, took any opportunity to bring us here while summering in Båstad. I recall the kaleidoscopic wonder of colours, the fragrant flowers delighting my olfactory senses at every turn. Plant life, however, played second fiddle to my personal favourite; the cascading water, which appeared almost divine as it sprouted from a white chapel high above the greenery.

Screeching peacocks end my nostalgia-induced time travel, keenly aware of our presence, yet reluctant to perform for the camera. Instead, I admire another type of beauty, the thick, luscious grass, manicured to perfection by robot lawnmowers. I let the individual straws run between my fingers, pleasure turning into a mix of envy and shame as I draw an inevitable comparison to my own poor excuse of a lawn. Ah well, they have had over 100 years to perfect it; I tell myself as the luxurious white Villa Abelin, named after founder Rudolf Abelin, enters my field of view.

Italian style villa in white with manicured lawns and fountain in the foreground.

Villa Abelin

Inspirit Journey is proud to present our latest spotlight article, delving deep into an exquisite garden in southern Sweden through a vivid interview with Development Manager, Lotte Karlefors and Operative Manager, Pierre Nestlog. Learn how timeless values of innovation and sustainable practices explain a hundred years of inspiration, and why the second century promises to be an even greater success.

A solid foundation

To understand Norrviken’s enduring legacy, Rudolf Abelin’s persona is key. Born into a military family in 1864, Rudolf’s father expected him to become a lawyer. But the young Abelin had other plans and interests. Instead of law, he earned an education in gardening at Rosenborg Castle in Copenhagen. Then, as a sign of his entrepreneurial drive, he created a garden outside Norrköping, a couple of hours south of Stockholm. When a new railway cut it in two, he sought another spot.

Because of its pristine location, influential friends like Ludwig Nobel and feminist pioneer Ellen Key had already discovered and developed Båstad, suggesting Rudolf make the move as well. Said and done, in 1906, the history of Norrviken began after the passionate visionary Abelin acquired the land and got to work. He chose his site wisely as the sea provided humidity and the ridge a barrier to the wind. To this day, experts laud the wider Bjäre region for its farming potential, producing some of Sweden’s finest potatoes, and now also wine.

Red apples on a tree

Abelin’s apple tree legacy

As a horticulturist and pomologist, he balanced floral elegance with a commercial and award-winning fruit plantation, specifically apple and hazelnut orchards, intended for reselling. Business and art encapsulated in a man driven by big dreams. And as Lotte points out, Abelin moved ahead of his time in many areas, for example, championing education for women and their inclusion in gardening. His deep-rooted care for the environment and its preservation shines through as the surrounding nature seamlessly blends into the park. He also wrote books on the subject, and designed other famous gardens throughout Sweden, meaning his philosophy lived on.

A curious mind had him travel and collect ideas from the best gardens in Europe, adapting them to the local environment with a lust for experimentation. As we stroll through Norrviken, the soul of Abelin speaks to you; his love of colour, the ever-present water in the form of fountains, waterfalls, streams, and dams. Pierre mentions that three years ago while doing a tour of the park, he discovered a water feature in each of the different garden types Abelin designed, some with inspiration from the Italian High Renaissance. Another aspect we appreciated when taking pictures; the long, obstruction-less sight lines creating a sense of openness towards the surrounding forest and sea. Nonetheless, we adored the small romantic hideaways in various spots, offering private serenity, despite Norrviken’s touristic popularity. Luxury defined.

Harsh winters during World War 2 caused the orchards to fail, but the designed park survived, making it Sweden’s oldest continuous garden open to visitors. Time for a walkabout!

Norrvikens Trädgårdar – a blossoming Swedish garden destination

We move from the two-floored Italian-inspired Villa Abelin, where Rudolf, his wife, and three children lived, pass through the restaurant, Orangeriet, and step out to marvel at the baroque and renaissance gardens where sculpted hedges form diverse shapes. A few strides on, heaven and sea meet in a mirror-like pond. Lotte guides us towards the ridge, pointing to an intimate, almost hidden space between bushes and trees with a tiny swing in the middle. Another reminder of the whimsical nature of Norrviken. A babbling brook, interspersed by small dams, reflects the sunlight as we meander between blue and pink hortensia.

Pierre explains how the park encompasses different styles, how the restaurant menu includes plants from the garden, and how Abelin himself increased biodiversity by turning a barren piece of land into a paradise for plant life and animals where visitors can enjoy local nature next to the gardens. Pierre’s admiration is unmistakable and the passion for his role equally so. The eyes sparkle as he speaks about the improvements made in the last five years. Recruited from another top destination in Sweden, Solliden, the summer residence of the Swedish Royal family, he sees several similarities between them. The switch to Norrviken meant re-establishing roots, as he used to work here already in the 1980s. What a privilege to get his perspective and deep insight as retirement nears, only two weeks away.

Terraced Japanese garden

Japanese Garden

One of the most majestic parts of the park is the Japanese garden, housed in a terraced valley. A tiny stream, cherry trees, maples, and katsuras, weave in and out between an arched bridge and large stepping stones. The oriental temple on a ledge above the treetops completes the exotic atmosphere.

As part of the ongoing expansion, there is even a children’s section with treasure hunts and plenty of opportunity to run between rows of sunflowers, corn, and pumpkins. Lotte says no matter if you’re an adult or a child, Norrviken moves you. There’s definitely a genius loci, as she puts it, a distinctive atmosphere and spirit to the place. She’s in her fourth year, brimming with excitement and joy over the additions. And they are only getting started. Both Lotte and Pierre convey a sense of infectious optimism, and despite their different roles and personalities, they are in sync about the meaning of legacy, and the need to improve upon it.

As a long-time visitor, I can attest to the breakneck speed of progress, only from looking a decade back. I spot two new Victorian-style greenhouses – glass pavilions for events, conferences, exhibitions, and weddings. Cafés, a store, a concert venue for all seasons, and a bee farm to attract pollinators round out some of the recent additions since fresh ownership took over in 2017. Each part of the establishment operates on its own, but with a common theme to synchronise the guest experience.

At this rate of change, how has Norrviken kept pace with the sustainable ethos of the founder?

Victorian style greenhouses.

New greenhouses

Sustainable gardens the Swedish way

At Norrviken, the year comes in seven seasons, based on the blooming of different plants and Pierre says the changing climate means the first growth arrives earlier in the spring. 2-3 weeks before the normal, and with higher temperatures in the fall, the rhododendron becomes stressed and blossoms once more, serving as an example of a shifting seasonality.

During Abelin’s time, sustainability didn’t exist as a concept, but actions speak louder than words. From social issues like the advancement of women’s work to increased biodiversity and conservation, the foundation for sustainable practices came from within, not through external pressure. Gardens are Norrviken’s DNA and, as such, sustainability is instinctive. You want to protect nature, Pierre states.

Current efforts include composting everything they can to produce their own fertiliser. They strive towards a closed system and full electrification of tools. Cut flowers are produced on-site, not imported, as is the standard with display plants. Lotte speaks with elation as she explains there is a bus line as well, new for the year. It means Norrviken is only a day trip away for visitors from Gothenburg or Copenhagen, without the need for a car. Collaboration with train operators and the introduction of parking fees are other ways they promote public transport. Stakeholder partnerships in the region are the way forward for joint destination development. To stimulate off-season visits is key, and for that to materialise more establishments need to remain open, Lotte says.

“We’ve done good things, but have to be better at communicating it,” she continues.

I ask how sustainability permeates the work culture and learn how they intend for it to be part of everyday thinking and decisions, like a spinal reflex when coming up with a plan, talking to a colleague, or inspiring guests.

A great example is the raging success of the Norrviken Winter Show, which has prolonged the season and spread out visitors to create a better experience for all. From late November to mid-December lights illuminate the dark. The serene light installations mixed with appropriate music, and, of course, snow, create a sensation like no other. It’s the type of activity that gels with the park’s raison d’être; its gardens. Pierre indicates a number of activities in the past were distractions and not a good fit with the park. With the aforementioned seasonal theme guiding operations, everything is much more streamlined and in sync today. The possibilities for added experiences are many, Lotte adds. Why not winter weddings amidst the glow and snowy landscape?

Norrviken is not content. Next up is a major project to conserve rainwater in underground pools, and then use it to create an attraction for visitors. A waterfall that Abelin would be proud of, perhaps?

Statue of Norrviken founder, Rudolf Abelin.

Abelin’s sustainable heritage

A heritage to preserve and build on

With over 100 years of history and established tradition, does it act as a barrier to innovation? Are there limits to experimentation and destination development?

Lotte takes a moment to reflect and ties the discussion to how they work with sustainability. Rudolf Abelin, his values, spirit, and the park’s legacy are more akin to a guiding light, something that you carry with you every day. She recently asked herself what Abelin the entrepreneur would have done had he been alive in 2023. He never stood still, took a 360-degree view, and then ploughed ahead like a brave visionary. Pierre jumps in and says they have a lot of freedom to develop new ideas and projects. As long as they represent and reinforce the Norrviken way of doing things. Experimenting with novel concepts, for example, a weekend with focus on local produce, makes sense. There is no need to commit to events that could be hosted anywhere. The owners agree, and if you have a good idea with proper motivation on why and how, the path from concept to realisation is quick.

When I look back at the last five years of change, it’s hard to disagree. Abelin wanted to marry a self-sustaining business venture with a garden of dreams, drawing on inspiration and collaboration from other parts of the world. He built a place for advancing knowledge and ideas while nourishing the soul through a sense of wonder and playfulness. I felt it as a child, I feel it now, and after spending a few hours with Lotte and Pierre, I have no doubt the team at Norrviken comes to work with the same sentiment every day.

Of course, I have to ask if there is a next big innovation in the works. Lotte answers with a gleam in her eye.

“Hotel, maybe.”

What is your top garden destination? Have you been to Norrviken? Tell us in the comment section! Don’t forget to subscribe to the newsletter and benefit from tips, interviews, and inspirational examples of sustainable tourism and luxury travel.

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