Mette Helbæk’s eco-retreat in the Swedish forest is more than just a sustainable hotel. She’s developed a concept for the lifestyle of the future.
The first thing that happens after guests check in to Stedsans in the Woods is that they are handed a picnic basket and sent off into the forest. To go for a walk, sit down near the lake, and enjoy the home-made delicacies. To allow their gaze to wander. To take a deep breath. And to get a foretaste of what to expect over the next two days – a chance to pause and reflect anew.
The retreat, already well-known within the sustainability crowd, lies deeply hidden in the Swedish region of Halland. It is around two hours by car from Gothenburg and three hours from Copenhagen, from where most of the guests arrive. Some even travel from Stockholm, which is much further away. “Sometimes,” founder and CEO Mette Helbæk says with a laugh, “our whole parking lot is full of Teslas.” In conversation, it is clear she often doesn’t fully grasp the lifestyle of her guests. But she does understand what they are looking for.
Together with her husband Flemming Hansen, Mette Helbæk established Stedsans in the Woods in 2017. Mette is a cook and food stylist, and she has always exclusively relied on regional organic ingredients. Not only has she published numerous cookbooks, but she also ran her own organic food store in Copenhagen. When she met Flemming, an experienced gastronome, they decided to open their first restaurant together. Their Stedsans ØsterGRO was located in the center of the city, enthroned by an urban farm on its roof terrace. Guests sat at a long table surrounded by vegetable beds – the menu ingredients were always freshly harvested. The venue was a resounding success and completely booked up right from the very start.
The desire to develop further, to be able to work even more holistically, grew slowly. Mette and Flemming eventually asked themselves, “Why are the plants we use not our own? Why don’t we cook with vegetables that we have grown and harvested ourselves?” Thus originated the idea of a place where people could gather together for more than just a meal. They envisaged a setting in which guests could spend time in harmony with nature and themselves.
Into the Wild
The couple could not find undeveloped land in Denmark that ideally suited their project, so they moved to Sweden. In the vast Halland region, they discovered untouched forests and secluded waters. Here, Mette and Flemming, now a family, had to start again from scratch. They had already sold their house and business. They now owned nothing more than the ground upon which they stood and the wilderness surrounding them. But Mette immediately felt that “everything found its natural place here and everything suddenly made sense.” The Danish word Stedsans can be translated as “sense of place or direction.” They initially wanted to open as quickly as possible so that the hype from Copenhagen wouldn’t fizzle out completely but instead allowed this new project to grow gradually and conform to the conditions of the natural surroundings.
For this reason, when they did open in 2017, only the restaurant was completed. Somewhat later, they were able to offer guests an overnight stay in stable, canvas tents. At present, the grounds feature 14 cabins, each with a large floor-to-ceiling front window, housing a total of 38 guests. Some cabins float offshore on the lake, while others are nestled between the trees. Construction materials came from old homes and greenhouses. The interiors are furnished only with what is absolutely necessary. Mette describes her minimalist interior concept as “providing what one really needs, but in very good quality – a comfortable bed and fine linen. Nothing more is required.” There is no need for distraction. Conforming with this philosophy, none of the rooms are equipped with a television.
Meals are held at community tables, at which the guests are currently separated by plexiglass barriers as a Corona precaution. The six-course dinner menu is prepared spontaneously each evening, depending on the day’s harvest and which ingredients are fresh. “It is important to us,” explains Mette, “that our guests can see and taste where the food on their plate comes from – and even what the weather was like over the past few months.” There are no options on the menu, everyone is served the same food. After dinner, in the heavy darkness of the Swedish evening, everyone has coffee together around a large fireplace.
Stedsans in the Woods is an almost completely sustainable operation. There is no electricity in the kitchen – food is cooked over an open fire. Guests shower with filtered lake water and all soap and skincare articles are manufactured in-house using biodegradable plant extracts. The toilets are completely compostable. Despite this, guests are constantly surprised that they look so attractive and do not emit any unpleasant smells. As a result, Flemming has taken to calling them “sexy compost toilets.”
The large property in the woods boasts its own farm, a medicinal herb garden, and a small spa area with a sauna. And there is also what Mette calls her Department of Research and Development, basically a kind of think tank intended to consolidate the holistic approach of the facility. The vision of the co-founders is certainly not limited to organic carrots and green shampoo. They are working on the concept of a lifestyle for the future, which also involves philosophy, economy, science, and architecture. “It is all about creating a better world. In practical terms, it concerns what is on your plate, what you eat. But in a broader sense, it is also a matter of the greater whole.” As Mette and Flemming prefer to phrase things, “We believe that the solution to almost every problem is beautiful, tastes good, and makes you happy.”
Focusing on the essentials
A stay at Stedsans in the Woods is limited to two nights. That is sufficient time, assures Mette, to switch off. And also to achieve what she wants for her guests – to internalize and take home with them the lifestyle that they have experienced here. “We offer our guests the opportunity to fall in love with nature,” she says. Once you have opened yourself up to this feeling, you can maintain it. “You only have to open your eyes to perceive the flora and fauna all around you.” Plants, for example, can be found just about everywhere, even in the big city. “It all depends upon what you focus on.”
During the Corona pandemic in the spring and summer of this past year, things worked out comparatively quite well for Stedsans in the Woods. “We are an outdoor restaurant and retreat, and we have lots of space. Even the kitchen and the spa lie out under the open sky. This proved to be to our benefit.” In addition, there were few restrictions and bans on travel in Denmark and Sweden. The few cancellations could be quickly offset, as the waiting list is long and the demand continues to grow. “The need to be outside and to remain in the immediate region is growing. We can sense this,” relates Mette Helbæk. “Therefore, we have to create exciting locations in our surroundings. We have to find new ways and new places to meet each other.” In any case, she is certain of one thing. “No matter what happens – people will always want to get together.”