Let's start with something of a riddle for you. How can you be on holiday less than an hour after leaving home, and yet soon drive for days without seeing another British car?

The answer begins with boarding the DFDS ship Princess of Scandinavia on the Tyne and continues with a drive through the beautiful forests and lake district of south-eastern Sweden, known as Smaland.

I can never understand why many people in the North East still travel the length of the country to board a ship when these big comfortable vessels are so close at hand. Remember too that we are not talking cross-channel cheap and cheerful here; these ships are much more of the cruise variety.

The great thing is that, after your short drive from home, you're soon in the holiday mood. From parking on the car deck to your ensuite cabin is a matter of minutes, and then you can enjoy a large choice of bars, shops, restaurants, cinemas and the rest. You can take a virtual tour of the ships, and check timetable and fares, at www.dfdsseaways.co.uk

The trip from Newcastle to Gothenburg takes about twenty hours, leaving North Shields late afternoon and arriving in the Swedish city mid-afternoon the next day. Blessed by beautiful July weather, we spent a lot of time on deck, stretched out with a good book and a cold Danish beer or two. Airplanes are fine sometimes, but the relaxation offered by loads of time and the open sea is very therapeutic.

The choice of eating venues on board is really wide, from a cheap snack to very good quality restaurants. Do try the famous smorgasbord meal which is top value with the star attraction of a huge spread of fresh seafood. For the real treat, you can't beat the fine dining Blue Riband Restaurant which stands comparison with the best on land. They serve a superb meal for two, with wine, for about £50, and you have moonlight twinkling on the sea outside your window!

There's a short stop at Kristiansand in Norway, before the arrival in Gothenburg brings everyone out on deck for the entry into the harbour and docking time. Getting your car off the ship is very quick and efficient, and brief formalities are soon completed.

If you've never driven on the right before, don't worry about it, and Sweden is a very easy place to start. Gothenburg is well-signed and nothing like Darlington's traffic, never mind London! The only bit which confused me was finding the underground entrance to the Mornington Hotel, but help was soon at hand. A police car driver (I've always said they were good) noticed my third lap and the GB plate, and soon offered to lead the way.

We spent the first weekend in this lovely city before heading off to the countryside, and it's a great place to be. It's a good walking city, very reminiscent of Amsterdam with its water everywhere and bustling street life. Like us, you can probably leave your car parked for the weekend, as most places you'll want to visit are a few minutes' walk away, and longer trips are covered by a very regular and cheap tram system which is very easy to understand.

Do try to spend at least one evening at Liseberg, the biggest amusement park in Scandinavia, and well worth a visit. I can't think of anywhere quite like it in Britain, with its clever combination of gardens, restaurants and sheer good fun. By the way, it's well worth buying the Gotesborgkortet (the Gothenburg card) which saves you a lot of money on shopping and attractions, and gives you free entry to Liseberg.

The plan now was to drive east across Sweden heading for the Baltic coast and the island of Oland, the summer home of the royal family. The journey was planned to drive just a couple of hours a day and enjoy the scenery; holiday driving should be a pleasure and most certainly not hard work.

The speed limit on most main roads is around 55 mph, and it feels just right. They have speed cameras too, but, anyway, it's the kind of country you'll want to savour and enjoy, rather than rush through. Every bend brings great vistas of forests and lakes, and, when you fancy a breather, the stopping points are often at scenic spots complete with picnic tables.

A very easy 110 km from Gothenburg (see, I'm thinking Swedish distances now) brought us to a beautiful hotel, the Hestravikens Wardshus. This is a very peaceful spot indeed, located where the River Nissan flows into Lake Vikarsjon. Have a look for yourself at www.hestraviken.se

Some bedrooms are so close to the river that you can almost fish from the balcony, and the main inn is surrounded by a garden with a swimming pool. There's canoeing on the river, a 36 hole golf course nearby at Isaberg, and great food at the end of a busy day.

The next morning saw us heading off to the Hotel Winn in Varnamo, the centre of the furniture and design district. Much of the furniture made here (there's certainly plenty of wood about) is sold at design stores all over Europe and beyond. It's also the place where IKEA opened their first ever store, and their influence is very big in this part of Sweden.

Our room was dedicated to the memory of Bruno Mathson, one of Sweden's best known designers who lived and worked in Varnamo, and he was certainly well ahead of his time.

He was designing furniture decades ago which still has a timeless popularity. See more of them at www.bruno-mathsson-int.com

I can't resist telling you about a taste of the luxury in the Hotel Winn!

In a lifetime of hotels, I've seen big baths, sunken baths, but never before the side-by-side variety, complete with wine!

The next morning, it was time to move from furniture to glass and a drive to Glasriket (the Kingdom of Crystal) and the Stora Hotellet in Nybro.

The sand in the ground, and the abundance of wood for furnaces, led to the development of this area as one of the leading glass areas of the world, a position it still holds. You can enjoy seeing the skill of the glassmakers and even try it yourself at an evening party called a "hyttsill".

These evenings are steeped in history from the time when villagers would come to the glassworks at the end of the day to use the heat from the kilns to cook evening meals. A few drinks were taken too, and the hyttsill soon took off! My own attempt at glassblowing was far from brilliant, and a bit of over-enthusiasm simply produced an embarrassing shape! Happily, the professional designers and makers fare rather better.

Next day, off east again and across a stunning road bridge to the island of Oland and the mediaeval beauty of Borgholm Castle. Our hotel here was the Halltorps Gastgiveri and it certainly continued the tradition of superb food. Looking back towards the mainland in the evening, the sunsets are simply spectacular.

The next morning it was time to start thinking about heading back west, and we broke the journey at the pick of the crop, the Toftaholm Manor. This beautiful place has welcomed guests since the 14th Century and the current owners, Torbjorn and Agneta Colfach, clearly take the responsibilties of innkeeping traditions very seriously. See what impressed me at www.toftaholmherrgard.com

Heading back to Gothenburg for the ship home, it occurred to me that I'd not seen another British car in the last week. I do hope that more UK tourists, from the North East in particular, will visit this hidden treasure. Smaland is full of delights and great places, and, above all, it's not expensive. There was a time when Sweden equalled expensive in our eyes, but prices now are pretty much as the same as here, and, in many cases, you'll get much higher quality for the same price.

The double icing on the cake at the end of the trip comes with the pleasant journey home on your second mini-cruise, and the glorious realisation that, with your wheels back on the A19, you're nearly home.

Published: 07/11/2002