Denmark's Idyllic Island Retreats

Denmark is a land of simple pleasures: clean air, small towns, and intensely green landscapes. Most of its 16 million people live close to the sea, and the intricate coastline is longer than that of the United States. It’s an ideal place for a family vacation or a leisurely cycling tour on flat, uncrowded roads. Bridges link the major islands and ferries reach the rest, allowing you to escape into seemingly remote areas within a few hours drive from Copenhagen.

One of those rustic retreats is Fyn, a big island that’s tightly sandwiched between the peninsula of Jutland and the island of Zealand to the east. It’s a region of farms and castles, and its legacy is distilled in Funen Village, an enchanting outdoor museum of rural life. Located just south of Odense, Fyn’s major city, on an exit from the east-west freeway, it transports you to a pastoral Shangri-La. Much smaller and less commercialized than Stockholm’s Skansen, the granddaddy of outdoor museums, Den Fynske Landsby has an earthy sense of reality.

House in Funen Lady in Funen

An old lady spins wool on the doorstep of a farmhouse while a blacksmith hammers horseshoes in a smoky shed. Half-timbered farmhouses with thatched roofs from all over the island, barns and a windmill punctuate the fields of barley, wheat and rye. There’s an inn, a rectory, a skittle alley and an estate prison. Fat pigs wallow happily in a mud patch and geese keep up a shrill chorus. The one bizarre note is the choice of West Side Story for performances in the open-air theater.

Egeskov Castle

Twenty minutes south is the fairytale castle of Egeskov rising from its moat. It’s still owned by the family that built it in the 16th century and they’ve created a complex of visitor attractions to pay for the upkeep. There are mazes and formal gardens to explore and collections of vintage cars, planes and motorbikes. Family retainers guide you around the rosy brick castle, explaining the portraits and trophies, and telling stories that bring the past alive. From here it’s a short drive to Faarborg and the ferry that carries you across a peaceful sound to Aero.

In high summer, this 22-mile long island is jammed to capacity with vacationing families, but as soon as school resumes, it empties. Most of the 6,000 inhabitants live in Marstal, but the ideal place to stay is the picture-perfect town of Aeroskobing. Cobbled streets curve around a wedge of crooked houses, each different in shape, color and ornament, that combine to form a harmonious ensemble. Behind the square is a whitewashed church with a squat black spire. Inside, the misty blue pews are painted with wildflowers and model ships are suspended between the chandeliers.

Aero Bregnine Church

Anywhere but in Denmark, a town like Aeroskobing would have become an over-restored relic floating on a sea of tacky souvenir shops. Instead it feels authentic, a real place with real people who know better than to rely on a brief summer season.  There are a few small hotels and the Pension Vestergade is a delight. The house is dated 1784, a tall gabled brick block with six double rooms and separate bathrooms opening off white corridors. The breakfast room opens onto a long green garden with two small summerhouses, and there’s a well-stocked library. Susanna Greve, who is English and married to a Dane, has been managing the property for 14 years and her enthusiasm is contagious.

You can rent a tiny electric car to buzz around the island if you’ve come without wheels. Brightly colored summer cottages line a sandy spit of land extending out of town, and most of the island is farmed, with lush fields extending to narrow beaches. The surrounding islands are so flat that they barely break the horizon and the sparkling waters seem to extend to infinity. Adventurous golfers will love playing the course that wraps around the lighthouse beyond Soby.

shipmaker in DenmarkIn contrast, Marstal is a bustling town with a splendid maritime museum: a warren of rooms in two adjoining houses, each crammed with ship models, paintings, charts and assorted memorabilia, including exotic finds from distant countries, all donated by local seamen. At its peak, Marstal was the second largest port in Denmark after Copenhagen. As many as 350 ships sailed as far as Newfoundland to carry salted cod to Portugal and Spain, as well as to Brazil, West Africa, and Murmansk. An extraordinary collection of model ships in bottles were meticulously crafted by men with large calloused hands, and a white-bearded veteran restores the rigging of the larger models. Out back there is a children’s play area, and across the street a sailing ship, once lost at sea, is being restored by hand for a transatlantic voyage in 2013.

The big surprise is that Marstal gets more than half its energy from a solar plant, and the island has become a model of sustainable energy for all of Europe. That spirit of innovation keeps Denmark prosperous and forward-looking even as it nurtures its links to the past.

Michael Webb

Michael Webb

Michael grew up in London and now lives in a classic modern apartment in Los Angeles. His twin passions are architecture and travel, and he indulges both as often as he can, exploring every continent in search of material and inspiration. His travel memoir, Moving Around: a Lifetime of Wandering (ORO Books, October) recalls memorable experiences of people and places over seven decades. Michael is the author of 28 other books, most recently Architects' Houses. He has written on travel and design for The New York Times, Travel & Leisure, Virtuoso Life, Monocle, Architectural Digest and other publications
around the world.
Michael Webb

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