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June 2017 / Travel / by Karen Heaney

Rediscovering Denmark

We are in Denmark, but not the snuggled-up-in-front-of-a-woodburning-stove hygge version. Instead, we are walking along a windswept beach, under a cloudless sky. The light is extraordinary – eyeball-searingly bright – and there is nothing but sand between us and the horizon. This is Grenen, in Jutland, Denmark’s most northerly point, where the North Sea meets the Baltic. The area is hugely popular with Danish visitors but largely undiscovered by the rest of the world. Which, given its outstanding natural beauty, fabulous new Nordic cuisine and picturesque seaside towns, is a little surprising. It could give New England a run for its money.

Just a couple of miles down the road lies Skagen (the locals pronounce it “skain”). The luminous quality of the light on the peninsula drew artists to this little fishing village in the late nineteenth century. The Skagen Painters found fame and the tourists soon followed. Now it’s the country’s chicest resort – the Danish royal family built a villa here – but it has retained its charm.

We’re staying at the Hotel Plesner, a delightful boutique guesthouse with a laid-back beach house vibe. Our room is quintessentially Scandi – a symphony of white and cool grey, accented with bold nautical stripes. Skagen is Denmark’s largest fishing port and we have distant views of the harbour, where enormous factory ships overshadow sleek ocean-going yachts and modest fishing boats.

The following day we make our way to Gammel Skagen – the old town – where little streets of yellow-painted, red-roofed cottages eventually peter out into mile after mile of sand dunes. Our lunch destination is Ruths Hotel, a charming beachside establishment founded in 1904 and lovingly restored at the start of the millennium by one of Denmark’s richest entrepreneurs. There’s a Confirmation party in full swing when we arrive and we are surprised to see the party girl in a prom dress, posing for a photograph next to a yellow Lamborghini. A curious tradition for egalitarian Denmark, we think. The sports car roars off, and free of distractions, we focus on Ruths’ brasserie menu (classic French with a Danish twist). Seafood is the star of the show. I order salmon tartare, my partner opts for hake. Both are outstanding.

Later we head to Skagen’s newly refurbished Art Museum, dedicated to the Skagen Painters. Heavily influenced by the French Impressionists, the paintings capture the drama of the landscape, the ever-changing light and the austere lives of the fishing community. Just around the corner, the Anchers Hus museum gives us a tantalising glimpse into the lives of two of the leading artists of the colony, Michael and Anna Ancher. Their house and studio has been lovingly restored, with many of the original contents in situ. It is charming and intimate.

Back at the hotel we steal a sunny hour in the secluded garden, before heading out for dinner at Kokkenes, another of Skagen’s culinary hotspots. We arrive at 7pm (the Danes eat very early) to find the restaurant buzzing. Once again, seafood takes centre stage, and we enjoy a four-course tasting menu with wine pairing. There is a large party next to us and at the end of the meal they burst into song. On the way out, one of the guests reveals that they are a Norwegian choir on tour. We love that in a high-end restaurant no-one bats an eyelid – there’s a delightful informality to fine dining here.

On our final morning here, we head out of the Old Town, into the dunes, to pick up a walking trail that will lead us to the Sand-Buried Church. This wondrously named landmark is all that remains of a 16th-century church that was obliterated by the shifting sands. All that’s left is a majestic white tower, marooned in the middle of the dunes. There are magnificent views to be had from the top, but vertigo gets the better of us and we make our way back to the town. It would be rude to leave Denmark without sampling the Smorsbord, so our last meal in Skagen is dedicated to these delicious open sandwiches.

The glorious light and the windswept beaches draw visitors here year-round. And it is surprisingly accessible – two hours by train or three hours by car from Aalborg (and its international airport). Billed as Denmark’s happiest city, Aalborg is undergoing a renaissance. The waterfront is being redeveloped and the city boasts some stunning civic architecture – a striking concert hall; an arts centre designed by the starchitect Jørn Utzon, who designed the Sydney Opera House; and the recently renovated Modern Art Museum – the building is the work of Finnish mid-century architect Alvar Aalto and houses a stunning collection of contemporary Danish art. Hotel accommodation is limited but Comwell Hvide Hus is a business hotel with impressive Scandi interiors. Foodies won’t want to miss the new Nordic cuisine offered by destination restaurant Mortens Kro, while Café Lindholm, next door to the Viking Museum and the eerie Viking burial ground at Lindholm Høje, gives a historic spin to contemporary Danish cuisine. The city’s medieval centre, with cobbled alleys punctuated by independent shops and some surprising street art, is an added draw.

Norwegian Air flies three times a week from Gatwick to Aalborg, from £30 per person one way, including tax. From September, Ryanair will be offering three flights a week to Aalborg from London Stansted, with return prices from £84.

Hotel Plesner offers double rooms including breakfast, starting at £135 per night (hotelplesner.dk)

Comwell Hvide Hus in Aalborg offers double rooms for one night, including breakfast, starting at £285 (comwellaarhus.dk)