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How the islanders across Denmark's 'Coastal Lands' have perfected the art of slow travel

To live around the scenic cradle of Horsens Fjord and on its surrounding islands is to embrace the elements — and a dozen different jobs. Meet the mulitasking locals serving up ‘short-travelled’ food, long-told stories and slow-travel tours.

The Horsens Fjord region of East Jutland is known for its sweeping seascapes, earning it the moniker of Denmark’s ‘Coastal Lands’.

Photograph by Lola Akinmade Akerstorm
By Adrian Phillips
photographs by Lola Akinmade Akerstorm
Published 2 Dec 2021, 06:05 GMT, Updated 3 Jan 2022, 15:56 GMT

Jørgen Petersen is the harbour master. He also repairs the roads and can turn his hand to a bit of roof thatching. When I first meet him, he’s astride a shabby red tractor, chugging across his farm’s stable yard to saddle up the horses he keeps for the riding tours he runs with his wife, Nette. “I’m the island’s chief fire officer and policeman, too,” Jørgen tells me, as if worried I might judge him to be one of those idle types with time on their hands. 
There’s no room for idle types on Endelave. This small island off the east coast of Denmark’s Jutland peninsula is home to an ageing population of just 150 people, which means the fit and able are kept busy putting on the many hats that need wearing to keep the community alive. But it’s quickly clear that life here is about something more than mastering the harbour and repairing the roads. What really shapes this community is the colourful narrative of the island itself, the sense of identity forged in the fire of its legends and history, its rumours, anecdotes and incidents. 

“There are so many stories,” Jørgen observes with satisfaction, as we ride a circular route through the south east of the island, our horses’ hooves clipping against pieces of flint. “See that house? In the 1940s, a lion tamer lived there with four lions. One day, a neighbour was milking his cow when he looked up to see a lion stalking him! The animals had escaped, you see. Three of them were shot, but the fourth was never caught. They say it still prowls the forests.” 

It’s the stuff of fairytales in the country of Hans Christian Andersen, a piece of local history with a twist to delight and scare the children. The landscape is fertile ground for such imaginative flourishes. Crows flap across big skies above fields of wheat and mixed wild flowers. An old thatched cottage sits at the edge of a wood, a hydrangea blooming purple and pink outside and a wolf perhaps waiting within. 

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A hare with dark ears freezes at our approach before tearing over the brow of a field. But the island is best known for its rabbits, which lollop more casually from the trail before us. They’ve been here since 1925. “An islander ordered some chickens from the mainland, but rabbits were sent by accident,” Jørgen tells me. “He released them in disgust and, well, here we are.” For a long time, they were seen as a major pest but then someone recognised their marketing potential and established a 13-mile hiking route dedicated to the rabbits. “People have come to realise we need tourism as well as farming, and the tourists think the rabbits are sweet,” says Nette. “And I like to eat them,” adds Jørgen, a detail you won’t find mentioned in the tourist brochures. 

Brian Sørensen lives on Hjarnø and rents out a bicycles or golf carts to travellers who want to explore the island.
 

The track narrows, brambles catching at my trousers, and farmland gives way to a Hansel and Gretel forest of oak, silver birch and dark green pine. We pass a pair of teeming anthills and I’m ambushed by a low-hanging branch whose twigs whip across my riding hat. “Those oaks on the left were planted during the English Wars,” Nette says, referring to a period of conflict between Britain and Denmark in the early 1800s. “You Brits took most of our fleet at the Battle of Copenhagen, so our king ordered the villagers to plant oaks for new ships.” Jørgen takes up the tale with a loud guffaw. “In 1975, the Ministry of Nature sent a message to the Ministry of War to inform them the trees were ready. Only 150 years too late!”

We reach the coast and follow a curve of beach fringed with smartly painted summer cabins. Behind them, the oaks are stunted and gnarled, bullied by the sea winds so they stoop inland like a line of wizened witches. In front, the water rolls and rolls from the horizon. “I’ll tell you another story,” begins Jørgen. “Once upon a time, during the English Wars, a British battleship anchored off the shore near here. A couple of local farmers, full of bravado (and probably beer) decided to take a potshot at it with their guns. This didn’t please the ship’s captain, who responded with an irritated volley of cannon fire, before the terrified islanders sent a priest to apologise.” 

Jørgen continues, “I repaired a house in the village recently,” (it turns out he’s a carpenter, too) “and the lady showed me a cannonball passed down to her by her grandmother. Apparently five or six of them survived. The farmers used them to grind wheat.” 

 The pretty cottages of Endelave.

Nature’s bounties

Yes, the people of Endelave are a resourceful lot — they need to be, for amenities are few and far between. There’s no supermarket or hospital or school (the children must take the 6.30am ferry to the town of Horsens on the mainland for their lessons). The island’s solitary shop is run from a cottage with house martins darting beneath its eaves. As I explore later that afternoon, I reach a beach where a couple are wading in the shallows to collect shellfish for supper, picking through clumps of seaweed they scoop into large sieves, and stowing their catch in string bags. In a patch of forest, I meet four elderly locals foraging at the trackside. When they’ve gathered what they need, they squeeze back into their little car, pulling away slowly and raising glasses of wine to me in farewell through the windows. I wave frantically at them to stop; they’ve left the open bottle on the roof of the car. 

“There’s so much wild food to forage, probably because we’re so isolated,” Birgit Martinsen tells me when I meet her at the Endelave Medicinal Herb Garden. It was established in 1995 with the aim of growing plants that could be used to produce herbal medicines for sale across Denmark. The business scheme didn’t work out, but the islanders were keen to keep the garden going as a lovely place in its own right. And it is lovely, divided between tidy square beds brimming with plants that have been used in different restorative concoctions over the ages, from centuries back to the present day.

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“In Danish, we have a word, ‘forening’, which sort of means ‘voluntary work’ — people joining together in a union to make things happen,” Birgit explains. It’s a word perfectly fitted to life on Endelave. Birgit’s roles on the island range from cleaning toilets to running creative writing courses, but this year she’s also tending the herb garden. “I’m not a gardener,” she says with a shrug as we walk the garden’s gravel pathways. “I learn as I go.” We stop at a bed containing species typical of Endelave, such as the sea cabbage I’ve seen growing around the shoreline. “That’s delicious when you fry it — the leaves go nice and crispy.”

Next day, I join father and son Bjarne and Kristian Ottesen for a deep dive into another wild food found on the shoreline. They take me to Øvre at the island’s northern tip, a protected nature reserve of salt marshes, pine forest and heathland. This is a spot rich in nature and history. Some skinny Shetland ponies graze among the heather, ignoring a bleating flock of Gute sheep that have hefty horns spiralling at their temples. A marsh harrier glides low to swoop on something unfortunate, sparrows scattering in its wake. 

Nordisk Tang offers organised seaweed expeditions where travellers can learn to harvest different seaweeds to eat.

We pass a mound of smashed shells that marks the drop zone for seabirds dashing open mussels, and stop briefly at a collection of pink boulders apparently arranged (it takes some squinting) in the shape of a ship. This, I learn from an information board, was the grave of a wealthy Viking; a buckle was found that has been dated to 860 AD. Imagine the stories it could tell. 

However, Bjarne and Kristian aren’t to be diverted. Galumphing along in waders up to our chests, we cross a dune, descend to the beach and walk straight into the sea. Fat mussels lie among the pebbles and the occasional jellyfish ghosts gelatinously beneath the surface, but my guides have eyes for one only thing: seaweed. Their passion for the stuff knows no bounds. They’re loopy about it.

“Ah, now this is bladder wrack,” Bjarne says, laying it out carefully across his palm as if it were a pearl necklace rather than a slimy brown strand covered in what look like tiny testicles. “The air sacks keep it afloat so it gets lots of sunlight.” “Here’s some toothed wrack,” Kristian interjects from nearby, bringing over a jagged-edged seaweed the colour of Christmas trees. “That’s the classic.” “Sugar kelp!” calls Bjarne, holding a flat piece aloft like a champion’s trophy. “Irish moss!” counters Kristian, waving a spiky specimen. 

And so the seaweed ping-pong continues, a game that could last some time, I realise, when Bjarne announces that Denmark has around 400 different species. But it’s impossible not to be swept up in their enthusiasm. Seaweed is packed with 3,500 bioactive ingredients that allow it to survive extremes of weather and pollution, Kristian says, and these can be harnessed in all sorts of ways. It’s an excellent fertiliser since it combats viruses and fungi, and can be used in sun cream to protect against UV rays. Bjarne and Kristian are trialling a seaweed animal feed that might reduce the mortality rate in piglets, and making ingredients for the food industry to replace artificial preservatives. Before the hour is out, I’ve discovered that seaweed can improve everything from roofing materials to toothpaste. I now know that cultivating it can save the planet, because seaweed retains up to 15 times the carbon dioxide of land plants. The potential seems endless. “Someone rang yesterday to ask if we could make sunglasses out of seaweed,” Bjarne declares with gusto. “I said ‘Of course we can.’ We really can!”

The seaweed safari concludes at Bjarne’s renovated farmhouse. The former stable block has been converted into Nordisk Tang, a shop for seaweed products, many of them created in their factory near Aarhus. Shelves are stacked with jars of seaweed mustard, seaweed salt and various seaweed spices; there’s seaweed scrub for your face, seaweed moisturisers, and bottles of rum and brandy made from bladder wrack. 

A seaweed experience with Nordisk Tang on the island of Endelave includes a seaweed ‘safari’, tastings and outdoor lunch at Tanggården.
 

In an adjoining dining room, I drink a seaweed beer and sample a feast prepared by Kristian. “People can be a bit afraid to eat seaweed — they’re not used to it — so it’s important their first experience is really good.” That box is squarely ticked. From the wholegrain bread served with spoons of pesto to the mound of shredded and fried ‘bacon of the sea’, the dishes are incredibly varied and moreish. Each has that underlying umami flavour that’s so satisfying. I later learn that the word umami means ‘essence of deliciousness’ in Japanese, which is satisfying all over again. 

I’m not surprised when Kristian admits he has no formal training in cookery (“I just love flavours”) or when Bjarne tells me he has no background in the science of seaweed (“I was a headmaster at a high school”). This is an island of people who acquire many strings to their bows. The pair plan to open a restaurant, some tourist lodgings and an academy for aspiring environmentalists, and they’ll do it all not only because they’re driven but because the time is right. Interest in health and sustainable food has never been higher. “People used to think we were crazy, but now not so much. Some of the oldest islanders have even admitted they ate seaweed when they were young and money was tight. Come to think of it, perhaps that’s why they’ve lived so long?”

From farm to fork

In the days that follow, I take trips to other islands in Horsens Fjord, smaller still than Endelave but closer to the mainland. There too I find both enterprise and sustainable living in spades. On Hjarnø — a 10-minute ferry ride from Horsens’ Snaptun Harbour — I meet Louisa Sørensen outside her house on the shore. She and husband Brian have started renting bikes and golf buggies to tourists, but they also have a strip of land where they keep geese and what Louisa calls ‘woollen Hungarian pigs’. I cycle to see them at their mud-hued home in a forest clearing. A dozen Mangalitsa piglets, in a range of shades from black-and-white to caramel, come running to greet me, before returning to their snuffling and skittering about. “They’re 14 days old — we have a lot of fun with them,” Louisa smiles. Two females waddle heavily around them, and a bigger boar watches on from behind a wire fence, all three covered with thick curls of hair, as though part way through morphing from pigs into sheep. 

Highland cattle owned by Brian Sørensen on the island of Hjarnø.

I ride a circuit of the island, past trundling tractors at harvest in the fields, a white-plastered church that might have been lifted from a model village and a vineyard with an honesty box at the gate where I leave 100 krone (around £12) for a bottle of rosé. At lunchtime, I board the Lilliputian bicycle ferry — with room for 12 passengers — to the island of Alrø. There are cormorants and porpoises on the way, and at the end a zigzagging wooden jetty, which has the clearest water either side, two crabs are locked in a dance of combat. 

The coastal road skirts salt-marsh lagoons and a serrated shoreline of bite-sized coves. Prehistoric tools often turn up here; I doubt the sharp-edged pebbles I find are axe heads, but they’re beautiful, some the tones of sunset, others jet black and dotted with stars. Deep into the island I reach Alrø Købmandsgaard, a restaurant with its own herd of bison, where I take a table on the decked terrace overlooking a savannah of wheat fields and try tapas of thin-cut bison meat and home-grown vegetables. 

“The phrase ‘locally produced’ is so overused,” Bodil Møller tells me when we meet at her eponymous farm shop and restaurant, Fru Møllers Mølleri, the next day. “In Norway, they say ‘kortreist mat’, which means ‘short-travelled food’. That’s much more descriptive, I always think.” We’re just north of Alrø now, in the region of Odder, on the mainland but still within a pebble’s throw of the sea. Inspired by seaweed and Mangalitsa pigs and fields of bison, I’ve spent an afternoon hunting for other places that take a farm-to-fork approach. It hasn’t proved difficult. There were plums and cherries to pick at Karensminde Orchard and organic cider to buy from Brandbygegaard, a 19th-century farmhouse with apple trees and a walled vegetable garden. At Vejlskovgaard Maelkeri, a dairy farm, I slipped a few coins into a slot and watched my container fill with fresh milk from the cows in the barn next door. Who says slow food can’t come quickly? 

“Farmers have a reputation for abusing the land and polluting the soil. I try to show we can be good,” Bodil says in her matter-of-fact way. Her 500-acre farm certainly seems a contented one: the pigs have their own shower to keep the wallowing area nice and sloppy, and I watch chickens lazing in dusty hollows in their field. Bodil herself is busy. Harvesting begins today and she’s praying the weather holds. As well as running the farm, Bodil bakes bread to sell in her bakery and makes ice cream to serve from another barn in the yard. A farmer, a baker and an ice-cream maker — Jørgen would surely approve. 

“Did you know that on average food travels 930 miles from producer to consumer?” Bodil asks. “That’s crazy.” It’s difficult to argue with that. Fortunately, the likes of Bodil, Bjarne and Birgit are doing their bit to bring the average down. Life in Denmark’s coastal lands is simple and tough, a nonstop juggle for a special breed of multitaskers. But it’s also a wonderful region to be — a place where people make good things happen.

Søren Sørøver, co-owner of Brandbygegaard, strolls through rows of produce.

Essentials


Getting there & around
To reach Denmark directly by boat, book a cabin on the 18-hour freight route between Immingham and Esbjerg in West Jutland. freightlink.co.uk
Alternatively, plot a route combining ferries and trains. seat61.com/denmark

British Airways has direct flights between Heathrow and Billund Airport. Ryanair operates direct flights between Stansted and both Billund Airport and Aarhus Airport.

Average flight time: 1hr35.

Endelave, Hjarnø and Alrø are easily explored by bike, but a car is useful for exploring the region more widely. Car hire is available at the airports. 

When to go
The spring, summer and early autumn months are perfect for a visit, with mild weather and highs of 21C. Autumn and winter see lows of -1C.

Where to stay 
Scandic Bygholm Park. From £107, B&B. 
Hotel Opus. From £124.
Endelave Kro. From £66. 

More info
Coastal Land region (Odder, Horsens and Juelsminde on the east coast of Jutland). 
Visit Denmark

How to do it
A five-night trip arranged independently, including return flights, a double room in Scandic Bygholm Park with breakfast, five-day car hire through Europcar, visits to the islands, and entrance to the prison museum in Horsens will cost from around £980 per person. 

Published in the December 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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