Stranded: The Secrets of the Danish Coast
26 July, 2019
A journey across Jutland's wild West Coast takes in friendly seals, North Sea ghosts and unveils a welcoming attitude that beckons visitors away from Denmark's capital.
"There's very good vibes around here." In 1970, during a one-month residence in north western Denmark, John Lennon and Yoko Ono gave a video interview to the small town of Thy's press in praise of peace and naivety. Lennon's love for going with the flow instead of trying to tick boxes was eminent here more than ever, as was his adoration for those who dwell outside the capital. Putting it simply, he remarked: "The people here aren't as paranoid as those in the big cities." The town quickly became the site of one of the world's first hippie communes - Thylejren, meaning "the Camp" - in a country regarded as quick-off-the-mark when it comes to collective, harmonic living.
And so, by car, I embark on a three-day coastal journey across this mysteriously sublime land that's so often cast in the shadows of Denmark's surrounding cities and its happiness-slapped capital of Copenhagen. After a day spent farther north in Agger, I arrive in the fishing village of Thyborøn by ferry. Rolling up my jeans, I head for shallow waters and dig my hands deep into the sands in search of nature's treasure - the cold-water oyster.
Squinting into the distant sun, I make out some figures bobbing in the water. I shiver. By history's mark, this is one of the most perilous coasts in the world, with a timeline as grizzly and weighty as the waters' fruits. Perhaps it's my city-dweller nature setting in, but, as I busy myself, I feel I'm being watched by these offshore creatures.
Soon, though, my bounty is found, and my bougie musings are wonderfully shattered as my fingers clutch a piece of seabed gold covered in grit and sand. A sixty-something sunkissed fisherman chivalrously shucks my oyster aboard his sailboat and I enjoy it with mignonette. A glass of Cremant also hurtles my way, but I've barely necked it before we're careening towards the floating mammals I made out earlier. They're seals, and this is what I can only describe as a "sealfari". I roar with laughter while tipsily trying to snap photos of them lolling around and gawping back at me. Before giddily stepping back onshore, we catch lobsters, crabs and lumpfish roe for beach grilling later.
Set on a desolate beach, the feast is commanded by a buttery turbot prepared on a firepit by the handsome, tattooed and bespectacled chef Jesper Krabbe. After heading up some of Scandinavia's most hyped kitchens, Krabbe turned his career heat down in favour of communal beachside dining. Our picnic bench is laden with fresh flowers, pretty china and old silverware belonging to Krabbe's beautiful sidekick Victoria. Thick woollen knits are handed around to keep dusk's chill at bay. The craftsmanship is high, but so is the vibe. Having overdosed on wholesomeness, I sleep like a baby.
The next day, I visit Hanherred Havbåde, a boat-building workshop at Thorupstrand, where the skeleton of a new fishing boat lies in wait. I climb some stairs and gaze over its inner belly, its timbers like ribs. Across the beach, strong fishermen and women graft in the sun while Pipsen - a tall, athletic, calm and elegant woman - proudly tells me that the boats are, in part, community projects on which locals work during their free time. Then we go for a coffee in the sun.
For all the good vibes that Lennon picked up on here, there are some strange ones too. It somehow feels very Danish for all the sweetness and light to be tinged with a certain noir. The jovial seaside revelry distracts only momentarily from a heavy presence in the salty air.
It's impossible not to feel it in a land so doused in drama. For centuries, the North Sea has washed up many violent incidents on Denmark's wild West Coast. Reminders manifest in the sharp, wind-carved dunes scattered with lyme and marram grass that conceal the remnants of countless wrecked sailors.
No story is more harrowing than that of HMS St George, which lost almost all of its 1,400 passengers and crew when it was stranded here December 1811. At the impressive Strandingsmuseum St George, you can ring the ship's mammoth bell (excavated in the 80s) and massive rudder (discovered by a diver in 2003).
The award-winning WW2 bunker-turned-museum Tirpitz at Blåvand is equally awe-inspiring, in all its brutalist concrete-and-glass glory. Its permanent exhibition of washed-up amber gleams, while its 360-degree geocritical installation film inspires - visitors sit in a lifeboat to watch. It serves as a reminder of the resourceful and resilient nature of the typical Jutlander.
Jutland's lack of crowds and hyperactivity was one of the reasons why John and Yoko decamped here almost half a century ago - and it's hard not to wonder if many wrecks made this their final resting place for the same reason. Time stands still on Denmark's West Coast. Yet far from being a sleepy hinterland, it's a place of welcome. Just as it has taken in the shipwrecked, the refugees and prisoners of war in the past, so too does it beckon visitors today.
Svinkløv Badehotel: On the secluded northwestern tip of the coast, this remarkable, whitewashed wooden beach hotel was recently rebuilt after having burned down a few years ago. Owner and head chef Kenneth Toft-Hansen routinely refuses Michelin stars and only competed (and cooly won gold at) the Bocuse d'Or as he was in need of a side project. You'll likely weep over the seafood-laden menu in the sunset-lit dining room with panoramic views across the sea... before weeping again at the best dessert you've ever laid spoon on: dark chocolate ice cream, shaved lime mint ice granita and lemon verbena.
Henne Mølle Å Badehotel: Set in the wilderness is this sweet beach hotel where rooms are somewhat dated, but all the more charming for it - expect old books, electric reclining mattresses, lamps and a mezzanine for extra reading (or sleeping) room. Locals and travellers book way in advance to dine at its superb restaurant that, among many things, serves locally caught fresh plaice with parsley potatoes and lingonberry jam - and a killer chablis. Its endearing website correctly dubs the hotel "probably Denmark's nicest bathing hotel". In this spirit of no word-mincery: it's really nice here.
Vedersø Klit Badehotel: Run by two young dapper brothers with a fierce knowledge of and appreciation for great, unpretentious local produce (they ran street food markets in Aarhus for years), this is a sprawling and welcoming beach hotel high up in the dunes. Rooms are light, quiet and accented with white cotton sheets, fluffy pillows and epic views of the eerie terra firma. Enjoy an organic breakfast of local pastries and apple juice, and be sure to book dinner at the no-fuss yet completely wonderful brasserie.
Hire a car. It's such a short but packed line of coast, much better enjoyed on wheels.
Swing by the Port of Hanstholm for the morning fish auction. It's the fishing capital of Denmark and a renewable wind and wave energy hub.
Acquire roadtrip snacks and souvenirs at the beautiful HR Skov delicatessen at Blåvand near the Tirpitz Museum, which has the owner's prized motorbike plonked dead centre in the shop.
Make lunch reservations at Kommandobroen by Grantland, an exquisite Hvide Sande harbourside restaurant which serves shellfish platters with a twist and incredible tartare and tongue.
Another great place to visit on this trail is the Cold Hawaii - at the end of summer it holds a Surfing World Cup.