Stark beauty on Denmark’s northernmost tip
SKAGEN, Denmark - When people talk about Skagen, they tend to talk about its magnificent light. But I came because I’m writing a novel that is set, partly, in Denmark, and because the characters are on the run, and Skagen is the country’s northernmost tip. Once you have hit Skagen, on the Jutland peninsula, there is nowhere else to run. I found this idea attractive. The light, I couldn’t have cared less about.
But it turns out the light is pretty great, and the people are incredibly nice, and I fell in love with it, and them, during four days in August. (June and July is high season in Skagen - pronounced skane - and while there are tourists in August, too, there aren’t nearly as many and prices are lower.)
My family and I drove from the Copenhagen airport for five hours, through gently rolling fields and over fiords, until, 10 miles south of Skagen, we began to see dunes. We didn’t stop seeing dunes during our stay. If you don’t like dunes, then you probably wouldn’t love Skagen as much as I did.
For our first two nights we stayed at the Hotel Sonderstrand, which is in Skagen Havn, the new (1907) port on the east side of the peninsula. The port won’t seem all that alien to residents of the Northeast United States, but still, it was fun to watch working fishing and cargo ships coming in from Sweden (to the east) and Norway (to the north) and docking next to the ferries, cruise ships, and sailboats flying those three nations’ flags and Germany’s.
There are several good restaurants in the port, but our favorites were Laksehuset Skagen (one in a row of several inexpensive restaurants) and Pakhuset (my favorite, with a bar, a fancy upstairs dining area, and a slightly less formal downstairs dining area). Most of the restaurants serve beer brewed at the Skagen Bryghus, which I highly recommend.
The Sonderstrand itself is lovely, with spacious whitewashed and wood-floored rooms, a great breakfast (pickled herring, spicy meats, crunchy bread, yogurt, incredibly strong coffee), and a courtyard full of apple trees. It is run by the amiable Soren Nielsen, whose childhood home makes up part of the hotel, and whose former business, a manufacturer of fishing net, is across the street.
Skagen Havn is a working town, and the shipping and fishing industries make all the shops and galleries and art museums and yellow stucco and red-tile-roof houses seem much less precious then they might otherwise appear. Two blocks north of the Sonderstrand and Nordtrawl, the industry disappears and the beach and dunes take over. The water on the east side of the peninsula is calmer than the west and the dunes a little less dramatic but still beautiful in a stark, Northern European way. (Skagerrak, a strait leading to the North Sea, is on the west, and Kattegat, a sea area leading to the Baltic, on the east.) Even better is Grenen, at the very end of the peninsula, a mile or so from Skagen Havn, where the wind seems to come from everywhere and where the waves collide and swirl in spectacular fashion.
It takes about 20 minutes to walk from the parking lot, past the remains of World War II bunkers (Denmark was occupied by the Germans), over the dunes, down the beach, and to the point, but the walk is worth it. Or take a tractor-pulled trolley car out to the point. The whole area is so beautiful that you might decide to take a left at the point and keep walking the several miles down the wilder western shore until you hit Gammel Skagen, the town’s original port and now a beach community.
Or, you could do what we did, and drive the two miles to Ruth’s Hotel, where we stayed for our final two nights. Ruth’s, like many of the private houses in Gammel Skagen, is next to and in the middle of dunes. It was very expensive and very nice. But most important, it was right next to a series of paths that lead up and down dunes, past turf-roofed houses that you can’t see until you have climbed one of the surrounding dunes, and then down to the beach, which is secluded and possibly the most beautiful beach I have ever seen.
Here the surf is wild, and the light, which changes minute by minute as the clouds stream overhead, is truly remarkable, remarkable enough for a place to be known for it, even if it deserves to be known for so many other things as well.
Brock Clarke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.