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Denmark, but Different

Pristine, arty Bornholm Island, popular with Nordic vacationers, is little known to Americans.

April 28, 2002|DALE M. BROWN

BORNHOLM, Denmark — On a recent trip to this country of warm welcomes, I had barely unpacked in Copenhagen when a young Danish friend, Frank Engelbrecht-Jensen, called to greet me in one breath and ask me in the next whether I would like to join him on a three-day, head-clearing trip to Bornholm. Denmark is always a homecoming for me--I was a student here many years ago--and this small Baltic island just happens to be one of my favorite spots. Naturally, I leaped at the invitation.

All but unknown to Americans, Bornholm is a kind of Danish Martha's Vineyard and one of Scandinavia's better-kept secrets. Danes, Swedes, Norwegians and Germans, who recognize a good thing when they see it, vacation on the island during the long days of the Scandinavian summer. And 70% of them are repeaters.

As I knew from experience, Bornholm has something to offer people of all ages and inclinations. Accommodations range from seaside hotels and house and apartment rentals to woodsy campgrounds. Swimmers and sunbathers love the island's wide beaches, whose sugar-white sand is so fine it was once exported for use in hourglasses. Rock climbers are drawn to its granite cliffs. Golfers flock to its three 18-hole courses, yachters to its harbors. Bikers and hikers find hours of pleasure following its numerous paths and roads. And for people who just want to relax, there are charming towns, like Svaneke and Gudhjem (which means "God's Home"), whose red, yellow, green, blue and white half-timbered houses crowd down slopes to the water's edge.

I hadn't been to the island in decades. Until recently you could reach it only by airplane or overnight ferry. Now you can drive most of the way from Copenhagen. The sleek new Oresund Bridge joining Denmark and Sweden helps make this possible in just three hours, about half of which are spent aboard a comfortable, high-speed catamaran car ferry from Ystad, in southern Sweden, to the small city of Ronne, the island's capital. (It's also possible to take a train or bus from Copenhagen to the ferry and then rent a car.)

Frank and I elected to drive. Setting out one afternoon last October, we arrived in the dark at our hotel, the modern, three-story Radisson SAS Fredensborg, set among trees on the outskirts of Ronne. I was particularly eager to see how the growing numbers of tourists were affecting Bornholm, even in a country that I always find delightfully unchanged.

One of the surprises awaiting me early the next day was the view as I opened the curtains of my room: a sparkling blue sea, seen through a screen of bright green pine trees. The pristine nature of it all made me want to get going right away.

Bornholm is 227 square miles, home to about 44,000 people, but not so big that it can't be driven around in a couple of hours. It lies between Sweden and Poland, about 110 miles from Copenhagen as the sea gull flies, and is rocky at its northern end (two-thirds of the island is granite), where purple heather blooms in August and September. To the south, the landscape becomes gently rolling, fertile farmland punctuated by 13 tall windmills and several smaller ones.

Frank and I made our first stop in the north, near Hasle, to visit herring smokehouses a stone's throw from the sea. As an avid amateur photographer, I wanted to take advantage of the crystalline morning light to shoot these beautiful structures, whose broad, walk-in fireplaces take a pyramidal shape on the outside, then narrow into tall chimneys. Found all along the coast, the smokehouses are distinctive to the island, which was long dependent on its fishing industry as a major revenue source.

The process by which the silver herring are smoked is an ancient one. They are gutted and strung on racks to dry in the open air, then placed over smoldering alder wood and left in the fireplaces until they turn gold. Such is their reputation as a delicacy that they are known throughout Denmark as Bornholmers, the name for the islanders themselves. Nothing beats eating one still warm from the smokehouse. Unfortunately, Frank and I arrived after the previous day's catch had already been packed for shipment. Only the delicious aroma of herring and smoke lingered in the air.

We paused next at a wild spot called Jons Kapel ("John's Chapel"), a 72-foot-deep split in billion-year-old granite. One of several such ravines along the coast, it was named after a medieval hermit and missionary who, legends says, lived here in a cave. A couple of hundred wooden steps descend to the boulder-and-seaweed-strewn shore below. Standing on a rock at the bottom, I was reminded of the elemental forces that have shaped Bornholm over the eons, including the grinding together of continental plates that gave birth to it in a violent upthrust.

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