Three years ago, we went on our first two-week holiday in Denmark and it wasn’t long before we had a family mantra. “Oh wow, I love this place.” It was used as the children discovered the Jacuzzi on the first night in the coastal summer house we were renting; as we enjoyed lunch looking out to Sweden on the lawns of the Louisiana art gallery; even when we discovered that our local swimming centre had a children’s pool filled with funky inflatables and not overcrowded like every place we try in London.
Then, on our most recent Danish holiday, my son Lloyd, nine, honed a new chant that he would say when we were out enjoying another new experience – maybe at the Viking Museum, or leaping in waves on beaches where the horizon opens up so wide you’re sure you can see the earth’s curve – “Buy a second home, buy a second home,” he would whisper with touching optimism.
Three years ago, when we were struggling to book an interesting summer holiday in Spain, Lloyd suggested Denmark. This was based on a six-year-old’s logic that Denmark play decent football, so it was probably good for holidays. My partner Andy and I prefer holidays that aren’t just about the beach and the hotel bar, and we’ve retreated to mild climates like Wales and Brittany since our fair-skinned, ginger children – Lloyd and our five-year-old daughter, Eleanor – were born, so it seemed like a good call.
You can sail from Harwich to Denmark or cross the Channel and drive up to Jutland, but flying to Copenhagen from the UK is quick and, even in summer holidays, the prices compare well with flights to Spain or Italy. We flew and then hired a car, having booked a holiday home through the Danish company Sol og Strand – Sun And Beach – who rent homes to suit all budgets. You can also select by other criteria like “eco-friendly”, “with sauna” and by proximity to the sea; although Denmark is on the North Sea and defines where the Baltic Sea begins, the Danish happily strip off for a daily swim while the rest of us build sandcastles on the sandy beaches or play skimming on more pebbly stretches.
We chose to stay on the northern coast of Zealand, much smaller than Denmark’s mainland peninsula Jutland, but geographically more sheltered and rich in things to do, with gorgeous views across to Sweden. It also has coastline that reaches up from Copenhagen full of pretty little towns with great restaurants to serve the affluent weekenders who often have little country retreats less than an hour from the capital. Hence, while you rarely see a traffic jam outside the city, you might find a great fresh fish shop or come across a cute café in a secluded spot near a clutch of beach houses.
North Zealand is spacious and green, particularly the towns Humlebæk, Helsingør (as in Elsinore and yes, the castle, Kronborg Slot, hosts productions of Hamlet), Hornbæk and Tisvildeleje dotted along its coast, with picturesque beaches. It also boasts a cultured lifestyle. The old brick railway station at Tisvildeleje, for example, also has an art gallery as well as a post office-cum-visitor centre complete with coffee, internet café and a library.
If you have children like mine, who need to be kept out of the sun in the middle of the day and get fidgety on a lounger for more than five minutes, then you need a to-do list. Thankfully, it’s hard to run out of ideas in Denmark, especially as our children insisted on doing most things at least twice.
Beware of visiting the Experimentarium on the outskirts of Copenhagen, as it could seriously spoil any future trip to the Science Museum in London. The Experimentarium is a vast museum on two floors where everything is hands-on, with themes exploring the body, nature, optical illusions, water and anything else that gets children moving. From standing in a wind tunnel to lying on a bed of nails or making a television programme, its halls throng with busy children (little ones included), and most importantly, there is so much to do that your child rarely has to wait to get stuck in. You can take a picnic or go for the classy café options (grab one of their chocolate cakes and a coffee whatever you do).
You can’t visit Denmark and pass up the chance to get close to former Nordic glories. The Viking ship Museum in Roskilde (20 miles from Copenhagen) is set on Roskilde Fjord. It comprises a large hall containing the “skeleton” remains of five original 11th-century Viking ships, a quay and smaller outbuildings where you can observe skills like sail weaving in the Viking Lab. During holidays, parents sit in the sun with an ice cream while children bowl up at the tunet (covered stalls filled with Viking craft displays) to hammer out pieces of silver jewellery or paint a shield. Eleanor and Lloyd spent an hour carefully following dragon stencils and painting their names in runic letters before we could drag them away to dress up on the recreated cargo ship, but the star attraction was the chance to take a 50-minute trip on a reconstructed Viking boat and help man the ship.
Chances are you know two things about Denmark: Vikings and Lego. The first time we stayed, we didn’t want to spend too long travelling to the original Legoland, which is to the east, in Billund, Jutland. After all, we go to Windsor often enough. But this time we made the trip and stopped off for two nights on the small middle island of Funen, a beautiful area with its own zoo, castles and railway museum.
Many visitors fly straight into Billund for a mini Legoland break, but the flat, leafy scenery in this corner of Jutland does not do justice to the raw beauty of Denmark’s coastlines and lakes, and it’s nowhere near any of the charming little towns, so we stayed about half an hour’s drive away, in a funky town across the water from Jutland, called Middelfart. Contrasting with the mechanical joys of Legoland, the Middelfart Resort is a laid-back parkland with chalets, sports fields, two pools, and its own shoreline, from which a steamboat puffs away on sea tours. During Danish school holidays (which overlap with ours, but tend to end mid-August), the resort hosts daily craft and nature sessions for children. We couldn’t get Lloyd out of the open-air pool, and Eleanor loved rooting in the sand and stones to see what had been washed up on the little private beach.
As for Legoland, we suspected it would feel like an entirely new experience – given that most things in Denmark are wonderful (except the 25 per cent VAT and universal charge on all credit card transactions). Even with some branded rides that have clearly been rolled out across every territory, like the 4D cinema, there was something fresh about exploring a different model village and nothing at Windsor gets you as wet as Billund’s Pirate Splash Battle. Even the aquarium, which at first appears to be a small sideshow, is easily as impressive as the Sea Life centre on the South Bank in London. And, as with so much in Denmark, there is a gentleness to the Billund Legoland that simply relaxes.
While we were staying on Funen, we also visited Odense, Hans Christian Andersen’s hometown. Here, the main museum – dedicated to the life and work of the cobbler-turned-storyteller – is a big draw. We made a beeline for the children’s centre. While we were writing down our thoughts on paper leaves to pin to the wishing tree in the entrance hall, three little blonde girls in uniforms hurried past us for their after-school treat to choose fancy pink outfits from the dressing-up room. The children’s centre is full of model houses, inspired by Andersen’s life and stories. Upstairs, toddlers improvised a puppet show, little boys played in the carpenter’s workshop, and more would-be princesses were dressed and preened by the make-up artist in the vast changing room. But Eleanor and Lloyd, after dressing Andy in a rabbit costume and playing hide-and-seek, chose the art studio, where children can pick up a brush and express their inspiration as they fancy.
By the time we returned from Funen to Zealand, we felt we were coming home. When we told people we were going to Denmark (again), I cited Eleanor’s heartfelt plea, “Oh, please can we go to Denmark? Then we can go to the art gallery!” You can hothouse your darlings all you want, but you rarely hear a five-year-old come out with a line like that… The Louisiana is indeed a must-see. Created from a series of old buildings, it has a state-of-the-art warren of underground gallery rooms, and a natural rolling landscape with modern sculptures hiding around the lake and on lawns that stretch down to the sea. In summer, there is live music out on the lawns, but for Eleanor it’s all about the three floors of art activities – crafts themed to current exhibitions, pastels and an ever-changing Lego wall, painting, model making, you name it. With its staff who are simply there to replenish the stock of clay slabs and paint, the children’s gallery is a joy – not only because the children loved creating their own work, but because while one of us helped ourselves to coffee or juice, the other parent was free to sneak off and explore the galleries of old and contemporary Nordic, European and American art.
After two weeks of cycling, swimming, sailing and walking, a city trip to Copenhagen is perfect. Everything is within a ten-minute walk, including Tivoli Gardens, the quaint 170-year-old pleasure park. It’s not cheap, and while those seeking modern thrills will find just a couple of daring rides, its boating lake and sideshows give you a sense of what this urban amusement might have seemed like to celebrity guests like Hans Christian Andersen when it opened in 1843.
Copenhagen’s bohemian quarter is more genteel than in its hippy heyday, but the centre of town still has a relaxed bustle. For posh shopping, start in the cobbled lanes and lovely children’s boutiques in Willemoesgade, or get a fashion fix along Østerbrogade. Our souvenir from a shopping trip here? Lloyd’s FC København football shirt. He wears it when England play Denmark, and guess who he supports?
- Experimentarium Visit www.experimentarium.dk
- Legoland, Jutland Visit www.legoland.dk
- Middelfart Resort, Funen Visit www.kursuscentre.dk
- Sol og Strand Has holiday homes to rent all over Denmark. For more information, visit www.sologstrand.com
- The Tinder-Box, Funen The Hans Christian Andersen Museum and children’s cultural house. Visit www.fyrtoejet.com
- Viking Ship Museum, Roskilde Visit www.vikingeskibsmuseet.dk
- Visit Copenhagen For more information on what to do in the Danish capital, visit www.visitcopenhagen.dk
- Visit Denmark Visit www.visitdenmark.com for places to stay.