Year after year Denmark dominates the World Happiness Report rankings. First place in 2016, second in 2017, and last year coming in at a cheerful number three, there’s no dampening the Danes’ high spirits. Bornholm, an island perched in the middle of the Baltic Sea must play a part in this, I think, as I step off the 16-seater plane onto an impeccably tarmacked runway, and gaze out across the Baltic Sea. Small and perfectly formed, Bornholm’s place in Danish hearts has long been cemented. Manicured lawns lead up to paint-box coloured cottages, rippling wheat fields glow gold in the fading afternoon light, and streaky clouds drape themselves across the sky.
And then comes the food. Thanks in large part to an abundance of innovative local producers, Bornholm’s culinary scene is booming. From honey to herring, bacon to berries, food on the island is so flavoursome that the country’s most lauded culinary addresses use Bornholm as their larder. The island itself offers up far more that its share of fine dining: places such as Stammershalle Badehotel on the north coast, and two Michelin-starred Kadeau in the south have catapulted it into gastronomy’s premier league. It may appear as no more than a pinprick on a map, but Bornholm’s bucolic charms and exceptional Scandi cuisine have earned it a place on the world stage.
On the island’s southern tip, Dueodde Beach has dazzlingly white sand soft enough to induce that satisfying toe squeak. It’s also so fine that it was once used to fill hourglasses. The beach stretches for more than two miles, backed by grassy dunes and sweet-smelling pine forest. And, even in the height of summer, finding a secluded spot is remarkably easy.
In the wars
Bornholm was the last corner of Europe to be liberated after the Second World War; Russia clung onto it for a whole year after the rest of Europe regained its freedom.
Do the rounds
Four of Denmark’s seven rundkirke (round churches) are found on Bornholm. Built in the 12th century, these squat stone buildings were used as places of worship, fortresses and storage facilities. Their whitewashed walls are more than six-feet thick (to withstand battering rams) and come complete with arrow slits, while stairwells are steep and narrow for further defence. All are still in use today, and all are as beautiful as they are impractical; less than a quarter of the congregation can ever actually see the priest. In Bornholm, getting to church early is clearly a must.
On your bike
Flat, picture-perfect and with no major roads to speak of, Bornholm was made for two-wheeled travel. Rent a bike in Rønne and cycle the 20 miles across the island to the beautiful town of Svaneke (which regularly tops Danish polls for its beauty). It’s a journey where the topography transforms from sandy beaches to scarred granite jutting out into the surf.
As they have done for centuries, local fishermen bring their catch to the røgeri (smokehouses) to be smoked in the traditional way. Svaneke Røgeri is an excellent example, where you can order a smorgasbord of fish for around £16 per person.
These fantastically sour berries — a superfood packed with nutrients and antioxidants — are cultivated all over the island. While the marmalade steals the show, either on bread or to accompany cheese, both the juice, and the dried seasoning flakes are well worth seeking out.
Bornholm’s pig population far outnumbers that of its 40,000 humans. Its bacon bolsters the country’s already exceptional reputation. The island has strict regulations when it comes to the animals’ treatment, and meat is matured for at least three days to ensure tenderness.
A farm to calm
Hundreds of tomatoes stretch out in rows before me, lipstick red and perfectly plump, their vines sagging beneath them like the bows of an overdecorated Christmas tree. “Working with nature gives you good feelings,” Bertil grins, gesturing around his polytunnel before popping a tomato into his mouth.
Plantagen is one of several organic farms on Bornholm, but it’s also a place where people suffering with mental health problems can, as Bertil explains, “take some time out”. I can see why it’s so popular; the sun shines, chubby birds rootle around in the hedgerows, and a light breeze blows up from the Baltic — the whole place is incredibly soothing. Even Bertil himself, in his plaid shirt and worn wellies, seems to emit a glow.
After following his lead and trying a couple of tomatoes myself, each one bursting with flavour, we wander over to the strawberry patch. “I grow three kinds. The Sonata and the smaller, rounder Korona are particularly good.” I nod along, tasting minimal difference, other than the fact that each one is even better than the last.
“Chefs often boast about using only what’s on their doorstep but in Bornholm that’s really true. It’s the sunniest place in Denmark, so we can grow things the rest of the country can’t.”
But Bertil’s pride and joy are his bees. “I’m like a parent,” he smiles, pointing towards a row of eight hives from which emanates a low, rhythmic hum. “The process of beekeeping isn’t easy, I have to make sure the queen is happy all the time otherwise she leaves, and then her workers leave, too.”
But the rewards are worth it. Bertil emerges from a building next door with a flat wooden frame he’d removed from a hive that morning, golden honey oozing from hundreds of hexagonal wax holes. It glistens in the sunshine, and he slowly scrapes away the wax before handing me a laden spoon.
It’s intoxicatingly wonderful, a heady, sticky sweetness that coats my fingers and drips down my chin. “Good feelings?” Bertil asks. Good feelings indeed.
Published in the Jan/Feb issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)