“No, we’re not going to Legoland,” I explain patiently to my son, Thomas, as we disembark from our overnight train from Germany. Of course, Legoland is one of two reasons you’d take your children to Denmark; Tivoli Park in Copenhagen being the other. Both are buried deep in the childhood psyche of every Dane — but we’d looked at a map of Denmark, pinpointed unexpected beaches, made assumptions about the excellence of Danish public transport and their sympathetic Scandinavian attitudes towards children, and decided to visit Jutland, one of the country’s less visited places. Tivoli was out, too.
And so we emerge on a sunny morning in the town of Kolding in southern Jutland, a place I hadn’t heard of until I realised we needed to change trains there. Thanks to a booking error, our family of five has shared our six-berth sleeper with three strangers. With almost no sleep, it’s not just the kids who need a sugar rush, so we sit in the pleasant railway square munching enormous — yes, Danish — pastries before exploring what emerges as a charming town. A short random walk from the train station brings us to Kolding Castle, a discovery that makes us feel as though we’re on the front foot straight away. It looks like a proper castle, with glowering battlements and a tough-looking drawbridge, and the children are mesmerised by the bats flying around the high-vaulted rooms.
We make our way via a playpark (they’re everywhere in Denmark) to take the train north to Aarhus and on again to Hirtshals, a small, sleepy town on the northern coast of Jutland. It’s a beautiful, wild spot, with vast beaches that straggle through dune after dune, before reaching the sea. A pleasant day is spent at the North Sea Aquarium where the children learn their first word of Danish: ‘klumpfisk’ or sun fish, a giant oval-shaped behemoth that hypnotically floats back and forth in its giant tank.
Eighteen miles up the coast we reach the northern tip at Skagen and, close by, an extraordinary shingle spit that tapers to a point where the children stand with one foot in the Skagerrak (an arm of the North Sea), and the other in the Kattegat (part of the Baltic). Artists have been drawn here to capture the light on canvas for more than a century — there are galleries aplenty in town — but the spit somehow holds its own, battered by the two seas. We take a tractor-driven bus, known as the ‘sandormen’ or sandworm, across Grenen beach and learn that for many Danes, this experience ranks with Tivoli among their fondest childhood memories.
Just south of Skagen lies Rabjerg Mile, one of Denmark’s least-known but must-visit sites. An extraordinary inland sand dune, roughly 1km square in shape, it’s as though a small slice of Arabia has been deposited in Scandinavia. The children scamper over the rolling, high dunes, while we tramp in their slipstream, silenced with disbelief at the spectacle. We revisit the dunes at dusk, hear the ‘churring’ call of the nightjar and get talking to local wildlife ranger, Villy Hansen.
“When the sun is half behind the dune and is throwing colours all over the landscape, it becomes a very special place,” he says. “You have two oceans and all this sand; it creates many strange colours.”
The sand turns up all over the place, creeping slowly over, through and around everything in its path. A little distance away, we visit Den Tilsandede Kirke, a church abandoned to the sweeping sands. South of Rabjerg Mile, the children spot a roadside sign for ice cream that looks improbable, with 10 scoops stacked on top of one another. Our inclination to drive on is drowned out by squeals of protest, and so we turn into the village of Tannisby for the Blue Kiosk ice cream store, and with a sharp pain in my wallet, find that the multi-stack ice creams do exist.
We drive onto the beach to eat them. Yes: drive. I was surprised to discover that Denmark allows you to drive on some beaches — the argument runs that this prevents important dune landscapes from being paved over by car parks. We all find the experience of being on a beach enclosed in a polygon of metal unexpectedly enjoyable.
We take a long day trip south, to the small town of Fjerritslev on the edge of Thy (pronounced ‘chew’) National Park and make our way to the coast, wandering past windmills built from driftwood and through lonely shipping communities around Slette beach near Thorupstrand. The yards are busy with shipbuilders and the boats are still hauled up by rope.
Thy became Denmark’s first national park in 2008 and is home to two sensational wildlife areas bookended by lonely lighthouses. In the south of the park around Agger Tange, the children become avid birders, watching comically bulbous red-beaked oystercatchers. In the far north lies the Hanstholm Nature Reserve where we follow a forest trail through conifers to reach Bleb So, a lake symmetrically rimmed with marshland. Red deer patrol the wooded, leeward banks of the dunes, while two cranes perch on trees stumps amid wetlands — unusually, the children are quiet, and we can just catch the cranes trumpeting. Suddenly, a large flock of greylag geese erupts as one from the lake.
The coast seems to be eating away at Denmark wherever we turn. Near the town of Thisted we visit the remote church of St Christopher, which dates to 1100. Once the centre of the community, the encroaching dunes forced the villagers to move east, leaving the church in splendid isolation. Inside, a 16th-century chalk painting depicts Adam and Eve in a dune landscape.
We return south for our train home. In Aarhus we partly break our original promise and visit Tivoli. Not the Tivoli in Copenhagen but a smaller, more manageable version, known as Tivoli Friheden, with rollercoasters and rides for all ages. Denmark, we all agree, is the perfect country for a family holiday — even if some of the beaches are unexpectedly far from the sea — and, of course, giant ice creams.
Who: Mark Rowe travelled with his partner, Lucy, and their three children Hannah (6), Thomas (4) and Oscar (3).
Best for: Kids, under-8
High: Thomas: “I loved running around the dunes. No sea but loads of sand! We ran all day.”
Low: Oscar: “We got caught in a storm at the aquarium. Because I was so wet, Mummy got me a toy orca which cheered me up.”
Need to know: Children are free on rail services to and in Denmark — except for Eurostar, from £32.
How to do it: Rail tickets, for one adult and one child, cost from £222 return from St Pancras to Aarhus via Brussels and Cologne. loco2.com
Alternatively, SAS flies from Heathrow to Aarhus via Copenhagen, or take direct flights with Ryanair from Stansted.
Published in the Summer 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller Family (UK)