visiting bornholm: the magical danish island
I have been to two truly magical places, the kind of places that you may visit for only a day, but the sheer beauty and charm of being somewhere so totally different carry on with you. Miyamasou, a ryokan in the cedar forests outside Kyoto, was the first, and Bornholm, a Danish island off the Swedish coast, is now the second.
The closest analogy I can give for Bornholm is that it's a bit like if Maine was a small island, surrounded by the Baltic, with thick forest in the middle, and a Michelin starred restaurant that somehow manages to add a bit of glamor and yet still fits the sandy, summery holiday vibe of the island.
Bornholm is known for eternal sun, and while we saw a few clouds, the fields were plentiful, the rocky beaches were beautiful, and fig trees, of all things, really did bloom. Smokehouses dot the island, with Danish families crowding around tables filled with herring, and salmon, and shrimps. The local dish "Sun Over Godhjem" involves smoked herring, piles of onion, and raw egg yolk on top of rye bread. Perhaps an acquired taste, but like most things on the island, disarmingly delightful.
Outside of the fish scene, however, a gourmet world has grown around the island, throughout the villages that line the coasts. From breweries to local jams to impeccable ceramics, there are clear ties to Copenhagen and its exacting tastes.
If I had three weeks every summer to go anywhere, I'd go to Bornholm. Roam around, drive down dirt roads, taste the local sea buckthorn schnapps, sit out by the cliffs drinking natural wine. Nothing could be more lovely.
I don't usually start with this, but in Bornholm it seems vital. Stay at the Nordlandet, owned by the same folk as Kadeau (below). It's the rare hotel that manages to have a casual, comfortable energy and take hospitality very seriously. After a bit of an exciting travel day (more on getting to Bornholm also below), we found ourselves arriving well into night. There may have been no true front desk at that hour, but we were assured that we could go down to the bar where "they'd all be drinking beer" and they'd rustle up a meal for us. The meal turned out to be warm rolls, local ham, marinated olives, natural wine, and a bit of chocolate cake. The morning breakfast was worth the trip alone, from handmade sausages and perfect plum jam, with views of the water. It's an incredible place and shaped much of our time on the island.
- Kadeau: Beginning with the most obvious, Kadeau is a Michelin-starred restaurant that has since started a well-known sister restaurant in Copenhagen. In a small whitewashed room overlooking the sea, Kadeau offers two tasting menus that focus on local produce. We went for the longer format and were relieved we did - it was one of our most memorable meals in Scandinavia. Each dish was extremely precise - the list of ingredients for each was awfully long - and at once unassuming, with service and wine that were similarly interesting and easy. To say that one of the desserts included the pink heart of a pinecone is about all else you need to know.
- Smokehouses: We had only a day, so semi-arbitrarily I guided us to Nexo Gamle Rogeri, as it was close to our next food stop. The salmon filet was the most perfect version of kippered salmon I've had, the full herring, salty in just the right ways, and the sun over godhjem was something else. Other big names to explore: Hasle Smokehouse, Røgeriet i Svaneke and Snogebæk Røgeri.
- Hallegaard: Hallegaard is an organic pig farm that's been around for decades and churns out charcuterie that's in demand throughout Denmark. Lucky for you, they have a mini garden cafe, found far down winding dirt roads towards the center of Bornholm. Since this was our second lunch, we went for the charcuterie board, but eyeing everyone else's little table, we saw an awful lot of sausages pass by. (Note there also may be a location in the village of Svaneke - we didn't see it, and the middle of nowhere version was really lovely, so perhaps stick to that.)
- Norresan: A small cafe with coffee and wine towards the north of the island. Rumor has it in the evening they may do s'mores over a bonfire. As we were swinging by in the afternoon, we constrained ourselves to an espresso and slice of cake filled with baby strawberries and cream.
- Missed by us, but hopefully not you: a true meal at the Hotel Nordlandet, currently serving under the name Pony (every small thing we had was incredible and the space is truly beautiful); Gaarden, somewhat of a farmer's market; Torvehal, a food hall that supposedly has highlights of just about everything (but sadly was closed while we were there); Penyllan Brewery, not open on Mondays, and soon to open, an outpost of Mikkeller.
The charm of Bornholm is that you could do very little indeed, and still have a marvelous time. But if you're feeling intrepid:
- Hikes: The middle of the island is quite foresty and trails run throughout. We headed towards Ekkodalen, known for its echoes, which was a lovely trail that quickly dove from forest into deep ravine, filled with brightly colored cows and purple flowers.
- Round churches: The island has a surprising concentration of whitewashed medieval churches with distinctive round tops, dating from around 1150 (and built to protect against pirates!). We pulled over whenever we saw one and wandered in, to discover quaint interiors, and in the case of Osterlars Kirke, 14th century frescoes. Note that the churches generally require a small donation at the door; if you find yourself without cash, the smaller ones will likely wave you through. Others to visit: Sct. Ols Kirke, Nylars Kirke, Ny Kirke
- Hostet: I don't know if this counts as an activity, but Hostet is a sea buckthorn plantation with a long whitewashed farm house that sells jams, schnapps, soaps etc. There's nothing quite like offroading into the middle of nowhere to try the most bougie, antioxidenty fruit possible, straight off the tree while chickens roam around.
- Lov I Listed: The most beautiful ceramics, as used at Nordlandet and Kadeau. I had read about Torben and Susanne in a NY Times article, and they were high on the list of reasons to visit the island. As luck had it, the shop was closed while we were in town, but after the hotel called, Susan offered to open their doors if we could swing by the village of Listed on our way to the airport. We hustled over and were incredibly delighted we did -- each piece was so beautifully made, and as Susanne packed up my piles of wares, she invited us to pop around the back to see Torben at work. There he was, handcrafting bowls, as he has for decades, in a whitewashed cottage. Totally magical.
- On the skip it list: Everyone says to hang out in the village of Svaneke (incredibly touristy), and visit Lakrid's for licorice (available all over; also incredibly touristy); I wouldn't bother.
Things to know
- Getting to Bornholm: Is both difficult and easy. If you, lucky soul, drive stick, then you're in luck. Simply call the car rental company in advance to request the car. Given how few there are available on the island, they will likely and hopefully email you back to confirm availability. Then you simply hop a nice little (real little) flight from Copenhagen, land in Bornholm's one and only one-strip airport in Ronne and badda bing badda boom you're all set.
If, you, unhappily, do not drive stick ("I have heard that about Americans," intoned the unimpressed car agent), then I'm afraid this gets more exciting. There are a few possibilities, but based on our route, the easiest is to pick up a car at Copenhagen airport, drive across Europe's longest bridge into Sweden and then pick up the car ferry at Ystad. Please learn from our mistakes, however: Copenhagen airport is large and while the drive is pleasant and short, they do indeed require you to be at the ferry a minimum of 10 minutes early. If you happen to arrive on the dot, you will find them locking the gates, the next ferry may indeed be booked out, requiring you to stay in the car for the "waitlist" for another two hours... only to get booted to the following ferry, hours later. Do your research, err on the side of caution etc. (Though fun fact: great falafel stand near by.)
- As with our other Scandinavia stops, credit card was the way to go just about everywhere with two exceptions: leaving a donation at the round churches, and if you want to stop by any of the really darling little farmstands (which seem to run on a trust-based system) island life and all that.
- Bornholm has a surprisingly good website with information on getting there and what to do.