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Bornholm: Denmark's Adventure Island

From Baltic beaches to granite cliffs, the island of Bornholm is Danish rec central.

Dueodde beach

The views at Dueodde beach are worth preserving.

Blame it on the kids. When i show up for a rock-climbing session at an old granite quarry on the Danish island of Bornholm, I’m not prepared to be jumping off a 25-metre cliff. But I can’t lose face in front of a group of 11-year-olds. One by one, they clip into a rappel line and sail away like osprey on a mission, while I do my best to blur the shrinking distance between my spot (within handy reach of a tree branch) and the edge of the universe. I focus on the modernist wooden shelter that cliff-hangs on the other side of the quarry, the ground-dwelling bees buzzing around, ocean liners plying the Baltic Sea just over yonder and… “You’re next,” warns the girl behind me. Push has come to shove.

Summit of Hammeren with views of Hammershus Castle and Hammerhavnen harbour

Once you reach the summit of Hammeren, a favourite training spot for runners on Bornholm’s rugged north end, you’ll be rewarded with a panorama that includes the ruins of the 800-year-old Hammershus Castle. Recharge with walnut cake at the café in Hammerhavnen harbour.

Somehow I manage to step over the precipice and am soon swishing down eons of geological history. Feeling like Superwoman (but looking more like Clumsy Smurf), I even find the courage to turn my head and peer out over the grass-and-gravel plain at the bottom. Anders Pedersen, an avid climber and guide with Bornholms Outdoorcenter, waves; once I’m on terra firma, he offers a high-five before walking me over to a climbing rope. “It’s hard to believe that only 20 years ago this was an active industrial site,” he says, gesturing at clusters of people scrambling up and down the hand-cut granite. What used to be a mine for building materials is now the Vang conservation area, with gnarly mountain-bike trails, hiking paths clinging to seaside cliffs, a scalloped metal bridge that doubles as installation art and areas with faraway names like Klondyke and Himalaya. We’re scaling the Nevada Cliffs, where I try not to trample the plants that stubbornly push through the sun-warmed rock.

Rappelling at the Vang conservation area; harnessed for rappelling

Left to right: Rappelling at the Vang conservation area, a former granite quarry, is like taking a shortcut through geological history; all harnessed up and somewhere to go.

This isn’t quite the image I had of Denmark. I came to Bornholm – bobbing in the swell between Sweden and Poland, the island is the nation’s sunniest spot – for a laid-back beach vacation laced with Danish design, New Nordic food and the tinted light made famous by P.S. Krøyer and Michael Ancher of the Skagen Painters (the local answer to the Group of Seven). I am finding all that, but I’m also getting my butt kicked. Unlike the flat mainland, this place has actually got topographic contour lines: There are rough shorelines and steep hills and cliffs in the north, magical beech forests criss-crossed by walking and biking trails (and the occasional European bison) in the middle and windswept white-sand beaches for surfing and kitesurfing in the south. It’s rec central, explaining why so many sporty Danes have gone into exile here.

Bornholm rocks

Bornholm rocks, but there are plenty of sand beaches to make the most of Denmark’s sunniest spot.

“Being a trail runner, I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else,” says Kim Rasmussen, clad in sneakers and shorts when we meet at Hammerhavnen, a small harbour for pleasure boats. The ultra-distance athlete helped make trail running a thing in Denmark when he and his partner, Lene Møller, started the sports club Tejn IF Løb, which also focuses on adventure racing and mountain biking. Rasmussen is eager to show me the country’s best training spot. Møller isn’t joining. “Someone’s got to make sure there’s cake and coffee after,” she says, nodding toward one of the wooden buildings housing a café. Rasmussen warns me he won’t be going very fast. “I just ran a marathon yesterday,” he says. I’m relieved – maybe I’ll keep pace.

René Larsen in Almindingen

Naturalist René Larsen has a few tall tales about trees and Vikings in Almindingen, Denmark’s third-largest forest.

We set off up a steep path that wends through oak and pine. I’m huffing, while he casually tells me he’s training for the 166-kilometre Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc. I glance at the sun-drenched harbour below and the 800-year-old Hammershus Castle ruins on the next hill over; sure, it’s hillier than the rest of Denmark, but this is nothing like the Alps. “Me and my pals just do the run many times over,” says Rasmussen as we reach the trail’s highest point. The animals that live here are welcome distractions from thinking about being out of shape: A school of liberated guppies streaks across a pond (another decommissioned quarry), rabbits hop around our feet and at one point we’re stopped by a cow blocking the path. Heading downhill again, I remember Møller’s promise of cake. I fall into a comfortable rhythm and start humming, Don’t quarry, be happy.

Float your boat on the Baltic Sea

Float your boat on the Baltic Sea by putting paddle to the gunmetal waves.

“Bornholm!” Bornholm, Bornholm… “Rocks!” Rocks, rocks… Ekkodalen (Echo Valley) is a granite rift that rips through the centre of the island. After confirming that it lives up to its name, I follow naturalist René Larsen into the dappled light of Denmark’s third-largest forest. “Two hundred years ago, you wouldn’t have found all these trees in Almindingen,” he says. Grazing cows and, later, logging companies chomped their way through, leaving only a stand of beech, oak and common hornbeam (which is harder than concrete) on terrain that, luckily, was too difficult to access. Today, this forest forms part of the island’s green strategy, along with the industrial sites turned open-air gyms, the wind turbines we see from the lookout tower at the top of Almindingen and Green Solution House, the world’s only Cradle to Cradle hotel (a waste-free design approach), where I stayed the previous night. As we hike along mountain-bike trails with wooden ramps and jumps, Larsen tells me there are European bison here, brought in from Poland to keep the forest in check the natural way. “Eating tree branches and shrubs,” he says, “they make sure the forest doesn’t get too dense and dark, creating habitat for more species of flora and fauna.” Bornholm is a work in multiple shades of green.

South Bornholm beaches

Sandy beaches hug the southern part of the island, with sand so fine it has been used in hourglasses.

Driving across the island, I add yellow to the colour palette: Canola sways alongside rolling fields of wheat, rye and even durum. The fishing villages, which double as resort towns in summer, paint the coastline with their own swatches. In Allinge, the narrow streets are flanked by red, white and yellow homes, inns and hotels. Motoring down the switchbacks to Gudhjem, I feel like I’m descending to an Italian seaside town crowned with terracotta roof tiles. Gudhjem’s sky-blue, ochre and pink houses compete with one another for attention, while together they make the fig and peach trees pop (but that’s also because I don’t expect to find these fruits in Scandinavia). Still, the dominant colour is that of the Baltic, shifting from aquamarine to pewter, sapphire to gunmetal.

Gudhjem; Stammershalle Badehotel’s restaurant

Left to right: Considered Bornholm’s prettiest village, Gudhjem paints the town red and yellow; make time for the multi-course dinner at Stammershalle Badehotel’s restaurant, where New Nordic and international flavours play well together.

On the day that I decide to see Bornholm from the water, my kayak slits open a sheet of blue. The gap left in the wake fills with bubbles, like tiny landmarks on a navigational chart. “We’ll paddle around the tip,” hollers Lars Engström, my guide. By the time we reach the northernmost point, the sandy beach anchoring the twin towns of Allinge and Sandvig has already disappeared behind us and our course takes us deeper into the evening sun. We glide beneath slopes stippled with Scotch broom bursting with yellow flowers bright enough to guide seafarers safely to the rock-sharp shore. Paddling past the ruins of the medieval Salomon’s Chapel, which until the Reformation was a pilgrimage site with a holy well, we catch sight of Hammershus Castle high up on a ridge. “Whoever ruled Bornholm back then controlled – and collected levies on – Baltic Sea traffic,” explains Engström.

Medieval round church; Le Port restaurant

Left to right: The island is home to four of Denmark’s seven medieval round churches. Located in Østerlars, the largest features a fresco from 1350; along with award-winning seasonal fare, like a cured-salmon amuse-bouche, Le Port restaurant in Vang serves up great views.

What connects those sailors with modern-day Bornholmers is herring. Smaller and leaner than its Atlantic cousin, the Baltic version is bigger in flavour. To get my fix, I head to Hasle Røgeri, one of only 10 smokehouses still operating (down from 100 a century ago). The air is hung with salt, as if a fisherman had just shaken his nets in the wind. When I enter, there’s no one around. But soon Søren Heide, the owner, appears from a cloud of alder smoke. He’s the only one on the island still using a traditional open smoker. Housed along a wall and enclosed with a curtain that retains the smoke, it’s about four metres wide by one metre deep. “This method is more time-consuming, because you actively have to watch and modify the fire to control the heat and smoke over the whole four-to-five-hour process,” he says, pulling out a rack to check that the fish isn’t drying out or getting cooked. “Unlike with a closed smoker that offers a controlled environment, you can’t do your paperwork or relax with a book.” Then he walks over to a closed smoker in a corner, opens its door and pulls out a tray. “Salt,” he says with a smile, “to keep the summertime smoking season going longer.” He sends me off with a package of smoked herring – it’s so moist and tender it falls apart in my mouth – and smoked salt to keep my Bornholm memories fresh even after I get home.

Cubo Arkitekter’s wooden buildings in Hammerhavnen

Built as a hangout for sailors and landcrabs alike, Cubo Arkitekter’s wooden buildings in Hammerhavnen, a former port for shipping granite, offer a modernist take on traditional houses.

On my last day, I wake up before sunrise and drive to Dueodde for a swim. A giant white smile cradling the island’s southern tip, the 30-kilometre-long sand beach looks like it belongs in the Bahamas (just swap the pines for palms). The good news is the place is deserted, save for a friendly German shepherd walking his grey-haired master; the bad news is the water temperature is arctic. So I plunge my feet into the powdery sand – it’s like sinking into memory foam – and pick up fistfuls for sifting through my fingers, just like when it was used in hourglasses. Then I remember that Bornholm is the first place in Denmark to be flooded by the rising sun. I look up, see the light and decide to wade in.

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BORNHOLM     DENMARK    

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