Beside the summer sea

by Jonathan Lorie

“Look out for whales!” yelled my teenage son as our bicycles rattled onto a twisting path above a cliff. Below us green waves licked pebbly coves, behind us red cottages edged fields of corn. We freewheeled down a final slope to a hundred-year-old wooden farmhouse turned gallery, where he found hot chocolate and I found modern art, on a gentle lawn by the summer sea.

If you’ve never been to the Danish Riviera, prepare for a surprise. Not only is it one of Europe’s prettiest coasts, it’s also cool enough for kids, restful enough for their parents and less exorbitant than you’d think. This gentle curve of fishing hamlets and fine beaches runs 80 miles north from Copenhagen to the North Sea – and though locals spend their summers here, the British haven’t yet discovered it. So I took my son and daughter there to explore.

We had started in Copenhagen, possibly Europe’s hippest city with its cutting-edge Scandi style. My son and daughter were wowed by this everywhere – in avant-garde buildings on the waterfront like the glittering Black Diamond library, among sleek clothes and spiky furniture in the designer store Illums Bolighus, and even in our boutique hotel, the minimalist Ibsens on a sidestreet of bookshops. More challenging was the New Nordic cuisine we tried at Vakst, a hipster restaurant whose walls were packed with plant pots and tables filled with pretty but strange-tasting food: salt cod with gooseberries, anyone?

But despite everything that was hip and hyped, my teenagers’ favourite spot in this city was the Tivoli Gardens – an old-fashioned theme park that dates from 1843, since when generations of Danish kids have screamed and laughed on the traditional rollercoaster and the tiny pedal-boats – as did mine. Trends may change but children don’t.

So we drove out along the coast in search of more tradition. Thirty minutes north we found the first of a series of Edwardian seaside villages – Rungsted, where white wooden villas lined a sandy beach and swimmers dived into the sea from creaky wooden jetties. Beyond a marina bobbing with yachts, we found Rungstedlund, a seventeenth-century farmhouse that belonged to one of my heroes, Karen Blixen, the 1930s author of Out Of Africa. We wandered through its neo-classical rooms, with their ornate porcelain stoves and gilded mirrors, to her study hung with African spears. In the museum shop, her great-grandniece was chatting with visitors and planning for her wedding there.

Equally historic was our hotel nearby, Kokkedal Castle, a fairytale chateau of icing-sugar facades and sweeping stairways set among woodlands and croquet lawns. That night a wedding party was in full swing, the guests in black tie or ball gowns wafting through its baroque rooms while we hid in the bar and ate sausages. Next morning a polo party took over the back lawn, while we borrowed bicycles and cycled down to the seashore, singing as we went.

Then it was back into our car for a trip into the future, up the coast to Louisiana, Denmark’s leading museum of modern art. Perched on a cliff among gardens filled with flowers and sculptures, the place is a sprawl of modernist wood-and-glass cubes crammed with thought-provoking art. The kids were delighted to find a four-foot cigarette stub by Claes Oldenburg, and a mirrored room where spotlights were reflected to infinity, as though we were staring into the stars.

At the museum café we sampled smorrebrod – traditional open sandwiches of ham or salmon on dark rye bread – and I warned my daughter that some holiday homework was coming up. For ten miles north lay the castle of Helsingore, better known as Elsinore to students of literature like her. Here Shakespeare set his great tragedy, based on the Viking saga of Amleth. It is even imagined that he may have joined a troupe of English actors who toured here in his youth.

The castle was another baroque fantasy, surrounded by granite battlements and crammed with tapestried rooms lit by glittering chandeliers. In one of Europe’s longest ballrooms we found Hamlet and Ophelia arguing over love letters – or actors playing them as part of the annual Shakespeare festival. The theme continued at our hotel that night, the nineteenth-century Marienlyst, where they checked us into the Ophelia suite. The hotel’s blackened wooden frontage overlooked a tiny beach, and down a grand double stairway we found its restaurant, where fish fresh and salty from the Baltic was served above the waves.

Next day we took a 20-minute detour inland to the vast Lake Esrum, where we hopped into kayaks for a long, slow paddle among islands edged with bullrushes and herons. Dragonflies fluttered past. “I live in a village by the lake,” said our kayak instructor. “In autumn we forage in the woods for mushrooms and raspberries. We like to be close to nature here.”

At dusk we chugged back to the coast, to the furthest village on the Riviera. Gilleleje had a harbour filled with fishing boats and lanes strewn with white cottages. On the stone quayside we ate seafood at a ramshackle café, then pottered along a clifftop path with views across the quiet waters to Sweden, visible as a dove-grey cliff ten miles off. Below us stretched the loveliest, loneliest stretch of beach, empty of people, dotted with boulders smoothed by the sea.

On a high spot among trees we found a rough-hewn monument of granite, with the words ‘Soren Kierkegaard 1813’ carved into its mottled face. The great philosopher liked to walk here, for the solitude and peace to think. In his journal he wrote about this place: ‘I often stood there and reflected on my past life. The force of the sea and the struggle of the elements made me realise how unimportant I was.’

In that remote spot, I understood what he meant. All I could see was waves and gulls and my children.