Finding the Hygge

Ah, those inscrutable Danes—bold yet reserved, stylish yet unaffected, pragmatic yet mysterious in a steely Nordic way. Even their most cherished of holiday regions feels infused with bits of contradiction. The Jutland Peninsula is in many ways Danish cottage country, but it’s also a window to the sort of oblique Danish sensibility. Our road trip exploring this ethereal North Atlantic strand began in Billund—the hometown of LEGO. It was a few years ago now, but here’s the story of that journey.

As we arrive in Billund, my youngest son Mack is cresting the zenith of his near clinical LEGO obsession. It’s his addiction, his healthy, more enriching cigarettes, if you will—all rolled up into multi-coloured, nippled blocks of plastic. And he is not alone. I'm told there are 62 pieces of LEGO for every person on the planet. Half of these may be in my basement.

Billund boasts the first and best of all LEGOLANDs. And to clarify—this doesn’t mean it’s the biggest, the most dramatic, the most high-tech amusement park—quite the contrary. Still, it may be one of the most beloved (sorry Disneyland). Hoards of Danes and international LEGO pilgrims like us weave in and out of the world in miniature here—from Mount Rushmore to Copenhagen’s own 17th century Nyhavn entertainment district, all painstakingly recreated tiny block by tiny block.

To be clear, toys don't generally guide my travel plans and as a rule, I don't do amusement parks. LEGO, however, is special. First, it's so perfectly Danish—again, it's that genius paradox thing, in this case, a simple enduring design inspiring wild creativity. This staple of childhood for decades is also a great metaphor for travel. Just like my son's elaborate LEGO creations, our journey here began with a great idea and big pile of possibilities. For us, the crowning piece of this trip will always be the look on Mack’s face—living a destination that for him at this moment is the coolest place on the planet. I guess we all have our LEGOLANDs, but on this day, it’s his turn.

Still awash in LEGO glow, we set off day three a short hop west toward the coast. Ahead—an open, wind-blown road through an enigmatic playground.

We drive sixty miles north of Viking-era Ribe, Demark’s oldest town. We pass the UNESCO World Heritage site of Wadden Sea flats. It’s a birder’s haven. And beyond that, spare, stylish cottages pepper a narrow strip of dunes known as Hvide Sande.

Our skies are Instagram-blue. Still, the strand here gets pounded often by epic nor’westerlies, as only the North Sea can deliver. And that’s just the way the Danes like it.

I get it. The light, the wind, the sand, the salt spray, the storms. Our Danish neighbour back home says it’s all about the hygge (who-gué). I don’t know if I said that right, but...

This deeply Danish term describes the state of being cozied up in the company of kindred spirits, usually over good food and drink. And he’s right, we much later learn as the clouds roll in.

Nothing heightens the hygge more than sharing a healthy serving of røget helt—a whitefish hooked in nearby Ringkøbing Fjord, then smoked and eaten with our fingers on rye bread, a cold beer in the other hand.

Still, mercurial weather and holiday cottages aren’t the only unlikely pairing in Hvide Sande.

Beyond the scatter of thatched cottages; beneath these surreal azure skies and streaming cirrus clouds; over an imposing sandy ridge topped with waving Marram grass—here, burrowed in the ever-morphing dunes of Denmark’s west coast, sit some haunting, unexpected markers of darker days. Like mammoth concrete sentinels, thousands of German bunkers dot this idyllic coast. Many stand now just as they were when vanquished Nazi forces abandoned them over 70 years ago. Some, crumbling and sinking into the North Atlantic, were only recently demolished.

It seems calculated how the Danes neither highlight nor hide these curious outposts of Hitler’s “Atlantic Wall." Instead, they’ve just let them be, content for visitors to crest a dune then feel the disconnect. 

Some Danes push to preserve these bits of their 20th-century history. There’s one bunker near Houvig that was entombed by sand after a violent storm weeks after Nazi forces decamped. Just a few years ago, it was revealed again for the first time by another fierce North Atlantic blow. Inside, there was a half-drunk bottle of schnapps and unsmoked tobacco in a pipe, just as they were left over 70 years ago. Locals made it a museum. 

On a bigger scale, there’s a new controversial Danish bunker museum, embedded in a coastal dune near Blaavand. From above, the zero-profile, glass-and-sand contemporary design evokes a swastika. It opens June 2017.

Some might say this is an unlikely spot to memorialize WWII. No glorious battles were fought here, no parades of troops returned here in victory. The story of Denmark's German occupation is a tangle of flat out pragmatism and bold, unwavering commitment to protect their own (read Bo Lidegaard's 2013 book Countrymen). Like all war, it's complicated and it seems the Danes resist more than most spinning it one way or the other.

Still, woven throughout all this, like a red thread from the Danish flag itself, is an admirable hardheadedness. Maybe it was too expensive to remove them. Maybe they stood as a silent, defiant reminder of just who won the war. Or perhaps they were left to startle us, warn us: as seven decades later we still puzzle at world leaders with throwback nationalistic ways—don’t ever think such ugliness can’t happen, even in an idyllic place like this.

As we carry on north, we learn the forces of nature here keep even the landscape itself in constant flux—the ebb and flow of this 500km strand is incessantly redefined by the fierce North Atlantic. Like Hamlet’s sanity and the Danish sensibility itself, it all seems hard to pin down.

At Søndervig, we jog inland toward West Jutland’s “little capital,” 14th-century Ringkøbing. Among its quintessentially Danish red-brick houses, we find a home for the night in this market town’s oldest building, Hotel Ringkøbing. Quirky, charming—it’s been operating as an inn since 1833.

From Ringkøbing, the coastal road meanders north and west, skirting the wild inlets and medieval castles of Denmark’s sprawling Limfjord. Travelers can also bear east directly through North Jutland’s cultural capital, Aalborg.

Founded by Vikings a millennium ago, its walkable old quarters date back to the 15th century. Cross the Limfjord, which separates North Jutland Island from mainland Denmark, to access Lindholm Høje, Denmark’s largest Iron Age and Viking cemetery. Like a lot of things in this part of the world, the burial ground had been lost under sand dunes until archaeologists happened upon it in 1952.

For many, Skagen is the endgame in North Jutland. This is the “Land of Light” at the most northerly tip of Denmark. It was named so for both its quantity of light in summer and its ethereal quality.

Artists, many of them famous, have communed here since the 19th century. Brøndums Hotel is still a meeting place for great hygge and seafood specialties—just as it was for those early creative types, like Hans Christian Andersen.

Beyond Skagen’s 14th-century sand-covered church, beyond its ocher cottages and red-tiled roofs, then down a mile-long trail, this northbound journey ends at Grenen—a long sandbar with massive dunes and a shifting headland.

Here, the contrary waters of the North and Baltic seas collide, sometimes calm on one side and angry on the other. It’s a physical paradox, at once captivating, brooding, powerful, ever-changing—how perfectly Danish.

My story here ends with one parting travel tip. No matter your next destination from Skagen, whether it’s Copenhagen, Britain, Norway, Sweden, or beyond, there’s a ferry ride nearby that can start you on your way. Take it and hope for what we experienced—a good old broadside blow.

With every shuddering roll, with every all-sea, then all-sky, view out of the ferry deck window, with every local you notice white-knuckling their formed-plastic seat, you’ll better understand the DNA of a people that once set off in small wooden boats across these same waters, but for parts completely unknown—and certainly, with no hygge on the horizon. Those inscrutable Danes, indeed.