Rain doesn't stop play in beautiful, empty Denmark

The land of Lego and fairytales provided Ian Irvine and his family with lots do away from the beach
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The Independent Travel

There are two types of summer beach holidays in Europe: northern and southern. The advan- tage of going south is that warmth and sun are almost guaranteed; the disadvantages are that the beaches are packed and for part of the day the heat makes it impossible to move from the shade. The advantage of going north is that is almost guaranteed space on the beach; the disadvantage is that the weather is changeable. I grew up in Scotland with the northern version; my wife grew up in Spain and elsewhere expecting the southern. As a young family (daughter six, son two) we have always gone south - until last year when we took a beach cottage holiday in Denmark.

There are two types of summer beach holidays in Europe: northern and southern. The advan- tage of going south is that warmth and sun are almost guaranteed; the disadvantages are that the beaches are packed and for part of the day the heat makes it impossible to move from the shade. The advantage of going north is that is almost guaranteed space on the beach; the disadvantage is that the weather is changeable. I grew up in Scotland with the northern version; my wife grew up in Spain and elsewhere expecting the southern. As a young family (daughter six, son two) we have always gone south - until last year when we took a beach cottage holiday in Denmark.

The seaside cottage is a Danish institution, like the dacha for Russians. There must be tens of thousands of them, arranged in neat little colonies along much of the country's extensive and beautiful coast. It's a cliché, I know, but they do seem to have a particularly Scandinavian elegance. Something to do with high-quality materials - wood, mostly - clean lines, and a civic-minded discretion. It's hard to imagine anything similar in the UK - our anarchic individualists would produce a riot of bodging with all the grace of a caravan park. The Danes are gourmets of designer bathing, too, and most cottages have saunas and whirlpool baths, as well as satellite television, DVD players and large TVs.

The big telly was a fortunate feature for our first week. We had arrived at Esbjerg off the overnight DFDS ferry from Harwich (efficient, comfortable, excellent facilities for children) and driven 40 minutes north to a third of the way up the admonishing finger of Jutland. Our newly built cottage was just a few hundred yards from the pounding rollers of the North Sea and the white sands of a beach which runs for 100 miles. But although it was mid-August, the weather was unseasonably bad. Rain prevented us investigating the beach until the second day, and then returned to curtail our brief outing in the sunshine and drive us back indoors. Over the next five days, we managed only one more proper visit to the beach. It didn't rain all the time, but the weather was so changeable that only children older or hardier than ours could have enjoyed it.

There were, of course, other things to do apart from beach activities. For the children, a day out at the original Legoland at Billund was the undoubted highlight - and, as well as the white-knuckle rides, there's a lot there to interest adults too. Lego and Hans Christian Andersen are Denmark's notable contributions to childhood. The opportunities for bird-watching are fabulous: the fjord behind Bjerrgard is one of the finest sites for wading birds in Europe. But that's an interest for older children.

For me, the green austere landscape of Jutland and the changeable northern sky was a constant pleasure. The cottage, with its large windows, was well-designed to take advantage of the light at all times of the day; from the Tiepolo splendour of pastel pink and blue skies at dawn to the limpid pure light of late afternoon. As vertical relief in this horizontal country, many houses have substantial white-painted flagpoles, flying the cheerful Danish flag. Wind turbines are common, sometimes single, sometimes in groups of five or six, rarely more. As the son of an engineer with the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board, who felt a thrill of reflected glory at the sight of brave pylons striding across a remote and beautiful glen, I have never been tempted to share the hatred of wind-turbines. They seem to me both symbols and examples of benign modernity and no more intrusive in a landscape than church steeples.

For our second week, we moved to another cottage; this time on the northern shore of the eastern island of Zealand. If Jutland is a species of wild East Anglia, Zealand is more urbane and Home Counties - the Sussex coast, perhaps. Our four-hour drive across the country took in some spectacular scenery, none more so than the views from the titanic road and rail bridge across the Stoerbelt which connects western and eastern Denmark. Gilleleje was a small, quiet village, set among thick woods that came down to the beautiful beach with its view over the channel to Sweden three miles away. The weather improved and we spent more time on the beach, often with no one in sight for miles in either direction. It was late August, and the Danes take their school holidays in July and the first two weeks of August. The beaches are then relinquished to foreign visitors, mostly German.

Jutland offered a great deal of the natural world; Zealand offers a wealth of cultural life. The closest major town, 25 minutes away, was Elsinore. Because it's the setting for Shakespeare's most famous play, you are never more than 48 hours from a production of Hamlet. It's a handsome town with remarkable medieval architecture, including a fine red-brick cathedral and cloister. Hamlet's observation to Horatio about the place: "We'll teach you to drink deep ere you depart" still seems true. I've never seen a town with more off-licences - though this may be for the benefit of visiting Swedes, who until recently suffered under a state monopoly of alcohol and a puritanical desire to make it expensive and difficult to obtain.

Further south on the coast, the Louisiana art gallery offers a fine collection of 20th- and 21st-century art, and uses its magnificent gardens to display spectacular sculptures. It also houses a wing devoted to hands-on art education for children. An hour or so even further south by train or car is the capital, Copenhagen, a city of considerable charm. Its child-friendly highpoint is the Tivoli Gardens: a 19th-century pleasure garden and funfair, a species of Disneyland but with fine food and a concert hall.

On the ferry returning to England, my wife and I agreed that next year we would take a southern-European beach holiday, but put a marker down for a return to Denmark when the children are older. It's too pleasant a place, with so many attractions, to be dismissed simply for the lack of guaranteed sunshine.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

DFDS Seaways (08705 333111; www.dfdsseaways.co.uk), offers return fares between Harwich and Esbjerg from £594 for a car, two adults and two children.

Where to stay

Novasol (0870-197 6568; www.denmarkcottages.co.uk) offers cottages for hire for groups ranging in size from two to 12 people. Seven nights in a cottage sleeping four costs from £95.

Further information

Visit Denmark (020-7259 5959, 10am-1pm, Monday, Wednesday and Friday; www.visitdenmark.com).

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