Travel: The Baltic island of Bornholm is Denmark's secret delight
To the locals it's the 'The Sunniest Place in Denmark' yet the Danish island of Bornholm, with its picture-postcard fishing villages, dense beech and conifer forests, stunning beaches and rugged granite cliffs, is little known to us in Britain.
Landing at the island's small airport close to its west coast capital Rønne – which is by far the largest town – we were met by Destination Bornholm guide Helle Mogensen following our short 25 minute flight aboard a turbo-prop ATR72 from Copenhagen which is operated several times a day by Danish Air Transport (DAT).
Our visit was timed to coincide with the Summer Solstice and also with Denmark’s largest culinary competition, ‘Sol over Gudhjem’. It's a competition which marks the beginning of a week in celebration of the island's produce and one which features no fewer than 65 food, drink, farm and agriculture-based businesses.
From its humble beginnings in 2009, the whole competition came about following a somewhat derigatory comment from the island's only Michelin-starred chef, Mikkel Marschall... and it went something like "nobody on the island knows how to cook!"
Today Mikkel is not only the ‘Sol over Gudhjem’ competition's instigator, but he has remained in charge of proceedings and has also managed to attract a host of big named sponsors.
With a handful of Denmark's top celebrity chefs invited to take part annually, they create menus using local Bornholm produce and products, the results being judged by some of the Europe's best known culinary experts and for the 2018 competition, top English chef James Lowe from Lyle's in London was on the invited panel.
Now in its 10th year, ‘Sol over Gudhjem’ – it roughly translates as 'Sun above God's Home' – it all seems very casual and is a bit like Masterchef in flip-flops! It's held alongside the town of Gudhjem's picturesque harbour, the annual competition now attracts up to 10,000 spectators to its quayside home while it has now become something of a Danish institution.
At a shade larger than the Isle of Man at 588 sq kms (227 sq miles) – as against 572 sq kms – and with a population of almost 40,000, Bornholm sits in the middle of the Baltic Sea, some 210 kms (130 miles) to the east of Denmark's capital Copenhagen.
At just 20 miles from the south-eastern coast of its Scandinavian neighbour Sweden and approximately half as much again from the north Poland coastal town of Kolobrzeg, the island of Bornholm is well know to the Danes, many of whom enjoyed their first encounter with it on a school trip.
We were staying on the opposite side of the island some 30 minutes drive from the airport at the impressive Stammershalle Badehotel – www.stammershalle-badehotel.dk – with its views out to Denmark's easternmost archipelago of Christiansø and Frederiksø which are around 20 kms distance. The islands can easily be reached by ferry from Gudhjem's quayside in a little over an hour... but be warned, it can be extremely rough!
The Stammershalle Badehotel was built in 1911 in classical Scandinavian style and is perched high up on the craggy northern coastal cliffs. The hotel has 16 comfortable ensuite bedrooms – strangely I was in No19! – and all are decorated in traditional Nordic style. There's a very comfortable lounge area and superb dining room which is accessed down some extremely steep steps.
On arrival at the hotel, Helle, the Destination Bornholm (www.bornholm.info) press manager, had arranged for coffee and some delicious strawberry-topped cakes in the lounge as we learned about our pre-planned four-day itinerary.
With the Baltic Sea just yards away, we decided on a pre-dinner dip from the wooden jetty opposite the hotel and while the sea temperature was well below what I call ideal – probably less than 15 degrees! – it mattered not as we quickly headed for the hotel's luxury sauna!
Like most Bornholm hotels, the Stammershalle Badehotel prides itself on its food and it certainly doesn't disappoint on that score as head chef and gold medal winner Marcus and waiters Isolde and Magnus ensured that we were soon tucking into a fabulous six course dinner following a glass of Champagne.
First it was Norway lobster and cauliflower served with red currants, before more courses consisting of smoked mackerel, calf's tongue, Guinea fowl, elderflower ice cream and then cherries in chocolate with macarons and all this accompanied by a variety of wines from around the world… and all absolutely delicious!
From its Baltic fishing village heritage, Bornholm has reinvented itself as an eco-friendly, foodie destination and it is also keen to become 100% green and carbon-neutral by 2025.
With so little traffic, the island is said to be a cycling paradise on pretty flat terrain. With more than 170 miles of dedicated cycle tracks which both criss-cross and circumnavigate the island, we actually borrowed bikes from the hotel although I must admit I struggled and gave up after half an hour… I clearly prefer horsepower over pedal power!
Accompanied by local guide Ross Culiner, a jovial Canadian who married a Bornholm lass, we headed north to one of the island's best-known tourist attractions on our second day, the magnificent early 12th century ruins of Hammershus. Said to be northern Europe's largest castle, it is perched atop a huge granite outcrop offering magnificent views along the coast.
Originally built for a Danish bishop, it's actually 74 metres (243ft) above sea level and dates back to around 1255. Over the next few centuries, it grew to include a great stonewall stretching 750 metres (2,460ft) around its grounds and it was also strategically important to the Hanseatic League, a northern European trading confederation which was still in operation some 300 years later. With views over to southern Sweden clearly visible to the north, a brand new Hammershus Visitor Centre was finally opened in March this year.
We then drove inland, passing through the Almindingen forest which is home to a herd of secretive and shy European bison which were brought to the island several years ago from central Poland. Close by there is also a trotting track which is very popular with the local equestrian fraternity.
Stopping off to visit the largest of Bornholm's four unique round churches at Østerlars – they also served as Baltic fortresses besides being a place of worship – it was then on to Svaneke, the island’s (and Denmark's) most easterly and probably prettiest town with its red-roofed houses and equally attractive harbour.
Svaneke is well known for its liquorice while it also has an excellent brewery (Svaneke Bryghus) and a traditional boiled sweetmaker (Svaneke Bolcher) while glass blowing and ceramics are also regular attractions for visitors.
"The locals all agreed that the town should remain as it is today and not allow any development which goes against the look of the place," said Ross as we walked past so many colourful merchants' houses. We also visited the town's impressive Lutheran church which was being repainted in the traditional red-oche colour following our lunch stop at Svaneke Røgeriet – www.roegerietsvaneke.dk – an impressive five chimney stack smokehouse known locally as the 'Five Sisters'.
And it was at Røgeriet where we were finally introduce to Bornholm's specialist iconic dish 'Sol Over Gudhjem'. It consists of smoked herring on fresh rye bread topped with a raw egg yoke and is accompanied by chives and radishes. Besides that we tucked into smoked cod, mackerel, salmon, prawns and shrimps accompanied by one of the many local brews.
Local fishermen take their herring catches to be smoked at the smokehouse for around five hours in the traditional way, with no artificial smoke flavourings being added… and judging by the huge piles of chopped wood, they are kept pretty busy!
Following an afternoon tour of the Copenhagen Distillery with its deep fresh spring water well, we were introduced to the micro-brewery's sales manager Jesper Mathiesen… and we were more than happy to sample the various flavoured gins designed by fellow owner Sune Urth who is also responsible for research and development of the product.
En route to the distillery we called in at Plantation near the village of Rø where a series of glasshouses are looked after by both the physical and mentally disabled. They grow cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, etc alongside fields of delicious strawberries which we were allowed to pick ourselves.
We also sampled Sea Buckthorn cocktails at Høstet (it means harvested in Danish) – www.høstet.dk – owned by Mads and Camilla Meisner who explained the process of turning bright orange berries into jams, marmalades and delicious juices which can be added to spirits… especially Copenhagen Distillery's gin!
Mads explained: "We planted the Sea Buckthorn bushes back in 2010 and it took three years before we had results. Buckthorn is rich in nutrition and is regarded as a super food. In order to get the berries, you need male and female plants. To collect them, we cut off the branches and freeze them with the berries still on them. We then defrost everything and the berries fall off. They are then pressed. It's a very exotic taste which can be used as a juice or made into preserves which chefs seem to love."
That evening we were invited to meet the following day's seven 'Sol Over Gudhjem' competition contestants who were introduced to a large crowd at the farming museum close to Gudhjem at nearby Melsted. And that's where we enjoyed another meal – I loved the sausages and pork dumplings! – while one of the sweet courses was actually one of the winning desserts from the previous year's competition.
For the competition itself, three of the celebrity chefs would be preparing desserts for a prize of 10,000 Danish krone – around £110, one krone is worth around 12p – while the top main course dish prize for the other four was 50,000 krone (£550) plus the use of a brand new 12 cylinder, bi-turbo Mercedes Benz coupé for up to four weeks!
The dessert competition the following day was won by a man who never takes his hat off, Brian Mark Hansen. He's from the Michelin-starred Søllerød Kro restaurant in Copenhagen. "Naturally I'm delighted that the judges liked my creation while my kids seem just as excited as I am," grinned Brian while standing on a table holding a giant-sized cheque.
Meanwhile there were huge cheers when the 2018 'Sol Over Gudhjem' champion was declared, for the diminutive Thai-born Dak Laddaporn Wichangoen, head chef at the Michelin-starred Kiin Kiin Copenhagen restaurant, became the first ever female winner of the competition.
While the crowds gathered around her in celebration, I finally had the chance to briefly chat with her the following morning, as she – like most of the competitors – was also staying at Stammershalle Badehotel. "I still can't believe I've won," she said.
"It was such an honour to be judged the best against three other top chefs who are also friends. My only worry now is that I've got the Mercedes for four weeks as part of my prize but I'm not sure where in Copenhagen I'm going to park it."
I also bumped into Mads from Høstet shortly after the competition had ended and he was holding a special award. "I'm really thrilled that we've won the best product award for our Sea Buckthorn juice," he said. "In a previous year our marmalade got the same award."
Having lunched at a former twin-chimneyed smokehouse called Norresan close to Gudhjem harbour, we then drove to the south of the island close to the village of Dueodde where we spent time on one of the best beaches I've ever seen. Covered in glistening white sand so fine that it's used in egg timers and hour glasses, it seems to go on for miles while a short distance away is a wonderful camp site set among the pine trees.
With no appreciable tide in the Baltic and a gently sloping beach, the area is clearly safe for bathing and popular with families with young children. It also offers miles of easy walks with hardly any traffic… and that also applies to the rest of the island.
Before heading to the airport for our transfer back to Copenhagen, we visited another new venture accompanied by Elisebeth Falk from the Danish Agriculture & Food Council and Destination Bornholm's cruise coordinator Peter Juhl who, just days earlier, had walked to Santiago de Compostela in Spain having taken 33 days to complete the 800 kilometres of the Camino Way.
Meeting Kasper Rasmussen who claims he's not a real farmer, he certainly has his sights set on producing what is usually extremely expensive Japanese Wagyu beef. Although officially a schoolteacher, as his brother runs the family farm, Kasper has taken the bold step of inseminating some of the farm's black and white Holstein cattle with foetuses imported from Japan... and so far since December last year, the Holsteins have delivered seven healthy dark brown Wagyu calves which are all looked after by three very friendly Jersey cows.
The previous evening we dined at Nordlandet - www.hotelnordlandet.com - a clifftop restaurant close to the conjoined villages of Allinge-Sandvig offering views all the way back down the coast towards Gudhjem. The restaurant offers true Nordic gourmet cuisine with much of the contents being foraged in the Bornholm countryside.... and it was all absolutely delicious!
Meanwhile our final lunch was at an equally attractive location set high above the tiny steep-hilled hamlet of Vang where there are just a dozen fishermen's cottages plus an old watermill. Once again the Le Port Restaurant – www.leport.dk – had wonderful views from its terraces perched high above the tiny harbour… and as expected, the food and its presentation was absolutely exquisite.
From what I saw (and tasted), the island offers a truly wonderful gastronomic experience while our only disappointment regarding the whole trip was that the planned Summer Solstice beach party celebrations – which were due to have been held on Saturday 23 June – had to be cancelled.
The island – which is absolutely perfect for a weekend break – has had just a few drops of rain since early April and that means that everywhere is tinder dry. It would be a disaster should a spark from just one of the bonfires get out of hand so everyone agreed that calling off the beach parties was the sensible thing to do… that common sense approach clearly being very Danish!
BORNHOLM FACT FILE
Where to stay:
Alan Wooding was the guest of VisitDenmark – www.visitdenmark.co.uk and https://bornholm.info/en/ – and stayed at the Stammershalle Badehotel http://stammershalle-badehotel.dk/en/ which offers double rooms from £107 including breakfast.
Where to eat:
Nordlandet https://hotelnordlandet.com/en/ – a Nordlandet Evening includes 4 courses, 3 wines, water, coffee and petit four and costs £112. A two course meal starts at £41.
Stammershalle Badehotel Restaurant http://stammershalle-badehotel.dk/en/the-restaurant/. A menu based on seasonal produce starts at £53 and wine pairing can be added for an additional £41.
Nørresan in Gudhjem offers light sandwiches in a refurbished smokehouse. Prices start at £12. https://da-dk.facebook.com/norresand/
A ‘smoke duet’ shared platter for two people at Svaneke Røgeri is £36 and the classic ‘Sol over Svaneke’ open faced sandwich is £8.
Restaurant Le Port offers lobster bisque with leeks and turbot at £15 – https://leport.dk/?lang=en
What to do:
Hammershus https://bornholm.info/en/hammershus/. Admission to the Visitor Centre is free.
Bornholm Food Festival in June where food producers open their doors to the public. Prices vary.
Visit the strawberry farm for free, visit the beekeeper for £18 or take a trip to Svaneke Brewery and sample a selection of craft beers for £6. https://bornholm.info/en/event/bornholms-madfestival/
Visit one of Bornholm’s four round churches. Most of them have free entrance, some will have a small entrance fee around £1.2. https://www.visitdenmark.com/bornholm/activities/bornholms-round-churches
How to get there:
There are 155 weekly flights from London (Luton, Stansted, Heathrow, Gatwick) to Copenhagen. Flights with SAS from London Heathrow start at £108 return. Flights from Copenhagen to Bornholm with DAT (Danish Air Traffic) start at £96 return and take around 30 minutes.
Island Bus Tour:
Bornholms Kildevand/Copenhagen Distillery www.copenhagendistillery.com
Guide Hans Jørgen Jensen from LAG – an independent Bornholm organisation that supports the development of local projects [email protected] and +4520423370.
Lehnsgaard Rapeseed Oil – Hans Kai Hansen www.lehnsgaard.dk and [email protected]
Bornholm’s Ismejeri http://www.bornholms-ismejeri.dk/ – Jonas Bohn & Vibeke Bengtson +45 56493740 [email protected]
Vandkefir Perler https://vandkefirperler.dk/ - Paulie Melnyk [email protected] +45 22 58 91 35
Bornholm Hemp https://www.bornholmerhampen.dk/en/hampe/ - Signe Anker [email protected]
Kasper, WagyuBornholm http://wagyubornholm.dk/ and [email protected]
For more details, see www.visitdenmark.co.uk and https://bornholm.info/en/