This story appears in the June 2020 issue of National Geographic magazine.
In Denmark you’re never more than 30 miles from the sea. Aside from Jutland’s boundary with Germany, Denmark is entirely surrounded by water, with a total of 5,437 miles of coastline, or kystland.
“This made it perfect for the Viking society, in which sailing was the most important way to get around,” says Rikke Johansen, curator at the Viking Ship Museum, in Roskilde. “Land divided people; water connected them.”
Fishing was a necessity for survival long before Denmark, which is made up of 406 islands, became an agricultural nation, but today, Johansen says, water means leisure for most Danes: “We take it for granted; it’s a way of life. For many of us, looking out at water every day is key.” (These are the world’s happiest places.)
The whole of Denmark is lowland, formed by Ice Age glaciers and glacial streams. With the highest point just 558 feet above sea level, the country is especially susceptible to flooding and storms. Sea levels are expected to rise three feet by 2100, and archaeologists are worried that historical sites on the coast will disappear altogether.
In 2019 the 120-year-old Rubjerg Knude lighthouse, originally built 656 feet from the sea, had to be wheeled back, as coastal erosion had shrunk that distance to just 19 feet. To protect low-lying land, dikes have been built along 1,118 miles of coastline, and most are covered by grass to encourage wildlife. To defend exposed stretches of coast from accelerated erosion, sand is brought in from designated areas offshore to nourish shorefaces, beaches, and dunes, without which some parts of the west coast would retreat by 26 feet a year.
On the windy west coast of Jutland, Klitmøller is known as Cold Hawaii because of its seven-foot waves and surf culture. “There’s a strong history of fear around the water, and respect for it too,” says local Casper Steinfath, a world champion stand-up paddle surfer. He tells me about the tradition of swimming with a rope that’s tied around the waist and tethered to a pier or other sturdy object, to avoid being pulled under. “We have a saying on the west coast that we’re ‘born against the wind.’ But it makes you stronger.”
At the northern tip of Jutland, the Baltic meets the North Sea at Skagen, where you can stand in the shallows to feel the bodies of waters collide. Formerly the largest fishing community in Denmark, Skagen is now famed for migrating sand dunes and a unique quality of light that has inspired everyone from the 19th-century Skagen painters to contemporary artists such as Niels Poplens. “In Skagen even the shadows are bright,” says Poplens.
Denmark’s east coast, where I live, is more sheltered. Protected inlets and fjords lend themselves to tamer pastimes, such as stand-up paddleboarding. Soft, sandy beaches attract recreation au naturel; there are whole stretches of sand reserved for nudists. After a recent dip off a pier, I mounted a stepladder to be greeted by an octogenarian as bare as the day he was born.
In Bornholm, off the coast of Copenhagen, you can eat Michelin-starred cuisine and lounge on sand so fine, it was used in hourglasses. Photogenic Ærø, a tiny isle south of the central Danish island of Fyn, has become known as Denmark’s wedding island.
In summer, when it can stay light past 11 p.m., many Danes fit in a second shift of leisure after work to sail, fish, kayak, or windsurf. “You never get bored,” says boatbuilder Søren Nielsen, from Roskilde. “You can leave your phone, your ‘busyness,’ behind and just get out there to feel close to nature.”
As Steinfath says, “The coastline is my happy place.” It’s little wonder that Denmark is regularly reported as one of the happiest countries in the world, including by Blue Zones author Dan Buettner.
With 1,300 near-pristine beaches and a population of just 5.8 million, it’s not unusual to have a beach to yourself in Denmark. Many towns provide sleeping shelters and stores of chopped wood to encourage campers, and you can dine for free from plentiful mussel beds much of the year. All you need is a cooking pan and some Viking spirit.
“There’s definitely a Nordic energy here,” says Steinfath, “and as a Viking, you develop resilience. The coastline is a place where ocean and Earth are locked in an eternal and relentless battle. These wild forces of nature both inspire and humble me. They make me feel alive.”
Helen Russell is the author of The Year of Living Danishly and, most recently, The Atlas of Happiness.