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Centuries of whirling sand storms have left only the white spire of the historic Den Tilsandede Kirke church visible on Denmark’s Jutland Peninsula. (Photograph by Stuart Black, Getty Images)

Finding the Hygge on Denmark’s West Coast

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.

We set off from Billund (the hometown of Lego—itself a genius paradox of simple design and wild creativity) on the Jutland Peninsula, then drive west toward the coast. Ahead lies an open, wind-blown road through an enigmatic North Atlantic playground.

Sixty miles north of Viking-era Ribe, Demark’s oldest town, and past the UNESCO World Heritage site Wadden Sea flats, spare stylish cottages pepper a narrow strip of dunes known as Hvide Sande.

Our skies are Instagram-blue, but 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 love West Jutland’s light, the wind, the sand, its salt spray, the storms,” says our friend, Copenhagen-born Erik Jensen. “And, at the end of the day, the hygge.”

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 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. Burrowed in these ever morphing dunes are stark reminders of the days of Nazi occupation during WWII. Standing as mammoth concrete sentinels, thousands of German bunkers dot the peninsula’s western coast.

The Danes haven’t celebrated their stretch of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall, but nor have they demolished a lot of it. Until now, they’ve seemingly been content to have visitors crest a dune and recoil at the disconnect.

That’s changing, as Danish global architectural darling BIG (the Bjarke Ingels Group) continues breaking ground on a controversial bunker museum that’s set to open in 2016.

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 the market town’s oldest building, Hotel Ringkøbing—operating as an inn since 1833. Quirky, but charming.

From Ringkøbing, the coastal road meanders north and west, skirting the wild inlets and medieval castles that typify Denmark’s sprawling Limfjord. Travelers can also bear east, as we did, directly through the North Jutland region’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 most people, Skagen is the endgame in North Jutland—the “Land of Light” at the most northerly tip of Denmark, 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, 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.

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 a good broadside blow.

With every shuddering roll, with every all-sea, then all-sky, view out of the 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 with no hygge on the horizon.

Toronto-based freelancer Liz Beatty contributes to National Geographic Traveler and other publications. Follow her story on her personal website and on Twitter @elizabethbeatty