Pristine beaches, a network of cycle paths and strategically placed picnic spots make Denmark’s Gribskov area the perfect destination for family fun on a budget
All my favourite childhood memories come from Gribskov in Denmark. Every summer we used to load up the Volvo with beach toys and bicycles and drive south, because, as the Danish tourist board was fond of saying, ‘it’s delightful to be Norwegian in Denmark’. Twenty years later I am back, to find my childhood haunts as sunny and innocent as ever.
The Gribskov area is located on the northern tip of North Zealand, a mere 45-minute drive from Copenhagen, and is most certainly delightful for all visitors, not just fellow Scandinavians. I had rented a cosy, little cottage near Tisvildeleje, my favourite place in the whole of Gribskov, and was elated to find the town virtually unchanged, right down to my favourite ice cream vendor on the beach.
Overlooking the sea from hills covered in heather and wild flowers, Tisvildeleje is the sort of place where you will find unlocked bicycles with straw baskets outside the little yellow-bricked baker on the main street. Sand drift from the sea has created a desert-like landscape around the town, with endless beaches backed by grass-clad dunes and the fascinating ‘troll forest’, a large green belt with gnarled and madly twisted trees to tease the imagination.
Following in my childhood steps, I rented a bicycle and set out on the North Coast path to Hundested. The beach, blue-flagged and one of Europe’s cleanest, stretched as far as the eye can see, with underwater islands of shallow water off the shore where smaller children were happily splashing about.
As a child, we would spend whole days exploring the area on two wheels, finding everything from pony rides and animal farms to nature trails and crazy golf, either through design or happy chance. Town markets would provide us with picnic fodder, eaten in the gentle breeze on the cliffs or in a secluded spot in the grassy sand dunes, a warm, herby fragrance in the air.
Gribskov is, in fact, Copenhagen’s favourite summer retreat, but children are barely out of the capital before they have reason to be excited. Bakken, the world’s oldest amusement park (www.bakken.dk, tel: +45 3963 3544), is full of old-world charm, with rides I will not be alone in remembering from childhood. Larger than Tivoli, it also has a range of newer, more modern rides for the thrill-seekers.
Bakken’s intimate and friendly atmosphere is typical of Danish amusement parks and activity centres, of which Gribskov has plenty. Historical Esrum Abbey (Sankt Helene holiday complex, complete with obstacle course, sport fields and animal farm. Their ‘nature team’ keep the kids occupied, and I found the excellent restaurant equally well suited for parents in need of a break, with a separate children’s buffet and outside playing fields (www.helene.dk, tel: 0045 48 70 98 50).
Though the area has superb camping sites and holiday centres, most visitors opt for self-catering cottages, an affordable and practical solution for families laden down with toys and equipment. A huge variety is on offer, from my little two-bedroom cottage to luxury summer houses where several families can share. The Danish tourist board is a good starting point (www.visitgribskov.dk, tel: 0045 48 30 01 74).
Self-catering means you can choose whether to cook your own dinner or sample the wonderful local cuisine, which is reflective of Denmark’s general high standard, and either way there is no better place for it than Gilleleje. The town is Denmark’s oldest fishing port, dating back to the 16th century, and is now both a tourist and shopping centre, with superb fish restaurants overlooking the sea. Narrow lanes and thatched-roof cottages create an idyllic atmosphere in the town, though the working harbour, cluttered with trawlers, dinghies and wooden boats, is still the main draw.
The smell of tar, salt and fish greeted me as I arrived, seagulls swooping above the fishing boats. I have fond memories of watching the boats bring in their catch in the morning and of buying fresh fish for dinner in the lively auction halls, and could not resist buying some prawns to snack on. I took them to the nearby yachting marina, a perfect playground for people who love to dip their toes in the water whilst peeling fresh prawns.
It comes with the rose-tinted memories of childhood, perhaps, that I think of Gribskov as eternally sunny and populated by eternally jolly and friendly people. It really is as safe as I remember it, however, and the jovial Danes are a relaxed people who always seem to have time on their hands and a smile to spare.
The weather is generally sunnier than English summers, if not quite as sunny as my memories would have it, and it did indeed turn to torrential rain on the last day of my visit. Not to be deterred, I put on my swimsuit anyway and walked down the wooden staircase in the cliffs to reach the small strip of beach below my cottage. Splashing around, getting soaked as much over water as under, I realised that perhaps the sun of my childhood was metaphoric as well as real.
The cost of living is high in Denmark, as in all of Scandinavia, not helped by a 25%VAT, but self-catering brings the cost down considerably. Holiday homes come in all shapes and price groups, with the cheapest starting at around 2,500DKK for a week (two bedrooms). All in all, this is a holiday that can be adapted to any budget.
When to go and how to get there?
The summer months are the best time to go. Scandinavian summers are warmer than you'd expect, and the temperature frequently reaches 20-25 degrees, though the weather is changeable, so expect some rain.
The best way to get there is to fly to Copenhagen, then rent a car. Gribskov is only 45 minutes away, with a number of interesting excursions in the area, so a car will come in handy anyway.