Ærø: Where the best of the old meets the best of the new.
Ærø oozes with idyllic charm, but what visitors might not notice is that this island is every bit as modern as it is historic
Authentic Ærø is a small, fully functional island where the best of the old meets the best of the new. Protected from the harsh winds along the west coast of Denmark and the heavily salted waters of the Atlantic Ocean, archaeological evidence reveals that Ærø was settled as far back as 11,000 years ago. It is an island brimming with history, historic places and historians … while also being highly sophisticated in terms of green energy, heat production and a balanced lifestyle.
Not accessible by bridge, Ærø’s relatively remote location has led to a natural preservation of its old ways and unspoiled nature that attracts both new residents and tourists from around the world. Curious couples, artists and antiquers, families, fishermen and those wanting to indulge in outdoor activities in a safe and social atmosphere are all drawn to this location – which is definitely far from the madding crowd.
The island once consisted of two distinct land masses connected by a small isthmus on the south-eastern side of the island, but land-building activities took place in the 18th and 19th centuries, and Ærø now measures 88 sq km – about 4 kilometres between the two farthest points. Nevertheless, it offers an impressive 167 kilometres of coastline. And the unique shape of the island, with its many peninsula-like extensions and smaller islands off in the distance, lends itself to wonderful views at every turn.
‘Charm’ is the key word on Ærø: charming villages, charming houses and charming people abound. Modern structures are generally the exception, while quaint historic farmhouses and farmhouses from the early 20th century are the rule. In Ærøskøbing, once the island’s central town, as many as 29 buildings are registered; the oldest dates back to the 17th century. And this is how the islanders like it. Local preservation initiatives resulted in Ærøskøbing receiving the Europa Nostra Cultural Heritage award in 2002, and similar joint efforts have allowed museums to restore commercial and residential buildings that otherwise would have fallen into disrepair.
In addition to buildings, these initiatives also extend to the restoration of the tall ships and shipyard buildings that are found throughout the island. Several buildings are worth a closer look: notably, Hammerichs Hus, a true classic in the centre of Ærøskøbing; the manor Søbygaard; and the lighthouse and golf course in Skjoldnæs at the western-most tip of the island. It is also well worth the effort to include island churches and churchyards on your itinerary – these historic buildings have stories to tell. They provide a real taste of how Danish austerity, combined with maritime and agrarian cultures, guide post-pagan spirituality.
Visitors will appreciate the many diverse and delightful nature parks residents have preserved to protect wildlife habitats in recent decades. Among these are Gråsten Nor, a 3 sq km lowland construct ed from shallow waters by a purpose-built dam in 1856; it is home to deer, fox, hare, pheasants, migratory birds and unique plant species. Other favourites include the picturesque salt-marshes of Vitsø Nor to the south and west; Ærø Nature Park, a hilly, wooded area in the north-western part of the island, adjacent to the water where landowners have co-operated to suspend land-use and encourage the land’s natural succession; and the steep coastal hills of Voderup Klint on the southern shore facing Germany – here, clay deposits and heavy rain caused the steep coastland to collapse, creating kelly-green terraced hills and striking waterside vistas. Guided tours are offered year round by local conservation groups, and tourists are always welcome to gently enjoy these areas on their own.
But don’t let Ærø’s natural beauty and charming old buildings fool you: the island is also a well-established leader when it comes to high-tech communications and sustainable living. High-capacity telecommunications cables make it possible for residents to telecommute to work. Quaint windmills from days gone by grace Ærø’s landscapes, but numerous public and private initiatives have resulted in the placement of high-efficiency windmills that surpass the island’s own energy demands. Beneath many villages’ idyllic cobblestone streets, lay pipes that deliver water heated at large solar-panel farms nearby; Ærø was among the first to distribute heat and hot water by means of these farms. And having developed the world’s largest of such facilities, the island’s administrators are now topping that accomplishment with a major expansion, which is meant to serve as a model for similar development throughout the European Union.
The best way to experience this mix of rustic charm and modern development – according to American travel guru Rick Steves (as well as this author) – is by bicycle. Families can take advantage of local paths near colourful cabanas and sandy beaches near the towns of Ærøskøbing and Marstal, while those wishing to cover greater distances can easily make use of managed routes throughout the island. Ærø’s most recent addition, called Nevresti, should appeal to cyclists at every level. Starting in Ærøskøbing and extending for 3.5 coastal kilometres, this pleasant path awakens all the senses. It goes along the bay, bordered by wild roses and wheat fields, passing grazing sheep, boats, birds and fishermens’ huts, before joining with other paths that enable cyclists to wade in the water or enjoy a picnic lunch. Alternately, you can continue on to the Stone Age burial grounds (jættestue) in Krægnæs; the local airport, where island-sightseeing tours are highly recommended on sunny days; or further to Marstal for shopping and a bite to eat (approximate distance: a flat 10 kilometres).
Planning ahead is easy by means of local historian and bicycle enthusiast Allan Harsbo’s English-language website (www.bike-erria.dk/eng). Here, visitors can find guidebooks in English with cycle routes developed by the author, as well as options for booking bicycles in advance. It’s the perfect way to balance fitness and fun with relaxation – as Ærø’s locals have been doing for centuries.
Although it is possible to reach Ærø by private boat, plane or helicopter, most visitors arrive by ferry. Reservations are recommended for travel with a car (aeroe-ferry.com).
Ærø’s restaurants tend to be seasonal with some open only in summer, after which their owners return to other jobs. Contact the tourist bureau for opening hours. Frequently open in Ærøskøbing are Røgeriet – a smoked-fish café at the harbour and worth a visit for the smell alone – and Det Lille Hotel, situated across from the town’s quaint duck pond and offering finer meals. Equally comfortable but with shorter seasons, Café Aroma offers healthy meals and homemade ice cream, and Restaurant Mumm serves delicious food in a charming atmosphere. Marstal has several pizzerias: a summer favourite (and serving the island’s best) is Pronto Pizza at the yacht harbour. Also in Marstal are the restaurants Kongensgade 34 and Den Gamle Vingaard – both serve varied menus at reasonable prices and offer good service. For the best ribs in town, head to the harbour kiosk in Søby. To hear different island dialects – visit an island inn (kro).
Den Gamle Vingaard. For variety, service, outdoor dining, healthy options and quality, go to this favourite in Marstal (check opening hours at den-gamle-vingaard.com).
Get local on Ærø, and let the family fun begin in one of its three main towns, which offer unique children’s playgrounds with barbecues by the sea. Enjoy archipelago waters by way of classic ships sailing out of Marstal and Ærøskøbing mid-week, or island hop with the island’s newest skipper, Peter Kjær. Bicycle enthusiasts will enjoy routes that run east via Nevresti or, more challenging, west towards Borgnæs and beyond. Those who appreciate antiques should check out the flea markets (loppemarked), including Flintholmgård in Leby or Ærøskøbing’s quaint antique shop. Art is on display at shops and galleries across the island, and lively folk music at Café Dræsinen is recommended. Classical music can also be heard here and, as with music festivals and other special events, it’s best planned through the island’s tourist bureau. Lovers should also beware – getting married here is very popular! Contact wedding arranger Louise Moloney with Danish Island Weddings.
Hammerichs Hus. Located at Ærøskøbing Museum, this is a must-do year round, while summer guests should make a point of visiting Café Dræsinen or attending the Ærø Jazz Festival.
Ærø offers accommodation for every kind of traveller. Campers can take advantage of ‘primitive’ campsites all over the island, including covered shelters along the Nevresti bicycle path. Those visiting for a weekend will enjoy accommodation at island B&Bs, pensions and hotels. Many prefer to stay for three to seven days, while other visitors want to work remotely and rent for longer periods; in this case, fully furnished vacation homes and apartments are most convenient. Networks of summer holiday-rental agencies can be found online.
Weekend warriors. Pension Vestergade with host Susanne is easily accessible, and offers unmatched service and charm year round. For those with more time, try a week-long stay at a guest house. Search for accommodation at feriepartner.com.
Geographically positioned just north of Germany, Ærø is one of Denmark’s sunniest communities. On a clear day, Germany is visible – but several delightfully situated Danish islands are within view almost every day. An integral part of the Ærø island experience is the trip itself. Ferries depart from four locations: Fynshav, which connects Ærø with southern Jutland and Germany; Faaborg, connecting to southern Funen; Svendborg, connecting Ærø to that city’s lovely tall-ship harbour, restaurants and professional services; and Rudkøbing on Langeland, providing access to south-eastern Zealand via Lolland and ferries travelling to Germany.