Copenhagen has plenty of Michelin-starred restaurants, but I was looking for a food scene with fewer crowds and less fuss.
Last fall, I embarked on my first safari. But I wasn’t searching for the Big Five in Tanzania. Instead, I joined a caravan of Volvos and Volkswagens in Denmark, gingerly rolling along a narrow rocky road on our way to the Wadden Sea. There, in the shallow water and mudflats that run along the western coast of the Jutland peninsula, I set off in search of Pacific oysters — an easier feat than tracking lions, to be sure, but no less exciting.
The five-hour “oyster safari” was a high point of my solo road trip, this time eschewing Copenhagen, with its wealth of refined Michelin-starred restaurants, in favor of a food scene with fewer crowds, less fuss, and plenty of vibrant meals. I traversed mainland Denmark, where I found rosé in hand-lettered bottles, small-batch charcuterie, chocolate made with figs grown in the chocolatier’s garden, and a bounty of shellfish I shucked myself.
After flying in to Billund, in central Denmark, I went to Lego House, designed by the Bjarke Ingels Group, to learn more about the iconic Danish toy (Billund was the hometown of Lego inventor Ole Kirk Christiansen). The next morning I drove west, then south along the coast. I hadn’t been looking forward to spending three hours in the car, but the time flew by as I passed whitewashed farmhouses and fields fringed with the remnants of summer’s wildflowers.
My first stop was Blåvand, a town on the windswept Blåvandshuk headland. Although the area is a haven for beachgoers, I’d come for another attraction: Tirpitz, a museum chronicling the 20,000-year history of western Denmark. The Ingels Group also designed this structure, built into the soft, grassy dunes and incorporating a World War II–era bunker next door. Interactive installations and displays showcase items like flint tools from the first Danes, objects shipwrecked on Danish shores, and one of the region’s unlikely calling cards: fat, golden globs of amber, which sometimes wash up on the beaches.
I broke for lunch at Hr. Skov, a café and specialty-foods shop founded by chef Claus Skov in 2007. Its made-from-scratch goods draw from the area’s wild herbs, berries, and mushrooms and are sold in gourmet markets around the country. I paired a board of cheeses and charcuterie made by small regional producers — Gammel Knas, a local version of Havarti, and smoked beef from the butcher shop Slagter Christiansen, on the nearby island of Fanø — with ale made with the tart orange sea buckthorn that grows wild along Jutland’s western coast.
After lunch, I drove to the seaport town of Esbjerg, where I boarded the ferry to Fanø, one of three inhabited Wadden Sea islands. A 12-minute sail took me to Nordby, on Fanø’s northeastern shore, where I wandered the cobblestoned streets lined with thatched-roof shops selling handcrafted ceramics and wool scarves. I found the Kaffehuset, a snug café with house-made carrot cake and ice cream bars from Hansen’s, a century-old dairy.
One draw for many visitors to this region is Henne Kirkeby Kro, an 18th-century inn on the mainland with expansive gardens that supply ingredients for its Michelin two-starred restaurant. Sadly, both were fully booked during my trip, so after arriving back in Esbjerg, I made my way to the century-old Hjerting Badehotel, a traditional seaside inn. Highlights of my dinner in the hotel’s restaurant, StrandPavillonen, were red-deer tenderloin with pickled lingonberries and a deconstructed apple tart with skyr and caramel.
In the morning, I headed about 40 miles south to the Marsk Tower, an Ingels Group–designed observation point that was unveiled in summer 2021 at the Marsk Camp. The campground has motor-home hookups and glamping tents, as well as a restaurant, and offers activities that include foraging tours. I could see the tower’s sculptural double helix from miles away, jutting from the flat green terrain like a frozen tornado. I climbed it to get a bird’s-eye view of the surrounding marshes.
Once I made my way back to Earth, I took off for Vores Marsk, a shop and culinary-education center in the town of Tonder. Against the backdrop of a massive map pinpointing Wadden Sea growers and makers, the shopkeeper cut me a few thick slabs of bread: a vehicle for fresh-whipped butter, creamy honey, and cured pork sausage from a nearby biodynamic farm. After checking out wines from the family-run Vester Vedsted Vingård, I bought some bottles of Marsk Distillery gin, made with petals of burnet rose — which owner Hans Sjursen had handpicked on the Wadden Sea island of Rømø.
From there, the drive to the eastern coast was only about 25 miles. At Hotel Europa, not far from the Aabenraa Fjord, I sat with the hotel’s then-chef, Sune Axelsen, who taught me about the tradition of kaffebord (“cake table”) over a mini rye cake layered with fresh whipped cream and berries. The idea dates back to the German-Austrian occupation of South Jutland during the Second Schleswig War of 1864: groups couldn’t meet in community spaces like pubs to talk politics, so they planned the resistance in their homes over coffee and sweets instead.
After breakfast — a traditional spread that included fried herring and cow’s-milk cheese — I drove about an hour back to Wadden Sea National Park on the western coast. The six-acre reserve is named for the world’s largest tidal-flat system, a unesco World Heritage site that stretches from the Netherlands past Germany all the way north to Denmark (some 300 miles of coastline) and is characterized by wide swaths of sand, mudflats, and marsh.
My oyster safari left from the Wadden Sea Center, a modern glass building, designed by Danish architect Dorte Mandrup, that is partially covered in reeds — a nod to the region’s classic thatched-roof houses.
Suited up in waders and armed with buckets, my group of a dozen people, led by biologist Emil Vesterager, began the oyster-colony trek — a nearly four-mile walk out to sea over mudflats broken up by narrow passages of rushing, waist-deep water. Two hours later, we arrived at a reef where long gray Pacific oysters were piled up like nature’s all-you-can-eat seafood buffet. Since these oysters are an invasive species, we were invited to take home as many as we could carry. Our group scattered across the banks and some of us started shucking. A traveler from Berlin offered to share the champagne she’d brought, and we drank it from purple plastic flutes.
That evening, I checked in to my favorite property of the trip, the Lustrup Farmhouse, which is situated in the midst of green fields and gardens about a 15-minute drive from the park entrance. Owner Janni Fenn, who runs the farm with her husband, Alex, showed me to my apartment — a sunlit second-floor space, its kitchen stocked with coffee, local butter, and chocolate milk that made for a hygge haven at the end of an exhilarating day.
I awoke to a basket of warm pastries that Fenn had left at my door. Later that day, I would make my way to Vejle, a town at the head of the Vejle Fjord known for its art museums, cutting-edge architecture, and Michelin-starred restaurant. But first, I spent the morning in Ribe, Denmark’s oldest town.
At Temper Chokolade, situated near the city center, Timothy Ibbitson makes glossy bonbons — filled with licorice root, alpine strawberries, and an array of herbs and fruits he grows himself — and displays them like gems in his bright café. Ibbitson insisted I try the gelato, which he makes from scratch using the ingredients around him: milk from a dairy a few miles down the road; sour cherries he picks with his family every summer. It was a cool fall day, but I gladly accepted the cone and went on my way.
A version of this story first appeared in the July 2023 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline "Coasting Along."
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