Just off the west coast of Denmark sits a little island full of nature, history and culture
In the dusky twilight hours of near Scandinavian midnight, we traverse the grassy dunes to the immense and wide open windswept beach beaming special UV lights. Flashy yellow-tinted goggles made of plastic protect our eyes and focus our hunt. Here, on the tiny Danish island of Fanø, lucky seekers might find bits of ancient amber washed up in the sand. With patience and perseverance, suddenly a bit of luck – a little speck gleams in the ultraviolet light. Jackpot! The tiniest fleck of the coveted gem. Our collected dust won’t bring in the big bucks as amber hunting is apparently much better in the shoulder seasons of autumn and spring or after a storm. But still, the late Danish sunshine and mild breezes blowing down the beach make the outing all the more fun come summer. Come to Fanø, she said. It’s fantastisk here. Especially this time of year.
FUN FACTS ABOUT FANØ:
2nd smallest municipality (Kommune) in Denmark
SIZE: 55 km² (22 mi²) | 16 km long (10 miles) and 5 km wide (3 miles)
ANNUAL TOURISM VISITORS: 30,000
A Place in Protected Waters
Tides and time have weathered the shores of lovely little Fanø. One of three small islands set in the shifting sands and biodiverse waters of Denmark’s Wadden Sea National Park, Fanø is the furthest north. To reach this pretty place, you’ll need to catch a small ferry in the industrial port of Esbjerg for a quick twelve-minute ride across the sandy channel. These protected waters are part of the greater Wadden Sea UNESCO World Heritage Site that stretches from Esbjerg, Denmark in the north to Germany’s westernmost shores and then to The Netherlands down south. Here millions of migrating birds each year, make nests and find shelter and food on their routes north and south. Bring your binoculars to find eagles, falcons, and a myriad species of shorebirds. Or take a boat tour and look to the sandbank offshore for encounters with the island’s local colony of harbor and grey seals.
GOOD TO KNOW:
Ferry from Esbjerg to Nordby on Fanø runs every 20 minutes and only takes 12 minutes to cross. You can book ahead or wait in first come first serve lines to board. For reference we hit the dock on the first Saturday of school holidays about 15:00. We missed the first boat, but made the second one at port. You can wait in your car or step up top for views of Esbjerg and the island as you cross. Toilets available on board.
Pedestrians and cyclists can take advantage of the Danish government’s 2021 summer incentive package – and ride the Fanø ferry for free Monday – Thursday and Sundays from 16 August to 30 September. You’ll need to book online and then get your money automatically back after completion of your sailing. Read more details here.
Home to Fanø Kite Festival
Wind plays a big role up and down the west coast of Denmark and Fanø is no exception. Here, harnessing that wind then becomes part of the fun. Home to one of the region’s largest kite festivals, the middle of June pulls enthusiasts from around the world (in normal years) with their biggest and best strung out to the wind. Even if you missed the specific dates for this year’s Fanø Kite Festival, you’ll still find plenty of large-scale kites gracing the skies all summer. Look out for ginormous dogs, whales, turtles, octopus, dragons, squid, and more sail overhead almost in slow motion as you bike, walk, or drive underneath. Yes – they are that big. And so is this beach.
Head to Sønderho, Fanø Bad or Rindby Strand where you can drive directly onto the shore. And while it might feel unnatural to steer your vehicle on the sand, the tradition of cars on this beach is over 100 years old. Home to the infamous beach races from 1917-1923 where enthusiasts brought their fastest vehicles to fly across the sand from around Europe. Watch out for drifts of soft sand, as we experienced, you can get stuck. Or keep your beach cruising green and load up the bike for a day by the water. Look for the red and white lifeguard stands to stay safe in the wilder waters of the North Sea. Believe it or not, it wasn’t that cold.
Sail Across the Sand in a Blokart
No sailing school or certificate is required to strap into a blokart and zip across the sand. Book ahead online to feel the wind in your hair with Club Fanø who offers one-hour sessions on the “buggi område” south of Rindby Strand. No experience necessary, but children do need to be a certain height (135 cm) to keep the cart safely on its wheels. Double carts are available for those slim people or children who need assistance. Our youngest teen opted to double up with dad. It seems a little daunting at first, especially if you’ve never harnessed the wind, but we caught on pretty quickly and the session flew by. Literally. Helmets and gloves are available at the beach. Don them first before a quick lesson on how the cart works and which way the wind is blowing that day. It’s big fun. Try to keep up with your crew. Sharing some live shots and more island inspiration on YouTube.
GOOD TO KNOW:
Adults and children (approximately aged 12+) from 135 cm can operate carts.
PRICE: 350 DKK per hour – includes lesson, helmet and gloves
Book online at Club Fanoe
An Island Built for Bicycles
Only 16 kilometers from top to bottom and nearly flat as a pancake, Fanø is the perfect place to peruse on two wheels. Paved bicycle paths take you almost everywhere you’d want to go – from village to beach and bird watching too. Bring your own onboard the ferry and skip the car altogether. Or rent for your crew while here. Weekly packages are available at most shops or do the pickup and drop off around the island with the Donkey Republic app. You may know this from other cities – like Copenhagen and Aarhus – it works the same here. We were able to rent up to five bikes per registered user. They are nice because you only commit to how much you want to ride that day. We picked ours up at the Stoppestedet ice cream shop and restaurant right at Rindby Strand and rode them down the beach into Fanø Bad and on the paths to Nordby and back. Be careful of the soft sand on the beach as it can take your bike down. The tracks between the green grassy strip and below the dunes are fairly solid and safe.
GOOD TO KNOW:
Download the Donkey Republic App here. Prices scale per hour or full day. Bring your own helmets as they are rarely included.
Other bicycles, e-bike,s and cargo bike rental options on the island:
Fanø Cykler – Rindby Strand (cash only)
Fri BikeShop – Nordby
Beyond the Beaches, Explore the Unique Fanø Culture
A special little microcosm of Danish culture, Fanø is one of the only independent kommunes in the country. Built on maritime and exploring prowess, the island has a rich and slightly bittersweet history. Step inside the Fanø Museum in the cute capital of Nordby to see what life was like in the late 1800s – early 1900s for one family on this island. Tall people beware, the doorsills and entries are narrow and short – so don’t knock your head. While the placards in place are only in Danish, ask at the desk for information in English. (Engelsk)
Nicknamed the “island of widows,” at one period in time every fourth woman had lost her spouse to shipwrecks or just missing at sea. Engagements here meant more than the weddings themselves as the men often left for several years at a time. Suddenly the tradition of signaling to your lover by the strategic placement of your faience ceramic dogs in the window makes sense. Brought back from explorations around the world, If the funny foreign hounds face into the house it meant that your sailor was home. But if turned out to face the street, tryst-seekers and lovers were welcome to call. Peek in the windows of the classic thatched roof houses on side streets in the adorable villages of Nordby and Sønderho and you can still see the funny porcelain dogs. During July, you can experience a little of the historic cultural life and costumes on Wednesday nights. Shops and cafes will stay open late as music and players in traditional dress will fill the streets.
GOOD TO KNOW:
Fanø Museum | Skolevej 2, 6720 Fanø
Open Daily 11.00 – 15.00
Price: Adults over 14 | 35 DKK, children free
As of July 2021 – valid corona passport required to enter the museum – read more here on how to prove for locals and visitors.
Wander the Lanes and Pop in the Shops of the Capital Nordby
The largest outpost on Fanø, the main village of Nordby is definitely the biggest. Cruise the main pedestrian cobblestone street for cute little cafés and local artisan shops showcasing local glass, ceramics, and textiles too. Step inside the secret garden space of newly opened Haven, a petite boutique hotel and charming café run by Danish friends Line and Camilla. Sample one of the delicious sandwiches served on the very best bread as you sit outside under the rosebushes or with feet in the grass. It was what we like to call – a surprise and a delight.
Valdemarsvej 7, 6720 Nordby
GOOD TO KNOW:
Those who need grocery stops for their summer house stay will find a nice Super Brugsen and Spar near the ferry landing in Nordby. (A smaller, but well-stocked Dagli Brugsen is down in Sønderho.)
One of Denmark’s Most Adorable – Don’t Miss Sønderho
Fans of thatched-roof homes will fall in love with adorable little Sønderho on the southern coast of the island. A little sleepier, but so so cute to wander the history-laden streets. Looking for a unique and truly special stay? Book a room at the Sønderho Kro. A kro is a Danish inn and many offer the elegance and charm of yesterday. No space at the inn from 1722? You are welcome to book a meal in the beautiful dining room or out in the garden. Need a little refreshment, but not quite so fancy? Take a pause at Fanø littlest café – Tre Søstre (Three Sisters) near the candy and souvenir shop. Known for their smoothies and blended iced drinks and house-made soft serve.
Kropladsen 11, 6720 Fanø
Landevejen 11, 6720 Fanø
Rescue Boats and Working Windmills Turn History on Fanø
Windows into Fanø’s past life are sprinkled across the island. Near Sønderho you can see the inner workings of a still active windmill. We missed the annual Danish windmill day – every 3rd Sunday of June – but were able to score a bag of the recently milled rye flour. Step upstairs to get brilliant views of this part of the island.
Boating enthusiasts can get a little peek at the rescue boat system that saved plenty of lives off these shores. Or walk up the hill to see the island’s oldest sea mark letting captains cruising know where they were from the water. Sea marks sprinkle the Danish west coast – read more about them in my post about our visit further north in Vesterhavet here.
Sample a Local Craft Brew and the Dish of the Island
A guide for me isn’t complete if it doesn’t share what you should eat. Take a seat on the patio outside and enjoy a pint of creative craft beers from Fanø Bryghus. On less than wonderful weathered days, book a table in the brewhouse inside – cozy tables showcase views of the brewing and local photography. A food truck on-site offers a few dishes to enjoy with your suds. Try the “bakskuld” if you like smoked fish. A local specialty of dried, smoked flatfish served pan-warmed with butter and local rye bread (rugbrød.) Or just the simple fish & chips – battered and delicious.
Come to Fanø she said
It’s fantastisk here. That’s Danish for fantastic. (*wink, wink.) Perfect for a long weekend or even better, a full week. Pick a summer house to stay with your crew – most within walking distance to that big wide beach. Follow the numbered signs for each path that takes you the short walk over the dunes. Signs on both sides will help you remember your way back. Find rentals online through standard booking sites, like Booking.com or Airbnb. But more popular around here are ferielejigher websites specializing in summer house lets. I share more about what is expected when renting a Danish sommerhus here. But check out Fanohus.dk for a start. I hope you find your way to this special place. It’s probably one of my favorites spots across Denmark. Do you know the island? Did I miss one of your favorites? Please feel free to share in the comments below. I would love to go back. Skål! And cheers from here.