Hamlet on two wheels

Daniel Scott explores castles and villages, beaches and forest trails on a cycling loop from Copenhagen.

Hei, hei!" I'm resting my sore cyclist's butt by the Danish seaside when I hear the now-familiar greeting. I look up from my salami and blue cheese sandwich towards the Oresund, the strait that divides the island of Zealand from Sweden. A silver-haired mermaid is emerging, dripping and naked. "Velkommen!" she beams. "Yes," I cough. "I mean, thanks, tak."

Although usually clothed, all the Danes I encounter on my two-day return cycle from Copenhagen to Helsingør are just as welcoming as this elderly nymph. When I get lost, which is often, locals respond not only with directions in English but also by leading me to my destination.

The best thing about a cycle trip through a country you imagine to be flat, featureless and populated by reserved Vikings is the capacity of both landscape and people to surprise you. To begin, as I make my way north from Copenhagen along National Cycle Route 9, it's the appearance of a string of enticing swimming beaches, such as Bellevue, that confounds my expectations of this small northern European nation. Then, as the route threads inland, it's the testing hills and wooded valleys in Dyrehaven deer park.

Ultimately, though, besides the friendly Danes, the revelation of this 120-kilometre cycle ride is what I discover along the way. I knew little about the Danish writer before stopping at the Karen Blixen museum in Rungsted on my first day - beyond Meryl Streep's portrayal of her, alongside Robert Redford, in Out of Africa. However, after touring the coastal home where she lived before and after her 17 years in Kenya, I'm fond and admiring of the Nobel-prize-nominated author.

While Blixen (1885-1962) wrote many books, it's her memoir of her time in Kenya, published under the pseudonym Isak Dinesen in 1938, that drew most attention. She travelled to Africa in 1914 to run a coffee farm with her new husband, the Swedish Baron Bror von Blixen-Finecke. The marriage quickly failed and, in 1921, Blixen found herself alone and struggling to keep the farm afloat.

During this time, she developed a friendship with English pilot and safari leader Denys Finch Hatton (played by Redford) and a deep love for Kenya and its people. Eccentric but courageous, Blixen earned the respect of Africans and portrayed them with insight in her writing and painting. In later life, she became a doyenne of Danish literature. Ernest Hemingway held her work in high regard and photographs at the house show her with Arthur Miller, Marilyn Monroe and Sir John Gielgud, among others.

However, her health was failing - possibly due to poisoning from earlier mercury treatments for syphilis - and at the time of her death in 1962, she weighed just 35 kilograms. I end my visit with a stroll to her grave, set beneath a giant beech tree in woods at the back of her house.

That afternoon I continue up the Zealand coast, passing through fishing villages that once thrived on the herring trade. The most picturesque of these is Sletten, with old, thatched fishermen's cottages lining the harbourside.

A little further north, at Humlebaek, is the day's second excuse for a break from cycling: the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art. Sited on the seafront, Louisiana houses the largest collection of modern art in Scandinavia, with more than 3000 works, including pieces by Pablo Picasso, Alberto Giacometti and Andy Warhol.

In the late afternoon, I round a coastal bend and glimpse Helsingor, or Elsinore to give the city its English name, with Kronborg Castle guarding the harbour. On the way into town, I watch ferries plying the four-kilometre route across the Oresund between Helsingor and Helsingborg in Sweden.

The main reason I've cycled to Elsinore is to see the castle in which Shakespeare set Hamlet. Once one of northern Europe's most important castles, the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Kronborg is a grand Renaissance concoction of turrets, domes and parapets. Inside, there's a 62-metre-long ballroom in which you can imagine Hamlet's nemesis, King Claudius, hosting royal banquets. Underground, among a warren of dark vaults, are the remains of national hero Holger the Dane; guaranteed to disturb a sensitive young prince.

At my hotel nearby, the Marienlyst, I'm greeted by a foppish statue of Hamlet in the car park. It's not the only anachronism at this casino hotel, built in 1902 and renovated in the 1980s. I find my way to my sea-facing room up sweeping staircases and past royal portraits. But for a leaden-legged cyclist, the Marienlyst has all the modern touches I need, including an indoor pool, sauna and steam room, a visiting massage therapist and waterside restaurants.

Next morning, I detour 20 kilometres inland to Fredensborg Castle in search of a current Danish prince - Frederik - and his Australian wife, Mary. Although the lakeside palace is a favourite royal summer residence, I miss the royals and the chance to look inside the palace, which is open only in July. Instead, I cycle through the castle's 120-hectare gardens, a topiarist's dream.

I lose my way several times in the next few hours while trying to find an elusive regional cycle route back to the coast but helpful residents direct me along forest trails and lanes that weave between fields of swaying corn. When I regain the coast, I pedal fast for Copenhagen, pausing only for a mermaid-interrupted sandwich.

By the time I get to Charlottenlund Beach, just an hour from central Copenhagen, I'm hot and grubby and the Oresund strait looks tempting. I pull up behind an empty wooden quay and, before you can say "hei, hei", I've shed my cycling gear and I'm bathing Danish-style.

Daniel Scott travelled courtesy of Visit Denmark and Visit Copenhagen.


Getting there

Emirates has a fare to Copenhagen from Sydney and Melbourne for about $1870 low-season return, including tax. Fly to Dubai (14hr), then to Copenhagen (7hr); see emirates.com. Qatar Airways has a fare to Copenhagen from Melbourne for about $1570, flying to Doha (14hr), then to Copenhagen (7hr); see qatarairways.com/au.

Staying there

Hotel Guldsmeden Axel, close to Copenhagen's central station, at Helgolandsgade 11, is a gem, with an organic cafe and basement spa and Balinese-style rooms. Doubles cost from 895 krone ($159); see hotelguldsmeden.com/axel/english.

Hotel Marienlyst, Helsingor, is a comfortable seafront resort with indoor pool and restaurants and Denmark's oldest casino, dating to 1902. Doubles, including buffet breakfast, from 1200 krone; see marienlyst.dk.

Cycling there

The National Cycle Route 9, considered one of Denmark's most beautiful, runs largely off-road and parallel to the Strandvejen (beach-coast road) from Copenhagen to Helsingor. Heading north from Copenhagen, the route follows the main Osterbrogade highway.

In Copenhagen, Baisikeli rents standard bikes from 80 krone for 24 hours and 50 krone for additional days; see www.baisikeli.dk/en.

Copenhagen's city bicycle tours include Copenhagen Tours (copenhagen-tours.dk) and Bike Copenhagen (bikecopenhagenwithmike.dk), which has a daily three-hour tour that costs 260 krone.

For information on the Bike City scheme, see bikecitycopenhagen.com.

The Karen Blixen Museum is open Wednesday to Friday 1-4pm and weekends 11am-4pm in October-April. Entry is 60 krone, under 14s free. At Rungsted Strandvej 111; see karen-blixen.dk.

Louisiana Museum of Modern Art is open Tuesday to Friday 11am-10pm and weekends 11am-6pm. Entry 95 krone, under 18s free. At Gl. Strandvej 13, Humlebaek; see louisiana.dk.

Kronborg Castle in Helsingor is open Tuesday to Sunday from May to September 10.30am-5pm and October to April 11am-3pm. Entry 95 krone; see kronborg.dk.

Fredensborg Castle and its orangery are open only during July for guided tours but the gardens are open year-round with free entry; see kongehuset.dk.

More information See visitdenmark.com, visitcopenhagen.com and an excellent cycling and fashion blog at copenhagencyclechic.com.

Stylish, practical key to city sights

COPENHAGEN'S 390 kilometres of bike lanes make it one of the world's best city's for cyclists. Thirty-seven per cent of residents cycle to work or study; Copenhageners travel 1.2 million kilometres a year by bike, almost double the distance they cover on the Metro.

In the warmer months, the city is a blur of colourful cyclists and, being a leading design capital, they're stylish and practical. Most notable on the Danish capital's streets is the specially adapted Christianabike, a three-wheeled trolley bicycle that appeared in the city's hippie freetown, Christianhavn, in the 1970s. Now sold all over the world, there are 10,000 Christianabikes in Copenhagen, often ridden by parents transporting two or more children but also used by the Danish postal service.

In a city so bike-mad, it makes sense to tour on two wheels and that's made easy by the City Bike scheme, which runs from April to November and provides 2000 free bikes at 110 locations . (The 20-krone coin deposit is refunded when you drop the bike off).

Cycleways are mostly raised and separated from major roads and there are traffic lights for cyclists.

"You just need to respect the food-chain of traffic," a student, Steen Deth, tells me. "Cars will eat bicycles and bicycles eat pedestrians."

A guided cycling tour is a good introduction to Copenhagen's major sights. My three-hour tour takes in the labyrinthine streets of the Old Town, pauses at Christiansborg Palace and the Danish Parliament before crossing the Knippel Bridge to explore Christianhavn, built by King Christian IV in the 17th century to defend the city but now famous for its alternative community.

Delineated by canals, Christianhavn, or Christiana as it's also known, is a creative neighbourhood where the original military barracks stand alongside cafes, bodegas and graffiti-adorned shacks. Residents see themselves as separate from other Copenhagers and the rest of the European Union.

Cannabis is tolerated and our tour passes through a "pusher's area" where "no photography" signs loom large. Other city stops include the glass-encased Opera House by the harbourside and the Amalienborg Palace, residence of the royal family. After cycling through the Kastellet military fortress, our tour ends at the iconic Little Mermaid statue perched prettily on rocks at the waterside.