Drawn to the north light

In a wild landscape where seas meet, Tim Pozzi finds Skagen's big skies are still pulling in crowds.

AT THE end of July, Skagen was full. Really? Every room in every hotel and guesthouse, occupied? ''I'm afraid so,'' the tourist office told me. ''It's very popular at this time of year. We have more sunshine than anywhere else in Denmark and it never rains for very long. The Danes like to come here to celebrate the light.''

Skagen sits right at the northernmost tip of Denmark on what they call ''probably the largest sand spit in the world''. When I was able to squeeze in a month later, it turned out to be little more than a pretty, overgrown village, its yellow and red clapboard houses enclosed by white picket fences, with many an apple tree on the super-green lawns.

You reach Skagen by traversing miles of open, scrub-covered dunes and, in spite of visitor volumes, its size and remoteness make it an immediately soothing place to be.

It's where the fictional Swedish detective Kurt Wallander came to ease his troubled mind after killing a man, walking mile after mile, day after day, along windswept beaches beneath big skies.

It's the light from those skies that was the making of Skagen. After Hans Christian Andersen visited in 1859, he wrote: ''Are you a painter? Then follow us up here.'' By the 1880s a small artists' colony, led by Anna and Michael Ancher, P.S. Kroyer and Holger Drachmann, had established itself in the village. They painted the local fishermen and their families, and each other: strolling along the beach in long summer frocks, reading in the garden, throwing lunch parties.

So your first stop should be Skagen Museum, a charming little gallery that houses many of the works of these artists and which offers a fascinating glimpse of what, for all the dourness of the fishermen's lives, appears an enchanted time.

Move on to the wonderful Brondums Hotel across the road for lunch - the fried plaice is superb - and you'll begin to feel a real connection with the place, because when you stand in its dining rooms, you recognise the backdrop for the scenes of fishermen gathering to mourn their dead, or of painters whiling away their evenings playing cards. Suddenly, the 130 years between then and now doesn't seem such a great stretch of time.

Skagen's biggest draw, though, is Grenen - the sandy point, like the tip of a hunting knife, where two beaches and two seas, Skagerrak from the west and Kattegat from the east, meet. It's only a few miles north of the town and the best way to reach it is on two wheels - the bike hire centre in the middle of town charges about $16 a day.

There are paved cycle paths all over the peninsula, taking you through dunes and marshland and pine forest. It's a wonderful way to soak up the natural beauty of the area and will also give you a decent chance of spotting deer and seals, as I did.

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There is always an excited crowd of a few dozen people at Grenen, all having their pictures taken with one foot in either sea. When you take your turn your body actually becomes, in a sense, Denmark's most northerly point above sea level. Geographers or pedantic cartographers may beg to differ but the notion certainly gave me a thrill.

There is a lot of empty shoreline to enjoy here but there is also a great deal to do if the weather should be unfavourable.

Anna and Michael Ancher's house, for example, has been preserved to look just as it did when they lived there. With its dense collection of paintings and fine furniture, its kinks and curves and humble wonkiness, it offers an enchanting glimpse of well-to-do Danish life in the late 19th century.

The town's artistic heritage means that there is also surprisingly good shopping to be had, whether it's glass, pottery or silverware that grabs you. Foodwise, Charcuterie Munch at Laurentii Vej 1 is a great spot to pick up salads for a picnic lunch, or smoked hams and cheeses to take home.

And then there's Skagen's nature centre, a discreetly sprawling building designed by Jorn Utzon - better known for the Sydney Opera House - among the boggy dunes. It's a rather magical place - part educational space, part art gallery. In one room you get a mackerel's eye view of what it's like to have a flock of gulls arrowing down towards you, along with stuffed kittiwakes, gannets, cormorants, Arctic terns and more suspended in dynamic poses above your head.

Elsewhere there is a fascinating short film about Skagen's ceaselessly shifting sands; live frogs, fish and lizards; sculptures, photographs and artworks; and a lot of eerie music.

Perhaps the best thing to do in Skagen, though, is simply to seek out your own private dune, sink back into a grassy hollow and listen to the wind and the waves as the clouds scud across the sky.

Trip notes

Getting there

Scandinavian Airlines flies from Sydney to Copenhagen via Tokyo, priced from $2364 return. 1300 727 707, flysas.com. From Copenhagen, there are daily flights to Aalborg. Skagen is about a 90-minute drive from Aalborg.

Staying there

Bed and Breakfast Skagen is an excellent budget option, especially for groups, with huge rooms in a beautiful old house, priced from 1000 to 1500 kroner ($182-$273) a person a night. +45 9845 1648, skaw-bo.dk.

Hotel Petit, in the town centre, has plain rooms, friendly service and excellent breakfasts. Rooms from 1200 kroner a night.

+45 9844 1199, hotelpetit.dk.

Brondums Hotel has character but no en suite bathrooms in its main building. Doubles from 1350 kroner a night. The Admiralgaarden, 180 metres away, has double rooms with an en suite from 975 kroner a night. +45 9844 1555, broendums-hotel.dk.

Touring there

Get on a bike, everyone else does. Skagen Cykeludlejning on the Banegardspladsen, +45 9844 1070.

More information

visitdenmark.com; skagen-tourist.dk

- Sun-Herald

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