New Zealand too far? Try Old Zealand, Denmark's largest island, instead
Bungee jump from a platform suspended high above a canyon; jet-boat at 50mph in mere inches of water; roll downhill strapped inside a giant rubber ball. And then after lunch ...
No wonder that in nine out of 10 surveys asking British travellers for their dream destination, the top choice is New Zealand, where the landscapes are full of drama and adventure. Inconveniently, it is on the far side of the planet. And in a week when the front page of The Independent carries an appeal from the Inuit people of Greenland to limit airport expansion in Essex, it seemed a better idea to sail, rail and pedal to and around the original Zealand, the largest island in Denmark, in search of thrills.
To misquote Shakespeare, hardly anything is rotten in the state of Denmark (though I did once have a bad herring in Copenhagen). But, I wonder, is it actually enthralling?
This is not a good start. I am outside a comfortably wilting thatched house, the maroon walls latticed by half-timbering. And I am staring at a tombstone – of a potato. Not just any old tuber, mind: the largest potato ever grown in Denmark.
When the superspud was uncovered in an allotment outside the town of Soro in 1989, it weighed in at over 4lb. This mega-tattie was considered unsuitable for human consumption, and instead buried with great ceremony on the doorstep of the Katharine's Boot restaurant in Soro. Danish TV broadcast the vegetable's funeral live; the viewers must have been transfixed with such earthly televisual pleasures.
Soro quickly improves. On the civic doorstep is not a potato but a beautiful lake, where bullrushes sway in time with the rippling waters. Close to the shore, the Soro Akademi is surely the most stately state school in Europe: a palace on the scale of Versailles, with grounds to match.
You can wander under a sturdy red-brick arch from this centre of academic excellence into the centre of town. Soro's main street is a study in individuality. A jumble of timbers and brickwork provides a framework for a row of pretty shops and cafes, all with suitably handsome staff. Not a chain store in sight. The decorators have been busy with the pastel paint, giving the impression you have strayed into a picture book.
Right now, I have strayed into the town's museum. The permanent collection is a sequence of landscapes that are studies in perspective. With no New Zealand-style mountains to impede the view, your eye quickly finds its way to vanishing point on a horizon where land collides silently with sky.
Out the back is a more inspiring temporary exhibition. After experimenting with controversial cartoons, Denmark's artistic avant-garde has gone for something safer: bubblegum. In a cabin at the back of the museum, inside a space about the size of a schoolroom, you discover a shrine to mastication. Collect a piece of Bubblicious from the basket as you enter the exhibition, and chew over the strange contents. A giant pink splat of pretend gum fills one wall, while adjacent you are invited to make your own contribution to oral art by transferring the gum from your mouth to a board already spattered with spittle. Time for lunch. Potato, anyone?
As I drift west on two wheels in search of sustenance, over gentle hills whose profile resembles an only slightly ruffled duvet, my appetite for old Zealand increases at the same rate as my hunger. With an engrossing patchwork of meadows and woodland, punctuated by the delicate spin of slender wind turbines, this is delicious terrain.
The bicycle is the natural counterpart to Denmark's excellent rail network, and the cyclist is accorded special status – not just by the provision of plenty of bike paths, but also by motorists. Four wheels defer to two in Slagelse, a town whose name is properly pronounced as "slails". Slagelse is a study in the pleasingly arbitrary: the 14th-century church here, a shiny new restaurant there. Just what I need.
As a venerable clock strikes a solitary one o'clock, I wander into the Karsberg (nothing to do with a similar-sounding Danish lager). It turns out to be a study in good taste in both senses, with fresh ingredients from the land and sea served up in an elegant environment that feels like a Danish design showroom.
Ten more miles west, and you run into Korsor out of Zealand. A decade ago, I came to Korsor involuntarily and saw nothing of the place. This summer I strayed off the beaten track, and it is quite a thrill to have done so.
Until 1998, Korsor was a town on the way to everywhere, at least from the Zealanders' perspective. It was the main port for ships crossing the Great Belt, the channel that separates the largest and most populous island in Denmark from the next-door isle of Funen. Ferries shuttled to and from Korsor, carrying cars, trucks and entire trains. Then the startlingly graceful Great Belt Bridge was completed. Imagine waking up to find that the biggest bypass in Europe has opened just outside town. That is what befell the people of Korsor.
When Europe's longest suspension bridge opened, Korsor found itself on the road to nowhere. Fortunately, a town whose skyline is dominated by now-redundant silos has found a new role: quietly seductive holiday resort.
Norwegians flock south in their thousands for relatively strong sun and cheap fun on the beaches that sliver south from Korsor. The town itself provides a fast track to Baltic bygones, with huddles of doddery old fishermen's cottages and a church whose interior is dominated by a large, elaborate model sailing ship. At the top end of town, a fortress has dwindled into the lawns that encircle it, but the municipal museum still stands as a tribute to the heroism of the former ferrymen.
When the earth's climate was significantly colder, crossing the icy Great Belt was fraught with perils. Today, you can do it in a trice, thanks to the magnificent bridge – except on a bike. When my offer to pay a toll was politely declined, I headed for the shoreline beneath the mighty strip of suspended concrete. The sea stroked my feet while a queue of cargo ships waited to slip beneath the highest part of the bridge.
This final flourish of 20th-century engineers has created a most exciting climax to a quietly compelling island. If New Zealand is the wonder at the end of the world, then old Zealand is a modest miracle at the end of a ferry and train ride.
You can sail from Harwich to Esbjerg aboard DFDS Seaways (08705 333000; www.dfdsseaways.co.uk). From there, the train takes under two hours to reach Korsor, and 10 and 20 minutes longer, respectively, to reach Slagelse and Soro.
If you prefer to make the entire journey by rail, Eurostar (08705 186 186; www.eurostar.com) will take you from London Waterloo to Brussels, where you change trains for Hamburg and Denmark. Specialists such as Trainseurope (0871 700 7722; www.trainseurope.co.uk) and European Rail (020-7387 0444; www.europeanrail.com) can book a tailor-made journey for you.
The most characterful lodging in the area can be found at the Jens Baggesen Hotel, Batterivej 3, Korsor (00 45 58 35 10 00; www.hotel-jens-baggesen.dk), where a double room will set you back Dkr750 (€101), including breakfast.
EATING & DRINKING THERE
The Karsberg Restaurant, Gammel Torv 1, Slagelse (00 45 58 50 50 10; www.karsberg.dk).
VisitDenmark, 55 Sloane Street, London SW1X 9SY ( www.visitdenmark.com). The first Rough Guide to Denmark has just been published, price €20.