On a recent tip to Denmark, I set aside several days to explore outside of the city of Copenhagen. For while I love big cities, I’m a true believer that they do not typically offer an authentic look at local life and culture. They’re expensive; they draw crowds of tourists (including me!); and they’re filled with soulless, homogenized chain restaurants and hotels. After reading Rick Steves Scandinavia, I became intrigued by a little island Rick recommended: Aero. It sounded peaceful, tranquil even; the perfect antidote to crowded pedestrian walkways, tourist memento shops bloated with kitsch, and ultra-manicured attractions.
I found the name of the island was nearly impossible to pronounce, at least for the comprehension of locals. As I stood in line for transportation tickets at the main train station in Copenhagen, the employee chided me, “ARROW? We don’t have an island named ARROW. No such island exists!”
Rattled, but undaunted, I went to the ticket counter and opened my guidebook to the page about the island. Much cheerier than the traffic manager outside the ticket office, she booked my travel from Copenhagen: a train, a bus, and a ferry ride. That night I booked my stay at a hotel/hostel that had received consistently high ratings by travelers: Femmasteren Hotel & Hostel in the city of Marstal.
I continued to research the island with the help of my Rick Steves guidebook. It was only after I had booked my stay that I found a passage that made my blood run cold.
Dreary? How had I missed this important assessment?!
Apparently the only redeeming quality of Marstal, in the eyes of travel expert Rick Steves, was the Maritime Museum on a rainy day.
Well, shoot. I kicked myself for having apparently done insufficient research. But, I’d been fighting a cold and didn’t have the energy to fight another battle or reconfigure my travel plans.
More, over time I’ve found that often wrong turns are absolutely the right ones; the turns you should have set out to take in the first place, but didn’t know to.
So a couple of days later, I began my journey through Denmark, en route to Marstal on the island of Aero.
From the moment my travel began, I was enchanted. Denmark unfurled before me from the train window, and the water upon which the ferry floated was calm, still…a mirror. We disembarked in the city of Aeroskobing, which Rick Steves recommends.
From reading the guidebook and a tourist magazine, I knew the buses on the island were free. The timetables of the ferry and bus coincided perfectly, so instead of wandering around Aeroskobing to see what I could see, I opted to go straight to Marstal to check in to my hotel.
I stepped off the free bus at a stop that seemed near the center of town (rather surprised that there were at least four scheduled stops within Marstal!) As I pack light, I had only a backpack and a small purse to carry as I explored the city. I knew immediately I’d made the right choice. It was off season, and there were very few people wandering about–in fact, I had the feeling I was the only tourist in town. (This turned out to be almost true. For one night, I had the entire hotel to myself.)
Now in truth, and perhaps in defense of Rick Steves, I arrived in Scandinavia in autumn, and it’s a rainy time of year. But what does dreary mean, anyway? Is Rick referring to weather? To the mindset of locals? To a town in disarray or blighted? Certainly it implies that it’s a place not worth visiting.
What I found was a pleasant surprise in light of the guidebook’s statement. The streets of Marstal were impeccably clean. A pedestrian walkway wound through the center of the city–and admittedly, it was quiet over the weekend, with shops closed.
The houses were absolutely adorable. The doors that Rick raves about in his section on Aeroskobing–hey, guess what, they’re amazing and varied and inspiring in Marstal too!
I had traveled to the city of Marstal with no map, assuming from what I’d read that the town was small and I would be able to find my lodging on foot with no trouble. I was right; a city map located near the marina helped me find my lodging. The front desk was vacant; no employees–or guests, for that matter, to be found.
I decided to wander the city more, and maybe get some groceries for dinner.
Hours later, with the help of two guests I found sipping wine at sundown, I was able to find the hotel host, who hurried to the hotel to check me in. She was impossibly cheerful and high energy, and so excited that she had an American guest. She asked how I’d heard of Aero, and I said I’d read about it in a travel guidebook.
“Steve?” She said excitedly.
“Yes, Rick Steves,” I responded. I didn’t have the heart to tell her Rick Steves had called her town dreary.
Femmasteren Hotel allowed me free use of a bicycle, which I rode out to a sandy spit at the edge of town. There, tiny beach shacks–every single one of them charming–look over the water.
I hiked the spit, marveled at the sailboats, at the scattered, passing rain showers in the distance, at the highlights of sunshine in the sky.
I hardly saw a soul, other than a woman walking her dog, its nose down in the seagrass.
It was among the most peaceful, restorative, wonder-filled walks of my life.
Although there are restaurants and pubs in Marstal, as a long-term traveler with special dietary considerations I preferred to use the kitchen provided at my hotel, rather than eat out every day.
On my walks through town, to and from the grocery store I was overwhelmed by the impression I was strolling through a fairytale: moss-covered terra-cotta tiled rooftops, houses smaller than master bedrooms in the U.S., cobblestone walkways and unchained bicycles leaning casually against buildings.
At the edge of one driveway sat a table piled with hand-knit woolen socks for sale, on the honor system, with a little tin to collect cash. At another home was a little bookshelf with used items for sale, again on the honor system.
A Spanish-speaking couple and their families checked into the hotel. They were getting married in Marstal the following day.
“Muy tranquillo,” the bride’s sister remarked with a smile and a sigh.
Yes, Marstal was quiet. But dreary, it was not.
I can see how someone might think Marstal is an undesirable destination if they don’t really explore it. The marina area is pretty industrial-looking, certainly not polished to a shine for the benefit of tourists, but instead functional for the island’s shipping industry.
If you’re looking for a beautiful seaside promenade you might be disappointed. There is a sidewalk, and quiet streets, and parks and docks and old ships along the waterfront, and for me, that was enough. The greatest charms of the city are a couple of streets back from the water’s edge or on the spit.
Before boarding the ferry for my return to the mainland, I took some time to explore Aeroskobing, which honestly differed from Marstal only in the amount of commerce, the number of visitors, and the touristy restaurants crowding near the marina, most of them closed for the season. I also noted that the grocery store itself was closed for remodeling; had I stayed in Aeroskobing instead of Marstal, I would have had to dine out every meal.
I can’t help but wonder: as travel writers, what is our responsibility to the places we write about? Of course we have a responsibility to our readers. But, what harm do we cause when we casually toss out terms like dreary? What if the difference between a booming tourism economy and a quiet village is decided by a flippant comment on page 161 of a guidebook? What if the survival of a mom and pop restaurant or inn rests on our shoulders? I’m not a so-called “influencer” like Rick Steves, with hundreds of thousands of fans, but what if what I write influences even one decision to visit–or not–a city?
Marstal is a beautiful place nestled on a tranquil island. It is charming and quiet and relaxing and inherently good. If that speaks to you, go there for those reasons. Take a bike ride, hike the spit, sip wine at sundown, get married, snap photos of the fairytale-like houses and cobblestone streets. And if the Maritime Museum interests you, go there too.
Personally I had too much to explore to make time for it.
Charish Badzinski is an explorer and award-winning travel and food writer. When she isn’t working to build her blog: Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World, she applies her worldview to her small business, providing strategic communications, media relations and writing support to her clients.
Find Charish on Twitter: @charishb
Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World by Charish Badzinski is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.