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Sustainable Samsø

Written by Mark Laiosa

"Welcome to Samsø." Photo courtesy of VisitDenmark.

A mix of twenty locals and visitors sit in the small bar of the Brundby Rock Hotel listening to an electric guitar, bass and drum trio play a mix of international, Danish pop, and original tunes. What appears to be a typical scenario, belies the fact that the refrigerators, lights and amplification units are powered by Samsø's sustainable energy sources.

The tiny island of Samsø, Denmark offers a glimpse of a sustainable future. In the mid 1990s, the island’s 3,800 or so residents applied and received funding for sustainability programs such as building wind turbines, purchasing rapeseed oil tractors, installing solar energy panels, and constructing CO2 neutral heating plants. Over the past two decades, the array of wind turbines jutting from the sea has become an iconic image of energy sustainability.

The islanders, known as Samsings, are eager to talk about their island and the benefits of not having to purchase oil or electricity, including the money made from selling energy from sustainable sources. One local farmer has wind mills amid his fields and a few grazing cows. One wind mill has the word “BONUS” painted on the side. When asked about this, he replies, “I get to keep the money from that one!” He unplugs the wind mill and we enter into a windowless shaft, lit by LEDs. The brake is engaged and we line up to climb a metal ladder welded to the wall. It rises up 30 feet or so, through a hole in the ceiling. Once through the hole, the ceiling becomes the floor of a room with another ladder welded to the other side of the shaft. After climbing through several landings, we reach a small compartment. The farmer unlocks the door to the oval turbine room that is large enough for eight visitors. He uses a small crank to slowly open the two wings of the roof, letting in gusts of wind and bright sunlight with views of neighboring wind turbines and a patchwork of farm land below, a slate gray ocean shimmers in the background.

The Samso Energy Academy, which is dedicated to sharing the sustainable knowledge of the island with visitors, has field trips to the solar heat fields, windmills and a straw-based heating plant that create a surplus of energy that power the entire island and have enough left over to sell to the mainland.

Samsø is approximately 17 miles across at its broadest point and has plenty of activities, from biking and hiking across a nature preserve to walking your way through what might be the largest maze in the world to bio-dynamic farm visits, and sea kayaking.

You can explore the coastline with the Havkajak sea kayak center. It has rentals and group tours where you might see porpoises or seals. Keeping in tune with their energy-conscious mindset, kayak center employees teach visitors how to harness the strong ocean winds with paddles to sail more effortlessly across the water.  

The island’s old roadways were originally designed for horse and wagon transportation, meandering over hills with sweeping vistas of land and sea. Some roads are paved, while others are simple dirt and gravel paths, perfect for bike rides. Bikes can be rented during the summer season from any of Samsø’s five harbors. Look for Samsø Cykeludlejning (Samsø Bike Rentals), which has adult and children’s bicycles, tandems, bicycle trailers, trailer bikes, baby seats, helmets for adults and children, and even wheel chairs. Electric bikes are also available by reservation. Bikes can be delivered to wherever you are staying or can be picked up at the main hub in Marup.

The northern tip of Samsø has the largest labyrinth in the world: almost 16 acres of fir trees planted around paths that make you wish you brought your drone. No worries though, the back of the guide (available at the beginning of the labyrinth) shows a quick exit route.

Bell Tower in Nordby. Photo courtesy of Visitdenmark.

A visit to the Birkman family ecological farm and a tour of its dairy and free range hog ranch will undoubtedly work up an appetite. Good thing there are several restaurant options that source their ingredients from local farms. Even the breweries and distilleries use island-grown grains. Their handcrafted brews are an adventure for both the most jaded beer lover and casual elbow-bender.

The island’s oldest and only organic brewery, Samsø Bryghus, is run by a female brewmaster and offers several beer and ale varieties from locally sourced grains. Samsø Bryghus features the Vedvarende Engergi Pilsner (Renewable Energy Pilsner), which is an elderflower beer with a note of licorice. The site was originally built in the mid-17th century as part of a farm. The brewing portion of the business sits adjacent to the pub in what used to be a horse stable and produces about 2,000 liters of beer a week.

A local treat to snack on is called snobrod or “fire bread.” Baked over an open fire and wrapped around a stick, this doughy delight takes about 20 minutes to bake on a rotating apparatus, but it will reward you with a steamy and aromatic bun best accompanied by local berry jam or, if available, fresh creamery butter.

Another treat is Linzer-style potatoes. These small, thin-skinned potatoes have a creamy texture that melds well with local cheeses. Foods of Samsø can be sampled in season at Chef Soren Orum’s Ved Kaeret (Restaurant at the Pond) in Nordby. A former blacksmith’s shop, the restaurant’s main room has an open hearth, where the preparation and cooking take place. Here you’ll find a creative menu featuring local resources such as free-range beef and pork, sustainably caught eel, seasonal vegetables, fresh baked breads and local cheeses.

For lighter fare in Nordby, try Frokost Galleriet, (the Lunch Gallery): a bright white space that has two gallery rooms displaying local artists’ work. Sunlight splashes through flower-boxed windows into a bright white and airy dining space; blond wood chairs and tables with floral center pieces bring a feeling of serenity. All the better to savor items from the sandwich menu that includes flavorful breads made with Samsø island grain. Local milk, butter and eggs are served as well as crisp freshly picked salads. June is strawberry season and visitors are welcome to pick their own tangy berries at designated farms.

If you enjoy gazing at romantic and peaceful landscapes, Nordby has you covered. Its thatched-roofed houses and front yards are a riot of color, from the deepest red and yellow roses to white and purple hydrangeas. The ponds in the middle of the village feature several miniature half-frame floating houses designed for ducks to enjoy as they observe passers-by.

A unique way of exploring Samsø is with a prairie wagon holiday. Two horses lead your wagon to different camp grounds, giving you a chance to live in a pre-electric and pre-petroleum environment. Hold on to your hat, it’s windy! Moving at a leisurely pace, prairie wagon holidays give you time enough to speak with Samsings and learn about what life is like on a self-sustaining island.

May through September is the best time to experience all of Samsø’s activities. You can get to Samsø from Copenhagen by taking a train to Kalundborg (about two hours) and a short walk to the Samsø ferry, for a two hour transit. After an hour or so at sea, watch the approaching horizon for small undulating wind turbines peeking over wave crests. The mass of spinning blades will slowly rise above the seascape and welcome you to the island.

More information on getting to Samsø is available here.

All photos are courtesy of Visitdenamark.

June 8, 2015

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