This Under-the-Radar Danish Island Offers a Peaceful—and Increasingly Sustainable—Retreat

You’ll find delicious food and wonderful walks in Bornholm—but also lots of seriously impressive eco efforts.

Overhead view of Bornholm and harbor

Bornholm has become a hub of sustainable innovation.

Photo by Oliver Foerstner/Shutterstock

Bornholm, a Danish island in the Baltic Sea, has forever been a summer favorite with locals. It’s said to get the most sun of anywhere in Denmark and offers the ideal escape, with plenty of intimate inns, white sandy beaches and appealing cafés and restaurants. (Take Michelin-starred Kadeau, for example, which serves seasonal plates with foraged produce and dishes like mackerel with kombu oil.) In fact, the island is so loved that in March 2022, a larger ferry was added to the Copenhagen (via Ystad) route to accommodate more travelers.

In recent years though, Bornholm has earned a reputation not just as a summer hot spot but also as a forward-thinking, sustainable destination, with a host of responsible initiatives that extend to tourism and beyond. It’s an approach that’s obviously good for the planet while offering an opportunity to generate income between October and May, when tourism (an important industry) on the island slows.

The sustainability vision is called “Bright Green Island,” coined by Bornholm’s Regional Municipality, and it encompasses a number of ambitious goals, including carbon-neutral energy production by 2025. That will be achieved by producing more green energy (both wind and solar) and promoting energy efficiency.

By 2040, the island is aiming for zero emissions and by 2032, all waste will be reused or recycled. Wind farms are currently being established in the south, and the island hopes to become a green refueling station for the 60,000 ships that pass by every year through the international consortium Bornholm Bunker Hub, which aims to use local power-to-X production of green fuels.

Bornholm has also been identified as a good place to test green energy development (it’s easy to isolate electricity from other grids) making it attractive for energy experiments.

A sustainable stay

In hospitality, many businesses are starting to implement aspects of the island’s forward-thinking vision.

“We think about sustainability in everything we do,” says Trine Richter, the general manager of Green Solution House, a hotel and conference center on the island’s western side, that was first renovated in 2014. While many places close over the winter, the hotel and center offer a year-round destination for people to converge, whether it’s to talk business or topics around sustainability. For travelers, the hotel offers a comfortable stay—with neat rooms, bikes for exploring the island, a swish rooftop with lounge chairs, and a hot tub and sauna.

The hotel is rated silver in the DGNB system (the highest certification for a hotel building). It has become a pioneer in sustainable design solutions, almost a laboratory of sorts, where many materials have been tested. Everything has been considered, from the wood-based construction (which absorbs CO2) to the reuse of shower water and the sheep that mow the lawn. Nearly 100 percent of the carpets can be reused if ripped out and even the couches are compostable.

“A lot of our guests are interested in the decor and textiles, because they want to use them in their private homes,” says Richter. “Architects and engineers have been inspired and used the building’s materials and/or solutions in their designs.”

In October last year, the hotel opened a new wing with 24 guest rooms constructed with nails (so the wood can be reused), where most materials have been Cradle to Cradle Certified. The rooms are typically Danish in their simplicity, with wooden floors, terraces, and a few furniture pieces by family-owned brand Skagerak.

Half of the ingredients used at Svaneke Restaurant in Bornholm are organic.

Half of the ingredients used at Svaneke Restaurant in Bornholm are organic.

Courtesy of Svaneke

On the large communal rooftop terrace, green speckled tiles made from old bottles decorate a wall. “As long as you have clean materials you can reuse them,” says Richter.

The hotel is certainly more business-oriented than the other charming inns scattered around the island, but it also offers travelers insight into how a hospitality brand can realistically achieve ambitious eco goals. And it’s become a good driver for foot traffic during shoulder season, which helps everyone on the island.

“In addition to [sustainability] being a really important topic, it can also be good for business,” says Morten Borup Carstensen of Svaneke Restaurant, which is one of the few restaurants that keeps locals satiated year round (with plates of hake and potatoes and house-made pasta). “We’re already seeing great interest in the island—[as] jobs will be created and more people will [hopefully] move to Bornholm.”

Svaneke is also a certified green restaurant and follows strict requirements, that include using at least 20 percent organic produce (it uses about 50 percent), utilizing water savers that filter the amount of water from faucets, installing environmentally friendly lighting, and paying attention to food waste.

Blue solar panels atop red and white Svaneke Brygery

Svaneke Brygery’s operations are emissions free, thanks in part to an impressive solar array on the roof.

Photo by Kirstoffer Linus

At the nearby Svaneke Brygery, a 100 percent organic brewery that runs on green energy, a carbon dioxide recovery plant reuses the carbon dioxide produced during fermentation. “When the beer starts the fermentation process, it starts producing carbon dioxide,” explains Steen Jeppesen, CEO and director. They connect the beer tank to a plant via tubes, where the carbon dioxide is cleaned, compressed, and turned into a liquid gas. It’s the only brewery in Denmark that produces beer with zero carbon dioxide emissions.

Businesses in Bornholm have long tapped into all things local. At the beach-side Michelin-starred Kadeau, the team forages for ingredients and grows much of their produce in a nearby garden. At Høstet, they harvest sea buckthorn, a native plant that has a tart flavor and makes for exceptional marmalades.

In a close-knit community of 40,000 inhabitants, the support for these greener goals is strong. The thinking from many locals is that it can only be a win-win. “It’s important that Bornholm stands together for solutions,” says Carstensen. “This creates growth in all areas on the island.”

For tourists it’s also a win-win. If you can visit this idyllic island, sleep in a hotel with compostable couches, and drink organic beer that’s emitted zero emissions during brewing, why wouldn’t you?

Mary Holland is South African writer based in New York. She has written for WSJ Magazine, the Financial Times, HTSI, GQ, Condé Nast Traveler, and W Magazine. She is the New York correspondent for Monocle Magazine.
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