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Garden of earthly delights on a Danish dream of an island

The best way to come to the 22-mile-long, six-mile-wide island of Aeroe is by sailboat. The third-best is by auto and ferry, preferably with advance booking.

Whichever way one comes, Aeroe is a dream island. It calls itself a vacation paradise, and it has the sun and clean sea water, the hot days and cool nights, that distinguish Scandinavian summers.

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But Aeroe has much more. Its character is molded less by its tourist attractions than by its working harbors and farms. Fishermen make the rounds to empty their nets just off the swimming beaches. Farmers harvest rye and barley nearby. Sorrel mares nurse sorrel colts in the pastures. Gold and green fields form a patchwork quilt when viewed from the island's highest point 200 feet above sea level.

Aero, in short, is unspoiled, despite its accessible location in the Baltic Sea just off the Jutland elbow where Germany turns into Denmark.

Visitors are naturally included in the island's life rather than isolated in their own frivolous ghettoes.A stranger who steps into a private garden to photograph an old windmill with a foreground of hollyhocks is not scolded by the garden's owners, but rather invited into the farmhouse to sign the guestbook and view the 18th- and 19th-century porcelain, photos, farm tools, and books the family has collected. An old salt who has been spray painting the hull of a ship so vigorously that his entire face is sprinkled with silver similarly offers to show the island's sights to visitors who take an interest in him.

The sights include the sailing port of Aeroskobeing, which calls itself "the fair-tale town," the sailing and merchant port of Marstal, which could equally call itself a fairy-tale town, and the thatch-roofed farmhouses almost everywhere on the island.

Aeroeskoebing's variegated pastel-colored houses, which crowd the narrow cobblestone streets, have step tile roofs that sweep down almost to within arm's reach of pedestrians. They are of brick or half-timber construction, with antique blue or green doors, curved glass panes, and discreet mirrors fastened outside windows so that a resident sitting in a rocking chair inside can keep tabs on all street activities. The houses are fronted by a profusion of dusty pink or purple hollyhocks growing straight out of the cobblestone.

Marstal has the same houses and the same hollyhocks, but it also has a merchant officers' school, an active drydock -- and bearded bench sitters who surely are retired sea captains. Marstal is especially proud that its harbor was built by Aeroe peasants themselves in 1825, after the king had turned down the islanders' request for royal help in constructing one. In the heyday of sailing ships some 400 vessels set out on their voyages from Marstal.

As for the farmhouses, they are the gems of the island. Most have trim thatch roofs. Many are built on the old U-shaped layout, with the connected barn and house surrounding a cobblestone or cinder courtyard that is thus shielded from snow and winter cold. All the farmhouses are decorated with gardens overflowing with lavender, hollyhock, or prolific roses.

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Tourists may stay overnight in hotels, rooms in private houses, the one youth hostel, or campgrounds. (Campers are advised to bring tents, since it has been known to rain on Aeroe.) One further possibility is arranging to live in a farmhouse through a Danish travel agency.

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