Odense, Denmark — In a country where fantasy and whimsy are part of everyday life, where storks can be seen perched on rooftops - and chimney sweeps as well - nothing about Denmark ever seems beyond believing. I find this especially true on Denmark's dreamy island of Fyn, which happens to be the birthplace of the greatest Danish yarn spinner of all, Hans Christian Andersen.
Fyn, just west of the main island of Sjaelland, loses none of its allure in the winter months when the cobbled villages, thatched inns, and red-cheeked populace seem more natural than ever. Not all is a Danish fairy tale, though. Surprise of surprises, I found on an autumn ramble about the island that Fyn has a country inn serving French food the equal of any restaurant I've encountered in Burgundy - and a hotel with such a strong Japanese design streak I thought I was in Kyoto.
To get to Fyn from Copenhagen you drive west on Route 66 (same number as that famous westering highway in the United States) until the road gives out 60 or 70 miles away at the Halsskov ferry landing. On a quiet weekday morning I was almost alone on the big divided highway with a few large Danish bacon trucks. The modest-sized ferries, which cross to Nyborg on Fyn in 50 minutes, are equipped with snack bars and cafeterias, enclosed playpens for tumbling little Danish children, and plenty of deck space from which to gaze on the greenish Baltic.
Not far from the Fyn ferry landing is Odense, the largest town on the island and the birthplace of H. C. Andersen. You can trace the writer's life by touring his childhood home and an adjoining modern museum, full of frescoes, manuscripts , letters, drawings (by his own hand), and personal belongings. Andersen once said, ''to travel is to live,'' and a collection of his touring gear is on display: two battered leather suitcases, a walking stick, an umbrella, a hatbox, and a coiled rope he carried to extricate himself from hotels in case of fire. Almost next door is a fine little continental restaurant, Under Lindetraeet, which looks so cozy and fetching people walk in, mistaking it for the Andersen house and museum.
Much of H.C. Andersen's timeless, top-hatted Denmark still thrives in the southern reaches of Fyn. Route 8 leads south past stubbled rye fields, moated castles, and thatched farmhouses. Near the village of Ringe looms Egeskov, a 16 th-century castle that no fairy tale could improve on. Noted as one of Europe's best-preserved island fortresses, the noble red-roofed Egeskov is surrounded by lakeside gardens of Renaissance, baroque, and modern design.
Faborg, a port on the southwest coast, is notable for its herring catches and marine history. It is also a gateway to two of Denmark's most appealing hostelries, Falsled Kro and the Steensgaard Herregardspension, nothing alike but only a few miles apart on a road north of town.
One autumn afternoon I came around a bend in the rambling coastal village of Falsled and suddenly beheld the kro (or inn) - a chalk-white stone building with a heavy thatched roof that hung down like a furrowed brow. It is hard, I found, to top this combination of Danish country inn and provincial French restaurant. The innkeeper and chef, Jean-Louis Lieffroy, obviously has put more energy into his kitchen than into his 11 guest rooms, but unless you get one of the two rather airless singles, as I did, there is plenty of comfort in the antique-filled chambers.
Mealtime, though, is the high point at Falsled Kro. If there's a wait, you can sit in the lounge in a low-slung leather chair just inches off the floor and toast your feet above the coals of a huge white brick fireplace. Mr. Lieffroy, who trained with the famous French chefs, the Troisgros brothers, and - speaking of make-believe - formerly worked at the Chateau d'Artigny in the Loire, brings in produce from Paris that he can't find on Fyn. He does make use of locally caught salmon, wild duck, venison, and pheasant; smokes his own bacon, salmon, and ham in a fireplace on the inn's forested grounds; and turns out a crusty wheat bread that combines the best of French and Danish baking.
I shouldn't even tell you about dessert, except to say I needed a midnight walk along Falsled's country lanes and a longer jog through the pungent fields the next morning to work off a single platter heaped with 10 samples of the house sweets.
Just up the road stands Falsled Kro's friendly rival, the Steensgaard, which is done in what one might call Danish baronial. Leaving the main road, you pass under a canopy of ancient trees and through a stone gate before halting in a courtyard by a slightly forbidding half-timbered manor house. Its heavy foundation stones remain from the building's 14th-century origins. Inside are five spacious public rooms, some lined with carved oak, others bursting with rococo decor. Up an imposing stairway are the 15 spotless, antique-laden guest rooms.
Steensgaard used to be closed from January to March, but now it stays open as a slimming spa for those who overindulge during the holiday season. ''After Christmas,'' the twinkling lady of the manor, Inge Seidel, told me, ''we don't walk, we roll.'' On the 25 acres of hotel grounds are woodland trails for hiking , stone benches for watching leaves drop into ponds and moats, a tennis court, and 22 horses for hire.
Across the island, near the town of Nyborg, not far from the ferry back to Sjaelland, is a 46-room curiosity called the Hesselet. This waterside hotel is a marriage of traditional, Japanese, and Danish contemporary - with a pagodalike roof, Oriental rugs, glassed-in baths - all because one of the local owners spent some formative years in Japan. It's an odd cultural mix, but then nothing is out of the question on dreamy Fyn.