29km (18 miles) across the water S of Svendborg; 176km (109 miles) W of Copenhagen; 74km (46 miles) S of Odense

If this small Danish island, off the southern coast of Funen, didn't exist, Hans Christian Andersen would have invented it. It's that special. Its capital of Ærøskøbing is a Lilliputian souvenir of the past. Walt Disney must have gone through this town with a paintbrush and a bucket of rainbow colors.

Many of Denmark's offshore islands are dull and flat with redbrick market towns best passed through hurriedly. But Ærø is a place in which you'll want to linger, wandering its sleepy one-lane roads, walking the cobblestone streets of its hamlets -- or merely spending a day at the beach. The best sands are along the northern and eastern coastlines. Take your pick. Chances are, even in July, you'll end up with a strip of sand all to yourself.

The place is small so it's easy to get around -- 30km (19 miles) long and 8km (5 miles) at its widest point. The number of windswept "souls" is also small, no more than 7,000 hearty islanders, with fewer than a thousand centered in the capital of Ærøskøbing itself.

There are only three towns that could even be called that. If time is fleeting, explore only Ærøskøbing, the best preserved town of 18th-century Denmark. The largest town is the ancient seaport of Marstal, where mariners once set out to conquer the Seven Seas. Its maritime glory a distant memory today, it has a bustling marina and a shipyard that still makes some wooden vessels as in Viking days. Yachters sail into Søby, the third town with a still-active shipyard and a sizable fishing fleet. Everyone's lifeblood here seems drawn from the sea.

Small fishing harbors, wheat fields swept by the winds, storybook hamlets of half-timbered houses, a dilapidated church or two from the Middle Ages, beer gardens filled with raucous laughter during the too-short weeks of summer, old windmills, and yacht-filled marinas make Ærø the kind of island you search for -- but rarely find -- in all of Scandinavia. Sure, Ærø is all clichéd charm, but a cliché wouldn't be that unless it existed once in time. A local resident put it this way: "We didn't change after our seagoing heyday in the 17th century. We were too poor to modernize. When we finally started earning money centuries later, we were a valuable antique, and we learned there was money to be made from visitors who wanted to see Denmark the way it used to be."