Final call for the inflight magazine?

It has survived the challenge of onboard movies, iPads and WiFi, but Covid-19 presents a bigger threat

First published in the Financial Times, July 2020. 

This weekend, some of us will once again find ourselves in a tube in the sky, flying along a “travel corridor” and perhaps reassessing this thing that we took for granted just six months ago. Much will have changed — there might be crew in PPE, empty middle seats, pre-packed meals and new procedures for boarding and disembarking — but what there almost certainly won’t be is anything to read.

Whatever you think of in-flight magazines — and there are still those who adhere to the columnist Miles Kington’s opinion that the sick bag made for more entertaining reading — this is an unusual state of affairs. In-flight magazines have been dogged and dog-eared survivors ever since a bright spark at Pan Am decided to launch the first one in 1952.

Of the 150 or so in-flight magazines before lockdown, most claimed pick-up rates of more than 80 per cent, thanks to a captive audience. Such engagement explains why, against a broad decline in print advertising, in-flights have survived the arrival of onboard movies, iPads and in-flight WiFi — just three of the things that many predicted would kill them off. And while the quality of these magazines has fluctuated over the years, some are among the best travel and lifestyle magazines around, from the slick Air Canada enRoute to British Airways’ consistently well-written High Life and the sharp, millennial-friendly easyJet Traveller.

Against a broad decline in print advertising, in-flights have survived the arrival of onboard movies, iPads and in-flight WiFi — just three of the things that many predicted would kill them off.

But Covid-19 feels like an altogether different level of threat, as contamination fears have led to all but a tiny minority of airlines removing magazines from planes, with many of the agencies that publish them — including the British-born industry leaders Ink, Cedar and Spafax — forced to cut editorial staff.

Cedar, the publishers of High Life and Business Life for British Airways, as well as magazines for Iberia, Aer Lingus and Cathay Pacific, is unable to confirm whether any of its titles will appear on planes this year. High Life will print some copies in September for use in lounges, and content will be emailed to frequent flyers, but a restructure has meant respected staff losing jobs, including editor Andy Morris.

Other airlines have made rapid changes to their distribution models. Air Canada enRoute, published by the Spafax-owned Bookmark content agency, will print four post-lockdown issues this year but none will be distributed on planes. After printing about 105,000 copies pre-Covid, there were 90,000 copies of the July issue, with 65,000 going to subscribers of The Globe and Mail newspaper, and 25,000 being delivered to the homes of Air Canada’s Super Elite frequent flyers. Similarly, Qantas magazine, produced by Sydney content agency Medium Rare, has been sending monthly copies to 40,000 of the airline’s frequent flyers.

There are also big changes at Ink, the world’s biggest in-flight magazine publisher, where I worked between 2012 and 2017, first as the editor of Norwegian Air Shuttle’s N by Norwegian and then as an editorial director. Of Ink’s 18 airline partners in early March, only American Airlines’ American Way has remained onboard through lockdown, while Etihad and Brussels Airlines have stopped producing magazines altogether, and most of the rest remain suspended. Ink is already looking at different approaches, talking to Virgin Atlantic about the possibility of a single-use newspaper to replace its excellent Vera magazine.

But, despite restructures that have meant roughly halving the number of editorial staff in Ink’s London, New York and Singapore offices, joint chief executive Michael Keating remains bullish on the future of print on planes. “It’s absolutely not the end of in-flight magazines,” insists Keating, who says that staff will be rehired as demand returns. “We’re looking at interim ways to serve clients across all formats, and developing existing channels like our new websites for easyJet and American Airlines, but all our existing clients still want a print product, and so do we.”

One of Keating’s big arguments is that the cardboard and paper of magazines are less contagious than other surfaces. According to Ink’s own “Clean and Green” report, passengers are almost twice as likely to catch Covid-19 from other surfaces on an aeroplane, from armrests and toilet doors, in-flight entertainment screens and card machines. More widely, there has been no evidence of anyone catching Covid-19 through a printed product, and the World Health Organization has said that newspapers are safe to handle.

But a spokesperson for Etihad, which has suspended its magazine indefinitely, says there are other factors at play behind removing in-flight magazines from seat pockets — including allowing for more efficient deep cleans of aircraft and reducing fuel burn. When United Airlines’ Hemispheres magazine shed just an ounce by reducing the weight of its paper in 2017, it was reported that the airline saved 170,000 gallons of fuel a year, or roughly $290,000 in costs.

And, for most airlines, the decision on whether to keep magazines will ultimately be a commercial one. Given that most in-flight magazines pitch to advertisers on the number of passenger eyeballs (pre-Covid, American Airlines’ American Way claimed an annual readership of more than 200m), it seems clear that revenues will be hit when some airlines are struggling for survival, and most have accepted it will take years for passenger numbers to return to “normal” levels. Those advertising figures are particularly important to agencies such as Ink, whose financial model relies far more on advertising than traditional branded content, where a client pays a flat fee to an agency.

In-flight magazines are a singular format, with a singular history. In the 1920s and ’30s, Imperial Airways used to hand out the latest Hemingway or F Scott Fitzgerald novels. In 1952 came the first edition of Pan Am’s ritzy Clipper Travel, showing a mildly awkward stewardess with a bag of fluffy toys. The oldest in-flights still in the air are KLM’s Holland Herald and AA’s American Way, both launched in 1966.

While the early in-flight magazines were initially produced by airline marketing departments, the financial model started to change in the 1970s, when airlines began to partner with outside publishers. These included Bill Davis, the colourful editor of the satirical weekly Punch, who offered to launch a clubby, aspirational magazine for British Airways, sharing advertising revenue with the airline. Despite fears that it was a crass concept during a recession, High Life launched in April 1973 with a washy cover illustration of a champagne party on a hot-air balloon and cosy features on Jilly Cooper, Michael Parkinson and the Tory peer Lord Mancroft.

Despite fears that it was a crass concept during a recession, High Life launched in April 1973 with a washy cover illustration of a champagne party on a hot-air balloon and cosy features on Jilly Cooper, Michael Parkinson and the Tory peer Lord Mancroft.

The same year, Gareth Powell launched Discovery magazine for Cathay Pacific. Powell — a flamboyant Welsh-born publisher who made his name in 1960s Sydney with a series of Playboy-esque magazines — had initially pitched Cathay a magazine in a cardboard box, including printed games and a fold-up model aircraft, only for crew to object to the idea of planes whizzing around the cabins. The box was discarded, but Discovery magazine still launched with a curious horizontal alignment (the spine on the shorter side) that had been designed to fit inside it. At the time Powell blagged that research had shown this to be the optimal shape, only to later admit this was “nonsense”.

It was Ink that arguably revolutionised the financial relationship between airlines and agencies. The company started in 1993, when Keating — then a 23-year-old researcher at London Tonight news show — found himself in a Beirut bar, chatting to one of the investors in British Mediterranean Airways, a new airline that was about to launch a single route between London and Beirut and needed an in-flight entertainment system.

Keating went out and bought 300 headsets from a cash-and-carry and delivered BMA a bespoke system, including a talk show featuring his mother Gloria Hunniford and almost-fresh Sky News broadcasts delivered via satellite dishes on top of Heathrow. On the back of this, he sold the airline on the idea of a magazine, and partnered with Simon Leslie, then a publisher of free glossy magazines in west London.

But it was a few years later that they hit on the formula for success, joining forces with another plucky challenger brand called easyJet. Whereas the likes of Davis and Powell shared costs and revenue with the airlines in a partnership, Leslie and Keating offered to take on all the costs and liabilities of the magazine, and still share profits with the airline, sometimes with a revenue guarantee.

For the airline, the offer was essentially a free marketing tool and some extra profit; for Ink, it meant a ready-made distribution model on which to capitalise with lean editorial teams and an all-action sales floor, which sometimes looks more like a stock exchange than the genteel sales wing of many publishing houses.

Despite the absence of ABC figures linking editorial quality to financial success, many of these in-flight magazines have become brilliant products. John Updike, Isaac Asimov, Gloria Steinem and the pop artist Peter Max are just some of the names to have graced American Way, for example, while High Life has published the likes of AA Gill, Will Self, Antony Beevor and Zoe Williams. And many in-flights have been more creative than anything on newsstands — think of Virgin Atlantic’s almost postmodern Carlos magazine in 2003, wholly illustrated on brown paper, or the arthouse redesign of Vueling’s Ling magazine, which resulted in one inexplicable 2009 cover of Chairman Mao with glasses and a cigarette scrawled on.

For me, at least, this creative possibility remains what in-flight magazines are about. And, whereas digital products tend to get lost in an ocean of content, print still makes perfect sense in the unique bubble of the aircraft cabin. I hope that onboard magazines are not a quiet casualty of Covid-19, and that they come back stronger than ever. Otherwise, I might just end up turning to the sick bag.

 

 

The town that sold Christmas

How did an unremarkable logging city in Finnish Lapland establish itself as the home of Santa Claus?

First published in the Financial Times, December 2018. Main photograph by Tim White

You can tell a lot about a person by how they approach their meeting with Santa Claus. According to Antti Nikander, the drily humorous co-ordinator of the Santa Claus Village in Rovaniemi, Finnish Lapland, Chinese president Xi Jinping didn’t once stop smiling, while the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov was “very serious, very official”. American talk show host Conan O’Brien “was almost leaping around, he was so excited”.

I am standing in the queue at Santa’s “office” in the Santa Claus Village, a series of log cabin buildings five miles east of Rovaniemi. Beneath a series of flash-lit portraits of the big man with everyone from F1 driver Mika Hakkinen to horror-metal Eurovision winners Lordi, it dawns on me that I’m nervous. I’ve heard tales of children clamming up in fear when the big moment arrives, often after waiting hours in the queue stretching back to the gift shop, manned by jolly young female elves with names such as Tuiske (blizzard) or Karkki (candy), each with an elaborate elfish back-story. I get it now — queueing to meet Santa, hidden from view in his ersatz cabin emanates hygge, feels like waiting to meet a god.

I’ve heard tales of children clamming up in fear when the big moment arrives, often after waiting hours in the queue stretching back to the gift shop

I’m here in November to find out how this utilitarian town, which was all but obliterated during the second world war, rebranded itself as Santa’s home and created a tourism boom.Last year, close to 580,000 visitors flew into Rovaniemi (pop. 62,667), almost double the number in 2010. Much of that growth has been driven by Asian visitors, especially from China. More than a million annual visitors are expected in Rovaniemi by 2022, and this December is expected to break all records, helped by increasing numbers of flights, including a new easyJet route direct from London to Rovaniemi. Most of the hotels and resorts in the forests around the town have been booked up for a year, and many are scrambling to build extra glass igloos, Arctic pods and snow hotel rooms to meet the demand.

I stay at the Arctic Treehouse Hotel, a series of modern pods that are less tree houses and more glass-fronted, rectangular boxes that look out over the pine forests. It opened in 2016 (35 more rectangular pods were added this summer in expectation of this month’s influx) and is one of a spate of hotels and resorts built in the past few years, including the Chinese-owned Nova Skyland hotel.

On arrival, the day before my meeting with Santa, I make the 15-minute walk through the forest from the hotel to the Santa Claus Village. The series of log-cabin buildings around a central concourse has the feel of an outdoor shopping arcade, which it kind of is, given that the majority of the spaces in the mini malls are selling souvenirs, from festive tchotchkes to Moomin mugs.

Despite the unseasonably warm weather (locals live in growing fear of climate change), the Santa Claus Village is just about keeping the festive spirit alive. A muzak version of “The First Noel” tinkles from the speakers, while behind Santa’s office, reindeers with sleds trundle tourists round a little track of sludgy, machine-made snow for €17 a go. A group of young Asian visitors are doing an Instagram-ready impression of a many-armed Hindu deity along the border of the Arctic Circle, which cuts through the “village”.

I pop into Santa’s post office, where many of the tables seem to be taken up with young Asian visitors writing postcards home. While post from here is stamped with a special Arctic Circle postmark, it also receives a flood of letters from around the world (apparently any addressed to “Santa Claus, Lapland” will arrive here, but most people find the full address via Google). A board shows where most of this year’s 500,000-plus letters have come from: China is in first place, then Poland, followed by Italy, the UK and Japan. “The UK was top until last Christmas,” explains post elf Elina, a middle-aged woman in regulation elfish get-up. “Now, China is way ahead: we’ve had a hundred thousand letters just from China this year. And Poland is always up there — there’s a real tradition in Poland of writing letters to Santa Claus.”

China is way ahead when it comes to letters to Santa: we’ve had a hundred thousand this year.

Over lunch at Santa’s Salmon Place — which serves flaky salmon cooked over an open fire in a space inspired by a Sami lavvu tent — I get chatting to Pei Ling and Tin Ting, two young female friends visiting from Ningbo, China. While the main purpose of their trip was to watch “handsome” Japanese champion figure skater Yuzuru Hanyu compete in Helsinki, Rovaniemi was the obvious add-on. “Everyone in China knows about the home of Santa Claus,” says Tin. “We don’t really celebrate Christmas, but Santa’s a big deal.”

While Rovaniemi has long sent Santa Claus on ambassadorial visits east, Pei and Tin first knew of Rovaniemi via Fliggy, a millennial-focused travel site launched by Chinese e-commerce giants Alibaba, which chose the town as its first featured trip back in 2016. There was a massive launch party here featuring three winners of The Voice of China, the singing contest whose final drew a billion viewers this year. Now, just about everywhere in Rovaniemi accepts Alipay, Alibaba Group’s mobile payment system, which is also available on Finnair flights from seven Chinese cities to Helsinki. At the Arctic Treehouse Hotel, where Pei and Tin are also staying, you can pay in Alipay and communicate with reception using WeChat, the ubiquitous Chinese social media/messaging service. “It’s like being at a hotel back home,” says Tin.

The next morning, I go to the town of Rovaniemi to get the story of why Santa landed here in the first place. Sanna Kärkkäinen is the managing director of Visit Rovaniemi, and with her short black hair and cheery alertness, you might describe her as “elfin” even before you knew her job. She laughs indulgently when I point out that her name is one letter away from “Santa”.

The starting point for Santa tourism in Rovaniemi, she says, came in 1950, when Eleanor Roosevelt decided to visit this logging and mining town that was being rebuilt with the help of Finnish architect Alvar Aalto. Wanting to create a winter wonderland for the former first lady, the town hastily built a cosy log cabin on the line of the Arctic Circle, east of town, in what would become the Santa Claus Village. “There was nothing there before that,” says Kärkkäinen. “Rovaniemi wasn’t a tourist destination, and no one travelled to meet Santa.”

Even though St Nicholas, the third-century saint that inspired Santa Claus, lived in Turkey, an illustration in Harper’s magazine in 1866 is credited with establishing Santa’s home as the North Pole. In 1927, Finnish radio personality Markus Rautio (aka “Uncle Marcus”) declared on air that Santa’s workshop had been discovered in Lapland’s Korvatunturi, or “Ear Mountain”, a remote peak on the Russian border. In Finland, at least, the story quickly caught on, and Finnish mothers still warn children that Santa and his elves can listen in on their words and dreams at Ear Mountain.

It wasn’t until the 1980s that Finland’s tourist officials started to seriously market Lapland as Santa’s official home, with his office in Rovaniemi. In 1981, a Santa letter-writing competition in the UK led to six children winning trips to Rovaniemi, and on Christmas Day 1984, 20,000 locals turned up at the airport to watch the first Concorde flight arrive in Rovaniemi from London, which would become regular winter charters.

The Brits led a Santa tourism spike that continued through the 1990s, followed by the Christmas-loving Spanish and, curiously, Israelis, after an Israeli called Shimon Biton moved here with his local wife and set up a charter travel company in 1995. Santa has been welcoming visitors to the Santa Claus Office in three-minute slots every day since 1992, as operators have added evermore reindeer sleigh rides, husky tours, snowmobile trips and the like. But, after years of steady visitor numbers Asia has driven 20-30 per cent growth every year since 2015. “With tourism from China, it’s snowballed so fast,” says Kärkkäinen. “With Japan, it was a long, slow burn; with China, it was an explosion.”

With Japan, the rise of tourism was a long, slow burn; with China, it was an explosion.

No matter the nationality of the visitors, though, one of Kärkkäinen’s main jobs is protecting the Santa story. Before I visit, I receive an email from one of her colleagues, reminding me that, “We love to collaborate with all media which respect the Santa Claus’ philosophy”. Kärkkäinen says her first question to potential employees at Visit Rovaniemi is: “Do you believe in Santa Claus?”

Hence, it’s hard to find out who it is I’m going to meet in Santa’s office. Kärkkäinen coyly stone-walls the question of who plays Santa round here, giving me a mock-admonishing look. What’s more notable is that I get the same response — “There’s only one Santa Claus” — from the barman at the Hemingway’s pub, and from Janne Honkanen, a local businessman who this month is set to open Octola, the area’s first luxury lodge.

All of this adds to my nerves when I finally find myself in the Santa queue. Antti Nikander, the village co-ordinator, admits: “As a child, I was terrified of Santa. When it came to shaking hands with him, it was me that was shaking.”

When my moment comes, Tuiske the friendly elf guides me into Santa’s warm lair, with its old maps, chests and olde world gifts, and I proffer a curiously over-enthusiastic “Hi, Santa!” Both his beard and stature are impressively large, and he has a deep, Finnish-accented “ho ho” that gives him just enough time to answer my questions, which are less penetrative than I’d hoped. He is surprisingly chipper, too, in that he seems to be in his seventies, and can welcome as many as 1,000 visitors a day in strict three-minute time slots.

I manage to gather that he’s just been in a meeting with his reindeers teaching them to use “RNS”, which he says is “like GPS for reindeers”. There’s a lot he can’t remember, or leaves to his elves: how old he is, how many reindeers he has, how to make an iPad, etc. Anyway, most kids ask for toy cars or dolls, he insists; “or, they ask for health and happiness for people they love  . . . all children really are nice”.

Santa apologises for not remembering Xi Jinping (“everyone is equal here”), though he does remember recently meeting a 97-year-old “child” from Italy, who had long dreamt of meeting Santa. “That was really magical,” he says. “Meeting you is magical, too.” While I don’t claim to be in the Jeremy Paxman league when it comes to interrogations, I feel entirely outgunned.

After a quick shot by Tuiske the photo elf, I head downstairs to get the flash-lit Santa shot that sells for €30. It has been a consummate performance by Santa, his elves and the people who make tourism tick here. The Santa story is alive and well — which is just as well, because this place depends on it.

The king of beer

In the space of five years, former science teacher Mikkel Borg Bjergso has opened bars from San Francisco to the Faroes and spawned a growing lifestyle brand

First published in the Financial Times, October 2018.

If you go to the opening party of the Mikkeller bar in Shoreditch tonight, the chances are you might notice one of its partners: Rick Astley, who still just about has the quiff, voice and northern charm he had in 1987, when “Never Gonna Give You Up” made him a pop sensation. But you might just miss the other, possibly more important, guy: Mikkel Borg Bjergso, a soft-spoken, slim and tattooed Dane. He is the world’s most prolific craft brewer, and has become a celebrity in his own right, a leading figure in a sector that has gone from a niche trend to something so mainstream that “IPA fatigue” is now a thing.

While craft brewers tend to emphasise their locality, Mikkeller has gone global, and in a hurry. In just five years, Bjergso has expanded from his base in Copenhagen to create a brewing and hospitality empire in 41 locations as diverse as his beery concoctions — from San Diego to Taipei, Tokyo, Bucharest, Warsaw and even Torshavn, capital of the Faroe Islands. For some, this rollout is a sign of the regrettable homogenisation of global taste — even if the Instagrammable bars each have local beers and design touches, they all come with an over-riding sense of airy, carefully arranged Danish cool — but Bjergso is not slowing down.

There are plans to push into mainland China and to further expand an already thriving lifestyle arm: fans can buy Mikkeller hoodies, T-shirts and hats, go to its beer festivals, where tattoo artists are hired specifically to ink Mikkeller tattoos (Bjergso estimates there are “over a thousand” such tattoos today, even if he doesn’t have one), or go running with the Mikkeller Running Club, which has more than 200 chapters across the world, from Almaty to Volgograd and Westchester, New York. Branded hotels and tours are under consideration. “We want to make it so that people can live in this Mikkeller universe,” Bjergso tells me.

We want to make it so that people can live in this Mikkeller universe.

If it sounds like a brazen quest for new revenue sources, Bjergso says he’s still driven by the same instincts he always has been. “If I’m interested in an idea, whether it’s brewing a beer with Rick Astley, opening a ramen restaurant in Copenhagen or opening a little bar in the Faroe Islands, we make it happen, even if it’s not a cash cow. I’m easily bored, so I’m always challenging myself to keep it interesting.”

A big part of Mikkeller’s appeal is bound up with its creation story. In the mid-2000s, Bjergso was a science teacher in Copenhagen who, fed up of lagers that all tasted the same, started dabbling with brewing in his kitchen at home. Before long, his brews, created with a journalist friend, Kristian Keller, started winning national home-brewing competitions, and the pair decided to put their names together and start a business.

Success came fast, in late 2006, with a beer called Beer Geek Breakfast, an oatmeal stout made with coffee and chocolate that gave notes of burnt toast. “At a time when most brewers were playing things safe, it sent the beer world crazy,” says Bjergso. It was named stout of the year by the influential Ratebeer.com website, and still has a 100 per cent rating on the site. “Early on, we were very driven by breaking all the rules,” says Bjergso.

The biggest rule they broke is the one that says brewers should have a brewery. Because they couldn’t afford their own, they hired existing breweries to make their recipes, which were coming thick and fast. “It meant we could concentrate on designing recipes and labels, which we love doing, and leave the rest to the experts,” says Bjergso. The concept of “gypsy” brewing — also known as “cuckoo” or “phantom” brewing — was born, something that is now standard practice for thousands of brewers across the world.

Keller quit the company in 2007 to concentrate on journalism but Bjergso was just getting started. While a typical craft brewer might come up with 20 new recipes a year, Mikkeller will produce closer to 200, from Belgian Lambics to sour beers and ales brewed in bourbon barrels. Today, there are more than 1,680 Mikkeller creations listed on Ratebeer.com, many with esoteric ingredients like Vietnamese Kopi Luwak coffee or chipotle chilli. The 8m litres sold globally each year are produced at breweries in Belgium, Norway, Denmark, the US and UK, then exported to its outlets worldwide.

In terms of volume, Mikkeller’s output is modest compared to a brewery like Sierra Nevada, which produces 147m litres a year. But while Sierra Nevada pretty much just does beer, Mikkeller has become a very different beast. Its first bar in Copenhagen’s Vesterbro district was an instant success in 2010 (the first year that Noma was voted the world’s best restaurant, when Brand Denmark was the height of cool). Three years later, the company opened its first foreign bar, in San Francisco, in partnership with Bay Area bar owner Chuck Stilphen. In early 2014, Mikkeller opened its first Bangkok bar (there are now four) with Jakob Morkenborg Rasmussen, a Dane who had started a craft beer import business. As a model, it was almost as neat as gypsy brewing — Mikkeller supplies the beer while local partners run the bars.

With revenues of €26.8m in 2017, it can no longer really claim to be a plucky outsider brand, and in 2016 it sold an undisclosed stake to US private equity company Orkila Capital. Like any indie band that has gone on to play stadium tours, Mikkeller’s growth has drawn detractors, most prominently Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergso, Mikkel’s twin. While the brothers had a symbiotic relationship in the early days — Jeppe ran a craft beer shop and would stock and export Mikkel’s beers — the relationship soured over an apartment deal, and the fact that the first Mikkeller bar was uncomfortably close to Jeppe’s shop. Jeppe went on to set up a rival brewing company called Evil Twin, decamping to New York.

“I’m not against a business growing and being successful,” says Jeppe, who runs a Brooklyn bar called Torst, and is soon to open a brewery in Queens, barely six miles from a Mikkeller microbrewery at the Citi Field baseball stadium. “But, to me, Mikkeller has become about business rather than beer. That’s not got anything to do with Mikkel and me personally, and I’d say the same thing about [Scottish brewer] BrewDog. You can’t run bars all over the world and expect the same level of quality. I’ll be at my brewery all the time; Mikkel is lucky if he visits New York once a year.”

Mikkel Bjergso refuses to discuss his brother in public, but is used to the argument. “As soon as you become bigger, people will say you’ve sold out and the quality’s not as good,” he says. “The beer we make is just as good as it was in the beginning. And we work so hard on the experience at every bar, where the designs and the beers are tailored to the place.”

As soon as you become bigger, people will say you’ve sold out and the quality’s not as good.

Bjergso insists that he and his Copenhagen team are “deeply involved with each bar, on a daily basis”. While they use local partners, he says that Mikkeller takes a majority stake wherever possible. “But, even if we have an equal or almost-equal partner, we have the decision-making power,” he says. “Of course I’m not as involved as I was with the first bar in Copenhagen, but I still care passionately about the smallest details. I’ll stop if that’s ever not the case, or if we lose control.”

The new London bar, Mikkeller’s 41st, is in what was the George and Dragon pub on Hackney Road, which dates back to 1898 but was most recently a raucous gay club (the owners left in 2015, after the rent tripled). Like all of the Mikkeller bars abroad, the layout was designed in Copenhagen, with bespoke posters of beefeaters and Sherlock Holmes designed by US-based art director Keith Shore, who also designed the neon sign outside. Bjergso always creates at least one site-specific beer, in this case Astley’s London Lager. Astley’s songs will play on loop in the toilets, though not in the main bar.

Of course, Mikkeller’s London outpost is atypical in that most of the brand’s partners haven’t sold 40m records. Bjergso and Rick Astley became friends in 2015, when a rumour circulated that Astley was living in Copenhagen (he wasn’t, but his daughter Emilie lives there, and his film producer wife Lene Bausager is Danish).

Bjergso, who had Rick Astley posters on his walls as a child, picked up the phone, and offered to create a brew with his childhood idol. Despite the pop star not knowing much about beer, the pair co-created Astley’s Northern Hop, with a touch of ginger nodding to Astley’s hair.

Now, they’ve gone further than that. Astley, who was due to sing at the opening party but says he won’t be pulling any pints, believes that Mikkeller bars remain special. “They have a vibe, and a soul,” he says. “I’ve been to lots of their bars around the world, and they all have a different feel.” Or, as Bjergso insists: “We’re not Starbucks, just repeating the same thing everywhere we go.”

Either way, there will be those who simply see an independent local gay bar replaced by what is essentially a foreign chain. The question, really, is how big Mikkeller can get while holding on to the edge that made it famous in the first place. It’s one to ponder, perhaps while sipping a Mikkeller Jackie Brown ale in the new London bar, or listening to “Never Gonna Give You Up” in the loo.

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A postcard from the Extraterrestrial Highway

On a lonely stretch of desert road near Area 51, alien conspiracies have spawned a cutesy form of tourism

First published in the Financial Times, October 2018. Photography (for this piece) by Myles Pritchard (with some modelling by yours truly)

On plastic chairs outside the Little A’Le’Inn guesthouse in tiny Rachel, Nevada, chef Kenneth Langley is talking about more than his “world famous” alien burger.

Instead, as we gaze past a model of a flying saucer, with its multicoloured lights blinking beneath the night sky, he is telling me about the strange things he’s witnessed up there over the years: planes doing 90-degree turns at high speed; tiny craft that “look like something from Close Encounters of the Third Kind”; and a “large mother ship, hovering in the mountains”.

Another night, he claims he saw three or four planes circling: “They were dissected by a single beam of white light, and suddenly they all disappeared, leaving little flickers of electrical discharge.”

Similar stories aren’t in short supply along the Extraterrestrial Highway, a lonely 98-mile stretch of desert road that was once simply the Nevada State Route 375, starting at Crystal Springs, a ghost town a few hours’ drive north of Las Vegas. Earlier that day, I had visited the Alien Research Center in Crystal Springs, an alien-themed gift shop in a curved corrugated iron shed, marked by a three-storey-tall metal alien out front.

Malcolm Harris, whose ufologist brother George built the place in 2001, had shown me a pin-sharp photograph on the office computer of a long, almost perfectly rectangular cloud, which he’d shot in February 2014. “I was looking at geese when that just appeared out of nowhere,” he’d said. “It must have been a thousand feet long, and completely silent.”

For many observers, these curious sightings are linked to the nearby Area 51, the US Air Force base whose prime purpose is thought to be the development of “black projects”, from weapons systems to experimental aircraft (stealth aircraft such as the F-117 Nighthawk were developed here). As for the belief that the base harbours aliens and studies UFOs, the US government revealed last December it had a $22m programme — thought to be based at Area 51 — to collect and analyse “anomalous aerospace threats”.

Certainly, there is a foreboding aspect to this swath of Nevadan nothingness, a vast area where America carried out almost a thousand nuclear tests between 1951 and 1992. Signs around Area 51’s perimeter warn that deadly force may be used against trespassers.

Signs around Area 51’s perimeter warn that deadly force may be used against trespassers.

Ironically perhaps, all of this has spawned a cutesy form of tourism, largely based around flying saucers and bug-eyed aliens. In 1996, in the wake of Independence Day, the movie that was partly set in Rachel and at Area 51, Nevada’s tourism commission renamed the SR375 as the Extraterrestrial Highway, installing alien-themed signs along the road, and redrawing Rachel’s town sign in Comic Sans.

This is the kind of tourism you’ll find at the Little A’Le’Inn. The temple to extraterrestrial ephemera isn’t just the main attraction along the highway, but the only real business in Rachel, a collection of trailer park homes with a 54-strong population made up largely of cattle ranchers.

Cheery owner Pat Travis Laudenklos has run the inn since 1988, when she and her late husband Joe moved up from Las Vegas to take over the roadside Rachel Bar and Grill. Mainly because they often had to put up drivers who had hit cows on the highway, they soon added a couple of mobile homes for guests.

In 1991, on the advice of a regular patron, they decided to rebrand it all as the Little A’Le’Inn, adding the “Earthlings welcome” sign and the child-sized model alien outside the restaurant, while devoting a corner of the restaurant to extraterrestrial tchotchkes, from alien mugs to mouse mats and gumball machines.

“We’ve seen our share of things in the sky,” says Pat, who now runs the place with her daughter Connie. “But the aliens here are really just a bit of fun. Rachel is a peaceful place, where everyone knows everyone, and where we treat guests like family.”

Chef Ken, whom I meet after devouring one of his alien burgers, is something of an anomaly. He comes from a wealthy industrialist family, and claims he was once “the hottest chef in Atlanta”, before a Native American Zuni shaman advised him to move to Rachel in 2007.

After half an hour or so outside the inn, I follow his car a few miles up the road to his immaculate bungalow, with its baby grand piano, where he feeds me Woodford Reserve and tall tales: about the CIA, the cloaking technology behind disappearing aircraft, and the supposed collection of aliens at Area 51. As we look out into the black night, he says: “They can see us, and they hear everything.” It’s hard to know to whom he’s referring.

They can see us, and they hear everything.

After midnight, I stumble back to my trailer-park room at the Little A’Le’Inn, past the still-blinking UFO and the sludge-green alien, who now seems faintly mocking. I feel small and ignorant, and unsure of the boundaries between truth and fiction. Maybe this is a suitable reaction to the Extraterrestrial Highway.

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Turbo-charged tourism in Tromsø

Two hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle, the Norwegian port city has seen soaring visitor numbers — with a little help from a British actress

First published in the Financial Times, September 2018. Photography by Tim White.

It was 10 years ago this month that English actor Joanna Lumley gave one of her hammier performances — and, in the process, sparked a winter tourism boom deep in the Arctic Circle. “Thank you . . . thank you!” she cried, literally, upon seeing the Northern Lights near Tromso in the BBC’s Joanna Lumley in the Land of the Northern Lights, soundtracked by soaring orchestral music. “I can die happy now.”

There were 36,000 visitors to Tromso in the winter of 2008/09; by 2016/17, the number had soared to 194,000, as the Northern Lights became a bucket-list staple across the world. While just about every tour operator here will tell you that Joanna Lumley lit the fuse, there were other factors at play: Norwegian’s new direct flights from London in 2008, for example, or the launch of Instagram in 2010.

“The one-upmanship of social media has definitely helped us,” says Chris Hudson, the Manchester-born chief executive of Visit Tromso. “You get serious points for a selfie under the Northern Lights. It’s more exotic than lying on a beach.”

You get serious points for a selfie under the Northern Lights. It’s more exotic than lying on a beach.

So could Tromso — a compact, modern waterfront city of 76,000 or so people, surrounded by fjords and close to the soaring Lyngen Alps — become the next Reykjavik? There, tourism has transformed the economy, with 2.2m foreign visitors to Iceland in 2017 (up from 464,000 in 2009), almost all of them spending time in the capital.

Unlike in Iceland, the Tromso locals aren’t restive about sharply rising visitor numbers — to date, the self-styled capital of the Arctic has remained first and foremost a working city, rather than a tourist town. It is home to Norway’s biggest fishing port and a university that’s a global leader in Arctic research. It’s a place soaked in the history of the area’s Sami reindeer herders and polar explorers, notably the great Roald Amundsen, who lived here and launched his fateful final voyage from the city in 1928.

Visitor guides tend to play up Tromso’s 19th-century moniker, “the Paris of the north”, and the Nobel Prize-winning writer Bjornstjerne Bjornson once wrote that it “is all champagne and spectacle”. If that might be pushing things today, the city is home to a thriving cultural scene, with its own philharmonic orchestra and an unusually broad range of cultural festivals, including an international film festival in January, centred on Norway’s oldest cinema, which opened in 1915. It’s spawned good pop music over the years, too, from electro acts such as Bel Canto and Royksopp in the 1980s and 1990s to Dagny, a recent sensation who follows in the Scandi-pop mould of singers like Robyn and Annie.

All of this means that the town rarely feels like it’s trying too hard, notwithstanding a few souvenir shops selling trolls and ugly Northern Lights merchandise. Like in Reykjavik, there’s a shabby-chic, hygge vibe to a lot of the cafés and bars in town, a nod, perhaps, to its 16,000 students. On a visit last month, I was happily eating an Astroburger and nodding along to the Dead Kennedys at Bla Rock, a likeably grungy rock bar where Dagny once worked in the kitchen, when the place inexplicably became overrun by little groups of well-lubricated students tied together with string.

But there are plenty of more grown-up places to eat and drink. At Restaurant Smak, an elegant, dark-lit place that serves Michelin-worthy set menus focused squarely on local ingredients such as Arctic reindeer or skrei cod, the clientele consisted mostly of well-heeled locals. Eva-Linda Ramnestedt, who opened the restaurant with her chef husband Espen last year, told me: “We’re not trying to be touristy. We just want to showcase Arctic cuisine, and make food we’d want to eat.”

On the other side of town, the Olhallen (Beer Hall) is owned by the town’s celebrated Mack brewery, and has been open since 1928. It’s not the tourist trap that it could be. On another visit a few years back, I met 89-year-old Ivar Rornes, who told me he’d been drinking in the same corner of the Olhallen since 1941, through the days when women were banned and the locals included Henry Rudi, the infamous Norwegian hunter who killed more than 700 polar bears.

While Rornes always orders the signature house blend of Mack Bayer and Pils, the bar also has 67 taps serving craft beers from across Norway, including experimental concoctions from Mack’s own microbrewery, just above the bar. It’s just one of three microbreweries in town, including Bryggeri 13, a cycling-themed bistro bar where you can watch the brewers poke around in the homemade vats as you eat and drink.

But if this vibrant town is a treat, Tromso is more than a city break. At Visit Tromso, they use “urban Arctic” as shorthand for combining bucket-list adventures with a nice dinner and comfy bed. Luckily, as visitor numbers have boomed, so have the number of things to do in an area where the natural advantages include mountain-to-fjord skiing in the Lyngen Alps, and watching the humpback whales who come to gorge on herring in the winter.

While one tour guide tells me that, pre-Lumley, winter tourism here was “basically three guys with minibuses”, today operators are competing to create ever more elaborate ways to see the Northern Lights. With Pukka Travels, a slickly branded new company, you can choose to watch from a catamaran or a Tesla Model X, with its aurora-friendly glass roof. If you want extra Instagram points, you can also now stay overnight at the Tromso Ice Domes, which opened last year in the Arctic wilderness, and is adding seven ice-sculpted rooms for overnight stays this winter.

One of the earliest pioneers of creative Tromso tourism is Erlend Mogaard-Larsen, an electronic producer and rock musician from Oslo who had fallen in love with the Arctic, launching a 2003 music festival on the remote archipelago of Traena. In 2006, he was on an absinthe-driven night out in Tromso when he got talking to a former whaler at the next table. As he recalls: “When I woke up, I told my wife I’d had a dream that I’d bought a boat in a pub. Except it wasn’t a dream.”

When I woke up, I told my wife I’d had a dream that I’d bought a boat in a pub. Except it wasn’t a dream.

After picking up his 1957 whaling boat, Mogaard-Larsen renamed it the Vulkana, and hired modish Finnish architect Sami Rintala to turn it into a hedonistic spa, complete with on-deck saltwater hot tub, sauna, steam room and modern kitchen, as well as cosy cabins for up to 12 passengers. After opening in 2009, this winter the rustic Vulkana will offer spa and lunch cruises, and Northern Lights evening trips that include a locavore three-course meal. In the spring, it will take guests on overnight ski tours around the Lyngen Alps. Jumping off the boat is optional, but encouraged.

Mogaard-Larsen’s wild ideas haven’t stopped. In 2015, he launched the RakettNatt (Rocket Night) music festival around the little rocket-shaped Tromso kiosk he’d bought and turned into a hot dog stall serving gourmet reindeer hot dogs. The acts this August included local girl Dagny and grungy Swedish pop star Tove Lo. He’s also produced two volumes of his own tongue-in-cheek city guide, A Poor Man’s Connoisseur Guide to Stargazing, Trailblazing and Hellraising in the Coolest City in the North, except perhaps Reykjavik, with grateful thanks to the Gulf Stream.

But perhaps the most prolific mover-shaker in Tromso tourism is Hans-Olav Eriksen, a tall, bald-headed local doctor who has the air of a friendly Bond villain. As well as GP duties, he also co-owns the fjord-side Malangen Resort, an hour south of the city, and runs Lyngsfjord Adventure, whose offerings include reindeer sledding with a Sami reindeer herder, and wilderness stays in Sami-style tents.

His newest venture is the Aurora Spirit Distillery, which opened in 2016 by a stunning fjord deep in the Lyngen Alps, around 90 minutes east of Tromso. Initially inspired by a whisky tour in Scotland, Eriksen partnered up with local businessman Tor-Petter Christensen and Tor’s wife Anne-Lise to build the state-of-the-art distillery for NKr20m (£1.85m). They’re already churning out vodka, aquavit and award-winning gin under their Bivrost brand, with whisky maturing in casks. Each drink is created with fresh Arctic water and native ingredients.

But Aurora Spirit goes further than anything you’ll find on Speyside or Islay when it comes to attracting visitors. The place lays on snowshoeing hikes, axe-throwing lessons, boat trips and tours of the spooky cold war bunker a hundred yards from the distillery (the Nazis and Nato used the area to guard against potential Russian invaders). This winter, the team are adding a barrel-shaped sauna to the existing hot tub, as well as 10 modern cabins right on the water.

“Years ago, before I started Lyngsfjord Adventure, I got thrown out of a restaurant because I was arguing with friends from the south who said that Tromso was a backwater,” Eriksen told me on my most recent visit, looking out over the fjord through the distillery’s glass wall, with a Bivrost gin in hand. “It was ignorant then, but it’s even more ignorant now. Our tourism has evolved so quickly, but it’s still an authentic destination which hasn’t become Disneyfied.”

The Northern Lights may have inspired his drinks brand (Bivrost means the “shaky road” linking heaven and earth in Norse mythology), but Eriksen insists they’re not all the area is about. “If the Northern Lights are the reason people come, that’s great. But, really, they’re the icing, not the cake.”

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Wildwood: the blue-collar riviera

The beachfront borough’s mid-century ‘Doo-Wop’ motels are a treat for design fans — but the developers are circling

First published in the Financial Times, August 2018. Photography by Mark Havens, from his book Out of Season: The Vanishing Architecture of the Wildwoods.

Wildwood’s boardwalk fun train has been running the two miles up and down the beach since 1949 — and a few of the people riding it on a Saturday morning earlier this summer looked like they could just about have been on that first run.

In the carriage in front of me were a group of older men and women in grey suits and military caps on their way to an American Legion convention; in the carriage behind were two guys with beards and tattoos in vintage Harley-Davidson racing jerseys, heading towards The Race of Gentlemen, a gas-soaked amalgam of drag race and history lesson in which pre-1935 roadsters and pre-1947 tank shifter bikes race on the squirrelly sand of Wildwood’s wide beach.

A good selection of the other passengers were twenty-somethings in luminous vests, presumably on their way to play the arcades, enjoy the amusement park rides, and gorge on boardwalk hot dogs and Kohr’s soft-serve ice cream. The Wildwoods—five beachfront boroughs near the southern tip of the Jersey Shore, with Wildwood in the centre—could well be America’s capital of retro boardwalk kitsch. This is a place of mini-golf courses, plastic palm trees and neon, where the best restaurant in town is widely considered to be the Surfside West, a friendly chrome diner that has been serving beige food since 1963.

But, as I discovered over a few days here, the quirks of the Wildwoods have been the result of a two-decade battle between preservation and the forces of modernisation and profit. There are still more mid-century motels and hotels here than anywhere else in America, close to 140 at the last count — even if there were once more than 600. Tired but evocative places like the Pink Champagne, the Waikiki and the Astronaut are still hanging on along Ocean and Atlantic Avenues, each with their own faded pastel colour scheme and kitsch ornamentation, from the fibreglass pirate atop the Jolly Roger to the elephant by the pool at the Singapore.

Since the condominium boom of the 1990s, these so-called Doo-Wop motels have been under near-constant threat from developers, who have wondered why Wildwood property prices don’t match the affluent nearby towns of Stone Harbor, Avalon and Cape May, the latter home to America’s best-preserved collection of Victorian buildings.

“There was a time, back in the 1990s, when people were saying we should bulldoze the whole town and rebuild it as a Victorian town like Cape May,” says Jack Morey, who runs Wildwood’s most prominent family business with his brother Will. The Morey empire includes Morey’s Piers, the series of amusement parks and water parks jutting out from the boardwalk, as well as four Doo-Wop-themed hotels and a condo building.

There was a time, back in the 1990s, when people were saying we should bulldoze the whole town and rebuild it as a Victorian town.

The Morey family business started in 1953, when Morey’s father, Wilbert, built the Fantasy, a utilitarian L-shaped motel with a space-aged neon sign. An uneducated builder/carpenter, he had seen the influx of visitors from Philadelphia, who could now drive here in under 90 minutes on Eisenhower’s new Garden State Parkway. They would spend days on the beach and boardwalk, and evenings watching clean-cut rockers like Bobby Rydell and Bill Haley, who first played “Rock Around the Clock” at Wildwood’s HofBrau Hotel in 1954.

“Wildwood quickly became the ‘Blue-Collar Riviera’,” says Jack. “Dad saw it happening, and figured out what these new visitors wanted.” Inspired by trips to Miami Beach and Acapulco, Wilbert and his brother William would go on to build close to 30 ever-grander motels in the Wildwoods, and in 1968 installed a fibreglass waterslide called The Wipe Out on one of the piers. Jack and Will Jr grew up in the penthouse of the Pan-American — a beachfront behemoth built by their father, which they still own — and learned the amusement business running fairground games as teenagers.

So it was personal when developers began ripping down Wildwood’s 1950s and 1960s buildings, often smashing up their neon signs. “Every time one of these buildings was demolished, it was like a knife in my back,” says Jack. “I lost friends over it.”

Every time one of these buildings was demolished, it was like a knife in my back. I lost friends over it.

Luckily for Jack, he had support. Steven Izenour was an architect and urban theorist who had published Learning from Las Vegas in 1972, a then-radical tome in which, for the first time, an academic celebrated the crass symbolism of the Vegas Strip. And in the 1990s, he started bringing students to the Wildwoods, where they would gaze at the motels and neon signs, earnestly pondering which architectural subdivision they might fit into, be it Vroom, Pu-Pu Platter or Phony Colonee.

“At first, the locals were a bit bemused by Steve and his students,” recalls Jack. “For Will and me, it was a validation of sorts.” In 1997, Morey and Izenour formed the core of a group whose goal was to save and promote these old motels. In a nod to Bill Haley and his ilk, they named the local style Doo-Wop, even if it’s barely distinguishable from Googie, a genre that takes its cues from car culture, space and the atomic age. Calling themselves the Doo-Wop Preservation League, and writing cheery guides for motel owners on “How to Doo-Wop”, the group also created the Wildwoods Shore Historic District, modelled after South Beach’s Art Deco District.

Both the league and the district have survived Izenour’s death in 2001. But the destruction of the motels hasn’t stopped. Mark Havens, 47, has been coming on family holidays to Wildwood every August since he was a child in Philadelphia. “It was always the highlight of our year,” he says. “We’d spend the days on the beach, and in the evenings we’d all pile into the car and tour the neon signs.”

In the 2000s, Havens noticed what he calls the “wholesale destruction” of the Doo-Wop buildings, and decided to pick up a camera to document their passing. The result, which was published in 2016, is Out of Season: The Vanishing Architecture of the Wildwoods, an elegiac series of portraits of empty, car-free motels.

“To me, there’s a humility and a humanity to these places,” he says. “Families like ours couldn’t afford to go to the real Caribbean or Hawaii, but they could come and stay at the Caribbean or Waikiki motels. It was like the Wildwood architects took sterile modernism and gave it this injection of life, energy and personality.”

It was like the Wildwood architects took sterile modernism and gave it this injection of life, energy and personality.

There have been notable preservation successes such as the lime-green Caribbean Motel, with its cantilevered walkway, which was built by the Moreys in 1957 and is now listed on the US National Register of Historic Places. Havens rightly points out that it’s as period-perfect as anything you’ll see in Palm Springs.

But George Miller and Carolyn Emigh, two lawyers from Washington who bought and extensively renovated the Caribbean in 2004, admit that it’s hard to make money from a 30-room motel with such a short season. “We’ve put preservation before profit,” says Carolyn, “but not everyone has that luxury.”

Morey’s hotels, like his slick, family-friendly amusement parks, aren’t as period-accurate as the Caribbean, and he admits that business and preservation make tricky bedfellows — not least in the decision to be “real” kitsch or fake kitsch. “We don’t want the place to become Disneyland, but we don’t want it to be Dismaland either,” he says. “Usually, it doesn’t make business sense to try to keep things exactly as they were.”

Yet somehow the Wildwoods have held on to a certain spirit that you can feel on the boardwalk and at Morey’s Piers, where the staff at least seem happy to be manning the games, Ferris wheel and faux-retro wooden rollercoaster. It’s far jollier than the high-rise, post-Trump Atlantic City up the coast, or Seaside Heights, where the rollercoaster that fell into the sea following Hurricane Sandy in 2012 created an unfortunate metaphor for the town’s fortunes.

The fun is notably pre-gentrification, unlike, say, Asbury Park, the old Springsteen haunt up the Jersey Shore, where the Asbury Hotel and Asbury Lanes bowling alley are among several institutions to have had recent makeovers seemingly designed for Williamsburg escapees. In calorific, diner-heavy Wildwood, by contrast, you’ll still struggle to find a flat white or an ahi poke.

As my trip on the toy train illustrated, summer events play a big part in keeping the town from fossilising. This season has already seen the Harlem Globetrotters and World Wrestling Entertainment hit town, while punters have also been treated to boogie-board races, foam parties, the Duke of Fluke fishing tournament, a Doo-Wop music festival and Roar to the Shore, a Harley-heavy bike rally.

But few can surely match The Race of Gentlemen, which turns the beach into an evocative blur of sand, oil and leather. The race, abbreviated to “Trog”, was founded by a tattooed former punk rocker called Mel Stultz, who builds hot rods and rides old Harleys and Indians barefoot. Inspired by the postwar golden age of drag racing, he held the first race in 2012 up the coast at Allenhurst, before the beach was wiped out by Hurricane Sandy. The next year, he approached Wildwood.

“Not all towns would welcome something like Trog,” Morey says of the race, where the devotion to period accuracy means as many Instagram shots as it does headaches for city officials (two high-speed crashes at this year’s event have not helped). “Frankly, it’s a logistical nightmare, but Mel and his team are great guys, and it fits what we’re about as a town. We never want this place to be stuck-up. We’ve always been desperate for it to stay real, and to stay fun.”

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A postcard from Pioneertown

An old Wild West film set in the desert is attracting creative downshifters from LA and New York

First published in the Financial Times, January 2018. Photography by Myles Pritchard

At one end of Pioneertown’s dusty Mane St – past the sheriff’s office, the bank, the bathhouse and the old Pioneer Bowl bowling alley – you’ll find the Likker Barn, which is home to the Pioneertown General Store. But good luck if you want to buy a pack of smokes, a lottery ticket or indeed a beer. If you’re in the market for a vintage denim jacket or a “chill vibes” herbal tincture, though, you might just be in luck.

Pioneertown is both an old Wild West film set and a real desert town, just over two hour’s drive east of Los Angeles and up a winding, four-mile road from the workaday town of Yucca Valley. But while the cowboys were once A-list Hollywood actors, today’s cowboys tend to be Los Angeles creative types in Wrangler cut-offs and ponchos – many of whom are setting up lives and businesses among the hay bales, wooden carts and other Old West ephemera.    

“I never realised that there would be so much creativity in the desert,” says Sarah Tabbush, the Pioneertown General Store’s owner, dressed in her uniform of vintage cowboy boots, hat and denim shirt. After three years in town, she opened the store this year, finally giving up her LA career doing marketing for Tom’s shoes, with a mission “to showcase all the makers and creators out here”.

I never realised that there would be so much creativity in the desert.

Across the road is the Pioneertown Motel, whose lobby shed – surrounded by artfully curated cacti – has become the most Instagrammed spot in town. The motel’s owners, brothers Mike and Matt French, bought the kitsch old motel in 2014, ditching jobs in events and hospitality respectively, and moving from New York to give the 19 rooms a desert-chic makeover (“We had to get rid of a lot of doilies,” notes Mike).

The brothers host  DJ sets and cook-outs in the desert, and recently bought up three houses and an Airstream on Mane St for everything from yoga classes to sound healing sessions and salon dinners.

Pioneertown started with a very different kind of creativity, founded in 1946 by a group of A-list Hollywood cowboys including Roy Rogers, Russell Hayden and Gene Autry – who bought up a 32,000-acre tract of land, judging that the area could stand in for Texas or Arizona as well as California.

Naming the town after The Sons of the Pioneers, Roy Rogers’ singing troupe, Pioneertown was different to other film sets in that there was life, and real homes, behind the facades. While filming shows like The Cisco Kid and and Judge Roy Bean, Autry and pals would host poker nights at the town’s motel, while Rogers bought property on Mane St.

But this curious little place wasn’t always destined to become a hipster mecca. As the appeal of Westerns faded in the 1960s, there were plans to turn Pioneertown into a “real” holiday destination, with ritzy hotels and golf courses. As the plans failed to materialise, decay set in.

“It was pretty awful here for a while,” recalls Gay Smith, an indomitable former schoolteacher who moved to Pioneertown in 1966 with her late husband, and who now hosts staged Wild West shootouts on a set she built on her land. “You’d have bikers fighting and running around with no clothes on. By the mid-70s, the town was falling into disrepair.”

You’d have bikers fighting and running around with no clothes on. By the mid-70s, the town was falling into disrepair.

But a turning point came in 1982, when the local biker bar was taken over by Harriet Aleba, who opened Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace with her husband Claude “Pappy” Allen, who would sing while she cooked homely Tex-Mex.

As Pappy started bringing live bands, the saloon went from biker burrito bar to family-friendly live music institution. It was already a famous spot by the time Aleba sold her beloved bar to Robyn Celia and Linda Krantz, a gay couple from New York, in 2003 – but Celia and Krantz upped the volume even further, hosting festivals in the back yard and drawing acts like the Arctic Monkeys, the Dandy Warhols and Paul McCartney, who played an impromptu gig here last year.

“When Paul McCartney played, we thought that might have been when Pioneertown peaked,” says “Big Dave” Johnson, the legendary security guard at Pappy and Harriet’s, who we meet on a Monday night, with the bar packed for open mic night. “But, you know, it keeps getting better.”

Dave, suitably, is also a glass-blower and fronts his own tribute band, Hammer of Ozz. His imposing stature (matched by his voluminous beard) seems largely wasted on the “security lap” we observe, as an alt-folk band from Yucca Valley plays on the stage. Instead of throwing people out, Dave spends the lap giving out high-fives and bear hugs as locals call out his name. All appears well in Pioneertown.    

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