The end of the world as we know it*

The end of the world may involve feature spikes, shouting and War Boys – but the Wasteland Weekend post-apocalyptic festival turns out to be just as much about creativity, community and kindness 

An edited version was published in N by Norwegian magazine, September 2019. Photography by Myles Pritchard

In the Best Motel in Mojave, a railroad town in the Californian desert, two grown men are panicking. They’ve made a mad rush to Bob’s Army and Navy Surplus Store, close to little town’s famed airstrip and spaceport – but it hasn’t solved the problem that is haunting them. Namely, What does one wear to the end of the world? 

The two men are photographer Myles and me – and we’re acting like two teenage girls before a prom, except that this is more of an anti-prom. We’re preparing for Wasteland Weekend, a five-day post-apocalyptic festival where anything goes, except for jeans, t-shirts, branding – or anything that wouldn’t look right in a world where the oil and the water have run out, and humanity is scrabbling for survival in the desert dust. 

The Theme and Costume Guidelines section of the festival website runs to 2,800 words and emphasises, in horrifying capitals, “FULL IMMERSION”. So I’m hacking at a Primark t-shirt with scissors, and trampling cut-off jeans into the car park at the somewhat misnamed Best Motel, with its empty swimming pool and abandoned Lincoln car. Aviators or desert goggles? Headscarf or neckscarf? Are these novelty bullets too cheap looking? How do I look? Will these people accept us? Why are we here?    

The drive to the festival site is no less intimidating, following a dusty dirt track to nowhere, with the world’s largest borax mine shimmering on the horizon, guided only by map coordinates, because there’s no civilisation for miles around. When a wooden sign finally appears through the dust, a succession of men and women in beaten-up shoulder pads, spikes and desert goggles bark orders at us: chiefly to “slow the f*** down!”

When a wooden sign finally appears through the dust, a succession of men and women in beaten-up shoulder pads, spikes and desert goggles bark orders at us: chiefly to “slow the f*** down!”

We park our four-wheel-drive car in the Nuclear Winter, a parking area for attendees without tribes, not far from an older gentleman called Gramps, who’s wearing a tin hat and will later tell us he’s more into anarchy than Mad Max. Then we start walking around, which is a bit like being the wide-eyed kid in the 80s movie, arriving in the big city for the first time… 

Firstly, there are madcap vehicles everywhere, trundling through the dust: a little car with tractor wheels at the back and normal wheels at the front; a yellow school bus that’s now the Cruel Bus, festooned with weapons; a desert buggy driven by bald, white-painted War Boys from the most recent Mad Max movie, with a tortured-looking, tattooed girl in a cage swinging at the back. 

A lot of people seem to be shouting. Every so often, someone will shout “War Boys!”, to which all the white-painted hoodlums will shout “War Boys!” back in unison. A girl walks past in a robo-rabbit mask with a built-in vocoder, and says something that sounds like hello in a muffled robot voice. One girl is wearing a ram-horn helmet and a bra made of shells. 

At the entrance to the main festival area, I’m looked up and down by an imposing guard, who looks like she’s ready for an S&M roller derby and is holding a staff that’s also a retro microphone. She’s called Neon, and she’s part of the Nuclear Bombshells, a Vegas tribe that runs a raucous burlesque stage by night. Her rules of entry are simple. “If you’re wearing blue jeans, you’re not getting in,” she tells me. “And if you don’t seem into it, I’ll make you roll in the dirt.” When she lets me pass, I feel a rush of gratitude: I’m a Wastelander now. 

The whole festival is made up of hundreds of tribes, most of them with fictional backstories, who have set up more than 500 temporary structures across the 80-acre site, from stages to geodesic domes and tented hideouts that resemble military camps. Many of the tribes exist outside of Wasteland Weekend, but for most this is the nub of their existence. 

The Ghoulcrest Hunting Club have created a faux-grand corrugated iron hunting lodge, which is open only to people who complete bounties given out by the Bounty Office. The Caution Tape Carnival have created a mini post-apocalyptic fairground with human equivalents of the claw game and Whack-A-Mole. The mostly leather-clad, tattooed Wasted Saints have built a kind of Wild West saloon for nightly shows that involve burlesque, nails and a gentleman called Dr Copperchops. Each tribe would be worthy of a feature. 

On the third day, I get the story of it all from Jared Butler, a screenwriter and voice actor, who leads the organisation of the event along with Adam Chilson, a photographer and movie FX artist. We’re in the Wasteland Beauty Salon, which specialises in war-like face paint and mohawks – and Butler is getting made up for one of the nightly car cruises. His walkie talkie barely stops buzzing, but in between dealing with issues like a delivery van man who doesn’t have a costume (answer: “Get him something to wear”), he tells me the story of Wasteland Weekend. 

It all began in 2010, when Butler decided to host a Mad Max-themed mini-festival in the desert, along with nightclub promoter James Howard and Karol Bartoszynski, a Hollywood costume designer who had run a series of car cruises for replica Mad Max vehicles.  

“For that first one, there was just one themed tent, a few cars, a couple of DJs and a fire performer,” he recalls. “And we had no idea if anyone was going to turn up. But it was unique in that specific costumes were mandatory, which helped it look amazing in photographs. People just saw it and were like: Wow!”

The post-apocalypse has changed beyond recognition over the years. In 2011, with Chilson joining the team, the event doubled in size, and the concept of tribes was introduced, led by the likes of the Last Chancers, who started the Last Chance Casino, with its roulette wheel made out of an old car wheel. This year, there are 3,800 attendees, including a thousand-strong army of volunteers and performers. 

Having previously leased the land for the festivals, for this year the team bought this 80-acre stretch of desert, giving a permanent home to the festival, even if this year’s structures will be taken down after the event. There are plans not just to grow Wasteland Weekend in size every year, but to launch offshoot events in Europe and possibly China, starting with the UK. “We had no idea that it would get this big, which is just so humbling,” says Butler. “Somehow, the idea resonates with people, now more than ever. All we did was light the fuse – everyone else brought the creative magic.” 

Somehow, the idea resonates with people, now more than ever. All we did was light the fuse – everyone else brought the creative magic.

That creative magic is almost overwhelming. Over the four days, we see a thousand-strong car rally, a post-apocalyptic swimsuit competition, and various games of jugger, a kind of post-apocalyptic rugby with skulls and weapons, inspired by the 1989 movie, The Salute of the Jugger. We see wild bouts in the theatrical Mad Max-inspired Thunderdome, a huge dome where Wastelanders are launched at each other on bungee cords; and almost-as-epic thumb wars at the Thumberdome, a tiny miniature version.

“This is my third year here, and every year it gets bigger and better,” says Miss Monster, aka mask-maker Melita Curphy, who we learn is the woman beneath the Robo Rabbit mask. “It becomes more of a challenge each year to do something special, because everyone gets more inspired. It’s this amazing cross-pollination of ideas.”    

But it’s not just a fancy dress parade. It’s a fully self-supporting community, which adheres wholly to the post-apocalyptic conceit. There are not only elaborately costumed medics, mechanics and engineers with names like Two Beards and Kit, but there’s an official tour guide, a post office manned by a dreadlocked girl called Trouble, and a 24-hour radio station created using scavenged poles, which was the brainchild of The Swede (yes, he’s Swedish).   

In the back of the Wasteland Communications Corp tent (home of the radio station and post office), I meet Deadline the editor, who is putting together the next day’s edition of The Wastelander newspaper, a yellowing daily sheet printed in typewriter style. A former Air Force photographer, it’s just his second year at Wasteland Weekend, having offered to produce a daily rag on his first visit. 

While yesterday’s edition leads with a story of a nuclear launch key ending up for auction at the Last Chance Casino, and an influx of refugees to the Wasteland, today’s stories include the undefeated performances of a gentleman called Smash in the Battle Cage, and the curious metal detector findings of The Stray Engineer. As with all things Wasteland, it’s a fabulous intertwining of reality and fantasy.

The philosophy of the paper, Deadline informs me, “is to provide information quickly, reliably, and with as many swear words as possible.” But his own philosophy on the event is cuddlier. “You see guys with mohawks, tattoos and spikes, but then they turn out to be these really interesting, kind people who will do anything to help you out. Weirdly, this vision of a post-apocalyptic Wasteland is as close to paradise as I can imagine.”

I hear, and experience, similar things throughout my time at Wasteland. “Coming here was really like finding my tribe,” says Throttle, a female War Boy, who spends a large part of her year as a vet assistant, “dreaming of Wasteland. We build a whole city, and this totally cohesive vision, where we let go of reality and create something new. I’ve never met a group of people like this – it’s the end of the world, and it’s just so nice.”  

And, weirdly, it is nice, even for me. Despite all the effort, my outfit is low-grade (Myles is more of a post-apocalyptic natural), and I can’t quite commit to a Wastelander name with the requisite sincerity, dilly-dallying between Snakeoil Skinner and The Scribe. But people are incredibly welcoming, and tend to give Myles and me things without expecting anything in return. One night, we are treated to a hearty hog roast at Legio X, a Roman-themed tribe; on another, we’re fed fluorescent blue Anti-freeze cocktails made by The Shaman at Unkle Lele’s Pitstop. One morning, a woman called Rabbit hands me a $10,000 dollar bill from the Bank of Hell, with her name written on it. I’m not sure why.

One afternoon, before things kick off at the Last Chance Casino – where Wastelanders gamble for the bottle tops that are the main Wasteland currency – I meet Big Disco, the casino’s talismanic croupier. He is wearing his regular uniform, a grubby, 1970s suit covered in broken CDs. He tells us about the ethos of the casino, which has grown from two tables and 12 people back in 2011 to become a madcap carnival of post-apocalyptic roulette, wheels of fortune, and a DIY bar that offers drinks and bottle tops in return for stories or jokes. 

“The casino is first and foremost about having a place to bring the party,” says Big Disco, who is famous across the Wasteland for his comic patter and inability to shuffle. “But it’s also about acceptance and tolerance, and we’re big on consent culture. We want it to be a safe space, where absolutely everyone feels welcome.” 

Big Disco, who until recently ran a video engineering department in his real life, admits that he defines himself by being “a minor celebrity at this event in the desert. I’m an extrovert, so I eat it up – I just get to be an even more ridiculous version of myself. But what I find fascinating is that I see other people finding different parts of themselves being these characters. Out here, you really can be anyone.”

I just get to be an even more ridiculous version of myself.

And it’s true. Amid this massive outpouring of creativity and community spirit, you can be Wasteland Elvis, or Immorton Joe, the terrifying baddie-in-chief from the latest Mad Max movie. You can even be a journalist in a ripped Primark t-shirt, who finds the whole thing altogether less weird, and infinitely more inspiring than expected. If this is what the end of the world looks like, then bring it on. 

Meet the Wastelanders
Ellinthris the wandering merchant

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Ellinthris’s pack, which she carries a little like a snail shell, is a thing of wonder. It’s a hundred pounds of pure creativity that contains a gun, ammo, a baseball bat, a sheep skull and a set of old billiard balls, most of which she’s traded. She’s got a sketch book, for when she turns the pack into an ingenious shelter and draws peoples’ portraits, and a set of haunting wooden masks. This being the post-apocalypse, she’s also offering “free air” through a plastic tube. 

“I made all of this in a weekend,” says Ellinthris, through her mask. She comes from Ventura, California, and learned her skills while making a haunted house with her father – as you do.

When a woman in a hat made of bottle tops comes with a bounty for Ellinthris (this kind of thing happens in the Wasteland), she reaches into her pack for a game – a primitive kind of tug ’o’ war involving little wooden crates and a strip of red wire. As a crowd gathers, Ellinthris makes wisecracks to the audience. When the wire becomes taut, she gives a cursory flick of her wrist and the bottle-top woman is yanked forward from her crate. “Better hunting next time,” Ellinthris calls after her defeated foe. 

 

Lord Humungus

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Outside of Wasteland Weekend, he’s Jim Dorsey, aka Tank, or Dog Tank, or Jim the Pool Guy, after the pool servicing company he runs in New Jersey. In a former life, he was a professional wrestler and the tour manager for punk group the Misfits (“there were riots every time we played Chile,” he says).

But out here, Jim Dorsey switches off his phone and becomes the great Lord Humungus, the chief baddie in Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior

He first came in 2011 as a relatively humble post-apocalyptic police guard. “But people saw my body shape and everyone was like: Dude, you have to come back as Lord Humungus,” he says. “So, at 40, I hired a bodybuilding coach and got in the shape of my life – all for this. The next year, I came back and people went nuts for it.”

With his deep, gravelly voice and almost robotic movements, Dorsey makes a convincing and slightly terrifying Lord Humungus – so much so that Kjell Nilsson, the Swedish weightlifter-turned-actor who originally played the character, gave him his blessing online in 2013.

“Out here, I just become Lord Humungus,” he says. “I own it.”

 

Wasteland Elvis

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“When I first came to Wasteland Weekend six years ago, I was like: Oh no, I’ve got this horribly wrong,” says Wasteland Elvis, a Los Angeles web developer in so-called real life. “I’d thought it was like a Hallowe’en party, and hadn’t quite got the post-apocalyptic memo. But people loved it.”

Today, Wasteland Elvis is a festival icon. “I’m the last Elvis impersonator on Earth,” he says. “And though I’ve pretty much worn the same costume every year, I’ve made it more Wasteland-y over the years. I took a blowtorch to my glasses because they were too shiny, and I’ve gradually added bits to the belt and kneepads, as well as making them look more weathered.” 

We meet Wasteland Elvis with Cigil, a former colleague in real life. They are, they say, a “tribe of two”, and they also exist outside Wasteland Weekend. “We do a weekly karaoke session together in Los Angeles,” says Cigil. “He’ll sing Elvis songs, I’ll do No Diggity. And we’ll go on little camping trips with our favourite tribes. There’s one in Florida where no cars are allowed – only lawnmowers.” 

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James Hyman, and why print is here to stay

In an old cannon foundry in South London, the world’s biggest magazine collection is growing every day – and is now set to become “the Spotify of magazines”. We meet the man behind it all

First published in N by Norwegian magazine, March 2018. Photography by Dave Imms

James Hyman talks fast, like the former DJ he is, and his default mode is enthused: about fake cigarette adverts in satirical magazine Mad in the late 1960s; about 70s issues of Man, Myth and Magic, a surprisingly cerebral magazine of the supernatural; even a hyper-saturated advert for Tesco supermarket food in a 1971 edition of Family Circle magazine. “Just look what people in Britain were eating in the 70s!” he says. “Horrific. But weirdly fascinating.”

I meet Hyman and his team on the second floor of an old red brick cannon foundry in Woolwich, Southeast London, surrounded by his life’s work: 150,000 magazines, crammed tightly into narrow rows of shelves more than two metres high. It’s like the Hogwarts Library of 20th Century pop culture, especially from the late 20th Century.

And the world’s largest magazine collection is growing every day. Yesterday, Hyman received a personal donation of Time and Newsweek issues covering the entire period of the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s. This morning, he opened a box from another benefactor to find an entire run of Cigar Aficionado magazine.

“These magazines are important historical documents,” says Hyman, sitting in a battered chair at the end of one row, with electric heaters protecting him from the icy February air (it’s even colder in here than outside). “Every magazine tells you something about the time and the culture in which it was published. Look at an old issue of Athletics Weekly, and you might learn something about the history of trainer design, or the time when Bruce Jenner was simply an athlete.”

Look at an old issue of Athletics Weekly, and you might learn something about the history of trainer design, or the time when Bruce Jenner was simply an athlete.

Many of the magazines on the shelves are pop-cultural touchstones in their own right. There’s the May 1990 issue of cult magazine The Face, which featured a 15-year-old Kate Moss on her first magazine cover; the 1980 special issue of Newsweek after John Lennon’s death; or the 1985 issue of National Geographic, with its Steve McCurry cover portrait of Sharbat Gula, the 12-year-old Afghan refugee with the famously hypnotic gaze.

Now, Hyman and his team – creative lead Tory Turk, and editor Alexia Marmara – are waiting for a license to create a digital magazine archive, available to subscribers, which Hyman hopes will become “the Spotify of magazines”, with royalties going to the people who did the work.

He shows me a prototype of the software on his laptop. Typing in ‘Kate Moss’, hundreds of covers, spreads and adverts pop up, each with reams of searchable metadata. “You can search every shoot she did in London, say, or every blue-coloured shoot, or everything she did with hair stylist Sam McKnight,” says Hyman. “It will be a whole new way to find information.”

The digitisation of the Hyman Archive will take it full circle from the analogue days in which it was born. In the late 1980s, while a media student in London, Hyman took a summer job at MTV, where he graduated to writing scripts and becoming a producer/director. He’d later become a DJ at British radio station XFM, specialising in dance music culture, as well as a voiceover artist and music video producer.

“Back then, magazines were the Internet,” he says. “If you wanted to unearth a gem about Bob Dylan or Duran Duran, you had to read their interviews in Rolling Stone. If you were interviewing Moby, you wanted to ask about the dodgy experience he’d had at a rave, which you’d read in the NME.

He also discovered the now-shuttered Vintage Magazine Company in Soho, which had a basement full of back issues of The Face and i-D, two game-changing magazines of the 1980s. “It fuelled the collector’s bug,” he says. “I was hooked.”

By 2010, he had more than 100,000 magazines, more than 40,000 CDs and a child on the way. “There were towers of magazines, CDs and books in the house,” he recalls. “It was all getting a bit overwhelming, and I was constantly moving stuff into storage.”

In 2011, a friend introduced him to Turk, whose Master’s degree in fashion curation had taught her the basics of archiving. Turk was intrigued, and – in a pivotal moment – offered to help. The pair spent a year sorting through the collection, which they initially stored in an old meat factory in Islington, North London. “Going through it all with Tory was like therapy,” says Hyman.

In 2012, the collection was recognised by Guinness as the biggest in the world, and in 2015 the team moved the whole lot to its current site. Today, it’s a very niche library (borrowing a magazine for three days costs a whopping GBP50), used mostly by serious producers or curators. Magazines from the archive have starred in everything from Beatles documentaries to the California: Designing Freedom exhibition at London’s Design Museum.

Hyman is keen to stress that the collection is ongoing. “I’m just as excited by new mags like [indie film magazine] Little White Lies or [slow news title] Delayed Gratification,” he says. “It’s a really exciting time for independent magazines, and it’s just as important to document right now as it is to document the past.”

Still, there are historic gems aplenty here: like a complete set of The British Journal of Photography, which launched in 1854 but didn’t feature any actual photographs until around 1890; or the first ever issue of British high society magazine Tatler, from 1901, which features the Duchess of Sutherland on the cover and an advert on page two for the Claridge’s hotel restaurant (“The last word in modern restaurants”).

Even as the archive grows and morphs, it’s still deeply personal to its founder. Hyman gazes lovingly at an issue of Jocks, a DJ magazine from the late 80s, and in particular the dense, almost staccato track reviews of James Hamilton, an expert on any given song’s beats-per-minute. “He was this swaggering, pompous guy in a top hat,” recalls Hyman. “But he was revered by DJs like me at the time – he was like the Laurence Olivier of the dance world.”

Another of Hyman’s favourites is 2600 magazine, a still-running quarterly magazine for hackers that dates back to the early 80s. It is named after the 2600 hertz tone that allowed users to access the operator mode of telephones, which could be produced using the plastic whistles given out with Cap’n Crunch breakfast cereal. Hyman proudly shows me the infamous 1984 issue that gave readers the direct telephone numbers of Ronald Reagan and his White House team.

While the authorities haven’t always looked quite so fondly on 2600’s founder Emmanuel Goldstein (whose name references Orwell’s 1984), for Hyman he symbolises the creativity, ingenuity and humanity of magazines.

Magazines are things that someone crafted in order to express something, and there’s a magic to that which you don’t often get with all the noise on the Internet.

“Ultimately, magazines are as diverse and weird as people are,” he says. “They are things that someone crafted in order to express something, and there’s a magic to that which you don’t often get with all the noise on the Internet. You couldn’t get robots to produce The New Yorker, which is just one of many reasons that magazines will always be loved. They’ll never, ever die.”

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Minus 30 degrees – in a Primark jacket

Toby Skinner went to northern Norway to learn about Arctic survival on a trek organized by one of the world’s great polar explorers. But he learned a whole lot more than he bargained for about about string vests, pee bottles – and the meaning of life

(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, May 2017. With photography by River Thompson)

You need to become an animal. You need to think like a polar bear. You need to let go of yourself completely — to sniff the air and become part of the universe.”

The great Norwegian explorer Børge Ousland is explaining the secrets of survival when it’s nearing minus 60, you’re alone, and the barren, icy landscape hasn’t changed for weeks. “Lying in your tent at night, it’s easy to be overwhelmed – by the loneliness, the cold, by what you know lies ahead. It can drive you mad, so the greatest trick of all is to turn off that switch.”

Børge knows a bit about that switch. The only person to have crossed the Arctic Ocean and Antarctica, he’s very probably the world’s greatest living polar explorer. His records are legion: the first person to ski to the North Pole alone and without additional supplies; the first to visit both poles; and the first person to cross the Antarctic, alone and un-supplied, travelling 2,845km over 64 days, with a 178kg sled and temperatures dropping as low as minus 57 degrees Celsius. He’s been to the North Pole in mid-winter, when the sun barely rises, and was the first to circumnavigate it by boat in a single season.

Today, as well as exploring, raising awareness of global warming and running the beautiful remote island resort of Mannshausen, Ousland organises trips so that normal people can experience just a taste of “the great depth of emotion” that being alone in an icy wilderness brings.

The expeditions are not for the fainthearted: the signature tour is the Greenland crossing, a three-week epic that follows the journey taken by the great Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen in 1888, and which was the first big trip that Børge took, in 1986. Back then, he was a 25-year-old deep-sea diver and former special forces officer who fancied a challenge with his friends. “I found that I coped well,” he recalls. “I was good at planning, at fixing things, and I dealt well with the cold. Later, I realised, I was good at making things happen. A lot of people dream – I learned that you’ve got to define a goal, then you set a date.”

One of Ousland’s tours is a five-day February expedition across Norway’s Finnmarksvidda, the largest plateau in the country, in the empty north. It’s 120km on skis, dragging a pulk (sled) across the Arctic tundra in the coldest part of Norway, where Sami reindeer herders once roamed and where many still keep their herds. Børge has described it as a “Kinder egg of an expedition,” a preparatory tour for longer trips to Greenland, Svalbard or the poles – which is a very gentle and possibly misleading way of describing a trip which last year saw temperatures drop to -36 degrees. Somehow, the editor of Norwegian has signed me up for this very expedition.

****

At a cabin outside Alta, a day before we head off, I find myself eyeing up everyone else’s kit, as if it’s the early stages of a particularly awkward teenage disco. There are eight fellow expeditioners and two guides: tour leader Bård Helge Strand, an impish, dryly humorous 30-year-old who’s led trips to Greenland, and his enthusiastic assistant, Sebastian Gjølstad, who has been working for Børge at his Mannshausen resort.

Harald, a doctor from Stavanger, seems to have brought enough gear to disappear into the wilderness for good, while Mike, a Scottish ex-Marine, and his 15-year-old son, have a matching set of expensive-looking base layers, fleeces and tech-y watches that look like they’d survive a nuclear explosion. All the Scandinavians on the trip have string vests as base layers, which are a questionable fashion choice outside certain red-lit Amsterdam shopfronts, but which they swear are effective at removing sweat and maintaining warmth.

Two nights earlier, I’d made a frantic late trip to Snow + Rock, where a nice guy called Dave had either seriously up-sold me, or saved my life, giving me a Rab Andes 1000 sleeping bag, a Rab Batura down jacket and a pair of giant Rab Expedition 8000 mittens, all whilst explaining that his chosen summer holiday would be a walk from London to Rome.

But on the horrifyingly daunting five-page equipment, I’d missed a crucial detail, failing to realise that you don’t wear the down jacket whilst skiing, since over-heating and sweating is in many ways the big danger on these trips. While everyone else has high-performance jackets made with NASA-level fabrics, I have brought a £7.99 anorak from Primark’s Cedar Wood State range.

“Will this do?” I ask Bård Helge, nervously.

“It will have to,” he says, ominously.

Then there’s the prep, of which there’s a lot. We learn how to use the gas stoves, how to pack our pulks (sleds) and even get a nipples-and-all clothing demonstration from Bård Helge. The food preparation includes putting each day’s food (and toilet paper) into zip-loc bags, carefully splitting chocolate bars, and even putting potato chips in zip-loc bags. Everything is about “the system” — knowing where on the sled your jacket is, where to find your head torch, your first aid kit or your zip-loc’d nuts.

It’s with good reason that so much emphasis is placed on preparation. When Børge first went to the North Pole, aged 28, he had to extensively test and eventually re-design his sled, as well as his boots, bindings and skis. He spent a month in Canada’s remote north just testing the tonne (literally) of equipment that he’d brought, not to mention dragging tyres to prepare physically. As for what to eat, he had to go to a pharmaceutical company to borrow their freeze dryer for his meals, since the vacuum-packed meals of today didn’t exist.

As Bård Helge puts it breezily during our stove lecture: if you run out of matches on a serious expedition, or get them wet, you’ve basically run out of food and water. If you run out of gas, the same. You’d better evacuate, or die.

****

The start of the trek is ominous. After a few hours of driving from Alta, the first part of the journey is one of very few downhill sections. I’ve used cross-country skis once before, but going uphill. Downhill is a little different, and then there’s the pulk – so every time I feel like I’ve achieved balance on the skis, my carefully curated “system” races up from behind me, clatters into me and sends me sprawling. “Have you ever done this before?” asks one of my Norwegian fellow travelers, well-meaningly.

Once the skiing is figured out, though, there’s a meditative beauty to the rhythmic swishing across the tundra. But the difference in experience shows during the stops, which are a military-precise ten minutes every hour.

Lars Christian Larssen, who does marketing for Ousland and has been on a three-week trek across Svalbard, has a neat way of pulling his pulk between his legs, sitting on the soft bit and grabbing a bite to eat, almost in one motion. At one stop, guide Bård Helge puts his skis in the ground and leans a mat against them to form a kind of high-backed Arctic chair. At another, he pours his boiling water into a used food pack, sealing it and using it as a makeshift hot water bottle as he deftly prepares noodles. Out here, that’s what class looks like.

As Børge tells me of his epic journeys, it’s really all about the little things. “It’s about seeing shapes in the snow, sensing changes in the air,” he says. “It’s also about breaking things down. You look forward to the next break, or dinner, or reading a letter from your family. If you think too big, you get overwhelmed.”

If you think too big, you get overwhelmed.

It’s not all gazing at snow drifts, though. When it comes to putting up tents on the Finnmarksvidda plateau, the process is supposed to be as stringently methodical as Børge’s, even on night one, when the guides seem disappointed that it’s a balmy minus three. You pitch the tent with the back to the wind, and always start with a pair of skis tethering it like giant tent poles. You cover the edges with snow, build a trench inside the tent and get the stove fired up as soon as possible. If you let the little processes go, logic dictates, then the big ones might too.

The first and second days and nights are overcast, and merely incredibly cold – like, minus 15, or “fifteen”, as Bård Helge breezily puts it. But on day three the sky clears to reveal a pinkish blue Arctic sky, which casts long shadows across the plateau. The afternoon ski towards the camp is impossibly beautiful, like a white desert sunset, but nothing like what happens that night.

I’ve seen starry nights before, and I’ve seen the Northern Lights a few times. But I’ve never seen anything like the sky that Saturday night. To a backdrop of millions of twinkling stars, a huge arc of almost neon green streaks across the whole sky, shape-shifting at one end and warping into oranges and pinks, almost like a flame.

But up here the beauty tends to come with a price, and the clear Arctic night means no heat retention, and remorseless cold. As with the other nights, there’s a point, usually around midnight, when the boiling water in the plastic water bottle in your sleeping bag goes lukewarm; when the stove that you lit inside the tent is but a memory and the water in the Thermos is fast losing its heat. When you realise that, contrary to the advice of the Equipment list, peeing in a plastic bottle does not form an effective “hot water bottle”.

As I lie there in the silence, shivering, as the layer of frost builds on the outside of my sleeping bag and my damp extra socks offer little respite, I wonder how on Earth Børge did this, alone, for 81 nights when he crossed the Arctic Ocean in 2001. Even in a group, it’s disorientating and lonely. How must that feel when you’re nearing an end of the Earth, alone, knowing that there’s not another human being for hundreds of miles?

Børge, like a few other people on this trip, says that the beginning of any long expedition is the hardest. “It’s that first bit, when you see the boat or helicopter leave, when you’ve said goodbye to your friends, when you can still feel the warmth of the hotel room – that’s the hardest bit, when your mind can race with it all. Those first two weeks are crucial, but after that you move away from ‘normal’ life and become an animal, with routines and patterns. You just keep going.”

The following morning, as Bård Helge cheerily informs us that it probably hit minus 30 overnight, everything is frozen, including my eyelashes, giving me the look of a distinctly unappealing drag queen. Tired, I take about half an hour to get into my monstrous polar boots, through a mix of the laces being frozen solid and my fingers being too numb to free them (I’m not the most dextrous at the best of times).

Then, when I fill up the gas canister, I spill a little gas on the side and hope no one notices. Soon after lighting the stove, the canister goes up in flames, inside the tent, to which I can only flap and call out pathetically to Bård Helge. Luckily, the flame goes out, and even more luckily I have blackened but not ruined the canister. The same can’t be said of the plastic bowl that I grabbed from my cupboard whilst leaving my Hackney flat before the trip.

As I pour boiling water over Børge’s secret porridge recipe, I realise that I’m getting a very unfamiliar warmth around my crotch area. Suddenly panicking that I’ve wet myself (was it the shock of the canister incident?), I realise that the bowl has cracked from the sheer cold. As I eat dry, powdery porridge with numb fingers, while the boiling water rapidly cools and freezes around my nether regions, I posit that I’m surviving (just) rather than thriving.

There are undoubtedly lows on the trip. Points where I wonder what the point is, when as humankind we’ve invented things like heating, and saunas, and when I wonder about the logic of a journey where most of what you see is gently undulating snow and ice, and where lunch can sometimes consist of crunchy instant noodles, lukewarm water and a hopelessly inadequate sachet of seasoning. The six hours from midnight to 6am are, frankly, a bit miserable.

But the highs far outweigh the lows, not least in the fact of being wholly present, without Internet, choice or really any options beyond the basic acts of survival. As Børge puts it: “I was initially motivated by seeing what was beyond the horizon, but what I really went on was an inner journey. I found a balance, a harmony within myself.”

As Børge recounts, the little things on our trip do indeed start to take on far greater proportions. The tot of whiskey with ice, from a plastic bottle of Famous Grouse, tastes wondrous at the end of a long day’s skiing, as do the Real Turmat freeze-dried dinners – brought to life by boiling water – which take on Michelin-worthy dimensions, from the cod in curry sauce on night one to the rich, gamey reindeer stew on the final night. On the nights we build communal fires (I say “we” in the loosest sense), it’s easy to get lost in the flames and the shifting, spectral shapes in the fire.

Then there are the little goals, which are simultaneously humble and epic: like getting to Mollisjok on day three, where there will be coffee served by Margit E. Opgard, who was born 60 years ago in this same cluster of remote cabins, in the days when the nearest civilisation was Karasjok, two days away on horseback.

Out here, life stories are more colourful, and jokes are funnier – including Bård Helge’s five-minute corker about the transport system in the Sami town of Karasjok, which garners more hysterical laughter than it possibly deserves (basically, the joke is that the same guy drives the taxi, and the bus, and the plane – but you probably had to be there).

****

Eventually, we arrive in civilisation, at the Engholm Husky Lodge in Karasjok, a wonderful series of Sami-inspired cabins hand-built by Swede Sven Engholm, who came up here and never left, becoming a husky racing champion and hotelier in the process. In the shower, as my extremities warm up, I realise that I’ve burned the ends of my fingers on the stove, and that I still can’t feel my left big toe.

But I’m alive, and I’ve learned a few things. That people feel the cold differently; that it’s better to wear just one or two layers in your sleeping bag; that you should trust Dave at Snow + Rock, even if it’s not cheap; that a string vest really can be a desirable item of clothing; that I probably won’t do the Greenland trip, thanks very much. I’m also fairly confident that I’ve set a record, even if I’m not convinced how receptive Guinness will be to “First person to cross the Finnmarksvidda plateau in a Primark anorak”.

That night, over a gorgeous dinner of bacalao around a fire in a Sami lavvu, guide Bård Helge answers my final question thus: “Why do we do this? What’s the point? All I know is that in life, there are lots of questions. But when I go to Greenland, life is simple for three weeks. You just go east. And then you go west. Whatever the weather, good day or bad, you just keep going.”

Perhaps there’s something to becoming a polar bear after all.

On the Airwaves in Iceland

Iceland’s Airwaves festival is a buzzing showcase for the island’s hottest new musical acts. Ahead of this year’s event, we went to meet some of them

(First published in N by Norwegian, October 2017. Photography by River Thompson)

“Airwaves is my Christmas. It’s this magical time of the year, when the whole vibe of Reykjavik changes, and the city becomes one giant concert venue.” Icelandic electro pop act Hildur, born Hildur Kristín Stefánsdóttir, is explaining the appeal of the annual Airwaves Festival, held in venues from bookshops to barber shops across Reykjavik and the northern city of Akureyri, when the best Icelandic acts are joined by international talent – in this year’s case, the likes of Fleet Foxes, Benjamin Clementine, Billy Bragg and Norwegian pop sensation Sigrid.

The primary raison d’etre for Airwaves is as a showcase for Iceland’s impossibly healthy native music scene – which spans pop, indie and a thriving hip hop scene (no one seems able to tell us why this beautiful country produces so much hip hop). “Airwaves is when the world comes to look at the Icelandic scene,” says Hildur, who topped the Icelandic  charts last year with debut single ‘I’ll Walk With You’. “Everyone who plays is like: Will this be the night?”

For many, it has been. When indie band Of Monsters and Men played Airwaves in 2010, Seattle-based radio station KEXP recorded their single ‘Little Talks’, helping propel them to global stardom. There are countless similar stories.

But, really, it’s just a celebration of a music scene that punches well above its weight for a country of around 334,000 people – helped by an emphasis on musical learning at school, and a musical lineage exemplified by the art-meets-pop of Björk, whom most the musicians here adore (even if they pretend not to notice her when they see her in the hot tub at the public baths).

“It’s remarkable that this tiny country has produced so many strong artists,” says Melkorka Sigríður Magnúsdóttir of Milkywhale, the electropop duo that broke out at Airwaves 2015. “There’s a really nice togetherness about the scene here. It’s really supportive, and there are always good musicians to work with.”   

The best place to see the evidence of all that is at Airwaves. “Everyone builds up to their Airwaves show,” says Jóhanna Rakel of all-girl hip-hop trio Cyber. “It’s our harvest season, our new year. You seen everyone dragging instruments around town. It’s magical.”

Milkywhale

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When Milkywhale first played Airwaves in 2015, the duo had been together less than half a year. Trained dancer and choreographer Melkorka Sigríður Magnúsdóttir had joined forces with Árni Rúnar Hlöðverssson of respected Iceland electro-pop band FM Belfast – and together they’d built a band around the concept of a lonely whale and a shared desire “to expand the whole idea of what a concert is.”

Magnúsdóttir was more used to dancing in theatres than performing pop, but when she hit the stage that year, and “just started moving” in front of a huge screen, the crowd went crazy – and the duo were widely dubbed the breakout act of the year.

However, Magnúsdóttir likes the description of their 80s aerobics-style 2016 show in local ’zine The Reykjavik Grapevine: “A bowl of Skittles combined with eight double espressos, topped with the mania of receiving both a new puppy and a trampoline on Christmas morning.”

Like many Icelandic acts, Milkywhale are a curious blend of joyous performance and arty introspection. Magnúsdóttir wrote the lyrics to this year’s self-titled debut album with her mother, the novelist, playwright and poet Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, about “love, loneliness and a whale who is on a different frequency to the rest of the world.”  

Onstage, though, it’s more about a communal euphoria that Magnúsdóttir compares to laughter yoga. “I prefer to be silly than sexy,” she says, referring to a gig by Swedish singer Robyn that “blew me away with its energy. I just love being onstage, being able to control a crowd, and to make people leave a show happier than when they came in. It’s like being a priest, preaching pure joy.”

Cyber

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All-female trio Cyber are winning in the male-dominated world of Icelandic hip-hop – but it’s been a long time coming. Jóhanna Rakel Jónasdóttir and Salka Valsdóttir (pictured left and centre) are childhood friends who at 16 started a punk/thrash/disco duo called Cyber, named after a lipstick they both liked. “We had a very wellcurated tracklist,” says Valsdóttir. “Unfortunately, the songs were crap.”

They hadn’t tried hip-hop until 2013, when Jónasdóttir went to an all-girl hip-hop night that would eventually form the basis of the Reykjavíkurdætur collective – part of Iceland’s massive hip-hop scene. “It’s become this cult for hipsters to like Icelandic hip-hop,” Jónasdóttir says. “It’s a bit like Eskimos playing punk.”

“At the time, Jóhanna was in Russia, training as a gymnast,” says Valsdóttir. “I called her to say, ‘Come home, we’re doing a rap show.’”

Cyber’s first song was “basically random words with a beat,” says Jónasdóttir. “We were too cheap to buy the Beats app, so we’d play it from our phone at gigs. Then my mum would call in the middle of the show.”

Things look very different now. After touring with Reykjavíkurdætur, they brought in DJ Þura Stína (right), and last year released the EP Crap, a languid slice of Icelandic cool that earned them the respect of the scene. Now they’re working on a 13-song concept album called Horror, which Jónasdóttir says has been “tragically hard to make – but a proper, cohesive album”.

“Basically, we’ve got better,” says Valsdóttir. “We’re not amateurs anymore.”

Auður

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Auður (Auðunn Lúthersson to his parents) might describe himself as a “weirdo” but the electronic musician is one very talented weirdo.

Describing his influences as everything from Dalí to butterflies, Stanley Kubrick and Pulp Fiction, probably the most telling is the influence of dreamy British electropopper James Blake, whose 2013 gig at Sónar Reykjavík inspired Auður to go solo. “Seeing the melodic decisions he takes was an epiphany,” he says.

Until then, Auður’s musical journey was eclectic – from death metal to jazz guitar, dabbling with experimental noise and producing for Icelandic hip-hop acts. Now his music might be described as dreamy electronic R&B. “I want music that has depth and layers, but is still accessible. I just want to make music that resonates with people,” he says of his songs, some of which deal with missing his girlfriend during her trip to South America.

He filmed a visual version of his well-received debut album, Alone, in an abandoned power station, playing it on live loop at Reykjavík’s iconic Harpa theatre. Now he’s planning a visual spectacular for Airwaves, involving a mix of BBC nature documentary series Planet Earth and Surrealism. Expect it to be brilliant – and weird.

Hildur

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“I’m not afraid to admit that I like Justin Bieber,” says Hildur Kristín Stefánsdóttir, who writes classic Scandi-pop songs, and who this year won the best pop song at this year’s Icelandic Music Awards for the earworm-y hit, ‘I’ll Walk With You’.

Hildur is very much a self-made pop star, and a serious musician. Having played cello since the age of six, she started writing songs at 15, and by 18 had formed ambient pop band Rökkurró, who toured for nine years and released three albums. She’s also played cello for Icelandic acts including globally successful musician and producer Ólafur Arnalds.

“But I’d always wanted to make music that was closer to what I was listening to,” she says of her decision to go solo after Rökkurró disbanded three years ago. She was inspired by Grimes, the Canadian artist who writes and produces all her own music. “I just kept watching videos of her, trying to figure out what she was doing,” says Hildur.

She got the impetus in 2015, when a friend asked her to produce the music for a short film she was making. “At first I was like, I can’t; but then, I thought, No, I definitely can.” The film never got made, but Hildur was on her way.

Later that year, she sent a few demo tapes to Sónar Reykjavik, the other big festival in town. They accepted. “I was like: Oh God, I have two months to create a whole live act.”

Needing at least six songs and a single, in February 2016, she put out ‘I’ll Walk With You’, which became a smash and topped the Icelandic charts. “It was sort of right place and right time,” says Hildur, who says melodies often come to her as she’s falling asleep. “There are so many great musicians in Iceland, but actually not that many female artists doing pure pop.”

Now, she’s in the process of writing new songs “without too much pressure”. Watch this space for what Iceland’s new pop queen does next.

Powder tripping in central Norway

Why an Englishman and his Norwegian wife set up a company to showcase the fast-growing sport of ski-touring – and the almost unfair beauty of central Norway’s Sunnmøre Alps 

(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, October 2016. Photography by River Thompson)

When Sir William Cecil Slingsby first climbed Slogen mountain in central Norway in 1870, he declared the view – a spectacular straight line down the iconic Hjørundfjord – “one of the proudest in Europe”. He also said: “The wildest alpine valley I ever saw was not in the Alps, it was the valley Norangsdalen at Sunnmøre.”

The great Victorian mountaineer knew what he was talking about. Barely known in his native England, Slingsby is a mountaineering legend in Norway, having logged at least a dozen first ascents of mountains 2,000m or higher, all of them in central Norway – an area he had fallen in love with in his own stiff -upper-lip way. Norwegians know him as the godfather of Norwegian mountaineering. He’s also regarded as one of Europe’s ski-touring pioneers, having crossed the 1,550m Keiser Pass on skis in 1880.

I’m being versed on the legend of Slingsby by Brendan Slater, another English convert to Norway who knows a bit about ski touring and the unadulterated beauty of central Norway’s mountains and fjords. We’re sitting in the restaurant of the Hotel Union Øye, which was founded in 1891 in the small fjord-side village of Øye. The family-run hotel still has a dimly lit air of Victorian splendour, from the suit of armour in the lobby to the historical photos, the rumours of a ghost and the charming manager who looks like she’s just stepped out of a Nordic-Bavarian costume drama.

Along with his wife Sissel Tangen, Slater is the cofounder of Headnorth, a new company specialising in ski-touring trips around central Norway, from the Sunnmøre Alps to Sognefjord to the south and Romsdalen to the north. We’re here for a three-night taster tour around Hjørundfjord, Sunnmøre and Stranda, all of it a few hours inland from the pretty Art Nouveau town of Ålesund on the coast.

“I’ve travelled all my life but I’ve never found a part of the world as stunning as this,” says Slater. “The Lyngen Alps and Lofoten are better known in Norway as ski-touring areas, but for me it’s more spectacular here because you’re looking at fjords rather than ocean, and there’s more contrast. At the summit of most of the mountains here you get these classic mountain-fjord vistas, and you can ski right down to the water. There’s also this great mix of old Norwegian culture and cutting edge Scandi design. As an adventure destination, it has it all.”

If Slater has a Slingsby-esque love of the mountains and fjords, and a desire to share that with the world, he admits he’s not quite got the same mountain chops. Having moved to Oslo in 2006, it wasn’t until he met Tangen in 2008 that he was encouraged to try ski touring.

“I’d never skied at all, not even on a piste, and I was pretty ropey,” he says. “I probably still am. But, you know, I still have the same wonder, because I see this place just like a traveller, and I still have that sense of awe every time I go up these mountains on skis. I just want to share this area and introduce more people to ski touring here, whether they’re beginners like I was or experts. I also want to help to sell the area – I feel like some locals don’t quite grasp just how special it is.”

Special it certainly is. On our first day, after a night at the Hotel Union Øye, we put skins on our skis, switch the bindings to cross-country mode and head up from the car park of the Villa Norangdal guest house to the Blæja peak at 1,420m. I’m a ski-touring novice, but it’s a simple and curiously relaxing activity. We head slowly, rhythmically uphill, all the while looking at the sun glinting on the virgin marshmallow snow that we’re going to ski down.

Two-and-a-half hours and 1,000m worth of suspended gravity later, we reach the summit. On on the far side of the peak, the Hjørundfjord reveals itself far below, glistening among the reflected mountains. Ski touring has all the satisfaction of hiking up a mountain – except that, after that smug sense of conquering a piece of nature, you get to put on a pair of skis and point them downhill. Descending is a glorious grin-and-whoop experience, and after every section of mountain you can look up and see your tracks, including the odd powdery stack. That night we stay at the smart fjord-side Sagafjord Hotel in Sæbø, finishing our sauna session with a run into the Hjørundfjord in our underwear. It’s not a pretty sight, but it helps contribute to a night of deep baby-sleep.

It’s little wonder that people are starting to really catch on to this part of the world, which has always been best known for the Geirangerfjord, a World Heritage site and probably the most famous fjord on the planet. Åndalsnes, to the north via the serpentine Trollstigen road, is attempting to rebrand itself as “the Chamonix of the north”. Sports like riverboarding (a kind of white-water bodyboarding) and caving are joining the more traditional adventures like ski touring, hiking and mountain biking. The Romsdalen area has seen an influx of cool accommodation options, like the smart Romsdal Adventure guest house, which runs mountain bike trips and hiking tours.

Around Hjørundfjord, Slater is helping to map out the Hjørundfjord Haute Route, an epic 33km ski tour to rival the famous Haute Route in the French Alps, albeit with swankier accommodation along the way (Headnorth like to mix adventure with comfort). The timing is good. Ski touring is booming in Norway, and new ski technology means there’s ever less compromise in quality of enjoyment between going up and coming down.

But it’s not just adventure tourists who have been discovering this part of the world. The drive to Hotel Union Øye on the first day takes us along bleakly beautiful roads used in Norwegian dark fantasy Trollhunter. Matt Damon was recently in the area filming for Downsizing, which will be released late next year.

But the most famous use of the area by Hollywood came in last year’s spooky robot thriller, Ex Machina. When director Alex Garland wanted a gorgeous home for the movie’s billionaire CEO, his production team embarked on a year-long worldwide search which ended when they found the Juvet Landscape Hotel, a stunning series of modern eco pods at Gudbrandsjuvet in the Valldal valley. “We knew that if we found a spectacular landscape it would provide a lot of the power of the guy,” wrote Garland in the film’s production notes. “If he owns this landscape, he must be spectacular, too.”

Juvet is where we stay on our final night, after an another epic day of ski touring at Ytstevasshornet. We’re welcomed by Knut Slinning, Juvet’s owner, who has virtually nothing in common with Nathan, the manipulative billionaire CEO in Ex Machina. Slinning is self-effacing and outdoorsy, with a gentle, wry smile. He’s not quite part of the Wallpaper* set who coo over his hotel in magazine spreads, and says his favourite part of welcoming people to Juvet is “seeing their shoulders drop; just seeing that peace that comes with being here”. He insists that everyone eats together in the elegantly rustic farmhouse, whether that means former Norwegian PM Jens Stoltenberg, Scottish band Travis, or Pippa Middleton.

Juvet was the result of a series of coincidences, and Slinning is at pains to play down his role in putting this part of Norway on the international design map. He worked in property in Ålesund and had a cabin nearby. By chance, in 2005 he met modish Norwegian architects Jensen & Skodvin, who were in the Valldal valley as part of Norway’s National Tourist Routes project, which involved architects and designers installing architecturally striking viewing areas along the routes.

“They’d mentioned to me that they wanted to design a different hotel around the area,” recalls Slinning. “I hadn’t thought too much about it, but not long after I was on the old farm here at Burtigarden, which is on a stretch of land I’ve always loved. The farmer came out and just said to me, ‘Since you’re so fond of this place, would you like to buy it?’”

The rest is history and, with the help of funding for the tourist routes, Slinning and the architects set about designing and building the hotel, which opened in 2010. “It was important to us that we didn’t blast any rocks or alter the terrain in any way,” he says. “The nature should be the star, and all the rooms have their own little view. When you’re inside you can’t see other rooms, and there are no curtains, so it feels like you’re part of the landscape.”

Another aspect was respecting both the heritage of the farm and the local area. All the old farm buildings were restored, so you get a striking contrast of old and new, and the hotel tries to use local suppliers wherever possible. For example, the traditional crisp wafers served at Juvet are made 10 minutes down the road by the wonderful Nikka Myren Grønning, a 99-year-old with a glint in her eye, who has lived and baked at the same old house since the war, when she would sneak supplies out to Russian soldiers fleeing the Nazis. In her kitchen she shows us a local newspaper article about her and three contemporaries about to turn 100, and she bids us farewell with a huge hug and her only words of English: “I love you.”

On our last night, after a gorgeous meal of smoked whale carpaccio and bacalao (salted and dried cod), we drink Mack beers in the outdoor hot tub at Juvet, by the glass-walled sauna and spa around which many of the scenes in Ex Machina were filmed. All is still, except for the semi-rhythmic rumbling of both the hot tub and the river below.

I can understand how Slingsby fell for this part of Norway, and why people like Brendan Slater are falling for it all over again. He and his wife are fantastic hosts, not least because they do still seem to take a very pure joy in it all. It’s not at all hard to see why.

 

Brutalism and beauty in Puerto Rico

The beautiful Puerto Rican island of Vieques used to be best known as a testing ground for US missiles. Nowadays, it’s become a testing ground for cutting-edge concrete architecture instead

(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, January 2016)

When music-industry executive Simon Baeyertz first came to Vieques in 2005, it was love at first sight. “It was instant – this beautifully shaped island with two little mountains on it, where you can lie in the sea and not see a man-made structure. It had this rugged beauty that really took me by surprise.”

Vieques, just off Puerto Rico’s main island, had been a bombing range and testing ground for the US Navy until 2003, when the Navy withdrew and much of the island was designated a National Wildlife Refuge. Its controversial past had, perhaps ironically, helped the island of 8,000 people become one of the Caribbean’s better-kept secrets.

The next time he came back, New Zealand-born Baeyertz had quit his job working with the likes of Marilyn Manson, Nine Inch Nails and The White Stripes, and was looking to build a hotel. “It was a case of wanting out – I didn’t want to be a 50-year-old in a New York club surrounded by 20-somethings – but I also didn’t know how to do anything else. I thought to myself: I’ve stayed in a lot of hotels, why not try to backwards-engineer one? And I couldn’t think of anywhere I’d rather be than Vieques.”

So six years ago, he bought a modest site including a three-bedroom house in the village of Esperanza, and commissioned Puerto Rico architect Nathaniel Fuster to design a hotel “basically on the back of a napkin”. The idea was a curved, punctured concrete structure, inspired by coral, revolving around an open social space in the mould of an Ian Schrager hotel.

“I had absolutely no idea how big the project would become, or how complicated,” says Baeyertz. “I was this guy from the music industry who’d only ever built a sandcastle before. Suddenly, I was trying to figure out the mechanics of this incredibly complex cantilevered building, being built on a tiny footprint with a water table two metres down, that had to withstand hurricanes and salty air. Often I thought: what the hell am I doing?”

But in 2014, after almost five years and US$10 million (NOK87.3m), the 22-room El Blok opened to rave reviews – Travel + Leisure called it “easily the most stylish new hotel in the Caribbean” – and its restaurant, run by Puerto Rican culinary star Jose Enrique, has become the buzziest spot on the island.

Baeyertz wasn’t the first incomer to fall in love with Vieques and create a game-changing hotel. Canadian architect John Hix first came to the island in 1985 to escape the Canadian winter, and soon bought a plot of land to start experimenting with what he calls “Zen architecture”. Hix had lived in a greenhouse while teaching at Cambridge in the late 1960s, and it had informed an obsession with experimental and self-sustaining buildings.

He may have been inspired by a greenhouse, but his 19-room Hix Island House has no windows. There’s also no air-conditioning in the series of concrete structures set in 1.2 hectares of wildlife, where you shower outside and sleep with the Caribbean wind blowing through your room. Casa Solaris, its main building, is the first guest house in the Caribbean to be completely solar-powered.

Hix, who first built a three-room, triangular guest house here in 1990,  has designed similar houses across Vieques, as well as the Bahamas and St Lucia, all of them air con-free – and while their concrete forms are visually striking, he insists that form always followed function in their design. “It was about reacting to the landscape and climate of the island,” says Hix, who isn’t comfortable with terms like Brutalism or Minimalism. “I want people to feel like they’re in nature, and a million miles from their urban or suburban existence. Personally, I never wanted to travel to an exotic place and then live in an air-conditioned box.”

Unlike the buzzy, sociable El Blok, a stay at the Hix Island House is about silence and solitude – even if the two do share a similar design language. “They’re very different hotels,” says Baeyertz, whose first trip to Vieques was to stay at the Hix Island House. “But John inspired us with his bold use of concrete, as well as the sustainability of his buildings.”

With a hip W Retreat just down the road from El Blok, Vieques has quietly become a destination for design buffs as well as nature lovers coming to see the famous bioluminescent bay. “I think something has happened here,” says Baeyertz. “It might be a coincidence, but if it is then it’s a very happy one.”

A very Flåklypa Christmas

When Norway’s broadcasters first saw Ivo Caprino’s Flåklypa TV and Radio, they rejected it outright. So how did the remodelled Flåklypa Grand Prix become the most successful Norwegian film of all time and a much-loved part of Christmas in Norway?

(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, December 2015)

The first time Theodore Rimspoke, Sonny Duckworth and Lambert were unveiled in a stop-motion animation, they didn’t go down too well. “I remember it like it was yesterday,” says Remo Caprino, the son of now-legendary director Ivo Caprino, who still runs the Caprino film studios in Snarøya, on the outskirts of Oslo.

“The two heads of the entertainment division at NRK [Norway’s national broadcaster] came to see a section we’d spent almost two years working on. After the projector stopped, there was just this heavy silence. After what felt like minutes, one of them, Erik Diesen, turned to my father and said quietly: ‘Ivo, I’m sorry, this is just not good enough.’ We thought: that’s that, then. It was devastating.”

But Theodore, Sonny and Lambert – Reodor Felgen, Solan and Ludvig, in the original Norwegian – would have the last whimsical, seamlessly animated laugh. Since its release 40 years ago, Flåklypa Grand Prix (Pinchcliffe Grand Prix in English) has become the most widely seen Norwegian film of all time, selling 5.5 million cinema tickets – more than the population of Norway.

The tale of inventor Theodore building a fabulous car, Il Tempo Gigante, to defeat his former apprentice Rudolph Gore-Slimey, has been shown around Christmas in Norway and Denmark every year since, and last year it was the most-watched programme on Norwegian television in December. The sunny, optimistic magpie Sonny Duckworth and the nervous, melancholy hedgehog Lambert have become national treasures, and the film a part of the national culture.

But back in 1972, a silent Ivo Caprino left the office early – “He never did that”, recalls Remo – and left his son staring at a set of lifeless, rejected dolls.

The Flåklypa story really began in the late 1960s, in the imagination of painter, author and cartoonist Kjell Aukrust. He’d first drawn Reodor, Solan and Ludvig seprately for a newspaper, but with very different temperaments to those most Norwegians now know. Solan was a somewhat louche character who drank Cognac and smoked cigars; Ludvig, who lived in a cuckoo clock, was sour, cynical and, according to Remo, “not particularly lovable”.

Ivo Caprino, meanwhile, had been making films with dolls since the mid-1940s. His mother, Ingeborg Gude Folkestad, designed puppets for a puppet theatre, which inspired Ivo to attempt to make films using his mother’s creations. After Ivo’s well-received first short movie, 1949’s Tim og Tøffe (Tim and Teddy), he’d go on to specialise in animated versions of the 19th-century Norwegian folk tales by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe – like Veslefrikk med Fela (Little Freddy and his Fiddle) in 1952, or 1955’s Karius og Baktus (Caries and Bacterium), about two tiny trolls living in a boy’s teeth.

“It seems obvious now that this was what he would do,” says Remo. “But he’d studied architecture and had gone on to make furniture with my grandfather [Mario Caprino’s designs now fetch high prices at auction]. At one point, my grandfather asked him: ‘Are you going to do some serious work or spend your whole life playing with puppets?’ He chose the latter.”

During the making of Tim og Tøffe, Caprino had created a crude form of animatronics – a sort of wooden keyboard with wires through the puppets from behind, which allowed him to play puppetmaster without any visible strings. “Everyone wanted to know how we did it,” says Remo, “and everyone in the studio was sworn to secrecy.” But by the late 1950s, Caprino found his own invention restrictive, and moved to the traditional stop-motion technique of moving puppets. This time, the secret was simply hard work: shooting 24 frames per second, moving characters very slightly for every exposure. “Even though we kept up the idea that the process was somehow magic, in reality it meant it was hugely laborious,” says Remo. “We’d consider it a successful day if we managed to get five seconds of footage.”

By the time Caprino and Aukrust first met, at Oslo’s Theatercafeen in 1969, films like The Fox’s Widow (1962) and The Ashlad and the Hungry Troll (1967), all based on Norwegian fairy tales, had already made Caprino a minor celebrity. “My father was really inspired by Aukrust, and he wanted to change the tone of what he was doing,” recalls Remo. “He was fascinated by Aukrust’s lavish humour, which had a sort of burlesque quality, with jokes upon jokes, like a cake. It was quite adult humour.”

Aukrust had already written short stories around Flåklypa, and had created a radio show, Flåklypa Radio. It was agreed he’d write a screenplay for Caprino to turn into Flåklypa TV and Radio. It was soon commissioned by NRK as a TV series, based on loosely connected, anarchic scenes involving the characters that would eventually appear in Flåklypa Grand Prix.

“It was absurdly funny, and we thought it would work when we saw the script and talked about it – but somehow it just didn’t come together as a TV show,” says Remo. “It was just too burlesque, and during production we started having doubts. That’s when, in 1972, we called in Erik Diesen and Sverre Christophersen from NRK. When Erik finally spoke up after seeing it, Flåklypa TV and Radio was scrapped.”

But Remo struggled to see two years of work wasted. “We still loved the characters but we realised we’d moved too far from what people loved about Caprino films. So I had the idea of keeping the characters but coming up with something that was more what we knew: a simple narrative, that moved from A-Z and fitted with our ethos of making family films. We decided to change the personalities, especially of Sonny and Lambert. Lambert became lovable instead of sour, and Sonny became a chirpy optimist. With that change, the whole thing felt more universal.”

Crucially, Aukrust didn’t throw a tantrum at the rebranding of his creations, and the new script was a four-way collaboration between Ivo and Remo Caprino, Aukrust and his collaborator Kjell Syversen. “Once we’d figured that it was going to be a simpler tale, the process of writing the script went quite smoothly,” says Remo.

Shooting the film, though, was typically painstaking, with the two Caprinos involved alongside long-time collaborator Bjarne Sandemose, son of the famous Danish-Norwegian writer Aksel. As with all Caprino films, the whole dialogue had to be recorded first. Prominent Norwegian actor Torav Maurslad, who had voiced many characters in previous films, returned as Lambert, with his voice slowed down by five per cent; while well-known theatre actress Kari Simonsen played Sonny with high-pitched huskiness, speeded up by four per cent. “Unlike, say, a Pixar film today, which will sell the voices of stars, we wanted to hide the actor’s voice,” says Remo. “We wanted the characters to only sound like themselves.”

When it came to filming, every movement had to be matched perfectly to the soundtrack, with the team physically measuring the length of the dialogue on magnetic tape. “People always say to me, ‘It must have been so fun,’” says Remo. “It was, but if you divide 65 minutes into five years, you have plenty of ordinary, quite tedious days. A lot of what people love about the film today is the level of detail – the fact that you can watch it 100 times and still see something new – but every little tree, every piece of furniture had to be made. You can’t just buy this stuff.”

Budgets, says Remo, were tight. If you look closely during the famous race scene, the crowd is a greatest hits of puppets from previous Caprino films, many of them made by Ingeborg Gude Folkestad, who passed away in 1963.

As for the actual animation, Remo says that Ivo moved puppet maker Ingeborg Riiser’s characters 1.9 million times. “If you look at, say, the orchestra scene, you’ve got eight guys playing the right notes on their instruments – we had to film the real players, and then break down their movements, frame by frame. It’s enormously laborious, but it’s that level of detail that makes it stand out.”

On 28 August 1975, the film premiered at Oslo’s Klingenberg cinema. “We had no idea how it would do,” recalls Remo. “The whole five-year project had been a huge risk, both mentally and economically. My father was exhausted. It was make or break for us – our homes were literally on the line – and sitting down to watch it we were hugely nervous.”

But then, after a few minutes, people started to laugh. “You could feel the atmosphere in the theatre warm up, and at the end of the film people stood up and clapped. We knew then that things were going to be okay.”

The Morgenbladet newspaper duly called Flåklypa Grand Prix “the greatest triumph in the history of Norwegian cinema”, and the film became a phenomenon, with Caprino and his team building a real version of Il Tempo Gigante to promote it.

Today, Remo says that “there’s probably not a Norwegian who hasn’t seen it”, and claims a world record for viewing in a domestic market. It’s not just Norway that has fallen for Flåklypa. The film has been translated into 13 languages, and was a major hit in both Russia and Japan, at one point simultaneously showing in 35 Japanese cinemas. From 1975 until 2003, there wasn’t a day when the film wasn’t shown in a cinema somewhere in the world. It’s huge in Denmark, too, where the relaunched HD version of Bjergkøbing Grand Prix topped the film charts for months in 2010.

“It’s been consistently popular,” says Remo, who digitally restored the film for a 2005 DVD release and 2013 Blu-ray release, and has also overseen a Flåklypa video game. “If anything, it’s growing in popularity, with the rise of Slow TV. I think people are tired of explosions and like to watch something gentler, especially at Christmas.”

Remo admits that he doesn’t always watch Flåklypa Grand Prix when it’s on. “But when I do watch, it still looks like magic – my father had this unique talent. What’s even more amazing to me is the impact his films have had. To this day, I still hear of people who have been influenced by my father’s films – who have a Flåklypa tattoo, or have a Lambert doll above their fireplace. When my father died [in 2001], among the thousands of condolences were people who said they wouldn’t be alive without the escape his films offered. That’s a real tribute to his art.”

Going north in Iceland

Northern Iceland used to play second fiddle to the Golden Circle around Reykjavík – but not any more. After Lonely Planet named the northern town of Akureyri as the best spot in Europe, we went to see if it lived up to the hype. It didn’t disappoint

(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, November 2015. Photography by River Thompson)

When Neil Armstrong came to Mývatn in 1967, he wasn’t here for the sightseeing. He came to this small settlement in north-east Iceland with a group of fellow US astronauts for a week to head south and camp around the Askja volcanic caldera. It was this geologically diverse but brutally remote region that geologists concluded was the closest thing on Earth to the Moon.

The group, who followed an earlier crew of astronauts in 1965, played what’s become known as “the Moon Game”, competing to collect and analyse geological samples from the lava-covered landscape and the nearby glacier. Kári Jónasson, a former journalist who’s now a tour guide, covered the trip. “You could tell there was something about Armstrong,” he says.

“He was quite aloof, quite separate from the group, but you felt like he was the one – in his cap and his aviators, he just looked like the leader.”

Things have changed since the Apollo team came, when Iceland was barely on the tourist map and the north barely had more visitors than the Moon. Tourism-related activities across Iceland have grown by 54 per cent since 2009’s crippling financial crash, with the number of foreign visitors doubling between 2010 and 2014.

Thanks in part to the Eyjafjallajökull volcano, and perhaps the least likely tourism marketing campaign of all time, last year tourism overtook fishing as Iceland’s main industry.

The north, in particular, is booming. Mývatn, with its beautiful lake and evocative geothermal steam rising across the bleakly beautiful landscape, has welcomed 40 per cent more visitors than in 2014. It’s been helped on its way by HBO mega-hit Game of Thrones, parts of which were filmed around the area (the Free Folk scenes are filmed around Mývatn).

Then there’s Akureyri, Iceland’s second city and the unofficial capital of the north, which was named the best destination in Europe by guide company Lonely Planet earlier this year. The judges praised its “urban buzz”, activities and “awe-inspiring glaciers, volcanoes and lava fields”.

There’s also been a concerted marketing push for the north, in conjunction with a plan to get international flights coming directly to Akureyri (from next spring, there will be a shuttle bus that will take you on the six-hour journey from Keflavík airport in the south-west). While many visitors to Iceland have traditionally focused on the so-called Golden Circle around Reykjavík, more and more people are taking on the Diamond Circle, the 260km circular trail from the pretty fishing town of Húsavík, the whale-watching capital of Iceland, which takes in epic waterfalls, bizarre rock formations, swimming caves and spluttering mud pools.

According to Halldór Óli Kjartansson, project manager for Visit North Iceland, winter tourism has propelled the change. “We used to get tourists in the summer, but then it died in the winter, when people were less keen to leave the Reykjavík area,” he says. “Now, people are starting to realise that you can come up here for skiing and snowmobiling, as well as the incredible landscape. In some ways, winter’s the best time to be up here – you can go on all these adventures, and then end the day in a hot pool looking up at the Northern Lights.”

The offerings for tourists in the north are growing all the time, and it’s not just Game of Thrones tours. Örlygur Hnefill Örlygsson, who recently opened the Exploration Museum in Húsavík after rediscovering the story of the Apollo astronauts, plans to start running trips replicating the astronauts’ training from next summer. “It’s about combining an amazing experience with telling an amazing story,” he says.

On our visit in late September, we go on another new and innovative tour that goes past the Askja caldera where Armstrong and co trained, to bathe in the “the world’s largest hot tub”. The warm volcanic baths are totally natural, created by the Holuhraun volcano, which exploded spectacularly from August 2014 until February this year, leaving an 85km2 lava field. It was only in August that locals noticed that the river baths running through the northern end of the lava field had been heated to up to 40oC, creating little pockets of warm, shallow baths.

The four-hour drive to Holuhraun, in a specially designed four-wheel-drive super-jeep owned by the Fjallasýn tour company, is spectacular. From the small settlement of Mývatn, you pass the stunning lake where the Free Folk live, and the hissing steam vents and boiling mud pots of the mysterious Hverir, a cratered geothermal field and magnet for passers-by.

From there, the drive only gets more otherworldly. Coming off the main A1 that runs in a circle round Iceland, the road turns into a dirt track and the bleak vistas open up. Around Askja, where the volcanic ash becomes a fine black sand, you pass Nautagil (Bull Canyon), an eerie cave beside the spot where Armstrong and co camped and made trips to the Vatnajökull glacier, the largest in Iceland (Christopher Nolan’s space epic, Interstellar, was filmed here).

Then, finally, you strip off in the frigid Arctic air, and collapse into the all-natural warm bath, overlooked by the dramatic, still-steaming lava fields, with the smell of sulphurous steam in your nostrils, half expecting Gollum to appear from behind the jagged black lava.

Bathing in Holuhraun’s hot water is a classic north Iceland experience, but it’s far from the only such time we strip off, get goosebumps and then get gloriously warm. Near Sauðárkrókur, a small town on the Skagafjörður to the west of Akureyri, we jump in the frigid grey sea for a gasping, profanity-filled swim, before clambering across the rocks to the Grettislaug baths – basically a few holes in the ground created by local fisherman Viggo Jónsson, who serves up fermented shark (an acquired taste) and Brennivín schnapps while you’re relaxing in the steamy water.

It happens again across the bay at Hofsós – sitting in hot water, looking out over a breathtaking fjord – though while the Grettislaug baths are all DIY charm, the Hofsós baths are slick, with a Wallpaper-worthy minimalist wood aesthetic. They were opened in 2008 by Steinunn Jónsdóttir and Lilja Pálmadóttir, wife of Everest director Baltasar Kormákur.

What you do before slumping into the hot baths is almost unlimited. We ride Icelandic horses in Gauksmýri, catch cod off Sauðárkrókur, watch humpback whales frolicking in Skjálfandi bay, and take countless selfies in front of waterfalls. The natural advantages of this part of the world are almost unfair. The stark glacial landscapes and coastlines would be enough, but the heaving, steaming, boiling earth and the waterfalls splashing down glacial valleys add a whole extra dimension.

Add in a dose chunk of Viking folklore and the slightly odd idea that trolls oversee the whole thing, and you have a unique destination, made better by charming locals with their bone-dry humour and Viking language.

On the final night, we head out from Akureyri at 3am for a final chance to see the Northern Lights. After a fair bit of shivering and some underwhelming iPhone photos, a green celestial light starts to appear behind the mountains, slowly stretching across the sky and becoming more luminous. At the same time, the Moon starts to disappear. We haven’t realised it’s a lunar eclipse, and after disappearing, the moon reappears red, looking more like Mars.

We’ll probably never make it to the Moon, unlike some previous visitors to Iceland – but with a shimmering green on one side of the vast sky, and a bright red supermoon in the other, this will do just fine for now.

Haute cuisine in Val Thorens

How Val Thorens, Europe’s highest ski resort, became one of the world’s least likely gourmet destinations

(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, October 2015. Photography by River Thompson)

It’s hard to get time with Jean Sulpice, one of the most famous men in Val Thorens. At 7am on a misty morning in the French ski resort, we hitch a ride on a snowmobile with a gruff middle-aged driver and head uphill. Through the fog, we see a shadowy figure on cross-country skis heading upwards, fast. After racing us for a while, we reach the top of Péclet, at 3,100m, almost a kilometre higher than the main resort. Sulpice is barely out of breath as he peels off his ski skins and says he has five minutes. After a few snaps, without warning, he checks his watch, waves, and is off again. “I need to get to work,” he says over his shoulder, disappearing into the mist for the ski downhill to his kitchen.

Sulpice is a busy, and you sense exacting, man. He does this trip almost every morning, calling it his “personal form of meditation”, though he fastidiously times himself and regularly updates his skis. Then he goes back to Restaurant Jean Sulpice, his two-Michelin-starred restaurant, and gets to work.

It’s remarkable enough that Sulpice was the youngest ever French cook to win a Michelin star (at 26), and then the youngest to win two (at 31). It’s perhaps more remarkable still that he’s done it all in Europe’s highest ski resort, at 2,300m, where eggs take twice as long to boil, bread dries quickly, wine matures at extra speed and packaged food is wont to explode due to the high air pressure.

Then there’s the fact that when he opened up in 2002, aged just 22, Val Thorens was a relatively unsophisticated “ski factory”, where diners broadly had little expectation beyond a tartiflette and a plate of frites after a day on the slopes.

“Of course, people said it was a crazy idea,” he tells us when we meet him for a lavish five-course lunch. “There were a lot of people who wanted to put sticks in my wheels when I started off here.”

Val Thorens back then was nothing like Courchevel, two valleys across, which is known for its “palace” hotels (the French equivalent of a sixth star), Prada and Fendi stores, and the fact that it’s always been home to Michelin-starred restaurants.

“Apart from the challenges of cooking here, there just wasn’t the clientele back then,” recalls Sulpice. “Val Thorens wasn’t a Courchevel or a Val d’Isère – it was all quite utilitarian, with no five-star hotels, and no classy restaurants. But the skiing has always been fantastic, and I just believed that if I combined my passions for food and the mountains, people would come.”

Fast-forward to 2015, and the picture looks very different. There are great restaurants across town, from the Michelin-starred L’Épicurien, in the swanky Montana apartments; to the Koh-I Nor, in a stunning new modernist five-star hotel; or the rough-hewn, family-owned Chez Pépé Nicolas, a hidden gem that only clued-up locals know how to reach. Still going strong is the wonderful La Belle en Cuisse butchers, where the charming owner Pierre Bosseboeuf has been selling two-year-cured Beaufort cheese, wonderfully oily dried duck and cured local saucisson for 35 years.

But when Sulpice opened his doors, it was tricky. “It was hard to convince people to come for dinner at first,” remembers Sulpice, now a very youthful 37. “I had to completely rethink how I sourced and presented the food, and it was a challenge to convince people to come and have real fine dining in the mountains.

Sulpice was born to a family of restaurant owners in Aix-les-Bains, a thermal bath town on the shores of Lake Bourget in the Savoy region, less than two hours from the Three Valleys and Val Thorens. After training down the road in Le Bourget-du-Lac, he went to work with Marc Veyrat, the legendary Savoyard chef and bon vivant who brought molecular gastronomy to bear on mountain plants and herbs: first at the three-Michelin-starred Maison de Marc Veyrat on Lake Annecy, and then La Ferme de mon Père in Megève, also with three stars. Sulpice shared a passion for skiing with Veyrat, and after coming to do a season in Val Thorens, was hooked. In 2002, when he discovered that L’Oxalys was being built as the resort’s first luxury residence, he secured the rights to run the restaurant, with his wife Magali as sommelier and front-of-house.

“I just love being in the mountains, and this is as high up as it gets,” he says. “Opening a gastronomic restaurant here didn’t make obvious business sense, but in a way I liked that challenge. I couldn’t find the herbs I knew or a lot of the products I’d used around Lake Annecy, but I wanted to stay true to my roots; to cook from the Savoyard terroir, and still to make it work for skiers. At least 90 per cent of my food is still using local ingredients.”

Wanting to “do fine dining, but not be stuffy”, he introduced a simple skier’s platter for lunch, with verrines on a rustic wooden platter. Slowly, skiers got used to eating a Chinese okra velouté or a Crozet risotto for lunch; and started coming for dinner. “It took a while to convince people, just as it took a while for me to figure out how it how this works,” says Sulpice. Over time, he figured out suppliers: like local farmer Cécile Berlioz, who delivers Hurtières Domain saffron; or Eric Jacquier, who catches Lake Geneva féra fish. Also the right flour to use, and thicker crusts, so that his bread wouldn’t dry out.

In 2006, Michelin awarded the restaurant its first star. “It meant so much because my great uncle had won a Michelin star, and I’d inherited all the Michelin guides going back to 1908. To become part of that was unbelievable and it felt like the decision to open the restaurant had been vindicated.” As well as becoming France’s youngest Michelin-starred chef at 26, he had created the world’s highest Michelin-starred restaurant. In 2010, he won a second star.

Around that time, the town was starting to change. Eight years ago, Jeremy Gillon was brought in to helm the kitchen at L’Épicurien in the new Montana apartments, and would win a Michelin star. Val Thorens has boomed as a foodie destination ever since, just as the Three Valleys have – Courchevel now has a total of 12 Michelin stars for eight restaurants, while La Bouitte in nearby Saint-Martin-de-Belleville recently won a third star.

“It’s amazing the difference,” says Sulpice. “It’s nice to think that I’ve been a part of things changing, in Val Thorens and in the wider area. You know when you come here that it’s not just some of the world’s best skiing – hopefully you’ll find some of the world’s best cooking too.”

Feeling the (Kung) Fury

Quite a while ago, in a place quite far north in Sweden, twenty-something FX artist David Sandberg quit his job, sold all his stuff and made an ’80s-inspired B-movie packed with retro gadgets, dinosaurs and terrible acting… the result was Kung Fury, the most-watched Swedish trailer of all time and possibly the most awesome film ever made*

(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, September 2015)

Things weren’t looking brilliant for David Sandberg a few years ago. “I’d sold my TV, I’d sold my couch and I was living on 10 kronor tubes of bean soup. I was having fun, but my parents were a little nervous and my friends thought I’d fallen off the face of the Earth.”

Sandberg had quit his job as a visual effects artist and stopped doing commercials – all for a plan that sounded, well, a bit ridiculous. “I wanted to make a movie inspired by Miami Vice and the ’80s that had dinosaurs and robots and gadgets – a kid’s dream, basically,” he explains. “It started with me writing down cool words: I wrote down ‘kung fu’ and ‘fury’ and got to ‘kung fury’. I thought: I’ve got an awesome title, I have to do something with this.”

His main problems were as follows: he’d never made a feature film before; he lived in Umeå, a town in a remote corner of northern Sweden; and he barely had a few thousand kronor to rub together. Avatar, this was not.

Fast-forward a few years, and last year the trailer for Kung Fury became the most-watched trailer ever for a Swedish film, with almost 13 million YouTube views. At press time, the half-hour version of the movie had been seen almost 20 million times, and Sandberg was a surprise hit at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, with Variety magazine calling Kung Fury “the most awesome project in Cannes”. If you go to Umeå airport now, there’s a huge sign that reads: “Kung Fury lives here.”

“It’s weird,” admits Sandberg. “It was meant to be this little idea that I’d put on the internet, but it’s grown and grown. The response has been more than I ever could have imagined – it’s all been a little overwhelming.”

To describe the plot of Kung Fury is almost to miss the point. Sandberg himself plays a Miami cop in the ’80s with extraordinary kung fu powers, who – after rejecting a buddy-cop partnership with a well-spoken triceratops – is sent back in time to kill Adolf Hitler, aka The Kung Führer. With the help of Hackerman, he goes too far back in time, meets Thor, a T-Rex and some Viking babes (one played by Sandberg’s real-life girlfriend, Eleni Young), finally gets to Nazi Germany and… well, you really just have to watch it.
The film is all bad acting, retro gadgets and nudge-wink ’80s references, from Miami Vice to Back to the FutureMASKHe-Man and Mortal Kombat (anyone who recognises the words “Finish him!” will enjoy the Nazi fight scene). Aside from the outdoor Viking scenes, shot in northern Sweden, the action was shot against a green screen in Sandberg’s tiny Umeå studio, which stands in for ’80s Miami and ’40s Germany.

The brilliantly OTT effects were designed to mimic a slightly scratchy VHS version of an ’80s B-movie. To cap it all off, David Hasselhoff not only appears in the film – he allegedly watched 15 seconds of the trailer before saying, “I’m in” – but performed the movie’s theme song, True Survivor, which has its own very naff video.

The whole film, and the story behind it, seem just a little bit too good to be true. “I know,” says Sandberg, “it feels like that to me, too.”

Sandberg, who was born in Kiruna but moved to Umeå aged three months, first got into visual effects at 16,  when he says he  bought a “manual thicker than the Bible and taught myself 3D animation. The aim initially was really just to get good enough at animation that I could put a T-Rex in something.”
By 19, he scored his first job as an animator and was directing music videos and commercials by his early twenties. “I was doing FX and commercials with the aim of eventually becoming a feature film director,” he says. “That was always the dream, but after a while I realised it wasn’t going to just happen. To become a feature film director, I realised I had to direct a feature film.”

So, just over three years ago, he quit everything and put US$5,000 (NOK41,100)of his own savings into the idea that would become Kung Fury. “It was a tough sell to get anyone involved,” he remembers. “At the time, I was obsessed with [Swedish ’80s synth musician] Mitch Murder, and thought that he needed to do the soundtrack, which included writing a song for David Hasselhoff. I emailed Mitch, heard nothing for two weeks and was totally bummed out. But then he emailed: it was his dream to make a song for the Hoff, and he was in. It was the start.”

Sandberg coerced many of his friends to help out, including his girlfriend, who plays two characters, and a bunch of friends from Umeå, many working for free. He realised he had the acting ability to play the lead – “Mostly it’s just moving your jaw and looking concerned,” he says – though casting Thor was more of a challenge.

“We needed someone really ripped, but with a beard, which was surprisingly hard to find,” recalls Sandberg. “Most the bodybuilders are totally hairless. Eventually I saw a guy on Reddit, Andreas Cahling, and was like: that’s him! He’s a Swede living in San Diego, and flying him over was by far the biggest expense we’d had.”

As Sandberg gradually ran out of money (“We struggled to even afford the police uniform in the trailer”), he was desperately searching for funding. “I’d go to film institutes and other bodies with moodboards and sketches, but it was quite hard to keep saying, ‘Imagine there’s a T-Rex standing there.’ At least one potential backer told me I was crazy.”

With funds all but gone, Sandberg got enough footage together to put a two-minute trailer on Kickstarter in late 2013. Despite the fact that he’d done the effects virtually all by himself, it became a viral sensation, and he smashed his target of US$200,000 (NOK1.6m) to raise more than US$630,000. As many as 14,000 people wrote wanting to collaborate, and Jorma Taccone of American comedy trio The Lonely Island volunteered to play Hitler.

Crucially, it allowed Sandberg to get help with the effects, including hiring Swedish visual effects studio Fido, who would spend 12,000 man hours helping Sandberg to create a 30-minute version of Kung Fury.

“Without Kickstarter, we wouldn’t have got past the trailer,” Sandberg says. “The film is totally a product of the internet. I definitely couldn’t have done this five years ago.”

By the standard of any movie involving special effects, though, it was still a tiny budget – and if anything things just got stranger. “There were all these random people coming up to Umeå, and we were like kids playing in a sandbox, just trying out all these crazy ideas. Like, for the scene where Kung Fury fights all the Nazis, I’d planned to do the fighting myself and CGI my legs to make it more impressive. But it looked ridiculous, so I had to hire a body double who could actually do kung fu.

“Looking back, it was madness, but we kept going because it was so much fun. A lot of people involved said it was the best time they’d ever had doing a film – it was movie magic!”

So, with a 30-minute version online, what’s next? He’s developing a feature film script with US producers David Katzenberg and Seth Grahame-Smith of KatzSmith Productions. It will be a new idea that will have different characters but keep the ’80s nostalgia and humour of the original idea. “It’s really exciting,” says Sandberg. “They’re just as obsessed with all things ’80s, and they totally get it.”

Beyond that, Sandberg isn’t ruling out becoming a “normal” film-maker. “Kickstarter made this project, but it was an exhausting process – I don’t want to make every film I do like that, and I don’t want to just be the guy who always does ’80s homages.”

As for now, he’s just happy with the rash decision he made. “It was a lot of bean soup, more hard work and more overwhelming than I ever could have expected… but yes, it was worth it. It’s been fun.”

Croatia’s answer to Tuscany (minus the prime ministers)

It’s got record-breaking truffles, great local wines and more olive oil producers than any region in the world bar Tuscany. Is it time for the Croatian region of Istria to be recognised as a world-class foodie destination?

(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, August 2015. Photography by Ulf Svane)

In the 1930s, Pietro Černeka couldn’t understand why Italians would come with dogs and disappear into the forests near his home in northern Istria.

“One day he asked the Italians, ‘What are you doing?’” says his great-great-granddaughter, Daniela Puh, of a pivotal moment in her family history. “They said they were looking for truffles, which were even better than the ones back home at Italy – and that they were making good money from them.” When the Italians next came back, Černeka offered them wine and prosciutto in return for a truffle-hunting mongrel called Fido. “His wife thought he was mad,” says Daniela. “But it turned out to be a pretty good decision.”

Today, Natura Tartufi – which Puh runs with her parents and husband, Marko – is one of the two big, world-renowned truffle companies in Istria, which is considered one of the best places in the world to find them. The other is Zigante, whose owner Giancarlo Zigante dug up a 1.31kg white truffle in 1999, at the time the largest ever.

If you go out on a truffle-hunting trip with Daniela, her mother Anita and their surprisingly hyperactive dog Biba, you’re almost guaranteed to find a black truffle, and if you’re even luckier a rare (and expensive) white truffle. If you ask nicely, Daniela will cook you up some almost indecently tasty truffled scrambled eggs in the company’s smart, modern kitchen.

Finding these mysterious fungi could be a crude metaphor for discovering Istria. The heart-shaped peninsula at the top of Croatia (it also covers a corner of Slovenia and a sliver of Italy) is often overlooked in favour of Split and Dubrovnik down the coast. Many gourmet travellers are more likely to head to Tuscany, Umbria or Emilia-Romagna in Italy. It’s not completely under the radar, but it’s never quite had the billing it arguably deserves.

The oceanfront town of Rovinj is possibly the most beautiful old town in Croatia; the sleepy old hilltop towns of Motovun, Grožnjan and Buje rival anything you’ll find atop a Tuscan hill; and the Brijuni national park is a fantasy of turquoise sea, nature and Tito-era intrigue (this was where the dictator took Sophia Loren, Elizabeth Taylor et al). Journalists tend to label Istria “the new Tuscany”, though Istria is more diverse, having lived under Roman, Venetian, Austrian, Italian and Yugoslav rule, with its old buildings relatively unharmed by the Yugoslav Wars.

Then there’s the food. There are four types of soil here – red, black, grey and white (the cannier marketers add blue for the sea) – resulting in a particularly high variety of crops in such a concentrated area. As well as the truffles, Istrian extra virgin olive oil is some of the best in the world, and the region has more local producers than anywhere else bar Tuscany; terrestrial Teran and Malvasia grapes mean this is a prominent wine region; and there’s great local cheese, seafood, fish and prosciutto. In his No Reservations TV show in 2012, chef Anthony Bourdain raved that Istria is “the next big thing. The food is world class, the cheeses are world class, the wine is world class… I’m an idiot for not discovering it sooner.”

Yet it’s not quite the new big thing, either. While the tourist board has created the Istrian Gourmet umbrella group to encourage gastro-tourists, and the wineries have started welcoming more curious visitors, the area hasn’t exactly become overrun. Head to the wonderful Agrotourism Sia near Vodnjan and you might be eating slide-off-the-bone lamb from the farm with no company other than swallows diving through the restaurant.

It’s easy to get a table at Restaurant Milan, arguably the best restaurant in Pula; likewise the Zigante truffle restaurant in Livade or the Bourdain-approved Konoba Batelina in Banjole. While few of the restaurants are cutting-edge –white tablecloths and tired décor abound – the food is generally fantastic, with a real focus on local ingredients.

“When the war ended, and tourism started up again, local producers suddenly became important to this area,” says Ivica Matošević, who runs the highly rated Matošević winery in the beautiful rolling hills around Krunčići, near the spectacular Limfjord. Matošević, who produced his first wine in 1996, says: “Fifteen years ago, it was tricky to find good food and good wine here – now, food and wine culture is a big part of the image of the region.”

Matošević “got the wine bug” after studying oenology for a PhD in Italy, and is part of a new breed of winemakers who don’t come from winemaking families. Along with the likes of Bruno Trapan, a charismatic 33-year-old who has been making “rock ’n’ roll wines” near Pula since 2005, the new makers have pioneered methods such as using acacia and stainless steel barrels, as well as the more traditional French oak.

Trapan was recently awarded a 90 score by influential wine critic Robert M Parker, while Matošević’s award-winning wines have made the tasting menus at both the Fat Duck and Dinner, run by legendary British chef Heston Blumenthal.

“It’s harder to establish yourself when you’re new,” says Matošević, “but then it’s easier in a way because you start with new technology and aren’t too burdened by the past. There’s not a wealthy local market for Istrian wines, so it will be hard to become huge players, but we’re doing really interesting things here. When wine buyers come from London, they’re always surprised by the quality and the sophistication.”

While Matošević admits that he wants the Istrian gastro-tourism boom to go faster, there are signs that the area is recognising its natural advantages. Near Bale in the centre of the peninsula is the new Histria Aromatica, a beautiful 100,000m2 homage to the Istrian soil, with vineyards, orchards, olive trees, beehives and scores of indigenous aromatic plants, from lavender to sage and immortelle.

The park, which opened last year, was the brainchild of Boris Filipaj, a larger-than-life character who runs the Aromatica natural products company, and raised €3.5 million (NOK31.4m) to create what he calls “the ultimate showcase for what we have in Istria – natural, eco-friendly products, created by the soil”.

In the smart central building, where conference rooms can emit smells, he’s also building what he says is the first ethnobotanical museum in Europe. “As well as showing what Istria has, we also want to show that people can get everything they need – nutrition, skincare, essential oils – from 12 plants.”

Yet while there are cautious signs of innovation, the general vibe in Istria is small-scale production the old-fashioned way. Few places typify that more than the sleepy old town of Vodnjan, the centre of the region’s olive oil production, with more than 300 local producers producing small batches.

In a shed off the town’s park, where elderly locals sit under cypress trees and give slightly misleading directions to tourists, you can find the office of Meloto, one of the town’s best olive oils, which has been bottled by the Belci family since the 1940s.

“With a lot of producers, you have to ask whether it’s business or love,” says Matteo Belci, who inherited the company from his father Lorenzo and uncle Livio, both of whom still work the olive groves. “When you’ve been working with the olive trees since you were a kid, it’s about love.”

When he’s not working the day job in a bank, Belci Jr tends the family’s 3,000 or so trees, dotted around the peninsula, some of them more than 400 years old. During the October harvest, it’s a full-time job to process up to 1,800kg of oil, but most of the time Belci admits “my head is with the olive trees. It’s an old mentality. We hand-pick every olive and every olive has to be right.”

Olive oil’s an obsession in Vodnjan, where they’re proud that all the oil is pure extra virgin. “Less than five per cent of olive oil around the world is extra virgin,” says Belci, “and a lot of the brands that claim to be extra virgin aren’t. Picking and pressing olives the old way is not cheap or easy.”

As reward for the Belcis’ toil, Meloto has had international recognition. Last year the Flos Olei, the international bible of olive oil producers, awarded Meloto’s trademark Busa oil the award for the world’s best single-variety extra virgin olive oil in the medium fruity category.

“People who really know their olive oil know this area,” says Belci. “But we don’t always have the wealth or resources to compete globally with Spain or Italy. It’s a shame, because Istrian olive oil is the real deal.”

The same might be said for the place in general. If you want the real deal with minimum fanfare, go to Istria now – it might even be better than the new Tuscany.

Vinyl’s groovy comeback

The return of the LP has brought the good times back to Haarlem, the Netherlands, where the world’s biggest vinyl factory is booming again

(First posted in N by Norwegian magazine, August 2015. Photography by Alastair Wiper)

In the industrial quarter of Haarlem, not far from Amsterdam Schiphol airport, is a scene that was no longer meant to exist. Machines are clicking, clacking and whirring, just about drowning out the dance music that’s playing on the radio at ear-splitting volume. Made mostly in the 1980s, the machines are lacquering, cutting, washing, stamping, labelling and boxing vinyl records.

This is Record Industry, a 6,500 m2 factory building which claims to be the largest vinyl processing plant in the world, with 33 presses. It’s one of very few that can handle the entire process of creating a vinyl record, from cutting aluminium masters to printing sleeves.

And times are good again. “It’s actually too good,” says the factory’s owner, Ton Vermeulen, a former DJ who was running a series of Dutch dance labels when he bought Sony’s last vinyl plant in 1998.

“Demand is sky-high and we’re having to turn people away, which I don’t like doing.” Since 2010, Record Industry has gone from producing 2.8 million records a year to a projected 7.5 million records this year, as worldwide vinyl sales have grown from less than US$34 million (NOK280m) in 2006 to US$347 million (NOK2.85bn) in 2014.

They’ve hired almost 40 new staff in the past few months and added a whole extra shift to meet a demand for records that Vermeulen admits “has taken us a little by surprise”. The medium that was meant to have died a quiet analogue death is cautiously thriving again.

It’s a far cry from just five years ago, when the plant had to lay off 12 people and was losing money. “We were constantly thinking: Will we still be here next year?” remembers Vermeulen. “We were desperately thinking of new ways to make money, because the final death of vinyl seemed inevitable.”

Record Industry started life here as a vinyl plant called Artone, founded in 1958 by Belgian oil trader Dirk Slinger, who began making seven-inch records. When CBS, an arm of Columbia Records, bought a 50 per cent share of Artone in 1966, the company started printing their own sleeves, starting with Nancy Sinatra’s Like I Do (it bombed Stateside but reached number two in Italy).

Columbia took over full ownership of the plant in 1969, in time for the vinyl boom of the 1970s and early ’80s, when the album was king and the music industry became bigger than Hollywood. By the mid-1970s, Haarlem was pressing 50 million records a year; in the ’80s, the plant pressed more than 40 million copies of Michael Jackson’s Thriller alone. By the time Columbia merged its catalogue with Sony in 1988, the Haarlem plant was the most important in Europe.

But CDs had already overtaken vinyl as the primary way the world listened to music and, by 1998, the big labels wanted out. “They didn’t see any future for it and were busy getting rid of physical formats to focus more on managing rights,” says Vermeulen, who at the time was getting many of his dance records pressed at Haarlem’s Sony plant. Vermeulen had no experience of running a factory, but saw an opportunity.
“For a start we were in dance music, and DJs were still using vinyl. But I also just felt that this was a format that would never fully disappear.”

He bought the Sony plant in 1998, renamed it Record Industry, and at first things went well. Dance music was dominant, making up 90 per cent of Record Industry’s records; and when EMI closed their vinyl operations in the UK, a slice of their production went straight to Haarlem. In 2001, they pressed 7.8 million records.

But the signs of decline were there. In 2001, The Strokes released Is This It, signalling the return of guitar music in the same year that Steve Jobs launched Apple’s iTunes and later the iPod. Trance – which had been a key part of the business in the years of Dutch superstar DJs like Armin van Buuren and Ferry Corsten – went out of fashion, and laptops started replacing turntables in DJ booths. In the noughties, as both independent and chain record stores closed at a rapid rate, vinyl was in trouble.

By 2010, production at the Record Industry plant had fallen to just 2.8 million records. “We were laying people off, cutting work hours and looking at other ways to make money,” says Vermeulen. “It was bad, and we were really questioning whether we should keep going.”

But they did, and in 2011, “things started picking up”. According to Anouk Rijnders, the sales manager at Record Industry, the revival started in the US. “Suddenly, and it’s hard to know exactly why it happened, youngsters started wanting to buy albums and discovering vinyl all over again. It was maybe just a natural result of the digital age – people wanted to own a thing again; they wanted a possession with emotional value that they could touch and hold.”

The trend has continued, helped by initiatives such as the annual Record Store Day, and this year is set to see more growth in the global industry. At Record Industry, they’re predicting that they’ll produce 7.5 million records this year, with global sales predicted to come close to US$500 million (NOK4bn). In pure terms, it’s a meteoric rise, though it must be said that vinyl sales are still a drop in the ocean of total music sales (see pie chart, left).

Still, rather than being seen as a relic, vinyl records have become a signifier of legitimacy. “If you’re a proper musician and you play with a band, you want to release your records on vinyl now,” says Vermeulen. “Vinyl records have become a sort of short-hand for serious music: for artists, releasing on vinyl shows that you’re the real deal; for youngsters, it’s become a sign that you’re a proper fan.”

Today, he says, the type of records they’re pressing has changed. Whereas dance music made up 90 per cent of the output in the early days, today it’s less than a fifth. Around half of the music pressed at Record Industry now is new music from the likes of Ed Sheeran or Lady Gaga; the other half is made up of reissues of old classics. The most pressed record at Record Industry in recent times has been the 40-year anniversary LP of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, which has been pressed more than 100,000 times. It doesn’t exactly compare with Thriller, but then Vermeulen points out that “the days of artists selling millions and millions of albums, on whatever format, has gone”.

“A lot of it will be about labels going through their back catalogues,” says Vermeulen, who admits that he’s not a Pink Floyd fan. “I’m still an old raver, really – I think you always get caught up on the music you were listening to from 16 to 25. My wife likes the Beatles and Pink Floyd, but I’ll still go and see Nile Rodgers at [famed Amsterdam club] Paradiso.”

While Vermeulen goes and listens to his old vinyl records a few times a month, he says that his 90 or so factory workers aren’t vinyl nerds. “I don’t want that at all, actually,” he says. “I don’t want people nicking records, and I want them to focus on producing a quality product, rather than getting hung up on the music. The people here are real professionals.”

Fittingly for an old industry, the machinery at the Record Industry plant is mostly from the late 1970s and ’80s. » Despite rising demand, there hasn’t yet been enough an explosion to compel companies to invest in new technologies.

“The process hasn’t really changed – we still make records with moulds and steam, on the same machines that pressed Michael Jackson records,” says Vermeulen, though he adds that two presses have been updated to refine the process.

Whereas five years ago they were touting around for business, today you have to book a slot months in advance and often wait 10-12 weeks for a finished product. “One of the biggest issues we have now is keeping labels happy,” says Vermeulen, “because now they’re having to join the queue.”

If there’s perhaps a wider issue of how an industry that is mostly run by passionate private owners adapts to rising demand, Vermeulen is happy with his lot. “I’m not worried about the next three or four years,” he says, “but you never know what can happen. Hopefully we can grow to press 10 or 12 million records a year, but I want to make sure quality is always first and foremost.”

As for whether he is a visionary who saw the vinyl revival coming back, he’s unequivocal. “That’s total crap. There were quite a few times when we should have got out of this, but I just loved the product and could never quite see a world without vinyl records.”

The god of small beers

Mikkel Borg Bjergsø started home brewing as a science experiment – then became the original “gypsy brewer” and a craft brewing legend for his Mikkeller ales. Now that he’s opening a big-budget microbrewery, can he keep up the magic?

(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, November 2014. Photography by Ulf Svane)

Copenhagen’s cycle lanes are so safe that people can, and often do, cycle after a few drinks – which is just as well, because after an hour or so at the offices of Mikkeller in Copenhagen’s trendy Vesterbro, I’m slightly worse for wear. I’ve tried sweet German cherry wine, beer made with French press coffee and a 66.6 per cent moonshine vodka distilled on the skull of a goat that’s so alcoholic it would be classed as a narcotic in Norway. My notes have, inevitably, gone from clean lines to a slurry scrawl as the conversation has taken an increasingly surreal turn.

This is what happens when you interview Mikkel Borg Bjergsø, the original “gypsy brewer” and a prolific Willy Wonka-esque figure in the world’s ever-growing craft beer scene. You end up drunk, and talking about a beer that’s designed for listening to psych-rock to. “The bottle gets warmer as you listen to the music, and the flavours come out,” says Bjergsø of his creation for local band Ring Them Bells. “And you’ve got the recipe on one side of the LP.” My brain cells struggle to connect. “Maybe it’s too much, even for us,” he concedes.

“Mikkel’s ideas never stop,” says his colleague, Nixon Lindberg, a former punk rocker who is perfecting his whiskey sour in the office kitchen/meeting room where we meet, as Bjergsø guides him slightly paternally (“It’s our favourite drink at the moment,” explains the boss).

Spending just an hour at Mikkeller HQ, you sense Bjergsø’s restlessness and perfectionism, even when it comes to getting journalists drunk on quality booze. With his beard, tattoos and deep-set, intense stare, he has the vibe of a hipster cult leader, and it’s telling that some of his staff sport Mikkeller tattoos. Of course, this being Copenhagen, he’s also unfailingly nice.

Mikkeller started in Bjergsø’s kitchen in the mid-noughties, and the brand has since produced over 600 often weird and wonderful beers, exporting to more than 40 countries and opening bars in Bangkok, San Francisco and Stockholm.

Bjergsø’s also opened a cocktail bar by Nørreport station, a brand new restaurant serving smørrebrød with beer pairings, and is planning a 1,000m2 microbrewery (the company’s first) in the Meatpacking District, with America’s 3 Floyds brewing company. Then there are the Mikkeller wines and spirits, from botanical gin to bourbon made with vanilla and toffee, plus a never-ending list of collaborators, from bad-boy fashion designer Henrik Vibskov to LuckyBoySunday, the trendy doll and soft furnishing company that has an office upstairs. As Bjergsø puts it: “I get bored easily, so we do a lot – the challenge is to keep it interesting.”

The Mikkeller story has shades of Breaking Bad, in that Bjergsø was a maths and science teacher who started off experimenting with hops, malt and yeast at home, “almost like a science project”. He had founded a beer club when he and journalist friend Kristian Klarup Keller first tried to clone an IPA made by Denmark’s Brøckhouse brewery, which Bjergsø had fallen in love with one night in the pub. Over time, they moved onto their own recipes, winning home-brewing competitions in Denmark and getting their beers into the beer shop run by Bjergsø’s twin brother Jeppe.

Their breakout, in late 2006, was Beer Geek Breakfast, a 25 per cent oatmeal stout made with French press coffee and chocolate  which, remembers Bjergsø, “sent the beer world crazy”. It was named stout of the year by the influential ratebeer.com, and still has a 100 per cent rating on the site, based on almost 2,000 reviews. For some, it’s the greatest stout of all time, and the fact that it was made by two unknown Danes in their kitchen only adds to the myth.

“At that time, all the breweries were playing things safe,” remembers Bjergsø, who followed up the Beer Geek Breakfast by taking eight more beers to the Copenhagen Beer Festival. “We just made our beers as crazy as possible.”

Because they couldn’t afford their own brewery, Bjergsø and Keller paid to use existing breweries, making the Beer Geek Breakfast at Copenhagen microbrewery Gourmet Bryggeriet. The concept of “gypsy” or “phantom” brewing was born.

“A lot of people didn’t understand it at first,” says Bjergsø, “but it has always made perfect sense to us. We can concentrate on what we like doing, rather than fixing machines and managing workers. It’s like being a fashion designer – they don’t own their own factories. We design the recipes and the labels; the rest we leave to the experts.” Before Mikkeller, there were no gypsy brewers – now there are around 40 in Denmark alone.

By the time Keller left in 2007 to return to journalism, Bjergsø was just getting started. He’s since brewed in Denmark, the UK, the US and Norway – “The water’s the best in the world” – but has made many of his most famous beers at Belgium’s De Proef Brouwerij run by Dirk Naudts, a man Bjergsø considers the best brewer in the world.

All the while, Mikkeller has grown and kept growing – even if Bjergsø insists that “we never forced anything. I brewed batches and used that money to brew the next. I’ve never had investors and I’ve never been to a bank to ask for money.”

Yet today, it’s fair to say, things are going well. Up to eight people work at Mikkeller’s offices, five of them full-time, and in 2011 they had revenues of €3.3 million (NOK26.9m), a figure that has surely risen sharply. In 2013 alone, Mikkeller introduced 124 different beers, an almost unheard-of level of production.

Of his beer bars across the world, including two in Copenhagen, he says, “Opening a bar now is not hard – we know it will be an instant success. It sounds cocky, but it’s the way it is.” The original Mikkeller bar in Vesterbro was national news when it opened in 2010, and is now to beer lovers what Noma is to foodies, with 20 different rotating beers on tap at any time. Bjergsø doesn’t see craft beer as a trend: “Beer has forever been at the centre of drinking, so this is not some fad – craft beer to me is making the best possible drink with the best available ingredients, and that idea is not going to go out of fashion.”

But Bjergsø talks often about “challenging” himself (“challenging” and “crazy” seem to be his favourite words) – and the biggest challenge of late is combining food with beer. This summer saw the opening of Øl & Brød, an elegantly quirky little restaurant a few doors down from the original Mikkeller bar in Vesterbro. The concept is gloriously simple – 11 smørrebrød (traditional Danish open sandwiches), each with its own specific beer pairing. There are also more than 150 kinds of aquavit, the biggest selection in Denmark.

It came about in typical style. Two 21-year-old chefs, Patrick Bach Andersen and Emil Skovsgaard Bjerg, had been working at the Michelin-starred Søllerød Kro in Holte, north of Copenhagen, and had just won silver at the Danish smørrebrød championships. “We’d been thinking about a smørrebrød restaurant when they called us out of the blue,” says Bjergsø. “They called on Friday, came in on Monday to make smørrebrød, and that was that.” It may or may not have helped that the two chefs, like restaurant manager Johan Julius Blasberg, look and act the part – polite, despite the beards and tattoos.

If Øl & Brød is classic Mikkeller – small-scale, high quality, on the hip side of whimsical – the next project is really going to mix things up. Their first brewery, due to open this winter, will be a 1,000m2 monster brewery/restaurant in a national heritage building in the Meatpacking District, costing €2 million (NOK16.2m).

“It’s a risk,” admits Bjergsø of the collaboration with America’s 3 Floyds brewery, whose tagline is “Not Normal”. With the brewery being specially made in Germany to take 200-litre batches, Bjergsø points out they could have opened five new bars for the price and time that’s gone into the project. He also says that most of the beer brewed onsite will be drunk there, and that Mikkeller isn’t abandoning gypsy brewing.

The aim, as ever, is to push the company in more creative directions. “If we open a restaurant to make money, it won’t work; we don’t want to grow for the sake of growing. As long as it’s because we enjoy it, it interests us and we’re making it the best of the best, then we go with it.”

It sounds almost cavalier, but then it’s always been the way Mikkeller has worked – I may be drunk, but by the end of the hour, I’m a believer.

Feeling swell in Portugal

In the late ’70s and early ’80s, a hardy group of locals and an American backpacker turned Ericeira, just north of Lisbon, into Portugal’s number one surf Mecca

(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, July 2015. Photography by Greg Funnell)

When Californian surfer Nick Uricchio met Portuguese local Miguel Katzenstein in the late 1970s, they couldn’t stand each other. “He just seemed to think he was so cool, lying on the beach with his shades on,” remembers Uricchio. As for Katzenstein, who started surfing after seeing the iconic Old Spice surf advert in the ’70s, he remembers “this Yankee asshole, who stole my waves and my friend’s girlfriend.”

Uricchio and Katzenstein are now considered two of the godfathers of the surf scene in Ericeira, a pretty town on the Portuguese coast half an hour north of Lisbon. In 1982, they founded the Semente company on the back of Uricchio’s newfound skills shaping boards. It’s become Portugal’s biggest surfboard company, and they’ve steadily sponsored more top surfers and helped build a thriving local surf scene. Ericeira, which boasts 22 breaks in the local vicinity, is now home to the largest Quiksilver store in Europe and Portugal’s first surfing association. In 2009, the area was named the second World Surf Reserve after Malibu, California, making it the surf equivalent of a World Heritage Site (in practice, it means the coast is protected from overdevelopment).

And nowadays, Uricchio and Katzenstein are best friends, even if Uricchio says his partner – who runs the business side of things while he does the shaping – “looks like a frog and has been busting my balls for 33 years”.

Uricchio is originally from the East Coast but grew up in California. When he first came to Ericeira as a backpacker in 1978, he says it was “like California in the early days… there was great surf, great food, beautiful women.” He duly went home, packed his bags, and moved to Portugal, where he learned surfboard shaping with Nuno Jonet, who later became a well-known surf commentator.

We meet him at the Semente surfboard factory, a small warehouse a few kilometres out of town, where a team of eight work  on the involved process of shaping, glassing, filling, sanding and finishing boards, while trance blares from an old ghetto blaster. Every board is handmade one at a time, with four to five boards a day, and Uricchio shaping each one individually. It’s a time-consuming process that requires real expertise, and  Uricchio bemoans that “you don’t get rich making surfboards. But we love the lifestyle – surfing keeps you young.”

In between hilarious stories of meeting Frank Sinatra and scattering his late father’s ashes at the Bellagio in Vegas (Nick Uricchio Sr was a gambler and a prominent restaurateur who knew everyone from Dean Martin to Ronald Reagan), Uricchio tells us how Ericeira has gone from “totally off the surf map to well and truly on it”. As if to prove the point, Marlon Lipke, Germany’s number one surfer wanders in with Gony Zubizarreta, a top surfer from Argentina who’s one of Semente’s roster of 12 world class surfers, all based in Ericeira.
It’s a common story on our few days in Ericeira. We stay at Lapoint, the fast-growing Norwegian surf camp that started in Ericeira in 2007, and now has camps as far afield as Morocco, Bali, Costa Rica, Sri Lanka and Norway.

Over a healthy breakfast on our first morning, we meet 19-year-old Oliver Hartkopp, the top-ranked surfer in Denmark, who learned to surf in the Danish town of Klitmøller and is now sponsored by Lapoint.

Lapoint was originally founded by local surfer Alexandre Grilo, but it’s become a very Scandi operation, and four in five of its guests are Scandinavian (and predominantly blonde). But their policy is to hire local surf instructors, recommend local businesses and generally to give back to the local community.

One product of their system is the brilliant João Durão, an ever-smiling 24-year-old who looks like a Portuguese Patrick Swayze circa Point Break, and has an encyclopaedic knowledge of surf  history and pop culture (don’t get him started on surf movies). Durão says competition was never quite for him – “I’m too happy; you need that edge to compete” – but he forms part of a very impressive roster of local instructors.

Another local surf coach employed by Lapoint is Vitor Tavares, better known as Vitinha, who always wears a hat, and sometimes even surfs in one. Now 45, he was part of the first wave of Ericeira surfers almost 40 years ago. “My father and grandfather were fishermen,” he says. “I’d go to the beach with them and body surf from the age of six. At eight, I got my first board, fell in love, and I’ve been surfing ever since.”

Back then, there were only five or six local surfers, who started surfing the reef break at the Ribeira D’Ilhas beach in the 1970s (which is still regarded as one of the best in Europe). Boards and knowledge came from incoming foreigners. “We used to call them ‘beefs’,” says Tavares of the American, Australian and South African surfers that they bought boards and got tips from. “We liked speaking to them, and my family eventually made money from them. In the summer, we’d rent out our house to the beefs that wanted to surf here, and we’d go and camp.”

If that was Ericeira surf tourism in its purest form, things have developed somewhat. Lapoint, which is one of more than 30 surf schools in the area, has three large accommodation villas for up to 50 guests, pools, a beach volleyball court and its own restaurant right on the beach at the popular Foz do Lizandro.

Though many of the visitors to the town are older Portuguese people – it doesn’t feel like a surf town per se – the surfers and locals rub along well. “Surf tourism has been good for this town, and you won’t find anyone who disagrees with that,” says Tavares.

It’s also been good for locals like him and Joaquim Pipio, who worked at the same print factory when it closed down. “Becoming surf instructors was a natural move after that,” says Tavares. “We get to make a living doing what we love.”

That joy comes through in just a few days at Lapoint – and it’s notable that many of the people who come on holidays end up working here. Marina Hurtig, 25, comes from near Sälen in Dalarna, Sweden, and came here on a holiday two-and-a-half years ago. She hasn’t really left, doing winters in Morocco and Sri Lanka in between three summers in Ericeira. Having started off as a social host (and beginner surfer), she’s now a fully qualified instructor, specialising in level one (beginner) surfers.

“I remember going back to the forest and just thinking: I can’t be here,” she says. “I just wanted to surf, and all I could think about was getting back to the beach. This place has become my second home – it’s the surfing, but also the community around it. Everyone’s very welcoming, and the camps are a great place to come if you’re travelling on your own – you’ll always have something in common with people, whatever your level.”

Spending a few days at Lapoint, you can see what she means. We never saw California in the early days, but watching surfers ride the Lilimpicos break as the early summer sun sets in the sky, the dream is alive and well in Ericeira.

Hooked on Lofoten

Tourism may be poised to overtake fishing as the main industry in Lofoten – but it’s still fishing that forms the heart and soul of this beautiful Arctic archipelago

(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, July 2015. Photography by River Thompson)

It feels like an epic battle, a slow wind from the depths that Hemingway might have written. My left forearm feels shredded, but the slow appearance of a silvery, body-length cod is a pure adrenaline rush.

Nigel Hearn is less euphoric. He’s an English competitive fisherman and former Nordic fishing champion, who’s lived in Lofoten for two decades and runs daily fishing trips on his small boat from the main town of Svolvær. “Six kilos, not bad,” he says plainly of our oceanic beast. “Hopefully we’ll get a few more like that.”

When you live in Lofoten, it seems, you get spoiled. In the middle of March, a normal punter with a fishing rod might haul in 100kg of Arctic cod in an hour. Earlier this year, one of Hearn’s customers got a 31.5kg cod, and a few years ago another brought a 60kg halibut onboard. “I got really excited then,” he says. “I was dancing about like an idiot.”

Even with our haul of roughly 40kg – with some ling, tusk and coalfish – we have to choose a few of the smaller cod to wrap in foil and dump on our hastily-put-together midnight barbecue, consumed with a few Mack beers cooled by the Svolvær harbour.

Sitting by one of the Anker Brygge hotel’s homely fishing cabins, as the seagulls squawk overhead in the broad daylight, it’s a magical experience – though the locals we tell the next morning seem largely unimpressed. “You have to go further west,” they sniff. “Then it gets really beautiful.”

Hearn first came to Lofoten 20 years ago, and fell in love in his low-key way. “It just clicked. I thought: Yeah, I can stay here. The mountains, the fishing, the peace … though I do miss English pubs. No one here goes out until 10pm; they think you’re an alcoholic if you have a pint in the evening.”

After 16 years that has taken in competitive fishing (Hearn has won five team gold medals in European Championships), working in fish factories and as a boat mechanic – four years ago Hearn saw a gap in the market for more intimate daily fishing trips with smaller groups.

“I’d just ordered the boat when the financial crash hit Norway, and I thought: Oh no. But people had already booked trips, and they kept booking… and booking. Tourism here has exploded.”

Hearn is part of a new breed combining Lofoten’s traditional industry with its new one: tourism. Fishing, especially for cod, has been the archipelago’s lifeblood for 1,000 years – and after Italian sea captain Pietro Querini was shipwrecked on the outlying island of Røst in 1432, Norwegian stockfish became Norway’s main export.

Tourism, by contrast, didn’t exist until the 1960s. According to Kristian Nashoug, the marketing manager at Destination Lofoten, that’s when the first rorbuer fishing cabins opened up to guests. “It was only really in the late 1980s and ’90s that tourism started to grow here,” he says. “Before that, it was mainly traders and fishermen.” Now, says Nashoug, the size of the tourism and fishing industries is “about equal”, and it’s the former that’s set to grow to become the area’s biggest.

It’s amazing that it took so long, given Lofoten’s natural advantages. If you drive the E10 road across the archipelago, there’s a jaw-dropping view round every corner, with craggy peaks rising from impossibly turquoise seas. Suitably, given the area’s Viking history (Vågan is the first known town formation in northern Norway), it looks like the setting for a Viking TV drama.

The towns and villages are still mostly model railwayesque little collections of traditional fishing boats and rorbuer cabins, which get more picture-perfect the further west you go (Moskenes has a decent claim to the title of the most beautiful municipality in Norway).

Signs of development are still modest. New modern hotels, including Thon and Scandic, line the Svolvær harbourfront, and assessments are being made on a new airport at Gimsøy, in the heart of the archipelago. At the moment, whether you fly to Bodø or Harstad/Narvik airports, you still need a car and a few hours to get to Lofoten proper. Many come by motorhome.

While Nashoug welcomes the new airport, Hearn is more sceptical. “I’m already booked up with fishing trips for a few months. I don’t need more people, and I don’t want jets flying overhead.”

The merits of a new airport notwithstanding, the growth of tourism is making new things happen in Lofoten. Unstad is a village and beach at the end of a gorgeous glacial valley on the north of the archipelago. It’s also blessed with steady surf breaks across its length, and is home to the slightly unlikely success story that is the Unstad Arctic Surf Camp. The camp was opened in 2003 by Thor Frantzen, who – along with his friend Hans Egil Krane – was the arguably the first person to surf in Norway, in 1963.

“We were teenagers at the time,” says Frantzen, a real character with a deep voice and an even deeper well of stories.  “Hans Egil had been to Australia on a ship and got to know some surfers on Bondi Beach. He came back and said: ‘We have to try this.’ We made the first surfboard in Norway, using foam from a refrigerator and the cover of the Beach Boys album Surfin’ Safari as a reference. When we got it made and got to the beach, I said to Hans Egil: ‘You go first.’ We managed to get up on the board, but it wasn’t exactly a smooth ride, and we learned pretty fast that you needed a leash.”

Four boards and a lot of experimentation later, Norway’s first surf scene came and went, as Krane became a commercial diver and Frantzen became a big engine driver.

But in the 1990s, surfers from down south began to rediscover surfing in Lofoten, with 1999’s E2K surf movie shining a new light on Unstad, which has a mix of sand and reef breaks, and where the waves can reach 15m. On this new wave of interest, Frantzen opened the surf camp with his wife Randi, hosting visitors in a few cabins. He’s still involved, but has handed control of the camp to his daughter Marion and her husband Tommy, a former windsurfer who moved to Unstad and switched to surfing.

They’ve grown the camp to include six cabins, for from two to eight people, and portable hot tubs and saunas, as well as a camping site. “In terms of numbers coming, it’s getting better and better every year,” says Tommy Frantzen. “This is the best surf spot in Norway, and we’ve had international pros like Tom Curren, Chippa Wilson and Dane Gudauskas come out here.”

And us. It turns out that surfing in the arctic is not what we expected at all – with the sun blaring down and bouncing off the sea, we’re genuinely too hot in our full-body wetsuits, with gloves and booties. Surrounded by glowing glacial mountains, it’s another beautifully surreal experience.

As for old surfer Krane, another interesting character, he’s moved into tourism, too, opening up a RIB company in Svolvær that will take you – at slightly shocking speeds – to see the famous Trollfjorden, sea eagles and the island town of Skrova, that 20 or so years ago hauled in so much fish that it was named the richest place in Norway.

Just up the road from Unstad is another thriving local business, Lofoten Gårdsysteri, run by a Dutch couple who make organic artisanal goat’s cheese. Marielle de Roos and Hugo Vink met working on development projects in Africa and, both having degrees in tropical agriculture, decided to do “something down to earth, and to make the purest biodynamic product possible.”

They’d decided on goat farming in Norway when they arrived at a spot between Unstad and Saupstad. “We saw this place and knew straightaway,” says Vink. “It was magical – mountains, sea mist, this incredible green colour, and the perfect landscape for goats.”

Today, they have 160 healthy and happy-looking goats, which produce some of the archipelago’s most renowned cheese, used by some of Norway’s best restaurants, like Maeemo and Arakataka in Oslo.

“Before we came here, there were just a couple of local speciality cheeses,” says Vink. “Now, there are almost 200, and there are so many high-quality producers in the area. Give it 15 years, and Norway could be the new France.”

Lofoten’s got some culture, too. There are interesting galleries and museums across the archipelago, from the  elegant Kaviar Factory gallery in picturesque Henningsvær to the evocative doll museum in stunning Sakrisøy and the Lofotr Vikingmuseum in Borg (see sidebar overleaf). In Svolvær, we stopped by at William Hakvaag’s remarkable and quirky personal collection of World War II memorabilia, including a watercolour landscape and a set of Disneyesque characters allegedly painted by Hitler.

“The war is endlessly fascinating to me because it’s just this crazy terrifying story about human beings,” says Hakvaag, who says that one of the rooms in his museum is haunted. “Sometimes when I’m in the Gestapo room I can feel this energy – it’s like thousands of needles on your arm.”

Nevertheless, while tourism is overtaking fishing as the archipelago’s main industry, everyone accepts that fishing still forms the soul of the archipelago.

For fishermen, the main time of year is the skrei bonanza from late January until mid-April, when up to 1.7 million tonnes of muscular Arctic cod – a prime delicacy – come to spawn here, and many make up to three quarters of their annual income. After a few lean years, the skrei are back, and the industry around them is so lucrative that kids who cut off cod tongues, a local delicacy, can make NOK100,000 a season.

In the first quarter of last year, Norway exported NOK917.4 million worth of cod around the world, especially to Spain, Portugal and Italy, where various versions of dried cod are staples; and to Nigeria, where the cod head is the main ingredient in local delicacy okporoko, also known as panla.

This year has been even better, according to Geir Larsson, a commercial fisherman who’s probably better known as the world’s northernmost Ipswich Town fanatic. “The Codfather”, as he’s known by Ipswich fans, was invited by the club to present this year’s player of the year award, and he shows us a letter from team manager Mick McCarthy thanking him for his support and wishing him a good cod season. “That’s our equivalent of the football season,” he says.

Larsson has a small 8m boat, with a relatively modest quota of 30,000kg of cod. But with cod going for NOK18 a kilo during good seasons, it’s not bad for a few month’s work. “We’re lucky to have this exclusive product that the world loves.”

Culturally, skrei is important too. The skrei world championships in Svolvær in late March are a key event on the calendar, and the fish-drying racks dotted across the island have become iconic.

In Å, at the south-western tip of the E10 road that runs through Lofoten, there’s a Stockfish Museum and the Norwegian Fishing Village Museum, as well as fishing boats for rent by the rustic Smaken av Lofoten cabins. Cod is also a key ingredient in the Smaken av Lofoten restaurant, as it is across the archipelago, like the highly-rated Fiskekrogen and Lofotmat in Henningsvær, or the Anker Brygge restaurant in Svolvær.

According to Kristian Nashoug of Destination Lofoten: “Fishing forms the soul, the culture, the history of Lofoten. It runs deep, and the fishery is a tourist attraction in itself – not just fishing itself, but the smell in the air, the fish on the drying racks, the whole sense of the place.” The tourists may be coming, but it was the fish that discovered Lofoten first.

The mission to save the world’s coral

With coral reefs around the world threatened by global warming, the pioneering XL Catlin Seaview Survey is creating a Google Street View of the world’s oceans – and raising awareness of a looming crisis

(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, June 2015)

Did you know the world has lost more than 40 per cent of its coral in the past 30 years? Or that in 1982-83, a rise in water temperatures killed 97 per cent of the coral off the Galapagos Islands? Did you know that coral bleaching – when coral loses its colour and dies, mostly due to rises in water temperatures – is considered by experts to be one of the most damaging effects of climate change?

If the answer to all of the above is “no”, you’re not alone. Enter the XL Catlin Seaview Survey, which is documenting the world’s coral reefs one panoramic photo at a time, including adding underwater shots to Google Street View. The survey is simultaneously gathering scientific data and raising awareness of the challenges facing the reefs, which include overfishing and pollution.

The team, led by British advertiser-turned-dive-photographer Richard Vevers, has already documented 800km of reef in 24 countries, with plans to keep going.

“This is an urgent race against time,” says Vevers over the phone. “We’re losing one or two per cent of the world’s reefs every year, and urgent action is required. But the basic problem is that we’re a terrestrial species, and only 0.1 per cent of us sticks our head underwater and looks around. What started off as an advertising issue became a scientific issue too, because we realised what scientists can do with this data.”

Vevers had quit advertising in London to become a dive photographer based in Australia when he realised the need to spread the word about the severe degradation of coral across the world, which is important not least because coral houses 25 per cent of all marine life. In 2011, he secured sponsorship from Bermuda-based insurance group Catlin and set about gathering a 25-strong team of scientists and divers, many from the University of Queensland, while designing and building a game-changing camera (see right) that would make surveying the ocean 30 times more efficient.

Since the first dive, on the Great Barrier Reef in 2012, the team has been to 13 countries in the Caribbean, as well as the Coral Triangle around Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, and parts of the Indian  Ocean such as the Maldives. You can take an online tour of the more than 100,000 panoramic images at globalreefrecord.org, and can already see many of the best views on Google Street View.

Vevers says the XL Catlin Seaview Survey is the “largest stocktake of coral reefs ever”, and that the main aim is to enlighten people about threats to coral reefs. “Essentially, climate change is hitting the sea harder than anywhere else – and it’s an issue that is being massively under-reported.”

The most obvious effect of warmer waters is mass coral bleaching, which was first reported in 1979, and the 60 bleaching events since have been the result of rises in sea temperatures. Many of the bleaching events happen during  El Niño, natural phases of warmer waters whose effects have been exacerbated by global warming. An intense El Niño event in 1998 caused 16 per cent of the world’s coral to die, including two-thirds of the coral around the Maldives, and various periods since have had devastating local effects, such as the 1982 El Niño in Galapagos or the 1997/98 event  that caused 16 per cent of the world’s reefs to die, including 90 per cent in the Maldives. A mass bleaching is predicted this year.

“They’re like underwater heatwaves,” says Vevers, “and once the coral is irrevocably dead, it can take thousands of years to come back.” On top of rising water temperatures, researchers have said that if CO2 levels in the atmosphere continue to rise, rising acidity in the ocean could mean that all coral reefs will be dead by the year 2100.

Bur reefs can bounce back. “The Maldives, for example, have mostly recovered,” says Vevers. “But for a lot of areas the damage has been irreversible. Part of our research is seeing which reefs bounce back, and how we can help others do the same.”

Vevers’ main hope is that people wake up to the severity of this crisis, and he says there is hope. “We’ve already had more people going on virtual dives through the Seaview Survey than have ever actually dived in the ocean. And by getting corporate as well as governmental involvement, we’ve been able to get things done a lot faster than is usually the case with similar projects.” They have an exhibition coming up at London’s Natural History Museum and are scaling up their partnerships with big companies such as Google.

And it’s not all bad news. “The reason we care so much,” says Vevers, “is that there’s still this magical world down there – we just want as many people as possible to see it, and realise how important it is that we protect that world.”

How neon lit up Vegas

Neon lighting may have been invented in France and popularised in Jazz-era America – but it reached its peak in brash, booming post-war Las Vegas. Now the challenge is to save Vegas neon’s colourful history

(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, May 2015. Photography by Tim White)

Back in 1958, the new Stardust hotel-casino’s neon sign was a blast of light that could be seen for 100km across the Nevada desert. The world’s largest electric sign – 66m long, 8m tall and with 2,200m of neon tubing – depicted giant letters in a Jetsons-style font, amid a whirring, orbiting solar system. Inspired by the Sputnik satellite and the atomic tests in the Nevada desert at the time, it was a riot of energy, fantasy and futurism that dominated the entire hotel front.

Today, neon signs aren’t quite as dominant in Vegas as they were in the 1950s and ’60s, when Tom Wolfe wrote about a city where “you could see no buildings, no trees, only signs”, and Hunter S Thompson saw neon forming “some kind of electric snake… coming straight at us.”

Many of the classic signs still remain, though, especially in the Downtown area around Fremont Street, from the Vegas Vic neon cowboy to the restored Silver Slipper on Las Vegas Boulevard. The “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” neon sign is still the city’s most photographed icon, and Vegas is still the brightest place on Earth according to NASA, with billions of light bulbs and more than 24,000km of neon tubing.

Still, they aren’t building as many “neon spectaculars” these days, with many of the major casinos removing their neon signs and replacing them with giant LED screens, which effectively turn whole buildings into self-referencing TV adverts.

Enter the Neon Boneyard, a gallery/resting place for neon signs attached to the Las Vegas Neon Museum, where more than 200 signs and 400 pieces have been rescued from destruction and lovingly displayed at a cost of US$4.2 million (NOK34m). Rather than seeing neon signs as inducements to postmodern acid trips, the museum sees them as cultural artefacts to be protected at all cost.

“These signs are important not just as genuine works of art, but as pieces of living history,” says Danielle Kelly, the executive director of the Vegas Neon Museum, herself a sculptor and installation artist. “When we do tours of the Neon Boneyard, it’s not just looking at signs – it’s a tour of design, lettering techniques, advertising strategy, the development of the car, not to mention the stories behind these amazing casinos, motels and stores.

We treat them the way we’d treat valuable art.” The Neon Museum spent more than US$150,000 rescuing the letters of the Stardust sign when the casino was demolished in 2007, giving it pride of place among countless other classic Vegas neons – like the elegant, cursive sign for the Moulin Rouge hotel, designed in 1955 by Betty Willis, who also designed the “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign; or the iconic camels of the old Sahara casino sign, which has now been replaced by a state-of-the-art LED sign for the new SLS Hotel. “If you just take the Stardust, it was really the first time that architecture, design and advertising all came together in one building,” says Kelly. “The sign was the building, and it was an advert for itself, which articulated this fantasy of the atomic age.

“The font, which became known as Atomic, broke all the lettering design rules at the time, and when you walked into the building you could hear the whirring mechanisms of the sign. It was game-changing.”

While Vegas became the apotheosis of neon, it was a relative latecomer to a phenomenon that was invented in France by George Claude. The engineer/inventor sometimes called the “Edison of France” first displayed sealed glass tubes filled with natural gas to the wonderment of the crowd at the 1910 Paris Motor Show.

Claude Neon Lights gradually started selling signs around the world, beginning in Paris with a 1913 sign for Cinzano vermouth, the first ever neon advert. But the real explosion of “liquid fire” began in US in the early 1920s, helped along by the first golden age of advertising in the 1920s and ’30s.

Claude, watching his invention almost literally explode across the US, turned his attention first to ocean thermal-energy conversion and then politics, first supporting a restoration of the French monarchy and then the German invasion. After the war, he was imprisoned for collaborating with the Axis powers.

“Neon’s main success story is actually quite short,” says Christoph Ribbat, the German professor of American Studies who wrote Flickering Light: A History of Neon. “In America, it was all about the ’20s and ’30s, and after the war it was starting to die out. Then Vegas gave neon a second life in the 1950s, and it became this kind of laboratory.”

According to Eric Lynxwiler, who runs neon tours in Los Angeles: “In the 1930s neon was modern and perky; it wasn’t until the ’50s that it became sordid and noir-ish, associated with liquor stores and motels. Both, to me, are fascinating.”

There’s certainly a crass element to the Vegas project, which was really kicked off in its current form by mobster Bugsy Siegel, who took over the Flamingo Hotel in 1946, and soon forced former owner William R Wilkerson into selling his shares under threat of death. Siegel helped finance and manage other casino projects, and his lavish spending and focus on PR – “maniacal chest-puffing”, as it was later called – set the tone for the modern Vegas casino boss. Though Siegel was shot dead in 1947, he’d set Vegas on its course.

While the nefarious stories of Vegas casinos play into the stories of the signs, both Ribbat and Kelly emphasise a different side of the story – that the people who made the signs were real craftsmen, and that designers like Willis and Raul R Rodriguez (the Flamingo Hotel and Reno’s Circus Circus casino) were genuine artists.

“So many things go into making a neon sign,” says Kelly. “It’s art, architecture, design and science, and bending the glass is a real craft that requires an artisan, of which there are fewer and fewer left.”

But there are still some. The greatest American sign company is the Young Electric Sign Company, or YESCO, which was founded in 1920 in Ogden, Utah, by English immigrant Thomas Young, who started out “with a bunch of paint brushes”, having quit school.

Young was both artist and businessman, and was quick to latch on to the possibilities of neon lighting, creating the first neon signs in Utah, Wyoming, Idaho and Nevada from 1927. After opening a branch in Vegas’s Apache Hotel in 1933, YESCO began reimagining Vegas through signs, with the city becoming its biggest showcase as it grew to become America’s number one sign-maker.

The company has nearly 1,000 employees today, but remains in the family, run by Michael, Paul and Jeff Young, whose father, Thomas Young Jr, ran the company from 1969-88.

Though YESCO’s main HQ is in Salt Lake City, they still have a 400-strong sign factory in Vegas. “Since the war, Vegas has been our main calling card,” says Jeff Young, over the phone from Utah. “It all started with the Boulder Club sign in 1945, which was the first real ‘neon spectacular’. Tom drew the plans by hand on butcher’s paper, and the owners fell in love – they said they’d have it before they asked about the price. Then the Pioneer Club wanted a bigger, brighter sign and it really snowballed from there.”

YESCO would help create a chunk of Vegas’s most iconic signs in the next 15 years: the Las Vegas Club, the Glitter Gulch, Vegas Vic, The Mint, the Silver Slipper, the Golden Nugget, the Stardust and the “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign, to name just a few.

It’s almost certain that Tom Wolfe was looking at YESCO signs in 1965 when he was on his way to defining the New Journalism with his catchily titled essay, Las Vegas (What?) Las Vegas (Can’t hear you! Too noisy) Las Vegas!!!! “Las Vegas is the only city in the world whose skyline is made neither of buildings, like New York, nor of trees, like Wilbraham, Massachusetts, but signs,” he wrote. “But such signs! They tower. They revolve, they oscillate, they soar in shapes before which the existing vocabulary of art history is helpless.”

But art history is where many neon signs are headed. According to Young, only around five of the 400 staff at YESCO’s Vegas factory work in traditional neon sign-making. Most of the rest are working on digital displays, which have taken off since YESCO installed the first four-colour LED sign at the Caesars Palace casino in 1984.

“For now, that’s our future,” says Young. “But neon will always be a part of what we do, and what’s amazing is that a well-made neon light from 1930 will still shine as bright today as it did then. It’s incredible that that particular piece of technology has endured the way it has.”

While YESCO continues to make and maintain neon signs in Vegas, notably the “Welcome…” light, the company also donated a sizeable collection to the Neon Museum and its Neon Boneyard, including the likes of the Stardust sign. “Once a sign is here,” says Danielle Kelly, “we’re also saving the story of that motel or that dry-cleaner. We’re saving a story about America and a tradition of craftsmanship that we’re in danger of losing.” History may be moving on, but the lights are still shining.

Why Facebook went to northern Sweden

Facebook’s data centre in Luleå, northern Sweden, claims to be the greenest on the planet. It’s already created a local boom, but could it have wider benefits?

(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, April 2015)

As a rule, feel-good stories aren’t meant to come from American mega-corporations worth upwards of US$40 billion (NOK323bn). But try telling that to Luleå, the coastal city in northern Sweden that’s been sprinkled with Facebook’s stardust – and hasn’t stopped smiling since.

Since 2011, Luleå has been home to Facebook’s only data centre outside the US – it’s the largest in Europe and claims to be the greenest on the planet. The first of three server buildings – the next two are due to be completed over the next few years – is a 28,000m2 facility with tens of thousands of blinking servers packed together in long aisles. It’s powered by hydroelectricity from the Luleå River, and processes 10 petabytes of information a day, or nine quadrillion bytes, which translates as an awful lot of holiday snaps and status updates. If you’re one of 282 million Europeans who use Facebook, all the information you upload to Facebook goes through Luleå. It’s fair to say that it’s been a major coup for the city.

“Facebook coming was so huge and so unlikely,” says Matz Engman, the CEO of Näringsliv, an umbrella group that links Luleå businesses and the local municipality (the former own 51 per cent, the latter 49 per cent). “Since it happened, everything seems possible. We have the happiest and proudest citizens in Sweden, and it feels like a new era.”

Data centres for Bitcoin miners KnC Miner and British hydropower company Hydro 66 have followed Facebook to an area that now calls itself the Node Pole, and is positioning itself as a world leader in environmentally friendly data centres.

It’s had a knock-on effect, too. The Luleå Science Park has seen more than 25 per cent growth since Facebook came to town, while the number of applications to study at the city’s technology university has more than doubled in the past five years. The population growth rate has also doubled, house prices are the fastest-growing in Sweden, and two new five-star hotels have opened in the past few years, with more in the pipeline.

So what did they do right? In 2008, Engman became CEO of Näringsliv, with a mission to build the area’s ICT sector, which was growing fast to meet the needs of the area’s traditional mining, raw materials, forestry and energy sectors. At the same time, he saw that data centres were not only growing fast in the US to keep up with frantic growth in the tech industry, but that the data centre industry was overtaking aviation as the world’s biggest emitter of carbon.

There are now more than three million data centres in the US alone, using more than 100 billion kilowatts of energy, and more than two per cent of the planet’s electricity use now goes  towards powering the centres that store our digital information. A recent Time article noted that the iPhone in your pocket will consume more electricity than the fridge cooling your beer.

“I saw that growth, and the environmental concerns, and it was a light-bulb moment, if you excuse the pun,” says Engman. “I was thinking: we have very cheap, stable, 100 per cent renewable energy here, good internet connectivity, good infrastructure, and a cold climate to help keep cooling costs down. It was a potential win for any big data company – the chance to cut down costs and emissions at the same time. I just thought: we have to go to the US and tell them.”

So Engman created a whole new brand – the Node Pole – and embarked on a Stateside charm offensive, going to 14 large companies selling Brand Luleå but also Brand Sweden as an alternative site for a data centre. Facebook had been wanting to build a new data centre for users outside America, and Engman’s pitch was a compelling one.

“They were extremely tough negotiators,” he says, “but as soon as you sat down with them, they were one of the best companies I’ve ever worked with. There’s a very flat structure, and you don’t have inaccessible bosses cloistered away – I message Sheryl Sandberg [Facebook COO] on Facebook the same way I would anyone else, and she replies the same as anyone else.”

In a year from March 2010 to March 2011, Facebook whittled 40 possible locations down to two – Luleå and Östersund – before finally giving Luleå the nod after lengthy negotiations with Engman and his team. “I think the clincher for us was the fact that we’re a very business-friendly city, with a strong IT sector and a lot of local know-how already,” says Engman. “If our group had been run entirely by the municipality, rather than a lot of savvy private business owners, we wouldn’t have won this contract.”

But the main reasons were Luleå’s natural advantages, from its river providing limitless and cheap hydropower to the coldest climate in Sweden providing free natural cooling. That, plus a cutting-edge design to naturally heat and cool the warehouse, meant that the plant could be 70 per cent less energy intensive than the average data centre.

Facebook has also made its design open-source, meaning that other data centres can copy it. “That way, it’s become about more than just us,” says Engman. “Hopefully we’ve done a service to the world.”
The Facebook- Luleå partnership also helped a mini-boom in data centres across Scandinavia. Sweden is now ranked the world’s third-best location for a data centre, behind the US and UK, and other tech giants have followed Facebook to Scandinavia. Google – who have made major investments in wind power – have spent more than $1 billion in a facility in Hamina, Finland, while Apple recently announced it would build a state-of-the-art facility in Jutland, Denmark.

The tech giants, it seems, are serious about improving their green credentials. According to Annika Jacobson, programme manager for Greenpeace Sweden: “For a long time, it’s been really important to lobby the big tech giants like Facebook, Google and Apple, because they’re such big energy users – their energy usage is comparable to a country like the UK.

“One data centre in Luleå doesn’t solve a huge global issue, but it’s a step in the right direction, and it shows that Facebook is listening to the concerns that we and others have.”

But the big winner seems to be Luleå itself. According to Birgitta Bergvall-Kåreborn, the pro vice-chancellor at Luleå University of Technology, “A lot of perceived negatives about this part of Sweden have become positives – the cold, the relative remoteness. As a community, we’ve started to see what’s possible, and it’s created a positive spiral – we’re looking at ourselves differently.”

Bergvall-Kåreborn, who was part of the Facebook pitch, has seen a boom in applications to study in Luleå, which now has 19,000 students in its four campuses, including a space science campus at Kiruna, a music and media department at Piteå, and a wood tech and video game engineering campus at Skellefteå.

“Facebook helped put a spotlight on what we have up here. The university was set up [in 1971] to secure competence in the region and solve real-world problems, and that’s still the case, even if things have evolved from predominantly teaching mechanical engineers. It’s easy to get things done here, and there’s a lot of support from local businesses and the municipality. We’ve grown as an IT destination, and become a hub for testing, from digital services and networks to cars, trains and even bio energy. With Facebook, they knew that we already had a certain know-how in everything from cooling mechanics to data centre architecture.”

Unprompted, she then says the same thing that Engman said. “We’ve realised that anything is possible.” As a legacy of Facebook coming, it’s not a bad one.

Hungary’s piano man

This piano represents the first major redesign of the instrument in over a century. Its Hungarian creator has spent more than a decade creating it with a maverick team – and it sounds a whole lot like the future

(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, March 2015)

In 1 August last year, renowned Hungarian concert pianist Gergely Bogányi sat at a piano and flexed his fingers to play Liszt’s La Leggierezza. It’s one of Bogányi’s favourite pieces, and he’s played it hundreds of times. Yet, he remembers, “I was sweating; I was out of my mind with anxiety.”

The reason wasn’t the piece, but the piano itself. Bogányi has spent more than a decade and over US$1 million (NOK7.6m) creating the first major redesign of the piano in more than 100 years – and this was the first time he’d ever played a finished prototype.

“We’d done all the tests, done everything, but when I sat down then I still didn’t know. I wasn’t sure if the piano could create the sound that was in my head. And then I started playing…” He looks dreamy for a moment. “There it was. It was the miraculous sound I’d been dreaming of for so long.”

I meet Bogányi on a frigid January day at the entrance to a sprawling industrial park in Szigethalom, on the gritty outer edges of Budapest. He ushers me into his Porsche Panamera with a big smile, and puts his foot to accelerator, grinning boyishly as the car takes off at a slightly unnerving speed.

The flamboyant Bogányi seems out of place among the Communist-era brick outhouses, with his long hair, pink shirt and snugly fitting leather jacket. Yet he doesn’t seem as out-of-place as his creation.

In a chilly unit in a corner of the park, surrounded by dusty workbenches, sits the Bogányi piano, which has been dubbed the “Batpiano” for understandable reasons. It’s all futuristic curves in glossy black, not a million miles from Bogányi’s Porsche – and almost every single one of its 18,000 parts has been redesigned from scratch.

Just a week before, the Batpiano had been unveiled to the world at a special concert in Budapest – and, much to its creator’s relief, the reviews of its sound had been almost universally positive.

Four-time Grammy-nominated jazz pianist Gerald Clayton said after playing the Bogányi piano: “The sound almost feels as if you’re in a bubble, it’s so clear. It feels like you are in a spaceship, like you are hovering above gravity.”

Karoly Reisinger, CEO of renowned New York piano repair shop Klavierhaus, was “mesmerised”. “You can hear the 1850-1860 era qualities, lyrical, bell-like, precise – and also the clarity of the modern instrument,” he says.

Success was never a given. For 20 years  Bogányi had the idea of creating a new kind of piano, one that could be “friendly and velvety like an old piano, but powerful like a new one.” While he’s at pains to stress his respect for traditional pianos, especially those from the early 19th century, he says: “There was a sound in my head that I couldn’t get from existing pianos. I would play in concerts and I’d be thinking about whether you could have a more accurate, powerful sound.”

With his piano technician – Attila Bükki, who passed away in 2012 – he says he would spend hours after concerts thinking about how you could improve the piano’s sound. “You don’t have to know how a piano works to be a great pianist,” he says, “but I became fascinated by the technical side of it. I have a relentless soul, and I couldn’t understand why everyone else was so resistant to change when it came to the piano. Something had to give.”

Just over 10 years ago he began the process of creating a completely new piano with technician Csaba Szász and designer Péter Attila Üveges, who had designed solar-powered cars and bikes but until that point had never plonked a piano key, let alone designed one. Technician Jozsef Cs Nagy and chief constructor Attila Bolega later joined the team – like Üveges, Bolega had never worked on a piano.

“We didn’t take a good piano as a base,” says Bogányi. “We started from point zero, with a designer and builder who knew nothing about pianos. What they had to learn in a short space of time is phenomenal, but crucially they weren’t weighed down by previous knowledge.”

The first major project, which consumed the most time, was the soundboard, the plank that’s effectively the heart of the piano. In just about every other piano, the soundboard is made of wood, which reacts to heat and humidity; in the Bogányi piano, it’s composed of more than 20 layers of carbon composites, meaning it provides a rich, consistent sound with lingering after-tones.

“We had more than 50 soundboards we were tinkering with,” says Bogányi. “We sent them to mathematicians, who came back with 500 pages of diagrams and charts. None of that matters if a piano sounds like crap in the concert hall but, miraculously maybe, the mathematicians chose the same one that we did.”

The soundboard is one of many crucial design changes on the Bogányi piano. The agraffes – the links between the keys and the soundboard – were redesigned to create almost zero friction; the frame above the soundboard was reshaped in special cast iron; and the traditional three legs were ditched in favour of two curved legs that project sound towards the audience.

Despite its futuristic look, Bogányi insists that form followed function. “The look of it all stems from the sound. It was like designing a sports car, but harder in some ways, because you need to find a certain poetry and beauty as well as technical perfection. In a piano, every component reacts to every other component – from a design perspective, it’s an incredibly delicate balancing act.”

As for the process, Bogányi says, “There were so many failures. Every second day I thought about giving up. But I’d invested my money, my passion, my whole being in this. I trusted the gods. I was also lucky to have a team of geniuses. In a way, my job was easy – I just had to say that’s not good enough.”

Bogányi says that orders have already started coming in but the price is still not fixed. All he can say is that “it will be very expensive”, with an eight-month waiting time, and that they’re not planning to make more than 20 or 30 in a year.

“The aim was never to make money or to compete with the Faziolis and the Steinways. It was to create something new, something beautiful.” With that, he starts to play, and for a moment a corner of the industrial park is filled with Mozart’s slow movement of the piano concerto KV 488. When Bogányi stops playing, the notes hang in the air, and he sits, eyes closed, in contemplation. After 30 seconds or so, he opens his eyes. “Not bad, huh?”

Miami: A hundred years young

The town of Miami Beach was created a century ago. Then the fun really started

(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, March 2015. Photography by Tim White)

Mac Klein isn’t doing too badly, all things considered. The owner of Mac’s Club Deuce turned 100 last September – which is remarkable for a few reasons.

Firstly, he almost didn’t survive World War II, spending a year in hospital after being shot by the Germans three times in France. He’s also the owner of one of Miami’s less salubrious institutions, which is really saying something in this town. Mac’s Club Deuce is filled with smoke, neon and a motley-if-friendly crew of locals and tourists – it’s Moe’s Tavern with a more colourful clientele and dirtier music on the jukebox.

“You know why I’ve lasted so long?” says Klein, sitting at an old computer in his cluttered office behind the bar, surrounded by bottles of liquor and wearing his trademark Hawaiian shirt with a Sobe (South Beach) cap. “I gave up cigarettes and liquor 20 years ago, but it’s not that. It’s because I’ve had something to get up and do every day. That’s why no one carries me around.”

Klein is six months older than the city of Miami Beach, a 49km2 strip of land separated from the city proper by a causeway filled with man-made islands. Miami Beach was incorporated on 26 March 1915, and the story of the century since could fill a thousand books.

Klein calls the city of Miami Beach “the most changeable city in the world” – and his own life has seen its share of changes.

He was born to Russian parents in Brooklyn, New York, where the family of eight lived in two rooms. He only left to go to war and – like many would-be soldiers – did a portion of his training on the Beach.

“People call me crazy when I say this, but it was the war that made this place. Until then, people lived and died where they were born. The war made people leave and experience different things – for me, I saw the beauty of Miami Beach.”

The Miami Beach that Klein saw during his training bore little resemblance to today’s hedonistic carnival, but it made an impression on Klein, who would serve in the US Army for five years before being wounded three times during 1944’s Operation Dragoon, when the Allies invaded southern France. At one point the doctors doubted Klein would live.

When they let him out of the hospital after a year, they advised him that his wounds would heal faster in warm weather. So he wound up in Miami in 1945, with US$27 in his pocket. “I got the best education you can get,” he says. “The one on the street, which is 20 times better than you’ll get in any school.”

Klein came to own four clubs in South Florida, as South Beach was starting to experience a revival driven by the relatively wealthy Jews who had poured into the area after the war, as well as the half a million Cubans who fled Fidel Castro’s revolution after 1959. In the late ’50s and early ’60s, Klein would often drink at the Deuce, which had been open since the end of Prohibition in 1926, and was owned by his friend, Harold Schwartz (it was called the Deuce for its number: 222 14th St). In 1964, after the birth of his daughter, Klein came to the Deuce for a beer, only to be told that Schwartz had died and the bar was closing. So he contacted Schwartz’s wife, who he knew well, and within days it was Mac’s Club Deuce.

Klein got rid of the singer and pianist that Schwartz had hired, and installed a curved 360-degree bar which meant, in his words, “you can see everyone except the person two seats away”.

Otherwise, he didn’t change much about his favourite bar. “If you find a beautiful woman, you don’t want to change a hair on her head,” says Klein. “If you were here 50 years ago and came back now, you’d think you were 50 years younger. That’s how little has changed in here.” There’s still the same black-and-white tiled floors and dusty push-button cash register, even if the old cigarette machine has gone (you can still smoke, though). The borderline lurid neon signs are a remnant of the Miami Vice wrap party held here in 1989.

But while Mac’s has stuck to the same formula – cheap, strong drinks, the legendary 11-hour happy hour, a jukebox and friendly staff that Klein says are “like family who never leave” – the clientele has changed with the world outside.

“When we started it was older Jewish people around here,” he says. “Then it was club people, then Cubans, the gay crowd, the Cocaine Cowboys, which was a dangerous time – now South Beach is like a country within itself. A big turning point for me was Miami Vice in the ’80s – people saw the beauty, the beach and the colour of the buildings, even as they were seeing the grimy back alleys. From then, it’s been up and up.” Many scenes in Miami Vice were filmed at Mac’s, and Klein fishes around unsuccessfully for a letter from the cast thanking him.

While the Deuce is very much an Everyman’s bar, a world away from the velvet-roped glitz of much of South Beach, it’s had plenty of brushes with celebrity, from Sinatra to Keith Richards, Quentin Tarantino and Cameron Diaz. Food critic Anthony Bourdain called it his favourite bar in the world, and Kate Moss was allegedly once turned away for being too drunk.

“We’ve seen ’em all,” says Klein. “But you know, if nations and cities met in bars rather than conference rooms, we’d sort out a hell of a lot of mess in this world.”

For another view of Miami Beach’s colourful history, we seek out Calvin (Cal) Zook, a 77-year-old Jew, originally from Chicago, who runs Art Deco tours around South Beach. Zook is the character that Woody Allen wishes he’d written – he’s about 5’3″ and talks dime to the dozen, yet just about everything that comes out of his mouth is worth paying attention to, whether he’s talking about a classic L Murray Dixon Art Deco building or getting stuck in an elevator with a 140kg woman (“Why does this crap only happen to me?”).

His wonderful tour is not so much a tour as a series of orders – “C’mon!” “Look at that!” – and along with the history you get a commentary on your tour guide’s bladder (“I gotta go tap a kidney – What? It happens at my age”).

Quips aside, Zook – who has lived in Miami for more than 50 years – knows the staff at just about every hotel and is a goldmine when it comes to uncovering the rich story of the Beach. Sitting in the Art Deco Hotel Astor, he recounts the early history so quickly and breathlessly that it’s hard to keep up. To paraphrase…

It all started in earnest in 1870, when father and son Henry and Charles Lum purchased the entire uninhabited oceanfront for 25 cents an acre, well before the 1896 railroad that marked the start of Miami’s real development. Their plan was to open a coconut plantation in what was then a swamp infested with mosquitoes, alligators, rabbits and rats. Despite importing 400,000 coconut trees from Trinidad, the plantation wasn’t a success, and the Lums left in 1894, eventually leaving the plantation in control of John S Collins, a Quaker farmer from New Jersey.

While his attempts to grow potatoes, avocados and pineapples met only limited success, Collins started to see the development potential of the area. When he formed the Miami Beach Improvement Company in 1911, it was the first recorded use of the term Miami Beach.

Soon, others got involved. In 1912, the Lummus brothers, two Miami businessmen, acquired 160 hectares from 1st to 14th street; and in 1913, Carl G Fisher – an Indiana native who’d made millions on a patent for automobile headlamps – bought up the land between 14th and 19th street, and loaned Collins money to complete a game-changing bridge from the beach to Downtown Miami.

In March 1915 – a year after the first road and hotel were built on the Beach – Collins, Fisher and the Lummus brothers got Miami Beach incorporated as a town, later to become a city in 1917. Elephants cleared out the mangrove swamps, Fisher imported 10,000 cats to try and clear out the rats, and the trio began building islands between the beach and Downtown. The good times were on their way.

Fisher, in particular, was one of the great early American marketing men, and in many ways a quintessential Miami character. It was indicative of his impulsive character that he fled his society wedding aged 35 and instead married Jane, a 15-year-old who he’d known for just a day.

His publicity stunts during the Miami Beach boom in the early 1920s included speedboat races, beauty pageants and a baby elephant called Rosie. “I’m going to get a million dollars worth of advertising out of this elephant,” said Fisher, who sent shots around the US of golfers using Rosie as a caddy and teeing off from her head.

America had a glamorous new winter retreat, with wealthy visitors flooding in from across the nation to gamble at Collins’s casino and stay in hotels like the Floridian, the Fleetwood and Fisher’s fancy Flamingo, which had an adjoining golf course and a rooftop dome with revolving lights.

But the fun couldn’t last. In 1926, the Great Miami Hurricane virtually flattened the beach, and was swiftly followed by the Great Depression. Fisher, who’d made a $120 million fortune and been dubbed “Mr Miami Beach”, lost it all, and died just about penniless in a cottage by the beach in 1939. Collins got roads and bridges named after him; the Lummus brothers got an oceanfront park named after them. Carl G Fisher, who in the end considered his life’s work a failure, got nothing.

“It’s a good story, huh?” says Zook, who has barely paused to take a breath for about 15 minutes.

After a short break, we head out into the Florida sunshine to look at some Art Deco buildings, as Zook explains how the movement started. “It started in 1968. You think I’m kidding?” That year, it turns out, was when British historian Bevis Hillier applied the term to what we know today as Art Deco – but really, it all began in Paris in 1925, at the touchstone expo L’Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes (the name eventually got crunched to Art Deco).

The architects on Miami’s South Beach got the message, especially Henry Hohauser and L Murray Dixon, who went about creating streamlined curves, “eyebrows” for windows, and prominent neon signs (neon was another relatively new creation) all along the beach. That pair are behind many of Miami’s most famous buildings, from Hohauser’s Colony Hotel (1935), with its iconic neon frontage, to Dixon’s imposing but beautiful design for The Ritz Hotel (1940).

While much of Miami’s Beach’s North Shore is all condos and beachfront blocks – parts look not dissimilar to Varna or Magaluf – the South Beach is still an architectural gem. A lot of the credit for that goes to Barbara Capitman, a design enthusiast who moved to Miami in 1973, and in 1976 saw an Art Deco hotel getting hauled down by developers. “She went crazy,” says Zook. “She wouldn’t let it go, and screamed to everyone she could, including the local government.” By 1979, Capitman and her son John had created the Miami Beach Architectural Historic District, which contained 960 Art Deco buildings and was America’s first 20th-century Historic District. The result was that any development of an Art Deco building had to retain the original façade.

Capitman’s unlikely sidekick was a guy called Lenny Horowitz, a mustachioed hipster-before-his-time who had moved to South Beach from New York when his dad had discovered he was gay and cut him off. It was Horowitz who looked at the sea and the sky, and decided to paint more than half of the old Art Deco buildings in the peaches, periwinkles, purples and pinks that today define South Beach. “People saw the buildings and asked what he was taking – but he was proved right,” says Zook of Horowitz, who sadly died of AIDS in 1989.

Still, Miami Beach in the 1970s and early ’80s had lost some of its post-war mojo, with the wealthy Jews who had flooded the area after the war ageing. According to Zook: “I might be biased, but if you ask me the heyday of this place was the ’50s, when I first moved here. By the early ’80s it looked like God’s waiting room.”

Along with the retirees was another change of a very different order. The flood of immigrants from South America had, along with countless benefits, brought one unwelcome visitor – cocaine, which had replaced marijuana as a the import of choice. Colombia’s Medellín Cartel had turned Miami into the entrypoint for a $20 billion drugs trade, and by the early ’80s, Miami was the homicide capital of the US and the most violent American city since Prohibition-era Chicago. A Time article around the time dubbed it “Paradise Lost”.

Yet the Cocaine Cowboys had an undeniable aura of glamour, and the hedonistic Latin drug lords were in some ways cultural descendants of New York and Chicago’s Italian mafiosi. In 1983, Brian De Palma’s Scarface told the story of Tony Montana (Al Pacino), a Cuban immigrant-turned-drug-lord, which borrowed heavily from real life – especially the Mariel boatlift in 1980, when Fidel Castro emptied his prisons and mental health facilities, and 125,000 Cubans made their way to Miami by boat.

While the first wave of Cuban immigrants fleeing the revolution in the ’50s was made up largely of doctors, lawyers, intellectuals and businessmen, the 1980 vintage were of a slightly different – more Montana-esque – makeup.

“This place became Drug City,” says Zouk. “You could smell the stuff everywhere, and you certainly didn’t want to walk these streets at night.”

In 1984, narcotics, pastels and glamour all came together in a TV show that in many ways still defines the popular perception of Miami. Crucially, though, despite all the grit, Miami Vice made the city look sunny, beautiful and fun, like swoony (if sartorially dubious) lead Don Johnson.

“Those years were wild,” says Zook. “Suddenly the department stores had whole sections devoted to white linen pants and loafers. Don Johnson’s Ray-Bans sold hundreds of thousands. You’d see old guys with beautiful blondes dancing around them, and have no idea why.”

By the mid-’80s, the South Florida Drug Task Force – led by George Bush under President Reagan – had started to win the war against the cartels, and by the early 1990s Miami had calmed down slightly, even if the edgy vibe remained.

Enter, in 1992, an Italian designer called Gianni Versace, whose overstated glamour perfectly suited the more-is-more ethos of the Beach. Versace bought a mansion on Ocean Drive and 11th for $2.9 million and then promptly bought the Art Deco Revere Hotel next door, knocking it down against the howled protests of the Miami Design Preservation League that Barbara Capitman had founded.

“Almost overnight, Ocean Drive became a catwalk,” says Zook. “You could barely move for models from all across the world. High-fashion models, Brazilian models in dental floss bikinis, adult entertainers – you name it, they were here.”

Versace, as we all know, was shot dead on his doorstep in 1997 – from Fisher to Montana and Horowitz, it was another sad end to a colourful Miami character.

When we finally finish a fascinating if exhausting few hours with Cal, he gives us a few final words outside the charming oceanfront Betsy Hotel (L Murray Dixon, 1942, if you must know). “I only got one piece of advice for you boys – marry a rich woman. I’m serious.” And with that, he’s off to catch his bus home.

For one more entry point to Miami history, we head to one of the very few things – other than Mac Klein – that started life before March 1915.

Joe’s Stone Crab is an almighty institution – it takes up a whole city block, has a restaurant, takeaway and wholesale business, and is the second highest-grossing restaurant in America, after Tao in Las Vegas, with more than $35 million in sales in 2014. The restaurant can have up to 2,000 diners a night for dinner, and you might be in the famous queue (they don’t take reservations) for three hours.

It all started, though, with a simple fish stand. In 1913, with Miami Beach in its infancy, the Hungarian-born Joe and Jessie Weiss came to Miami for New York on account of Joe’s asthma, starting a lunch counter at Smith’s bathing casino that sold fish sandwiches and fries.

It was a success and, in 1918, they bought a bungalow at the southern end of South Beach and turned it into a restaurant, selling snapper, mackerel, pompano and a few meat dishes. Joe did the cooking and Jennie ran the place with an iron fist – throwing out men who were cheating on their wives, though famously letting Al Capone eat at Joe’s “because he was a gentleman” (in return, the mobster sent a truck full of flowers every Mother’s Day).

It wasn’t until 1921 – when Joe’s was already a fixture with Miami’s high-society vacation crowd – that the owner of a local aquarium suggested Joe serve stone crabs, a native South Florida crab that until then no one had thought to eat. Joe reportedly said that no one would buy them – but when he threw the crabs in boiling water and served them with hash browns, coleslaw and mayonnaise, they were an instant hit. The rest, as they say, is history.

Today, Joe’s is owned by Weiss’s granddaughter, Jo Ann Bass, and her son Stephen Sawitz. We meet Sawitz’s right-hand man, Brian Johnson, a suave New Yorker who has worked at Joe’s since 1980 and been the general manager for 19 years. When he first came to the Beach from the Big Apple, Johnson was paying $18 a week in rent and describes Miami back then as “Santa Claus in Bermudas”.

Now he’s responsible for “everything that happens under this roof”, which is a lot. For starters, there are the crabs. Stone crabs are one of very few shellfish that aren’t killed – after they have their claws removed, they’re returned to the sea, where most regrow the claws. Yet, occasionally, there aren’t enough – “A few years ago,” says Johnson, “there were virtually none. They just took a walk, and no one really knows why.” Luckily, there’s a second superstar at Joe’s in the form of Norwegian king crabs, which are imported on Norwegian flights.

Johnson’s main responsibility, though, is the 400 or so staff at Joe’s (there were 92 when he started), who are trained like the military. Just as Klein says of his staff at Mac’s, Johnson says of the team at Joe’s: “We are like a family – we stick together”.

To prove the point he heads out to the restaurant’s outdoor patio and points at a small plant. “See that. That’s where the ashes of the waiter who trained me are buried.” Other waiters, managers and friends of the family have had their ashes scattered around the place – Johnson is as-yet undecided if he’ll follow suit.
Back in the restaurant, he tells me that very few people leave. He calls over to another of the staff: “Hey Zippy, how long has Big Daddy worked here?” It turns out that Wat Allen, aka Big Daddy, has been at Joe’s for 49 years.

When he takes us back to the vast kitchen area, we meet Blue Jay, a Georgian who has worked at Joe’s for 45 years. “This place is like the church, the bar, the stripclub and the beach all rolled into one,” says Blue Jay in a thick Southern drawl.

Everything is on a huge scale – there are three crab crackers, who have to master the delicate art of softening but not splintering the claws; there are 19 dishwashers and 12 people in the in-house laundry. Most chefs just focus on one dish.

On a quick whizz round the kitchen, we meet Hondurans, Iraqis and Mexicans – Johnson says there are “too many nationalities here to count”, yet he seems to know everyone personally. There’s Esther Salinas, who started off as Joe Ann Bass’s housekeeper, but has now been baking apple pies at Joe’s for 30 years. In the shipping department, he says: “That’s Olanda – she divorced me and owes me alimony.” Olanda smiles sweetly.

It’s an awesome operation, but the proof is in the pudding, or the crab (though the Key Lime Pie here is also famous). Johnson says stone crab is “sweeter than lobster, and not as heavy on the system” – and the great and good seem to agree.

Obama recently ordered a few for Air Force One, and Johnson recalls Jeb and George W Bush “coming in here and goofing around on each other like naughty schoolboys”. “Kennedy, Johnson, Clinton… they all came here, and you’d be better listing the celebrities that haven’t been.” One of those is Lenny Kravitz, who was thrown out for wearing a tank top, a definite sartorial no-no (the strict dress code is on a large sign outside the restaurant).

“Back in 1921, Joe Weiss hit on a formula that works,” says Johnson simply. “We’ve got bigger and bigger, but the core of the formula has stayed. That’s why this place inspires so much devotion – ultimately, it’s still Joe’s.”

Walking along Ocean Drive, the beach is getting into full swing. The girls at The Clevelander hotel’s sports bar are strutting around in lycra hot pants and low-cut tops – possibly not thinking too much that their bar is named for the Clevelanders (William and Mary Brickell, and Julia Tuttle) who founded Miami proper. At the Delano pool party, they’re probably not thinking that the hotel was named after Roosevelt, and was the tallest in Miami when it was built in 1947 to house military personnel. Much of Miami Beach is shameless, glorious, slightly overpriced fun – but there’s a wonderful story behind so much of it. As for us, we’re simply thirsty, and want a quiet beer. Luckily, it’s happy hour at Mac’s. Some things never change.

(NB: Mac Klein sadly passed away in March, 2016. Still, as of early 2017, his bar had barely changed. I, for one, hope it stays that way.) 

Michelin heads outside Copenhagen

With the Michelin judges finally going beyond five Scandinavian cities, why some truly astonishing restaurants should soon be getting the recognition they deserve

(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, February 2015. Photography by Ulf Svane)

After eating 17 courses at Frederikshøj, it’s hard to know what on Earth has just happened. Chicken egg “nests”, potatoes that look like rocks, edible egg shells, a steaming mushroom forest, and a sugar-lemon-within-a-sugar-lemon, which emits a fragrant little puff of smoke when you crack the outer layer.

With caviar, sea urchin and perfect foie gras to the fore, it’s a bewildering and glorious two-finger salute to the reclaimed wood and restraint of the New Nordic movement – yet every dish from Lebanese-Danish head chef Wassim Hallal is exquisitely crafted and delicious. In other words, this is classic Michelin food.

So why doesn’t Frederikshøj have at least one, possibly two, Michelin stars? Because it’s just outside Aarhus, Denmark’s second city – or, to put it another way, it’s not in Copenhagen.

Until the end of this month, when a new Michelin Nordic guide will award stars to restaurants in new cities, Michelin have only included restaurants in Copenhagen, Stockholm, Oslo, Helsinki and Gothenburg in their Nordic guide.

For all its hype, Fäviken in northern Sweden hasn’t got a Michelin star; neither has Claus Henriksen of influential Danish New Nordic restaurant Dragsholm Slot, on Zealand’s Odsherred peninsula.

Now that Michelin’s Nordic guide is “expanding gradually”, Hallal is unashamed that he would quite like a star or two, thanks very much. “Of course it matters,” he says. “As a person and as a chef, it’s important – I’ve always dreamed about it. A lot of people ask me if I have a Michelin star, and when I say I don’t, they ask, ‘Why not?’”

While Michelin are being tight-lipped about which areas they will visit, Hallal says that two separate inspectors have visited Frederikshøj. “They came alone and we didn’t know at the time. But afterwards they gave us a paper to sign. Other than that, we have no idea – the whole thing is very secret, so I’ll be finding out the same as everyone else.”

If he does get recognised, it will not be a huge surprise. When he was head chef at Molskroen, overlooking the sea in the Mols Bjerge National Park near Aarhus, the restaurant was named the best restaurant in Denmark in 2006.

Since then, he’s only become more ambitious. It took him a year, from idea to execution, to figure out how to use the perfect proportions of black meat powder to make potatoes look like smooth stones. His lemon dessert took closer to a decade. When I speak to him a month or so after my visit, he tells me the new menu features gold paper that tastes like celery.

One thing it’s not is classic New Nordic. “My food doesn’t fit into any box, and I don’t want it to,” he says. “I want people to come here and have a spectacular experience that they couldn’t have anywhere else.” It’s little wonder that Frederikshøj is booked up to two months in advance, with most diners opting for the full 17-course menu (three- and six-course options are also available).

“I could have gone to Copenhagen,” he says. “But my family’s here, and now my business is here, so I want to stay and fight. I want my restaurant to be up there with the best in the world – that shouldn’t be impossible because of where it is.”

As for Michelin, they wouldn’t get back to us about why it’s taken this long to expand outside the main Scandinavian cities. “They’re very good at keeping things tight,” says Kasper Fogh Hansen, the director of communications at the Food Organisation of Denmark, and a fount of knowledge on all things Denmark and food. “None of us know, and they’re experts at avoiding leaks of any kind. They want the launch of the guide to be an event, and it will be.”

Hansen says that the influence of the new Nordic guide’s expansion depends on who you speak to. “On the one hand, it’s still very important – it levels the playing field for restaurants by creating a gold standard, and it’s a massive thing for a young chef to strive to have on his or her CV. Plus, it’s recognised worldwide.”

Still, he thinks that some in Scandinavia’s fine dining community have moved away from Michelin. “A new way of judging restaurants has emerged,” he says. “Whereas Michelin still judges on classic fine dining criteria, things like the 50 Best list have made darlings of the most experimental chefs. The chef community, especially in Scandinavia, have started to rate the likes of Fäviken and Noma as the most influential restaurants. It’s a subject of contention that Noma only has two stars, and there are definitely people who feel like Michelin hasn’t been rewarding the most innovative restaurants.”

After eating at Frederikshøj, I head across Jutland to the west coast, and Henne Kirkeby Kro, an old guesthouse given a stunning modern makeover by wind turbine (kroner) billionaire Flemming Skouboe – and where British chef Paul Cunningham cooks up spectacular set menus of beautifully-presented local ingredients.

The guesthouse has its own 40,000m2 kitchen garden; there are already pigs and sheep on the grounds, and chickens are coming soon. “Most of what you eat here, I can grab from out the window,” says Cunningham. “If you have oysters, you know they were picked locally that morning.”

Cunningham already has a Michelin star for his eponymous restaurant, The Paul at Tivoli Gardens, which closed in 2011 – and he’s a slightly unlikely celebrity chef in Denmark, on account of the understated beauty of his dishes, his cookbooks and his bluntly outspoken humour.

Among the collection of striking contemporary photography at Henne Kirkeby Kro, one shows Cunningham with a giant overblown head, slumped abjectly over a chopping board. A few years ago, he challenged Wassim Hallal to take him on at the Danish Hotdog Championship with a terrorist-style video that played loose with the boundaries of political correctness.

The comparison with Hallal is an interesting one. Both cook up sensational set menus, but their style couldn’t be more different. Hallal cultivates the aura of a serious chef, while Cunningham calls his sourdough Keith Moon and greets diners wearing his slippers. Hallal’s signature dishes are shape-shifting potatoes or golden celery; Cunningham rejects “hocus pocus” food, saying that he does “real cooking, with frying pans rather then machines”. Another key difference is that, while Hallal is odds-on to make the Nordic Michelin guide this month, the chances are that the judges won’t make it to Jutland’s west coast, even though Henne is easily Michelin-worthy.

“You know, I’m old and grey, so I can handle not getting a star here,” says Cunningham. “But it would definitely be nice for the young staff here, for the owners, for everyone involved. Whatever people say, Michelin is still the standard.”

As for Michelin not making it past the big cities, Cunningham says: “I play for Team Denmark, not Team Copenhagen, and it would be nice if that gets more recognised, especially since nine out of ten ingredients they use in Copenhagen come from Jutland. I think people will be a bit disappointed if the guide doesn’t get much further than Aarhus.”

Still, he refutes the idea that the Michelin guide is becoming an anachronism, pointing to the two stars awarded to the Hand and Flowers, Tom Kerridge’s unpretentious gastropub in the English village of Marlow.

As for the new stars of the 50 Best list: “As much as the likes of René Redzepi and [Korean-American] David Chang might see it differently, there is a logic to the way Michelin judge a restaurant – if you serve 20 dishes chosen by the chef, it’s very hard to make them all bullseyes, especially if the diner happens not to like veal tartare with ants crawling on it.”

As Cunningham puts it, “‘What is delicious?’ is as complicated a question as ‘What is art?’” It’s a debate that will get a new injection later this month – for now, all you really need to know is that  in Denmark, as in the rest of Scandinavia, there are some mindblowingly good restaurants that happen to be outside a capital city.

Tromsø: far beyond the Northern Lights

With more people, more tourists, more money and more big ideas, the capital of the Arctic is booming. We head there to meet 3D printers, experimental brewers and a man who wants to take over the world. And you thought it was just about the Northern Lights

(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, February 2015. Photography by Tim White)

English actor Joanna Lumley has a lot to answer for. In 2009, she came to Tromsø to make a BBC documentary about the Aurora Borealis and, upon seeing the phenomenon, burst into a tearful monologue. “I have been waiting all my life to see the Northern Lights… This is the most astonishing thing I have ever, ever seen… It feels as though it knew we wanted to see it so badly… It’s terribly, terribly moving… Thank you, thank you! I can die happy now!”

Lumley’s reaction may have ranked among her hammiest ever performances, but it was hugely influential. Since 2009, the number of visitors coming to Tromsø to see the Aurora Borealis has quadrupled – and just about everyone we meet on the flight there is talking about little else.

But here’s the thing: the Northern Lights are beautiful, and few places are better for seeing them – but Tromsø and its surrounding area are better. It would be worth coming here just to go ski-touring on the sensationally beautiful Lyngen Alps; to watch humpback whales and orcas frolicking in the steel-blue sea off the coast of Kvaløya (Whale Island), half an hour from Tromsø’s harbour; or to take a boat trip on the old Vulkana whaling boat, with its sauna and on-deck Jacuzzi.

Yet this place is more than bucket-list activities; more even than its overabundance of natural beauty. Tromsø is interesting because it’s a real, thriving city. Nineteenth-century visitors, blown away by the womens’ fashion and the sophisticated food, dubbed it the “Paris of the North”, and the Norwegian writer Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson wrote to his wife in the early 20th century that the city is “all Champagne and spectacle”.

While Champagne and spectacle might be pushing it for most visitors, it’s certainly a cooler, livelier city than you might have expected. There are elegantly roughshod bars (try Blårock for great burgers and rock ’n’ roll), more restaurants per head than any other Norwegian city, and more than 50 cultural festivals, from an international film festival to a Sami festival, a handful of music festivals and even a Latin American Festival. It’s got its own philharmonic orchestra, a world-renowned jazz club and an electronic music scene that has produced big names (if you know this stuff) like Röyksopp and Bel Canto.

It’s a place where you can feel a certain amount of history, too. At 11am in the Mack brewery’s Ølhallen (Beer Hall), we meet 89-year-old Ivar Rørnes, who first came to this pub in 1941. The former sailor comes with the other old boys, like good pal Kåre Noreng, most mornings (until very recently, the pub was only open until 6pm), and always orders the same pint – the Ølhallen’s trademark mix of 70 per cent dark, malty Mack Bayer and 30 per cent Pils.

Having opened in 1928, the Ølhallen didn’t have a women’s toilet until 1973, after reluctantly allowing a few bold women from the university to drink here. Before that, it was just fishermen, sailors and trappers, like Henri Rudi, the “Polar Bear King”, who killed more than 700 bears.

Rørnes was “won over” by the idea of letting ladies drink here, but won’t countenance drinking in the “youth department”, the new part of the bar that was built in 2013. “They’ve asked me to have a portrait on the wall over there, but I don’t drink in that part so it makes no sense,” he says.

Tromsø has certainly changed since the days when it didn’t let women into its main pubs (one of the nicest spots in town is Smørtorget, a café, retro furniture store and art studio space run entirely by women).

For starters, it’s bigger, and growing. The founding of the university in 1968 helped see its population boom, from 12,283 in 1960 to around 70,000 today, with 120,000 predicted by 2044. The university has grown to house 9,500 students (not counted in population figures), and not only does pioneering research into subjects from auroras to space science and fisheries, but less likely subjects such as heart disease, linguistics and telemedicine. Thanks in part to professor Asgeir Brekke (see right), Tromsø is home to one of Northern Scandinavia’s four EISCAT radar facilities, as well as the Kongsberg satellite company, the world leader in maritime monitoring and surveillance.

Then there’s business, which is going as well as you’d expect from a place that has started calling itself the capital of the Arctic. Hurtigruten, Norway’s most iconic ferry company, is based here, as is the Norwegian Seafood Council.

Mack, meanwhile, may be a venerable family-owned institution dating back to 1877, but it has a distinctively modern flavour. We visit the state-of-the-art factory at Nordkjosbotn, 70km south of Tromsø, which was opened in 2011 – 16,000m2 of steel and technology, which churns out not only Mack’s 16 or so core beers but a range of Mack water and soft drinks, as well as Coca-Cola, whose secret sweet syrup can be sniffed in a room off the main factory.

Back in town, we meet Mack’s head brewer Rune Andreassen at the microbrewery on the original site, where you can still take brewery tours. He’s about as far as you could get from a corporate stooge, quietly nodding along to Jimi Hendrix as he works on strikingly experimental beers, from a 9.3 per cent Belgian beer to a new a new sour beer using spontaneous fermentation. “The only rule is that there are no rules,” he smiles, which is possibly not something you’d hear from Carlsberg’s head brewer. “Just because we have mainstream beers, it doesn’t mean that we can’t be ahead of the curve when it comes to craft beers.”

Like many people here, Andreassen doesn’t seem to be resting on any laurels. The man who set up most of our trip is Hans-Olav Eriksen, who runs impressive travel company Lyngsford Adventure and is the spider in the web when it comes to a lot of the new things happening in the city. He’s the chairman of the Smørtorget café complex, and is working on building a whisky distillery and developing a resort at Malangen, as well as being a board member of the Norwegian Agency for Quality Assurance. Oh, and he’s also a full-time GP with four kids. How does he manage it all? “No sleep… and self-medication,” he says, only possibly joking, “but my wife is crucial:hard-working with a lot of patience.”

The tall, bald-headed Eriksen has the air of a man who fancies a tilt at world domination, but only after he’s given Tromsø its proper place on the map. His main concern is Lyngsfjord Adventure, whose base camp is Camp Tamok, a series of purpose-built cabins and Sami lavvus in the heart of the wilderness south of Tromsø. From there you can head into the forests on snowmobiles, huskies or reindeers, the latter driven by Roar Nyheim, who’ll tell you what it’s really like to be a nomadic reindeer herder in the 21st century.

“You know, what’s different about this place is that it has a very real existence outside of tourism,” says Eriksen. “When you come on a tour with us, you get a snowmobile guide who’s been driving these tracks his whole life; when you go on a reindeer, it’s with a real Sami reindeer herder. We don’t want to turn it into into some sort of a tourist Disneyland; we want visitors to experience it in an authentic way.”

Eriksen started Lyngsfjord Adventure after an argument in a restaurant in Italy with two fellow Norwegians. “They’re from the south, and they were arguing that Tromsø was just a provincial backwater. I got so angry that the restaurant staff threw me out… Can you imagine? A mild-mannered Norwegian getting thrown out of an Italian restaurant?”

One thing the area doesn’t feel like is a backwater. Even up in the Lyngen Alps, a few hours north of Tromsø, there are signs of entrepreneurship everywhere. In Furuflaten, right by  the fjord, is one of Europe’s less likely business clusters, which is home to an incubation hub and until recently the fancily titled FabLab, created by American techies from MIT.

According to Frode Hanssen, whose Ecotech company produces the world’s bestselling Cinderella combustible toilets in Furuflaten, part of the entrepreneurial character of the area dates back to World War II, when the Nazis built fortifications across the mountains here, known as the Lyngen Line. “The Germans scorched the area, so it had to be rebuilt completely,” says Hanssen. “That fostered a spirit of working together and getting things done, which has stood us in good stead.”

Just along the road from Ecotech’s production facility is Uformia, a mind-bending 3D technology company run by CTO Turlif Vilbrandt and CEO Cherie Stamm, two Americans who were drawn to the area for the ice- and rock-climbing, and the super-fast broadband speeds. Uformia is based on something called digital materialisation – while other systems for 3D printing deal with outer surfaces, Vilbrandt says that Uformia’s operation system could help model a marble and even a human heart from the inside out. “It’s a new kind of modelling that will allow us to echo nature – and it could change the world.”

One of Uformia’s main investors is Tor Petter Christensen, a local entrepreneur who is also in the process of founding Aurora Spirit with Viktor Sørensen and Hans-Olav Eriksen. He drives us up to the site by the fjord where they’re designing a new distillery, where gin, aquavit, vodka and whisky will be made on an old Nato base that was originally built by Germans during World War II. Overlooked by the spectacular Lyngen Alps, it’s a maze of underground tunnels, bunkers and offices with old shipping charts, all with an eerie Cold War vibe.

“Once we have the distillery built, we want to create tourist activities and adventures around it,” says Christensen, “whether it’s dog-sledding or wine- and whisky-tasting. And it will all involve legends about the Northern Lights.”

It’s a slightly bonkers plan, a bit like the idea recently mooted for an underwater restaurant by the harbour in Tromsø. Then again, speaking to Christensen and Hans-Olav Eriksen, you wouldn’t bet against Aurora Spirit being a success.

Eriksen’s other ambitious plan, along with Eirik Tannvik from the Malangen resort, is a Northern Lights observatory with a mountaintop cabin at Malangen fjord, reachable by snowmobile. Over dinner at the Malangen spa resort south of Tromsø one night, Eriksen realises that he wants us to see it. We have interviews lined up all morning, and don’t have time for a snowmobile ride up, so he launches into a flurry of phone calls. Soon everything’s sorted, and we spend that night looking at the Northern Lights from a hot tub, Mack beer in hand.

The next morning, after an interview with Anne Brit Andreassen, the woman behind Tromsø’s most-famous restaurant, we’re whisked off to the airport and marched straight on to a tiny helicopter, which feels like drifting into the sky in a tiny bubble (you can, and should, book a helicopter ride through Lyngsfjord Adventure).

After flying over the town and the steel-blue fjord, we hover over the mountains just as the sun gets close to peeping over the horizon (it never quite makes it). Suddenly the sky turns into a Rothko-esque blue and pink, with the snowy peaks below us looking like marshmallow mountains.

When we land, Eriksen and Tannvik are already there, having ridden up on snowmobiles. Eriksen is like an excited kid, showing us the cabin, which is perched on a mountain’s edge in the middle of beautiful, freezing nothing. “It’s incredible, isn’t it?” says Eriksen, gesturing at the view. And under a pinkish Arctic sky, it truly is an awesome sight. You only wonder what Joanna Lumley would have made of it all.

Mountain, meet fjord

Until recently, Stranda didn’t have the infrastructure to match the off-piste skiing and stunning fjord views. Now that’s changed, could it be Scandinavia’s next big ski resort?

(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, January 2015)

When Field Productions’ Filip Christensen first came to Stranda in 2008, he was “ utterly blown away”. The man behind Scandinavia’s leading ski-movie production company had never been before, but found “one of the most beautiful places in Norway, full stop. There’s backcountry skiing that rivals what you can find in the Alps, and all the way down the mountain you can see the fjord – but, amazingly, no one had ever filmed here.”

Christensen changed that, coming back every winter until 2011, and building a monster jump that has been behind some of the most iconic images and videos of skiing ever shot in Scandinavia – of skiers and snowboarders who look like they’re flying straight into the fjord below.

Swedish big-mountain skier Henrik Windstedt, who is one of the skiers shot for this piece, was there to film for Field Productions’ 2010 movie Side by Side, and remembers, “We’d get up super early, like 4am, and we’d be above the kicker as the sun was rising up over the fjord. It’s just a really, really beautiful place – in terms of scenery, there’s nothing like it.”

But despite being known for having the best off-piste skiing in Scandinavia, Stranda isn’t just for the pros. “There’s a lot of vertical, and you can ski right down to the fjord on a good day, but it’s not the steepest mountain,” says Windstedt. “It’s good for most levels of skiers, and you don’t need to work that hard to get powder tracks all to yourself.”

Since 1957, there has been a T-bar above the little village of Stranda, the centre of the small municipality in the Sunnmøre region that’s known for the famous Geirainger and Sunnylvs fjord, and for the nearby Grandiosa pizza factory, which churns out 24 million frozen pizzas a year (the “refrigerated evil” is so ubiquitous it inspired GrandiosaLAND, a book of frozen pizza-related stories).

Stranda’s first T-bar was hardly cutting-edge, though – back in the late 1950s, 330 shareholders invested NOK100 each, and the first T-bar was locally made and broke down regularly. As the official Strandafjellet website notes drily in its history section, “The ‘employees’ were mostly idealists… It is truly lucky that no one was badly injured.” There wasn’t a café until 1977, and even in 2008 Christensen remembers, “It was all old lifts and T-bars – it felt a bit backward.”

But that’s changed, and fast. In 2009, a new four-seater lift and restaurant were built on the “Furset” side of the valley, followed in 2011 by a state-of-the-art Telemix (chairlift/gondola) and restaurant on the Roald side, with the lift’s 618m elevation the longest in Scandinavia. There are now seven lifts and 18 pistes, even if the main selling point is still the free-ride skiing, which is easily reached from the lifts. You can strap on your skis at the top of the Roald lift, at 1,062m, and ski all the way down to the fjord, possibly making your own tracks all the way.

As of last year, the resort has been owned by a local consortium, which manages the Stranda Hotel in the village as well as the whole ski area (the ski resort itself is seven minutes from Stranda village), making everything more streamlined. “It really is a new era,” says Stranda’s marketing manager, Ellen-Beate Wollen, who also points out a host of other new developments, from a new family ski area to lights in the terrain park, meaning floodlit skiing and snowboarding from 6-9pm.

Wollen says that, while most visitors to Stranda are still Norwegian, more and more visitors from Europe and now Asia are latching on to the area, even if 50,000 skiers a year is a fairly modest number (Åre in Sweden attracts a million).

The Alpepass ski pass gives access to eight different resorts in the Sunnmøre Alps, and Wollen says a lot of visitors are mixing a visit to Stranda with visits to nearby attractions – like the world-famous Geirangerfjord, a beautiful 90-minute car-and-ferry ride away, or a stay at Juvet, the Modernist hotel whose glass-fronted rooms are designed like camera lenses. Many visitors have started taking boat and free-ski tours from Ålesund, with tour company Fjord Cruise Adventures offering trips on the Gassten, one of the last wooden warships ever built.

Part of the challenge is to house all the visitors. Today, there are around 500 beds at the resort and village in Stranda, including at campsites, with 62 rooms at the Stranda Hotel, though Wollen expects 200 new cottages to be built in the next decade. As with Geirainger, a small village that hosts Norway’s second-largest cruise ship port, the challenge is to grow but not sell out.

“Ultimately, this will always be a small place,” says Wollen, “and we want to keep its local character. We want to stay a little village, but a world-class one.”

Part of that means local produce – there are around 160 farms in the area producing milk and meat products, and it’s known for salted and cured meats, especially goat meat and cheese. At the Stranda Hotel you can eat local goat, salmon from a nearby river or trout straight from the fjord.
The other challenge is Mother Nature. If it’s a good season, you can get 5m of snow here, at least double the large Scandinavian ski resorts of Åre, Hemsedal, Trysil and Sälen. Last year, though, was fairly lean until a big snow dump around the Easter period, and the hope is that this year is better. “When it’s good, it really snows, and it’s really fun terrain,” says Windstedt. “It’s long, there’s tree-skiing and there are fun little features everywhere.”

And ultimately, says Christensen, Stranda is unique. “There’s nowhere else you get this mix of fjords and great skiing. On a good day, it’s world-class – great powder-skiing and, always, that view across the fjord. There’s really nothing like it.”

The man who saw the Lights

When Jussi Eiramo stopped his car here in 1973, Kakslauttanen consisted of two reindeer meat storage units. Over 40 years, he’s turned it into Finland’s most famous resort – and he’s not finished yet

(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, December 2014)

It all started with a 20 year old on a fishing trip in 1973. “I was coming back from fishing in Utsjoki in the far north, and I stopped here to camp,” remembers Jussi Eiramo of arriving in Kakslauttanen, a spot of wilderness in Arctic Finland whose name translates as “two reindeer meat storage units”, because that’s exactly what was here. “I remember making pancakes over an open fire outside my tent by the river, and everything just feeling right. I thought: I can start a business here.”

Fast-forward 41 years and Kakslauttanen is probably the most famous holiday resort in Finland. Tourists from around the world flock here to visit Santa’s grotto, take reindeer rides through the thick pine forests and see the Aurora from a zebra-print bed in the resort’s pioneering glass igloos, which have shown up on too many “quirky travel” lists to mention.

Now the resort is doubling in size, with a whole new village containing 45 glass igloos, 25 log cabin rooms, a reindeer racing track and the world’s largest log cabin restaurant, a 2,100m2 space which has its own indoor mini salmon river and a glass igloo bar – all of which should have opened by the time you read this.
The resort already boasts the world’s largest smoke sauna, an ice chapel and the option of renting Santa’s house for a night. With snowmobiles, huskies and the rest, it’s Winter Wonderland tourism gone turbocharged, and a sizeable chunk of the passengers on the flight from Helsinki to Ivalo walk straight off the plane into the Kakslauttanen van.

Eiramo has thought up and designed almost all of the new West Village, just as he did the original East Village. Nearly everything in the resort is handmade using local pine logs, and Eiramo has set up a workshop near the giant restaurant to design everything from the tables to the cupboards and the placement of the wood-carved art. The small army of construction workers and staff has to call him about even the smallest decisions. “He’s a bit like Steve Jobs,” says one. “He has this vision, and everything that happens here goes through him. He doesn’t stop.”

We meet him on a rare break in mid-October. The place should be blanketed in snow, but the weather is unseasonally warm. Still, Eiramo is wearing his trademark fur trapper’s hat and a lumberjack shirt. With his white beard and deep laugh, it’s easy to wonder if his hyperactivity might extend to doubling up as Santa (apparently not, though he does thoroughly brief his two Santas).

He starts his tour where it all started – a little tepee by the roadside entrance to the resort, which looks a bit like a Hobbit home with a barbecue pit open to the elements. Here, in 1974, he started serving reindeer stews to travellers driving up the Arctic Sea Road to the North Cape. Word spread fast that you could get a better meal here than in nearby Saariselkä, a well-known ski resort, and soon Eiramo was building log cabins in the forest to house the people who wanted to stay the night. It was the first time humans, and not just reindeers, had somewhere to stay in Kakslauttanen.

If it all has the whiff of fairy tale, the straight-talking Eiramo makes no bones that he was business-minded from the start, even if most CEOs don’t wear trapper’s hats to work. “I knew we had the road, that we’d have guests and the potential to grow. I always had big ideas, even if they didn’t always happen – at first I wanted to put salmon in the river for fishing.”

Only now is he importing salmon, but Eiramo says the resort, and the numbers of people coming, has grown every year since 1974 – even after the Finnish financial crash in the early 1990s. “In a way it was the making of us,” he says. “The Finns stopped coming, so we realised that we had to target the international travel market.”

In 1991, he got in his car with a brochure and took to the road, visiting travel agents in Germany, Holland, Belgium, France, Switzerland and Italy in a month. He then targeted Asia, realising that many Asian cultures have strong superstitions about the Aurora (many Chinese and Japanese believe that a child conceived under the Northern Lights will be blessed with good fortune).

Today, around 40 per cent of visitors to Kakslauttanen are Asian and 99.9 per cent come from outside Scandinavia. The staff are noticeably international, too – the receptionists are Chinese and Filipino, the chef is Thai, and the sales and marketing manager is from Hyderabad, India (part of her brief is to help target more visitors in the Middle East). Aside from Eiramo’s two daughters, who work on the website and with the gift shop, and the two Santas, there aren’t many Finns around.

Eiramo has an impressive trick of reeling off the various public holidays around the world. He knows that the Spanish come around the first week of December; that the Brits like to come around  Christmas; that the Chinese arrive around Chinese New Year in late January/early February; and that much of Continental Europe has a holiday in late February.

The resort itself, though, is defiantly local. Eiramo avoids buying products off the shelf wherever possible, and almost all of the resort has been handmade on-site, including the 120 works of art, mostly wood carvings created by artists invited to the resort for residencies and programmes. “It’s important that the whole thing feels very Finnish,” says Eiramo, who has created a feel that’s more cosy Santa than Scandinavian design-chic. “We want unique design, not Ikea. People come here to feel like they’ve escaped to paradise with a sauna.” It’s little surprise that every cabin has its own sauna.

By now, Eiramo has taken us to one of his famous glass igloos, the innovation he dreamed up in the late ’90s, and which is now being used by other resorts in Lapland. “I remember seeing Asian people hanging about in -40oC waiting for the Aurora, and just thinking: What if they could do that lying in bed all nice and warm?”

Creating glass igloos wasn’t easy. He approached a Finnish company creating a pioneering new heated Thermoglass, but he needed a design that would work. He hired an engineer to create a plan, but the first prototype was, in his words, “a catastrophe. The main problem was the materials – we realised you needed an iron elastic enough to withstand heating up in the summer and then -40oC temperatures in winter.”

In typical fashion, Eiramo wound up designing the igloos himself, with heated floors, a basic toilet and zebra-print bedding (not all of the design at Kakslauttanen is subtle). “I remember my first night in the new version in 1999 and just thinking: Yes, we’ve got it. In the morning, there were people outside asking how they could stay in one.”

From there, things have just grown and grown. Santa’s village was completed three years ago, with an elf house and reindeers, and the option of staying in Santa’s home overnight. The question is: when does it stop? “I stop when I feel, that’s enough now. At the moment, there are still things I want to do. This is my work and my hobby. It’s my life.”

As to how he feels to have created a world-famous resort that’s almost literally put Kakslauttanen on the map, he’s typically straight. “You know, it hasn’t happened overnight. If it had, my head would have exploded. You don’t get this instantly – it happens step by step, with a lot of hard work.”

In our two days at Kakslauttanen, there have only been the slightest chinks in the cloud cover, and we don’t think we’ll see the Lights. Eiramo, however, thinks differently. “You’ll see the Aurora tonight, for sure,” he says. “I’ve called Pietro and asked.” Pietro? “Yes, the one who works for God.” (He’s referring to Peter.) “I couldn’t get God’s number.”

A hotline to divinity or not, sure enough that night the sky opens up, with greens and purple streaking across the Arctic sky. We see it on a night-time quad bike trip deep into the forest, and can still see it when we pull our zebra-skin duvet over us. Somehow, it seems like Jussi Eiramo planned it all.

How to make a ski resort

Canadian Paul Mathews is the world’s pre-eminent ski resort designer, having created more than 400 of them around the world. He explains the principles behind a perfect trip to the snow

(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, November 2014. Model by Jethro Haynes. Photography by Liz Mcburney)

So the story goes, Russia’s Winter Olympics site started with Canadian Paul Mathews in a private jet overlooking the Western Caucasus in 2000. After two hours he’d seen nothing, much to his host’s frustration. But then, from 15,000 feet in the air, he caught site of a small access road, a river, a gentle plateau, steep hills and bowls. “Whoa, whoa, whoa!” he said. “Turn this plane around!”

Until Mathews saw it, the Rosa Khutor Alpine Ski Resort wasn’t a ski resort at all, just an empty stretch of mountain. After Mathews saw it, $165 million (NOK1bn) was spent turning “Rosa’s Hut” into a ski resort that became the alpine centre for the Sochi Olympics, and briefly the focal point for the world.

You may not have heard of Mathews, but he might just be the most influential person in the world of skiing. Since starting his Ecosign firm in 1975, and making the fledgling resort of Whistler in British Columbia his first project, he has designed more than 400 resorts in 39 countries and helped create five Winter Olympic alpine resorts. If you’re one of the roughly 115 million regular skiers around the world, it’s almost certain that you’ve skied on a resort conceived at least in part by Mathews and his firm. His gift, he has said, “is seeing things that other people can’t see… and not being afraid to tell the truth, even when it’s not what my clients want to hear”.

Ecosign’s work stretches from Trysil and Hemsedal in Norway to Zermatt, Laax and Courchevel in the Alps, Niseko in Japan and many of the new resorts in developing countries in Asia and Eastern Europe. They’ve helped bring skiing to Kazakhstan, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Turkmenistan.

Doing masterplans for both resorts and ski areas, they might rejig a lift network, as in Courchevel; redesign the structure of the town, as in Trysil; or create an entire resort from scratch, as with Rosa Khutor or more recently Changbaishan in China.

“We do it all,” says Mathews over the phone from Canada on a Sunday morning. He spends half the year travelling, and can often be found in helicopters (“I’ve recently been flying round Serbia in military helicopters,” he says). He’s just back from Tokyo, and is about to head to Switzerland where he’ll meet the Beijing bid committee for the 2022 Olympics and show the International Ski Federation (FIS) his latest masterplan, for the Jungfrau-Grindelwald ski areas. He’s straight-talking, chipper and happy to share his encyclopaedic knowledge of resorts around the world, even if we’re stopping him eating his breakfast.

While Ecosign is the leader in a niche industry, Mathews insists “we’re still a boutique firm. There are only 25 of us, and it’s still very personal to us – we see ski resorts in our sleep. Giant architecture firms like Aecom [the world’s largest, with 1,370 architects] have tried doing ski resort design, but frankly they’re lousy at it.”

What they have done from the start is create resorts that work on a “human scale”, which is something of a mantra. “To us, a classic ski resort is a place that’s nice to stay at – where you can ski in and ski out; where there’s little or no traffic; where you can get great food easily; which is in keeping with the environment. I can’t stand those purpose-built French ski factories – it feels like man dominating nature, and you don’t leave the city to be trapped in a monstrous high-rise.” A typical Ecosign resort has underground parking, a village feel, accommodation right on the slopes, and none of his pet peeve – steep, icy, exterior staircases.

A keen skier and self-confessed tree-hugger, Mathews studied forest ecology and landscape architecture at the University of Washington in the early 1970s. After spending a winter in Zermatt, Switzerland, he was impressed by being in a resort with no cars, and became fixated on the environmental insensitivity of many American ski resorts. “You’d see bulldozers and power lines, and every family needed three car parking spaces for their trip. There was a brutality and an environmental insensitivity about a lot of the design, or the lack of it.”

He was soon drawn to the fledgling resort of Whistler, north of the border near Vancouver, admitting, “I just loved the place, the powder, the beer and the Canadian girls, not necessarily in that order.” Still, Whistler back then was very different to the way it is today. Lifts and runs had been designed by ski instructors on summertime hikes, cars ruled and there was little in the way of ecological awareness in the layout of the pistes.

His first job, in 1975, was working on a parking and skier staging analysis for Franz Wilhelmsen, the man behind Whistler’s launch as a ski resort in 1966. After further commissions for Hemlock Valley Resort and Mount Washington in British Columbia, by 1978 he was back at Whistler to create a masterplan for the ski area alongside landscape architect Eldon Beck, who designed the new Whistler Village. Their vision was of a pedestrian-centred space, inspired by Swiss mountain villages, which emphasised community and sensitivity to the mountains. It was a pioneering concept which has not only won countless awards but planted the idea that a ski resort can be seen as a single holistic vision, from the slopes to the car parks and even the slopeside Jacuzzis.

Behind a lot of the plan was the environment. The pistes Ecosign planned moved with the natural terrain, and straw and seed were planted on the ground to prevent erosion. Mathews hired biologists to inventory the mountain’s flora and fauna, and planted trees that mimicked the glading found in nature. He claims to have improved Whistler’s ecological integrity tenfold. “It was,” he says simply, “about respect for the mountain, and not being a knucklehead. With Whistler, we proved that you can create  a big resort sensitively.”

That led to more commissions in British Columbia, then Idaho and Washington, before Ecosign latched onto the Japanese ski resort boom, when the country saw nearly 500 resorts in the mid-’80s swell to around 700 by the mid-’90s. By 1989, Mathews had broken Europe with a masterplan for Laax, Switzerland, which involved a few classic pieces of Ecosign resort planning: creating a pedestrian-orientated central village, and merging ski operators to improve efficiency.

While the environment is at the centre of a lot of what Ecosign does, it’s also about common sense. When he had a brief to redesign Hemsedal in Norway in 1995, he noticed that “monster traffic jams” formed as people drove to the 10,000 tourist beds in farmhouses scattered around the region. “The ski centre was perched on the side of the mountain. It was all very precarious, so we recommended they build the village at the bottom of the mountain, with centralised parking and new units on the piste.” The traffic problems virtually disappeared, and the yearly number of skiers has almost doubled, from around 350,000 to around 680,000.

In Trysil, the largest ski resort in Norway, he told them to get rid of the T-bars and bring in six-seater chair lifts, and to build a large car park at the bottom of the resort, with a new resort village on the former parking lots. This turned the area around the bottom of the pistes into a ski-in/ski-out area. Since 1996, skier numbers have gone from 400,000 to 800,000.

There’s still plenty of work being done on ski resorts in Europe, including the development of Andermatt (see sidebar), but Mathews says: “For the most part, the European Alps and North America are saturated – there aren’t enough skiers to expand much. I’m looking at a lot of resort development in the Balkans – they’re looking at seven potential resorts in Montenegro – and the new frontiers of Russia, India and China.”

Ecosign is already doing the planning for the freestyle skiing and snowboarding venues for the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeonchang, South Korea, and is currently consulting with Beijing over a bid for the 2022 Games (Oslo and Stockholm pulled out of the race, leaving just Beijing and Almaty, Kazakhstan). In the past, Ecosign has worked on Winter Olympics at Calgary in 1988, Salt Lake City in 2002 and Whistler in 2010, as well as Sochi.

So how does the process of creating a masterplan work? It usually starts with satellite images to map areas, calculating solar radiation levels and finding areas with just the right amount of slope to provide good snow conditions. New software originally developed for the forestry industry can calculate exactly where the best snow will be and where the sun will be strongest.

The usable slopes are colour-coded – flat runs are white, beginner runs are green, intermediate yellow and expert blue, while slopes which are too steep are marked red. Foresters and surveyors then head up the mountains on snowmobiles or in helicopters, armed with GPS to work out exactly where the pistes will be and where trees need to be removed. Once that’s done, the team will place transparent onionskin paper over the maps and draw plans in pencil, the same way they have since Ecosign started in the ’70s.

It’s a process that can take up to six months, while actually creating the pistes can take years.
According to Mathews, “The technology has improved, and we’ve improved, but at its core the design process has stayed the same.” Still, ski resorts have changed, and almost entirely for the better according to Mathews. Lifts are three times faster than they were in the 1970s, and the snow cannons more effective, meaning that that skiers can go much further in a day, on more reliable snow.

The joining of ski areas to create mega-areas – as at France’s Les Trois Vallées, with 493km of pistes – is, he says, “good for everyone. It’s great news for skiers and for the environment, because you don’t need a car anymore to find new places to ski.” Today, Ecosign is working to reduce the number of cars going to ski resorts, full stop. Mathews is proud, for example, that 70 per cent of international visitors to Whistler no longer rent a car. The aim of most Ecosign resorts now is to have fewer than one car for every two tourist residences.

“Ultimately,” says Mathews, “it comes down to making a place you want to spend time in. The most satisfying thing for me is getting a pair of skis on and skiing the pistes like everyone else. That’s really what it’s all about.”