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.

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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.

How to live as long as this guy

The Sardinian province of Ogliastra has a higher proportion of centenarians than anywhere else in Europe. We take a tour of the region, and try to learn some of their secrets

(First published in Thomas Cook Travel magazine, February 2018. With photography by Allesandra Spairani)

When it’s time to go outside to have his photograph taken, the ever-courteous Adolfo Melis doesn’t want to keep us waiting, so he runs to the back of the bar he owns to grab his blazer. “Let’s go,” he says as he meets us by the door, with a beaming smile.

None of this would be that remarkable, except that Adolfo is 94, and still runs the bar he owns in the Sardinian village of Perdasdefogu like he’s in his thirties. He gets up at 5am, prays, has some breakfast, then opens the place at 6.30am without fail. Then he prepares the coffee machine, washes cups and waits for the locals of this parish, in the green hills of the Ogliastra province.

But in the Melis family, Adolfo isn’t really remarkable at all. He’s merely one of 11 siblings, six of which are still alive. One of his sisters, Consolata, passed away just short of her 108th birthday; another lived to to 103. In 2012, when nine of the brothers and sisters were alive, they entered the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s longest-lived siblings, with a collective age of 818 years and 205 days. The family have become increasingly famous, and Adolfo remembers when the Italian news did a live broadcast from his bar, as the locals watched in real-time on the TV in the corner.

But today is just a normal day at the bar, where there are pictures of the Pope in between the Chupa Chup lollipops and the trophies won by the village football team over the years. A group of old boys are playing chess, while some youngsters are playing draughts. There are a couple of lively games of pool happening in the green-lit room out the back, and there’s a group in one corner watching the TV, which is surrounded by black-and-white images of the Melis family. When we sit with Adolfo for the interview it’s notable how many of the smiling customers pat him on the back as they pass, or give him a little kiss on the cheek.

In the bar that he built in 1956, Adolfo is clearly at home, as are his guests, who don’t seem under much pressure to spend money. The regulars include Adolfo’s brothers, 98-year-old Antonio and 92-year-old Vitalio, who worked as the local postman for 35 years. “Vitalio would walk 25 kilometres a day to deliver the post,” says Adolfo. “He’s still so fit that he climbs trees to pick olives. He could race you up the street out there.”   

Vitalio [aged 92] would walk 25 kilometres a day to deliver the post. He’s still so fit that he climbs trees to pick olives. He could race you up the street out there.

Adolfo has been asked many times why he and his siblings are in such rude health, and there are many answers. “It helps to be part of a community,” he begins. “Up here in the hills, we help each other, and we get help. We get together, we talk and we laugh. It’s also important to stay calm and not stress about the little things. My faith helps me, too – praying every day keeps me centred.”

Adolfo’s father had a food and wine shop, but also had a farm, which the siblings would work for him, learning to plough from an early age. “We were always working, and we’d only eat what we grew,” he remembers. “My father was one of the first in the area to have a vegetable garden.”

Since he was a child, Adolfo has been eating minestrone soup, which he now makes with beans and potatoes from his allotment, and sometimes livens up with some local sow’s milk or lard. Scientists and nutritionists have come to analyse the soup for possible health-giving properties, which Adolfo seems somewhat bemused by.

“I’ve just always eaten in moderation,” he says, which applies to the rest of his life, too. He’s never smoked, and only drinks a small amount of the local wine. “I don’t like anyone getting too drunk in the bar, either,” he says. “I like a quiet life, and a simple one.”

We hear similar stories on a tour through Ogliastra, which is one of the world’s five so-called Blue Zones, where people live exceptionally long lives. People here are ten times as likely to reach 100 than in America, and more likely to reach the milestone than anywhere else in Europe.

In the hilltop village of Villagrande Strisaili, where the walls are adorned with murals of locals who have lived past 100, many locals tell us about the good air, the good water and the fact that most of the older residents worked as shepherds, and would have to walk up and down the steep surrounding hills.

In Bari Sardo, another Ogliastran village, we meet 84-year-old Emma Pisu, whose mother lived beyond a hundred, like a good number of the locals here. “Her secret was not having a fridge,” says Emma, who helps her daughter run a business making traditional Sardinian flat breads. “Everything she ate was fresh and local. She also took life as it came, didn’t stress, and would sit out here chatting to people. It was a simple life, but a good one.”

Life here is increasingly of interest not just to scientists, but to normal visitors, with an increasing number of experiences based on the traditional good life (see sidebar). On our three-day visit, as the weather turns chillier despite the blue skies, many of the tour companies have closed for the winter, as have Sardinia’s many agriturismos, which serve local food straight from the farm. But we still get a strong sense of the kind of lifestyle – based around strong communities and a healthy, local diet – that has led to so many Sardinians reaching three figures and beyond.

Not far from the pretty hilltop town of Baunei – a jumping off point for many of Sardinia’s most beautiful and remote beaches, such as Cala Goloritze – we visit an olive oil press run by the Tangianu family, which consists of Antonio, Angela and their five daughters. Outside the small warehouse that houses the machinery, 20 local people, most of them of advancing years, have brought plastic crates filled with olives that they’ve picked themselves. For a small fee, the Tangianus will run the olives through the olive press, and the locals will have enough olive oil to last them through the winter.

“Ogliastra olives have a particularly delicate aroma,” says Antonio, a former farmer who bought the press 15 years ago, partly as a way to ensure that his daughters would have a guaranteed income. “We don’t know if it’s healthier than other olive oil, but we do know it’s fresh and local. There was a guy who lives in a farm nearby, who swears that the local olive oil cured his stomach problems.”

Licia, one of Antonio’s daughters, shows us the pleasing process of the olives going through the machine, with the waste coming out of one pipe to be used as fertiliser, and another spewing out crushed olive stones, which can be burned as fuel. Like her sisters, the ever-smiling Licia has another job, running a bakery and coffee shop nearby – but they all help out at the press. “It’s a family thing, as well as a local thing,” she says. “There’s something pleasing about the process. It makes me grounded and happy to work here.”

Doing things the old way is a recurring theme. In the pretty seaside village of Santa Maria Navarrese, which is as quiet as everywhere else in Sardinia at this time of the year, we meet Mariano Incollu, who is making cheese the traditional way, in his kitchen – with a huge bucket of Sarda cow’s milk, some starter cultures and a flame. A former trekking guide, he gave it up for a simpler life, and to be closer to his parents.

Up the hill, near the tiny village of Triei, we visit the Cantina di Talavè winery, where the wines are made the same way they were centuries ago – many using Sardinian Cannonau grapes, which are said to have higher levels than other grapes of antioxidant polyphenols, which are good for the heart.

“We use only local grapes and only ancient local wine-making traditions,” says Vincenzo, a social worker who founded the winery in 2012, with a commitment to employing local people with health problems that stopped them working elsewhere.

“Everything’s done by hand, and we don’t water the vines, so you can tell if it was a dry or wet year. We don’t try to follow peoples’ taste – we follow the local grapes, and the local traditions. We respect nature completely.”

We don’t try to follow peoples’ taste – we follow the local grapes, and the local traditions. We respect nature completely.

The red Amanthosu wine, one of the wines you can try on the winery’s rustic terrace in the summer, is deep, earthy and delicious. “It might not be perfect, but it’s true to the land,” says Vincenzo, who learned to make wine with his father, who had his own vines, like many Sardinians. “Of course, if people like it, all the better.”

Vincenzo says that his journey back to the soil is one that has been shared by many Sardinians over the past decade. “After the financial crash, a lot of people here went back to more traditional, more sustainable production methods,” he says. “And working like this, so close to Nature, it’s not just good for your body – it’s good for your soul. Maybe that’s the real reason people here live so long.”

 

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An American ghost town odyssey

This month, 170 years after the start of the California Gold Rush, we take a tour of Old West ghost towns—an eerie and curiously wistful expression of the American Dream

(First published in American Way magazine, February 2018. Photography by Myles Pritchard)

“To me, ghost towns aren’t just collections of derelict buildings. They’re living, breathing spaces, where people had hopes and dreams. Every nail in every building was put there by someone who once saw a better future.”

Gary Speck, the author of two books on ghost towns and one of America’s foremost experts on the subject, is explaining why these abandoned, often spooky outposts have captivated him since he was a child.

Speck guesses there are as many as 35,000 ghost towns in America—from forgotten railroad towns like Thurmond, West Virginia, to the former border town of Glenrio, Texas, or Cahawba, once the state capital of Alabama. All of them, he says, are places where “the dream was interrupted,” whether by economic pressures, natural disasters, exhausted resources or even a new highway.

The most common types of ghost town, particularly in the American West, are former mining communities: rudimentary and dusty towns where speculators—mostly men—came from across the country and the world to make their fortune. Or not.

The California Gold Rush started 170 years ago last month, when a sawmill operator named James W. Marshall discovered gold in Coloma, in the northern part of the state. According to Speck, the clamor that followed “didn’t just change the history of California, but the whole of America. Back then, it was like the first man on the moon, and it drew hundreds of thousands of people from all walks of life to go west. Before it, San Francisco was a sleepy Mexican mission town and Sacramento was a swampy little supply town.”

While places like San Francisco continued to thrive after the Gold Rush, others saw the dream turn to dust. Today, you can feel that history in places like the Californian town of Bodie, Speck’s favorite example. “It’s the Real McCoy—the state intervened at just the right time, so it looks exactly as it did when it ceased to be a town,” he says. “I’ve been going since I was a teenager, and it gets me every time.”

But the abandoned mining towns of the Old West take many forms, as illustrated by the four I visited on a triangular road trip between Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Yosemite, via Death Valley: Bodie, Calico, Rhyolite and Nelson. Even during their heyday, these places were far removed from the Rawhide romanticism that has hooked generations of schoolkids.“They were tough, dirty places,” says Speck, “and 99 out of a hundred people who came with a dream left broken and broke.”      

In these decaying old buildings, I can still feel something like hope.

And yet, he adds, there’s a profound beauty—a kind of “spiritual feeling”—to towns like Bodie and Nelson. “It’s like experiencing art, when you can’t explain why it touches you. But I can go to the same ghost town 10 times and I still feel something. It might be that, in these decaying old buildings, I can still feel something like hope.”

 


Eldorado Mine, Nelson, Nevada

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It’s fair to say that things have changed around the Eldorado Canyon Mine near Nelson, Nevada, a 45-minute drive into the desert south of Vegas. Where once this was a violent place marked by greed and suspicion, today’s it’s the setting for selfies and alternative weddings, where they’ve filmed everything from Top Gear to Miss Bikini USA and Cirque du Soleil promos. “We have something going on just about every night here,” says Tony Werley, who owns this stretch of canyon road with his wife Bobby.

The drive to Nelson is spectacular, with the little settlement appearing over the brow of a hill, the mountains of Arizona shimmering in the background. For all the wild beauty and blistering heat, however, the only showdowns I see on arrival are between young visitors trying to get the best angle of the 50s-style gas station for their Instagram feeds.  

The town, centered around a mine that opened in 1861, is a curious visual cocktail. The 20 or so wooden buildings are right out of the the Old West, but the streets are also littered with mid-century oil signs and artfully decaying vintage cars. “We’re a family of hoarders, and I guess I collect a lot of old rusty stuff,” says Tony, a big man with a moustache and a cowboy hat. A trained carpenter from Vegas, he bought the land 23 years ago as a very unusual retirement project.   

There were only four buildings here at the time, but Tony enlisted his wife, brother and five children to help bring the old mining structures scattered around the canyon back to the main settlement. Eight of the family live here now, and there are three Werleys buried on the land. “It’s a real family job,” says Tony. “It may be wild, but it’s our home.”    

The family’s affinity for strange collectibles extends to the interiors. The reception building is packed to the rafters with bric-a-brac, ranging from taxidermied animal heads to, bizarrely, a room full of life-sized aliens. Off the entrance room, there’s a mini-museum dedicated to the history of the Techatticup Mine, and the Werleys provide their more stout-hearted visitors with guided tours through its tunnels, which extend deep into the surrounding hills.     

The men who worked the mines were largely Civil War deserters, who nonetheless had no qualms about fighting among themselves. With rich veins of gold, silver, copper and lead, and access to the nearby Colorado River, Nelson became one of the most lucrative mining towns in Nevada. But it was also a tough, lawless places, where murders were a common occurrence.

But what really killed the town was a railroad, built in the early 20th Century across Southern Nevada, which rendered the river steamboats useless. By 1907, the post office closed and the miners moved on.

“It was no picnic being out here,” says Werley. “Luckily, I’m not the sort of guy who believes in ghosts.”

 


Calico, California

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I arrive at Calico, off Highway 15 a couple of hours northeast of L.A., just before closing time.  With the sun setting over the desert hills, the town could be a themed area of Disneyland. There are trinket stores selling dreamcatchers; a Western-kitsch saloon serving Sarsaparilla; the Calico Odessa miniature railroad; and the Mystery Shack, where water flows uphill and tourists in cowboy hats get photographed leaning at 45-degree angles.  

All of this makes sense, given that the town was bought in 1951 by Walter Knott, the berry farmer turned amusement park entrepreneur (and friend of Walt Disney), whose uncle had founded one of Calico’s mines. Having worked as a carpenter here as a young man, Knott created a replica of the town as it was in the 1880s, adding gunfight shows and faux-saloons to draw in the tourists.

For all the yee-haw showmanship, Calico’s short history is very real. With silver discovered in 1881, it quickly became California’s biggest silver mine, and by 1890 the population is said to have grown to 3,500. There were schools and surgeries, a Wells Fargo office, a newspaper and three hotels.

As ever, the good times didn’t last. The 1890 Silver Purchase Act drove prices down, and by 1896 Calico’s mines were no longer economically viable. By the turn of the 20th century, only a few stubborn locals remained.

Near the top of the hill, I bump into cheery tour guide Sheriff L.T. King and his wife Patty May, who are clearing up after a day’s work, still dressed in their period costumes. King used to do stunts for movies and tourists at the Old Tucson Studios in Arizona, where Gunfight at the O.K. Corral was filmed. “I’d grown up playing cowboys and Indians, and the obsession has just never left me,” he says. “I feel at home like this, somehow.”    

He and and Patty met in an Explorer Scouts group as teenagers, and realised they shared a passion for all things Wild West. A little over a  decade ago, when King’s back started playing up, the couple moved to Calico to make a fresh start. Their tours are peppered with nuggets of local lore, such as the one about the ghostly dog who can still be heard barking in the mine.

“We like to say Calico’s not haunted, it’s occupied,” says Patty. “Unlike much of the Wild West, Calico was and remains a happy place.”

 


Bodie, California

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Few ghost towns have thrown up legends like Bodie. If you came to the town in its 19th century heyday, you were warned about the Bad Man From Bodie, a catch-all term for the ruffians who started brawls and gunfights in the 65 saloons that lined Main St. If you visit today, you have to beware the Curse of Bodie, which bestows bad luck on anyone who takes anything from the park.

“We don’t know exactly how the curse started,” says Park Interpreter Catherine Jones, who has worked at Bodie for the past four seasons. “But if it was a ploy to get people to stop stealing stuff, it was smart.”

At the end of a dusty mountain road north of Yosemite National Park, Bodie—California’s official state Gold Rush ghost town—is unlike the other places I visit. For a start, at 8,379 feet-high on a windy plateau, it’s so chilly in late September that I can see my breath as I look out over the town’s 200 or so evocatively weathered buildings.    

Run by the state, Bodie has been kept in a condition of “arrested decay” since the post office shut its doors for the last time in 1942 (before the curse, there were armed caretakers guarding the site from looters). There are still old pianos and decaying mannequins in shop windows, and you’ll find shards of china and square nails scattered among the buildings holding out against the sagebrush. The sense of lives interrupted is palpable.  

With 200,000 visitors a year, Bodie is the king of American ghost towns—but it also did pretty well as a real town. Gold was discovered here in 1859, and more than $34 million-worth was subsequently extracted. By the 1870s, Bodie had as many as 10,000 residents, and the scores of restaurants in town would serve oysters and Champagne. There was more than one daily newspaper, a brass band and even a mini Chinatown with a Taoist temple to cater to the town’s Chinese service workers.

As more saloons opened and more men came in search of a fast buck, there was a corresponding spike in violent crime. The Bad Man From Bodie became a very real risk. But then, in the early 1880s, miners began moving to even bigger, more prosperous towns. By 1910, the population had shrunk to 698; in 1912, the Bodie Miner newspaper printed its last issue, and in 1932 a fire ravaged the town. By the time the post office shut during World War II, Bodie was already virtually a ghost town.

Catherine gives me a tour of the old mine, the Miner’s Union Hall (now a museum gift shop) and the Swasey Hotel, a tilted structure that looks like it might collapse with a prod. Finally, we stop at the modest grave of Waterman S. Bodey, a man from the East Coast who—after a decade of searching—finally found gold in these hills in 1859, only to die in a blizzard later that year. Like so many who came West, his triumph was all too fleeting.

 


Rhyolite, Nevada

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Standing beneath the hulking skeleton of the Cook Bank building in Rhyolite, Nevada, it’s hard to believe that this was once an active town with an ice cream parlor, a stock exchange, a school and even an opera house.

Rhyolite, overlooking a long desert plain just north and east of the Death Valley National Park, could almost be a site of Roman ruins, so decrepit are the bank, the general store and a handful of smaller buildings. You can hear the desert wind whistling through the empty windows, like a faint echo of life gone by.

The town’s glory days began when prospectors Shorty Harris and E.L. Cross found gold here in 1904. By 1907, Rhyolite had electricity and the man behind its most famous mine, Bob Montgomery, bragged that he could take $10,000 of ore from the ground every day. The three-story bank, which dominated the skyline then as now, cost a whopping $90,000.

Almost as soon as Rhyolite had hit the heights, several events set the stage for its decline. First, the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco hit local investors, as did the 1907 Bankers’ Panic. By 1910, the Montgomery Shoshone Mine was operating at a loss. The facility closed in 1911 and the lights went out for good in 1916.

Near the entrance to the town is an unexpected reminder of its demise: 12 ghostly figures, in flowing robes, keeping watch over the desert plain. This dark vision is The Last Supper, which was put here in 1984 by Belgian sculptor Albert Szukalski, who saw echoes of the Holy Land in the lonely vistas of the Mojave Desert.     

More artists were drawn here over the years, and it has become one of America’s strangest sculpture parks. Among the show-stoppers are Lady Desert: The Venus of Nevada (1992), a 20-foot pixelated rendition of a nude woman, made from pink and yellow cinderblocks by Hugo Heyrman; and Tribute to Shorty Harris, a rusting iron silhouette of a miner and a penguin, by Fred Bervoets.

The prospector and the penguin make an odd couple—but, then, so do the crumbling ruins and the modern art in this unsettling place of heat-stroke, whistling winds and unfulfilled ambition.

Getting hitched, Vegas-style

More than 80,000 people get married in Las Vegas every year, many of them at the chapels on Las Vegas Boulevard. We meet the weird and wonderful people making love happen

(First published in Thomas Cook Travel magazine, February 2018. With photography by Myles Pritchard

If you head north from the famous Strip on Las Vegas Boulevard, the famous casinos gradually give way to a quieter stretch on the way to Fremont St and the old Downtown. On this stretch you’ll find many of the chapels that make Las Vegas the wedding capital of the world, with around 80,000 couples tying the knot in the city every year.

From the Chapel of the Bells in the south to the Wee Kirk O’ The Heather in the north, which has operated since 1940, the 20 or so chapels on this stretch tend to be small, traditional places with a healthy dose of kitsch. While you can get traditional weddings at all of them, most offer Elvis Presley-themed weddings, and many have drive-thru options.

And, crucially, while the average American wedding costs US$25,000 and months of planning, Vegas weddings are easy to organise and can be yours for a few hundred dollars. Plus, you get to say you got married in the same place as Elvis, Frank Sinatra, Michael Jordan, Bruce Willis, Demi Moore and the rest of them.

Here, we meet some of the people that make the chapels tick, from Las Vegas Boulevard’s number one Elvis to the undisputed Queen of Vegas weddings. Just say “I do”, and read on…    



The Elvis
Harry Shahoian, Graceland Chapel

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The vow renewal of Alexandre and Sabrina Muniz, a couple from Rio di Janeiro, isn’t exactly traditional. “Repeat after me,” intones Elvis to Sabrina in his sonorous drawl. “I promise… To be your loving teddy bear… to never step on your blue suede shoes… I promise a little less conversation… And a lot more action… Baby.” After the vows, he bursts into an impressive version of ‘Always On My Mind’, encouraging the couple to waltz in the small, yellow-painted ceremony room as their young son and two friends look on.

This is how vow renewals and weddings go in the Graceland Chapel, a quaint little place that was built in 1927 and turned into a chapel after the War, when its Scottish owners called it the Gretna Green Wedding Chapel. But after Elvis himself visited in 1967, in 1981 it became the Graceland Chapel. Now owned by Dee Dee Duffy and her husband Brendan Paul, it hosts 9,000 weddings and vow renewals a year, with around half of the weddings and 90 per cent of the vow renewals featuring Elvis, sometimes in a pink Cadillac.

The Elvis at this ceremony is Harry Shahoian, one of five Elvises at Graceland (there’s a Spanish-speaking Elvis and a black Elvis) – and one of the top Elvises in a city that has hundreds of them. A full-time Elvis impersonator, he also has a gig at the Golden Nugget casino and performs at the Legends in Concert show at the Flamingo, the longest-running show in Vegas.  

“I’ve been Elvis longer than Elvis,” he jokes – though his first gig wasn’t exactly promising. “It was 1993, in [LA suburb] Studio City, and my girlfriend and I were eating at a restaurant when this lady said she was looking for an Elvis for an artist’s reception. I just blurted out: I’ll do it! My girlfriend was like: What the hell are you doing? I knew I had the voice, but I had to paint on sideburns with mascara. At the party, the mascara melted all over my face and I forgot the words to all the songs. But they paid me in full, so I was like: Hell, I should get good at this.”

Now, he’s very good at it. He moved to Vegas in 2000 (“mecca for Elvis impersonators”), and has worked at Graceland since 2006. “There must be hundreds of Elvises in Vegas,” says Harry. “But a real, A-grade Elvis, who has the right look and sound. There aren’t many of them, and I like to think I’m the most diversified Elvis in town.”

There must be hundreds of Elvises in Vegas. But a real, A-grade Elvis, who has the right look and sound. There aren’t many of them.

While many weddings at Graceland are of the traditional variety, 90 per cent of renewals are with Elvis. Jon Bon Jovi, Billy Ray Cyrus and members of KISS, Def Leppard and Deep Purple have tied the knot here, and Bon Jovi even held a concert in the parking lot. Shahoian has walked Meat Loaf down the aisle (“he got a real kick out of it”) and flew to LA for Seal and Heidi Klum’s wedding. “I’ve had porn stars, Portuguese royalty, you name it,” he says.            

Having just spent US$2,000 on a new suit, 45-year-old Shahoian says he loves the job and wants to keep going as long as possible. “I die my hair, and I work out – I don’t want to be old, fat Elvis, though there are guys here being the King long into their 60s. I love this, and I want to be Elvis as long as I can be.”



The Wedding Queen
Charolette Richards, Little White Chapel

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Charolette Richards, or Miss Charolette to everyone round here, greets us in typical fashion – with a huge hug, a bunch of red roses and a song about love. Her two poodles, Lily and Francuis, trot into the picket fence-pretty Little White Chapel shortly after, with their pink painted nails, and proceed to be very tricky subjects in our photo shoot.

Miss Charolette, 82, is the undisputed queen of the Vegas wedding scene, having worked in the wedding industry since the late 1950s. After buying the Little White Chapel in the 1960s, with a loan from a casino boss, she has officiated at more than 100,000 weddings – marrying everyone from Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland to Britney Spears, Michael Jordan, Bruce Willis and Demi Moore.

But while Bruce and Demi reportedly cried with happiness during their whole ceremony, Richards’ own story has its share of heartbreak. Born in Minnesota, she was married at 18, and had three children by 23. Having moved to Kentucky to be closer to her husband’s family, she received a letter from her absent husband asking her to come to Las Vegas, where he’d meet her at the famous Stardust Hotel. “So I drove across the country in a battered old car, with three young children,” she recalls. “When I got to the Stardust, he wasn’t there. I parked up at a motel opposite the Stardust, with by car out front so that he’d see it, and I spent weeks walking up and down the sidewalk, just looking.”

She had four cents in her hand when she was stopped on the sidewalk one day by a man who asked what she was looking for. “When I told him I was looking for my husband, he replied that he didn’t think my husband was looking for me. He told me that if my husband wasn’t back tomorrow, he’d give me a place to stay.” That man would become Richards’ second husband, before dying ten years later.

Through it all, Miss Charolette was still “a romantic little girl in my heart”, but developed a certain resolve as she grew her business, initially because she was so eager to repay her debt to Bert Grober. At the Little White Chapel, she invented the drive-thru wedding when she saw a handicapped couple in the car outside her chapel; and was the first to do hot-air balloon and helicopter weddings. Today, the pretty chapel hosts 200 weddings a week, with some at the drive-thru kiosk out the front.

But interviewing her, she rarely wants to talk about her own achievements. She wants to talk about the power of love, and about making the Little White Chapel a sanctuary. “I want people to come here and feel the safety and love it’s always made me feel. We have call girls come here just to talk – I just put my arms round them, and pray for them. We’ve had three girls from the street come and work here, and they’ve gone on to marry ministers.”

We’ve had three girls from the street come and work here, and they’ve gone on to marry ministers.

The Little White Chapel does have a special warmth about it. “God makes it fluffy here,” says Richards by way of explanation. “So many people could marry in mansions, but they choose here. It makes me cry.”

And, after half a century, her first husband contacted her out of the blue. He was a pro gambler, and had no idea that he had grandchildren. “In the last week of his life, he called every day at 9am,” she recalls. “He kept saying sorry, crying and saying he wished he could live his life all over again. But I told him: Willie, I forgave you a long time ago. On the last day before he died, I told him to ask for God’s forgiveness too. My sons all jumped in their pickup trucks and went to his funeral. The truth is that I never stopped loving him – and I never stopped believing in love.”
 



The multi-tasker
Ron Decar, Viva Las Vegas Weddings

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What does Batman have in common with Austin Powers, the Grim Reaper, Elvis and Frank N. Further from The Rocky Horror Picture Show? The answer is that Ron DeCar has played them, along with many more, to officiate weddings and vow renewals.

Decar runs the Viva Las Vegas chapel, which is flashier and has more possible wedding themes than any other chapel on the strip. On the day we visit, there’s a Beetlejuice wedding, a drag queen wedding, an Elvis-and-showgirls wedding, two Elvis-and-pink-Cadillac weddings, a Star Trek wedding and a Star Wars wedding (more of that later).

“I always thought: why should weddings be some mundane formula?” says DeCar, a very youthful 60, who came to Vegas from Kansas City as a 23-year-old singer and has sung in shows at the Flamingo, the Hilton and the Folie Bergere, the latter for 14 years. He was also a wedding singer who was asked to do Elvis impersonations – which became half of his business, and led to him launching Viva Las Vegas 19 years ago.

“You name it, we can do it,” says DeCar, whose chapel has an events centre (currently hosting the Black Magic male stripper show) and a doo wop diner for 50s-themed weddings, as well as a main chapel, whose doors open to allow Elvis to drive in a pink Cadillac. If none of his 25 staff can play the right character, which is rare, DeCar will call in one of his roster of showgirls, Hula girls and “this guy who does a great Liberace.”

“I just like to have fun,” says DeCar, who is proud of doing LGBT ceremonies since 1999. “I like characters where I can get away with murder. We don’t think weddings should be sombre, serious affairs.”

I like characters where I can get away with murder. We don’t think weddings should be sombre, serious affairs.

As evidence, that afternoon we see a Star Wars wedding, officiated by Darth Vader, played with bone-dry humour by Kalin Ivanov, a 35-year-old Bulgarian who started working at the chapel as a photographer in 2002 and got his break as a celebrant for a Blue Brothers wedding in 2008. Between lots of deep breathing, and with plenty of dry ice, he tells Alberto and Christina Avelar from California to “never show each other their dark side.” When they kiss in front of around 40 friends, most of them in impressive Star Wars costumes, he says “May the Force be with you” as the Star Wars theme music blares. It’s strangely moving.

Like DeCar, Ivanov has played his share of characters. He’s been Dracula, the Grim Reaper, the Joker, Merlin, Jon Bon Jovi and Spanish-speaking Elvis. “They tend to give me the darker characters,” he deadpans. Getting hitched can rarely be this flamboyant, or fun. 



The minister
Carlos Vellesillas, Chapel of Love

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In Las Vegas, even the supposedly conventional ministers aren’t exactly straightforward. Carlos Valesillas, 60, has been doing wedding ceremonies at the Chapel of Love, a mid-century chapel on Las Vegas Boulevard, for the past 11 years – and has some serious stories to tell.

“I’ve done around 20,000 weddings, so I’ve seen a lot,” says Valesillas, who has worked in the ministry for most of his life and has done marriage counselling for most of that time.

“I’ve had a DJ from New York who got married in a bikini, a pole-dancing bride, a woman who has walked down the aisle by her pet dog, who barked when he was asked to give her away. It’s very rarely just normal around here.”

I’ve had a DJ from New York who got married in a bikini, a pole-dancing bride, a woman who has walked down the aisle by her pet dog…

While the Chapel of Love does a lot of traditional weddings, they can also put on everything from Elvis ceremonies to Grand Canyon helicopter weddings, ceremonies on the High Roller ferris wheel and even “shotgun” weddings at a local shooting range.

But while Valesillas says that people come to Vegas to have fun, he’s serious when it comes to marriage. “I like it when couples are getting married for the right reasons – because they really want to commit to a life together, and often start a family. But you do get people who just get swept up in the romance and the fun of it all. There are definitely marriages that happen in Vegas that will struggle to last the distance.”   

Happily married with kids himself, Valesillas says his ceremonies are largely about “how wonderful it is to be in love” – a mission that gives him a sense of accomplishment. “It’s good for the soul to be projecting a message about love,” he says. “It’s something people will always need.”    

Ollie Dabbous: the maestro of minimalism

In 2012, Ollie Dabbous’s eponymous restaurant was hailed as a game-changer that killed stuffy fine dining for good. Now, he’s planning something much bigger—but can he live up to his own billing?

(First published in Maxim magazine, January 2018. With photography by David Cotsworth, originally shot for The Caterer magazine)

Even in London’s frenzied dining scene, few openings have ever been as buzzed as Ollie Dabbous’s first restaurant, opened in 2012 on such a tight budget that he had to bring pots and pans from his kitchen at home.

In a spartan central London space that one reviewer noted looked like a car park, Dabbous’ fresh, pared-back dishes had critics salivating into their sourdough brown paper bags—the Evening Standard’s Faye Maschler, the hard-to-please grand dame of London restaurant critics, gave it a full five stars, the first time she’d done so in years.

A Michelin star followed eight months later, as Dabbous was hailed as a new culinary messiah who’d appeared out of nowhere to slay stuffy fine dining with his eponymous restaurant. Soon, it seemed every London opening was about bare concrete, bare bulbs and minimalist small plates—which was good, because there was a five-month waiting list for Dabbous.

So, five years after being the Next Big Thing, what does a game-changing young chef do next? In Dabbous’s case, the answer is to close the doors on his eponymous restaurant and Barnyard, the even-more-casual Soho restaurant he opened in 2014. He’s planning to open a much bigger venture in spring 2018, with many of the same chefs and staff that worked at Dabbous—including his business partner, bartender Oskar Kinberg.

He won’t confirm reports that it’s set to open in a three-story, 250-seater site on Piccadilly, not far from the Ritz hotel, but does say it will have “the soul of Dabbous. It will be like a new album from the same band—you will see a real progression, but you’ll still recognise the music.”

We meet Dabbous in the Soho office of his PR company. He’s been busy testing dishes, and is excited about a few top-secret ingredients he’s been playing with that “diners won’t have seen before”.

He’s wearing his signature white t-shirt, with a wide neck and high-cut sleeves, and his slightly tribal necklace. His look—one interviewer compared him to Coldplay’s Chris Martin—is probably the most extravagant thing about him. He doesn’t do social media, likes a quiet kitchen and claims to be impervious to all the hype. “I know what I like,” he says. “I’m not bothered about how many Instagram hits I get, or where I am in the London pecking order.”

A glance at Dabbous’s CV gives a sense of where this puritanism comes from. His first real job after high school was at Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons, Raymond Blanc’s two-Michelin-starred institution in Oxfordshire, England. Dabbous learned the basics in this sink-or-swim environment, and went from “being totally out of my depth to becoming a valued member of the brigade.”

He got the buzz, and after four years at Le Manoir toured some of the most progressive kitchens in Europe: from Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck to Noma in Copenhagen and Mugaritz, the Basque institution. “I was massively driven,” he says. “While my friends were getting drunk and sleeping around, I had this almost military existence in my 20s—I’d put my knives and my bag in the car and I’d drive to the next restaurant.”

While my friends were getting drunk and sleeping around, I had this almost military existence in my 20s

When he opened Dabbous in 2012, no one had heard of him. The 31-year-old hadn’t done any pop-ups, and struggled initially to find a PR firm to promote him. But he had a clear vision. “I like dishes that are about simplicity and purity, that are not too ‘cheffy’. I’ve always liked food that tastes as much of itself as possible, and I only want to innovate if it works—there’s no point creating an outrageous new dish if it doesn’t taste as good as a Coq Au Vin.”

At Dabbous, the critics were wowed by simple but somehow magical combinations like Peas and Mint, with a puree and a granita in a tiny bowl; Coddled Egg, served in its shell with wild mushrooms and smoked butter; or a dessert of a frozen sorrel leaf with icing sugar that tasted like an ice lolly.    

Now, though, it’s time to create new iconic dishes. “Closing the restaurants I loved was strange, but it had to be done,” he says. “Some chefs want to build an empire, but I like being hands-on in the kitchen. I’d rather do less and be very happy than do more and be quite happy.”

He insists he feels no more pressure than the first time round. “If it didn’t work then, I’d have been bankrupt and no one would have invested in me. This time, people know who I am. The real pressure comes from myself—I’m still just as hungry to create the best food I possibly can, and to do myself justice. It’s about self-respect.”

If it’s good enough for this singularly focused ingredient purist, you suspect the world may just be wowed all over again.

How Wrocław became a beer capital – again

The Polish city of Wrocław was once a great brewing city. Now, a group of craft brewers are making it the capital of Polish beer again – except, this time, the brewers are making their own rules

(First published in Wizz magazine, December 2017. With photography by Ben Quinton)

To the north of Wrocław’s pretty old centre, in a red-brick former water metre factory, something is brewing – literally. We’re at the mezzanine bar of the Stu Mostów (100 Bridges) Brewery, which was once a cinema for the factory workers, looking out over a collection of pipes and steel vats as the young brewers buzz around the brewery floor.

In those vats, and in the taps at the bar, is an almost bewildering selection of craft beers: think strawberry milkshake IPAs and chocolate mint extra stouts, alongside the brewery’s “redefined classics”, like the German-style WRCLW Pils or the darker Roggenbier with notes of banana and clove. All of them can be paired with a rotating menu of delicious bar snacks, like the signature beer pretzels with cheese sauce and red onion jam.  

When it opened in 2014, the Stu Mostów brewery was the opening salvo in what has been a rapid craft beer revolution in the southwestern city of Wrocław (pronounced “vrots-wav”). The famously liberal city, with its picturesque market square, parks and bridges, was the European Capital of Culture in 2016. Increasingly, it bills itself as Poland’s Capital of Good Beer too.

The city is now home to seven craft breweries, ten multi-tap bars serving mostly local beers, and the Wrocław Good Beer Festival, Poland’s largest beer festival. Craft ales (the term broadly refers to modern beers produced in small-scale breweries) have become such a part of the local identity that city officials are said to be working on a beer map of the city for tourists.      

“Poland was late to craft beer,” says Grzegorz Ziemian, the former investment banker who opened the the Stu Mostów brewery with his wife Arletta, who had also worked in finance. “Even five years ago, you struggled to get beer that wasn’t from the mass-produced brands like Tyskie, Żywiec and Okocim. But Polish people have always loved beer, especially in Wrocław, so the craft beer explosion was a natural evolution in many ways.”

That rapid rise was helped in no small part by the city’s history, which is as colourful as a Stu Mostów cranberry sour ale. The Silesian capital was part of the Kingdom of Bohemia from 1335, then Austria’s Habsburg Empire, before it was annexed by the Prussian Empire in 1741, with Breslau (as it was then known) remaining in German hands until the end of World War II.

Those Czech, Austrian and German influences helped create a rich beer culture, notably with the city’s Schöps beer, a malty wheat beer that became one of the most celebrated in Europe. In 1626, Czech humanist Václav Clemens noted that “a glass of Schöps makes it sweet to live and die”, while Silesian writer Friedrich Lucae wrote in 1689 that the drink “nurtures the whole city”.    

“This really was Beer City,” says Ziemian, who says that reviving Wrocław’s lost beer culture was a major motivation. “A few centuries ago, you’d have hundreds of neighbourhood brewpubs across the city, all producing their own beer, even after Bavarian-style lager pushed the local Schöps out. Even in the 20th Century, under German rule, there were still 80 or so breweries here. Silesia was known as Little Bavaria.”  

A few centuries ago, you’d have hundreds of neighbourhood brewpubs across the city, all producing their own beer

But, when the Ziemians had the idea for the Stu Mostów Brewery, the city breweries had all died out except for Spiz, a traditional German-style microbrewery serving unfiltered beers on Wrocław’s medieval central square. The Pinta Brewery, in the small southern town of Żywiec, had become Poland’s first modern-style craft brewery in 2011 – but the trend was yet to catch fire in Wrocław.    

“I was missing my US craft beers,” says Ziemian, who grew up in Minnesota, where he’d got to know many craft brewers. “Arletta and I saw the lack of good beer here, but we knew how much people here appreciate beer. It was a lightbulb moment of sorts.”  

The couple decided to pursue their “crazy idea”, moving from Barcelona to Wrocław and spending more than two years raising EUR1.5 million to create a state-of-the-art facility, with German BrauKon vats, kilometres of piping and a special sloping floor for drainage. Since then they’ve added Concept Stu Mostów – a hip bakery, food and gift store across the courtyard – as the staff has grown from three to 36.

There have been more than 30 beers, including an Oatmeal Hoptart – a collaboration with Colorado’s Bristol Brewing Company – which won three gold medals at the 2016 Ratebeer.com awards, including best new beer. Now production is set to “double, maybe triple” from its current 400,000 litres a year, though Ziemian insists it’s important that two-thirds of the beer will still stay in Wrocław.       

And to really cement that local connection, head brewer Mateusz Gulej has worked with local historians to recreate, as closely as possible, the original Wrocław Schöps. “That link to the past is really important to us,” says Ziemian.

The Ziemians weren’t the only people in Wrocław who had a lightbulb moment. Friends and beer lovers Karol Sadłowski and Jakub Szydłowski also came up with the idea of a new craft brewery in Wrocław in 2012. By late 2014, not long after the Stu Mostów Brewery opened, the Profesja (Occupation) brewery had moved into a former Nazi parachute factory on the northeastern edge of town.  

The brewery has since produced 37 different beer styles, many of them strikingly experimental, each named after a profession (the branding features Wrocław’s famous dwarves, which are ubiquitous in the form of tiny statues around the city): The Alchemist features a combination of American IPA and Belgian wild yeasts; the Butcher is an American sour red ale; and the Beekeeper is a terrifyingly potent 14-per cent braggot mead made with honey and barley malt.  

Like Stu Mostów, the Profesja brewery produces around 400,000 liters of beer a year; but while Stu Mostów imported the best equipment, Profesja’s ethos is “very DIY”, according to head brewer Przemek Leszczyński. Not only do his team build the steel brewing vats themselves, in a work room next to the main brewery, but he even breeds his own yeast strains. Leszczyński, who also works as a lab scientist and teacher at the Wrocław Medical University, has his own biobank of more than 50 unique types of yeast, including one he extracted from a local brewery which closed in 2002.         

But despite keeping local yeast traditions alive, Leszczyński says that Profesja’s beers are “about looking forwards, not backwards. While the Germans and Czechs are defined by their history, we don’t have those limitations. Here, it’s okay to put tonka beans, coffee, lemongrass or whatever in your beers. We’re very free.”

While the Germans and Czechs are defined by their history, we don’t have those limitations. Here, it’s okay to put tonka beans, coffee, lemongrass or whatever in your beers. We’re very free   

Wrocław is said to have more home brewers than anywhere else in Poland, which is how Leszczyński started in 2009, having studied biotechnology and medical lab analysis. Of his early forays, which won him a national award, Leszczyński says: “I’d brew bigger batches than anyone else, because I had lots of friends. Even now, I have a beer tap at home with my own beer, both home brewed and Profesja’s, even though my wife doesn’t love it.”

Leszczyński’s background hints at a third major reason why Wrocław is a beer city: education. The city is said to be home to more than 130,000 students – and the focus on education includes brewing. The centre of it all is the Faculty of Biotechnology and Food Sciences at the Wrocław University of Environmental and Life Sciences, which has long been the leader in Poland when it comes to studying fermentation, a crucial part of the brewing process. The faculty has taught brewing since 1990, and last year became the first faculty in Poland to offer a postgraduate brewing course.

“We’ve seen the craft beer revolution and we’ve tried to adapt to that,” says Joanna Kawa-Rygielska, the professor behind the course, who local brewers generally talk about in reverential terms. “We try to have as much practical contact as possible with the real industry, and a lot of brewers come here to teach the students,” she says. The brewing courses involve everything from malt technology to beer tasting and the design and organisation of microbreweries.    

Of course, the breweries are happy to help. Most of the brewers in Wrocław have studied at the Wrocław University of Environmental and Life Sciences, including all the brewers at the Stu Mostów Brewery, which takes seven students a year as interns, and the beer makers at Prost, another new brewery, which opened in 2015.

To prove the point, we meet the Wojtek Sulikowski, 26, who is the second brewer at the Złoty Pies (Golden Dog) Brewery, a large modern microbrewery and restaurant, which opened in late 2015 just off the central Market Square. “I’ve got a Masters in fermentation, and the head brewer has a PhD, specialising in malts,” says Sulikowski, while giving us a sip of his new Imperial bitter with bread, fruit and biscuit notes, made in a series of tiny rooms off a nearby car park and pumped into the restaurant via pipes.

Luckily, beer drinkers don’t need any qualifications, and there are many ways to get drunk on quality beer in Wrocław. Aside from drinking house beers at the likes of the Stu Mostów or Złoty Pies breweries, there are ten multi-tap bars across the city, where you can try a selection of mostly Polish and mostly experimental brews. We drink at Kontynuacja, a Scandinavian-style craft beer bar with 18 taps offering Espresso lagers and sour beers; and Targowa, a craft beer and food bar next to the iconic food hall of the same name, where we have pork knuckle with a flight of mostly hoppy local ales.  

There’s an eventual irony to doing so much “research” into Wrocław craft beer. At the Stu Mostów bar, after some serious generosity from the staff at the brewery, we can barely remember where we are, let alone why there’s so much good beer here. But, this craft beer revolution thing… it feels good. And for the brewers here, there doesn’t seem to be a hangover on the way. Na zdrowie!

How to be a getaway driver

After the release of Baby Driver, getaway driving’s never looked so cool. We hear from the people behind those car chases, and meets a group of petrolheads staging fake getaway drives outside Birmingham

(First published in Vera magazine, November 2017)

At the Curborough Sprint Course outside Lichfield, north of Birmingham, I’m watching a robbery – or at least the closest thing that softcore journalists like me get invited to. Leo Sidiropoulos, a local car nut who has worked for Jaguar and Land Rover, is sprinting from his battered VW Polo to grab a briefcase as police sirens begin to blare from a boombox. He gets into the car, which has a giant monkey plush toy called Joe in the passenger seat, fumbles with his seatbelt, and then – amid a screech of tires – takes off round the track, in a hurry.

This is Race Wars, an annual event which was started in 2015 by Shane Lloyd, a colourful former drag racer and nightclub owner from Walsall, who wanted to set up a safe space for local car fanatics who wanted to drive really, really fast – and pretend to be getaway drivers. “I came up with the idea to add a bit of spice and naughtiness to it all,” says Lloyd, who once applied to host Top Gear. He brought in a static US highway patrol car for atmosphere and added a bikini carwash because… well, why not?

“It’s meant to be a bit of fun,” he says. “A lot of these guys are inspired by the movies – the adrenaline, the intensity, the excitement of escaping from something. We give them a place where they can blast the hell out of these cars, but not get in any trouble. After all, everyone secretly wants to be a getaway driver – they just don’t want to go to jail for it.”

Certainly, the mostly young men queueing up for their fictional bank robbery – driving everything from Fiat Puntos to Lotus Exiges and Mitsubishi Evos – have had plenty of inspiration from the movies of late. While Lloyd says he could quote all of the Fast and the Furious movies, it’s ice-cool getaway drivers who have been in vogue in Hollywood over the last few years – and the latest getaway pinup is Ansel Elgort’s Baby in Baby Driver, who drowns out his tinnitus with revved-up 70s rock as he drives.

Edgar Wright’s action-comedy-romance has been a critical and commercial smash, with Empire magazine describing it as a “car-chase opera… a high-octane, tightly choreographed eye-orgy of violence, action, drama and, yes, love”. But never mind Kevin Spacey’s menacingly waspish performance, or the sweet love story between Elgort and Lily James – does the movie pass muster with the petrolheads at Curborough?

“Yes, definitely, though I’d have liked even more driving,” says Simon Ory, an HGV driver in nearby Sutton who is celebrating his 40th birthday – which includes taking me for a spin round the track (literally) in his terrifyingly powerful BMW M4, turning the traction control to zero for maximal drifting, spinning and general showing off, whilst barely getting above second gear.

“The big thing for me is that they use the right car in Baby Driver,” says Ory. “Whether I’m watching a film or reading a report of a real bank robbery, my question is usually the same: what’s the car? A lot of Hollywood movies use these American muscle cars, but in Baby Driver he drives a Subaru Impreza, which is exactly the kind of car a real getaway driver would use.”

Ory is also a discerning consumer when it comes to car stunts. “I don’t like it when car films don’t reflect reality – there’s that scene in Gone in 60 Seconds where the car hits the ramp and jumps a line of cars. I was like: nah, that’s complete nonsense.”

Perhaps the nearest equivalent in Baby Driver comes in the high-octane opening sequence, when Baby – faced with two trucks – does a ‘180 in and 180 out’, a fluid-motion stunt of two 180-degree spins, in different directions, that’s never been seen in a car movie before. I ask Ory about it. “That’s CGI, mate – gotta be,” he says.

Ory may know a lot about cars – from traction control to RPMs and the best tyres for drifting – but, on this particular point, he’s entirely wrong.

I know this because I call up Baby Driver stunt coordinator Darrin Prescott, who might be the hottest car chase expert in Hollywood right now. An all-round stuntman since the mid-90s, he’d been best known for his fight scenes, from Fight Club to The Matrix Reloaded, in which he was the Agent Smith fight double.

But when he got a break as the stunt coordinator and stunt driver on The Bourne Supremacy in 2004, over time he began to be known – in his words – as “the car guy”. He’s since done celebrated car chase scenes in everything from Drive to John Wick, whilst being one of the busiest stunt coordinators in Hollywood.

His style is very much about keeping things real. “With the driving scenes, I love to do as much as possible in-camera [without effects],” says Prescott, who was inspired growing up by Hooper, the 1978 movie starring Burt Reynolds as The Greatest Stuntman Alive . “I don’t like quick-cutting, either, where you’re stitching parts of the gag [stunt scene] together. I like it to play out in one go; I want the real thing.”

The ‘180 in and 180 out’ is a classic example. “I’d seen it in a car show 25 years ago,” says Prescott, “and I’d always wanted to do it in a movie. When I got the concept for Baby Driver, I didn’t just fall in love the idea of setting it all to music – I thought, this is the time for this gag. What a lot of people don’t realise with driving scenes is that you often only get one shot. With a fight scene, you can re-shoot as much as you want. But cars are expensive, so you have to get it right.”

What a lot of people don’t realise with driving scenes is that you often only get one shot. With a fight scene, you can re-shoot as much as you want. But cars are expensive, so you have to get it right.

Luckily, Prescott has his own real-life Baby – stunt driver Jeremy Fry, who’s worked with Prescott on many of his driving films since the Bourne days, including as Ryan Gosling’s driving double in Drive (in which Gosling’s character moonlights as a stunt driver). The pair have been friends since they learned to drift together at the stunt driving school that Fry worked at. Both say the other is the best in the business.

For the 180 gag – which is merely one of a handful of “big-boy stunts” in Baby Driver, like a reverse 270 drift – Fry had to drive at 70mph to get enough speed. “Of course there are nerves when you do a scene like that,” Fry tells me over the phone from California. “We’d rehearsed a lot with cones, but it’s different when you’re there with real trucks, crew and concrete walls. What you see in the movie is exactly what we did.”

Like all Prescott and Fry’s films together, authenticity is important – hence, as he always does in driving movies, Fry took the star to the track for training. “Ansel was a quick learner, like a lot of these guys are,” says Fry. “He may not always be driving, but it’s important that he looks the part. He has to know, for example, that if you’re going to whip a car round, it’s not a huge turn on the steering wheel – it’s gentle.”

Elgort learned the notoriously delicate skill of drifting, and was such a quick learner that he does actually drive in a lot of the movie (for much of the time, actors sit in a contraption known as a Biscuit Rig). “He drives for real in quite a few challenging scenes,” says Fry. “Like the one where he steals an old lady’s Chevy Capri and sees that she’s left her purse, so he powers the car round to give it back.”

Both Fry and Prescott say that filming Baby Driver in Atlanta was up there with their best experiences in the movie industry. “It’s not just that it was so much fun,” says Prescott. “I think it could really stand the test of time and be known as an iconic car chase movie. It’s probably the film I’m most proud of.”

Back at the Curborough Sprint Course, though, things are a little different. One guy’s jeans almost fall down as he sprints to get his briefcase; another wastes almost ten seconds because he’s yanking his seatbelt too hard and it won’t budge (here, helmets and seatbelts are mandatory). Still, the driving is so ferocious and skilful that I’m too intimidated to have a go in Shane’s beaten-up Mazda MX-3 (as a would-be getaway driver, I haven’t even made it to the bank).  

As for Sidiropoulos, he clocks in at 97.03, which is a brilliant time given that he’s driving an un-modified Polo that he bought from a farmer after financial difficulties forced him to sell a sportier Honda Civic. But, alas, he’s up against the likes of a modified Subaru Imprezas and Ory’s beastly BMW M3 – and his time means that he doesn’t get to the fictitious safe house in time.

In Race Wars, that means he’s arrested, though the monkey will get off scot-free. “It’s not exactly a Hollywood ending, is it?” he says, deadpan. Getaway driving, alas, may not be a viable career option – something even Baby Driver might know.

Üdvözlet, Blade Runner

With Blade Runner 2049 shot entirely in Budapest, times have never been so good for the Hungarian film industry. We take a trip to the city’s two biggest studios

(First published in Wizz magazine, October 2017. Photography by Ben Quinton)

If you watch Blade Runner 2049 this autumn, one fact may escape you about the movie’s depiction of a dystopian future California: that it was shot almost entirely in Budapest, mostly in enormous sound-proof rooms at its two largest studios.

Over the last decade, Hungary has quietly become Hollywood on the Danube. It is now the second biggest filming location in Europe, second only to the UK. When Steven Spielberg wanted to shoot multiple cities for Munich (2005), he chose Budapest to stand in for Rome, Paris, London and Munich.

When Ridley Scott wanted a studio to stand in for Mars in The Martian (2015), he brought 2,000 tonnes of red sand into the giant 6,000sqm Soundstage 6 at Korda, Hungary’s first major modern studio, which was built a decade ago. The list of foreign movies and shows filmed here is long, and growing, from Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy to Die Hard 5 and Angelina Jolie’s In the Land of Blood and Honey.

“It really is a golden age for the film industry here.”

“It really is a golden age for the film industry here,” says Ildikó Kemény, a producer and the managing director of Pioneer Productions, a prolific company who were recently the local partners on Atomic Blonde with Charlize Theron, which filmed primarily in Budapest.

“Budapest has become such a film-friendly city,” she says. “In terms of shooting on location, it’s incredibly chameleon-like – because of its wide architectural influences over the years, it can stand in convincingly for Paris or Moscow within just a few streets. But it has also developed a very healthy infrastructure. Foreign companies are realising that they can come here and get it all.”

Hungary has a long history of film-making, and a relatively long history of welcoming foreign productions, with a steady stream since the mid-1990s, when Evita came to Budapest after Argentines protested against Madonna playing their national icon (Budapest, naturally, was a convincing Buenos Aires).

But the big moment that turned it into a film-making centre was in 2004, when the government introduced a 25 per cent tax rebate for movies being made here. “That changed everything,” says Adam Goodman, an Englishman who established Mid Atlantic Films in 2005 with American partner Howard Ellis. A freelance film producer, he’d spotted an opportunity in Budapest, having been asked to co-produce action-fantasy movie Eragon for 20th Century Fox. Goodman and his team have since worked on most of the big Hollywood productions to come here, from Hellboy II to Hercules and The Martian.  

“It used to be that Prague was the go-to, but the tax incentive changed things overnight,” says Goodman. “Today, Budapest is no longer a poor relation to other film capitals in terms of quality, and it has a lot of advantages. One factor is that stars love coming here – they can stay in hotels like the Four Seasons or the Ritz-Carlton, eat world-class food, and go round the city relatively un-molested. When Ridley Scott and Matt Damon were here for The Martian, they had an amazing time.”

Now, the only real problem is too many films wanting to come, and the possibility of the hitherto-tolerant locals getting impatient with so much filming on their doorstep. On our visit, in a taxi not far from the Szechenyi baths, we spot a group of trucks and camera equipment that the driver informs us is for The Spy Who Dumped Me, a comedy that will star Mila Kunis when it opens next year. With a shrug, the driver says he sees film crews in the city most days.

The second big moment in Budapest’s recent development was the opening of the Korda Studios in 2007, outside the wine-making village of Etyek. Funded in part by Hungarian entrepreneur Sándor Demján, who comes from Etyek, and named after the great Hungarian-born director Alexander Korda, it boasts Medieval, Renaissance and New York City backlots on top of its six soundstages (those enormous, soundproof rooms), including one of the biggest in Europe.

“Budapest used to be just a location city,” says Daniel Kresmery, Korda’s Head of Production and Development. “But having studios like this has changed that, and now it’s a one-stop shop for everything you need to make a movie. It used to be a lot of period films here, especially spy films that needed Soviet-style locations. Now we’re as much about sci-fi and fantasy.”

Kresmery points to Korda’s Renaissance backlot as an example, which has recently stood in for the entrance to The Vatican in TV series The Borgias, and the mythical Oz in the more recent show, Emerald City.

Blade Runner 2049 – which filmed at Korda and the Origo Studios, another impressive facility that opened in 2010 – will likely be the highest-profile example of Budapest sci-fi to date, and there’s a notable aura around the movie. “We’ve never seen so much secrecy around a movie,” says Kresmery. “There were nearly 1,000 people in the city for nine months, but they were militant about no pictures, and nothing being leaked, except for a few shots of Harrison Ford having fun in town.”

Budapest welcoming Hollywood with open arms has clearly been a success, but what has it meant for local workers and the local film industry? According to Pioneer Productions’ Kemény, a Hungarian who studied and worked as a producer in the UK before coming home, it’s mostly been good news. “The influx of Hollywood films has created more competition locally, and has helped Hungarian film-makers raise their game. It’s also meant that local crews are world-class, because they’re used to working with the biggest and best in the industry.”

Recent Hungarian success stories include Son of Saul, directed by László Nemes, which was set at Auschwitz (though shot in Budapest) and which won Best Foreign Language film at the 2016 Oscars. Kemény also says that Hungarian cinema is thriving, pointing to Kincsem, the story of the iconic Hungarian racing horse, which drew 374,500 Hungarians to the cinema, breaking the box office record for a Hungarian film.

Kincsem and Son Of Saul are both examples of another thing the local movie industry is getting right. Both were funded by the Hungarian Film Fund, which was the brainchild in 2011 of respected Hungarian-American producer Andrew Vajna, who has brought the likes of Escape to Victory and Evita to Budapest. According to Kemény, it means that Hungarian films “have a chance to make it, though there’s a strict process for films to get through. It’s a fair system, though, and it means that good quality local films or shows can get made.”

Kemény is also a producer on Budapest Noir, an adaptation of the 1930s-set Hungarian crime novel, which is due for release this November, directed by Éva Gárdos. “It’s a great script and a substantial production,” says Kemény. “Hopefully it will be another example of the system working for Hungarian films as well as international blockbusters.”

Certainly, it’s good news if you work in or study film in Budapest. Kemény fought for a rule that means that all productions shot in Hungary should have at least five Hungarian trainees, most of them from local film schools. And there’s more work than ever for local crews, whether you’re a grip, a gaffer, an assistant producer or whatever.

At Origo Studios, we meet Ádám Fillenz, who has just finished a long day as a camera operator on The Alienist, an upcoming American period drama starring Daniel Brühl, Luke Evans and Dakota Fanning. Fillenz has worked on many big productions, from Hercules to Inferno and Marco Polo, but he has also been a  cinematographer on smaller movies, including Pál Adrienn, which has won a handful of awards and was screened at Cannes in 2010. He’s now finishing an arthouse movie called Hier, shot in the Moroccan desert.

“I get the best of both worlds,” he says. “It’s great experience working with the best people in the industry on productions like The Alienist, and it means crews here really know their stuff. Then again, it’s nice to work on smaller productions and have more control. If there’s a negative, it can be that local crews get so busy with international productions that there’s no time for smaller ones – but, overall, it’s great.”

After we speak to Fillenz, we get a sneak peek into the now-empty Soundstage 6 at Origo Studios, where many of the scenes from Blade Runner 2049 were filmed. It’s staggering, in this huge room with its strangely muffled sound, to think that a thousand people were here, and that US$200 million was spent creating a futuristic dystopia for Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford and co to roam around in.

But all you have to do is go and see the movie – and to suspend disbelief. Because it’s not dystopian California in 2049. It’s really just Budapest.   

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.

Dreaming of Ohrid

The Macedonian city of Ohrid may be one of Europe’s most talked-about tourist destinations, but its famed lake is still a picture of serenity

(First published in Wizz magazine, August 2017. Photography by Allesandra Spairani)

Hristo the boatman, aka ‘Elvis’, doesn’t lack confidence. “I am the outstanding man in Macedonia,” he informs us, standing on the edge of Ohrid’s harbour, just above his little metal boat. “I am born to rock. Some guys from Hollywood came recently and told me I should be an actor. I’m not Brad Pitt or Mel Gibson, but I’m good at being me.”

In the evenings, being Hristo involves dressing up as Elvis to take passengers out for gentle tours of Ohrid’s beautiful lake, powered only by a tiny outboard motor. He’s been taking tourists out from the main harbour on his traditional kajche boat for 32 years, and has been an Elvis fan since he was a 14-year-old listening to the Voice of America radio station. “When I first heard Elvis, it was like hearing a voice from the depth of the ocean,” he says.

Guys like Hristo are the main men in Ohrid, a city of 40,000 people that is defined in many ways by the water that it sits on. The 30km-long Lake Ohrid is one of the deepest and oldest in Europe, and home to more than 200 endemic species. It has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1979, but the main thing that will strike you is simply its beauty, with tree-covered foothills and valleys sloping down to water so clear that it’s said that you can see the bottom up to a depth of 21m.

The lake provides a gorgeous backdrop to just about everything that happens here, and it’s helped Ohrid gain a reputation as one of Europe’s up-and-coming destinations, with Lonely Planet naming it in its top 10 cities to visit in 2017.

It’s a simple place to explore because, aside from the churches and the imposing 10th-century fortress overlooking the city, most of the magic here happens by the water. From the old town, with its narrow streets and little shops selling pearls and woodcarvings, a rickety wooden boardwalk takes you beneath a limestone cliff to a stretch of tiny pebbled beaches, tree-shaded jetties and restaurants with terraces jutting out across the lake. A typical afternoon here might take you to the restaurant at Potpes beach for a Skopsko beer, some spicy pindjur aubergine dip and a plate of fried plashica, a tiny local fish whose scales are also used as a key ingredient in the emulsion that coats Ohrid’s famed pearls.

Then you might wander further along the lakeside for a boat ride with Ljupcho Masov, who looks like Macedonia’s answer to Sean Connery, and who has been taking tourists out for the past 35 years. Recently joining him for the ride is cute dog Max, who pokes his head over the bow of the little boat as Ljupcho drives, looking cool in battered denim and a captain’s hat. Ljupcho lives by the water on this part of the lake with his son Ivo, who at 21 has been working the boats for almost six years.

“This little jungle is my spot,” says Ljupcho, gesturing at the jetty strewn with fishing nets and trees shading his little boat. “It’s my happy place.”

“This little jungle is my spot. It’s my happy place.”

At the far end of this stretch, up some steep stone steps, is the Church of St John at Kaneo, a Byzantine structure that perches on the rocks over the lake. It’s as spectacular a location for a church as you’ll see, and it made the cover of National Geographic magazine’s 100 Places That Will Change Your Life special issue last year.

That this is the defining image of Ohrid makes sense. The city once had 365 churches, one for every day of the year, and though the number is smaller today, there are still multiple red-brick Byzantine churches across the city – so much so that it is still often referred to as ‘the Jerusalem of the Balkans’. Today, there’s also a lively Muslim part of town, home largely to ethnic Turks and Albanians, where a mosque sits happily opposite a Byzantine church.

“Everyone gets on here,” says Antonio Ristevski, a local who has been a tour guide for 10 years, and was the 32nd of the now 600 people in Macedonia with guiding licenses. “In more than 2,400 years here, we’ve had many layers of civilisation, from the Ottomans to the Venetians and the Communists. It gives the city a soul, and it means that people are very open.”

That openness definitely extends to tourists, and there’s great hospitality everywhere. There may be European destinations with more sophisticated hotels and restaurants, but there can’t be too many with friendlier hoteliers and restaurateurs, or offering better value, especially given the location.

The welcome is summed up one afternoon, when we’re lost looking for one of Ohrid’s traditional boat-makers. We’re approached by an old, slightly frail man who, without speaking, opens his hand and offers us a bunch of fresh cherries. It seems to sum up this generous-spirited place, where the friendliness seems wholly authentic, even if tourists are undoubtedly its economic lifeline.

While history, culture and people are a large part of the charm, a trip to Ohrid is really about exploring the lake, which is surrounded by little villages and bays. Most visitors take the day-long boat trip to the St Naum monastery, which brings you 29km south across the water, passing little bays and settlements along the way.

The monastery is another gorgeous piece of Byzantine architecture, with peacocks roaming freely across its terracotta roofs. With boatloads coming to see it, it’s definitely touristy, but charmingly so. Down the steps from the monastery, Restaurant Ostrovo (restoranostrovo.com.mk) is a buzzing institution, with its rushing waiters, home-style cooking and groups of Balkan tourists bursting into song as the folk band plays. Many of the seats are in shady cabanas overlooking a lush lakeside spring, with crystal-clear green water, which you can tour in little rowing boats.

While Naum can be hectic, it’s easy to get away from crowds around Lake Ohrid, whether renting a bike or car, or just wandering round the lakeside. A drive or healthy bike ride away, Trpejca is a charming former fishing village that rises gently into the surrounding hills and has been dubbed ‘the Macedonian St Tropez’. And locals tend to agree that Ljubanista beach, 25km south of Ohrid, is the best on the lake; its golden sands and turquoise water are overlooked by the looming Galičica mountain, the highest point in the national park of the same name.

And if you’ve had enough of relaxing and watching the gentle rhythms of the lake, you can take to the sky for a different view. Fly Ohrid (flyohrid.com)is a paragliding company set up in 2008 by a group of local paragliders, led by Kristijan Temelkoski, a 33-year-old who is part of the Macedonian national paragliding team and has won world cup events. Last season, the company took more than 1,500 people up for tandem paraglides, many of them taking off from high in Galičica national park and landing just behind the Ljubanista beach.

“It’s getting better every year, as more and more people discover this place,” says Temelkoski, who is a ski instructor in the winter and also runs paragliding training courses after the summer season ends.

While it’s too windy on the day we plan to go flying, Temelkoski and his partner Boris Sazdov drive us up a dramatic winding road to the takeoff point, near the Magaro peak at 2,420m above sea level. From here, you can see the whole span of the lake, with its many bays and towns. It’s a magical view, even if we’re disappointed we can’t run down the slope and into the sky.

After another drive around the lake, we find ourselves back in Ohrid, at the lakeside terrace of Kaj Kanevche (restaurantkajkanevce.wixsite.com). As we dive into a light lunch of sarma – a tasty Macedonian dish of rice, minced meat and spices wrapped in cabbage leaves – we hear a sharp call, interrupting the serenity.

It’s Hristo, doing an Elvis-inspired jig on the bow of his boat. We wave, and he continues on his way, chugging gently towards one of the world’s most spectacular churches. It’s just another afternoon on the lake.

How we made: American Way, January 2017

The American Way relaunch issue in January was a big challenge. Big client, big expectations, small team in London.

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Ink had moved its whole content operation for American Airlines from Dallas to Miami, which involved a new team and a new vision for the magazine. In the interim, we had to produce a few issues, culminating in the January relaunch, whilst simultaneously hiring and bedding in a new Miami team. At the same time, we were also producing a relaunch issue for Celebrated LivingAmerican Way’s sister title, available in premium cabins. It was an intense few months.

Along with design director Jamie Trendall and US editor Chris Wright, we wanted to give American Way an injection of energy and spark – to come up with a fresh vision that does justice to the world’s biggest airline, and the huge and gloriously diverse country it represents. We wanted something that was smart punchy and fun, but which still had a mass-market appeal, and wouldn’t alienate a very broad readership. It also needed to capture American Airlines’ entertainment tie-ins, from the Golden Globes to the Brits. The plan, broadly, was a magazine big on entertainment and travel, almost like Empire magazine in the air.

A star still made most sense on the cover, but we wanted those covers to shout: to be packed with cover lines, and stories that hopefully begged to be read. We wanted the stars to be shot in an inclusive, warm, unguarded way, ideally with a sense of humour – and inside to have interviews that really told you a story about a human being.

What we came up with was Need to Know, where every issue there would be 21, 25 or however many things you need to know, covering the classic touchpoints –  food, culture, travel, rising stars etc – but in a  clean, instant, very readable format. Headlines would be bold, declarative statements, and there’d be a sense of directness, urgency and confidence to it, a bit like the best Buzzfeed lists. You need to know that… this guy’s the next big thing, this is the dish everyone’s talking about, this is the place.

If Need to Know was kind of the magazine’s voice, we wanted more voices in there, so we came up with a mini-section, called – surprise surprise – Voices. They key thing here was engaging and compelling little stories, direct from interesting people. We wanted big, interesting names, with quote headlines drawing the reader in.

In terms of features, beyond the cover interview, we introduced a new regular feature, Neighbourhood Watch, where we’d take a tour of part of a city, meeting the locals. Part of the idea was to have a regular property that we could create video content around (the strategy was designed to work better in digital formats, too). Otherwise, we wanted the features to have the same sense as the rest of the magazine: bold, confident, but warm and fun. We generally wanted people in the magazine to be unguarded, happy, optimistic. We wanted it to feel like a celebration of people and places.

Any magazine launch is always an exercise in getting as close as you can to that ideal vision, which you never quite achieve. For this one, I don’t think we were a million miles away, despite limited time. The Need to Know section had some fun little pieces in it, from plastic dinosaurs that had become an Instagram sensation to a bizarre Elvis festival in Australia and a longer read about the first ever Superbowl, 50 years earlier. We also had a little interview with ethereal rising star Anya Taylor-Joy, who was about to appear in Split with James McAvoy, and covered food with a story about Noma founder Claus Meyer and the latest of his many New York ventures.

We were proud, too, of the Voices section. With Trainspotting 2 and The New Celebrity Apprenticeout in January, we had two big-hitting voices in Irvine Welsh and Arnold Schwarzenegger. While Irvine Welsh wrote us a little piece about being a Scot in America, I had a very surreal phone call with Arnie, whose lines about movie catchphrases and psychologically grinding down his opponents were well-worn but brilliant nonetheless.

The features just about worked, with a few little caveats. After a lot of back and forth, we didn’t manage to sort a shoot with cover interviewee Jimmy Fallon (who was due to host the Golden Globes). Part of the concept was always doing bespoke shoots, which we’ve managed since. Still, I think the set of images we bought was fun, and had the tone we were looking for. We’d also tried to get Cuba in there, as it was a destination the client wanted to push. We based the story on a beautiful photography set on crumbling Havana mansions, though in hindsight and with more time, I think we could have gone for something a bit more dynamic, fun and contemporary.

The next two features were dynamic, though – a list of 17 big trends for 2017, all using different sources, and a Soho Neighbourhood Watch that took in dandies, bar owners, neon artists and an old Italian maitre d’ dubbed the Queen of Soho. A few months later, we also produced a video linking to the story, with Bar Termini owner Tony Conigliaro showing us his Soho. See it here.

Finally, on the back page we had travel tales from Hannah Simone, the best friend in the sitcom New Girl. Tonally, it felt about right: a star talking travel in a frank, unguarded way.

As always, we’d have loved more time, but in the end we think we set a good tone, which the new team in Miami have taken on. According to independent figures, engagement with the magazine has gone up by 13%. You can read that relaunch issue here, and see what we simultaneously did with Celebrated Living here. You can also see the American Airlines content suite in digital form here.

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Meeting the fisherpoets of Oregon

As the 20th annual FisherPoets Gathering kicks off in Astoria, Oregon, meet the fishermen and women who plumb emotional depths as well as literal ones

(First published in American Way magazine, February 2017. With photography by Malte Jaeger)

In the winter of 1998, in the waterfront town of Astoria, Oregon, a handful of fishermen got together to do something fishermen rarely do: recite verse. Around 40 budding poets came to the Wet Dog Cafe, Astoria’s oldest microbrewery. By the end, according to one of them, there were lots of “big, burly fishing dudes with tears in their eyes.”

This month, the FisherPoets Gathering enters its 20th year, with performances in venues across town. In the words of the website, visitors can expect “deckhands and skippers, cannery workers and shipwrights, young greenhorns and old timers, strong women and good-looking men.”

Last year, around 1,500 people paid $15 for the button that gives access to all the events over the weekend—mostly open mic readings delivered by around 100 poets with commercial fishing experience.

“We’re adamantly non-commercial and real inclusive,” says Jon Broderick, a fisherman and former high school teacher who organized the original event, and who still plays a big role. “The whole thing is authentic, not polished. The experiences are genuine, and the songs and poetry are honest.”

“It’s a real love fest,” says Dave Densmore, an old-school captain who has been fishing since he was 12 years old. “Most of us are talking about something we love and have given our lives to.”

Densmore doesn’t see any disconnect between casting nets and writing verse. “There’s real poetry in fishing,” he says. “You can’t live that close to nature without seeing the spiritual side of it.”

There’s also, for Densmore, an element of changing perceptions. “We want to show another side to this industry. Show people that there’s a human story behind that piece of fish in Styrofoam: blood, sweat and tears; a guy who missed Christmas with his family; a guy who lost a finger.”

Stories are not in short supply among the men and women who gather in Astoria, a town where the logging and fishing industries have largely given way to microbreweries, art galleries and “a sort of shabby cachet” in the words of one fisherpoet. We meet some of the people who will be telling them.

Jon Broderick

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The bay is flat and greasy
and the mudflats feel like Mars.
Past buoys long neglected
we head south among the bars
Where sometimes the sea is breaking
when it kicks up hard southeast
and water, dark and angry,
tries to swamp you on the beach.

from “Hell to Pay”, by Jon Broderick

Now 62, the founder of the FisherPoets Gathering has been a commercial salmon fisherman since 1976. He lives in Cannon Beach, Oregon, and fishes with his four sons in Alaska’s Bristol Bay each summer.

“From that first phone call 20 years ago, people have been remarkably enthusiastic. Of the 41 people I contacted who’d written poetry in The Alaska Fisherman’s Journal, 40 showed up. It’s created a sort of fisherpoetry genre that’s now thriving around here.

“Fishermen are often natural storytellers and some of their experiences have been tough. At our Saturday afternoon story circle a few years ago, a fellow was telling about a terrible accident in the 1980s when he and his partner got wrapped up in the trawl. His partner was killed and the guy was pinned to the net reel for three days in the winter while his boat idled along. He was nearly dead when the last pass of the Coast Guard plane spotted him. The diver who saved his life showed up at the story circle. They hadn’t met for over 25 years. It was a pretty moving reunion.”

Moe Bowstern

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Recall the oily lazaret
Where we stored spare web for patches
We’d flip for chores—who lost that bet
Ventured through those nether hatches.
Chances lost and fish holds plugged,
Words at the galley table;
Exhausted, laboring as if drugged,
When we were young and able.
Round and round Alaska’s bays
We hauled the seine in circles.
Now 20 years on, we tell play by plays
Like amateur Studs Terkels.

—“Old Parts”, by Moe Bowstern

An artist, writer and musician, Bowstern became a deckhand and cook in Kodiak, Alaska, at age 18. Working on commercial fishing boats on and off since, she is also the founding editor of fishing-themed zine Xtra Tuf.

“When I was 22, in normal life, I was too loud,too everything. But up in Alaska I wasn’t enough. You need to get stronger, mentally and physically; you have to become a badass.

“It could be lonely on board commercial fishing boats—people grunt, stop talking, stop being human—but there’s also so much beauty. It can feel like the stars are raining down on you.I wouldn’t trade comfort and hot water for the sight of the Pleiades on a moonless night out at sea.

“Seeing these macho guys open up [at readings] is something really beautiful. There was one old skipper I knew from Alaska, this sour divorced guy who had no time for me. But he started reading at the FisherPoets Gathering and it turned out his writing is gorgeous. It’s totally changed the way we see each other, and he and his daughters love me now.”

Dave Densmore

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Well, we’d made a mile or so,
When we saw a crabber’s lights approaching.
It was the only other crab boat
That was even out there on the ocean.

We’d thought her a hundred miles away,
But God, she was a beautiful sight!
Her lights were on us, we were saved,
As she came charging from the night!

But suddenly she seemed to turn away!
Or at least she was running on past!
I grabbed our lone parachute flare,
As my crew just stared aghast!

We sat there in that bouncing raft,
Watching her lights fade away.
Until I said, “Well, grab an oar.”
There was nothing else to say.

—from “The Ride”, by Dave Densmore

A native of Kodiak, Alaska, “Dangerous” Dave Densmore bought his first boat at 13 and was the youngest king crab skipper in the Bering Sea at 23. In 1971, he and three crew members spent four days on a life raft in a violent storm—an incident recalled in the excerpt above. In 1985, his father and son were killed in a fishing accident. Always “happier on the ocean,” he lives on a 54-foot ketch in Astoria.

“I didn’t allow myself to think we’d die on that raft. On the first night, I told my guys the rules: We weren’t gonna talk about food, water, wives, girlfriends. It was just the four of us, the raft and the now. Eventually, we almost got run over by a Japanese trawler. It flipped the raft. Luckily, they let us onboard, all shivering and shaking.

The Japanese sailors took turns to bring Savlon and warm water and massage my purple, frostbitten feet. Without them, I was told I would have lost both feet. “When I lost my father and son, I lost everything. It was mighty dark for a couple years, and I didn’t write for a while. But eventually writing a poem about my son helped me come to terms with what had happened. I read it for the first time in public at the FisherPoets Gathering. There was a guy and his wife in the audience who’d lost their son and they weren’t doing too well. Of course, I think about him all the time, and the kids he might have had. But you can find a silver lining if you look hard enough.

“At the FisherPoets Gathering, there’s just this sense of being with people who’ve been around the same things and had amazing experiences. You hear of a lot of miracles out there. I’m not a religious man, but I can see the spirituality in it all.”

Jay Speakman

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I cursed the day and the buckshot spray
and I cursed the incessant motion.
And I cursed the wind and I cursed the tide
and I cursed the Atlantic Ocean.
Then I cursed all the knots in that snarl of pots,
and every damned inch of rope.
But the only thing I wouldn’t curse,
I wouldn’t curse my boat.

—from “A Tale of the Old Muddy Reef”, by Jay Speakman

Now 67, Speakman spent 12 years as a lobster fisherman in Maine before heading to Alaska and British Columbia to fish halibut, salmon, herring and king crab. He and his wife now run an art, and furnishings store in Cannon Beach, Oregon.

“We spend a lot of time in an environment that’s little seen and little appreciated. Out there, you see the food chain, the flow of life—it connects you. A lot of the poetry is about expressing that appreciation, without getting too mushy about it. We’re not celebrating it in a way that is cocky. It’s a very humble profession. You have full-grown men talking about how they feel watching the color slowly drain from a beautiful salmon—the sorrow of that, the need for a kind of forgiveness. It’s not just drinking and having fun.”

Geno Leech

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I don’t miss the bar crossings
and backbreakin’ toil,
The ice forks and shovels
and salt-water boils,
Diesel-fouled foc’sles with
ironing-board bunks,
The stink, and the sweat,
the gurry and funk…

Sometimes at night,
in a tea cozy warm bed,
I think of the years
that I stood on my head,
Draggin’, crabbin’
and Albacore jiggin’,
I miss the fish,
but I don’t miss the fishin’.

—from “I Miss the Fish but I Don’t Miss the Fishin’ ”, by Geno Leech

Leech lives between Cape Disappointment and Dismal Nitch in Washington state. A former merchant seaman and Gulf Coast dredger, he also worked in commercial fishing off the Oregon and Washington coast.

“Most of my poems are about other people and boats. The thrill is in the hunt, a bit like fishing—sitting with that empty piece of paper, not knowing the ending, trying to hook something.

“I like [reading] with music; it holds the crowd better, especially when you rock it and sock it with a rhymer. ‘Poet poets’ tend to frown on the rhymers—they look at you like you’re an accordion player—but here it works. I load up the adjectives, then hit ’em with the rhyme.

“Broderick and the guys could have cashed in and gone big with this. But they’ve kept it real, and they’ve not let it become over-developed. For me, I just like the rush of being on a stage.”

In search of Soho’s soul

Central London’s buzzing, hedonistic center may be changing fast — but its soul is still very much intact

(First published in American Way magazine, January 2017)

The cellar of Soho’s St. Moritz Swiss restaurant isn’t much to look at, but it’s a cultural institution in London, the venue for the city’s longest-running club night, Gaz’s Rockin‘ Blues, which hasn’t missed a Thursday night since 1980. The weekly event has a rich, slightly off-kilter history, and its founder — a trilby-hatted, fifty-something dandy called Gaz Mayall — is more than happy to share it with his guests.

“Over there, that’s where Lemmy from Motörhead used to stand all night playing the fruit machines,” says Mayall, who also fronts ska band The Trojans, and whose father is the great bluesman John Mayall. He points to a series of framed comical postcards sent by Lemmy from around the world. (“This is not the Sunshine State at all,” Lemmy writes of a visit to Miami. “I’m in a terrible state.”)

“There’s always been a colorful crowd, but it’s never been about famous people,” Mayall continues. “It’s been about generation after generation discovering great music, larking about and falling in love.” That said, Mick Jagger and David Bowie were among the famous regulars, along with a who’s-who of British art, from Damien Hirst to Lucian Freud and Tracey Emin, who used to work the cloakroom.

The owner of the St. Moritz is Armin “Sweety” Loetscher, who introduced London to Swiss fondue in 1960, and graduated from bratwurst and glühwein parties to hosting rock ’n’ roll royalty in his alpine-themed basement, which has barely changed in half a century. For a quiet-spoken Swiss gent in a check shirt and gilet, he has some past.

“I remember Joe Strummer [of punk band the Clash] pointing at the tiny stage and saying: ‘How the heck can we play there?’” he says.

“I told him that it was enough for the Kinks’ first gig, so he’d better get on with it.” Strummer did as he was told, and with his first band, the 101ers, he wrote the song “Sweety of the St. Moritz,” whose lyrics are framed on the wall (“It don’t look like the home of rock ‘n’ roll/It looks more like a hole”).

The St. Moritz is a classic Soho dive bar, in a part of the city that has always marched to its own beat. This is the London district that first heard American jazz, skiffle, Bowie and the Stones. It birthed British rock ’n’ roll in the late 1950s, when Cliff Richard played the 2i’s Coffee Bar, and hosted a thriving red-light industry in the 1960s. It has drawn jazz-era intellectuals and beatniks, housed the new romantics and beeen central to London’s gay scene, which came of age in the 1980s. For as long as anyone can remember, Soho has been at the literal and figurative center of it all.

But the square mile or so between Oxford Street and Shaftesbury Avenue is evolving. Many of the red neon signs and lurid dives have given way to well-funded, well-PRed restaurants, and stricter licensing laws have calmed the hedonism. “People say it’s losing its soul,” says Mayall. “But then they were saying that back in the ’60s. A lot of the old places have closed, but we’re still here doing our thing, and praying that they won’t turn this place into a block of flats.”

There are still many places to get a feel of old Soho, like Bar Italia, which has been run by the Polledri family since 1949, or Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club, where Chet Baker and Ella Fitzgerald played their first U.K. gigs, and where Jimi Hendrix played for the last ever time. Today, the Ain’t Nothin’ But blues bar on Kingly Street does a raucous nightly impression of down ’n’ dirty Memphis.

For a more traditional English boozer, the Victorian-era Coach & Horses is famous for its association with the staff of the satirical magazine Private Eye, and for the now-departed Norman Balon, who was  deservedly honored with the title as “London’s rudest landlord.”

The French House, where Charles De Gaulle wrote a speech rallying the French people during World War II, is another legendary spot. Today “The French” sells more Pernod than anywhere else in London, and only serves half-pints of beer except on April 1st (when the first pint is customarily poured by Suggs, lead singer of the ska band Madness).

The food isn’t bad, either. Since the mid-19th century, when Italian and Greek immigrants opened restaurants here, Soho has been the place to eat in London — and the area could today claim to have the greatest concentration of good restaurants on the planet. They run the gamut from hipster takes on street food, like Taiwanese steamed bun joint Bao, to venerable establishments like Quo Vadis, which has operated since 1926 and offers a modern take on classic British. You can also pop across Shaftesbury Avenue to The Ivy, which has hosted London’s theater set for 100 years (Soho is also London’s Theaterland).

There is also a new generation re-tooling the Soho spirit. Like the eclectic and fiercely independent Soho Radio, which formed in 2014 and broadcasts live from a little room off Great Windmill Street. “We sometimes get people who wander off the street and start freestyling, and the guys who come on after me sometimes cram a hundred musicians into this little space,” says ebullient Australian DJ Tasty Lopez. “We just go with the flow.”

Just up the road, Lights of Soho is a good example of a new breed of local institution. It’s both a bulb-and-neon art gallery and private member’s club, staffed by some of the most beautiful young things in London. This being Soho, the gallery showcases the work of the late Chris Bracey, the neon artist who literally lit up the district in the 1960s, before designing neons for the likes of Stanley Kubrick.

Whatever your take on the area’s transformation, Soho is an intoxicating mix of history, hedonism and the best people-watching in town. And if you simply want to return to the good old days, there’s always Thursday night at Gaz’s.

Mr Faena will see you now

Enigmatic Argentine Alan Faena has created a whole new district of Miami’s Mid-Beach, named after himself. But what is the real story of the man in the white fedora?

(First published in American Way magazine, December 2016)

Five years ago, the few blocks north of Collins Avenue and 32nd Street weren’t empty, exactly. But there was little in the parking lots and ten-cent condominiums to draw people from the bustle of South Beach, a 20-minute walk to the south. There was nothing, either, to suggest that the area would become home to one of America’s most unlikely property projects. Yet last month it was officially opened as the Faena District, the first time a part of Miami has been renamed since the Art Deco District back in 1979.

This “man from the south,” as the Argentine Faena likes to call himself, doesn’t do things by halves. He’d already launched a game-changing fashion brand in Argentina and turned a derelict Buenos Aires grain store into a pioneering hotel when — less than five years ago — billionaire investor Len Blavatnik brought him to scope out this sleepy stretch of Mid-Beach, and in particular the old Art Deco Saxony Hotel. The Saxony was once the grandest hotel in Miami Beach, but had grown as tired as the area around it.

The Saxony Hotel looks very different today, even if the neon sign remains. Now Faena Hotel Miami Beach, it’s an almost otherworldly pleasure palace, where everything is done to the maximum — from C’est Rouge!, the lavishly arty cabaret show in a red-velvet Hollywood theater, to Damien Hirst’s gilded woolly mammoth skeleton, the sculpture that has launched a thousand white-toothed selfies.

That’s just the beginning. The $1 billion Faena District — funded in large part by the Ukrainian-born Blavatnik —  already includes a smaller boutique hotel, Casa Claridge’s; a lavish condo whose two-story penthouse was on the market for $72 million; an arts space for “the ambitious, the innovative and the groundbreaking”; and a high-end shopping emporium. Plans for two new condos, Faena Mar and Faena Versailles, may curently be on hold — but the brazen ambition of it all is staggering.

Most of the buildings have been renovated or designed from scratch with big-name architects, from Rem Koolhaas to Norman Foster, but most are named after one man. There’s the Faena Forum, the Faena Bazaar, the Faena House residence — even the beach is the Playa Faena. Little wonder that Philip Levine, the forward-thinking mayor of Miami Beach, has described the man behind it all as a “modern-day Wizard of Oz.”

Given the hype, I’m a little surprised to discover that the nerve center of the Faena empire is a nondescript trailer on a building site — albeit a trailer with artful old photos on the wall and animal-print fabrics strewn around. Faena sits at the end of a Formica table, dressed as he always is: white fedora and white shirt, collar up. This is him dressed down; for more formal occasions he’ll add a white jacket, and sometimes a cane. He is chiseled, intense and talks quietly, often in metaphors delivered with a pronounced accent.

The story Faena likes to tell is of the visionary outsider who made good. Growing up in Buenos Aires, the son of a second generation Syrian-Jewish textile manufacturer, he was noticeably different. “I was always creating other worlds,” he says. “I fantasized about jumping into the pictures on my wall. I hated school, and I was always in my own head.” Though he says he learned to be social — his asado barbecues are legendary — he says his head is still where he’s happiest. “I can pay attention to other people for some time, but then I go back to my thoughts.”

The big thinking started at 19, in the wake of Argentina’s return to democratic elections in 1983. Faena used his savings to launch a fashion label, Via Vai, selling brightly colored T-shirts aimed squarely at Argentina’s newly optimistic youth. “Democracy was starting, freedom was starting,” he says. “It was time to dance.”

Despite being little more than a plan to “walk my thoughts” — a favorite Faena phrase — the business took off, and fast. It grew to 80 stores nationwide, and was the first Argentine label to export to Europe.

But Faena didn’t want to be a fashion mogul forever. In 1996, aged 32, he sold the business to become a gardener, living at his beautiful beach house in Punta del Este, an exclusive enclave on the Uruguayan coast. Typically, his reasons were a curious mix of philosophy and practicality. “I knew that more stores and more clothing lines wouldn’t have made me happier or a better person,” he says. “I wanted to learn about time without time, to be more coordinated with nature.” He’d also seen the peso collapse in Mexico in the mid-1990s, and rightly predicted that hard times might be on their way to Argentina, too.

During his five years of self-imposed exile, creative types from around the world started coming to Punta Del Este, intrigued by the star who’d left the fashion world behind. “It was like an embassy of pleasure,” says Faena. “It was a healing place for all these people. After a few years, I started thinking, can I take this to more people? I started to feel the need to create again, to make another revolution.”

So he started going back to Buenos Aires, which by 2000 had been crippled by depression. His vision had become “a building that was like a big pot for ideas,” when, in the run-down port area of Puerto Madero, he came across an old grain silo that was slated for demolition. “I just thought, Wow,” he says. “But there was nothing around; not even streets.”

Finding financing was, he says, “a very long story.” The turning point came when Faena flew to New York City to meet Chris Burch, a billionaire investor who’d also made his money in the fashion industry. Burch came back to Buenos Aires and — despite describing Puerto Madero as “a junkyard with wild dogs” — was persuaded by Faena’s passion and vision. Burch introduced Faena to Blavatnik, who would go on to become Faena’s main partner. Between them, they stumped up $200 million to turn the run-down mill into the first Faena Hotel, hiring Norman Foster and Philippe Starck to fulfill Faena’s architectural and interior design vision.

In 2004, the hotel — “a fantasy of art, music, taste and smell” — opened with a bang. “We got it right straight away,” says Faena, simply. The Puerto Madero “junkyard,” meanwhile, quickly became one of the hottest property success stories in Latin America, with the likes of soccer player Lionel Messi moving into its million-dollar apartments. In 2011, with his wife Ximena Caminos, Faena added the Faena Arts Center, which opened with an enormous fabric walkway installation by Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto. Puerto Madero, like Faena, had truly arrived.

At Miami’s Hotel Faena, it’s easy to feel that all this was meant to be; as if it were obvious that all the glamour should land here. But take a walk around Mid-Beach, and you can get a sense of what Faena and Blavatnik found when they first came in 2011. Away from the Faena District, Collins Avenue is lined with liquor stores, mom ’n’ pop bodegas and Cuban holes in the wall. Back then, there wasn’t the trendy Edition Hotel down the road, with its futuristic interior by boutique hotel pioneer Ian Schrager, or the hip Freehand hotel and hostel.

“This part of the city wasn’t abandoned, but nothing was happening,” says Faena. “No one was interested. They all said, ‘That part of Miami? Forget it.’ You have to build it cheap because you won’t be able to sell at a high enough price. But I saw it as an outsider. I saw the beach, I saw the trees. It was about listening to my heart and mind, and not the market.”

I saw it as an outsider. I saw the beach, I saw the trees. It was about listening to my heart and mind, and not the market.

From the start, Faena says, there were “battles, jealousies. Every day there was a fight. But I’m a fighter for my thoughts.” He comes back to that phrase again: “My motivation was always to walk my thoughts; there were moments of uncertainty, but this is the walk of the creator.”

While developing the hotel, the largest piece in the puzzle, he fired three hotel designers before hiring movie director Baz Luhrmann and his wife Catherine Martin, normally a costume designer, to “develop the narrative of the hotel.” As Faena puts it: “The problem with most interior designers is that they like to repeat themselves. But I needed people who were free of mind, and ready to work with my script.”

Faena is sometimes compared to Jay Gatsby. He doesn’t blanch at the reference, nor at the one about the Wizard of Oz. He’s happier, though, with comparisons to Walt Disney. “He brought fantasy to emptiness,” he says.

Much of the Faena Hotel feeds into the myth of its creator. The eight murals in The Cathedral lobby, by Argentinian artist Juan Gatti (“our Michelangelo”), teem with references to Greek mythology, but also to Faena’s life: the rose in Gnosis represents his gardens, but also his personal genesis; the sword in Pax refers to Faena’s fighting spirit. The list goes on.

There’s symbolism throughout the hotel, too. The grand chandelier in the Gatsby-esque Living Room bar is tuned to flicker more whenever there’s lightning over the South American Pampas. The Tierra Santa Healing House (the spa), inspired by Faena’s Uruguay beach house, was designed with a Latin American shaman who recommended singing bowls and Andean lava treatments.

Faena says he was “a hundred percent involved in everything. I control every detail of every stone, every painting, every fabric, every sofa, every color.”

But there’s also a bigger picture at play. With a whole district now named after him, Faena becomes the latest visionary to leave his mark on the 101-year history of Miami Beach. “I’ve studied all these great minds, these crazy people doing crazy things,” he says. “They find in me a new generation who is pushing the limit. I feel glad that we’re delivering on our promise.”

Certainly, he’s more than aware of his own legacy. “I think, in a hundred years, people will say: How did these incredible buildings arrive on the beach?” he says, gesturing beyond the trailer. “And they might wonder how a man from the south, an outsider, created utopia here.”

How we made: 1888 by Carl F. Bucherer

Being for a watch brand rather than a travel company, this magazine was an unusual commission for Ink. The magazine was designed to meet a very specific set of challenges for the Carl F. Bucherer brand, and to tie in with an advertising campaign…

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A big part of the challenge for us was to create a general lifestyle magazine, but a very brand-oriented one – that felt like Carl F. Bucherer, but wasn’t just a set of stories about their watches. Their reason for choosing Ink was largely down to our ability to tell great stories from around the world.

CFB has been making watches since 1888, but whilst their watch shops are famous, as a watch brand they don’t have the recognition of similar makers. They want to be seen as a heritage brand, with a strong spiritual link to their birthplace of Lucerne, but a dynamic, modern one. They also want to appeal to different markets, especially the Asian market.

The Carl F. Bucherer colours are black and gold, and with design director Jamie Trendall, we decided that a lot of the identity should come through the photography. We tried to shoot everything with gold elements, or use existing photography that had that palette.

We also decided that the best way to approach the content was through a theme that relates to the Bucherer brand. The first issue was Makers, with the idea being that we’d focus on people who crafted products, from origami pioneers to traditional Venetian mask-makers and the people who make the world’s greatest ballet shoes. We also interviewed Chen Man, the super-cool Beijing photographer who shot Bucherer’s advertising campaign with Chinese film actor Li Bingbing.

The idea was that the non-brand content would merge almost seamlessly into the brand section, which includes a photography-led feature on Lucerne and an interview with the aforementioned Li Bingbing, as well as more service-driven information about watches, stockists and the like.

In terms of the name, we eventually settled on 1888, the year that Carl F. Bucherer founded his watch brand. It has that nod to the heritage, but also somehow felt fresh to us, and benefits from the (lucky) coincidence that the number “eight” is considered lucky in Chinese culture.

Another challenge was that we needed to produce English, French, German and Chinese versions – so the template had to be fairly clean and flexible to allow for versions of stories at different lengths. The design is quite spare – but I think that worked thematically as well as practically.

Using our multimedia Ink Studio, we also produced little videos around the content, so that Bucherer could promote the magazine through their channels. I thought this one, on the Freed of London ballet shoe factory, worked well.

All-in-all, it was an interesting experience to work on something very purely client-driven, without too much commercial pressure. We were pleased with the result, and the client were too. Read the full issue here.

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Changing the world with origami

Origami may be about creating beautiful objects from flat pieces of paper – but, as the career of American origamist Robert J. Lang shows, it’s increasingly about maths, engineering, medicine and space

(First published in 1888 by Carl F. Bucherer, The Makers Issue. Photography by John Gribben)

What links space telescopes to atomic legends? Heart surgery to crumpling cars? Printable robots to houses that can reconfigure themselves? Or paper cranes to curved, plant-like sculptures exhibited at New York’s MoMA? The answer, perhaps surprisingly, is origami – now a respected branch of mathematics, geometry, engineering and art.

“Until the late 20th century, with a few notable exceptions, origami was mostly seen purely as a traditional Japanese craft,” says Robert J. Lang, a world-renowned American origami artist who builds origami computer programmes, hosts TED Talks and designed the folding pattern for satellite telescopes. “But then, in the 1990s, we started really looking at the mathematics behind it all, and started seeing these almost infinite possibilities. It was a revolution of sorts.”

The history of origami (the word comes from the Japanese for “folding paper”) is a diverse one. In Japan, origami butterflies marked Shinto weddings as early as the 8th century, and making paper cranes, hats and boats has been a Japanese pastime for more than 400 years. Across the East China Sea, the Chinese have burned folded representations of gold nuggets at traditional funerals since the Song dynasty (960-1279).

Led by the Japanese, magicians began to use origami in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and in 1922 Harry Houdini even wrote a book about performing with paper. (Paper-folding is thought to have developed separately in Europe; by 1847, German educator Friedrich Fröbel introduced it to his revolutionary new early-childhood education programme, kindergarten.)

But the real godfather of modern origami was Akira Yoshizawa, a former door-to-door fish salesman who created more than 50,000 models in his 94 years, pioneered wet-folding and whose work has inspired people in Japan and the West to develop new methods of design (see sidebar).

This was the world that Lang started exploring as a precocious six-year-old in late ’60s Atlanta, Georgia, making his first Japanese frog, talking crow and flapping bird. “At ten or 11, I’d folded everything in the basic books I had, when my parents bought me books by Isao Honda and Robert Harbin. That opened the floodgates, and by 11 I was starting to do original designs. I started off turning crows into eagles and then the modifications got bigger and bigger.”

Lang started to see design patterns, and had designed everything from President Jimmy Carter to Darth Vader and TV pig Arnold Ziffel, when he came to something that mathematicians had been exploring since the 1940s, albeit largely in isolation – the link between mathematics and origami. “It really hit me at college that if I could figure out how to describe origami mathematically, it could help with design problems,” he says.

By 1988, he had completed an electrical engineering course and a PhD in applied physics, and was working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. After a trip to Germany’s Black Forest with his wife, he created a sensation in the origami community with a life-size cuckoo clock, which had taken three months to design and six hours to fold.

But he was just getting started, as was a new wave of origami. Few have heard of the “Insect Wars”, but if you were a high-level origami artist in the early 1990s it was a big deal. The challenge was that, until then, origami designs could make shapes that were, in Lang’s words, “blob-like or amorphous”. The skinny legs and tentacles of insects were thought almost impossible.

But in the late 1980s, Lang – along with a group of origami experts including Japan’s Toshiyuki Meguro – had started to pioneer a new origami design technique called circle-river packing, which uses geometric principles to create an almost infinite number of designs.

“In the 1970s, they couldn’t figure out how to make a spider,” Lang says. “But with the outgrowth of new techniques you could make a millipede, or really any creature you wanted. People ask me what changed, and the simple answer is math. It seems counter-intuitive that you learn how to depict an animal using mathematical principles, but that’s how it happened.”

As his emperor scorpions and Hercules beetles were sent around the world, particularly to meetings in Japan – “We were constantly trying to one-up each other” – in 1990 Lang went a step further than his peers, putting his mathematical findings into a computer program called Treemaker. You can insert stick-figure shapes into Treemaker, and have them turned into intricate folding patterns. He has been refining it ever since.

Treemaker and circle-packing went a long way to an explosion in artistic origami. Satoshi Kamiya, a young Japanese origami master, created Ryujin 3.5, an elaborate dragon with intricate scales, feelers, claws and horns, which took 40 hours of painstaking folding. But the Bug Wars also changed the game for origami as a science. “It’s been a snowball effect,” says Lang. “As the mathematics have become more powerful, the connection between engineering and origami has grown exponentially over the past 20 years.”

By 2001, he was able to leave his job at JDS Uniphase, which supplied components to computer companies, and become a full-time origamist. A lot of his job revolves around art – on his website, you can see more than 650 sculptures, from scores of beetle species to complex mathematical shapes and an origami pteranodon with a 2m wingspan that was commissioned by Montreal’s McGill University – but it also increasingly has a scientific purpose.

He has been commissioned to create sterilised pouches for medical instruments, which can be opened and closed without desterilisation occurring; and heart supports that can be injected via a thin tube before spreading out to support hearts. He’s worked on airbags and mobile phone antennae, and on various deployables in space, including a telescope with a 100m lens, which could be folded into a rocket.

“Origami touches on so many things,” says Lang. “The curved carbon fibre skins of airplanes are made using origami principles, and folding patterns are used in cars so that, if they crash, they crumple smoothly and cleanly.”

Certainly, this craft – long associated with Japanese paper cranes – has grown up. “Ever since we had the first Origami Science and Technology conference in 1989, it’s definitely been looked at differently. At its core, it’s still that same process – folding something flat to make something three-dimensional – but it’s so much more than a craft now. It’s art, science and mathematics in one place, and the possibilities are infinite. Origami really can change the world.”

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.

 

The man who is making waves

How a San Diego wave obsessive is leading a global race to create artificial surf pools that could change the sport forever

(This article was published in 1927 magazine, Spring 2016)

Tom Lochtefeld’s perfect wave isn’t Pipeline, Jaws or Cloudbreak. It’s powered by computers and air pressure, and its first versions, set to open in Bristol and Rotterdam over the next year or so, won’t be near a beach. But Lochtefeld, who has been surfing since the 1960s, insists his firm Wave Loch’s technology is “the real thing; it will be like surfing perfect ocean waves, and it could change the sport forever, eventually taking surfing to the Olympics.”

Lochtefeld is just one of a new breed of visionaries who see a future where surfers will ride artificial waves in dedicated surf parks, not just in water-park wave pools. Players include Spanish company Wavegarden, Australia’s Webber Wave Pools and the Kelly Slater Wave Company, backed by the greatest competitive surfer of all time. The big question is whether their dream can be a viable business.

Artificial waves are, of course, nothing new, and neither is surfing them. King Ludwig of Bavaria, the famous builder of fantasy castles, used electricity to create ripples in a lake way back in the 19th century. The first “modern” wave pool was built in Budapest in 1927, with the first surfable wave appearing in Tokyo’s Summerland amusement park in 1966. Arizona’s Hawaiian-themed Big Surf waterpark had a crack in 1969, though the waves, like those at Summerland, were weak and required lightweight boards.

Tom Lochtefeld’s first brush with man-made waves came in 1983, at his Raging Waters water park in San Dimas, Southern California. Lochtefeld had grown up surfing the Big Rock break at La Jolla, north of San Diego and, after an early career at KPMG and then in real estate, had co-founded Raging Waters in 1981. It was one of the first modern water parks, with water slides, tubing rivers and all. In 1983, it took delivery of its first wave machine, one of only a handful in the country. “On the first day after it arrived, I got my surfboard, all excited, thinking I could surf these waves,” recalls Lochtefeld. “But it was total crap; you just couldn’t. It soon became an obsession, despite repeated threats to my sanity.”

Back in the 80s, the technology wasn’t there to create a surfable deep ocean wave, so Lochtefeld turned his attention to a “sheet wave” that flowed over a stationary padded surface and could fit in a space smaller than a tennis court. He sold his oceanfront house in La Jolla (“my wife wasn’t thrilled”) and, needing more funds, in 1987 sold his 25% stake in Raging Waters for $2m. It took three years of development, much of it spent around a wave tank in the hydraulics lab at UC San Diego, and more than a hundred models, but by 1988 he filed for a patent for “a wave-forming generator”, paying more than $200,000 to patent lawyers.

It was 1990 when, with barely any money left , Lochtefeld sold plans and licensing for his new FlowRider machine to the Schlitterbahn water park in Texas. The FlowRider blasts water up an incline made of soft , trampoline-style mat, creating a simulacrum of a wave that can be ridden on either a bodyboard or a short “flowboard”. By 1993, Lochtefeld had sold a FlowBarrel, a larger, curling wave that uses the same technology but with a steeper incline, to a waterpark in Norway.

The FlowRider was an almost instant success, with 90s board sports legends like surfer Kelly Slater and skate-boarder Tony Hawk working on board designs and new techniques. Today, there are hundreds of flowboarding machines around the world, including 12 on Royal Caribbean cruise ships. There are WaveHouse surf parks, with tiki bars, hammocks and food around the surf machines, from San Diego to Chile and Singapore. There’s even an annual World Flowboarding Championship, held for the past two years at Abu Dhabi’s Yas Waterworld.

Lochtefeld admits that he probably should have left it at that. He’d created a new sport and a stable business that, with FlowRiders selling from $450,000 to $2 million each, had allowed him to buy back his old house in La Jolla. “A saner person would have quit, but the dream from the beginning had been to replicate the waves in the ocean. FlowRider was an analogue, not the real thing.”

In 1997, he patented his first design for a dedicated surfing wave pool, and has been working on it ever since at Wave Loch. “My wife isn’t thrilled, again,” he notes dryly. “Luckily, she’s very supportive of me.”

But Lochtefeld isn’t the only one chasing this dream. Last summer, Wavegarden, founded in Spain in 2005 by engineer Josema Odriozola and sports economist Karin Frisch, opened the much-hyped Surf Snowdonia in Wales, and are planning another facility in Austin, Texas. Then last December, a viral video was released of Kelly Slater, the greatest competitive surfer of all time, riding a beautiful, perfectly barreling wave in a top-secret location 110 miles inland.

“There’s a lot of pressure when you’ve been working on something for 10 years,” he says in the video, referring to the Kelly Slater Wave Company, the team behind the prototype wave. After we see him surfing in the beautifully clean barrel and jumping from the lip of the wave, Slater declares his wave “the best man-made wave ever made.” Other companies, such as American Wave Machines and Australia’s Webber Wave Pools, have also been working on new surf pool technology, all of them claiming the best waves and technologies.

The problem is, according to Lochtefeld, both the Wavegarden and Kelly Slater waves are doomed to fail. “They way they work is essentially by pulling a huge mechanical plow through the water,” he says. “You can create a great wave, but there are two main fundamental problems: One is that you’ve got this hulking piece of machinery underwater that is liable to break down; the second is that you can only get a wave every two minutes. It means that, as a business, it’s just not going to be sustainable.”

Surf Snowdonia, which cost more than $17m to build, received favorable reviews from surfers when it opened in August 2015, but has been beset by regular mechanical problems, closing early last summer and being forced to make eight full-time staff redundant.

Lochtefeld’s answer, with the SurfLoch SurfPool, is to use air pressure, which means no moving machinery in the water. Instead, the design uses a pneumatic air system to create the wave energy; the shape of the pool floor turns that energy into a large primary wave and then a smaller secondary wave, which dissipates the wave energy without producing backwash. It’s due to first be seen in action at Rotterdam’s RiF010, a publicly funded surf park on a city-centre canal that’s being built this summer; and then, early next year, at The Wave, a surf and health park near Bristol, England. Both parks promise three grades of wave on one lake (advanced surfers will paddle out to the largest waves at the back), with waves every 8–10 seconds. “You’ll be paddling out like in real waves. It will be the real thing, though you can potentially catch 20 waves an hour rather than a handful.”

Lochtefeld admits it’s a always a work-in-progress. “It’s like a puzzle that you have to keep approaching from 100 different perspectives, almost like a sculptor, whether that means the materials or the computer chips for the air control.”

Not everyone is convinced, though. Scottish company Murphys Waves is the current market leader in man-made waves, having created 500 regular wave pools and 14 surf pools over 22 years, with all of its surf pools in water parks such as Tenerife’s Siam Park or Wadi Adventure in the UAE. They differ from the likes of SurfLoch and Wavegarden in that they don’t see surf-only pools as their main business, and also in the technology they use, which essentially allows tonnes of water to pour from a chamber at the end of their pools over man-made reefs to create waves.

According to managing director Jim Stuart, theirs is the most effective technique. “We looked at using air in the 1990s. We thought it sounded wonderful, but we took it to experts at Edinburgh University, who are the best in the world, and they simply said, ‘It won’t work.’ Essentially, once you scale it up, air becomes very unpredictable, and if you get a vacuum it can be quite dangerous.”

Lochtefeld refutes this. “The technology wasn’t there in 1990, but 26 years later, with diligent testing and advances in computer science, it is now possible to create great waves safely and predictably using pneumatics.”

Either way, Stuart is unconvinced that a surf-only park can be successful. “Even if the technology’s right, the business model of a huge surf-only pool is fl awed. You’re not going to get enough surfers to have it booked up every hour of every day. And if you’re talking about it as part of a wider attraction, Disney’s been doing that at Typhoon Lagoon for years.”

As a model of failure on both scores, he points to the much-hyped Ron Jon Surfpark in Florida, which promised ground-breaking technology but was a disaster when it opened in 2008, prompting a bitter response from surfers.

The Murphys model, he says, is epitomized by Siam Park in Tenerife, where the pool is a family wave pool by day, and after the main park closes is dialed up for the surfers. “We’re in the leisure industry rather than the surf industry,” says Stuart. “The people we deal with generally aren’t going for a pipe-dream, they want a return on investment.”

The dreamers, however, still believe in surf parks, and not just in the idea, but in the business plan. Nick Hounsfield is a co-founder of The Wave in Bristol, which will be built this summer to open next spring. A former osteopath who was concerned at how lifestyle choices affected his patients, he had a revelation when his father was dying of cancer: “He inspired me to do something big, bold and crazy, and as a surfer, this came to me.” The idea was a surf lake in a beautiful landscape, with gardens, a swimming lake and a campsite, with yoga, triathlons, healthy food and education about marine conservation all part of the package. “It was all about taking this new technology and using it to make a positive impact; not just for it to spring up in theme parks.” He went to Sir Tim Smit, the founder of England’s Eden Project, a collection of giant domed greenhouses, who told him, “It’s a ridiculous idea, and you have to do it.”

The project has grown from a dream to a reality, with a succession of crowd-funding campaigns and grants covering the projected cost of around $9.5m. Having originally planned to use Wavegarden’s technology, last year, after “months of sleepless nights,” Hounsfield switched to Lochtefeld’s Surfpool technology. “We went to everyone,” says Hounsfield, “and increasingly Tom came to the top of the pile. He’s been doing this such a long time and he’s the real deal.”

Rotterdam’s RiF010 or The Wave in Bristol might be another false dawn for surfers, but Lochtefeld believes it could be the start of something big: “Facilities like this could be like golf courses, and they could bring surfing to parts of the world that have never had waves before.”

Surfing has been proposed as a new sport for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, with the idea that events will take place on artificial waves. “It’s hugely exciting,” says Lochtefeld. “The Olympic officials want to see that surfing is a truly global sport; artificial pools could be the push that give millions more people the chance to ride waves and get that indescribable feeling, which is really what all this is about.”

 

 

 

Going to space under a helium balloon

The new commercial space race was meant to be about whizz-bang rockets, space suits and zero gravity. But now it might be won by a gently rising helium balloon with a cocktail bar onboard

(First published in 1927 magazine, Winter 2015)

Jane Poynter and Taber MacCallum don’t have the same breakfast conversations as most couples. “Four years ago, Taber walked in and said, What do you think about us taking people to space under enormous balloons?” recalls Poynter. “I was like, That’s it! That’s the idea we’ve been looking for!” As out-there as the idea sounded, it looks set to come to fruition.

World View, the company MacCallum and Poynter soon formed, claims that by 2017 it will be taking passengers into the stratosphere under an ultra-thin polyethylene balloon, which will fill with helium and expand to a size larger than a football stadium. Unlike the rocket-fuelled flights proposed by the likes of Virgin Galactic and XCOR, there will hardly be any noise, and you won’t need a space suit, or much training. What there will be in the capsule – which is about the size of a small Winnebago, and can hold six passengers – is a well-stocked bar.

“What we wanted was something accessible – not a stressful experience getting rattled and rolled by high Gs,” says Poynter of the trips, currently available for $75,000. “Listening to astronauts, what they always say is that they go to space expecting harsh environments and to find this strange new world – but what actually strikes them the most is seeing our planet floating in space for the first time.”

The pair can’t hide their almost childish excitement at the idea, but also keep emphasising that the ultimate aim is for it to be open to everyone. Poynter calls it “just bizarrely awesome” but says that one day going to space should be “a lifestyle choice, almost like buying good coffee.” MacCallum has called it “the ultimate Facebook status update,” while extolling the idea that you can take the whole family.

World View isn’t the only one with this idea of a more inclusive form of space travel. Barcelona-based zero2infinity was founded before World View by José Mariano López-Urdiales, an aeronautical engineer who wrote a paper when he was at grad school claiming that space ballooning could become a $10 billion-a-year industry.

The zero2infinity “bloon” plans to launch its first passenger flights in 2018 – and for a slightly pricier $125,000 you’ll not just get a ride in their donut-shaped capsule up to 22 miles, but you’ll also get a super-luxe two-day mini-break in Spain with Michelin-starred meals.

While Poynter reluctantly admits that zero2infinity represents competition, she says the balloons will be “completely differentiated” from the likes of Virgin and XCOR, which promise weightlessness on their suborbital flights. For a start, a balloon flight will be cheaper – $75,000 com-pared to $250,000 for a 2.5-hour flight on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip Two, or $150,000 for a 30-minute trip on the XCOR Lynx – but it will also take longer. “You can sit back with a drink and just absorb it all,” says Poynter.

And while the flights will barely go a third as high as the rocket jets – around 20 miles, compared to the 70 miles promised by Virgin and XCOR – the view won’t be much different. Annelie Schoenmaker, spokesperson for zero2infinity, says: “Passengers may miss out on experiencing microgravity, but what they get is time. Above a certain height, the difference in the view will be very small.”

Poynter goes even further, saying that the view will be “completely indistinguishable. You’ll still see the Earth floating in total darkness, whatever time of day you go. And it will be amazing.”

MacCallum and Poynter’s backstory is a fascinating one. English-born Poynter calls herself a “classic college drop-out” – “Nothing there was saying, Let’s plan a trip to space.” Both she and MacCallum ended up taking part in the first stay in Biosphere 2, a closed ecological system, or vivarium, in Arizona that was partly set up to explore the possibility of colonizing other planets. The pair lived with six others in the three-acre dome for two years and 20 days between 1991 and 1993, learning to grow their own crops, and deal with falling oxygen levels and malnutrition (they reportedly went orange after eating too many sweet potatoes).

While the jury is out on the success of Biosphere 2 – Discover magazine called it “the most exciting scientific project since the Moon landings”; Time named it one of the 100 worst ideas of the century – for MacCallum and Poynter it was formative. “We became very aware of the fledgling commercialisation of space, and everything we’ve done since led on from what happened in there,” she says. They also cemented their relationship, later getting married in front of the Biospheres dome.

While in Biospheres 2, despite limited contact with the outside world, they set up a company called Paragon, “with the big, guiding idea of taking people to Mars.” On this planet, Paragon essentially became a life-support systems company for people in extreme environments, which meant divers and explorers as well as astronauts – but it’s been involved in just about every Mars project going, from the European Mars One to America’s Inspiration Mars, a non-profit run by multimillionaire Dennis Tito that plans to send two people to the Red Planet.

Then, shortly after MacCallum had the balloon idea, the couple had a call from Alan Eustace, a middle-aged Google executive and rather unlikely daredevil, who wanted to fulfill a dream of freefalling from the stratosphere. With a small design team largely from Paragon, named StratEx, they created a self-contained spacesuit and a balloon system to take Eustace up to 135,908ft , from which he beat Austrian Felix Baumgartner’s freefall height record. “The balloons are a beautiful mechanism for taking off ,” he raved. “You’re perfectly balanced; it’s perfectly quiet; there’s no vibration.”

The team of 30 or so behind Eustace’s record now form the key people behind World View, with decorated former NASA astronaut Mark Kelly and prominent NASA scientist Dr Alan Stern leaders on the team. They plan to increase the levels of testing in late 2015 and early 2016, and say they’re on track to take passengers up in 2017.

A big advantage of the balloons is safety, given that there are fewer moving parts than with anything rocket-propelled. Last fall, a Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo test flight exploded over the Mojave Desert, killing a test pilot. Michael López-Alegría, a former NASA astronaut who recently signed on to advise zero2infinity, told Popular Science magazine: “When you light a rocket, 10,000 things can happen, and only one of them is good. With balloons, you’re not going as fast, you’re not going as high, you’re not putting as much energy into the system.”

Balloons may pale in comparison to rockets in the popular imagination, but they do have a bit of history on their side. Balloons first took humans into the stratosphere in the 1930s, in what was widely considered the first space race, and they continued to set altitude records through the 1950s. When David Simons went to 101,500ft in 1957, it was taken as proof that humans could survive in space; his achievement is said to have played a key part in President Kennedy’s decision to go to the Moon. According to Poynter, MacCallum’s original idea was inspired by seeing his astrophysicist father use balloons in his research.

Eustace’s space record is the latest big moment for helium balloons, but passengers going up into the darkness could be the next and perhaps greatest milestone. “To be honest, I thought space tourism would have started by now,” Poynter admits. “But it’s still this incredibly exciting time. There’s been a huge groundswell of interest, and more people are building spaceships now then ever.”

The aim, she has come to believe, is as much about understanding our own planet as it is about discovering others. “We still dream of Mars, but we also dream of Earth. It’s not just about giving people a view, it’s for society to get a new perspective on this planet we live on.”

Besides, she finally admits, “I just really want to go up there and see it for myself.”

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.”

Bond girl, interrupted

How Monica Bellucci, Naomie Harris and Léa Seydoux, the three sirens of Spectre, are flipping the script on what it means to be a woman in a Bond film

(First published in Rhapsody magazine, November 2015. Photography by Jason Bell)

The day before Skyfall opened in 2012, Naomie Harris took to the stage at the BAFTAs to present an award. Dressed in a black strapless Miu Miu gown with her hair in delicate waves, she looked every bit the Hollywood starlet, but she quickly proved to be much more. Reading the teleprompter copy, she made one subtle change to the script: She wasn’t a Bond girl—she was a Bond woman.

The women in Bond films have certainly evolved since 1963’s From Russia With Love, when Sean Connery’s Bond told Tatiana Romanova to “just do as I say, will you?” before dismissively slapping her backside. (Connery’s Bond was also wont to slap women’s faces, and worse.) Ever since Dame Judi Dench’s M called Pierce Brosnan’s Bond a “sexist, misogynist dinosaur” in GoldenEye (1995)—echoing a complaint that’s never quite gone away—Bond women have become more complex. They’re still impossibly glamorous, but they’ve become less like purring playthings and more like human beings. And now Sam Mendes’ new Bond film, Spectre, out November 6, might be the franchise’s most forward-thinking yet: 007 finally mans up and stops fooling around with girls.

On a drizzly summer afternoon in an empty corner of the Northall restaurant in London’s lavish Corinthia Hotel, the film’s trio of Bond women—Naomie Harris, Monica Bellucci and Léa Seydoux—meet for lunch. They arrive one by one, having just been introduced to each other for the first time at a photo shoot for Rhapsody. (All their scenes for Spectre were shot separately.) Bellucci is different from the character you often see on screen—less temptress, more earth mother. She’s warm, funny, self-deprecating, reassuring. Harris is intimidatingly put together, her all-black outfit as crisp as her BBC English. Seydoux, who turns up in sandals and a thrift store–chic fur coat, radiates intrigue; over the course of lunch, she is by turns bored, shy, vulnerable and utterly magnetic.

Spectre is Mendes’ second Bond film. His first, Skyfall, was widely lauded as among the franchise’s best. It was still unmistakably Bond—gadgets, cars, foreign-tongued villains and Bérénice Marlohe in a plunging dress festooned with Swarovski crystals—but the characters were darker, more intense, more real, particularly Dench’s doomed M.

It also introduced Harris’ Eve as a Miss Moneypenny remodeled for the 21st century—a former field agent who’s capable of verbally sparring with her colleague and tactfully turning down his advances.

Eve is back for Spectre, and she’s joined by Seydoux’s Dr. Madeleine Swann, a psychologist at a clinic in the Austrian Alps who is the daughter of an assassin, and Bellucci’s Lucia Sciarra, the widow of another assassin killed by Bond. If Bellucci’s character seems the most classic—a mysterious beauty who sleeps with Bond and possibly dies—the twist is that at 50 she plays a paramour who is, for once, older than 007.

“We’re diverse as women are diverse,” says Harris, tucking into a cut of lamb. “More women than ever will see themselves represented onscreen in a Bond film, and it helps that we all play strong women. Bond films have always kept certain elements—people still cheer when the car appears in the premiere—but they’ve survived because they’ve moved with the times.”

Longtime producer Barbara Broccoli noted this change upon the release of Skyfall. “I think the women in the film have evolved like women have evolved in society,” she said. “And about time, too.”

Though the three new Bond women all subscribe to the need for strong female counterparts to 007, each has a different take on gender politics in film. “We’re still struggling with equality,” says Bellucci, “especially where I’m from, in Italy. There’s a mentality where it’s difficult for women to get free—even when you open the cage, they find it difficult to get out.”

Seydoux, the star of 2013’s transgressive lesbian coming-of-age drama Blue Is the Warmest Color, seems nonplussed that her gender is even a talking point. “It’s never been an issue for me,” she says. “I’ve always felt as strong as a man. I feel free. This belongs to me, and I’m the boss of it.”

Seydoux, whose gap-toothed smile makes her look younger than her 30 years, calls herself “a product of my generation.” Twenty years her senior, Bellucci is the oldest woman ever cast as a “Bond girl,” but she doesn’t blanche at a reference to her age. “When the agent called me, the first thing I asked was, ‘Will I be Judi Dench?’” she deadpans. “Sadly, I wasn’t, but I loved the concept of Bond having an affair with an older woman. It seemed quietly revolutionary.”

Bellucci, who has two daughters with her ex-husband, French actor Vincent Cassel, has acted in more than 50 films in her 25-year career, and despite dipping into Hollywood with The Matrix Reloaded, The Brothers Grimm and The Passion of the Christ, she continues to take roles in ambitious art-house films, from the Fellini-esque Malèna, in 2000, to the powerful Iranian love story Rhino Season, in 2012. Actresses from Meryl Streep to Kristin Scott Thomas have complained about the limited roles for older women, but Bellucci seems unconcerned. “In Europe, I think we’re lucky,” she says. “Look at Isabelle Huppert, Catherine Deneuve, Charlotte Rampling, Juliette Binoche. There are a lot of women getting beautiful roles as they get older, and I think it’s right. There’s a certain beauty with youth, but there’s another one that comes with age. Your soul grows, and that’s sexy.”

If there’s a trait that links these three disparate women, it’s per-haps that they all identify as outsiders. Bellucci says she grew up a lonesome only child in a small city in the Apennine mountains. Harris, who was raised by a single mother in north London, claims she didn’t fit in at Cambridge, and she recently revealed that she saw a therapist after first meeting her Trinidadian father, in 2009. Seydoux, a one-time aspiring opera singer who turned to acting because she envied the lifestyle of a former boyfriend, says of herself, “I love to be lonely. I’m French, and we find suffering poetic.”

“I don’t quite know where I belong, except with acting,” says Bellucci, who left a modeling career to pursue the big screen in her mid-20s. “Modeling left me lonely so many times, but acting feels like being part of a family. Apart from spending time with my daughters, it’s the only way I know how to be fully in the present. I need it.”

There’s no question that all three of these women are more artist than celebrity. Harris, who received rave reviews for her portrayal of Winnie Mandela opposite Idris Elba in 2013’s A Long Walk to Freedom, speaks about an actor’s capacity for empathy. “It’s something you’ll find with most actors,” she says. “That sensitivity to life. When I come into a room, I can sense the mood acutely. Has there been a fight? Is there something in the air? It can be hard to live with, but it’s also essential if you want to inhabit someone else.” At one point while Harris is talking, Bellucci reaches out to hold Seydoux’s hand in a slightly maternal gesture. It feels inescapably actorly, yet somehow not affected.

As much as the progression of Bond films has created a more mature home for female actors, Bellucci argues that the role of a Bond woman has always been a great opportunity. “There have been so many wonderful actors who’ve done this over the years, and it’s become this worldwide tradition that creates iconic moments,” she says. “Ursula Andress coming out of the sea is a moment that will last.”

Bellucci, Seydoux and Harris agree that simply being a part of such a storied franchise is an incomparable opportunity. Seydoux, who spent 60 days shooting, much of it in the Austrian Alps, calls it “my best experience in a film. You’re with the crème de la crème—everything is the best—and that actually makes it easier.” Harris agrees: “Not many films are made like Bond films.”

And not many films have the power to change how we see women’s roles in action films. With Bellucci, Harris and Seydoux, Spectre is rewriting the Bond story—and Bond himself—for the better. As supervillian Blofeld famously tells 007 upon their first encounter, “You only live twice.” Forty-five years later, the Bond girl is getting a second chance at life. It’s about time.

How we made: N by Norwegian, November 2015

I like this issue, partly because it was the last time we went away as a team, with sales and editorial heading to Iceland for a story on the north of the country. But it was also a strong set of stories…

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The Iceland feature was really a classic N by Norwegian travel story – fishermen, hot springs, whales, food – and it was a lot of fun to put together, from a slightly comedy horse riding trip to bathing in volcanic water. It was a laugh of a trip, but came out clean and beautiful on the page, thanks to River Thompson’s lovely spare photography.

But beyond that, it was a good sturdy set of stories, and an issue in which we solved quite a few little problems. The first was with the cover, after the client had requested a focus on their new routes to the Caribbean. Given that the new Bond film was coming out, it made sense to do Ian Fleming’s Caribbean, even if there was a touch of fudging given that Fleming’s main love affair was with Jamaica, which isn’t a Norwegian destination.

We decided on the Martini glass with the holiday scene as a nice way to say “concept” and “travel inspiration” – but there was a problem. Alcohol advertising is illegal in Norway, and the airline were uncomfortable about the suggestion of booze on the cover. There was a lot of back and forth, and we toyed with a disclaimer, but eventually they said they were fine with it after we showed them covers of other Norwegian magazines with alcohol – and begged.

In terms of the features, there was a nice solution with the story about the town of Kiruna moving to make way for a mine. Given that there wasn’t going to be much to shoot, art director Rickard had Swedish illustrator Johan Thörnqvist do a really cute set of illustrations that worked well with bright, clean stock photography of the town. We’d done that with another story on Tito’s train from Belgrade to Montenegro, where we’d added illustrations of the Queen, Sophia Loren etc to some very dull press images. I still like it as a trick in inflight mags, when stock photography so often looks flat and lifeless.

The other story I was pleased with was the interview with Petter Stordalen, the thrill-seeking billionaire who could just about be described as Norway’s answer to Richard Branson. Both he and his PR team were incredibly open, and almost encouraged us to go to town with the way we presented him. It was quite refreshing to do something with a businessman that was such fun, and I like the slightly mad opening quote over a spread, where he’s basically mocking himself.

With a nice Boston by Norwegian that was full of colourful characters, and a pretty piece about airport control towers, I think it was a fairly classic N by Norwegian issue. Read it here.

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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.