Exploring darkness in the polar night – Tromsø, Norway

I went to Norway for an environment that made me feel small and insignificant. To be awed and inspired, to be close to the edge of the earth. Think that’s a pretty niche travel requirement? Let me explain.

I’m obsessed with landscapes of extremes, so far mostly deserts. This time, I wanted to try something different and visit the arctic circle, the most northerly of circles of latittude surrounding the north pole. I live in a big western European city, where we don’t see many extremes of weather. It sometimes feels, as a newly minted adult (I say newly, but I’ve had some years’ practice) that the world is on my shoulders. The city can be a fast-paced place of ego, where things happen mostly if you make them. It’s easy to get stuck in my head, stuck in a state of anxiety about some thing or another. Lather, rinse, repeat. Also, coming from the Southern Hemisphere, I still struggle with the deep darkness of a northern winter. I wanted to see what made people tick this far north, where lettuce certainly doesn’t grow all year round, and where for a couple months per year the sun barely tops the horizon all day.

The polar circle

When we landed in the dark on a Saturday night in the tiny Tromsø airport, my husband hilariously but also pretty aptly asked me ‘WHERE ARE WE?!’ It felt like in the three hour flight from Gatwick we had truly flown into the unknown. We went straight to the local supermarket, which I guess is a pretty brave choice, and stocked up on groceries for our Airbnb. A search for dairy-free milk involved desperate comedy-sketch levels of Google translating.

Dressing on morning one to head into town involved base, mid, top layers; two, three pairs of socks, and outdoor gear. Having to succumb to the weather gave me a vulnerability that felt different. This wasn’t scared walking home alone at night in the city, this was an adversary you could prepare for but that could also beat you with no effort.

We came to Tromsø at the tail end of the polar night, when at full midday the sun barely makes it over the top of the peaks surrounding the island Tromsøya that the city sits on. This daylight is a suspended dawn of blue light leading directly to a soft bubblegum dusk sky. 3pm felt like dinner time, 7pm felt like bed time. We were reduced to basic survival (millenial style, á là Airbnb): eating when we needed fuel, sleeping when our bodies told us to.

View from the harbour of Tromsø

We arrived with a far smaller itinerary than normal, I had very few things I wanted to actually do in Tromsø. I wanted to see the elusive Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights), go see a nearby ice hotel, try spot a reindeer, and clear my head for the rest of the time.

The second night, I booked a last minute Aurora tour with Brynjar from Arctic Breeze. On the night of Imbolc, the Pagan festival of light in the darkness of winter, we saw the most fantastic display of lights within barely half an hour of leaving Tromsø itself. Surely this was not possibly real, I am still having to check the photos our guide took to remind myself. We celebrated with hot chocolate around a fire on a fjord beach, under the dull remains of the lights. The experience certainly felt real when the -15’C temperatures started settling in to our boots and our bones.

Photos from our tour taken by the guide, Brynjar

The following day we got on a bus south towards the Tromsø Ice Domes, a new-ish ice hotel in a valley around an hour away. As we peeled away from the steaming fjords (cold arctic air hitting the relatively warm water) and headed inland, we watched with grim glee as the temperature display on the bus dropped from -12’C. When we arrived at the ice domes, the reading was -18’C.

Inside the hotel

The tour was lovely, so was sitting in the ‘warm dome’ afterwards with soup and spirits (Glenfidditch for him, Baileys for me). The arctic cold was really starting to set in, and the novelty wear off. As the sun begn it’s descent below the mountaintops, the temperature dropped further. If I remember anything of this trip, it is the sudden change from hospitable to the opposite. My phone died, my digital camera died. My jacket zipper broke clean off, like when movie crooks break into a safe by freezing and smashing the lock. Any exposed skin, like my hands desperately trying to take last pictures, felt the burn of near-frostbite in just a few minutes. On the bus home, the temperature reading was -25’C. I could definitely believe it.

Wednesday brought the first overcast skies; one day of snowfall. Wednesday also brought on a cold I’d been fending off for weeks with Vitamin C. We stayed in and claimed a snow day with endless Netflix.

Snow in our neighbourhood of Breivika

Waking the day after a snow storm is so exciting still – although I’m sure the novelty must wear off. We took the Fjellheisen cable car to the top of a peak overlooking Tromsø. What looked from the bottom to be quite a height turned out to be the first of many small peaks towards the true summit of Mt Storsteinen. We walked to the next peak in single file through the shin-deep snow, falling in to the Fjellheisen summit canteen after for a burger and pints of pilsner.

View from the top of the Fjellheisen cable car

The Arctic Cathedral near the base of the cable car

It’s funny how pushing the body in the cold takes so much more out of you. We joked every night that the reason we couldn’t keep our eyes open at 8pm was because of ‘all the fresh air’ breathed that day. It’s true though; the tap water tasted glacial, the air a special brand of crisp. Facial moisturing started taking on as many layers as my socks had, the cold a different level to any I’ve felt before. Traffic lights changed especially quickly for pedestrians – almost to get them in out of the cold quicker.

Ski jump towers at the University of Tromsø

What will I remember the most? The lights from Tromsdalen twinkling at us from across the water. The taste of beer (we had to sample all of it of course), the sighting of reindeer on the university campus. The cut of the cold, the warmth on getting in to the flat, how kind the people were. The feeling of being somewhere different to anything else I’ve experienced, and the feeling of being ever so slightly changed and not knowing quite why.

A week of winter hibernation

We were on leave this week, and a planned Berlin trip scuppered by Ryanair cancellations lead us to have the sweetest week off at home. Doing next to nothing, hanging out, laughing, eating and sleeping. Little did I know that that was exactly what I needed after a very stressful and exhausting few weeks. I have just started a more senior role, and my final MSc module has just begun. It’s safe to say that I have had a decent amount of things on my to-do list.

The Saturday before our week off was my husband’s birthday. Family dinner at Ceviche (one of our favourite restaurants – try the Lomo Saltado flame-grilled steak and Don Ceviche) was followed by drinks in a craft beer pub with friends. This, of course, ended with a rowdy late-night pizza session at Voodoo Ray’s Dalston.

Monday was his actual birthday, which brought us to St John Bread & Wine in Spitalfields after a lazy day at home; and a fabulous 4 plate sharing meal of smoked mackerel, ox heart & chips, butternut & pearl barley, and a beautiful lamb stew. We paired this with a dry (and strong!) crisp rosé.

St John Bread & Wine

Drinks at Black Rock Bar in Spitalfields never disappoints for whiskey fans. It was voted UK’s Best Specialist Bar 2017 in the Class Bar Awards, and this is definitely well deserved. The staff are always so knowledgeable, and they just do make the finest cocktails around.

Black Rock whiskey bar

Tuesday brought another cosy day in, followed by a Queens of the Stone Age gig at the O2 (this doesn’t sound like a very relaxing week so far, but I swear we did very little during the days!). They played a furiously tight and yet chaotic set, my favourites being ‘The Lost Art of Keeping a Secret’ and ‘Sick Sick Sick’. The sound was incredible, and even from our seats the heavy bass was deeper than anything I’d heard at a gig before.

QOTSA at the O2

Wednesday and Thursday were more home-based. I desperately needed to find time for some quiet so enjoyed having the TV off (once I’d finally finished Netflix’s Punisher), and listening to the birds out in the large oak tree in our garden. I tried a gym session but my body was telling me it needed rest, so I did more stretching-based movements instead.

Friday, we relished in another lazy lie-in, and a slow meal at a great local Pho place (apr and concisely named) Pho in Balham, South London. The spring and summer rolls (not pictured – eaten too quickly!) were fresh, tasty and just what we needed. The beef steak pho (look away vegetarians!) was so warming with plenty of five spice and star anise – of course I then add a good shot of sriracha to make things interesting! The lunch deal was fantastic, £20 for a two course meal for two.

Pho

We stopped in at Milk Cafe down the road for a relaxing post-lunch coffee. I was disappointed to find out their only milk alternative was soy, so opted for a black espresso instead. The vibe was great though, as was a cute little card served with our coffees explaining the flavour profile of the blend used.

Milk Cafe

Today was a day that felt lazy and like time wasted, but how often do people dream of an aimless lunch on a weekday, watching the world go by? We laughed and strolled and actually tasted the flavours of our food, more than I can say I’ve done in weeks.

Slow in the City – the beginnings of winter

Today we nipped out to Pop Brixton for some food. It is a lively market created from the skeletons of repurposed shipping containers, filled with nearly any kind of food stalls you’ve ever wanted to try. It’s somewhere we’ve always popped to as it is so nearby, but I never really took the time to take it in before. It definitely has settled in since it’s inception, and seems to fit right into the Brixton backstreet where it kind of stood out before.

There are also things I don’t like too much about the place (the whole idea of it feels a bit too hipster and like a symptom of gentrification at times, thus making me feel uncomfortable for being a part of that process), but there are things I like about it too. I like that it’s a place that is trying to give something, however small, back to the community it sits in. A lot of the stalls in Pop Brixton use compostable food packaging, and/or reduce food waste by donating extras to a local food pantry. Even if it is just a hipster fad, hopefully these little things will become the absolute norm in large city society.

Pop Brixton, made out of shipping containers

It was also a nice surprise to find a little herb garden out the back, like a return to something more simple than having an imported Belgian blonde beer alongside your Japanese gyoza. It may just be for that ‘rustic’ vibe, but I enjoyed perusing the chard, Thai basil, strawberry, coriander (nearly dead as usual – how does anyone succeed in growing one of them?!) and various salad leaves.

Top and bottom: makeshift planters at Pop Brixton

For him, the Miso pork ramen was on the menu from Koi Ramen; and for me some fantastic real-deal tacos from Maria Sabina (slathered in so much hot sauce that the chef showed concern. Edit: I not only survived but LOVED it!)

Koi Ramen Bar

Brixton Village market, a lot quieter than it’s newer, flashier cousin, had some pretty chilli peppers that I might go back for some day this week – I bet they’d make a mean hot sauce!

Brixton market chilli peppers

Walking home past Electric Avenue

 

Now to return home after a very low-effort afternoon, and think about the Thai basil I could be planting in my teeny-tiny window box ready for next summer.

Sudden Stranger, 2017

Spotlight: 18 Hours in Los Angeles

At the end of our California trip, we spent a whirlwind night and morning in Los Angeles. This is a how-to for finding a selection of pintrest-worthy hotspots in just a few hours.

 

 


 

The skyline of the city of angels appeared over the horizon of a six-lane motorway. It almost felt like we were emerging into civilisation after living in the wilderness – the freedom we’d experienced at the lake, and in the desert dissipated with every mile driven into the concrete heart of the city. We arrived at our hotel in Echo Park, a rather grim low end chain joint, but even this was covered by the almost trademark Hollywood glow.

Rosa Mexicano


For our last night in the USA, I had a Lakers game at the Staples Center planned. I was excited to go to Rosa Mexicano for a pre-game meal, as I have always been a fan of their New York location. The food was plentiful, and the heaped, fresh guacamole made table-side was luxurious. I dragged my food coma to our seats, way up in the dizzying height of the nosebleed section. After the game, we lost our parking space for over half an hour. Roaming the emptying lots, we laughed as we retraced our steps multiple times and in various different directions before we could retrieve our car.

Staples Center

LA Lakers v. Toronto Raptors


Our flight was at 4pm the following day. As soon as we woke, our bags were in the car and we stopped for fantastic flat whites and handmade pastries at Alfred Coffee on Sunset.

A good motto


It seemed like this was the embodiment of L.A; it was a bricks and mortar metaphor for a city built on facades, glitz and the money of some.

There were so many things I had hoped to see in L.A, we just did not end up having time for every one of them. However, we had a few hours to kill before our flight from LAX, and were up to the challenge of hitting a few spots on the way to the airport. To do this, I combined sights that were in close vicinity. First off, across the street from the cafe, were the Micheltorena Stairs.

Micheltorena Stairs


Next, we headed further west towards the Pacific. The Hollywood sign was visible to our right as we drove high above the city on the Rosa Parks freeway, even through the heavy morning cloud and fog.

Tired and Sad on Santa Monica beach

Towards the Pacific


Sticking to the ‘two birds, one stone’ method, we strolled a few minutes down the beach boardwalk until we found hidden between the modernistic millionaires’ homes a real-life Barbie house; the home of Barbie Creator Ruth Handler. It seemed like this was the embodiment of L.A; it was a bricks and mortar metaphor for a city built on facades, glitz and the money of some.

Barbie House, IRL


The drive southward, and ever closer to the airport, took us through iconic Santa Monica and our final L.A stop: Venice. Very different in winter to the lazy, sunny, surfer images I had seen, the quiet side streets off Abbot Kinney Blvd contained every dream bohemian house I could have imagined. We roamed the streets, waiting for our lunch reservation at an eatery I had always wanted to go to. The Butcher’s Daughter, on Abbott Kinney, is a vegetarian restaurant that serves food as beautiful as the surroundings it is in. We each had a huge mixed bowl, for him a tumeric latte and for me a cacao latte on the side.

The Butcher’s Daughter, Venice


Strangely, it was here we felt the most out of place on our whole trip. Slim, highlighted blonde girls dressed similarly in expensive knitted jumpers gossiped over coffee; tall, athletic-looking guys talked about crossfit, mindfulness and yoga over their food. As beautiful as this place was, and as tasty the food, we were outsiders in our hiking boots and unbrushed hair.

In a way, it was almost a perfect end to our trip; the only way to leave a place you love is to finally look forward to going home.

Mairead Daly, 2017

Lake Tahoe, USA

I thought I would go back over our honeymoon trip of a lifetime back over Christmas 2016 in a 3 part series including: Lake Tahoe, Death Valley, and Palm Springs.

I knew I was never going to be the same after our trip to a small part of the Wild West. We decided to take our honeymoon to the US over our first married Christmas, to put off the ‘whose family will we spend it with’ for another year. I could easily orientate myself on the flight route from San Francisco, CA to Reno, NV. I knew the wide expanse with no lights to my right to be Lake Tahoe, a deeper than black hole in the night, followed by the festive glimmer of Reno in the distance. To get to our condo, we had to drive over Mount Rose pass, which winds treacherously over its namesake mountain.

Flying over Reno, Nevada
Our condo was in Incline Village, right on the shores of the beautiful lake Tahoe.
During the days, we snowboarded at Homewood Mountain Resort, where we had a great 3-day beginners package deal. The mountain had excellent choice of terrain, and everytime you turned your back to the mountain you would be rewarded with the jewel-like lake. I literally felt like a different person when staring at the peaks lining the Tahoe bowl, and never thought I would have the chance to see such an iconic, all-American horizon in person. The base restaurant at Homewood served up the enormous plates of chilli/burgers/pulled pork required to keep us going all day.


The courtyard at our condo


The view from our window

Jet-lagged early mornings gave us a chance to watch the first snowfall out our window before any of our neighbours even stirred. Cup after cup of filter coffee passed the time from 4am twilight to fully-fledged day. I could just imagine a mama bear and two cubs trundling by, paws crunching the new snow.


The view from the lower Homewood slopes

A secret find of mine to surprise my beer-loving partner was Alibi Ale Works, where locals serve and drink fantastic brews. We tried the Rubus Nocturne, a barrel-aged dark raspberry sour, a pale ale, and Boysenberry Berlinerweisser. The porter was rich and deep giving us a warm glow to carry on our walk home. We panic-bought a couple of growlers of that to keep us going over the Christmas period when shops would not be open.


Alibi Ale Works, Incline Village, NV.

We didn’t eat out much in the evenings, jet lag and hours being flung down slopes rendered us useless past 6pm. Homemade margaritas, blue corn tortilla chips and pasta were generally all we could muster up the energy to put together.


Homemade margaritas

One of the first days, we visited Squaw Valley/Alpine Meadows resort while we had a rest from mountain activities, ate delicious football-sized burgers fireside at the Plumpjack Inn, and strolled through the faux-alpine ski village. There was such a peaceful calm about the place. Due to the altitude, we could feel the sun beating down overhead in contrast to the ice cracking below our feet.


Squaw Valley, Ca.

We spent Christmas Day at Lone Eagle Grille, literally on the Incline Village lake shore. The Christmas meal was a buffet, not my usual choice, however it proved handy this time when we went back for the pork belly canapés too many times to count! We tried razor clams, crab, and had lamb that melted in the mouth. Cocktails were at the fire pit afterwards, all wrapped up and ruddy-faced from a bottle of rioja. I had a spiked hot chocolate that seemed made for this moment. It was this evening I fully caught the splendor of a Tahoe sunset, as previous evenings had seen snowstorms.


Top to bottom: spiked hot chocolate, sunset, fire pit

On our last morning, as we started heading south to our next destination, we had to stop multiple times for me to take pictures. The Lake really pulled out all the stops, almost as if sensing and regretting our impending departure. On these last few looks back, over the mirror-blue surface, I knew I would never be the same. I knew I would be back, and somehow, to own my own clapboard condo and stroll those lazy streets forever.


Top and bottom, our final views of Lake Tahoe.

Make sure to check out parts 2 and 3 of my Wild West restrospective, coming soon!