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Monthly Archives: April 2018

a magical journey to Norway’s

It might as well be midnight as we leave Tromsø. Last night’s snow crunching beneath the tyres, only the pinkish glow of street lights illuminates the ink-blue sky. This close to the winter solstice, the days here have a strange beauty. The first light doesn’t appear until just before 11am; it’s dark by 1.30pm.

We may already be 350km north of the Arctic circle, but today our journey is only just getting started. Striking out from the city, we snake along the shores of placid fjords, passing traditional red clapboard houses, candles flickering in the windows. These are the most northerly reaches of Europe – and fairytale Norway at its finest.

Even at Breivikeidet, where an isolated ferry plies passengers across the glassy expanse of Ullsfjord, the local population stands at just fifty souls. It’s certainly a challenging place to live – with temperatures dropping to -17°C (1ºF) in winter and 24-hour daylight summer – yet speak to most locals, and they wouldn’t move anywhere else.

As we begin the crossing to Svensby, the Arctic day finally gets going, a soft blue light illuminating the sheer, snow-covered slopes that plunge into the channel’s icy depths. This landscape, its intricate geography of fjords and archipelagos carved over millennia, is simply astounding.

And it’s a good thing the views are so mesmerising, as it turns out I’m as over-dressed as a polar bear in a sauna. Despite the snow, it’s so unseasonably warm that kids are getting stuck into the ferry’s extensive ice-cream selection.

Luckily, we’re not setting out for a day’s exploration. Instead, our two-hour journey reaches its conclusion just over the Lyngen Alps, where a team of entrepreneurs have dreamt up a new reason to draw visitors to this magical region.

On the shores of Lyngenfjord, you can now visit Aurora Spirit, the northernmost distillery in the world. It’s fittingly named; on winter nights the northern lights regularly dance in the sky above the strikingly modern distillery building. Nature always makes its presence felt here.

The project was conceived by three friends, Hans, Tor and Tor’s wife Anne-Lise, and completed in 2016. Inspired by trips to the Islay distilleries in Scotland, they wanted to create a similar experience back home. So, they set out to source local ingredients and talent to make “extraordinary spirits in an extraordinary place”.

And this is certainly an extraordinary place. Perched on a spur jutting out towards the island of Årøya, the wood-clad distillery has a location to rival any of its Scottish cousins.

Currently they produce vodka, gin and aquavit, the traditional Norwegian spirit, with their first whiskies maturing in cask in the NATO tunnels that run beneath the site. There’s a reason why this beautiful tract of land remained undeveloped; the site of a Cold War bunker, it was off-limits until 2005.

oday, however, their spirits draw on an older history. They’re sold under the brand Bivrost, the name of the mythical bridge that connected the human world to the world of the gods in Norse mythology. You can learn more on their exemplary distillery tours, which explain the processes of distillation and maturation, or at one of their tutored whisky tastings.

If you’re after an adrenalin kick instead, you can use the distillery as a base for a RIB tour of the fjord or try spot of Viking-inspired axe-throwing on their outdoor range. I’m hesitant about a trip into the bunker, eerily left exactly as it was abandoned in 1993, notebooks and pencils still scattered across the command room desks.

It’s more tempting to book a night in one of the luxury cabins currently being built on a hill above the distillery, with floor-to-ceiling windows looking out over the bay. It’s hard to imagine a more serene experience than watching the sun dip below the snow covered mountains, or spotting eagles soaring over the fjord from the waterside jacuzzi.

What to See in Santiago

Santiago has always stood in the shadows of its South American neighbours. It doesn’t have the beaches of Rio or the faded opulence of Buenos Aires, but this modern city of seven million people on the edge of the Andes is beginning to win over global travellers. Airlines are jumping onboard, too: British Airways started the first non-stop flights from the UK last week, with the 14-hour-40-minute journey making it BA’s longest route.

Now, you may never have been to a Chilean restaurant, or even know what Chilean cuisine is, but the food scene is exploding in Santiago. The influential US magazine Saveur has named it the world’s Next Great Food City, and chefs have been toying with indigenous cooking methods and produce found between Patagonia, the Atacama desert and the sea to redefine the nation’s cuisine.

Meanwhile, there are now several wine bars in the Chilean capital – five years ago there were none – giving an important industry here a platform to shine. As the capital of one of South America’s most prosperous and stable nations, Santiago is in the midst of major changes, welcoming immigrants from across the Americas and erecting skyscrapers that have reshaped its skyline. Scratch beneath the surface, however, and you’ll find neighbourhoods such as Barrio Yungay and Barrio Italia where historic quarters have been reinvigorated.

WHAT TO SEE

Ride the funicular

On a smog-free day, the city’s dramatic setting between the rolling coastal range and the Andes is astounding. To best appreciate it, go to the funicular station at the end of Pio Nono street, in the bohemian Bellavista neighbourhood, ride the rickety railway to the top of Cerro San Cristóbal, sit in the shadow of the Virgin Mary statue and look across the metropolis. Sold from carts throughout the hilltop park is refreshing mote con huesillo, a drink of husked wheat and peach juice.

Stroll through Barrio Lastarria

José Victorino Lastarria street (named after a 19th-century writer, diplomat and politician) is just four blocks long, but this trendy and densely packed corridor is overflowing with shops, restaurants, museums and cultural centres. Start at theGabriela Mistral Centre, and check out the free-admission art galleries on the basement level. Then stroll past the restaurant-filled Paseo Barrio Lastarria and historic Parroquia de la Vera Cruz church towards the street-side craft vendors near the intersection with Merced. Catch an indie film at Cine Arte El Biógrafo or see the latest exhibitions at the Museum of Visual Arts (£1.20).

Explore Chilean history

In the heart of historic Santiago, at the edge of Plaza de Armas, is the newly restored Museum of Pre-Columbian Art (£5). It is filled with indigenous artefacts and, unlike most places here, has English-language displays. The basement of this 200-year-old building is dedicated to Chile and includes Mapuche totems, Inca pottery and the Chinchorro mummies, which are 2,000 years older than the mummies of Egypt. Race forward a few millennia at the Museum of Memory and Human Rights (free). This striking, copper-covered building at the edge of Quinta Normal park houses a sobering exhibit that grapples with the human rights violations and “disappearances” that occurred under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet between 1973 and 1990.

Shopping from artisans

Bypass the made-in-China souvenirs at the more centrally located Santa Lucia Craft market and go to Los Dominicos Handicraft Village. This adobe complex – part of a former monastery – houses the workshops and stores of artisans, and is a great place to purchase ceramic tableware, naturally dyed textiles, and jewellery made with lapis lazuli, a deep blue semi-precious stone found in the Chilean Andes. Grab an empanada at one of the rustic cafes or check out the latest exhibit at the village art gallery.

Learn Dive in Tobago

In at the deep end
I was in Tobago for a four-day PADI dive course staying at the luxury Magdalena Grand Beach Resort in Little Rocky Bay. On our first morning, we wandered down to the hotel’s World of Watersports dive centre to meet boss Sean Robinson, our dive teacher.

Resplendent in a lime green t-shirt, he was full of diving anecdotes, as well as graphic descriptions of a serious diving hazard known as the bends or decompression sickness. This occurs when a divers ascends too rapidly to the surface and can be fatal. After a couple of hours spent listening to Sean, I felt even more terrified.

Before panic could set in, I was diverted by a hugely unflattering wetsuit being proffered in my direction. Togged up in an ugly expanse of neoprene, a hefty weight belt and an inflatable jacket, I staggered over to the training pool to meet our second instructor; Mutley (real name, Leslie James) had the size and demeanour of a nightclub bouncer, complete with a gold tooth that flashed every time he smiled. He didn’t do it often.

Out on the reef
After two days of pool training, we were ready for our first open water dive. One of the most beautiful spots on Tobago is Pigeon Point in the south of the island boasting white sands, palm trees and azure waters. Just offshore lie the enormous Buccoo Reef and the smaller Kariwak Reef, both of which lurk 5m (15ft) below the water. This is where we headed.

After Mutley prised my fingers from the side of the boat, I followed my two fellow students into the water and down towards the seabed. As I hauled myself down the anchor chain, hazy shapes swam into view before a multicoloured parrot fish burst out of the gloom towards me. Mutley was waiting on the seabed, arms folded, doo-rag hat and gold tooth intact.

Shark! Shark!
Although no two reefs are ever the same, some things are universal. During my dives, what really struck me was just how much life there was below the waves. Trailing fronds of seaweed hid tiny black and white striped fish, while concealed in the sand at the base of the reef lay speckled sting rays and moray eels. A tiny pink and purple prawn made its jerky way past, only to be swept up by Mutley for a closer look.

At Japanese Gardens, a green turtle made a lazy loop around us and hidden under a rock, we found a nurse shark taking a nap. All I could see was a triangular fin poking out of the sea cave, looking for all the world like another ray. Then I realised what it really was: a 1.5m long (5ft) grey killing machine. ‘Shark! Shark!’ I tried to scream, thrashing frantically as I tried to swim away. Mutley shook his head wryly. The shark slept on. I lived to dive another day.