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Finding Sanctuary in Tangalle

anantara-peace-haven-tangalle-resort

A luxurious new resort provides the perfect excuse for exploring this bucolic corner of Sri Lanka’s southern coast.

By Christopher P. Hill

It’s three days until the Sinhala New Year and downtown Tangalle is bustling in anticipation. Loudspeakers pump out pop music and sales promotions, villagers hawk rustic clay pots and braziers on the sidewalks, and the morning vegetable market is in full swing, its tables groaning under a bounty of fresh produce. I’m here with an affable young chef from the nearby Anantara Peace Haven resort to pick up some vegetables for the curries he is going to teach me how to make, but unlike the swirl of sari-clad shoppers around me, I have no idea what I’m looking for. “Anything, anything you like,” he tells me. “You can put anything into a Sri Lankan curry and it will be delicious.” Ten minutes later I climb back into one of the Anantara’s shiny new electric tuk-tuks for the return drive to the resort, a modest haul of okra, green beans, bitter gourd, eggplant, and bright-red tomatoes on the seat beside me.

The curries we make during the “Spice Spoons” cooking class that morning are, as promised, delicious. I can take no credit for this. Though I do a bit of chopping and grating, most of my time is spent thoughtfully sipping a glass of chilled Prosecco as the chef explains and executes the preparation of five different curry dishes (one involving the plump tiger prawns we acquired on an earlier foray to Tangalle’s fishing pier) and a dynamite coconut sambol. And since I’m his sole student, the resultant feast is mine alone to devour. So I stuff myself—and spend the rest of the afternoon lying in torpor next to my villa’s pool like an engorged python. But my appetite for this corner of Sri Lanka has only just been whetted.

Spices on display in the Anantara Tangalle's lobby.

Spices on display in the Anantara Tangalle’s lobby.

Tangalle, a 90-minute drive east of Galle on the island’s south coast, is blissfully free of the tourist crowds that fill beaches closer to Colombo. But it isn’t exactly terra incognita either. Backpackers and intrepid surfers have long appreciated the area’s laid-back charms, as have the cognoscenti who frequent its handful of luxury villas and boutique hotels like the 30-suite Amanwella, which opened way back in 2005. The December debut of the eight-hectare Anantara, however, has put Tangalle firmly on the map.

“This is the future for Sri Lanka,” says Tamir Kobrin, the resort’s suave, Panama-hatted general manager, as he walks me through the grounds, where phalanxes of tall palm trees testify to the estate’s former life as a coconut plantation. “The beaches around Tangalle are beautiful. Now that the expressway from Colombo goes as far as Matara [an hour’s drive away], you’ll see a lot of resort development along this coast.”

That expressway, the E01, has cut the traveling time between Colombo’s Bandaranaike International Airport and Tangalle from six hours to three and a half. For those who still balk at the idea of spending that much time on the road—even in the comfort of one of the Anantara’s plush SUVs)—Cinnamon Air, an island-wide seaplane service, can fly you to the lagoon at Dickwella in just 45 scenic minutes, from where it’s a short drive to the resort.

However you get there, the Anantara impresses from the get-go. On arrival, guests are greeted by smiling staff under a pillared portico that leads to a lobby designed to evoke a traditional courtyard house, its blue-tiled reflecting pools flanked by whitewashed colonnades. The breezy lounge area behind overlooks the resort’s two-tiered swimming pool and a swath of grassy, palm-studded beachfront, beyond which Indian Ocean waves roll in gently against a sloping stretch of golden sand bookended by rocky protrusions. This view is shared by many of the 152 guest rooms and pool villas, all of which are done up in a pleasant 21st-century colonial style accented by hand-loomed textiles. If, like me, you’re lucky enough to snag one of the beach villas at the western end of the property, you’ll feel like you have the pandanus-edged seafront all to yourself, even if the cove next door is shared with a low-key clutch of cabanas and cottages. I spend most of my down time in my pool, reading or gazing out to sea or watching the ubiquitous chipmunk-sized palm squirrels that dart across the grass from tree to tree, their chirping calls mingling with birdsong and the crash of waves.

Villa host and experience guru Kanishka Sandaruwan posing in the Tangalle countryside.

Villa host and experience guru Kanishka Sandaruwan posing in the Tangalle countryside.

Villas also come with the services of a butler—or “host,” as they call them here—and mine is Kanishka Sandaruwan, a genial 29-year-old who, like most of the resort staff, hails from the Tangalle area. Kanishka books my treatment at the standalone spa complex and appears at the appointed time to whisk me hence on one of the resort’s cycle rickshaws. He consults on my dining options, which range from Dining by Design—a selection of private, customizable dinners set up on the beach or elsewhere around the property—to meals at Il Mare, the dramatically perched Italian restaurant whose authenticity is underscored not only by a bevy of imported Mediterranean products, but also by a chef and the maître d’ who are both Italian. With a recent award from Wine Spectator magazine under its belt, it’s one of the finest restaurants in Sri Lanka.

Kanishka also serves as my “experience guru,” advising on local attractions and activities and personally guiding me for a day out in the countryside. There is much to see. Tangalle and its surrounds are an agriculturally rich and diverse area, and our drive takes us past rice paddies, spice gardens, orchards, and even a buffalo paddock where cows are being milked to make curd. We pass Kanishka’s village school and detour along an empty dirt road that traverses a reservoir, halting midway to watch the reflection of clouds move across the water’s still surface. Kanishka tells me it’s one of his favorite spots, and I thank him for sharing it with me. Walking to the base of a giant tamarind tree, he lobs a stick at the branches until one of the pod-like fruits falls to the ground, then peels it open so that I can taste the sweet-sour pulp within. Later, we drop in unannounced on a rope factory, where chugging machines spin coconut fiber into thick, bristling lengths. It’s hardly your standard tourist attraction, but then, that’s the point.

Twenty kilometers north of town, the rock temple of Mulkirigala is the area’s headline 
attraction, though I have the great granite monolith almost to myself. Little wonder, I think, as I haul myself huffing and puffing up the 500-plus steps to the temple’s intricately frescoed grottos and stupa-crowned summit. Still, the view from the top is reward enough, a vast panorama that stretches across green plains and forested hills all the way back to the coast.

Il Mare, the resort's Italian restaurant, sits on a rocky outcrop above the beach.

Il Mare, the resort’s Italian restaurant, sits on a rocky outcrop above the beach.

I rise early on my last morning for the drive to the Kalametiya Bird Sanctuary, an expanse of brackish lagoons and mangrove swamps navigable only by canoe or simple pontoon boat. 
I’m escorted into one of the latter by an Anantara staffer, who comes equipped with binoculars and a well-stocked picnic basket. The sun is still low and orange on the horizon when the boatman pushes his pole against the bank of the lagoon and slides us into the still waters. Over the course of the next two hours, we spot all sorts of birds—egrets, ibises, herons, kingfishers—and hear the calls of many more. In one reed-fringed channel, we drift past a group of wallowing buffalo; in another, gray langur monkeys stare back at us from the branches of a gnarled tree. Except for the occasional bird cry and the low rumble of the surf beyond the lagoon’s sandbar, all is quiet and serene. It’s every bit the peaceful haven as the resort up the road.

THE DETAILS

A three-and-a-half hour drive from Colombo, Anantara Peace Haven Tangalle Resort (94-47/767-0700; doubles from US$252) is also accessible via seaplane with Cinnamon Air, which operates a daily flight to nearby Dickwella.

This article originally appeared in the August/September print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Time for Tangalle”).

The DestinAsian Guide to Healdsburg

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The dining room at Valette, where an open wood ceiling and concrete walls are offset by playful chandeliers.

With its blend of small-town charm and big-city chic, Healdsburg, California, has become a sophisticated hub that continues to celebrate its rural roots. Here’s how to make the most of it.

By Gemma Price

As far as California wine country destinations go, Healdsburg, an hour’s drive north of San Francisco in Sonoma County, has always been one of my favorites. Everything is within a minute’s walk; two, maybe, if you’re dawdling. The town is home to disarmingly friendly people as well as a swath of stylish concept stores, cutesy home-ware boutiques, and irresistible places to eat, drink, and linger, most of a caliber you’d expect to find in a much larger city. Yes, nearby Napa has always had more sparkle when it comes to places to drink and dine, but Sonoma—and especially Healdsburg—offers laidback charm in spades.

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Kyle and Katina Connaughton at their farm, which supplies produce to the couple’s restaurant Single Thread.

WHERE TO EAT

The biggest news on the culinary front comes with the hotly anticipated opening of Kyle and Katina Connaughton’s Single Thread (131 North St.; no telephone), a 52-seat fine-dining restaurant with an attached inn and its own farm plot at the nearby San Lorenzo Vineyard. Katina, a skilled horticulturalist with a focus on sustainable agriculture, manages the farm as well an “edible roofscape” atop the restaurant to supply the kitchen with olives, fruit, micro greens, and eggs from her flock of Ameraucana and Light Brahma heritage-breed chickens. Come September, her chef husband Kyle, a soft-spoken L.A. native whose résumé includes stints with Michel Bras and Heston Blumenthal, will serve an 11-course kaiseki-style tasting menu nightly, driven by what’s fresh in Sonoma—particularly from Katina’s farm—that day. Dinner starts with champagne and canapés on the roof at sunset; dishes served in the home-kitchen-inspired dining room might include Sonoma duck with spinach, green garlic, and morel or Monterey abalone with garlic scape, melted onion, and fingered-citron kosho.

A short stroll away, Valette (344 Center St.; 1-707/473-0946) was opened
last year by brothers Dustin Valette and Aaron Garzini. If à la carte options such as day-boat scallops en croûte with fennel, caviar, and a rich champagne-infused beurre blanc don’t tempt you, opt for the as-many-courses-as-you-can-handle tasting menu—chef Valette will pop out to say hello and introduce dishes whenever he gets a spare moment. Or head to Chalkboard 
(29 North St.; 1-707/473-8030), where vaulted ceilings and marble-topped tables give the dining room a cloistered, cellar-like ambience, ensuring your attention is fully directed to those plates of fried Brussels sprouts, hamachi crudo, and buttermilk-fried chicken being whisked from the open kitchen.

Chef Perry Hoffman, who earned a Michelin star three years running during his previous tenure at Domaine Chandon’s now-shuttered fine-dining restaurant Étoile, helms the excellent café
 at SHED (25 North St.; 1-707/431-7433), a grange hall and marketplace set in a barn-like steel-and-glass structure. Dishes such as the duck paté salad with autumn squash, Asian pears, chestnuts, chicories, and cider syrup prompted San Francisco Chronicle food critic Michael Bauer to name it Sonoma County’s “most authentic and beautifully conceived restaurant” in a recent three-star review.

For standout Italian fare, eight-year-old trattoria Scopa (109A Plaza St.; 1-707/433-5282) remains a must for its grilled baby octopus and tomato-braised chicken served
with a warm cloud of polenta. And if it’s the sweet stuff you crave, Noble Folk Ice Cream &
 Pie Bar (116 Matheson St.; 1-707/395-4426) is sure to satisfy. Grab a slice of chocolate-maple-walnut or lemon-custard pie with a scoop of organic buffalo-milk vanilla ice cream and sit out in Healdsburg’s tree-ringed town square to enjoy it in the sunshine.

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Outside SHED, a combination market, café, and community gathering space.

WHERE TO SHOP

Tucked around the town’s foodie haunts are a handful of chic boutiques with edits to delight even the most discerning shopper. For home furnishings and decor, Saint Dizier Home (259 Center St.; 1-707/473-0980) is a one-stop shop for the wine country–style house, while the drawers at all-white Gallery Lulo (303 Center St.; 1-707/433-7533) contain a kaleidoscopic array of jewelry by independent designers, including sculptural pieces by co-owner Karen Gilbert. OSKA (310 Center St.; 1-707/431-7717), a Munich-based label, stocks contemporary women’s clothing cut in loose, flowing silhouettes in neutral colors. Style-conscious gents aren’t left wanting, either. Hipster haven Ereloom (110 Matheson St.; 1- 707/395-0550) sells handcrafted leather accessories and tweed bowties alongside edgy urban men’s labels such as Theory and John Varvatos. At Outlander (103 Plaza St; 1-707/433-7800), which curates pieces ranging from Tommy Bahama shorts and tees to sartorial selections from Rodd & Gunn, the fitting room is inside a huge vault—staff say it’s left over from the time the building housed a branch of the Bank of Italy.

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Gallery Lulo showcases a highly curated array of jewelry and art.

WHERE TO SLEEP

Another of Healdsburg’s major plus points is its clutch of charming, boutique places to stay. With 
its September debut, this includes the inn at 
Single Thread (doubles from US$700), where those lucky enough to snag one of the five upper-floor guest suites can look forward to an experience inspired by a stay at the Connaughton’s own home. Kitchen-made drinks and snacks are offered in lieu of a mini-bar and potential daytime experiences include cooking classes with Kyle and the kitchen team, wine tastings, and trips to the farm to work alongside Katina and her 20-year-old daughter Chloe.

Home to Charlie Palmer’s excellent Dry Creek Kitchen restaurant, where people come as much for a glass of wine at the bar or outdoor patio as the tasting menu, Hotel Healdsburg (25 Matheson St.; 1-707/431-2800; doubles from US$399) is another standout. Accommodations feature contemporary lighting, illuminated laurel-wood headboards, and decorative pieces by local artisans, including ethereal cloud paintings by Healdsburg-based artist Wade Hoefer. The spa offers indulgent massage and beauty packages while the newly updated pool and outdoor relaxation area is a perfect place to while away a few hours.

A short drive from town, rooms at the gabled, 1881-built mansion Madrona Manor (1001 Westside Rd.; 1-707/433-4231; doubles from US$235) come with antique four-poster beds and furnishings, framed Victorian-era christening gowns, and balconies with views over the estate’s rambling flower gardens and vineyards. Even if you’re not staying the night, the hotel’s Michelin-starred French restaurant is well worth visiting in its own right—dishes on chef Jesse Mallgren’s seasonal nine-course tasting menus might include quail with onion soubise and Bulgarian osetra caviar with smoked-duck gelée and crème fraîche.

DON’T MISS

If you have a free afternoon, spend it at the Francis Ford Coppola Winery 
in neaby Geyserville. The director’s “wine wonderland” offers a cabana-lined pool and sipping and dining amidst movie memorabilia, including the bridal dress from Bram Stoker’s Dracula and prop galleons from Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette.

Summer visitors will want to book advance tickets to the Transcendence Theatre Company’s Broadway Under the Stars. The season runs until September 11 and sees spectacular music and dance revues staged within the ruins of a 19th-century winery in Jack London State Park.

This article originally appeared in the August/September print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Here’s to Healdsburg”).

An Intuitive Pack for Tech-Savvy Travelers

Already known for its leather-tech travel accessories, This Is Ground has recently introduced its first backpack, Venture, fusing smart technology and old-school functionality into one intuitive design. Features include a GPS tracking device from Tile, an optional Karma WiFi hotspot for staying connected while on the road, and a back that folds down to form a tray for laptops, so you’ll be spared that frantic moment of unpacking at airport security. A microfiber-lined pocket for tablets ensures a spotless, dust-free device upon removal. Made from vegetable-tanned Italian leather, the Venture pack is available in large and small sizes, with the former engineered to fit a 15-inch MacBook. —James Louie

This article originally appeared in the August/September print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Packing a Punch”).

A New Look at The Peninsula Beijing

Opened in 1989 as the Chinese capital’s first international luxury hotel, The Peninsula Beijing—then known as the Palace Hotel—was for a long time the grandest place to stay in the city. And now, with its emergence from a US$123 million top-to-bottom overhaul, the landmark hotel on Goldfish Lane looks poised to regain that status.

Return guests will hardly recognize the place—and that’s definitely for the better. The vast three-story lobby is still flanked by high-end boutiques from the likes of Louis Vuitton and Chanel, but gone are the dark granite surfaces, the arched marble staircase, and the inelegant escalators below it. The floors are now covered in pale Italian marble and the great support columns have been refinished with a nacreous luster, which, together with a new bronze-railed staircase, give the space a brighter, more expansive feel. Don’t expect any reception desks either: guests are now greeted by a tablet-toting concierge and whisked to their rooms for check-in. In a way, that’s a shame, as there’s much to linger over in the lobby, including a hand-carved onyx spirit wall, a pair of tea-drinking, Mao-suited everyman sculptures by Zhang Du, and, positioned along the same sightline, a pair of five-meter-high ink paintings by Qin Feng, one of China’s foremost avant-garde artists.

Perhaps even more impressive, a major restructuring has seen the number of guest rooms reduced from 525 to just 230, creating some of the largest standard rooms in Beijing, at an average 65 square meters. The first batch of these will be officially unveiled in early August, and they’re gorgeous, all pale creams and light grays with contemporized Chinese motifs—like the calligraphy-inspired fish mosaics next to the bathtubs—matched by the latest high-tech gadgetry. Even bigger are the 17 residential-style Beijing Suites, with a whopping 165 square meters of floor space; they also feature private cinema rooms equipped with surround sound and 80-inch TVs.

On the dining front, the biggest change is at the hotel’s Jing restaurant, which now serves farm-to-table Mediterranean dishes in a setting designed to evoke a secret Chinese garden. Chef Alberto Becerril says he sources his mostly organic produce from more than a dozen farms around Beijing—and it’s that sort of commitment that will help ensure The Peninsula Beijing’s return to preeminence long after the final phase of its room renovations is completed early next year (8 Goldfish Ln., Beijing; 86-10/8516-2888; doubles from US$270). —Christopher P. Hill

A master bedroom inside one of the hotel's 17 Beijing Suites.

A master bedroom inside one of the hotel’s 17 Beijing Suites.

This article originally appeared in the August/September print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“A Landmark Reborn”).

Charlie Chaplin’s Swiss Abode Now a Museum

On the north shore of Lake Geneva, Vevey is arguably one of Switzerland’s most charming towns. With its broad waterside promenade backdropped by the Alps, it’s easy to see why Charlie Chaplin fell in love with the area and decided to call it home when he was banned from the United States in 1952; he spent the last 25 years of his life here. Surrounded by centuries-old trees and expansive parkland, the manor house he and his family (Chaplin had eight children) lived in, high on a hill overlooking the lake, has been transformed into Chaplin’s World by Grevin, an insightful shrine to the actor and political activist. In addition to the grand house, the project—some 16 years in the planning—includes a purpose-built gallery showcasing more than 15,000 photos and 35 cinematic productions tracing Chaplin’s humble beginnings in London and his meteoric rise to become one of the biggest names in the film industry at only 26 years old. The interactive space also features 30 wax figures of Chaplin, his wife Oona, and artists moved by his work, including Michael Jackson (it’s said that Chaplin inspired the moonwalk), Woody Allen, and Federico Fellini. —Natasha Dragun

This article originally appeared in the August/September print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Modern Times”).

Introducing Guangzhou’s Palace of Gin

Thanks to an extensive remodeling of Ebony, the upscale grill at the Mandarin Oriental, Guangzhou, southern China now has its first gin bar. JIN at Ebony boasts nearly 40 variants of the spirit, ranging from the tried-and-true (Tanqueray, Hendrick’s, et al.) to boutique labels like Scotland’s Eden Mill and Monkey 47, a botanically complex distillation from Germany. Also on the menu are half a dozen house-infused gins steeped in flavors such as goji berries and oolong tea, best sampled at happy hour when free-flow gin cocktails and complimentary bar bites are on offer. With its marbled counters and relaxed garden setting, Ebony gives a whole new meaning to the term “gin palace.” —James Louie

This article originally appeared in the August/September print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“That’s the Spirit”).

Hong Kong’s Kennedy Town on the Rise

Not long ago, the western end of Hong Kong Island—basically everything beyond Sheung Wan—was the preserve of locals and intrepid expats. Those days are over. Now home to a buzzing restaurant and bar scene (as well as their own metro stations), the once no-go neighborhoods of Kennedy Town and Sai Ying Pun are now firmly on the map.

By Nick Walton
Photographs by Callaghan Walsh

Trams still trundle through Kennedy Town, though most commuters today use the neighborhood’s much newer MTR connection.

Trams have been trundling through Kennedy Town since 1904.

With a ding of its bell and a rattle of its coachwork, another east-bound tram departs Kennedy Town, as trams have done every few minutes since the precarious double-decker streetcars were introduced to Hong Kong Island in 1912. It’s a sound that I find both soothing and nostalgic, having lived above one of Kennedy Town’s two tram stops for three years. However, travelers visiting the western neighborhood today will experience a very different place from the one that welcomed the first “ding dings” (as the streetcars are affectionately known) a century ago, or even this wide-eyed expat in 2008.

Kennedy Town, named for Arthur Edward Kennedy, the seventh governor of Hong Kong, is finally benefitting from its once unenviable designation—both literally and metaphorically—as the “end of the line.” Thanks to both soaring rents in Central and the 2014 extension of the Island Line of the city’s MTR network, Sai Wan—the Western District—has seen an influx of expats, upwardly mobile locals, and the restaurants, cafés, and bars that keep them sated. This is particularly apparent in pockets of Sai Ying Pun and Kennedy Town, a traditionally working-class precinct bookended by the flanks of brooding Mount Davis and the factory buildings of Shek Tong Tsui.

I still remember the first time I stepped foot in Kennedy Town. When I told my colleagues at the South China Morning Post where I was apartment hunting, they smirked and shook their heads. “Why would you want to live down there?” one asked, exasperated.

Undeterred, I caught one of those rumbling trams through the frenzy of rush-hour Central toward the dark, silent harborfront at the end of the line. 
K-Town, as the neighborhood is colloquially known, was exactly what I was looking for: quiet and close enough to the city to be convenient but without the ridiculous rents. It was a place where I could practice my Cantonese and eat like a local; where I never had to wait in line for an organic single-origin espresso because, back then, it was McCafé or nothing. On the rooftop of my 1950s six-floor walkup, I would barbecue with friends while families gathered for dinner in the countless apartments towering above us. At night, I could hear pilot boats tooting to each other on the harbor. It was bliss.

Much of that charm remains, despite K-Town’s emergence as one of the coolest neighborhoods in the city. While a plethora of new restaurants, cafés, bars, and high-rise developments continues to seduce trendy DINKs westward, the area still clings to its earlier persona. True, the building I first moved into in 2008 has since fallen prey to the wrecking ball. But many older enclaves remain, creating a blend of old and new that’s both fascinating and reassuring.

Exploring the Extreme East of Iceland

Wild landscapes, empty roads, and more than a few surprises await along the shores of Iceland’s remote eastern fjordland.

By Will Hide

A stretch of the Ring Road south of Berufjörður in fog-prone East Iceland.

A stretch of the Ring Road south of Berufjörður in fog-prone East Iceland.

In the far east of Iceland, it pays to grab your photo opportunities when you can. One moment the sun is shining brightly on a couple of small, shaggy-maned horses posing nonchalantly against a backdrop of cascading waterfalls, and the next, a thick fog has rolled in across the fjord and you’re groping your way back to your rental car in near-zero visibility.

Did the makers of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty face similar challenges when they shot Ben Stiller’s skateboarding scenes along the road to Seyðisfjörður in 2012? Perhaps—though you wouldn’t know it from the film’s final cut, which portrays a gorgeous landscape of mountain-backed fjords lapped by water the color of steel. Never mind that erupting CGI volcano: East Iceland, with its swaths of spongy green moss and craggy, mist-shrouded hills, is heaven for hikers, birders, kayakers, and nature photographers. Just don’t expect to see too many of them. While the country is welcoming more travelers than ever before, most stick to the so-called Golden Circle route, which takes you from Reykjavík through Thingvellier National Park to Gullfoss waterfall and the geothermal field of Haukadalur. The remote east, by contrast, offers a respite from the crowds. Intrepid travelers aside, it’s home to just 5 percent of Iceland’s already modest population (332,000), with long stretches of empty road connecting a scattering of isolated fishing villages and lonely farmsteads.

One of the latter was my first stop after driving an hour and a half south from the airport at Egilsstaðir, Iceland’s largest eastern township. “Once you reach Berufjörður, keep going a bit and look for the red roof on the left,” Svavar Pétur Eysteinsson, owner of Karlsstaðir Farm, had e-mailed me the day before. The directions were vague, yes, but sufficient. Thanks to a thick fog that had descended by the time I reached Berufjörður, that roof was all I could see through the murk—a ruddy sheet of corrugated metal seemingly afloat in a vaporous gray sea.

Berglind Häsler and Svavar Pétur Eysteinsson at their farm in Berufjörður.

Berglind Häsler and Svavar Pétur Eysteinsson at their farm in Berufjörður.

Originally from Reykjavík, Eysteinsson and his wife Berglind Häsler moved here with their three children in 2014, converting the property’s 1927-built farmhouse into a cozy B&B called Havarí and starting production on a line of vegan sausages and sea salt–dusted turnip chips. Confirming my conviction that Icelanders are both multitasking and quirky, the couple also happens to be behind the band Prins Póló, whose soundtrack to the indie movie hit París Norðursins (“Paris of the North”) became one of Iceland’s top-selling albums in 2014. Arrive at the right time in summer and they may be throwing an impromptu concert for friends in their barn.

My original plan had been to do some hiking in the area, but the weather scotched that idea. So after a sausage-centric lunch during which Svavar and I chatted variously about music, politics, and vegetables, I got back on the road for the meandering drive north to Stöðvarfjörður. I arrived an hour later, by which time the fog had thinned but not dissipated altogether, lending a striking photographic quality to the seashore.

Once a thriving fishing village, Stöðvarfjörður is now home to the HERE Creative Centre, set inside a converted fish factory. The young, enthusiastic artists I met seemed to relish having an overseas visitor to admire their recording studio and workshops for ceramics, wood, and metal. “Tell more people to come, we need the money!”
they called out as I left to wander up the street to Stöðvarfjörður’s other claim to fame, Petra’s Stone Collection. Billed as the largest private assemblage of minerals and crystals in the world, it fills the small bungalow and garden of local rock hound Petra Sveinsdóttir. Though she died four years ago at the age of 94, her time capsule of a house remains as much a museum for those who want to remember bygone days of East Iceland as for those whose interest lies in glinting shelves of jasper, quartz, and amethyst.

Outside Seyðisfjörður’s Hótel Aldan, which made a cameo appearance in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

Outside Seyðisfjörður’s Hótel Aldan, which made a cameo appearance in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

Looping around the next inlet to Fáskrúðsfjörður, I checked in to a century-old former hospital called Fosshotel Eastfjords. In the hotel’s bar a crew of young cod fishermen were bracing themselves for a night on the Atlantic. “It’s a shit job, but the money’s good,” one of them told me after inquiring about my English football team allegiance: Icelanders are obsessed with the Premier League and you’ll win friends if you can chat about Leicester City’s winning streak or Spurs’ strengths in defense.

The next morning I drew back my curtains to reveal the mirror-like waters of the fjord outside my window. In the small museum across the road, exhibits explained how Fáskrúðsfjörður served as a seasonal base for French fishermen from the mid-19th century until the outbreak of World War I. Working conditions were horrendous, as men were paid only for what they caught, which meant they had to stay on deck in freezing weather on mountainous seas for hours at a time, swigging alcohol to numb the cold. The reward was a pension, unusual for the time. But the graveyard on the edge of town was a frequent destination for those who never got to cash their pay slip. It’s still there today. A French flag flaps forlornly over those who never sailed south again, and streets bear both French and Icelandic names in their memory.

I carried on north to Neskaupstaður. In summer, the town’s headline attraction is a heavy-metal festival called Eistnaflug, which translates to “Flying Testicles.” But I was here to hike, and the weather gods were finally cooperating.

“We are like Scotland on steroids,” said my trekking guide Siggi Olafsson, smiling broadly under a cloudless September sky as we caught a boat across the fjord to a beach on the Barðsnes Peninsula. There was no one else around, and we tramped for several hours over squelchy moss toward dramatic sea cliffs to peer over the edge at the gannets and gulls below. Afterward, back in Neskaupstaður, I soaked in the municipal hot springs, chatting with the locals as the fog rolled in once more.

Hiking guide Siggi Olafsson high above the Atlantic surf on the Barðsnes Peninsula.

Hiking guide Siggi Olafsson high above the Atlantic surf on the Barðsnes Peninsula.

My last stop was Seyðisfjörður, where Ben Stiller’s Walter Mitty finished his skateboard ride. “Yes, we still get people knocking on our door because they recognize it from the film,” laughed the owners of the Hótel Aldan, a red-trimmed former bank building that sits right at the entrance to town.

Tucked at the head of a 17-kilometer-long fjord, Seyðisfjörður is an artsy place that buzzes
in summer, when daylight is pretty much around the clock and tourists keep galleries and restaurants busy. I settled in for the evening at the cozy Skaftfell Bistro and was served beer and pizza by candlelight. As I wandered back to my hotel  along the harbor, the northern lights glimmered ever so faintly above the surrounding hills. I felt a long way from anywhere—and that wasn’t a bad thing at all.

 

Getting There

The gateway to East Iceland is Egilsstaðir, an hour’s flight from Reykjavik on Air Iceland.

Where to Stay

Havarí Guesthouse

Karlsstaðir Farm, Berufjörður; 354/663-5520; entire four-bedroom house from US$284.

Fosshotel Eastfjords

Fáskrúðsfjörður; 354/ 470-4070; doubles from US$205.

Hildibrand Hotel

Neskaupstaður; 354/477-1950; doubles from US$170.

Hótel Aldan

Seyðisfjörður; 354/472-1277; doubles from US$185.

 

This article originally appeared in the August/September print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Far Fjords”).

Banda: the Forgotten Archipelago

Banda Muhammad Fadli_1

Children paddling a canoe in the waters off Run, an island once claimed as an English colony.

Once the most coveted of Indonesia’s fabled Spice Islands, the Bandas have seen their fortunes fade over the centuries. Photographer Muhammad Fadli takes stock of the archipelago’s haunting colonial legacy and uncertain future.

Speak of Banda today and you might be greeted with nothing more than a puzzled glance. But to 16th-century European explorers, the faintest whisper of these islands meant the promise of instant riches. For Banda’s tropical soil was planted with a commodity more precious than gold—a miracle spice so potent it was believed to cure even the plague.

Nutmeg was its name, and up until 1817, it was grown exclusively in this remote corner of eastern Indonesia. In time, Banda became a battleground between the English and the Dutch for control over the lucrative spice trade. England claimed one of its islands, Run, as an overseas colony, sending a small naval force to set up a trading post and arm the inhabitants with muskets. But the English presence was short-lived. After expelling their European rivals, the Dutch launched a brutal conquest in which more than 90 percent of Banda’s original population was massacred. The new masters divided Banda into 68 plantations and repopulated the islands with slaves and indentured laborers, setting the scene for three centuries of harsh colonial rule.

Indonesian photographer Muhammad Fadli, whose images appear here, calls the far-flung archipelago “a largely forgotten place, torn between its troubled past and the unpromising future.” In The Banda Journal, an ongoing documentary project with writer Fatris M.F., he captures the reality of daily life beyond historical narratives and the swashbuckling exploits of European adventurers. The viewer observes an empty hammock on the site of a long-lost English fort; a lone plantation worker amid his quarry; and sacks of nutmeg waiting to be transported onto a passenger liner. Fadli’s photos are often melancholic, with an air of neglect that points as much to the islands’ isolation as it does to the suffering wrought by the Dutch.

Modern-day voyagers who come to Banda Neira, its main settlement, immediately see how the past forms an inescapable backdrop to the present. Children file into a whitewashed colonial bungalow for after-school music classes, one of many on a street where rusted cannon lie abandoned by the roadside. From a hilltop perch, the turrets of Fort Belgica cast a cautious gaze on the harbor, as fishermen unload catches of skipjack tuna and rickety boats ferry villagers to the outlying islands.

The scene is anchored by the lumbering presence of Gunung Api, whose conical silhouette is visible even from Run, the most far-flung of the Bandas. In 1667, the English settled their dispute with the Dutch by trading the island for another called Manhattan. While the latter takes pride of place in the global spotlight, its unlikely counterpart moves to a much slower rhythm, then, as now, dictated by the life cycle of its nutmeg. —James Louie

Looking toward the active volcano of Gunung Api from Banda Besar, the largest of the archipelago’s 10 islands.

Looking toward the active volcano of Gunung Api from Banda Besar, the largest of the archipelago’s 10 islands.

A portrait of Pieter van den Broecke, who oversaw the Dutch East India Company’s local operations in the 17th century. His descendants still live in Banda.

A portrait of Pieter van den Broecke, who oversaw the Dutch East India Company’s local operations in the 17th century. His descendants still live in Banda.

A shallow strait is all that separates Gunung Api from Banda Neira, whose harbor provides anchorage for large passenger ferries.

A shallow strait is all that separates Gunung Api from Banda Neira, whose harbor provides anchorage for large passenger ferries.

Madrasa students make their way to school on the sleepy island of Run, home to a single village of about 1,000 inhabitants.

Madrasa students make their way to school on the sleepy island of Run, home to a single village of about 1,000 inhabitants.

A local girl takes a dip at Banda Neira. The islands’ fledgling tourism industry is fueled by divers and snorkelers drawn to its coral reefs.

A local girl takes a dip at Banda Neira. The islands’ fledgling tourism industry is fueled by divers and snorkelers drawn to its coral reefs.

This article originally appeared in the August/September print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Chain Reaction”).

Taking the High Road in Myanmar

Not long ago off-limits to foreign travelers, the highway running through eastern Shan State has opened up to reveal one of Myanmar’s most rewarding and unexplored regions.

By Mark Eveleigh

Stopping for a break on Highway 4.

Stopping for a break on Highway 4.

“We’re nearly at the top of the Shan Yoma,” said Sai Naung Naung Tun as our car eased to a halt at the edge of the dirt track grandly known as National Highway 4. “They say if you drop an egg from this point, it’ll hatch before it hits the ground.”

I’d been in Myanmar for long enough to realize that people here have a delightfully quirky way of looking at things.

Two days before, we’d left picturesque Inle Lake to travel east through Shan State from its capital Taunggyi to Kengtung near the Golden Triangle. In between lay the remote highlands of Shan Yoma, crisscrossed by multiple mountain ranges and home to a rich tapestry of ethnic groups.

Our first introduction to this lesser-visited part of the country had been at Hten San, a pilgrimage site close to Taunggyi where a group of smiling, brightly turbaned ladies sliced vegetables at a cave temple run by a Hummer-driving monk named Koyin Lay. Considered by some to be a sort of Buddhist Robin Hood, he became a local hero when, as a young novice, he was drawn to these remote, jungle-shrouded caverns by a vision. Koyin Lay went on to establish the temple where people now donate food for Buddhist pilgrims; his white Hummer was apparently the gift of a wealthy donor who wanted to offer something less perishable than vegetables. As for the vegetable-slicers, they are volunteer cooks from the monk’s own Pa-O ethnic group: their colorful headdresses (these days usually made from bath towels) represent the dragon Naga, the legendary mother of the Pa-O people.

I congratulated myself on the fact that, several weeks into my trip, I was finally able to recognize at least one of Myanmar’s mind-boggling variety of ethnic groups. Officially the country boasts 135 recognized tribes, yet the reality is even more complex. The Pa-O, for example, are considered to be one of the four subgroups of the Karen tribe, but anthropologists have counted as many as 24 Pa-O subgroups. The fact that Myanmar’s new leader, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, made it one of her first priorities to found an Ethnic Affairs Ministry illustrates the complexity of the intercultural situation.

The distinctive headwear of the Pa-O people has its origins in the group’s creation myth.

The distinctive headwear of the Pa-O people has its origins in the group’s creation myth.

As our driver, Teng, steered the four-by-four back onto the highway, Naung Naung, our guide, announced that we were leaving the Pa-O Self-Administered Zone and entering eastern Shan State. This frontier region—bordered by China, Thailand, and Laos—remained entirely closed to outsiders until recently. Historically it was avoided as a bandit-infested opium route: even today, Myanmar remains the world’s second- 
biggest producer of opium after Afghanistan. The more recent past has seen four decades of resistance fighting by various rebel factions dedicated to overthrowing Myanmar’s former military regime. The fighting was sporadic but frequently brutal, and the rebellion was further
complicated by factions (often from the same tribes) that tended to spend as much time fighting each other as they did the army.

In 2013, the area along the eastern section of Highway 4 was downgraded from a no-go warzone to what Myanmar’s tourism office calls a “brown zone,” a region of limited risk accessible to tourists with special permits. That same year, Naung Naung guided Jeremy Clarkson’s Top Gear team on a drive through this fascinating area for the BBC series. It was the first time since Myanmar’s independence that the journey had been made by outsiders. Since then, Naung Naung has driven it five times.

Driving through the highlands of eastern Shan State.

Driving through the highlands of eastern Shan State.

From Hten San the road winds onward and upward in a series of tight switchbacks that are doubly unnerving because most cars in Myanmar are right-hand drive yet driven on the right-hand side of the road, making overtaking difficult and dangerous. This strange situation came about in 1970, when military dictator Ne Win issued a surprise edict switching the traffic flow to the opposite side of the road. According to popular theory, he was either inspired by a dream or advice from his wife’s astrologer.

When we stopped for lunch at a tiny Shan diner I realized that this close to the Golden Triangle, the local Shan dialect was already so similar to Thai that even my basic attempts at the language seemed to be understood. I haggled for a water canteen from a stall that sold military supplies to Shan militia and even had holsters for automatic pistols hanging on display. The vendor just smiled when I asked him if he sold anything to go in them.

We still had several hours’ driving to get to Kunhing and our night’s lodging, but first Naung Naung wanted to introduce me to a unique tribal community—one that has remained virtually unknown to the outside world.

“The Palaung people, like everyone else in this area, had their own resistance army,” he said, “and they kept themselves mostly removed from the Shan because of their unique cultural way of life. Look at these people coming toward us. What do you think, men or women?”

With rifles strung over their shoulders, the  two hunters walking in our direction were clearly masculine, but I could see Naung Naung’s point: one had long, flowing hair hanging straight down his back and the other sported a silky ponytail. The effect was doubly striking when we pulled up at the nearby village and climbed the steps to a rickety longhouse where a group of women were weaving and chatting. While Palaung men never cut their hair, the women shave their heads after the birth of their first baby and keep them closely shaved for the rest of their lives. As Naung Naung opened the box of provisions we’d bought as a gift, the Palaungs’ smiles glinted in the sunlight and showed off the longhouse’s wealth—traditionally stored as gold teeth in the mouths of its women.

We reached Kunhing just before sunset and checked in to a simple hotel that offered ample supplies of hot water and cold Myanmar Beer. Our meal, which featured a dish of surprisingly delicious raw fermented pork, was briefly interrupted by a surprise visit of four men who Naung Naung identified as plainclothes police officers. They waited politely while we finished eating, then scrutinized our travel permits and reassured us that all was in order for the final 
leg of our journey to Kengtung.

The next day’s drive was even more startlingly dramatic as we climbed steadily through a chain of pretty highland villages rarely visited by outsiders. Even migrant road workers pulled out their cell-phone cameras to record the novelty of foreign travelers in this remote region. All along Highway 4, I found an air of hospitality that has remained a central part of Shan tradition despite the years of armed struggle.

Guide Sai Naung Naung Tun taking in a roadside view of the Shan Yoma mountains.

Guide Sai Naung Naung Tun taking in a roadside view of the Shan Yoma mountains.

Around mid-morning we stopped at a roadhouse to meet poet and local leader Sai Hla Shue, who became well known as a negotiator between the military and the various groups of Shan freedom fighters during the ceasefire talks. The allegiances and enmity of so many parties was so complex that I’d finished my glass of steaming Shan tea by the time the man had outlined them for me: “The Shan State Army and the Shan National League for Democracy Party agreed to the 1991 ceasefire,” he explained, “but I think the Shan Liberation Democratic Party and the Restoration Council of Shan State are still 
at war.”

I hoped he was wrong and that what he called the National Ceasefire Agreement was still proving effective. Certainly, there is growing confidence that Myanmar’s first democratically elected government since 1962 will be able to secure a permanent end to the fighting. Its people are looking forward to lasting peace and a measure of prosperity that, before the generals began their plundering, had made old Burma the rice-basket of Southeast Asia.

In the 1920s, Rangoon University boasted an academic level that competed even with Oxford and Cambridge, and in the 1950s Burma (as the country was then known) was still producing rice for export throughout the region. But after taking power in 1962, the military regime tightened the thumbscrews to the point where, in 1987, Myanmar was officially given “least developed country” status by the United Nations. If George Orwell—who worked as a colonial policeman in Burma in 1922—could have visited the country 60 years later he would have found a dictatorship that was even more fanatically paranoid than the fictional Big Brother regime of his book Nineteen Eighty-Four.

By 1988 freedom of speech was nonexistent in Burma and the military was mercilessly killing demonstrators by the thousands. Aung San Suu Kyi heroically flouted their rules against public meetings, advocating non-violent resistance that landed her 20 years of house arrest in Yangon. She issued statements asking tourists to boycott Myanmar because the visa fees were being used directly to fund the junta and would not benefit ordinary people. Although I had been desperate to see Southeast Asia’s most mysterious country, I decided to respect this and stay away. Then, in 1994, I hired a motorbike in Thailand and rode for three days along the route of the so-called Death Railway to enter Myanmar at a militarized zone called Three Pagodas Pass. Inexplicably, visas could be avoided here but it was illegal to stay overnight: I spent several hours in Myanmar, had a haircut and kick-started the bike for the long journey back to Thailand.

Needless to say, I met few locals on that trip and it would be 22 years before I could return to the country when Aung San Suu Kyi finally took power. But even as her new civilian-led government ruled from the purpose-built capital of Naypyidaw (a pet project of the junta), being in Shan State’s “brown zone” meant regular encounters with military personnel.

At each of the main river crossings we were obliged to stop so that Naung Naung could get our permits checked by sentries while we cautiously kept our cameras from pointing at the concrete bunkers and bamboo palisades guarding both ends of each bridge. We were told that the checkpoints closed at 6 p.m. and that no traffic would be allowed on the road at night.

Fishing on the Pang River, a tributary of the Salween.

Fishing on the Pang River, a tributary of the Salween.

The long bridge over the Salween River was no exception, and we drove across in the early morning with a warning from the guard that, while we could take photographs, we should not stop our vehicle in the middle of the bridge. Yet the mood below was far from tense: two fishermen paddled their dugout canoes through the swirling mist as the river meandered peacefully around overgrown islets—a timeless, languid presence between banks festooned with swaying arches of bamboo. In these parts, the mighty Salween is known as the “Miracle River” because it crosses from north to south across the extent of Shan territory, irrigating a large part of the region with a seemingly limitless supply of water. Shan State covers less than a quarter of Myanmar yet it produces about 60 percent of the country’s fruit and vegetables.

As the road descended from the mountains toward Kengtung and our journey’s end, Naung Naung recalled his teenage life in a country whose population was deliberately kept isolated and ignorant of events in the outside world.

“The ruling generals became so paranoid that even phones were illegal since they could be used to access “real” news—beyond state-issued propaganda—from the free world,” he said. “In 2001, you’d have to pay US$4,000 for a cellular phone!”

The simple fact that he is now free to tell me such things speaks volumes about the immense changes in Myanmar. One of the great pleasures of travel in this born-again nation is the infectious enthusiasm of people who are learning to have honest conversations about their own country without having to whisper like conspirators. After enduring years of enforced isolation, freedom of speech and of the press are still novel ideas to the average Burmese.

And while people revel in their newfound access to information, this is one place where soap operas and satellite dishes are unlikely to catch on: it is cheaper, the locals say, to download a movie onto your phone for a few dollars at the market, so who needs TV? The new Myanmar, with all its colorful quirks, is already rewriting the rules.

THE DETAILS

Myanmar tour specialist Khiri Travel organizes trips throughout Myanmar, including itineraries to rarely visited areas. Road trips between Inle Lake and the Golden Triangle are customizable and priced at around US$200 per person per day, including a guide, permits, and private transportation.

This article originally appeared in the August/September print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“State of Emergence”).