A dramatic landscape on Iceland.

Viewing the Northern Lights in Grundarfjörður, Iceland

The Snaefellsnes Peninsula in western Iceland is renowned as a leading destination for viewing the Northern Lights, the natural phenomenon also known as Aurora Borealis.

I’ve headed north with a friend, intent on coming home with a spectacular set of photographs of the lights dancing colourfully in the night sky behind Kirkjufell mountain and, with a bit of luck, water flowing from the Kirkjufellsfoss waterfall.

Our pre-trip research was, we still maintain, flawless. We’ve travelled to the peninsula when it’s cold and the solar activity high; factors that help maximise chances of sighting the polar lights.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t have predicted – when booking our trip six months in advance – that the weather conditions would not be ideal. Clouds cover the night sky and, consequently, with visibility limited, we are unable to spot the Aurora Borealis. Maybe the lights are indeed dancing up above, but if they are we have no way of knowing for sure.

Naturally, I’m disappointed, but, ultimately, it’s the unpredictability of the natural world that make outdoor activities such as spotting weather related phenomena, wild animals and the Northern Lights so rewarding.

Back at our base, the Hotel Framnes in the small harbour settlement of Grundarfjörður, I can’t help but pop my head out of the back door one last time – just to check if there might be a break in the clouds – before admitting defeat.

In the lobby I begin chatting with the hotel proprietors, Gísli Ólafsson and Shelagh Smith, and learn that a lot of people come here in order to view the Aurora Borealis.

“In winter, from October to April, it’s probably about 70 to 80 per cent. Especially in January, February, March because then we have groups coming from England and they come here specifically to see the Northern Lights and killer whales. We have lots of killer whales here so people stay here four nights and look for killer whales during the day and for the Northern Lights at night,” says Gísli.

“If they are just normal – light in the sky and not moving or doing much – then we look up, okay, they are. We keep our eyes open for them but we don’t go outside to look or anything. But if the activity is high and they are moving we can stand outs for hours. Nights when they are moving a lot – dancing – then we locals stand outside too. We are amazed each time; it is special,” he says when I ask how locals regard the lights.

“I think it’s difficult not to be enamoured by the Northern Lights. If you’re blasé about them then you don’t deserve to see them. They’re special every time. It’s a very special feeling being outside in the freezing cold, looking up and just seeing this spectacle going on in the sky. It’s amazing. It really warms up the winter, especially the dark hours here; this is what we look forward to in Iceland,” says Shelagh who is originally from South Africa.

I’m intrigued as to whether she regards the lights differently to Gísli, having grown up in a different part of the world. So what how did she regard the lights, the very first time?

“You really want to know?” she asks, laughing. “The first time I saw the Northern Lights I wasn’t impressed at all. It wasn’t a very good show. My sister was here, she was getting all excited, knowing what was to come. We were walking down the street and she said ‘Look, the Northern Lights,” and it looked like clouds to me. I was like ‘oh, well.’ I was expecting disco lights in the sky!”

“As we watched them they grew stronger and stronger. It is awe inspiring. It is a very humbling sensation actually. It’s not a circus, it’s a spectacle.”

I’m interested to know how the lights look here, above Iceland.

“We get all colours. Green in the main colour but I still remember when I saw the best Northerm Lights of my life. I was eight years old. It was 1968. That winter there must have been a hell of a lot of action in the sun because the Northern Lights were every night for a long time and they were always red and pink. I remember that very clearly. It was in January; night after night it was beautiful Northern Lights,” recalls Gísli.

“Mainly now we get them green, blues and white of course. They turn pink when they are moving a lot,” he adds and tells me even his teenage son enjoys watching them.

Sheila has also seen all the colours too and at different strengths. “To see red and blue and orange just all fading into each other, rippling, it’s amazing; the skies are alive,” she says.

Light pollution diminishes the effect of the lights and Gísli suggests people take a drive out of town to watch the Northern Lights. Nearby Kirkjufell is a popular location. The neighbouring fjord, which is uninhabited, has an old bridge and a lava field is also a good spot.

I’ll bear those in mind for next time. I may not have seen them on this trip but the dramatic Icelandic landscapes are providing compensation and proving rewarding to photograph.

Useful Information

The Hotel Framnes (Nesvegi 6, 350 Grundarfjörður; tel. +354 438 6893) has a total of 37 single to family-sized guestrooms, with en suite bathrooms, a 60-seat dining room and a sauna. Twenty-nine of the rooms are in the hotel and eight are in new premises 50 metres away. See the hotel website for room rates and availability.

The Snæfellsnes Peninsula is a popular destination for activities such as horse riding, bird and whale watching plus hiking and glacier visits.

Find out more about the island’s tourist attractions on the Visit Iceland website.

Hotel Framnes in Grundarfjordur, Iceland.

Hotel Framnes in Grundarfjordur, Iceland.

A houseboat on one of the canals near to Alappuzha in Kerala, India.

Houseboating on the backwaters of Kerala, India

Stress is a distant memory as we glide, in defiance of the passage of time, in a houseboat on Kerala’s placid backwaters. For centuries people survived on board these vessels without watches, mobile phones and laptops, so for the three day duration of this trip I’ve packed mine away and pledged to undertake a digital detox by not even glancing at an electronic device.

This allows me to focus on the verdant scenery as we sail slowly southward between Kochi and Alappuzha. By road, 53 kilometres and just over an hour’s travelling time separate the two South Indian cities. Trucks now zip along carrying the locally produced goods – including rubber, rice and spices – that were once transported in these boats; vessels known as kettuvallam in Malayalam, the local language.

Kettu means ‘to tie’ and vallam means ‘boat’ in our language,” explains Abhey, the easy going skipper of my boat. “Look around but you won’t find a single nail onboard,” he jokes. “These boats were made using coir rope to bind planks of jack wood. Cashews were boiled down into a black resin to treat and preserve the wood of the hull, that’s why it looks like mahogany. Some of the boats you’ll see today were afloat in my grandfather’s day.”

Over on the bank, just meters away, a man shimmies up one of the palm trees jutting out over the water’s edge. Using a sickle he harvests a bunch of pale green coconuts. On seeing me he smiles. I shout to him, asking if he has any for sale; he answers to the affirmative. Abhey steers us alongside a nearby jetty and we do business. The harvester slices into the top of a coconut and I savour the cool, mildly salty juice within. Refreshments rarely come any fresher.

We’re travelling without a motor. A crew member is propelling us with a long bamboo pole, known as a kuzhukol, just as people would have done in bygone days when these boats carried up to 30 tonnes of freight towards the region’s ports. Carrying tourists is a relatively recent development but I can see why they’ve become popular. The tranquillity allows us the listen to palm leaves rustling in the breeze and the song, screeching and warbling of every bird.

“If you enjoy bird spotting we can sail by Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary,” suggests Abhey, seeing me transfixed by the sight of a brightly coloured kingfisher perched on a waterside branch. “Early morning is the best time; that’s when the birds are most active. If you want, you can take a walk there. The sanctuary covers 14 acres, but I prefer the view from my deck. Sitting here I’ve seen teal, Siberian cranes, sea eagles and egrets. Birds fly all the way from Europe and Russia to nest at Kumarakom…just as the tourists do these days,” he adds with a toothy grin, referencing the popularity of the district’s Ayurvedic resorts, which are known for their range of massage treatments.

“We can also stop at Pathiramanal Island. That’s also good for birdwatching, with almost 100 species, depending on when you visit,” says my captain with knowledgeable enthusiasm. He tells me how the island is uninhabited these days, though fishermen lived there until the 1970s.

A motorised houseboat approaches from the opposite direction. Its high wooden prow is reminiscent of the shape of a Viking longboat and the open, straw-coloured hatches of the boat’s domed living area remind me of the gun portals on an ancient warship. The people aboard, though, are friendly, waving cheerily from seating in the open-sided, shaded area behind their captain’s wheel. While Abhey appears to be comfortable in the sun, their skipper holds a black umbrella to provide himself with respite.

I’m impressed by the on board comfort level. The thatched bamboo matting of the vallavara, the dome over the bedrooms, bathroom and kitchen, is by no means indicative of simplicity within. The rooms are air-conditioned and the furnishings polished dark wood, while coir matting hints at the region’s eco-friendly heritage. Artwork depicting a colourfully made up kathakali performer stands above the wash basin, reminding me of the traditional dance-drama performance I viewed in Kochi the night before setting sail.

We navigate along a narrow channel, passing local people in front of their houses and kids playing. One lad sees an opportunity to impress us and somersaults into the water, grinning as he resurfaces. A couple of his friends leap through the air – like practitioners of kalaripayattu, the region’s ancient martial art – before splashing down and laughing.

The aroma of spices and fish cooking on shore mingles with the scent of food being prepared by our cook, Pradeep, making me peckish. He was angling earlier from the side of the boat and I’m intrigued as to whether he hooked the fish himself. Maybe our dinner was caught in one of the Chinese fishing nets that we’ve seen. The vast cantilever structures made of bamboo are operated by teams of men on the shoreline, having been introduced to Kerala by Chinese explorers in the early 15th century.

As the sky turns golden Abhey brings our boat to rest for the night and Pradeep calls us to dinner, serving delicious fish and crab dishes with white rice and flaky parottas. I’m enjoying the Keralan pace of life and feel like I have all the time in the world to enjoy the meal.

Further Information

See the Kerala Tourism and Incredible India websites for more information about travel and tourism in Kerala and South India.

Sunset over palm trees in Kumarakom, Kerala, India.

Sunset over palm trees in Kumarakom, Kerala, India.

Forty book review.

Book Review: ‘Forty’ with 40 seafood recipes

Forty is a book with 40 seafood recipes. It was published as part of celebrations to mark 40 years since Chris and Liz Ramus established their seafood supply business in Yorkshire.

The hardback book has 80 pages and includes recipes by chefs, food writers and food suppliers plus one from Danny Mills, the former England footballer who became a finalist in the 2012 series of the BBC’s Celebrity MasterChef television series. Mills provides the details required to prepare red mullet with pea risotto and tapenade dressing.

Four of those pages tell a potted history of Ramus Seafoods, which was named Seafood Supplier of the Year 2014 at the maiden Food Awards England and Wales in November 2014. The first of the company’s shops opened back in 1975 while the initial Ramus Seafood Emporium was established in 2000.

The chapter with shellfish recipes includes easy-to-follow, step by steps guides on how to dress lobsters and crabs, each illustrated with five photographs.

The recipes that follow are written with metric measurements for the ingredients and lucid methods of preparation. A number of the recipes – such as those for potted crab tartlets, Coquilles Pierre and moules marienière – also include suggestions as to matching wines.

Several of the pages include ‘fish fact’ boxes with snippets of information relating to the key ingredient used in the associated recipe. You can learn, for example, that mussels contain similar levels of iron and folic acid to red meat and are regarded the most environmentally sustainable of shellfish.

The fish recipes chapter runs to 40 pages and begins with guides on how to fillet sea bass and plaice, the steps needed to butterfly a mackerel and tips on how to boat fillet sea bass.

In addition to the recipes – which include fish pie, fish stew and spicy monkfish with mint yoghurt – the pages provide information on how to make shellfish sauce and fish stock. As you might hope, given the locations of Ramus’s shops, you’ll also find a recipe for Yorkshire fish and chips with tartare sauce.

The final chapter of Forty, entitled Our Catch, lists 40 of Ramus’s most popular species of fish and seafood along with their taxonomical names and photos. The appearance, seasonality and geographical source of each one is listed, along with recommendations on how to cook them and suggestions on alternatives. If you can’t obtain a gurnard, for example, you might want to source a red snapper or a red mullet.

Forty has a recommended retail price of £9.95 and can be ordered online on the Ramus website.

Further Information

Ramus Seafood Emporium sources fish responsibly from fishermen based in ports around the United Kingdom and has stores in Harrogate (136 Kings Road, Harrogate, HG1 5HY) and Ilkley (2 South Hawksworth Street, Ilkley, LS29 9DX).

A contribution from the sale of each book is being donated to the Fishermen’s Mission, which supports retired as well as active fishermen and their families.

GED 40 2

Conflict, Time, Photography at the Tate Modern.

Conflict, Time, Photography exhibition at the Tate Modern

The Tate Modern’s Conflict, Time, Photography exhibition brings together photographs from conflicts, wars and episodes of armed upheaval around the world and is timed to coincide with a number of other events commemorating the centenary of World War One.

The exhibition features iconic works such as Don McCullin’s Shell Shocked US Marine, photographed in Hue, Vietnam during 1968, and Toshio Fukada’s The Mushroom Cloud – Less than 20 minutes after the explosion, showing the ominous plume of smoke above Hiroshima, Japan on 6 August 1945.

A key aspect in how this exhibition has been curated is its emphasis on time. This raises awareness that the passage time can impact how a conflict is regarded and how photographers view their subjects. Innovatively, the works shown are organised according to the period of time since the conflict occurred rather than by theatres of war. This means photos taken a quarter of a century after the fall of Saigon, in Vietnam, and the revolution in Nicaragua are exhibited in close proximity.

I enjoyed seeing reinterpretations of Susan Meiselas’s photo of the ‘Molotov Man’ Pablo Arauz, hurling a Molotov cocktail in Nicaragua during June 1978. The work has been incorporated into graffiti, adverts and posters. It really has become an icon.

Viewers are invited to reflect on war’s impact on people and places. The immediate effect of battle can be read in the hollow look on the face of the American marine, photographed by McCullin, gripping the barrel of his M16 rifle. The photo appears in the first room of the exhibition, themed ‘Moments Later’. The chronological distance from a conflict grows with each gallery. By the eleventh and final room the photographs examine aspects of wars that took place between 80 and 100 years ago.

The exhibition illustrates how World War Two left legacies in locations as geographically diverse as Wales, where Nick Waplington photographed cell walls from a prisoner of war camp in 1993, Poland, where Jerzy Lewczynski documented scenes from the Wolf’s Lair (Adolf Hitler’s headquarters) in 1960 and Japan, where Shomei Tomatsu photographed items found in Nagasaki in 1963.

It’s the ideas behind Tomatsu’s photographs that prove so powerful. A close-up of a damaged watch, stopped at the time the atomic bomb detonated, implies much about the weapon’s impact on its wearer and the power of a precise moment of history, 11:02 on 9 August 1945. A print of his photo showing a steel helmet lying on a cracked, concrete floor would be unremarkable if it were not for the fact a skull bone is fused into the supposedly protective headgear that proved ineffective against the infamous weapon with a plutonium core nicknamed Fat Man.

A number of the photos on display date from the 19th century. George N Bernard’s photographs of William T Sherman’s brutal campaign of destruction in the Confederate States of America, published in 1866, depict the effects of an early form of total war. Did the march through Georgia unite a nation or leave a cleft that was still being felt in the USA a century later?

Roger Fenton’s recorded images of ‘The Valley of the Shadow of Death’ at Balaclava in the Crimea. In 1854 the Light Brigade’s charge did not achieve a decisive military victory but they did ride into the national consciousness via the words of Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Two prints are displayed. One shows cannonballs on the road, the other does not. This raises the question of whether the ordnance was cleared or placed for effect and, thus, what constitutes manipulation of a scene of war.

Sophie Ristelhueber’s series Fait - photographed in the Kuwaiti desert in 1992, months after the end of fighting – shows the scars of the Gulf War on the barren landscape. The series includes aerial photographs and depicts damaged and abandoned vehicles. The sheer scale of the destruction impresses the effects of modern warfare.

This is a powerful exhibition, one that had me reflecting on what I’d seen and how wars affect people and places long after I’d left the Tate Modern.

At times I thought that the lighting within the rooms could have been a touch brighter; that would have made it easier for me to make out details in a number of the photographs. Also, the some of the photos in Kikuji Kawada’s 90-photograph installation The Map were difficult to appreciate fully, due to the height at which they were displayed. Otherwise, though, this was an engaging exhibition and one that warrants a visit.

If you can’t get to London before 15 March you’ll still have an opportunity to see Conflict, Time, Photography. The exhibition will go on tour in Germany during the spring and summer of 2015 and be shown at the Museum Folkwang in Essen then the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden.

Exhibition information

The Conflict, Time, Photography exhibition will be held in the Eyal Ofer Galleries on the third floor of the Tate Modern (Bankside, London, SE1 9TG; tel: +44 (0) 20 7887 8888) until 15 March 2015.

Admission costs £13.10 for adults (£11.30 with concessions) or £14.50 (£12.50 with concessions) with a Gift Aid donation.

The exhibition is open daily from 10.00am to 6.00pm, with extended opening on Fridays and Saturdays until 10.00pm.

Check the Tate Modern’s website for information on events, film screenings and talks being held to coincide with the exhibition.

Conflict, Time, Photography at the Tate Modern.

Conflict, Time, Photography at the Tate Modern.

The Schweine Museum in Stuttgart, Germany.

The Schweine Museum (Pig Museum) in Stuttgart, Germany

The bus running in the direction of Stuttgart’s Schlachthof is up ahead. Just as I think it’s about to pull away without me the door swishes opens and the driver bids me to step aboard. Schwein gehabt as they say in this part of the world; I’ve been a lucky swine.

I’m on my way to the Schweine Museum (Pig Museum), housed within a Jugendstil-influenced building – dating from 1909 – that once served as the administrative building of Stuttgart’s old slaughterhouse. The butchering on the 12 hectare site ceased back in 1992 and the admin building was converted to hold apartments. It opened as the Schweine Museum in May 2010.

The attraction I’ve come to see is run by Erika Wilhelmer, who’s also the proprietor of the Schlachthof bar-restaurant. I glance at a menu and note that the dishes served include schnitzel made from pork, Schweineshaxe (pork knuckle) plus braised back of pork; all traditional German dishes that seem particularly fitting, given the location

“The slaughterhouse itself was torn down,” Erika explains, when we begin chatting in German.

Erika previously ran a museum at Bad Wimpfen, on Lake Constance, then started collecting the pigs that are today displayed in 25 themed rooms in the attraction that proudly proclaims its status as “the largest pig museum in the world.”

“I collected totally different things then had a guest with me who collected pigs. I brought her a little Miss Piggy from the market but I didn’t want to give it away. It was very pretty; it was painted, really beautiful. I had no idea then there were antiques,” recalls Erika. Her collection grew quickly.

“She had 200. The kitchen, bath and living room was full of pigs. I overtook her in the first year. I had 600. She was shirty with me,” recalls Erika laughing.

“Visitors made an effort. They brought me pigs every now and again and the collection got going. I bought them up at flea markets too. I still go to markets but there are far fewer antiques. I get hold of them from dealers. They seek them out for me.”

So are there any major gaps in her collection? Nothing major it seems. Then Erika pauses and says, “I’m missing a bit from France. In Belgium I got a few but it’s become tricky.”

Do any of the pigs stand out, I wonder?

“I have hundreds of favourites,” says the museum’s owner. “Those that are sauteuer [meaning ‘very expensive’ and a play on the word ‘sow’ that has no direct translation in English] and saugut [‘very expensive’]. I love each one. I have kitsch, for sure. I’ve also received whole collections from people who didn’t want them anymore.”

Erika offers a surprising number of little piggies a home. “We have about 50,000 now. The whole third floor of the museum is packed full of pigs. We try to categorise them – glass to glass and metal to metal, and so on – but there are a few that don’t fit. We change our collection around every now and again and that pleases repeat visitors, when they see something they haven’t already,” she says before I head off to explore the exhibits.

The museum’s strapline is Kunst, Kultur und Kitsch (art, culture and kitsch) and the exhibits range from informative, scientific style displays – providing information about the development of piglets in the sow’s womb and facts about the consumption of pork – to witty arrangements providing information on how language has been influenced by pigs.

I learn that in 2010 the average German ate a remarkable 56kg of pork. Since the 1950s consumers have demanded meat with less fat resulting in changes to the breeds kept on many farms.

It seems that nobody knows definitively how many pig species live in the world; it could be around 150 though it may be higher.

There are a number of informative snippets displayed in the museum. People have kept pigs for 9,000 years, according to evidence discovered by archaeologists in Turkey. The presence of the animal around the world means that it features in many cultures and mythologies.

As you might expect, the artefacts on display include books, comics, toys and even clothing. Piggybanks, it turns out, may date back to the 13th century. One of that age was found in Billeben, Thuringia.

I’m fascinated to learn that Steiff, the toy manufacturer today best known for their teddy bears, was marketing cuddly pig toys in 1892, ten years before their first ted appeared.

This is a museum that has exhibits which appeal to adults and others that kids will love. It’s a quirky, fun place to visit that’s worth a look next time you’re in Stuttgart. Who knows, maybe it’ll leave you as happy as a pig in muck?

Further information

The Schweine Museum is at Stuttgart’s Old Slaughterhouse (Schlachthofstrasse 2a, 70188 Stuttgart, tel. + 49 711 66419 600). The nearest bus and U-Bahn stations (Schlachthof) are a couple of minute’s walk from the museum and around ten minutes’ ride from the central station. The museum is open daily from 11.00am to 7.30pm. See the website for up-to-date information regarding opening times and entry prices.

See the Stuttgart Tourism website for more on the city and region and the Germany National Tourist Board site for travel ideas further afield.

Golden pig in the Schweine Museum in Stuttgart, Germany.

Golden pig in the Schweine Museum in Stuttgart, Germany.

George Gaber, the Stetson wearing owner of La Reata Ranch near Kyle, Saskatchewan, Canada.

Horse riding & roping cattle at La Reata Ranch, Saskatchewan

Tanned, with a firm jaw and wearing a white Stetson, there’s something reminiscent of the Marlboro man about George Gaber, the owner of La Reata Ranch near Kyle in Saskatchewan, Canada.

Did I imagine that he just said ‘howdy’ before giving me a firm handshake and welcoming me to his 5,000 acre property? Nine miles of his undulating land fronts onto Lake Diefenbaker.

On the way in, at the end of the two hour drive south-west from Saskatoon, we sent gophers scrambling for the safety of holes burrowed into the dusty track running between the highway and the ranch’s red-painted, A-frame buildings.

I’ve never met a real cowboy before today. To be honest, I’d always associated them more with the United States than Canada.

La Reata is a working cattle guest ranch and George invites me to take a rope and lasso in a calf. In the movies the cowboys do it at the first time of asking. Yet it’s not as easy as it looks. I fail. After coaching from George I succeed following a handful of attempts.

“We run about 130 pairs, which is a cow-calf operation. It means throughout the summer months the cows have their offspring with them for six months. The cows are pregnant and will calve again next March. It’s going to be 260 head in total. We also have 15, 20 long horn cattle and some bulls,” says George about his livestock, in terms that even a city-slicker such as myself can understand.

“A lot of people get mixed up with a working ranch. They think a working ranch means you have to actually, physically work. That’s not the case. This is a working cattle guest ranch. We have the cattle – every guest has a chance to participate – it’s not just a tourist attraction. You have the chance to get involved and help but it’s not like you have to get up at 6.00am and start working.

“You have the chance to help with fencing, spend a lot of hours in the saddle and do the round-up, wrestling calves. I do the branding myself but people can put the ear tags in,” says George.

I had the impression people came here primarily for riding holidays. That isn’t too far wide of the mark. Up to 20 guests can stay at any one time but George likes to keep the number to between 14 or 16, so that everyone can make the most of their time here.

“We ride from three hours up to six or seven hours, depending on what the guests what to do. The other day we went out, it was about two o’clock and I asked if people wanted lunch. They said, ‘Ah, we’re not hungry,’ so we headed further west to check the cows. It turned into a seven hour day in the saddle. Everybody was really tired the next day but I guess it was a great experience for them,” he says with a grin and the genuine enthusiasm of someone who’s found their calling in life.

“We have 23 horses at the moment. That’s not enough in the summer and too many in winter,” says George with a laugh. “They have about seven months off.”

Summer temperatures can soar over 30°C but the winters, I learn, are harsh. “Last year was bad, it was -52°C. That was really cold…that was with the wind chill. We had about a foot of snow. We always get wind with the snow and that clears the roads.” Every cloud has a silver lining then.

“Everyone grooms their own horses once we’ve taught them what to do. They can do a little theory, learn to saddle up their horses and what the different straps are called; the saddle, the bridle, the breast collar. Everybody loves it. They bond with their horse and that’s the main thing. It’s not just going into a resort where the horses are sitting there waiting, saddled up,” explains George in the tack room barn as Country and Western music plays on the radio.

George, 49, speaks with a Canadian accent but moved here from Germany in the 1990s.

“I just came on a holiday in ’95. We just camped out overnight with our horses along Swift Current Creek, which was fantastic and beautiful, and fell in love with it and decided I wanted to change lifestyle and move to Canada,” he explains on the porch of the cook house, in which meals are prepared and served.

He bought land and opened La Reata in 1996.

The original cook house is now a rustic saloon with a pool table. It has the look of a place that could be the set of a Western. Old Stetsons and cowboy boots are used for decoration. A sign on the door states “Cowboys – leave your guns at the bar.” An old revolver hangs behind the bar. Bottles of spirits are marked with the names of their owners.

“Grab yourself a cold beer from the fridge there,” invites George, pointing to the corner of the room while pressing play on the CD player. Country and Western music starts up again and he shoots the smile of a man who’s living his dream.

He’s getting the horses ready so we can go out riding.

“You see the river valley and the lake is full and it’s almost like you are riding into a painting,” he says about the rolling countryside that we’re about to experience on horseback. I can’t wait to get into the saddle and out on the range.

Further information

See La Reata Ranch’s website (Box 128, Kyle, Saskatchewan, S0L 1T0; tel. +1-306-375-2225) for  accommodation prices and to find out more about activities.

For more on the surrounding region see the Tourism Saskatchewan website.

The Canada Travel site has travel information, including a section on outdoor adventures.

Riding off into the sunset - well, the late afternoon - at La Reata Ranch.

Riding off into the sunset – well, the late afternoon – at La Reata Ranch.

A smiling mountie at the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) Depot in Regina, Saskatchewan. Photo by Stuart Forster.

Exploring Saskatchewan: Canada’s Land of Living Skies

Saskatchewan may not be the most heavily visited of Canada’s provinces but if you’re looking to enjoy the great outdoors, the nation’s heritage and good steaks then this mid-western destination has lots to offer.

According to the stereotype – created largely by the impressions of people passing through on the Trans-Canada Highway and Canadian Pacific Railway, which run through the province’s south – all Saskatchewan has is mile upon mile of golden prairie land. That’s a tad unfair and overly simplistic. Wheat fields do indeed dominate the southern landscape – a region known as ‘the bread basket of Canada’ – but as you head north cultivated land gives way to dense, rugged woodland and almost 100,000 lakes.

Just 1,108,000 people live in a rectangular area covering more than 651,000 square kilometres. That’s over 31 times the size of Wales, to use the benchmark of comparative scale so beloved of BBC news reports.

Maybe the low population density helps explain the locals’ easy-going approach to life. To many visitors it comes as a surprise  to learn about the mixed ethnic heritage of the province. A large number of residents can trace their ancestors to the United Kingdom (43.8 per cent), Germany (28.6 per cent) or the Ukraine (13.5 per cent). Over 12 per cent of people hail from First Nations tribes.

People tend to be chatty and there’s a tendency for people not to take themselves too seriously. This sense of humour was mirrored in a recent marketing campaign, Saskatchewan. Hard to Spell. Easy to Draw.

It’s worth hiring a car while you’re in Saskatchewan. Driving gives you the freedom to explore the scenery in this ‘Land of Living Skies,’ a phrase you’ll see on the province’s vehicle registration plates.

Saskatoon, the largest city in the province, is a lively place for a night out from Thursday to Saturday and has a number of good, laid-back eateries, including Ayden Kitchen and Bar (265 3rd avenue, tel. +1 306 954 2590) run by chef Dale MacKay , the winner of the first series of Top Chef Canada, and trained butcher Nathan Guggenheimer. While dining there, the delicious sausage platter and rib-eye beef made positive impressions on me.

The Midtown Plaza, Centre Mall and Lawson Heights Mall offer a concentration of stores if you’re looking to go browsing for bargains. As you wander between the shops of the downtown area you’ll also spot colourful urban artwork hinting at the big name musicians drawn to Saskatoon during the annual jazz festival.

The Auto Clearing Motor Speedway racing circuit, on the edge of Saskatoon, hosts regular, family friendly race days and is a NASCAR venue. The Sask Legends division, features 1250cc powered, 5:8 scale models of Dodges, Fords and Chevys from the 1930s and 1940s. You can sit next to the fence as vehicles roar by on the banked tarmac.

If you’re into fishing then you can spend time at numerous destinations around the province. Lake Diefenbaker has 800km of shoreline and is known for its trophy fish; a rainbow trout weighing almost 22kg was hauled in during 2009. I headed up to Otter Lake, near Missinipi, and landed a 3kg northern pike while angling from a pontoon boat. My guide, Dylan, then showed me how to cook it by the shoreline, over a fire that we made from deadwood collected from the forest.

Many of the people who go hunting and fishing in Saskatchewan take flights by float plane to isolated lodges and lakes well away from roads. The planes are also a great way of getting an overview of the rolling forestation, islands and waterways in the province’s north.

Fur trappers still work in the region and trade their pelts in La Ronge at Robertson’s Trading Post, which also stocks outdoor supplies and native art. Bear, wolf and beaver pelts are offered for sale in this fascinating store, which opened its doors back in 1967.

Every member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police undertakes their initial training at the training depot in Regina, the provincial capital. The adjacent Heritage Centre tells the story of the force since 1873 and displays historic artefacts, including the rifle case that once belonged to Sitting Bull, the Sioux chief. The Mounties’ scarlet tunics are a Canadian icon but worn today only for ceremonial occasions. On Tuesday evenings in summer you can see them in Sunset Retreat Ceremonies.

It’s worth taking an evening stroll through Regina’s downtown Wascana Centre, a park hosting a lake and the province’s grand, Edwardian-era legislative building.

Saskatchewan experiences cold, snowy winters and warm, sunny summers. If you’re planning a trip it makes sense to visit between May and October, when the weather tends to be favourable.

Further information

Find out more about the province’s attractions see the Canadian Tourism Commission and Tourism Saskatchewan websites.

The Tourism Saskatoon and Tourism Regina sites hold information on the province’s principle cities.

Getting there

Air Canada flies from both Manchester and London Heathrow, via Toronto, to  J.G. Diefenbaker International Airport in Saskatoon plus Regina International Airport.

Where to stay

The 225-room Delta Bessborough Hotel in Saskatoon opened in 1935 and is one of Canada’s grand railway hotels and has gardens overlooking the South Saskatchewan River. Staying here puts you in the downtown area and within easy walking distance of bars and restaurants.

The Radisson Plaza Hotel Saskatchewan, by Regina’s Victoria Park, has 224 rooms, a 24-hour fitness centre plus a day spa. The Cortlandt Dining Room, by the lobby, serves seasonal Canadian cuisine, including succulent tenderloin steaks.

Sunset at Otter Lake near Missinipe, Saskatchewan, Canada. Photo by Stuart Forster.

Sunset at Otter Lake near Missinipe, Saskatchewan, Canada. Photo by Stuart Forster.

Miss Fanny at the Tunnels of Moose Jaw.

The Tunnels of Moose Jaw: Canada’s Chicago Connection

Miss Fanny – a gangster’s moll of a lady – is speaking in a drawl, welcoming us to the Tunnels of Moose Jaw’s The Chicago Connection tour in Saskatchewan, Canada.

She’s an actor, in character, and our guide, wearing a short, 1920s style dress and stiletto heels. She says she knows a guy called Big Al – Al Capone – and assumes myself and the rest of the tour group must be here to set up a deal involving illicit booze.

Today Moose Jaw is a quiet city with broad, well-maintained streets and smiling shop assistants. It makes a clean, wholesome impression.

Yet a little under a century ago it was renowned as the sin capital of the prairies. In the 1920s it was even nicknamed ‘Little Chicago’ thanks to the lawless behaviour centred on River Street, a hub for bootlegging, gambling, opium smoking and prostitution.

We learn from Miss Fanny that the chief of police in 1929, Walter P. Johnson, was notoriously corrupt. It’s said that American gangsters turned up in Moose Jaw to evade the law south of the border.

The 18th Amendment to the constitution of the United States of America, introduced by Congress in December 1917, resulted in a nationwide prohibition of “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors” between 1920 and 1933. Demand, however, did not dry up. People able to supply alcoholic beverages during Prohibition could become rich. Al Capone’s empire was reputedly worth $100 million a year.

Booze was transported south from Moose Jaw into the USA via the Soo Line. Saskatchewan had experimented with prohibition of alcohol between 1917 and 1924 but enforcement of the law proved impractical.

We climb a flight of steps. I turn to Finn, one of my travelling companions, to ask if Canadian tunnels have a different definition to those elsewhere; shouldn’t we be heading underground rather than upstairs?

Miss Fanny shoots me a glance – maybe I shouldn’t have been talking out of turn if she has mob connections – and pulls back the door to a high-ceilinged room with a long bar. She throws her feather boa over her shoulder, tosses back her head dramatically and welcomes us into a 1920s-style speakeasy. She bids us to sit at one of the tables and sets the scene, with talk of hush money, corruption and illicit deals. Jaunty Ragtime style piano music plays in what turns out to be a former Masonic meeting hall.

She then leads us into an office, as might have been used by Al Capone, complete with a chair with a bulletproof back. There’s strong anecdotal evidence that Capone visited Moose Jaw. A 13-year-old local lad, Ken Turner, told of delivering newspapers to him. A local doctor, Dr Hugh Young, who worked in the city from 1914 to 1968, recalled operating on Capone – without anaesthetic – to relieve pressure on tonsils inflamed by quinsy.

With talk of an imminent raid by revenue men Miss Fanny hurries us away. Seeking refuge, we head down into the tunnels proper via a secret passage behind the office fireplace.

Once downstairs we visit the operation’s underground communications hub, complete with a Bakelite telephone and a manual switchboard. Miss Fanny then raps on a door in the brick-walled corridor and her colleague Gus peeks at us suspiciously from behind a metal grill. We exchange a ‘secret signal’ then enter.

With slicked back hair, trousers held up by braces and a trilby, Gus has a manner reminiscent of James Cagney. He leads us into a store room where weapons are held, including a tommy gun with a barrel magazine.

He tells us how alcohol was distilled within the tunnels then stored before being sent southward. Surely, though, the smell would have wafted out and warned anyone with a sense of smell of the operations below ground?

We pass through a card room, set up for illicit gambling, before the 45-minute long dramatised tour comes to an end with a shootout.

More information

The ticket office for the Tunnels of Moose Jaw is at 18 Main Street North in downtown Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, Canada.  The ticket office also hosts a souvenir shop and a gallery of framed black and white photos with scenes from early 20th century Moose Jaw.

The tunnels are open throughout the year and offer two separate guided tours to visitors, led by actors playing roles. The Chicago Connection is about Moose Jaw’s links with American gangsters during the era of prohibition and bootlegging. The Passage to Fortune tells the story of early Chinese migrants to Canada.

See the Tourism Saskatchewan and Canadian Tourism Commission websites for more information on travel and tourism attractions throughout the province of Saskatchewan and beyond.

Getting there

Moose Jaw is approximately 45 minutes by car from Regina, the capital of Saskatchewan. Air Canada flies between Regina and London Heathrow via Toronto’s Pearson International Airport.

Gus leading the Chicago Connection tour at the Tunnels of Moose Jaw in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, Canada.

Gus leading the Chicago Connection tour at the Tunnels of Moose Jaw in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, Canada.

Bruno Reichart the chef at the Hotel Gotthard in Lech am Arlberg, Austria.

Talking Taste: Bruno Reichart of the Hotel Gotthard in Lech, Austria

Bruno Reichart is the chef of the Hotel Gotthard in Lech am Arlberg, Austria. During a quiet moment in his working day we meet over coffee to chat about his influences and approach to cooking.

“I try to bring the most out of individual ingredients, instead of mixing them with lots of pepper and things…We like to source our meat, eggs and potatoes from local people and our fish from Zug [3km from Lech], from the local lake,” he says in a matter-of-fact manner.

“If a fish is fresh you don’t need heavy sauces. If it’s fresh you need a piece of lemon, salt and that’s it,” says Reichart with conviction.

The kitchen staff at the Hotel Gotthard prepare an evening dinner menu for guests who select the half-board option. The meals are served in the Lecher Stube dining room, which was renovated ahead of the 2014-15 winter season, Reichart’s third at the hotel. They also prepare regional and international dishes from the Gotthard Stube’s a la carte menu.

The dishes served in the Gotthard Stube include salads, dumplings, goulash as well as Austrian specialities such as Tafelspitz (boiled beef with horseradish) and Wiener Schnitzel (veal cutlet pan-fried in a coat of breadcrumbs). As winter takes a grip on the Vorarlberg game dishes such as Hirschbraten (roast venison), Hirschragout (venison ragout) and roast duck breast will be served.

So does he have a dish that he’d recommend guests try, I ask?

“I’ve travelled the world and enjoy everything. In South Africa I enjoyed mieliepap (a dish made from maize) with just a little gravy and in Mexico I liked the Mexican food. Everyone’s favourite dish is different,” he answers philosophically.

“If it’s Käsespätzle (egg dumplings in a cheese sauce and served with fried onions) we make a good mountain cheese mixture and Spätzle just with eggs. If you’re out working in the woods and have Käsespätzle there’s nothing better. If you’re lying in the sun then a piece of trout from the lake and a little salad is the best you can get. It all depends on what you’re doing that day and what you’re longing for. I wouldn’t say this is my favourite dish, this you have to try. I don’t want to push people into something, they have to decide themselves,” he answers.

“I’m a little old fashioned. I believe time is running faster than we can keep up with it. An apple needs the whole summer to grow on the tree. In my cooking I want to have the basics and take the time for the cooking. Hopefully the people will take the time to eat it and enjoy it, and really take it in instead of eating and reading the paper on the side,” says Reichart, who admits he is a fan of the slow food movement that has been gaining popularity in recent years.

“A carrot always gives 100 per cent. It’s up to the chef to take this out and give it to the customer. That’s what I try and what my people try to put on the plate,” he says.

Reichart hails from Germany. After initial training, he began his career in Dusseldorf. He’s also worked at the Swiss Centre on Leicester Square in London, the Sheraton in Edinburgh and spent time working in hotel restaurants in the South African cities of Johannesburg and Pretoria. While working on a cruise ship he was involved in a nasty accident.

“I was doing ice-carving. I chopped two fingers off. I was off work for one-and-a-half years,” says the chef as he reveals his hand.

He returned to work at the St Georg, part of the Benedictine Einsiedeln Abbey in Switzerland. During his time there he met a number of classical musicians, including members of the Hillard Ensemble.

“These guys are world class but they are happy, relaxed and thankful,” says Reichart. “That’s the thing, if you have a talent and you’re grateful for your talent that makes special people. Einsiedeln was a special place; living in the moment and being thankful for what you have and what you can do. I think it’s good to humble and hope that people enjoy my cooking,” he says.

Further Information

Bruno Reichart works at the Hotel Gotthard at Omesberg 119 in Lech am Arlberg, Austria (tel. +43 5583 3560 0).

Kaesespaetzle (cheese dumplings) served with deep fried onions at the Hotel Gotthard in Lech am Arlberg, Austria.

Kaesespaetzle (cheese dumplings) served with deep fried onions at the Hotel Gotthard in Lech am Arlberg, Austria.

The Hotel Gotthard in Lech am Arlberg, Austria. Photo by Stuart Forster.

Hotel Gotthard in Lech am Arlberg, Austria

With the 2014-15 ski season due to get underway, I head to the Austrian village of Lech am Arlberg for a couple of nights in the family-run Hotel Gotthard.

The hotel has been in the hands of the Walch family for more than 80 years and is currently run by Clemens and Nicole, a husband and wife team. Nicole originates from South Australia and like the Gotthard’s receptionists and waitresses, wears a traditional Austrian Dirndl while at work. Chatting in the hotel bar, Nicole tells me she moved to Lech 22 years ago and has been living at the Hotel Gotthard for 17.

“The hotel’s changed a lot. We used to have a 3-star B&B and Clemens was working full-time in the bakery but we bought the Gotthard in 2000 and completely renovated it. It went up to a 4-star hotel and is now a 4-star superior,” explains Nicole.

Clemens continues his active involvement in the Backstube Lech, the on-site bakery which produces between one and one-and-a-half tonnes of bread and pastries each day. His produce, including soda bread baked in a wood-fired in front of the hotel, is delivered to local shops and served in the Gotthard’s café and on the breakfast buffet.

“About 70 per cent of our guests come back every year. They’ve grown with us,” says Nicole. “We want guests to feel like they are coming home and are relaxed when they are here.

The hotel’s décor blends modern and traditional Alpine influences. I’m staying in a garden-facing, Comfort class double bedroom. The room is has wood-panelled walls, a flat-screen TV plus a mini-bar and a wooden balcony with chairs. Deluxe and Superior rooms and suites are also available.

I don one of the white gowns hanging in my wardrobe and head down into the wellness area. Fellow guests relax on loungers by the swimming pool. A couple of people work out in the fitness room. The area also has a family sauna in addition to the textile-free sauna.

I do a couple of rounds of the bio-sauna, the Finnish sauna and the steam room before forcing myself into the cold pool to close my pores. I grab a cup of rooibos tea and stretch out in the relaxation room before drifting into an unscheduled sleep.

The hotel’s Gotthard Stube dining room has been renovated ahead of the 2014-15 winter season. After rousing myself from heat-induced slumber I hurriedly dress and head into the restaurant to sample the evening dinner menu, available to guests who select the half-board option. The menu features locally sourced ingredients. I select a starter featuring lean looking venison served with a salad then order a main course of char, the succulent freshwater fish known locally as Saibling.

A selection of international and regional dishes are also available in the hotel’s Lecher Stube dining room. With a wood-panelled ceiling, patterned curtains and a tiled Kachelofen heater, most Austrian’s would describe the restaurant as gemütlich, a term evoking relaxed cosiness and tradition.

The savoury dishes on the Lecher Stube’s a la carte menu include Tafelspitz (a traditional Austrian dish featuring boiled beef and horseradish), Wiener Schnitzel, spinach dumplings and fondues. Kaiserschmarrn (shredded pancake served with apple sauce and a dusting of icing sugar) – a dish that was reputedly loved by Austria’s Emperor Franz Josef I – is among the desserts that may appeal to anyone who has built their appetite during a day in the mountains.

The hotel and the Gotthard’s staff make a positive impression but, unfortunately for me, the opening of the ski season is postponed by a week due to an unprecedented lack of snow on the first weekend in December.

“You’ll just have to come back here later in the season,” says Nicole smiling. I nod and head to the bar to order a glass of gentian schnapps before bed.

Further Information

See the Hotel Gotthard (tel. +43 5583 3560 0, Omesberg 119, 6764 Lech am Arlberg) website for information on room prices and availability. Accommodation is available with breakfast and also with a half-board option (including an evening menu served in the Lecher Stube restaurant).

The hotel offers a hiking guide during the summer season along with an option to walk to the Walch’s mountain hut, about 70-minute’s by foot from the Gotthard, where breakfast can be served.

Visit the Lech-Zürs Tourist Office and Vorarlberg Tourism websites for more information on the region, including activities and events during the winter and summer seasons.

Winter sport lovers will be pleased to learn that snow fell during and after my visit. The ski season opened a couple of days after my departure and is scheduled to continue until 26 April 2015.

The Lechstube dining room at the Hotel Gotthard in Lech, Austria. Photo by Stuart Forster.

The Lechstube dining room at the Hotel Gotthard in Lech, Austria. Photo by Stuart Forster.