My view this year has been rather more static than usual. Working permanently from home, I’ve grown familiar with the line of shops, takeaways and neighbouring flats visible from the living room window. The only things that change are the weather and the traffic: buses and vans humming past, tidal patterns of commutes, deliveries and school drop-offs reflected in the pace of traffic and slow crawl of headlights after dark.
I’m not sure whether it’s my now robust acquaintance with the shuttered hair salon across the road or a general sense of itchiness that I’ve always felt, regardless of this year’s strange and awful circumstances, but recently I’ve found myself fantasizing about islands and other similarly remote spaces. The further out of reach, the better.
It’s the kind of desire that’s had me reaching for books that describe the sensation of being very far away: Kathleen Jamie’s accounts in Surfacing on archeological digs in Alaska; Amy Liptrot’s beautiful account in The Outrun of returning to her home island of Orkney as her life is slowly rebuilt; Sarah Moss’s horribly haunting (and aptly pandemic themed) debut novel Cold Earth set in an uninhabited part of Greenland; Tove Jansson’s beautiful meditations on family and island holidaying in The Summer Book. Some of the experiences explored are freeing, teasing out the contrasts between isolation and the frenetic demands of the city. Others are thoughtful, reflecting on the history compacted beneath our feet. Only one - Moss’s novel – is nightmarish, full of unnerving glimpses in the corners of people’s vision.
I imagine that my turn towards images and words circling around these kinds of spaces – rugged, wild, hard to get to – is not uncommon right now. This year of slowness and limitation has had so many of us wishing we were, in one way or another, elsewhere. For me at least, there has been an obvious draw to any kind of elsewhere that offers a geography distinctly different from the one I call home.
My hankering for this sort of geography is also rooted in memory. A few years ago I accidentally spent more time than planned on a series of sparse islands. Each was remarkable. Each, when recalled, still has me yearning for uneven coastlines, big skies, and the vicious changeability of the sea. Each is worth dwelling on for a moment here.
IMAGE | fogoislandinn.ca
Fogo Island sits off the coast of Canada’s Newfoundland and Labrador. I went for a travel writing trip in 2018 and it took me two days (and two planes, one car and a ferry ride) to get there. My reason for going? Fogo Island Inn. The Inn, a long, magnificent block on stilts, sits out on the edge of the North Atlantic. It is the best kind of luxury experience: set up primarily as community-focused enterprise. Founder Zita Cobb opened the space in order to reinvigorate the local economy, and much of what is in it – from the décor to the food – is sourced and made on the island.
Other times of year offer dramatic sights including icebergs and Northern Lights, but when I was there in early September I was treated to the deep cobalt blue of a mildly turbulent ocean. I spent my time there eating salt cod in the Inn’s glass-fronted restaurant, clambering over boulders, thinking plaintively about the artist’s retreats dotted around the place (each in a beautiful angular building overlooking the waters), and visiting puffin colonies and abandoned yellow and red saltbox houses on an ever smaller island further out at sea called – what else? - Little Fogo.
Stay: Fogo Island Inn. Rates begin at $3950 CAD (£2322) for two nights.
A few months later I found myself somewhere arguably even more remote, another assignment for the same magazine seeing me fly to Bodø in Northern Norway and catching a boat out to Fordypningsrommet: also known as the Arctic Hideaway. This remarkable place, comprised of 11 different glass and kebony buildings built into the rocky side of an island in the Fleinvær archipelago, is tremendously beautiful and overwhelmingly isolated.
After one night being shown around by the owner, a composer called Håvard Lund, for the rest of the week I had it – and consequently half an island - to myself. I drank coffee during the scant hours of daylight and took intrepid-feeling trudges through the snow and fierce winds. I fired up the sauna and dipped, very briefly, in the freezing sea. At one point I was taken by speedboat to another island to help a farmer feed his hardy sheep, their coats crusted in ice crystals. It is the most alone I have possible ever been, or will be, in my life, which was both terrifying and exhilarating. It made me want to come back and see it at the height of summer when the days were long and the water warm.
Stay: Fordypningsrommet. Available via AirBnB from January to May, and as a hotel from June to August. AirBnB rates begin at 3500kr (£312.70) for two nights.
IMAGE | burrastow
The following year a family holiday took me to Shetland. Not quite as an arduous journey, as a destination it still offered a similarly welcome feeling of distance. It was June but the weather required jumpers. It didn’t go dark until 1am, and even then it was more of a milk-gloomed dusk, weak light filtering through the net curtains in the little cottage where we stayed.
We drove up and down the island in search of sunsets and tiny, whitewashed churches and lunch at Britain’s most northerly fish and chip shop. One evening we swam in the harbour between huge, maroon-coloured clouds of seaweed. On another we ate dinner at Burrastow House, where the food was served in a room that felt more like a cosy library while the wind whistled outside. I left again with a new bright green Shetland wool jumper and a yearning for yet more islands.
Stay: Burrastow House. Rates from £55 per person per night.
All of these islands now crowd close in my imagination. Although each is so very singular, together I suppose they represent a particular kind of promise: one of being brought up close against the elements and into proximity with the kind of monumental beauty that often comes with the feeling, however slight, of hovering right at the edge of the world.
With the prospect of travel opening up again in 2021, it’s also a feeling I tentatively hope it might be possible to act on once more. While staring at that static view from my living room, I’ve begun compiling a new list of my dream out-of-the-way spots. There’s Holmen Lofoten, also in Norway, with its extraordinary culinary programme and dazzling views of fishing villages. There’s the volcanic landscapes and green turfed roofs of the Faroe Islands. There’s the pater noster hotel in Sweden: a lighthouse outpost on a small outcrop of rock, standing stoic in the middle of the sea. There’s Hotel Búdir in Iceland, set on the edge of a lava field and overlooked by a glacier. On and on it goes.
Maybe you have a similar list. After all it’s been a tempting this year to dwell on hypothetical adventures. Some of them, I’m sure, will stay only in the realm of the imagination. But hopefully others will be reached. All I can say is that, much as I’m desperate to see other cities and experience hustle and bustle once more, there’s another part of me that wants the silence and space of somewhere ever so far away.