Searching for Shuttle: whale-watching in Nova Scotia

As the Mega Nova fishing boat carries me and a dozen other hopeful whale-watchers into the Bay of Fundy, our chance of seeing whales feels slim. Brier Island, where we boarded, has been snarled in fog since the evening before. The narrow stretch of water left visible by the low-hanging sky looks grey and impenetrable, the crosswinds skimming over it creating hatchet lines.

If I were a whale I’d choose a day like today for moping about in the murky fathoms, rather than performing for a boatload of tourists.

Not that performing comes into it. My hosts at Brier Island Whale and Seabird Cruises Ltd conduct marine research in the bay, recording the behaviour of sealife and making their findings available worldwide. We are there to observe, not harass, and any close encounters will be at the discretion of the whales. Even the Mega Nova is named in their honour: megaptera novaeangliae is the scientific term for a humpback whale, meaning ‘big-winged New Englander’.

I’m already in love with Nova Scotia; its foggy mornings, torn coastlines pinned by lighthouses, and cultural diversity shaped by the native Mi’kmaq people and settlers from France, Ireland, Scotland, Germany and New England. I’ve had a wonder-filled trip so far: digging for clams, learning about shipwrecks and exploring the UNESCO town of Lunenburg.

So although my enjoyment of the week doesn’t depend on seeing a whale, it would complete the experience. Sometimes they swim under the boat, I have heard. Sometimes they get so close you can smell their fishy breath.

Harold Graham, the owner of the company and our cruise captain, is optimistic.

“We always see whales – we’ll find some,” he tells me from the helm of the Mega Nova. He would know: Harold has been running whale-watching tours for 27 years, navigating the Fundy waters for many more. In the winter, when the whales migrate to the warmer shores of the Dominican Republic, Harold is a lobster fisherman. I think I can guess which role he prefers.

“This is more like a hobby to me. It’s lots of fun and it’s nice to see the whales coming back every year.”

Showing me computers tracking the depth of the seabed and our position in the bay, Harold says he is looking in particular for a humpback whale named Shuttle, so called because of the rocket-shaped markings on the underside of her tail.

“Last year she was here with a calf, so we’re just waiting to see her this time and make sure she returns.”

A finalist in the New7Wonders of Nature, the Bay of Fundy between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick has the highest tides in the world. One hundred billion tonnes of seawater flow in and out twice each day, bringing nutrients to the surface and encouraging the productivity of plankton and, in turn, mackerel and herring. This makes the bay an attractive summer playground for whales, dolphins and porpoises to feed and breed – and an ideal place for us to spot them.

The marine life extends up and out of the ocean too, to migratory birds flitting at the water for its plentiful supply of fish.

“Anyone interested in birds?” asks Shelley Barnaby, the chief naturalist on board. Two boys turn up their noses: “Oh my god, no!” says the elder. Their mother looks indulgently on, telling Shelley the youngest had been studying whales at school. He nods in agreement: “I know everything about them now”.

But I’m interested in the birds. During the cruise we’ll sight puffins, greater shearwaters darting at the surface for food, and gull-like northern fulmars which Shelley says throw up when frightened. At this the boys show a little more enthusiasm, baring their teeth out to sea and growling.

As the Mega Nova powers further out of the bay, the fog lifts, the sun emerges from its grey pall and people start tying their coats and jumpers around their waists. The calmer waters are black-blue now, instead of their earlier charcoal. Having heard via a radio to another cruise boat that there are whales in the vicinity, Harold drops the engine so we can drift quietly for a while, the atmosphere tense as we listen for the slapping of flukes or the booming of a lobtailing humpback.

Suddenly: “On the right side,” says Shelley, grabbing her camera, and we scramble in the direction of her pointing finger. The younger boy bowls over to the edge of the boat, knocking people out of his path. The other boat is bobbing on the water about 30 metres away, and I hear the delighted cries from its passengers before I see them myself: three humpback whales gently surfacing in near synchronicity. It is hard to believe their enormous sleek dark bodies are real; their dorsal fins jutting out of the water like animatronics from a monster movie.

Several of our passengers shunt up the metal ladder to the top deck for a better view. I’m not surprised to see that the youngest boy is one of them; nor should I be surprised to hear a breathy blow from a whistle above.

“Please don’t do that – the captain will think you’re in trouble,” calls one of the crew members kindly.

The other boy, below deck, having upended himself into a coolbox of food supplied by his parents, is leaning over the side of the boat, cramming a sandwich into his mouth.

“Those three whales were Flash, Tusk and Urik,” Shelley says, having photographed and reviewed their tail markings. “They were logging, which means sleeping”.

Seeing the humpbacks has made my day, but there are more cetaceans to meet, more gasps of joy to be elicited from the Mega Nova. During the three-hour cruise we also encounter porpoises and, briefly, fin whales, nicknamed ‘greyhounds of the sea’ because of their speed and streamlined shape. We spy a humpback whale called Churchill (who got his name from the V-shaped notch in his tail) and Vibes, accompanied by her calf.

By far our most spectacular sighting is of Lewkos, though, a humpback whale who swims close to the boat near the ocean’s surface and gracefully flips up her flukes as she dives, droplets of saltwater cascading from her body as she honours us with a perfect view of the underside of her tail. One of the biologists tells me later that humpbacks’ tails are graded by intensity from white to black and Lewkos’s bright flukes had inspired her name (lewko means ‘white’ in Greek).

But still no Shuttle.

The elder brother, recovering from a bout of seasickness – perhaps intensified by his sandwich cramming – stands next to me and leans casually on the rail.

“Come on, when do you think we’re going in?” he asks. “We’ve been out here, like, hours.”

He is pale and I feel sympathetic. Although the waters are calmer than earlier, the irregular loppiness of the boat is making me feel queasy too and I’m hanging on to my breakfast thanks to salted crackers pocketed the night before at the Brier Island Lodge. I could watch whales all day, but my sea legs are ready for land.

I am disappointed not to have seen Shuttle. I have to remind myself that the Bay of Fundy is a natural wonder, not a theme park, and whales come and go in their own sweet time.

But a few weeks later, as Brier Island Whale and Seabird Cruises enters its 25th-anniversary year, an update appears on Facebook. The bay had been “flat calm” one day, it seemed, and not only had the crew added two new mother-and-calf pairs to its list of whales, but Shuttle had been spotted in amongst the waves.

I hope Harold is at the helm of the Mega Nova today, and even happier than ever in his work.

Take a look at www.novascotia.com, uk.canada.travel and www.brierislandwhalewatch.com.

Whales in the Bay of Fundy
Image courtesy of Brier Island Whale and Seabird Cruises.

Legflaps

I was coming down with a cold. My throat felt raw and my forehead was burning. Determined not to miss out on a single hour in Chengdu, I dragged myself around the city alongside Steve, slurping giant bowls of hot soup noodles and watching grubby street kids playing elaborate games of hide-and-seek in glass lifts outside a gleaming shopping mall. We visited the centuries-old Wenshu Monastery, failing to spot the NO PHOTOS sign and casting disappointed frowns across the faces of two monks who were lighting incense and praying to Buddha statues. In the outdoor teahouse behind the lofty Thousand Buddha Peace Pagoda, hundreds of grey-haired people in their sixties and seventies were laughing and gossiping on bamboo chairs, clinking cups and clicking chopsticks over toy-sized plates of delicate dumplings. We passed a dingy restaurant where half a skinned white dog hung by his jaws from a butcher’s hook. His legs were stiff and bent at the knees, giving the cruel impression he was leaping for a ball.

With the autumn temperatures falling by the day, I was pleased when we found ourselves a pair of heavy coats for the onward journey – a cheap parka for me and a green communist-style army jacket for Steve. In the military surplus store where we bought Steve’s, the gentle old man with liver spots on his bald head formed a misguided impression that I could interpret Mandarin, and relied on me to translate everything to Steve. I was slumped in a chair, a little feverish, and hoping we could return to the hostel for a nap soon.

“He says do you want this hat to go with it?” I bluffed, as the man pushed a furry brown trapper with earflaps over Steve’s head. It wouldn’t go on properly and sat perched atop his hair like a cinema ice-cream tub.

“He says it looks good on you, but I disagree, I’m afraid,” I said, giggling. “Ah, now he says that the coat can button round the inside of your leg – ”

” – Woah there!” said Steve, as the old man knelt down, grabbed Steve’s inner thigh and began demonstrating the extra warmth afforded by the coat’s inner legflaps.

But then I failed to understand the next part of the conversation and my fraudulent Mandarin was uncovered. “Sorry, no,” I said, shaking my head.

Perhaps thinking I spoke a little-known dialect, the man scribbled a few Chinese characters on the back of a crumpled receipt and looked up at me questioningly. “Sorry, no,” I said again, although I had a distinct feeling he wanted to discuss the possibility of Long Johns. We paid for the green jacket and left the shop, with the man chuckling and shaking his head after us.

This is an extract from Marie Kreft’s book, Love on a Third Class Ticket, due out in the autumn.

Prey

As I pushed Vincent’s pram towards the bus stop for the 11C to Harborne, all kinds of horrific scenarios were running through my mind. Pram wheels get trapped between bus and kerb, baby falls out, driver pulls away … I know other parents manage with pushchairs the size of moon buggies, a weekly shop swinging from the handles, and wriggling toddlers who have to be yanked up the steps by their armpits, but they’re not me, with my remarkable capacity for ineptitude. I haven’t been shopping with Vincent yet without crashing his pram into an aisle of dry goods or, more memorably, running over someone’s toe.

Fortunately, now we were about to embark first ever bus journey together, there was a kind-looking man in a baseball cap also waiting at the bus stop.

“The bus is only one minute away!” he said and I smiled. He would help us!

“That’s good,” I said, falling back on that ever-reliable topic of British conversation: “Don’t want to be standing in the rain for too long, do we?”

“This rain portends a very bad event,” he said and I thought, Oh God. Please let him help us onto the bus and then make him go away.

“There was rain like this in the days before nine-eleven,” he said, launching into an anti-semitic tirade about Jewish bankers and how they brought the rain before they brought down the World Trade Center.

Scrap that … just make him go away.

He didn’t help us onto the bus; didn’t even let us go first. I turned the pram around and bumped Vincent up the steps backwards, his eyes squeezed shut (this boy’s got the measure of me already) and tiny arms flailing out with every thud. I paid the fare (I hadn’t even known babies in prams travelled for free) and made for the buggy space.

The bus driver didn’t wait for us to get settled before pulling out onto the Watford Road and Vincent’s pram lurched a full 45 degrees. The woman opposite visibly shuddered: was she shuddering at me, useless mother, or at the bus driver’s lack of patience? I regained control, stamped on the pram brake and positioned myself where Vincent and I could see each other.

Bollocks, the man was back. He’d decided not to sit down but instead stand directly in front of me, twirl his fat fingers around the grab pole and make me his captive audience. He was muttering something about the East being red and the West being blue, and how a very, very big event was going to shake the whole world up at the end of this year. It had been predicted by the Star of David, or the Wingdings font, or … something. I wasn’t listening.

“Oh really?” I said, pointedly turning my head away and watching the rain slipping like tears down the window in Selly Oak, falling on the terraced student houses with their To Let boards. I felt like crying myself. I didn’t know why I was being polite because he was a weird, deluded racist. “I’m not interested, to be honest.”

He continued. The number 11 was significant apparently: the date of the attack (oh, really?), the emergency phone number in the US (no, really?), the flight number being American Airlines Flight 11 …

I took out my phone and pretended to text someone. I wondered whether I could justify sneaking a hand into Vincent’s pram and pinching him ever so gently – just enough to make him squeak – so I would need to tend to him. But he looked so content there, batting at his dangly owl toy.

…The World Trade Center towers collapsed to a height of 11 storeys …

I’ve put up with a lot from strangers on public transport in the past (hello suspected scientologist with the PowerPoint presentation on solute particles and water memory that lasted all the way from Marylebone to Birmingham New Street). But this was intolerable and, besides, I’m a mum now. I have a duty to protect my baby son from weirdos.

“Please leave me alone. I’m not interested.”

“After September 11th there are 111 days left to the end of the year … are you sure? Something very bad will happen to the world soon.”

“I’m quite sure.”

“OK,” he said, looking around for an available seat. Then, in anger: “But you mothers of small babies, you aren’t looking around at what’s happening in the world. This is a big problem!”

He was right, in some ways. My world has become smaller lately. I’m less interested in watching the news than on focusing on the little character unfurling in front of me, on seeing his tiny fingers clasping mine, on the smile that grows bigger and gummier each week. And it was because of my small baby that I’d made myself prey to a complete nutbag like this man; by being scared of getting the pram on the damn bus and looking around for help, I’d made myself open and vulnerable.

When we reached our stop the driver lowered the floor to kerb height so Vincent and I could alight easily. Why the hell can’t they do that every time?

 

Vincent’s first holiday: the motherland

Vincent was six weeks old when we bundled him up on his first road trip: to my home city of Norwich, three-and-a-half-hours’ drive away, for the Easter weekend. It was a bit of a cheat – a holiday ‘lite’ – as we stayed at my mum’s house, complete with washing machine, homecooked dinners and round-the-clock relatives to hold him. Also, Vincent’s fairly easygoing: after a halfhearted fuss about being strapped into his Maxi-Cosi, his baby weir-pig snores lasted all the way to the A11.

Vincent in his car seat
Let’s get this baby on the road

There’s no packing light with a little one. The car got jammed from foot to roof with Vincent’s things and, having been told by a grumpy Steve there was strictly no space for anything non-essential, I was wedged into the passenger seat with my feet hovering above Easter contraband: daffodils, a bottle of prosecco and a paper bag full of rhubarb. By the time we stopped for a break my calves ached from their unnatural suspension in mid-air.

We were the only diners in the echoey hotel where we ate lunch – East Anglia’s answer to The Shining. The tall nervy housekeeper made a convincing Shelley Duvall, as she hovered over our table admiring Vincent and reminiscing about her grown-up son’s babyhood; how she would stroke his cheek until he fell asleep. It made me sad to think how much she must miss those days.

When Vincent started squawking and I said it was lucky no one else was around to be disturbed, she looked horrified. “Oh no!” she said, smiling at him. “Don’t ever apologise for things that children naturally do. You’ll spend the next fifteen years saying sorry.”

We arrived safely. April showers and runny noses prevented us from showing Vincent the big skies and sandy beaches of my childhood Norfolk; instead we visited old friends, drank tea and scoffed my mum’s hot cross-less buns. (Our family’s Easter celebrations are almost entirely pagan.) It was perfect. And, most importantly, we had succeeded in taking the little man away on what I hope was his first of many happy holidays.

I learned: Never underestimate the amount of ‘stuff’ you need to pack for a baby (consider buying a roofrack). Never apologise for your baby crying: babies cry.

Baby on board

Vincent
Have hat, will travel: Vincent at one month

Further to my previous post, I’m overjoyed to tell you that my baby son Vincent was born in February at Birmingham Women’s Hospital. Nothing could have prepared me for the emotions that have, for me, come with motherhood: intense love, wonder, worry … the bittersweet feeling that, if my husband and I do our jobs right, Vincent will inevitably grow away from us and one day want to explore the world for himself. I hope he does. I hope he also comes home for dinner sometimes.

In the meantime I’m excited about the years of family holidays that lie ahead: the trains, planes, castles and campsites that lit up my own childhood. We’ll have adventures in buckets and spades. While getting out with a new baby felt at first like a moon mission, Steve and I are improving on the two hours it took to prepare for Vincent’s first pram ride in the park (there was explosive poo) and accepting of the fact that the amount of ‘stuff’ we must now cart around is in inverse proportion to the little man’s size.

I’ll be looking for baby-friendly travel ideas in the coming months and look forward to sharing my experiences with you.

A bumpy journey

I haven’t travelled far lately and yet I feel as though I’m on the biggest journey of my life. My first baby is due in the middle of February.

Fittingly, it was at Schiphol Airport back in June when I first suspected I might be pregnant. My friend Becky and I were in transit from a screenwriting course in Bremen, and she bought me a glass of prosecco to celebrate the past few days. It was deliciously crisp, the way I like it, and yet it didn’t sit right in my stomach. Deep down I think I knew it was my last drink for a while, and I’m grateful to Becky for making it a special one.

Two days later those stark blue lines confirmed why I felt so strange. I wrapped up the pregnancy test and left it for my husband with a Post-it note that said, “Hello Dad”. I’ll never forget the sight of Steve looking up at me with his eyes shining, saying: “Is this real?” He twirled me around the kitchen and I could hardly see him through the tears in my own eyes. The spell was only broken when he realised with horror that I must have peed on the stick.

When I was eight weeks pregnant, I flew to Nova Scotia on a press trip. Most of my family and friends didn’t yet know I was expecting – Steve and I were waiting for that reassuring 12-week scan – but I had to tell my hosts why I looked like a blanched sea urchin. They were wonderful, taking special care of me, and the three square seafaring meals each day kept my morning sickness somewhere out near the Bay of Fundy. I threw myself into all the activities, even managing to prise a few live clams from the squelchy seabed, defeated finally when they squirted fishy water in my face.

In August, hours after our 12-week scan (and overjoyed to have seen a healthy, wriggly baby on the ultrasound monitor), Steve and I caught the Eurostar to Paris. Usually we love nothing more than pounding around a big city for days on end, discovering backstreet eateries and local characters. But we’d both underestimated how tired pregnancy would make me feel and I ended up frustrated and aching, revived only by regular ice-cream stops.

We caught the overnight Le Train Bleu to Nice and took the rest of our holiday at a slower pace: swimming, eating fresh pasta and hanging out in the Old Town.

And that was my last proper trip. We recently bought a small Victorian terrace which Steve has nicknamed our Little Donkey house (because we’ve “got to keep on plodding onwards” with the repairs and decorating) and that’s all the adventure I need at the moment. I’m too pregnant to fly, even if I wanted to, and my wanderlust has been temporarily quashed by a desire to strip walls and sand floorboards. I think they call this nesting.

Sometimes I catch my breath and feel momentarily stunned by how much parenthood is going to change our lives. Clip our wings. No more impromptu camping weekends or road trips for a long time; babies need so much stuff. I never did complete my pre-family travelling to-do list; I haven’t been to Japan; haven’t seen much of Africa. I never got to share with Steve the fabricated wonders of Universal Studios in Florida. When we do go, there will be a smaller person (maybe people) dictating which rides we queue for.

But I am delighted by the idea of becoming a mother. Every time I feel my baby kick, poke or flutter, I’m surprised by the strength of my feelings for someone I haven’t even met yet. I feel fiercely protective of the tiny life growing inside me – as the ten-year-old who came hurtling towards my belly on a shopping trolley last week discovered to his detriment.

There is nothing for it: this baby will have to be a good traveller. And I’m looking forward to experiencing life’s adventures as a mum.

Marie Kreft with baby bump

The rocks have eyes

There are still a couple of weeks left of the seal-watching season at Blakeney in north Norfolk.

I took a trip out with Bishop’s Boats in early September, accompanied by my husband, mum and two dozen other tourists armed with cameras and cardigans.

We ploughed through the chilled grey North Sea for around 20 minutes before the captain dropped the engine on the clinker-built boat and we drifted towards an islet of dunes with sparse tufts of green hair.

At first I thought the bank was piled up with sand-coloured rocks but as we bobbed closer I realised the rocks had faces. And fur. And flippers. There were dozens of seals basking on the bank, some fat, some compact, some slick from swimming, each one watching with black liquid eyes to see whether we’d venture any nearer. We didn’t; the boat companies operating from Blakeney are sensitive to the seals’ habitat and our skipper had asked us not to disturb their peace.

Instead everyone took photos and pointed out individual seals that caught their interest. “Look, that one’s yawning” or “He’s got grey whiskers, like an old man”. A toddler in pink spotty trousers remained wholly uninterested in the entire spectacle, preferring instead to scramble up the life-ring mount and slide down again on her nappy-padded bottom.

Two girls in red kayaks did paddle too close to the seals, though, and suddenly hundreds of awkward bodies lumbered and shuffled and splashed into the sea, the water magically endowing them with grace and speed as they dived in and over the shallow waves.

Catch them if you can: www.norfolksealtrips.co.uk.

Seal-watching at Blakeney, north Norfolk

Up in the air: travels as a Hollywood producer

Thirty-six years of weaving movie magic have taken Boston-born Hollywood producer Ned Dowd all over the world. He’s lived it up in Beijing with Jackie Chan, spent months in Mexico with Mel Gibson and managed New York parking problems on a Gary Oldman film. I talked to Ned about the travel highs of his career – and found out why Ireland is the place he now calls home.

Ned Dowd on the set of Desert Bloom
Ned as second assistant director on Desert Bloom (1986)

“I still view the travel aspect of my work as a total privilege. Generally you are going someplace for a really long period of time – and often to countries you wouldn’t normally vacation in,” says Ned. “I’ve been very fortunate in being able to live and work under sometimes arduous conditions in some beautiful places.”

One of Ned’s most memorable filming locations, he says, is a national park straddling North Carolina and Tennessee where he shot The Last of the Mohicans (1992) with Daniel Day-Lewis and director Michael Mann.

“The Great Smoky Mountains are like a little secret in America. It’s not an area which gets lots of tourists, but it’s stunning.” (Dirty Dancing fans should note that Lake Lure in the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains provided the backdrop to Baby and Johnny’s starry summer romance.)

Vienna captured Ned’s imagination too. Filming The Three Musketeers (1993) in Austria for Disney, he found the capital to be “a jewel of a European city”. But stunning locations do not always make ideal working environments, as Ned and his crew learned the difficult way.

“The city came alive at night and it was hard to get everybody – including the cast – to go to bed. You would look at your watch and suddenly it was two o’clock in the morning and you’d think, I’ve got to go to work in four hours.”

The set of The Three Musketeers
Filming The Three Musketeers at the Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna

Movies have varying gestation periods and, when the months spent working on a project stretch into a year or more, Ned may find himself setting up home near the set. “We were in the state of Veracruz in Mexico shooting Apocalypto (2006) with Mel [Gibson] for so long – the better part of 18 months – that I really felt like I was Mexican at the end of it! I even had a Mexican driver’s licence. It was a great project to work on.”

Ned with Apocalypto actors
Ned in Vera Cruz with actors from Apocalypto

And he adores Mexico City, one of the most populous metropolises in the world. “It’s so densely packed, with over 21 million people, but it kind of works in a patchwork quilt sort of way. It’s not a city that’s all laid out like Washington or Manhattan, but it kind of works and it’s incredible.”

While making The 13th Warrior (1999) on the Campbell River in Vancouver for Touchstone Pictures, Ned set up home on a whim. Occasionally flown to work by seaplane, he became intrigued by a tiny island he spotted from the air.

“It was this little strip of land about five miles long and maybe half a mile wide. It was sandy on one side and overgrown with forest in the middle. One day I asked the pilot whether we could land and take a look at it. We jumped off the plane and followed a path that led up this hill. All of a sudden we saw beautiful cottages in amongst the trees – they just looked incredible. And one of the trees had a board nailed to it saying: THIS LOT FOR SALE. CALL SADIE ON …”

The strip of land turned out to be Savary Island, named by explorer Captain George Vancouver in 1792. The permanent population of the island is only 100, but this number can swell to over 2,000 in summer months.

“I called Sadie and asked a few questions about the lot. There were about thirty trees on it, with the beach just over the hill nearby. I asked, How much were you looking for the land? and Sadie said she was hoping for eight or nine. Eight or nine thousand Canadian dollars? I said. I bought it on the spot! We were lucky enough to build a summer cottage on the property, which is still there.”

Early in his career, Ned worked as a location scout for Paramount Pictures. That was an undeniably fun way to travel. “They’d give you a credit card, you’d get on an aeroplane, rent a car, go and take pictures, have a bit of a holiday, come back to Hollywood, paste them up and show them to everyone,” he says. “Now of course there are photographs of the whole world on the internet, so you can’t justify going out and seeing everything for yourself.”

Shelley Winters and Ned Dowd
Ned with Shelley Winters on the set of Ellie (1984) in Waxahachie, Texas

While cinematic backdrops are often vital to a location manager, there are many more considerations for deciding where to shoot a film. One of them is the positive impact you can make on a region’s economy.

“When you go someplace to make a movie you obviously try to hire as many local people as you can,” says Ned. “When we were in Mexico on Apocalypto all the extras were locals. We also hired a lot of farmers to help us build the Mayan city set in a sugarcane field and they were so grateful for the work.

“It’s great to go to a place and know you really are spending a lot of money in the local economy. For example, with King Arthur [2004] in Ireland we dropped 40 million US dollars on the ground, just on labour, goods and services.”

Ned on the set of King Arthur
Ned working on King Arthur in County Wicklow

There are of course also logistical considerations. “State of Grace [1990] with Sean Penn, Ed Harris and Gary Oldman involved 72 days of shooting in about 82 locations in Manhattan,” Ned says, still incredulous at the production team’s ability to achieve this feat.  “You have to use what they call parking PAs: people you hire to go park in the spots where your trucks will need to be the next day. The city won’t put a cop there or rope it off, so you need someone to physically put their car there for you and sit in it for 24 hours!”

Some movie sets leave a legacy in their host country. “Oddly enough, the set we built for Popeye [1980] in Malta is still there as a tourist attraction. Robert Altman [the director] hired production designer Wolf Kroeger to create this incredible cartoon town in a bay surrounded by cliffs, so you could shoot 360 degrees anywhere. It was beautiful, watching the set designers working on it. There wasn’t a lick of paint on it then but they’ve painted it all now and, 30 years later, it’s still there! With Valetta and its sandstone architecture and the blue sea and beautiful lagoons, I think Malta is a pretty cool place.”

Inevitably, being a Hollywood producer involves living, working and often travelling with A-list stars. Ned recalls flying into Beijing with Jackie Chan to film Shanghai Noon (2000). “It was like being with The Beatles – people were going nuts for him!” But Jackie is deserving of his heroic status, Ned says. “He’s a lovely guy. It’s funny because he always travels with about six or seven stunt guys that are his team, and they’re the fastest eaters I’ve ever seen in my life. We’d sit at these round tables with lazy susans in the middle and the food would be spinning round like it was on a roulette wheel!”

Ned admits that his life used to be chaotic. “I was like that George Clooney character in Up in the Air,” he says. “I didn’t have an aberrant lifestyle but I had a ridiculous lifestyle where I was always on the road or in an airport”. He had a sense of wanting to share his adventures with someone while scouting in Australia for From Alice to Ocean, a film which was meant to star Julia Roberts but never got made.

“I fell in love with Broome, which is on the western coastline facing the Indian Ocean. There’s outback right up to the sea and feral camels on the beaches. It’s a magical, fantastic place. And I asked, How come I’m doing this by myself?”

But there is hope for even the most suitcase-bound Hollywood producer. Ned found himself in Ireland producing The Count of Monte Cristo and Reign of Fire (both 2002), the latter a film about fiery dragons ravaging the earth. He fell in love – not only with Ireland – and now lives there permanently, enjoying a dragon-free existence in County Wicklow with his thriving young family. Counting the Wicklow Mountains among his favourite places on earth, Ned is delighted with the area in which his two children are growing up.

“My greatest fear was that they would have my horrible American accent, but I’m happy to report they have thick Wicklow accents. It’s great,” he says.

Ned working on Reign of Fire
Ned on the set of Reign of Fire in County Wicklow

Ned’s beds
Five hotels fit for a Hollywood producer:

Camino Real Polanco, Mexico City
General Mariano Escobedo 700, Anzures, Nueva Cobertura, Mexico City, Mexico.
Ned stayed here while making Apocalypto (2006).
Rooms start from 380 USD.

The China Club, Beijing
51 Xirong Xian Hutong, Xidan, Beijing, China,
Ned stayed here while making Shanghai Noon (2000).
Members only.

The Drake, Chicago
140 East Walton Place, Chicago, Illinois 60611, US.
Ned stayed here while making Things Change (1988).
Rooms start from 229 USD.

Hotel Im Palais Schwarzenberg, Vienna
Schwarzenbergplatz 9, Vienna 1030, Austria.
Ned stayed here while making The Three Musketeers (1993).
Undergoing renovation; due to reopen in 2013.

The Pierre, New York
2 East 61st Street at Fifth Avenue, New York 10065, US.
Ned stayed here while making State of Grace (1990).
Rooms start from 895 USD.

Kim Basinger, Ned Dowd and Richard Gere in a swamp
Ned in a swamp with Kim Basinger and Richard Gere for No Mercy (1986)
Film set of Hoffa
Filming Hoffa (1992) in Chicago

All movie dates refer to the year of release. All images are courtesy of Ned Dowd, who owns their copyright.

Winning the Bradt competition: one year on

July 2010 was a golden month for me, passing in a tangle of organza and pearls as I prepared to marry my boyfriend Steve. It was special for another reason too: I won the Bradt / Independent on Sunday travel-writing competition.

The prizegiving evening took place on a Wednesday evening at Stanford’s bookshop in Covent Garden, with the six final entries adjudicated by journalist and broadcaster Matthew Parris. I felt like a fool for even turning up. In my eyes, the other five were far more profound, literary and worthy of winning than mine.

When Matthew Parris skipped over my entry in his comments, promising to return to it shortly, Steve nudged me hopefully in the back. I ignored him, wincing a little. Probably mine wasn’t worth talking about.

So when my name was called, it took me a moment to realise I needed to make my way over to the stairs where Hilary Bradt was waiting to hand me a golden envelope. I don’t know whether I was expected to make a speech, but I made do with grinning and blushing and waving awkwardly at the camera. I remember thanking Jonathan Lorie of Travellers’ Tales, as I’d learned lots from his writing workshops.

I won a five-star holiday in Malta and Gozo, plus a commission with the Independent on Sunday. Kate Simon, the IoS‘s travel editor (and another of the judges), took me for lunch and dished out excellent advice on pitching and writing saleable features. The Irish Independent reprinted my winning article and I’ve had more commissions from them since, as well as work with other publications. I’ve just returned from a press trip around Nova Scotia too – the kind of assignment I could only dream about before.

The most valuable part of winning the Bradt competition, though, is that it’s allowed me to think of myself as a real travel writer – or at least someone who writes real travel articles. I was bashful about this at first, but every time I have a feature accepted, it gives me a tiny bit more credibility and confidence. I’ve even dared to send my book manuscript out into the world and, while I haven’t managed to sell it yet (it’s probably not commercial enough), the positive feedback I’ve received from two well-known publishers has encouraged me to start reworking it.

I can’t make it to London for this year’s prizegiving evening (thank you to Bradt for inviting me), but I wish the six finalists all the very best and hope they find the competition is a springboard for their writing too.

Bradt prizegiving ceremony at Stanford's
Left to right: Catriona Rainsford (the winner of the 'unpublished' category); Hilary Bradt; a red-faced me (Marie Kreft) and Matthew Parris.

PS. In case you’re wondering, Steve and I did get hitched! My article was published in the Indy on the morning after our wedding and, as it was our hotel’s publication of choice, all our guests were reading it at breakfast. Surreal, embarrassing and wonderful all at once.