Latest news and journeys

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:

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.

Travels in Blood and Honey

A few weeks ago I attended the launch of Elizabeth Gowing’s delightful book, Travels in Blood and Honey: Becoming a Beekeeper in Kosovo.

When Elizabeth first accompanied her partner Rob to Kosovo (where he had landed a job as adviser to the prime minister), her journey amounted to “an extended blind date” with the country. Having had only 20 days to pack up their house in north London and say their goodbyes, Elizabeth found herself being driven in a British Office car through the “dusty, baffling streets of Pristina’s suburbs”, looking at “untranslatable” images, wondering what people were thinking, who was Serbian and who was Albanian …

The book shows Elizabeth immersing herself in Kosovan life as she sets up home; grapples (impressively) with the languages; forms lifelong friendships; discovers new recipes (which nestle deliciously at the end of several chapters) and steers her way through social customs and expectations.

Most crucially to her story, a birthday gift of a beehive from Rob leads Elizabeth to an informal apprenticeship in beekeeping with a local family. Learning this delicate art, she meets other beekeepers: political activists, former guerrilla fighters, people who have been victims of human trafficking, and a group of women who teach her how to dance. It is through the national language of beekeeping that Elizabeth starts getting to the heart of Kosovo, its history and its hopes for the future.

I adored the book. Emerging profoundly from its pages, aside from Elizabeth’s deepening love for Kosovo, is her warm and likeable narrative voice. I am more than happy to see the country and its people through her eyes – although her vivid writing has also made me want to experience Kosovo for myself.

Elizabeth is available for book signings and honey tastings this summer. You can contact her via her blog, One Hundred Days of Honey.

Marie Kreft and Elizabeth Gowing
Elizabeth signs my copy of her book. Image courtesy of Elizabeth Gowing. Copyright Geraint Davies.

Some weekends are enchanted: Norfolk

This is my mum Trish and me, with wind and spray in our hair at shingly Salthouse on the Norfolk coast.

Trish Kreft and Marie Kreft

Sliding over the pebble banks to dip our toes in the waves, nudged forward by the North Sea wind, I felt like a two-pence piece in an arcade coin pusher.

Tiptoeing to the sea

I was raised in Norfolk by London-born parents with no known connections to the county. But when a friend researched our family tree as a wedding present, he picked up a trail that led to the graves of my great-great-great-great-great grandparents in the grounds of St Mary the Virgin church, Great Plumstead.

Jonathan and Ruth Scott's gravestones

It’s a good feeling when your roots reach deeper than you first thought.