WRITER • PHOTOGRAPHER • WANDERER

ON THE MISSISSIPPI BLUES TRAIL

Posted on April 1, 2016

There’s a famous legend that at a crossroads in Clarksdale, Mississippi, delta blues guitarist Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in return for his brilliant musical talent. It was this nefarious event that was said to inspire his famous, and aptly named, song ‘Crossroads’, which became one of the most iconic works in blues music.

As dusk wraps itself around the landscape that hugs Highway 61, we slow at every crossroads, pondering whether it seems a fitting place for a man to have relinquished his soul. Known as the Blues Highway, this stretch of blacktop meanders its way along the edge of the Mississippi River, fringed by an expanse of cotton fields and moody bayous. It’s this land that gave birth to blues music, to the lightning-fingered guitar riffs that have long crackled through vinyl, and to the lyrical laments that have brought comfort to so many for more than 100 years.

We stop at a traffic light on the outskirts of Clarksdale, wondering how we could have missed the crossroads given that we were driving along a reasonably quiet two-lane highway. Surely such an iconic place would deserve at least a marker? Just as the light switches to green, I spot a sign in the middle of what is an otherwise unremarkable traffic island. Turns out that we are stopped at that iconic location, but what was once an ominous meeting place between man and devil has since been absorbed by commercial real estate.

The heart of Clarksdale, however, has retained its historical charm, though it bears the weariness of hardship. Dilapidated shopfronts and sagging houses with peeling paint and crumbling roofs line its streets, showing no inclination to embrace modernisation. But they clearly remain beloved by locals, who gather on the porches, some swaying languidly in porch swings with their faithful hounds snoozing at their feet, others laughing together heartily. On Sunflower Avenue, we pass the rundown Riverside Hotel, where the likes of Duke Ellington, Aretha Franklin, John Lee Hooker and Sam Cooke all once rested their heads. Even the local Greyhound station seems caught in a different era, its vibrant Art Deco facade contrasting emphatically with the shadowy evening sky.

Music gently sails through our open car window, riding the summer breeze. It’s Friday night here, but the streets are relatively empty, save for the odd character ambling along the footpath. We stop for dinner at a local blues joint, opting for the locally recommended ‘Fried Green Tomato Sammich’ with a side of sweet potato fries and a Mississippi craft brew known as Southern Pecan. But just as the band finally starts up, launching into a blur of walking bass, it’s unfortunately time for us to get back on the road.

It’s the dead of night by the time we reach the tiny town of Benoit (which, after much debate, we later discover is pronounced to rhyme with ‘coit’ rather than the common French moniker). Our instructions are to drive to the very end of a dirt road and turn into a gate, but we soon find ourselves with no more road to follow and no sign of a gate. I flick the headlights to high beam to get a better bearing on where we’ve ended up, and a massive stone lights up in front of us. It’s ominously etched with the words ‘Burrus Cemetery,’ prefacing the cluster of headstones behind it.

Preferring not to continue along the lines of what could be a plot in a horror movie, I slowly reverse back up to the dirt road, eventually finding the farmgate we had been searching for about 100 metres behind us. An enormous white antebellum mansion stands at the centre of the sweeping plot of land, and in the corner of the expanse sits a tiny wooden shack – a ‘shotgun house’ – which is to be our lodging for the night. Given the late hour, our Airbnb hosts have kindly left the lights on for us, but it feels like we are the only (living) souls for miles.

The slats of the ageing porch groan as we walk across them. Inside the shack, it’s as if we’ve stumbled into someone’s hunting cabin, with blank-staring deer heads mounted on the walls and glossy bear skins draped over the couch. Thankfully the rest of the decor is far more welcoming – particularly the thoughtful inclusion of a turntable and wide selection of vinyl. Fittingly atop the pile is a well-loved copy of Robert Johnson’s King of the Delta Blues. I ease the needle to its position and his distinctive wail crackles from the speakers. Leaving the door ajar, we settle into the old rocking chairs on the porch under an infinite blanket of stars, and ponder the marvellous handiwork of the devil.

 

This story was originally published on The Weekend Edition.

MY FAVOURITE TRAVEL COMPANION

Posted on February 24, 2016

mikki-brammer---favorite-travel-companion

 

My mind has always been on travel. As a kid, while my friends would talk about the cars and houses they’d own one day, I’d sit and dream about all the places I would go as soon as I was old enough to be the mistress of my own journeys. And I’m fortunate enough to have a mother who not only encouraged me to travel, but to do it as far and wide as I could.

When I was in high school, she bought me a desk for my room that had a huge map of the world on its surface, which often served more as a hindrance to my homework efforts than a help, since I spent most of the time daydreaming about a life filled with travelling.

Then the year I turned 18, she bought me the sleeping bag I’d long been coveting. It was a high-tech version that would keep me warm in below-freezing temperatures, and I’d envisioned that it would accompany me on all my wild adventures. Sadly I discovered that it was way too hot for anything but below-freezing, meaning I spent most trips sleeping on it rather than in it. And for my 21st birthday, Mum bought me my very first rucksack – a 30-litre Karimoor that ended up circling the globe many times on my own back (often so laden that I couldn’t stand up without assistance) as well as those of many of my friends.

By the time I turned 30, I’d already lived in several different countries and ticked off many of the destinations I’d spent so much time poring over at my desk instead of studying. The feeling of incessant wanderlust was just a normal part of living for me, and so it was fitting that for my birthday that year, my mum helped me buy what has become my favourite travel companion: a leather gladstone bag, embossed with my initials. With every new journey, it gains new marks and scratches – all souvenirs from my travels – and often acts as a seat or pillow during long layovers at airports and train stations. And I hope will continue to accompany me on my adventures for the rest of my life.

DRIVING THE TEXAS MOUNTAIN TRAIL

Posted on January 23, 2016

mikki brammer-texas-mountain-3
I’m beginning to wonder if using a mud map drawn on the back of a receipt by a waiter in Marfa, Texas, as our guide is such a smart thing to do. When we’d asked him which route he recommended on our way through south-western Texas to cross the Mexican border, he’d regalled us with tales of the beautiful hikes, stunning sunsets and ghost towns dotted along the way to Big Bend National Park. But now that we’re in the middle of nowhere, with no directional signs to be seen, it becomes clear that we probably should have planned better.

Granted, neither my friend nor I had listened particularly closely to his directions (both thinking the other would take on that task), so our interpretation of his scrawled map is sketchy at best. We do have a feeble GPS signal on our phones, but the fact that it keeps switching between routes of its own accord dampens our confidence, so when the voice command tells us to turn off the highway onto a dirt road, we oblige suspiciously.

About 20 minutes down the road, we finally spot a small wooden sign that reads ‘Cañon de Los Bandidos’ (Bandit Canyon) and we stop the car to take in the landscape. It’s a fitting moniker, as this particular location would prove an excellent hiding spot for bandits and outlaws on the run – if they could survive the extreme conditions. Jagged red cliffs and looming rock formations crowd around the valley of cacti and dry brush, basking in the unbearable heat that beats down so fiercely that it creates visible waves in the air as it bounces off the dry earth. Intrepid wild jackrabbits bounce clumsily over the terrain, their enormous ears looking almost as if Mother Nature wasn’t paying attention on the day of their creation.

Moments after we resume our bumpy drive, an odd-looking bird speeds across our path. “Was that a road runner,?” my friend asks uncertainly. “Do road runners even really exist?” I reply, equally as uncertain, proving that our knowledge of cartoons far outstrips our grasp of the natural world. Several sightings later, we’re confident that we’ve spotted several road runners (which we later learn belong to the cuckoo family), however none of them have uttered anything close to the phrase “meep meep”.

An hour later, we still haven’t seen another vehicle and the dirt road is getting more uneven. We pass several abandoned ranches – a sign that civilisation has existed here at some stage – but there’s no actual evidence of people. It’s a relief when we finally reach the ranger’s station and head inside to find out where we start our hike through Big Bend National Park. We are instantly met with looks of disbelief, as the ranger informs us that we are in fact in Big Bend Ranch State Park, and the national park we are looking for is several hours away. What’s more, the only way to get there is to back track the 90-minute trip we’ve just endured along the dirt road.

Reluctantly we get back into the car and turn around. There’s nary a radio signal in these parts, and my friend’s car is too old for any kind of MP3 or Bluetooth connection, so our only musical option is the lone CD we purchased for 54 cents in a small-town thrift store in West Texas, out of desperation for some kind of melodic company. It’s a tribute to the 1950s country singer Marty Robbins by a man named Washboard Jerry, and includes a range of country ditties that croon about cowboys, devil women, gunfights and the border town of El Paso. Already we’ve listened to it about 15 times, but as we rattle back through the arid scenery of Cañon de Los Bandidos, it provides the perfect soundtrack for the setting.

When we finally get back on the highway, we find ourselves on what the waiter had told us was one of the most scenic drives in the USA. Given the desolate landscape we’ve grown accustomed to seeing in these parts, we were a little dubious, but what eventually stretches out before us certainly lives up to the accolade. Known as the River Road (officially called the Farm to Market 170) this section of the Texas Mountain Trail hugs the Rio Grande and is a stone’s throw from the Mexican border. The road is akin to a rollercoaster in parts, rising and dipping over the landscape while also winding in tandem with the river. As we descend a mountain crest into a surprisingly verdant valley, a wild white horse gazes curiously at us from the roadside, briefly cantering alongside our vehicle before tossing its dishevelled mane and galloping away.

Not long after, we come across a ghost town of crumbling buildings, called The Contrabando, an abandoned movie set that was used in several westerns over the years. We spend an hour or so exploring the abandoned town, before dipping our feet into the Rio Grande for some respite from the stagnant heat. As we are about to get into our car, an old man parked across the road waves us over to where the bonnet of his car is lifted. An errant stone has cracked his radiator and he’s been left behind by his companions who were travelling ahead of him. “Call me Coach,” he introduces himself, before handing me a number on scrap of paper. He asks us to call his friend “Blue Jay” as soon as we reach the next town of Lajitas (like the radio, mobile phone service is a fool’s errand around here) to let him know where he is. We leave him with two muesli bars for sustenance, and promise to make the call.

We finally reach Big Bend National Park about an hour later, and we are surprised to see that the landscape pales in comparison to what we have spent an adventurous morning driving through. As we crank up our lone CD and get back on the highway on our way to cross the Mexican border, we come to a very strong conclusion: following mud maps drawn on the back of a receipt by a waiter is always a good idea.

 

This story was originally published on The Weekend Edition.

A GRECIAN PARADISE: HOTEL SAN GIORGIO

Posted on September 25, 2015

The rope of the hammock makes a rhythmic creaking sound as it rubs back and forth on the trunk of the palm tree. My foot is slung lazily over the hammock’s edge, ready to administer the occasional nudge to ensure the gentle swing never subsides. I muster the will to raise my head in the direction of another hammock strung a few metres away, where my friend is in an equally blissful state of relaxation. No words need to be exchanged, as the expression on her face signals complete agreement: We are in paradise.

The location of our newfound paradise is atop a cliff overlooking the southern coast of Mykonos, at the tranquil Hotel San Giorgio. Despite sitting between two of Mykonos’s most infamous party beaches, this whitewashed paragon of bohemian luxury manages to remain a sanctuary of calm. The simple, organic decor of each of the 33 rooms instantly soothes, with natural furnishings, elegantly strung mosquito nets floating in the breeze, and patterned tiles offering cool respite to bare feet. Outside in the Grecian sunshine overlooking the sea, clusters of plush lounges, poolside perches and engulfing hammocks sit invitingly. We have commandeered the latter, swinging lazily in the hotel’s palm garden.

When we finally will ourselves out of the comfort of our hammocks, we head out for the day’s adventure. We’ve been warned that there aren’t many taxis in this part of Mykonos, but we manage to secure one to drive us to nearby Chora (known also as Mykonos Town). While we had considered renting a car or scooter for our sojourn, after witnessing the narrow, serpentine and uneven state of the roads on our way from the airport, we decided that any driving was best left to the locals.

Home to the picturesque row of thatched-roof windmills so commonly associated with Mykonos, Chora embodies the idyllic image of Greece in every aspect. A labyrinthine village awash in a palette of white and blue, the coastal town radiates charm, in spite of the swathes of party-seeking tourists. At first we try to apply some directional logic to our explorations of its streets, but as they take us deeper into the village, we soon decide that it’s much more fun to follow its twists and turns on a whim. We wander down cobblestoned lanes of whitewashed houses offset by colourful bursts of flowers and charming blue doors, and peek through the doorways of tiny, ancient churches lit only by candlelight. Come lunchtime, we discover an open-air restaurant tucked away in a foliage-laden courtyard and we feast on a spread we’ve come to know well during our short time in Mykonos: grilled haloumi, dolmades, moussaka, and generous dollops of tzatzki.

After lunch we resume our exploring, catching precious glimpses of local life along the way. As we dart around a corner enticed by the scent of a sea breeze, we find ourselves in a cobblestone plaza where the smooth, white dome of a church practically glows against the blue sky. We stop and stand in awe of its simple majesty. A narrow stone staircase leads down to the water’s edge and we clamber over the rocks to find the best vantage point to glimpse the iconic windmills.

The ride back from Chora is not only precarious, but – given the ageing state of the local bus we’ve chosen to take – also stifling. We arrive at the foot of Paradise Beach and make the trek over the rocky hill that separates the sandy, yacht-lined party mecca from our own blissful abode atop the cliff. But we have one last stop before we return to our room.

Veering off down a set of makeshift steps cut into the rocky cliff, we arrive at Hotel San Giorgio’s private jetty, gleefully discovering that we have it all to ourselves. The pristine blue of the water sparkles in the sunlight, revealing the patterned seabed several metres below. We strip down to our swimmers and charge joyfully down the jetty, clumsily launching ourselves into the air before announcing our arrival with an exuberant splash. Time seems infinite as we laze about in the calm of the cove, turning somersaults and trying in vain to swim to the bottom. As the sun lumbers wearily towards the horizon, we stretch out on the warm wooden slats of the jetty to let the gentle lingering rays soak into our skin. Our chatter dissipates and our silence once again speaks for itself: We are in paradise.

 

This article was originally published in map magazine

A COPENHAGEN GEM: HÖST

Posted on September 4, 2015

There are some places that make you feel at home as soon as you enter, no matter how far from your actual home you might be. So why is it that some places evoke that feeling while others don’t? On a recent visit to Copenhagen, I stopped by the restaurant Höst – which fuses the rural, rustic cuisine traditional to Denmark with New Nordic innovation – and I instantly felt like I could linger there forever. Every little detail of its design was so thoughtful and cosy, exuding an irresistible warmth despite its minimal aesthetic. And, of course, there’s nothing like the glorious smell of roast vegetables and garlic emanating from the kitchen to make you feel right at home.

 

If you’re ever in Copenhagen, be sure to have a meal there. (You’ll have a much better chance of getting a table than at noma!) Keep an eye out for more of my Copenhagen favourites to come …

 

Click on the arrows to see more more images, or you can view my recent photo shoot of Höst on The Weekend Edition.

 

A ROADTRIP TO BIG SUR

Posted on August 24, 2015

 

The fog is so thick that we can’t see around the next bend. The vast Pacific Ocean stretches out beside us, yet we can barely sense its presence. We set out on the road just after sunrise, and we’ve been driving for the past 30 minutes through what seems like a cloak of cloud. Since we’re on what is said to be one of the USA’s most spectacular coastlines, we expected to actually be able to see the scenery.

After stopping a petrol station and chatting to some locals, we soon learn that this is the norm in these parts. Have patience, they tell us. And sure enough, once we’re back on the road navigating the serpentine stretch of Highway 1, sunlight gradually begins to filter through.

The landscape that has been hiding behind the fog is definitely worth the wait, and the coastline is more rugged than I expected, with waves tumbling dramatically over knuckles of dark, jagged rocks. At the bottom of the looming cliffs, sit coves of pristine beaches. At first I wonder why they’re so deserted, but then realise that a rather intrepid trip is required to actually reach most of them.

There’s a photo-worthy moment virtually every few hundred metres and the amount of times we stop the car to take in the view soon becomes comical. Just when we think we’ve found the ultimate vantage point to capture the stunning landscape, we find an even better one a few minutes up the road.

Though we can’t get down to the beach itself, we’ve been given directions to a secluded water hole towards the southern end of Big Sur. The only trouble is, the trail is marked only with a small wooden sign, meaning we drive past it several times before actually setting eyes on it. And given the limited breadth of this winding highway, finding places to do a U-turn is no small feat – nor is finding a place to park on the side of the road. We finally ease our vehicle into a tight patch of dirt and set off on the walking trail, which rises and falls in sharp intervals with the landscape. We can hear the gush of water coming from down the slope, yet the trail leads upwards. Eager for a swim, we decide to forge our own path.

After clambering over large rocks for several minutes – some requiring small hops, others leaps of faith – we arrive at the edge of stream. It seems we’ve found the right place, as someone has conveniently set a metal pipe across the watery divide, accompanied by an ageing piece of rope, which, we assume, is intended as a makeshift handrail. I shimmy across the pipe to the rocks on the other side and then catch our backpacks as my friend throws them over to safety before manoeuvring her own way across the pipe. The roar of water grows louder as we climb further up the rocks, and we are soon rewarded: An elegant waterfall sashays down a small cliff face and into a secluded water hole below.

Immediately we strip down to our swimmers and leap in, yelping as the unexpected chill wraps itself around our skin. As I gaze down at my feet burrowing into the pebbles below, large brown fish swim lazily around them as if undeterred by – or accustomed to – the invasion of their space. A small natural staircase rises up the side of the waterfall to a small ledge and I climb its slippery surface to revel its spray, like a high-pressure shower tumbling over my head and shoulders. As I lean back to steady myself on the ledge, my friend yells out to me in a slight panic from the pool below. “Poison ivy!” she squeals, pointing to the green plant spread across the rock face, no doubt envisioning having to spend the rest of the roadtrip next to me itching like crazy. I snatch back my hand just in time and retreat back down to the water hole.

Soon it’s nearing afternoon, and we’ve planned to have lunch at the famous Big Sur Bakery, whose pastries are said to be amongst the best in California. But first we’re going to make the most of our own private slice of Big Sur. We spread our towels out on the rocks, lie back in the sun and settle in for a well-deserved nap.
This story was originally published on The Weekend Edition.

THE MAGIC OF ROADTRIPS

Posted on August 18, 2015

the-roadtrip

 

Chances are, if you’ve been my friend for any length of time, I’ve asked you to come along with me on a roadtrip – it’s without a doubt my favourite method of travel. My love for it was sparked, I think, from the hours spent staring out the backseat car window, on one of the countless car trips my mum, brother and I embarked on when I was a kid.

A roadtrip is a great test of a friendship. You get to know each other intimately when you’re in a confined space for several days, gaining unrivalled insight into someone’s music taste, engaging in deep discussions, and enjoying long silences when you can just revel in someone’s company, not feeling the need to exchange an endless flow of words. And then there’s the motley array of characters you meet along the way, the roadside food shacks, the unexpected swimming holes, the adventures, challenges and follies – I love them all.

Now that I’m living in the Northern Hemisphere, my birthday is in the middle of summer, which, of course, is optimum roadtripping time. So each year I’ve celebrated it with a roadtrip with a friend – through Provence, along Big Sur, and, this year, I’ve planned an epic journey from Omaha, Nebraska, to Monterrey, Mexico, via Colorado, New Mexico and Texas.

Some of my other all-time favourite roadtrips include a summer sojourn through the mountains and beaches of Albania, a beautiful journey through the Great Smoky Mountains in autumn, a stunning trip along the Ligurian Coast in Italy, and a recent adventure with a friend driving through Kentucky in her Mustang convertible.

But just as I tick one roadtrip off my list, I add a couple more, meaning I’ll hopefully be doing them until the day I die. So tell me, what are your favourite roadtrips? Or how about your dream roadtrip? I’d love some new ones to add to my list! (And if you happen to be free for a week or two …)

A SOJOURN TO PUERTO ESCONDIDO

Posted on July 12, 2015

Already this seems like a bad idea. My friend and I have driven to a tiny village in the middle of nowhere in the darkness of night, and then boarded a rickety old speedboat with a man we don’t know. He’s taking us out into the middle of a lagoon in pitch-black surroundings, and all we can see is the stream of his flashlight against the water.

We can no longer make out the shape of land in the distance when he kills the engine and we glide to a gentle sway. A flash of light beneath the water’s surface, almost like a lightning bolt, catches my eye, followed quickly by another. Our captain turns to us with a satisfied look his face. “You see?”

I lean over the side of the boat for a closer look, and see countless fish glowing like X-rays under the water. “Are you going in?” he asks us casually, fastening a small ladder to the side of the boat. Our thoughts turn to the menagerie of aquatic monsters that could be lurking in the dark water beneath us, but he shrugs with a smile. “Totally safe,” he assures us. I guess we’ve made it this far unscathed, so why not tempt fate a little more? I leap off the side of the boat and the splash echoes across the dark lagoon.

As I resurface, my friend yells at me to look at my limbs in the water – and sure enough, they’re glowing. The lagoon is renowned for the phosphorescent plankton that comes in from the sea during certain times of the year, lighting up the creatures that dwell within its waters. We swim around for a few minutes, marvelling at our own luminescence, before clambering back in the boat, grateful we haven’t encountered a phosphorescent alligator.

The next morning while we dig into a breakfast of cactus tacos sprinkled with Oaxacan cheese, the previous evening’s experience seems almost surreal. Our plans for the day are far more conventional, and we head to one of the local beaches, Playa Carrizalillo. The beach itself sits in a sheltered cove at the bottom of a cliff, and we stop at the top of the long, winding stone steps to take in the view. When we reach the bottom, we are greeted by a group of Mexican surfers offering us lessons, but our priorities today are a little more geared to lounging.

The tinny salsa beats float on the breeze from one of the thatched-roof palapas further back on the beach. Unlike other beaches we’ve already been to in Puerto Escondido, this one is milling with locals more so than tourists, and Mexican families and couples fill the motley rows of sunbeds that sit under a rainbow of umbrellas. We stake claim on two lounges of our own and settle in for the day, fresh chilled coconuts in hand.

No one really seems to be in a hurry to do anything here. A dog trots in front of us and takes up a position on the sand, gazing peacefully out to sea. His gaze doesn’t waver, even when a beach ball bounces past. I can identify with his priorities – the view is a beautiful one, framed by slim palm trees that bend elegantly towards the turquoise waters.

Out past a jagged outcrop of rocks, surfers wait patiently for breaks, some chatting among themselves, others seemingly meditating in the cove’s natural beauty. Soon the sun’s touch turns from a gentle caress to a sharp nudge, and I relinquish my coconut and plunge into the waves – a steep drop only a few steps from the beach makes for a pleasant swimming depth. The water is perfectly temperate, like a glass of lemonade moments after the last ice cube has melted.

I stroke languidly out to the centre of the cove, and the chatter emanating from the shoreline disappears. With barely any waves to contend with, I feel like I just could float out here forever. But there’s just one problem: It’s lunchtime. Soon, thoughts of fresh ceviche, fish tacos and guacamole served to me right at my sunbed are irresistible, and I begin my swim back to shore.

 

This story was originally published on The Weekend Edition

A TOUCH OF PARIS IN NEW YORK

Posted on May 30, 2015

 

People often ask me whether I prefer living in Paris or New York. But, to me, it’s not a case of either/or, but rather a lifelong love affair with both. There are aspects of each city that I find utterly endearing – that make my heart soar and my imagination ignite – and I always miss one when I’m in the other. That said, it’s nice to have a piece of Paris in New York, and, for me, that takes the form of the petite gastrothèque in the West Village called Buvette. Accompanied by the breezy sounds of jazz, you can wander in and pull up a bar stool any time of day and enjoy wine, pastries and all manner of Gallic delights. And what I love the most is that there’s also a second iteration of Buvette in Paris (a Paris-inspired New York locale in Paris), which is equally as charming, and gives me that little piece of New York when I’m in Paris.

 

Click on the arrows to see more more images, or you can view my recent photo shoot on The Weekend Edition.

AN ADVENTURE AT BASECAMP HOTEL, LAKE TAHOE

Posted on December 7, 2014

It’s as though someone has stuffed cotton wool in my ears. The classic rock blasting from the car radio (our only choice, due to patchy reception but a welcome one) becomes dulled and bass heavy. My friend and I have been winding around the same road on a gradual incline for the past hour, and the sudden blocking of our ears signals a change in altitude. Clusters of pine trees become instantly denser but still maintain uniformity, as if someone has raked a comb through them. The road soon meets the rocky banks of a creek, and the two meander alongside each other for several kilometres before bidding each other farewell. We pass through several towns that end as soon as they begin, consisting of a mere smattering of houses, a petrol station and, occasionally, a bar.

As we round out of one bend and into another, the landscape changes dramatically. The car is now navigating a high cliff face that opens out to an enormous valley of pines below. It’s almost a shock, the sudden change from being ensconced by forest on all sides to such dramatic exposure. Out on the horizon, the jewel we have been seeking sparkles to our attention, even grander than I ever imagined. Lake Tahoe, the largest alpine lake in North America, is equally as busy during the summer as it is in the winter, when people flock to glide down its glamorous slopes. We have chose the height of summer for our sojourn, but—quietly envying the people who own the quaint alpine houses that punctuate the scenery—we are already plotting our return to experience it while the landscape is blanketed white.

South Lake Tahoe is our destination, or, more specifically, Basecamp Hotel. Toeing the state line between California and Nevada (conspicuous by the presence of commercial casinos on the Nevada side), Basecamp serves as a happy medium the between dingy motels and hostels, and frequently gaudy hotels that populate the area. It would be easy to drive past the locale and barely notice its presence, as it looks much like a well-cared for roadside motel, with many of the room entrances opening out onto a communal open-air walkway. But the minute you push open the rather modest door to the hotel’s reception, it’s clear that this is much more than a motel.

Two elegant leather chesterfield sofas, topped with tartan cushions, face each other in front of a fireplace, as if settling in for an evening of conversation. Nature-themed and outdoorsy tchotchkes line the shelves either side of the fireplace—a Pendleton blanket in its leather carrier, a Polaroid Land Camera, a military-style water canteen, and plenty of tomes for the journey. Undoubtedly many a story has been shared in this cosy space by travellers passing through, each on their own adventure but happy to cross paths with fellow explorers. When we wearily drop our bags in our room, the explorer-chic theme continues, with camp-blanket throws, a cherry red lantern, and a weathered copy of The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook placed neatly on the side table.

We plan to spend the next few days flitting between California and Nevada, immersing ourselves in nature’s miscellany in and around the lake. Since our trip is short, the task of narrowing down our itinerary to allow us to revel in our surroundings, rather than rushing between points, is agonising. We get up early the next day to make the most of our time. After mingling with our fellow explorers at Basecamp’s hearty breakfast bar, our first stop is the beach. Having grown up with beaches characterised by crashing waves, I’m unsure if I’m comfortable with the idea of their absence. But as we pad across the sand and settle down onto stretched-out towels, I’m pleasantly greeted with the sound of waves lapping ashore. While they’re virtually out of breath by the time they reach the sand, the gentle ripples from passing boats are enough to satisfy me.

The water is perfectly temperate – enough to be refreshing from the stark heat of the impending afternoon, yet not so cold to be a rude shock. Even when it’s too deep for me to touch the bottom in one breath, the water is still as clear as a freshly run bath, revealing nothing below but ripples of sand and the occasional rock. I swim out past the jetty into the open water, where paddle boarders slice along languidly. Floating on my back, all I can see is the zig-zag formed by the tips of pine trees and the orb of the sun casting its rays across the water.

Later that afternoon we find ourselves aboard a boat, navigating the lake’s eastern coastline on our way to the aptly named Emerald Bay, which is also home to a castle-like structure that was among the lake’s first summer houses. I dangle my legs over the side of the boat, shifting my gaze between the jewel-toned water below and the alpine landscape that glides past. It takes all my resolve not to simply leap off for another lazy session of swimming.

When the boat finally nudges against the dock, we rush to the car in pursuit of the sunset. We’ve been told the best vantage point is from the beach at Sand Harbor, on the Nevada side of Tahoe, meaning we’ll need to drive about halfway around the lake. We make it just as the blush of the sun is spreading across the horizon. With no one else around except for some particularly bossy local birdlife, we settle in for the spectacular show.
 
This story was originally published on The Weekend Edition and you can see more photography from the shoot here