Checking in With... Felicity Aston MBE
The British polar explorer and Antarctic scientist on sustainability – and the passion that drives her to keep visiting the coldest places in the world.
You have been on and have organised several expeditions in the Polar regions. Do these destinations have a particular draw for you?
I have been on expeditions in desert and jungle environments, and they were wonderful, immensely rewarding experiences. But there’s something about the polar environment that keeps pulling me back. Something about the vastness, the immense power of the forces of nature and the timescales on show. They provide perspective on us as human beings and our place in the universe.
I wonder if it’s also something to do with where I grew up, in south-east England. Snow was a very rare, exciting event. School was cancelled, we went sledding, and this world that I knew was transformed into a different place. Perhaps that’s when I started equating snowy places with adventure.
I think it’s also something to do with the fact that these environments are at the edges of the globe. Looking at a map, my eyes always wander toward the fringes – the places I don’t know anything about. I’ve always been driven by that strong sense of curiosity: who’s there? What would it feel like to be there? And then you suddenly realise the only way to answer these questions is to go there and find out.
You have a keen interest in climate change and protecting the ozone layer. What can hotels do better to become more sustainable?
We are entering a new climate reality. Seasons are less defined, extreme weather events are more intense and more frequent. This has all sorts of far-reaching consequences in all areas of life. Being sustainable is no longer a matter of how often towels go through the laundry but of examining supply lines and reorganising key strategies. I believe sustainability is about taking a serious and honest look at all aspects of your operation and making sensible decisions about how you could be doing it better.
What makes a hotel truly great in your eyes?
For me, great hotels offer a genuine glimpse of culture or place – be it that the food that is served is a local home-made speciality; that the décor features locals artists, art or style; that you hear local musicians; or simply the opportunity to meet staff who can provide insight to the culture.
Does social media influence your travel plans?
Lots of my travels have been inspired by an image I’ve seen or a story I’ve read, be it in conventional or digital media – but nothing beats opening the pages of a traditional atlas (the more massive the better) and letting the imagination wander…
You have written three highly acclaimed books about your experiences in the coldest places in the world. Have you always been a keen writer or did your treks and expeditions inspire you to write about them?
I have always loved to write and so it felt very natural to record in words the experiences that have had the greatest impact on me.
Where is your favourite holiday destination and why?
When I got married everyone expected me and my husband (who is also a polar explorer-type) to plan a honeymoon camping on an icy mountain-top somewhere inaccessible. In fact we went to the Maldives and had an amazing time being spoilt in a cavernous hotel villa on stilts over the blue, blue ocean filled with the most breathtaking corals and marine life. I’d love to go back.
Where is the one place on your bucket list that you have not as yet had the chance to visit?
Ooh, the list is too long! I often get panicked that I don’t have enough time in this one and only life to see everywhere I want to go. But if we are talking ultimate bucket list, I’d have to say Space. If there is ever a hotel on the Moon, sign me up.
What is your definition of great customer service?
To be treated genuinely and as a human being, rather than as a customer. You can always tell if someone has had customer service ‘training’ and it’s rarely a good thing.
As an avid and frequent world traveller, what are your top tips for travelling and staying fit while on holiday?
You are on holiday – forget fitness and eat what you like, sleep when you want and relax! (But take plenty of paracetamol, Ibruprofen and Immodium with you just in case…)
You divide your time between your native UK and your home in Reykjavik. Where do you feel most at home?
I am very fortunate to have two homes, each of which brings its own benefits that I value immensely and can’t be replicated by the other. However, despite some five years of learning, my Icelandic is still not great. In Iceland, language is such a part of belonging that until I have mastered the language I will always feel slightly ‘other’.