Ten magical places to connect with female empowerment.
While the world is filled with enchanting destinations connected to ancient fairy tales, many of these original stories haven’t fared well in our post #MeToo era. However, if you sweep aside the tales of old, with damsels in distress waiting for their prince to arrive, there are many woke tales of female empowerment, set in spectacular destinations that no fourth-wave feminist would be embarrassed to visit.
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H.C. Andersen House
WHERE: Odense, Denmark
As the granddaddy of fairy tales, Hans Christian Andersen’s stories are spun into our cultural language. Entire industries are built on the bricks of The Emperor’s New Clothes and, in all honesty, who hasn’t had an Ugly Duckling phase? But to modern-day feminists, do these timeworn tales now look more like poison apples?
Take for example The Little Mermaid, inspiration for the retrograde Disney flick (you remember the one–young mermaid gives up her voice to get with a guy she barely knows). Thankfully, we can now take a deeper dive into the original texts at the soon to open H.C. Andersen’s House, a treasure trove of a museum in Odense, Denmark, and they’re actually surprisingly progressive. Brush up on how mermaid Ariel initially plotted to throw her prince to the waves to save her own skin, before exploring the museum’s whimsical gardens, mysterious underground displays, and the Danish wordsmith’s original childhood home.
Efteling Theme Park
WHERE: Kaatsheuvel, the Netherlands
If you go down to the woods today, you’re in for a big surprise. Because venture into the enchanted Fairy Tale Forest at Efteling theme park and a truly weird and wonderful realm awaits. Inspired by the big-wigs of the fairy tale world–the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, and Charles Perrault–the surreal forest includes a gnarly oak that speaks and a life-sized replica of Rapunzel’s tower, complete with the long-haired protagonist.
Alongside all the predictable archetypes, you’ll also discover a statue dedicated to The Naughty Princess, a tale of a spirited girl who played by her own rules. This being the moralistic world of fairy tales, she of course gets her comeuppance and is turned into a parrot, but simply having a female lead breaking social norms feels like a small win for feminist bibliophiles.
WHERE: Bergen, Norway
Which are Disney’s most woke movies? A contender for the crown surely has to be the Frozen blockbusters. These charmingly subversive tales of sisterhood, based on The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen (him again!), spoil us with not one, but two empowering female characters. The films that launched a thousand karaoke renditions of Let It Go radically swept away the notion that female-to-female relationships had to be toxic (we’re looking at you Snow White and Rapunzel) or that princesses need a male savior.
Elsa and Anna buffs should hotfoot it to Norway, land of glacial fjords, troll-infested forests, Viking stave churches, and the awe-inspiring northern lights. Once here, head to the Bryggen district in Bergen. This UNESCO Heritage Site inspired the design of the fictional city of Arendelle, with its colorful wooden houses and snaking cobblestone alleys, surrounded by snow-capped mountains fit for a progressive ice queen.
The Volga River
If you like your heroines fierce, then the Rusalki water nymphs from Slavic folklore should tick the box. Ancient wisdom has it that these water-dwelling goddesses were hell-bent on seducing young men, luring them into the depths of the water. Then, they’d either drown them with their flowing long red hair, or should they be feeling a little more playful, tickle them to death.
The Volga River in Russia, which forms part of Europe’s largest waterway, is thought to be a hotbed for Rusalki bathing spirits. So legendary are these mythical women that each June there’s a whole week of festivities and ceremonies celebrating Rusalki Week (also known as Green Week). For a contemporary remix of this Russian narrative, pick up a copy of Alexander Utkin’s graphic novel The Water Spirit.
Once upon a time there was a magical book that managed to combine tales of female empowerment with achingly hip retro backdrops. And this book was David Roberts’ Delightfully Different Fairy Tales, a gorgeous tome that includes a right-on update of Sleeping Beauty, who (spoiler alert) is rescued by her bookish female friend.
The book’s evocative illustrations transport you to a Palm Springs-esque landscape, where the homes are decked out with Mid-Mod interiors and Cinders is dressed as a Beatnik. Fans of the story and its modernist design aesthetic should head to Palm Springs during their annual Modernism Week, for a glorious celebration of the city’s Jetsons-meets-Mad-Men design vision.
Waterfall Resort on Noyes Island
Forget Lady Gaga going to the ball (okay, the MTV Awards) in a raw meat dress. The coolest feminist icon made an entrance in a gown of shimmering fish scales and can be found within the pages of The Salmon Princess. With the wave of a wand, the Cinderella narrative has been updated and transported to the hauntingly beautiful Alaskan wilderness, complete with a fisherwoman princess and an eagle spirit godmother.
Experience this landscape for yourself at the Steamboat Bay Fishing Club on the remote Noyes Island in Southeast Alaska. Here, the main focus of the day is chasing the feisty king salmon as bald eagles circle overhead. Those interested in the Indigenous Haida culture should book the luxurious private lodge, which is adorned with artworks by the resort’s fishing guide, using form-line design to tell the tales of his ancestors.
WHERE: Normandy, France
Devotees of Angela Carter’s 1979 classic story The Bloody Chamber, a macabre rework of the Bluebeard fable, will feel at home at Mont-Saint-Michel in Normandy, France, a mysterious medieval monastery that mirrors the Marquis’ castle setting in the book. Thankfully, this formidable castle doesn’t include a gruesome chamber with severed heads! Instead, a stunning Benedictine Abbey rises up from the sandbanks of this cast-adrift tidal island. Mont-Saint-Michel has been a major Christian pilgrimage site for centuries and, in more recent years, is also said to have inspired the makers of Disney’s Tangled animation. Reach this gothic beauty by shuttle bus, or for a considerably more romantic experience get whisked up to the castle on a local Maringote horse-drawn carriage.
The vibrant colors, patterns, and culture of Dakar in Senegal leap out from the pages of Fatou and the Kora: A Modern West African Fairy Tale. This is the heartening tale of a tenacious young girl, forbidden from learning to play her father’s kora (African harp) due to traditional gender roles, who nonetheless manages to skilfully master the instrument.
Although it’s rooted in the local, showcasing the sprawling elegance of Dakar, a pastel-hued “land once composed of kingdoms and empires”, this story is really about fulfilling one’s destiny and pushing back against society’s expectations, which seems like a pretty universal theme.
The Roxbury at Stratton Falls
WHERE: New York
Stepping into The Roxbury feels like falling down the rabbit hole with Alice, emerging into a surreal wonderland. This maximalist hotel takes thematic rooms to the next level, including Wonder Woman’s fantastically kitsch hideaway, Dracula’s foreboding lair, and a Game of Thrones suite that’s sure to delight Thronies worldwide. The golden ticket for fairy tale lovers has to be the fantastical Cinderella’s Gown cottage, where the grammable décor includes a bathroom nestled inside a gigantic pumpkin carriage and an 18-foot ball gown doubling as a bedroom canopy.
But fourth-wave feminists aren’t buying into Cinderella’s outdated gender tropes, I hear you say. Exactly, and that’s why you need to slip a copy of Cinderella Liberator by Rebecca Solnit into your overnight bag. This radical tale of domestic liberation and finding one’s true self makes the perfect bedtime companion as you drift off to sleep under the veil of a taffeta ball gown.
WHERE: Akan National Park, Japan
Experience the beauty of Wild Swans by Xanthe Gresham, a reimagining of the traditional Hans Christian Andersen tale, at the otherworldly Lake Kussharo. This spellbinding caldera lake in Japan’s Akan National Park becomes even more beautiful in the winter, when hundreds of whooper swans swoop in from Russia, to luxuriate in the misty hot spring waters. The lake has also been dubbed Japan’s Loch Ness, due to a mythical monster said to roam the lagoon.
Mirroring this enchanting setting, Gresham’s stylish Wild Swans revival is a watery tale of a young female idol using bravery to save her homeland and her feathered siblings. The author also rips up the rulebook on stepmothers being evil and heroines being rewarded by marriage, but thankfully keeps in the happily ever after ending, because we could all do with a dose of that.