Roadtrip Iceland, in the plumber car

My new found home on wheels has offered so many opportunities for travel, and because of tour guiding work, I haven’t been outside of Iceland since before May, so roadtrips in Iceland where the greatest way to play. My 2-seater car, with a mattress, fridge and sink, has been fully kitted for an impromptu roadtrip thru Iceland at any moment; two friends have been lucky enough to become the plumber car’s first guests.

my home on wheels, under Hekla

I met a couchsurf host in Geneva who was on his way to Iceland for a few days, so we decided to test the home on wheels together for the first time. We drove the golden circle, had pizza and beer at Skjól, and hottubed til the wee hours of the morning at Hrunalaug, which hadn´t yet run dry. We met two Romanian workers from the Geysir shop who offered endless entertainment, and a yoga photographer from LA who I´ll probably see again in the future for a yoga workshop in Iceland. That night we slept near Fluðir on the banks of Thjorsá river, and carried on the following day on a hunt for more hot pools.

Hjalparfoss

We visited a pool that I´ve still never quite figured out why it got deserted, but it´s just there, all alone, rundown, perfectly swimmable. We went to Hjalpárfoss, which I hadn´t realized I´d never been to until I was there, looking at something I´d never seen. We drove south, under Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull until we reached Seljlanads country, and thought we´d be sneaky and sleep close to the sea on a dead end farmer´s hay field road a couple of km´s west of the infamous US Navy DC plane crash at Solheimasandur. On our midnight walk west, we realized there were a few too many unbridged rivers to make it. He´ll have to come back to see it net time.

the perfect secret lagoon

I made a friend in Thailand last November with a handful of Americans on a Travr trip, and she was coming from LA for a week long vacation to a place she´d never been, or even considered going, so I planned a full circumnavigation of the island for her… and my car. We left Reykjavik headed for the north over Kjolur, and spent our first night in Blondudalur. We arrived quite late, after a midnight dip in the Hveravellir hottub, so my pregnant friend Kristine was already sleep. When we woke up, she was gone, and her man, and it took some time to realize that they had left for Akureyri hospital, since she had gone into labour.

super preggers Kristine in between conractions, with permission to leave the hospital for a little photo shoot and virgin mojito action

We carried on to Husavik, where we visited Geosea until closing, and camped, illegally, in their parking lot, after having one too many beers at the swim-up bar. They woke us up in the morning with a knock on the car door, politely asking us not to “camp” in the parking lot.

Lauren and I at Geosea

The next night we went to Egilsstadir, my former summer stomping ground, where Nielsen Restaurant has been making waves. Run by a friend, the former head chef Kari of Michelin-starred Dill, it was a treat to eat so well, for so little, in a quiet, countryside town.

Head chef Kari at Nielsen restaurant

We drove to the bottom of Fljotsdalur to Egilsstadir farm, the last inhabited farm in the valley headed southwest to Snaefell and the foothills of Vatnajokull glacier, to stay at the Wilderness Center. My former boss and friend Denni runs a museum, guest house and viking sauna there, surrounded by horses and reindeer. We ended up, fireside, sharing stories and grass, before falling asleep in the back of the campervan, a place that had started to feel more and more like home.

at the end of the world, Obyggdasetur Islands, aka the Wilderness Center in East Iceland

The next morning we had intended on sleeping in Vik, but one of the first and worst rainfalls of the summer had started coming down like hell on earth, so we just kept driving to Reykjavik and crawled into my warm, dry bed in Reykjavik, feeling slightly as if we had cheated on the plumber car. Its hard to say, but I´m sure my apartment was happy to finally have some cuddles too.

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The start of a real summer

Most people can agree that summer in Iceland isn’t much of a summer event. I’ve always said that my annual winter season is June-September in Iceland, and summer happens the other 8 months of the year in warmer, tropical countries south of here. But lo and behold, June came as a surprise.

the last of the snow hanging on after an early onset of a warm summer

Compared to last year, when it rained basically every single day of the month of June and the recorded sunshine hours for the whole month had already been surpassed in May this year, this June was hot, warm and dry, day after day. It was so dry the bugs didn´t make it out – there were no midge flies to be seen – and the dust clouds in the highlands would blow all the way to Reykjavik. We’re also talking about 24 hours a day of this – the sun never set so it went on and on and on and still, I woke up every day with a rain jacket and woollen lopa peysa ready to put on when the weather would finally crack.

Thingvallavatn

June saw the highland roads open early, but an emptiness remained on the well-beaten tracks of tourist trails, since tourism was still reeling from Wow air going bankrupt in April. Hotels and restaurants were still not at 100% operation, but finally there was breathing and playing space for Icelander’s to enjoy the best summer on record in over 40 years. The number of hotel rooms and tour operators may actually have been enough, for the first time since 2008, this June.

a beach day, under the glacier

However, there are always 2 sides to a story, and June was the worst month in 40 years for the salmon rivers. The most popular, productive fishing rivers had no water, and thus, no fish, and men who had paid over $1000 per day in fishing permits had resorted to just sitting in the fishing lodges drinking fine wine and smoking cigars on the patio. Some didn’t even bother to go, and fishing lodges all around Iceland sat empty for days at a time. But think about the salmon – where did they all go? Or didn’t they come at all? I hope they managed to spawn… or at least I hope they didn’t all die.

oh the places you’ll go… in a nice Icelandic summer!

I have to admit that the best part of the summer wasn’t the weather, but my life in it. I finally have a home I can call my own. It’s a wonderful place to keep all my stuff,  although I still feel very little need to be there with it all. That’s why I bought a second home on wheels – a Ford transit connect that used to be rented out as a campervan, fitted out with a sink, water pump, solar-powered fridge and a  couch that folds down to a double bed.

my home on wheels, the plumber car!

It kind of looks like a plumber’s car from the outside, a non-descript grey with no windows except at the front and back. I’ve added a table and chairs, a permanent stash of drinks and food, a yoga mat, hiking shoes and poles and a bathing suit and towel to make the car travel ready at the drop of a hat. I have probably spent as many nights in the car as in my own bed, and I’m still not sure which I prefer. Perhaps the winter will bring me back indoors a bit, we shall see.

Hot air balloons in Cappadocia

One of those life bucket list items, floating above Cappadocia in a hot air balloon at sunrise was an absolute dream come true. Doing it at the end of May was perfect timing, with excellent weather, and tourism on the upswing, but still enough space to squeeze one extra person into the basket.

lucky me!

The trip started in Istanbul, flying into the world’s largest, brand new IST airport. It took longer to walk from the gate to the taxi stand than it took to drive the brand new highway to old city Sultanahamet, nearly 50km away.

heating up the hot air balloon before take off

The markets and bazaars were buzzing, and the Bosporus river traffic non-stop, so flying away to central Anatolia was a breath of fresh air. We flew into Kayseri, but out of Nevsehir, and both were closer to Cappadocia and less populated than any neighbourhood of Istanbul.

Goreme

The quaint town of Goreme near Cappadocia was visitable by foot, offering incredible walks among the minaret-like rock formations. The pillars looked like fairy chimneys, and carved valleys and caves were found around every corner, sometimes even incorporated into the hotel or restaurant building. There was the obligatory Turkish hamam to visit, a post office, a handful of great restaurants, and the most incredible sunsets and sunrises to see – especially floating above the town, silently, hundreds of meters in the sky.

sunrise from the air

The dozen or so hot air balloon companies all said they were fully booked until July, but walking around Cappadocia town the first night resulted in a couple of options. Some last minute cancellations would have cost me 179 euros, but the ‘black market’ option, which meant the trip was being resold to me without refunding the original passenger, were upwards of 250 euros. I didn’t figure out how that made sense, but I was excited to get Robin Callaway’s certificate during our ‘champagne’ toast after the flight, which was actually sparkling, non-alcoholic grape juice.

sparkling juice anyone?

Waking up at 3:30 am to make the sunrise flight, and getting back to our hotel at 8, made a 9 am breakfast feel like dinner, but we couldnt quite get back to sleep with the lure of Turkish bazaars reopening for the day. My advice for a visit to Turkey and your hot air balloon ride – save Istanbul for another time, and head straight to Goreme!

 

Rioja food and wine trip

Spain is one of those places thats close enough, you go to often, but never really know the place. I´ve never been to Rioja or any other wine region in Spain, so it was about time I finally wined and dined my way through northern Spain.

Faustino wines ageing

The trip was designed by the Faustino group, a winemaking family that started 150 years ago and has kept growing to include more brands and vineyards across Rioja over the years. They have a large presence not only in Rioja and Spain, but a rapidly expanding export market, including Iceland. The purpose of the trip was to invite the Icelandic market influencers to come and taste the best Rioja had to offer, not only in wine, but in food pairings too.

in the wine cellar

We were 8, with our local tour guide, bus and driver. Pablo liked wine more than any of us, coming from a family of winemakers and wine enthusiasts, and drinking it all day, every day, professionally. I´ve never seen so many wine cellars, filled with wine bottles and oak barrels, all filled with Rioja wine. Every road you took passed vineyard after vineyard, and every sunny, arable piece of land had vines growing. There were bush vines and training vines, head trained and spur pruned, and the terroir changed from vineyard to vineyard, sometimes even plot to plot.

in the vineyards

The main grape varieties, tempranillo and garnacha, are used to make red wines, and blush and rosé are on the upswing. Viura is the main white wine grape, and both tempranillo and garnacha come in ´white´varieties. Depending on the time spent in barrels, a rioja wine can be classified as a crianza, reserva or gran reserva, and the overall quality of the whole region is measured each year.

some of the oldest bottles of wine Ive ever seen

2001, 2004/5 and 2010/11 are considered the best vintages in the last 20 years, and we were spoiled enough to try a 1955 and 1970 Gran Reserva, also great vintages.

the Medieval town of Laguardia

We visited Malpica estate, one of the most iconic vineyards in Faustino´s line up. Outside of Faustino wines, we were invited into Pablo´s personal cellar, and I found a 1987 vintage and 100% Garnacha rosé to try. We visited the UNESCO buildings in the medieval village of Laguardia, and stayed in Logrono town, visiting the original birthplace of pintxos, aka tapas. We went to the best wine museum in the world, Museum Vivanco, and ate only at the best restaurants, including Michelin starred Tondeluna and Ikaro. We also went to the smallest village with a Michelin star restaurant in the world, Ventas de Moncalvillo in Daroca.

gourmet food to break up the wine tasting

After 4 days of having cava for breakfast, wine for lunch and wine for dinner, we were all wined out. It took a few days before the taste for wine returned, but so it did, and now, only for Rioja wines.

Kentucky Derby, wedding crashers and the south

I´ve dreamed to go to the Kentucky Derby ever since I started riding horses as a child. I heard it was an epic meet of the rich and famous with the drunken and pretty, some tens of thousands of people all coming to watch (some very expensive) horses run a mile or more for a lot of money.

in the grandstands at the Kentucky Derby

Hats and fascinators are a thing, and nearly every woman had some colourful decoration on her head, while most men atl east wore a handsome hat or colourful bow tie or suit. The Twin Spires at Churchill Downs have an infield and the grandstands, split into different sections. The most expensive box seats will cost more than $3000 per person, which isn´t much when people are betting $1000 on the winning horse of the Kentucky Derby, which this year, paid out 65-1, and walk away with more than $60,000 in winnings.

a paddle steamer sails between Indiana and Kentucky on the Ohio river

I spent the weekend in Louisville couchsurfing with an ex-military Trump supporter, and although we had our political differences, we became great gambling friends. He walked me to Jeffersonville, Indiana, another state I had never been to, or really planned on going to, but the views over the Ohio River from the Big Four pedestrian bridge were a memorable highlight.

the roadtrip hybrid

I had flew into Cincinnati airport to start this adventure, which I assumed would be in Ohio, but lo and behold I accidentally landed in Northern Kentucky and felt a sigh of relief when my rental car had been rented from the right airport. I planned on enjoying the warm, sunny spring time to road trip thru the south, since Louisville is considered the northernmost city in ´the south.´ My friend Stef from NYC came and we headed thru Kentucky, stopping at a friends in Lexington, and into Tennessee. She would be married a week later in Eastern Tennessee, and without any sort of real invitation, we had already decided we´d try to crash her wedding.

Eileen and James´wedding!

We couchsurfed when we could, and rented Airbnb´s for no more than $50 or $60 a night, and drove a hybrid Ford Fusion that cost $30 to fill and lasted 500 miles, so the expenses were few. We tried to splurge on food and drinks, but that was also cheap, and I was most excited about eating my $3.99 drumstick meal from Kentucky Fried Chicken, in Kentucky! It reminds me of Viggo Mortensen´s quote in the Green Mile: Kentucky fried Chicken! in Kentucky! whens that ever gonna happen? We ate a lot more fried chicken, from random other small chains I had never heard of, some with waffles, others with biscuits and gravy, and gained at least 2 kg´s in deep fried goodness.

the Lisa Marie at Graceland

We hit Nashville and Memphis, getting our full dose of country Music, honky tonks and soul music. We visited Graceland and boarded Elvis Presley´s private plane, the Lisa Marie. We took a steamboat cruise on the Mississippi river, with views to Memphis and Arkansas state, and drove over the bridge to Arkansas just to say we´d been there. But there wasn´t much there. Except that liquor store we stopped at.

Stef and I, after crawling thru some caves in Tennessee

We them drove through northern Mississippi and Alabama, meeting two of our loveliest hostesses. In Tupelo, we visited the birthplace of Elvis and stayed with a lovely woman and her two cats, who I´m sure I´ll see again as she´s been designated as my informal guide to Mardi Gras in New Orleans 2020 for my 33rd birthday. In Huntsville, we couchsurfed a mansion, with a couchsurfer and her parents, who cooked us an amazing meal and her mother took me running at the crack of dawn with her running buddies.

sitting on a draft horse with a western saddle is like sitting on a whisky barrel

Next we carried on back north, thru Tennessee, and did indeed crash Eileen and James´wedding in the romantic foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. We managed to visit a bourbon distillery, twice, and even a local winery in Kentucky. We spent a night in Asheville, beer tasting at Highland Brewery, couchsurfing with a crazy cat couple, who were really well meaning but actually allergic to us. Other spontaneous plans included caving at Great Mammoth caves and spelunking in Raccoon Mountains caverns, horse back riding in Kentucky and finding the trail of the Woodbooger – southwest Virginia´s own version of Big Foot.

the woodboogers!

We slowly made it back into Kentucky, just barely missing the opportunity to also visit West Virginia. Our last night was spent in Pikeville, where we ran into a crew of Kellog´s workers at a local bar, joining (and significantly strengthening) their trivia night team. After a week and a half on the road, we had hit 8 states, and I dropped Stef back off to Cincinnati airport (in Kentucky), before finally driving myself into Ohio. Stef had said it would be the armpit of America, and jokingly refused to set foot in the city, so my expectations were low, only to be blown out of the water by some incredible local hospitality.

I´ve definitely seen this bike before, at Burning Man 2009

I spent my last night with new couchsurfing friends, who I know I´ll see again (I´ve already seen one since!). I stepped foot on more than just the bridge to Cincinnati, trying my first taco turtle (so good!), taking a spin thru the nightlife, and getting pulled over in a topless BMW by a trooper (I was the passenger, not the driver, who didn´t get a ticket FYI). I was pleasantly surprised to find a Burning Man exhibit at the Art Museum. It was slightly more relatable than the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, where Taylor Swift´s presence came as a surprise (isnt she pop?) and I hadn´t a clue who most of the other artists on exhibit were. But being temporarily transported back to the playa, with snipits of Black Rock Desert to reminisce on, I realized that many of my travel experiences in the US were similar – culture shock, only slightly different, followed by total submersion. The south now has a special place in my heart.

Beautiful Northern British Columbia

I have two sisters that live in BC, and my older sister just moved to the north east corner of the province. Kristjana lives in Dawson Creek, which is a real place in Canada, and not the setting of Dawson´s Creek TV show. She´s on mile 0 of the Alaskan highway, only a stones´ throw away from Alberta, and the last week in April seemed a perfect time to explore her new hood. We took a small roadtrip to Grande Prarie, to attend a speakeasy Gatsby party… as one does, when in Alberta.

roadtrip Alberta

We took hikes thru bear country and wind farms, to frozen wateralls and the incredible overlook at Murray Canyon. We hiked near Tumbler Ridge and Bear Mountain Wind Park, without bear spray, but luckily enough we only ran into a wild Moose on the road home – the first moose Ive ever seen, alive. Unluckily, we also drive past 3 dead Moose, and I´m still confused how such a huge animal can be roadkill without a totalled car beside it.

Beautiful Northern British Columbia

Flying into YVR Vancouver Airport is one of my favourite flights – descending slowly into the lower mainland and landing right beside the sea (and a sunset over it, if youre timing´s right) offers spectacular views of the rocky mountains and snow capped ski resorts surrinding the city. You can easily spot the suburbs around Vancouver, and the westend where UBC campus sits, unmoved since 1908.

Icelandair flight 697 direct from Iceland to Vancouver

I didnt spend much time in Vancouver, and its surprising how few friends are still left in the city, leading unsettled lives. I may be the only one, but my younger sister has set some deep roots there with her own family. My grandma will be 90 this year, so I didn´t miss the chance to see her again.

mile 0

My oldest, longest friend Lisa had a new crumpet dog we could take hiking at Lighthouse park, and she´s a dear friend to me because she really makes me feel the passing of time and the value of friendship. While I stagnate as the solo backpacker forever popping in and out of people´s established lives, she´s now invited me to her second wedding (I went to her first, 12 years ago, and happily witnessed her divorce – he was a douche). I try to remember how we went from 9 year old girls riding invisible horses to grown up women going thru such adult lives… but it still seems like just yesterday we used to gallop around the woods in Surrey.

at Lighthouse park

I have kind of (tried to) grow up recently, digging some kind of roots in Reykjavik by buying my first apartment. But, strangely enough, it doesnt feel like home, since I basically just bought it as a place to keep stuff, my stuff, and the only apartment I could afford that fits my gorgeous grand piano. I dont feel like sitting still, even now, with an address of my own, so I´ll just keep visiting, places, people, and their lives, and as long as I´ve got friends and family elsewhere, I´ve always got a home in them.

Biking in Provence

Working for Backroads has been a rollercoaster ride, but the biggest perk is definitely Provence. With our head office and training happening every spring in Pernes-les-Fontaines, I have the perfect excuse to visit Provence in April every year. It’s the time of year when the weather is perfect, the lavender is about to blossom, and tourism hasn’t gotten busy so theres plenty of wine to taste and roads to cycle.

enjoing the Loire

I flew into Paris and visited a friend in Loire to warm up my bike butt, cycling thru the Loire Valley for some wine tasting and sunbathing. Then I was off to Provence to bike Ventoux, or atleast try…

its all about the kit…

There’s a kind of unspoken rule that cycling to the top of Mont Ventoux is part of the Backroads’ family right of passage – nearly everyone has done it, and they time themselves and do it again if they think they can get a better timer. I think the record in our community is 1hr36mins.

Kevin and I in Bedoin about to start our climb

I took a cool 3.5 hours, with lots of selfie stops and pee and snack breaks, but as the temperature dropped gradually with our ascent, the 1909m top was too cold to stay too long, so it only took 30 mins to fly 21kms back down to Bedoin. I was lucky to have Kevin with me, who had cycled Ventoux twice before, so he knew the best way and pep talked me most of the way up.

on the top of Ventoux!

I had all the right gear, thanks to Backroads, including a padded butt and a performance bike, so I didn’t even hurt the next day. I decided to celebrate the accomplishment with a little wine tasting in Beaumes-de-Venise with a couple of other Backroads friends, and finally learned how to use clip pedals. After that, I finally feel like Im qualified to be a bike guide… or atleast I can fake it til I make it since I look the part.