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.

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Cycling Speyside: Whisky tasting on a Giant

Scotland was one of my first European countries that I visited last in 2006, but only went to Edinburgh and Glasgow. I remember not understanding a word of Glaswegian, so it seemed safer to fly into Edinburgh. Then Wow Air went bankrupt, 4 days before departure, so instead of flying for pennies thru London, I splurged on the direct flight from KEF with Easyjet. I loved arriving on a spring day, where a very young city rode bikes to and fro and lined up at McDconalds to buy tea.

Edinburgh

I made a friend last year thru Backroads, the young Scottish clone of Icelandic footballer Rurik Gislason. More than being beautiful, he was a biker, and helped me set up my home on wheels for a week-long Speyside bike tour. I stayed the first and last nights at his in Edinburgh, but spent 6 days, 5 nights cycling the whisky highlands on a beautiful blue Giant.

my home on wheels in Speyside

On the train north, I stopped for half a day in Aberdeen. I visited the beach and a friends favourite pub, filling up on carbs for all the cycling ahead. My tour started and ended at Elgin train station, where I cycled down to Rothes, a small village near Glen Elgin where I found a hostel, the Aqua Play bunk house. My first tasting and tour was at Glen Moray at 9:30 am, a bit early for most but perfect to start a day of biking. I carried onto Macallan, where tours were sold out, so I had a tasting and gourmet lunch inspired by El Celler de Can Roca, the three-Michelin starred restaurant in Girona, Spain. I stopped at Aberlour, before heading to Speyside camp where I was the only lonely soul pitching a tent. I had dinner and more whiskey tastings at the Highlander Inn bar in Craigellachie, home to John Dewar & Sons, where I made some more Scottish friends to reconfirm I was crazy to be camping this time of year.

cycling thru the highlands offered lots of highland cow encounters

I spent a night there before going to Glenfiddich. I rode the tourist train in and out of Dufftown (mostly to give my butt a break) to Strathisla Distillery, owned now by Chivas brothers and one of, if not the oldest, distilleries in Speyside. From there I rode thru Cairngorm park to get to Tomintoul town in the highlands, where snow from last week was still scattered on the sides of the road.

the weather was always on my side

Day 4 was spent riding back down, thru the Cairngorms winding along the River Avon, where traffic was finally at a minimum. The narrow roads sometimes made biking a bit unsafe, but the cooperative weather never made me doubt for a moment the trips perfect timing. I tasted at Glenlivet and Cardhu with a bartender friend I had made in Rothes, and went back to my tent at Speyside campground that night.

the stills at Glenfarclas

My last speyside distilleries were Glenfarclas and Cragganmore, and by this time, I felt I could have led my own distillery tour. Every distillery had their own niche blurb about their copper stills or water source, but all the whisky was excellent, all the tour guides knowledgable, but the increasing discomfort of heartburn from tasting whisky all day every day made me relieved the trip was near over.

pedestrian traffic while hiking to Arthurs seat

On the train back south, I went thru Inverness and the highlands, thru the most scenic landscapes pulled right out of a Game of Thrones episode. I returned my blue Giant in one piece, with all of my belongings still attached, but was most surprised by the fact that not a single drop of rain had fallen yet. To my pleasure, my last day in Edinburgh was spent hiking in the sunshine.

Downhill skiing in Iceland

Iceland is a deceiving name – we don’t have that much ice, or even snow, and our mild, sea-tempered winters barely keep anything white or frozen on the ground. People may think it’s a skiing destination, but we don’t really have mountains worth writing home about either, but a few big hills around the north are still definitely worth a visit.

Tindastóll, just outside of Sauðárkrókur, is now home to the longest run in Iceland, thanks to a new T-bar lift opening a couple of weeks ago. A few kilometers further north is Ólafsfjordur, home to arguably the shortest runs you can find in Iceland, but the only ski area that’s actually right in town, walking distance to the city center.

Siglo t-bar

Next door is Siglufjordur town, a great valley with four, excellently-planned t-bars. During easter, there’s even an apre-ski feel when the ski hut gets an alcohol license during the Siglo Freeride festival and thru til easter.

Dalvik has a couple of t-bars, but Id say, as a snowboarder who tried, the second one is only accessible by skiers. The view down to the sea and fjord is spectacular on a clear day, and you’re only a few km’s away from Akureyri. There you’ve got Hlíðarfjall ski area, which is open more days a year than other skislopes, with consistent snowfall and a large enough community to support its running costs.

skiing Dalvik is much easier than snowboarding

All of Iceland´s ski spots charge a similar price, with passes sold by the hour (around 1500-2000kr per hour) or day (4000kr). The 5×5 skiiceland.is offer sells you 5 days to 5 resorts (Olafsfjordur, Siglo, Tindastoll, Hlidarfjall and Dalvik) for around 20.000ISK. If you’re feeling really spendy, and prefer to ski privately, there’s always Deplar Farm hotel, where checking into the all inclusive resort includes all activities – even ski equipment and helicopter time to take you heli-skiing anywhere you please.

heli-skiing helicopter ready for take off at Deplar Farm

If none of that sounds worth it, then just take the short 20 min drive from Reykjavik to Blafjoll (if and when its open) where you can run up and down the same runs half a dozen times before getting bored, so long as you’re willing to wait longer for the lift up then it takes to ski down.

The Palm Jumeirah, take two

I went to Dubai six years ago, which made the UAE my 100th country at the time. Since then, I also visited Abu Dhabi, which was nearly as impressive as Dubai, but what Abu Dhabi has in malls and mosques, Dubai has in buildings and beaches.

the Burj Khalifa doesn´t even fit in the frame

I stayed on the very tip of the Palm Jumeirah, and getting there in a taxi is a bit indirect. First you head northwest onto the manmade, palm-shaped island all the way to Atlantis, before swinging around east and curving down south to the Aloft hotel. The coast on one side had windy, rough seas, with a perfect boulevard for marathon training, and inside the palm, we had a perfect, sandy beach with calm, blue water perfect for stand up paddle boarding.

catwalk at the Atlantis

I was there for a joint 60th birthday party, and we dined our way through some exotic meals. The food itself wasn’t the exotic part, but the locations – once we dined at Atlantis, strolling past an underwater world of sharks and Manta Rays, and another night at the base of the Burj Khalifa, currently the tallest building in the world. It sparkled in the night sky, and every 30 minutes, the lit up fountains danced to music to make everything even a bit more fantastic.

champagne and sunset cruise

The other parts of Dubai were extravagant in different ways. Traveling around the palm and into the Dubai Marina by yacht with champagne in plastic wine glasses made me feel like a rockstar. The Waterpark on the Palm was endless fun, especially for adults, where we could finally run and play and splash around like children and feel normal. There were enough slides and tube rides to fill a whole day without ever riding the same ride twice, and going on an overcast day meant there were no lines and no chance of sunburn.

the waterpark, under Atlantis, and me and my Freewaters

It rained twice in the short time I was there, which was also fascinating. For a desert city in the Middle East, it was hard to imagine where all the water for the waterpark could possibly come from, plus the showers and pools of every hotel. But perhaps that’s the charm of Dubai, a mysterious mega city where nothing adds up, but it doesn’t really matter, because it doesn’t feel like a real place; how can a real-life Disneyland for grown ups really exist?

Riding in Alto Ongamira Valley

One of the most common bucket-list trips for horse riders to want to take is Argentina. Whether its Patagonia or Mendoza, its not hard to sell your rider friends to make the trip to South America, as long as its for the love of horses.

cowboys and cowgirls

I had 4 such friends, and we went from gushing about all the places and ideas we had for an Argentina trip 2 or 3 years ago, to finally making it a reality and all meeting in Buenos Aires.

riders all aboard!

From there, we flew to Cordoba, and drove another 120kms to Alto Ongamira Valley, where our gauchos and caballos were waiting. We stayed in an estancia built over 100 years ago, by Eastern European immigrants, where rooms were still heated by wooden fire places and the buffet breakfasts and coffee hour every afternoon would have been enough food for the whole day, but 3 course meals, with Argentinian wine, at lunch and dinner were also swindled into every corner of our full tummies.

asado picnic

Somedays we had barbecues outside, roasted over open fires, and the food quality was impeccable. Red meats and red wines flowed equally generously, and one day we had a sommelier come in to teach us about wines from the region, with more than half a dozen wines to sample – sparkling, white and red, and 2 bottles of each. We were meant to take home a third bottle, but none of us had space in our suitcases after buying so many gaucho hats and gaucho shoes. Instead, we left it for the cook and hospitality staff, who never ceased to be amazed at how much 5 adults could drink.

sunset dips were the best

There was a pool to swim in at the Estancia, but the weather was quite cool, perfect riding temperature which had a freshness to the mountain plains I would never have traded out for more heat. We went down to Ascochinga one day for a polo lesson, and we had plenty of sunshine there, sweating under our colourful polo hats as we tried our best to swing those heavy polo sticks to actually hit a polo ball from the back of a cantering horse.

polo coaching at Pompeya

We spent most of our days on horseback, with a gaucho or two, and atleast 5 dogs. One dog was slightly smaller than the rest, and he would barely see over the tall grass or worn trails at time, but always insisted on coming with us, climbing even to the highest point at Condor Mountain.

Monty, the little-big dog

I felt pity for him, especially when he’d get a burr in his paw or pant up hills trying to keep up with galloping horses, so I made the excuse my legs were cold and held him on my lap for parts of the ride.

riding to the mountain

The riding was never the same, the scenery or the weather, but the horses were consistent – always excellent. Everytime I rode a new horse, I swore he or she was the fastest, and they always were. We raced moth days, and my horse always won, but maybe it was the foxtail on my cowboy hat that made us run faster – noone wants to lose their role as the fox.

this one was, really, the fastest

Buenos Aires, take three

I had been to BA twice before, the first time more than ten years ago at the end of a two and a half month South American backpacking trip, and the second time in 2011 before flying to Patgonia and boarding a ship to Antarctica. I remember loving BA and Argentina as a place I’d happily call home – the mix of horses, music, dance, meat, wine, European and Latin American culture too good to be true. I wanted to become a tango dancer and speak Spanish after my last visit, and both are more or less functioning today, so I felt warmly welcomed, especially in the late summer season when Carnival would also hit our neighbourhood of San Telmo.

Carnival street performer

We were 5 gauchos and gauchas, meeting in an Airbnb affectionately called ‘Bohemian Apartment’, only a few blocks from the San Telmo market. We ate steak and wine, chorizo and more wine, except for little Jana, our token vegetarian. We walked the entire neighbourhoods of San Telmo, La Boca, and the fabled cemetery de la Recoleta, and I ran a few kilometres every morning in a different direction to keep up with my marathon training. We saw a tango show, and I tango danced in the milonga that followed with men I never had to open my eyes for.

La Boca

We learned that Carnival in San Telmo meant buying pressurised soap foam and attacking kids in the street before they showered us first, and failed to get close enough in the crowd to really watch the main event – hordes of marching bands and beautiful, feathered and sparkling dancers paraded down Av. de Mayo street while we kept the eyes on the backs of our heads open.

the cobblestoned streets of San Telmo, and us, in our hats and shoes

Nearly all of us bought a cowboy hat, some cowboy boots, and two of us, a boina hat and alpargatas slippers in true gaucho fashion. The smell of leather in some shops felt like we had already walked into the stable, but we were headed northwest to Cordoba province for our 6 day riding trip, 120km away from the Cordoba airport to a slice of heaven called Ongamira valley.

dinner at Orilla with Mr. Trocca himself

After eating our way through the San Telmo Market and the wonderful kitchen of Fernando Trocca at Orilla, we also stayed a night in Palermo near the large, green parks and modern highrises that felt no different to upper eastside New York. The weather was perfect in March, and the constantly fluctuating peso was always cheap, so leaving was hard, but a polo and horse festival trip for Januaray 2020 (Festival de la doma y el folclore) is already in the works – you want to join?

Two Birthdays in Ireland

In Goa last year, during our yoga teacher training, Rbberta and I realized we had the same birthday. The only difference was a few years (it was her 60th), but us pisces were drawn to the coast of Northern Ireland to celebrate together.

Roberta and I with Nell

I stayed with Roberta and her husband Brian, and their dog Nell, in Bangor by the sea. Brian had two motorcycles and offered to take me on a roadtrip to the Mourne Mountains and Portaferry and Strangford, where we were hot on the trail of the Games of Thrones doors.

Brian at Bloody Bridge

Robertas daughter joined us for a night out to Portrush for our birthday dinner, where we dined on mostly meats, strangely enough, at the Neptune and Prawn. We walked it off on the strands near by, at Port Stuart and East Strand, and visited the nearby Dunluce Castle.

Dunluce castle on the Causeway Coastal Route

The major highlight, as a good tourist, was the Giants Causeway, where we walked over perfectly formed Basalt columns and admired the giant’s organ. The sun was shining and Northern Ireland couldn’t have been more green, and not to mention warm – it was over 15°c in February!

the Giant´s Causeway

Of course we had to do some yoga together, attending Michael´s and Tom´s classes. We visited Roberta´s second home, the Aurora Rec center where she goes every morning before the crack of dawn to keep her 7% body fat figure… she´s healthier than I´ve ever been and looks younger than me from behind! We swam laps and I played on the slides, trying not to lose my top.

yoga on East Strand

We had many, many birthday cakes, extending the celebration a day longer every time we could make some fun out of it. We had Nepalese food at a restaurant that put up banners and candles for us, and treated us to an entire cake and bottle of Prosecco. I had a slice of cheesecake every day, sometimes twice, and chocolate whenever I could, because I felt I deserved it as an older woman.

happy birthday to us!

The trip was a great success, and I even managed to keep up with my marathon training, believe it or not. We walked Nell, Roberta´s dog whenever we could, and even in the fog and rain, Bangor by the sea was more pleasant to visit in February than I could have imagined.

the harbour in Bangor