The Westfjords and Flateyri, the Christiania of the Westfjords

I´ve been to the westfjords before, and the remote, uninhabited Hornstrandir has been pulling on my heart all summer. The problem is, summer hasn´t really arrived yet, with snowfall in June and average temperatures of around 6°C around the westfjords. Hiking for days with enough supplies for a winter expedition didn´t seem appealing, so I put together a last minute road trip instead.

the old school in Ólafsdalur

I drove from Reyjavik to Isafjörður in one day with a french couchsurfer/hitchhiker I call Tony. We drove in pretty much a straight line, except for one detour to Ólafsdalur, since its location, in Gilsfjörður, is the fjord that separates the Western Iceland and Westfjords districts. We crossed into the Westfjords and then the real adventure began – hunting down hottubs, and hotdogs, while avoiding the hundreds of runners taking part in the marathon festival we didn´t know was going on.

the only windmill in Iceland, looking down at the westjords from Vígur island

I killed a baby Eider duck and still feel remorse over it, which wasn´t helped by the fact that two passing roadtrippers stopped be just to wail and scream about this baby duck they saw me murder in cold blood, as if I had done it on purpose. The road was supper narrow and swerving would have either put me into the ocean or head on into their car.

desserted farms turned summerhouses at the end of the world, Skálavík

After trying and failing to get into the country´s smallest hottub (its now locked by the landowners), not feeling enticed by Reykjaneslaug (filled with 30 middle aged Germans), we passed by the little pool on the side road down Mjóifjörður and realized someone had just started refilling it. We jumped in, but left before it was filled, in fear of having to make someone else share that magical space.

turf houses in Bolungarvik

I camped a night in the rain in Tungudalur, and picked up a new roadtrip companion the next morning at the Isafjörður airport. We spent the day in Bolungarvík, driving to the end of the road to Skálavík. I lost 5000ISK at the Bolungarvik swimming pool, but it was still worth it – their dry sauna is spa worthy.

colourful Flateyri

We spent the rest of our Westfjords trip unable to leave Flateyri. Once an isolated, lonely little fishing village, an avalanche in 1994 nearly emptied the settlement. It wasn´t until a tunnel was built in 1996 (connecting it to Isafjörður all year round in under 20 minutes) that people really fought to stay, but a few years later, real life was breathed back into this dwindling town.

Hálfdan catching the first cod at 23:00

Hálfdan Pedersen bought a house back in early 2000´s after scouting it out on movie production. There was a roof, but no floor, and snow fell in through the glassless windows into the bedrooms downstairs. He bought it for 5000kr. Now the home is featured in architecture books and home design magazines, and a trail of artsy and alternative lifestyle seeking Icelander´s have trickled in behind him.

(c) Hálfdan Pedersen

Huldar Breiðfjörð, an Icelander who walked the whole wall of China and author of ´Múrinn í Kína,´ has a summer house in Flateyri. A man named Eyþór, photographer and filmmaker, also runs the oldest continually open shop in Iceland in Flateyri. Dagur Sigurðsson, coach of the men´s German Handball European champions in 2016, is currently renovating a house there. Designer Kórmakur of Kormákur & Sköldur men´s clothing has a bunch of homes there, and other film industry and random health-food/dietician stylists are also in the mix. All this in a town of only a couple hundred people.

Fishing under a midnight sun in Önunda

We were going to visit Hálfdan and his family, and went fishing in the fjord to catch dinner with him on the only sunny evening I can remember in July. Hálfdan and his partners run and own the only bar in town, Vagninn, and his chef was throwing her 50th birthday party that weekend. We weren´t actually invited to it, but Linda P was, and making the comment that even Linda P is attending is always brushed aside as a joke. The weekend we were there, we shared Hálfdans design home with Linda Petursdottir, Miss World 1988, and that sealed the deal: Flateyri is really the place for anyone who´s anyone to be  in the westfjords.

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Iceland in the World Cup 2018

Iceland only formed their first men´s football association in 1947, three years after becoming independent from Denmark. Since then, a few talented souls have made careers as players abroad. The best known footballers were arguably Gylfi Sigurdsson and Eidur Gudjohnsen until 2018, but now a handful of faces from the national team have become international prodigies. Birkir Bjarnason has become the familiar face of 66°N; Rurik Gislasson has become a heart throb world wide, loved even by the enemy when Iceland tied Argentina in their first World Cup game; and Hannes Halldorsson the goalie definitely deserves MVP for that first game where Messi just coulnd’t get past him. Now, they have rewritten football history, becoming the smallest country to ever qualify for the world cup, and risen from being ranked 133rd to 22nd within FIFIA.

watching the World Cup games from Ingolfstorg

The World Cup hype started two years ago during the Euro 2016 qualification. We started by playing Portugal, Hungary and Austria. We tied Portugal and Hungary 1-1, but beat Austria 2-1 to make it into the quarterfinals. The newscaster reporting on the Austria game nearly lost hist sanity (and his voice) and this youtube video is definitely worth listening to: it gives you a glimpse of what every Icelander was feeling in that moment. Then we beat England 2-1, (that video is also a must see) another incredible victory, and France finally put out our unstoppable fire with a humbling 5-2 loss.

The World Cup in Russia 2018 crept up so slowly, but the hype never faded, and the planning and suspense was constant. 66°N designed special clothing for the games and Icelandair painted the plane into an Icelandic Flag that flew the team over. Both of our national airline carries made special schedules and flew direct routes to each one of the first three games. And a sea of Icelandic-blue fans flocked to the various stadiums in Russia to watch the games live, sing in the stands, and clap and cheer the ‘HÚH!’

The games started well: June 16 we tied Argentina 1-1, in an impressive display of defence. June 22 we faced Nigeria, perhaps with a bit too much offensive, underestimating their plans of kicking our butts 2-0. The Croatia game on June 26 was powerful, in fact, unbearable to watch, because we really had it. We played so well, and we had the chance to edge ourselves into the quarter finals if we had just sunk one of those goal attempts. It wasn´t until the last seconds of the game that we believed we weren´t going forward. However, watching Croatia make it to the final and knowing how we played them gives us all the more reason to be proud of Team Iceland and their first performance at the World Cup.

For the sake of Reykjavik´s very few reasons to congregate outside in the city centres and the prideful, social unity of a country over one sport we witnessed this summer, I sincerely hope we make it to every Euro qualifier AND world cup in the future. Thanks to the team for giving us such incredible representation, and even more reasons for tourists to keep flooding our talented little country.

Bocuse d´or Europe 2018

I´ve been following team Iceland in the Bocuse d´or competitions since 2011 and every other year, they place top ten in the European pre-qualifying competition. 2018 was no different, and chef Bjarni Siguróli, who was the assistant chef in 2011, placed ninth to qualify for the Bocuse d´or worldwide competition taking place in Lyon 2019.

candidate Bjarni Siguroli, Sturla Birgisson, Ísak Darri the commis, and Viktor Orn coach and bronze Bocuse winner 2017

The support behind each and everyone of Iceland´s chefs since Iceland started taking part, in 1999 with Sturla Birgisson, has been nothing short of amazing. As the smallest country taking part from Europe, we have edged out 13 other European countries in every pre-competition to qualify for the Mondial competition in Lyon every other year. In the finals, we are also nothing shy of top 10, and have placed on the podium twice with a bronze Bocuse to take home.

in the heat of the competition Bocuse Europe 2018

This year, the European Bocuse took place in Torino, Italy. Placed in the heart of Piemonte, the region itself was inspiring for any foodie or wine lover. Watching Europe´s best chefs and the cutting edge of haute cuisine on display for two days was motivating for anyone that took the time to watch – and thousands of people did just that.

beach day in Geneva

[Surrounding the competition is also a food, wine and kitchen expo – I went wine tasting from Hungary to Russia and tried all the newest technology to make the best ice cream or freshest espresso. I also made a small weekend trip out of the journey – there aren´t direct flights from Keflavik to Torino so I flew in through Geneva and out through London.

perfect timing to hit on the street food festival in Geneva

Both were worth it for different reasons – it was my first time in Geneva and I met three amazing couchsurfers and, by chance, two Icelanders that happened to be there the same day. I went to the beach, which I didn´t believe was actually a thing until I sat suntanning beside Lac Léman, looking across the lake to France. I drove through Mount Blanc to get to Italy, and flew home through London to pick up a new passport… I think its my tenth, and I´m never quite sure how many years until it fills up too, since I´ve only had two out of nine make it to their expiration date.

ÓX, the newest foodie hotspot in Reykjavik

The food scene in Iceland, especially Reykjavik, has literally exploded in the last eight to ten years. Since moving back to Reykjavik in 2008, I´ve first-handedly watched this little village of a city turn itself around from economic meltdown and exploit the infamous Eyjafjallajökull to its touristic benefit. We´ve turned the crises of other exploding volcanoes, incredible football victory in the European Championship, and more recently, the World Cup, into international fame, since all publicity is good publicity.

ÓX, the smallest restaurant in Reykjavik with only 11 seats

All corners of Iceland are explored now, all year round, meaning hotels are full in January and no more secret hotpots in the middle of nowhere are left untouched. While this comes with a small price to pay for us locals, I don´t know if I´d give it up for all the good tourism has done for us. Roads, historical buildings, deserted farms and countryside hotels are being fixed and built up at such a rate that our employment rates are virtually non-existent. With that comes a lot of employees from Europe and elsewhere, and every little piece of this puzzle is helping the culinary scene in Reykjavik grow up into a delicious food fare.

little bits of flavour explosion

ÓX is the newest addition, and already calling its own name to fame by being the smallest restaurant in Reykjavík. The publicity there is a bit special – the website gives no address, and even though you can now find a puddle of hot water big enough for two in the middle of a field off an unnamed road with a GPS point on google maps, ÓX isn´t findable. It´s a speakeasy kind of place, a back door secret entry through its sister restaurant, which guests only get directions to once they´ve booked one of the 11 seats for dinner.

Hafsteinn serving me from the chef´s table

There´s only one seating per night, starting at 19:00, open three nights a week (Thursday, Friday and Saturday), and you book a seat much like you´d book a ticket for the theatre. You enter the space, alone or plus one or two or ten, and become dazzled with the food, chefs, and cosy space over the next 3+ hours. There’s one price per person, 12-13 courses with drink pairings, for a little over €200, with vegetarian friendly and non-alcoholic pairings as an option.

the craft housebrew, amber rye beer, made in collaboration with @ladybrewery

I finally got to dine at ÓX two and a half months after its opening, and it´s not worth waiting that long. If every Icelander tried to eat at this restaurant, it would take 203 years for everyone to get a reservation with a capacity of only 1,716 guests per year. Rumors have it they may start opening Wednesday nights too, but why wait to wind up your senses and start your journey at ÓX? As the website explains, its time to “set foot on a mountain of senses, dive into an ocean of discovery; Iceland is your playground, consume your exploration.”

Bike Training in Provence

Provence is a place where the name alone triggers the smell of lavender and dreams of endless vineyards. I’d never been there before, but thats exactly what it was, plus some. There were meadows of red poppies as far as the eye could see, olive trees and strawberry fields, and picturesque villages on hill tops seemingly unchanged for hundreds of years.

Vines, poppies and an olive tree

I stayed between Carpentras and Pernes-les-Fontaines, visiting nearby Avignon, Monteux and Blauvac to name a few. Dinners included red wines from nearby Chateuneuf-du-Pape and freshly picked, local asparagus and artichokes. I stayed with 23 amazing individuals in our own Chateau, with a courtyard fit for a regal wedding, and we were all given performance street bikes that weighed less than my right arm to use as transport.

Practicing my French Duck face

During the days, we had a combination of hard and “soft” skills training, everything from bike mechanics to public speaking. We were on our way to become tour Leaders, not guides, since “leaders” implies we also have co-leaders and teamwork skills. We had to learn to be interested, not only interesting, and speak about our regions and activities with passion that couldn’t be staged. We learned how to use an intraweb interface that takes me back to the days of the internet in 1999 – its extremely mind boggling to filter through html links, url sites that cant be reached, tens of thousands of pages of information, and other trip resources without google.

My training group, aka Missy Elliot

Our group was mainly European, plus a few dual citizen North Americans, and about two-thirds female. Everyone spoke two or more languages, and the collective travel experience and skills in that group made all of us feel individually inadequate. I made some lasting friendships, and others I’ll never see again, and two of us didn’t even make it thru training and returned home with an abrupt end to their Backroads career.

Just another picture perfect Provence town

It’s funny how France keeps calling me back; first, a spontaneous backpacking trip in Bretagne over New Years, and now, the opportunity to get paid to learn about bikes and cycling in Provence. I thank Backroads for the opportunity, and can’t believe I’ve started making money while traveling to new places in my favourite countries.

The Maldives

Maldives, country #212, doesn’t have much land to call home. Little spits of coral reefs and raised atolls make up an island nation in the middle of the Indian ocean, and luckily one island is wide and high enough to land airplanes. When you walk out of Malé International airport, instead of a curbside pick up, theres a wharf with many boats parked and ready to shuttle you to your island paradise of choice.

the view of the Maldives from the plane

Many islands are completely private, with only one hotel or resort, and still the bedrooms are built on stilts, in various sized bungalows. Many have outdoor showers, private pools, and your own entrance to the sea, and others have jacuzzis and butlers to make your stay even more luxurious.

sundowners and tapas

The Maldives are popular for honeymooners and destination weddings, so make sure you’ve got a good excuse to be there if you’re just there for fun. Going alone seems like a great idea, but be wary of all the lonely looks you’ll get from the staff whose job it is to ensure you’re showered in hospitality nonstop.

home at the blungalow, comlete with a hammock and an infinity pool

Coco Bodu Hithi was home for five nights, for a price tag that could have housed me for 5 months in East Africa. But the dining options and wine list on this tiny island spit could have kept me happy for weeks if I was a rich girl.

the hotel lobby

The view from the bungalow was a turquoise blue sea, with coral reefs and colourful fish right below the step ladder. You didn’t even need to snorkel to see the sea life – I saw a sting ray, a coral shark, and a Mantaray just from the patio. Once I finally got in the water, I followed a green turtle grazing at the edge of the reef for as long as I could before he disappeared into the deep blue.

Coco Bodu Hithi island

It’s hard to have an impression of the Maldives as a place – I only met a couple of Maldivians, and set foot only on one square kilometre of land outside of the airport, but I can definitely recommend the Maldivian fish curry and Coco Bodu’s spa as things not to miss. I doubt I’ll ever see the latter again…

NorCal, take 2

I once called Oakland home, for a short time while studying abroad at UC Berkeley back in 2009. Places and people change over the years, but it still feels a bit like home when you know where to go and who to see. I visited Maya again, and this time her shrunken belly had turned into a breast-feeding, squinty-eyed baby named Chloe. Her dog Duke was the same old, happy to snuggle away any attention he still got in Chloe’s presence. Their orange and lemon trees were creaking under the weight of fresh citrus, so missing out on freshly juiced lemonade was’t an option.

the best way to wine taste Sonoma – by pedal bike

The weather was slightly warmer, and the surroundings more green, but northern California seems to be constantly in a state of transition from spring to summer. When the fog rolls in, you have no idea what season it is, but you’re still sure of where you are. Driving 20 minutes east into the hills slaps dry, desert heat straight into your face, and you wonder how the state is ever going to recover from a water shortage with all those millions of people living in a tiny bay.

the vineyard of bubbles, Gloria Ferrer in Sonoma Valley

This time around, the focus was food and wine. Chef Thrainn from Iceland was in, and we had our fill of Moroccan inspired cuisine at Mourad in San Francisco. We carried on to Sonoma, where our dinner at the Girl & Fig kept our bellies fed and finally filled with something other than wine. We spent a day wine tasting in Napa as well, where we lunched at Thomas Keller’s Bouchon (The French Laundry was too daunting). We rounded off our wining and dining with some craft beers at Faction Brewing and some hard spirits at Hangar 1 vodka, both located on Alameda island in converted WW2 hangars.

Hangar 1 distillery bar, Runway Spirits

Our last meal was at Bird Dog in Palo Alto, a modern, Asian fusion bistro style restaurant, with another couchsurfer and one my oldest friends from UBC days. We boarded our Wow air flight back to Reykjavik 2kgs heavier, and the sight of Keflavik in a dismal, rainy grey made me want to turn right back around to sunny California.