Staff Ride 2019

I was hired by Backroads a year and a half ago and remember thinking, ´just get hired to go to Staff Ride!´ Well, 3 seasons of employment later, I realize Backroads was never just a job, but a lifestyle, and I´ve maybe finally figured out how to enjoy this Backroads life.

happy days with Backroads

Backroads operates in more than 60 countries, and has over 700 tour leaders, in addition to all the office staff, field assistants and other background magicians, so the corporate family isn´t small. The turnover is high, so people come and go, and the ones you know you rarely see, and you´re constantly fastforwarding friendships with strangers you work with intensely, for only a brief moment in time. You never know who you´ll see again, or when, but it doesn´t matter, since they all fill a niche part of your professional (and personal) life.

rest stop in Carovigno castle

Staff ride was pretty much the same; a group of old friends and new strangers, more than 400 of them, crossing paths, starting conversations we´ll never finish, meeting people whose names we´ll probably forget, but whose faces we know we´ll see again. You´ll recognise people and how they made you feel, even though you don´t know where they´re from, but we all share a common ground – the Backroads lifestyle – so we all relate, on some level or another.

one of the many beautiful coastal towns we biked thru

Staff ride 2019 was in Puglia, Italy, and it was more than I dreamed it would be. It was a mix of angst and excitement, with old and new friends, many more than you could count, and all the places and spaces were filled with new landscapes and rolling scenery from a bicycle. I´m not a strong cyclist, but it wasn´t (only) about the biking; it was about seeing and experiencing a place in slow motion, smelling and feeling it under your skin. The ability to stop anywhere for a photo, take it slow, sweat it out, and speed it up for the breeze you needed to cool back down. My butt hurts, not gonna lie, but every kilometer was worth it.

at the tip of the boot

We wined and dined, in historical towns and ancient castles, visited vineyards and citrus gardens, cliff jumped in the Adriatic, saw the ruins of an olive oil press and danced our hearts out in an all-white Pugliese dance festival. We skirted around the coastal towns of Bari, Monopoli and Otranto, and summited the hilltop towns of Ostuni and Carovigno. We overtook the town of Lecce for a night, and by the end of our 4 days cycling, most had covered nearly 380 km, others, over 450 km.

lunch at a Salento farmhouse

It was all a blur, a whirlwind of activity, culture, luxury and socialising. I can´t remember who I biked with where or when, but the conversations still resonate in my mind. If you imagine putting 400+ well-traveled, international, cosmopolitan, educated people together in the boot of Italy, all on the same itinerary, perhaps you can begin to understand why I thought this was always going to be the highlight of the job. The catch is that it happens every year, so the job is only going to get better, and staff ride changes location every year. It’s nice to know I get to work with Backroads in Iceland every summer and winter, with my regular visits to Provence in the spring, but the surprise of staff ride will always be the x-factor. If only my butt would agree…

Being Thankful in Canada

I´m thankful for Icelandair flying direct from Iceland to Vancouver all year round, especially since they cancelled direct flights to Kansas and I got to trade my one way ticket there for Vancouver. So, instead of a mid-west roadtrip, I got to go to British Columbia during one of the most beautiful times of year.

Vancouver

Instead of cherry blossoms and warm nights, there´s fiery red maples and crisp, cool evenings. The other trees are shades of yellow and orange, to match the pumpkins and Halloween season, while pine trees remain forest green, creating an orchestra of colours. The trees are everywhere, covering mountains, whose peaks were beginning to get dusted with early snow fall.

Beautiful British Columbia

I didn´t lose the itch for a roadtrip, so I rented a car from YVR and drove straight through all of BC. I started in Langley, where I met my 4 month old nephew for the first time, and carried on to Dawson Creek, where my older sister just nested in her new house. After breaking off highway 1 in Cache Creek, I drove the 97 past 70 Mile House, 100 Mile House, 150 Mile House and Prince George. From Dawson Creek, my sister joined and we carried on all the way to the Northwest Territories, driving nearly 500km of the spectacular Alaskan Highway.

stopping to snuggle domestic animals, since the wild game were so far away

I was thankful to visit the Northwest Territories for the first time, and we we´re so overjoyed by the first wild Bison we saw, only to realize there´s be herds of them roaming around Fort Liard, our base for the night. We hiked along Liard River and around Hay Lake, in hopes of a moose sighting, but dreading any bear encounters, since us rookies didn´t have any bear spray with us.

at Pink Mountain

We saw a bear grazing near the highway and a few more bison, along with some elk and even one coyote, but I´ll return to the Alaskan highway in hopes of a moose, or even a bigfoot or sasquatch, sighting. Pink Mountain town has a whole shrine to the sasquatch, and apparently he´s been sighted, and even caught before, in and around that area of the highway.

my sisters and my new nephew

On my way south, I stopped in Ashcroft, couchsurfed the back of a bakery, and made it back to Langley to snuggle my nephew, younger sister, and her mini doodle. Thanksgiving was coming up, and we hadn´t celebrated as a family for over 10 years, so it was time. There were pumpkins to gut and cook, pies to buy and a turkey to stuff and roast, and a dozen of my sisters friends came with other scrumptious sides. We had pumpkin ales, pumpkin spiced Bailey´s and an assortment of local Langley wines after some selective wine tasting in the area.

liquor tasting in Abbotsford

I enjoyed my days training for the 10km Turkey Trot run, held at Granville Island on Thanksgiving day. I finished my second motorcycle exam and rode a Honda 250 around Richmond and Burnaby when the weather was good, and hung out with my oldest friend.

Tandem in Stanley

I´ve known Lisa since we were only 9 or 10 years old, and she was getting married, so we cought up over lunch, went to her wedding dress fitting and then distracted her a bit from the upcoming big day by tandem cycling around Stanely Park.

Stanley Park lunch

Leaving Vancouver left me full of gratitude, for the season, the weather, the coast, the forest, and more importantly, friends and family. My grandma will be 90 next month, and she is the only grandparent I have left and the oldest person I know. She´s still got her wits about her and shares stories of growing up in Guyana that make me thankful for the places and people I grew up surrounded by.

Ending the Turkey Trot in Granville Island under the bridges on Thanksgiving day

The sunshine, the autumn leaves, the warmth of a sun in a sometimes wet and rainy place… the list goest on. I loved roadtripping to new places, and riding a motorcycle to places I had been a hundred times before, but never seen from the back of a bike. Running the 10km loop from Granville Island, over Burrard Bridge, past Science World and thru False Creek made me grateful for my health. And a bit of turkey and pumpkin pie never goes by unappreciated.

Big City hopping

Backpacking or roadtripping in Europe is something I haven´t done a lot, and started doing late in my travels, since the budget for a month in Europe can go a long way in Western Africa or Southeast Asia. Its also nice to visit Europe in the summer, which is prime work time, but early autumn or late spring is really the perfect time to visit. I got the excuse to go to Europe for 2 days of work, but extended it into a week long overland trip of big city hopping so I could try and justify my carbon emissions from Iceland and back.

Vor Frelsers Kirke

I started in Copenhagen, where I wanted to visit a dear horse-backriding friend Ditte, but that very same weekend she went to Iceland to ride so I borrowed her summer cabin for me and my favourite German riding friend. Michael had a bad knee so we didnt ride the Icelandic horses nearby in the town of Nykobing but we enjoyed the beaches of Sjaelland by bicycle and the weather was even good enough to barbeque dinner.

Copenhagen canals

We stopped in Copenhagen for a night to overlap with Ditte for one city bike ride and some touristic stops, and the next morning I flew to Hamburg, where I´d be meeting yet another horse friend Jana, for her birthday! We celebrated by scooting around town, day drinking and taking public transport ferries with roadbeers for a cheap booze cruise. We dined with some friends and sniffed some stuff that gave me a head rush, and the next morning we were finally off to ride. We rode Icelandic horses at a friends breeding farm called Bockholts-Hoff and rode thru a German forest on horses that had just arrived from Iceland. I wore my new yoga/riding/hiking pants that were a little too tropical for the rainy weather, but they must have been the reason the sun finally came out.

riding Icelandic horses in Germany

Next I was off to Rotterdam, via flight to Amsterdam and dinner with a Dutch horse friend, who rode those very Icelandic horses with Silke and I a few weeks earlier in Iceland. A short and sweet date before I checked into my Backroads hotel and was given a Backroads van to drive to Provence early the next morning.

Dijon

My ´work´ roadtrip took me 1,099km thru Holland, Antwerp and Belgium, then Luxembourg and into France. I drive past Moselle, Metz, Nancy, a bit of Champagne region, Dijon and spent a night in Beaune. Then I drove the Bourgogne trail, past the gastronomic capital of Lyon, along the Rhone and into Provence. We ended in Carpentras, where we keep our vans, and I spent a day bike touring thru Aubignan and Sarrians.

good thing our bikes have built in wine racks

Another day was spent traveling by train back to Paris, eating some moules frites on the streets of Montmarte, and left feeling like I had taken in an overwhelming amount of sights, tastes and culture from so many different corners of Europe. I had also managed to get a tan and feel the sun, so returning to a chilly fall in Iceland was very welcomed, especially since it was one of the first times Iceland was really experiencing a truly autumn season.

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.