The Wilderness Expedition, by Hestasport

Every year I make time for Hestasport to do at least one riding tour in the summer. The highland trip we like to do together is called the Wilderness Expedition, for good reason – it takes place in one of the most remote highland areas of Iceland, crossing north over Hofsjokull glacier, bridging the gap between Kjolur and Sprengisandur mountain passes. Our ride started and ended in the horse capital of Iceland, beautiful Skagafjordur.

leaving Skagafjordur, under Maelifell mountain*

The impression of an Icelandic wilderness is like nowhere else on earth. There aren´t any big wildlife (unless you´re in the east of Iceland with the reindeer), and the chances you´ll see an arctic fox are slim to none, so its just you and the wilderness. There aren´t trees, so on a clear day you´ll see to the horizon and 360° around you across an immense expanse of mountains, deserts, highland plateaus and glaciers.

the desert highlands north of Hofsjokull*

It takes so long for the snow to completely fade in the highlands that the mountain passes don´t even open until late June or early July, and it already starts snowing again in August, so the tiny gap of a few weeks you can ride it is brief. We took our trip at the end of August, with incredible weather, and some of the hottest days I´ve ever experienced in the highlands. We only got a few drops of rain, not even enough to get into our heavy duty rain gear, and the horses held their shoes and no horse or rider got injured. By the first week of September, the tops of the glaciers had already been freshly snowdusted again and the northern lights started coming out, so we made it home in the nick of time.

the loo with a view; Ingolfsskali cabin and our A-frame toilet under the glacier*

From our week long ride with perfect visibility, we saw all three of Iceland´s biggest glaciers, ran into a few goose hunters, and sold some of our herd to Germany. We crossed multiple glacier rivers, thankfully all low enough to get over without swimming, although the current on Jokulsa eystri (the east glacier river in Skagafjordur) pulled a few of our herd far enough downstream to force them to doggy paddle over.

running into herds of wild horses*

After our wonderful trip, the Icelandic and German guides, Australian, Dutch and Swiss guests all parted ways. Only a couple of weeks later, I visited some of our tour horses at Bockholts-hoff Icelandic breeding farm south of Hamburg, hosted by the owner and breeder Silke Kohler. We tolted through a German forest and I couldn´t stop smiling at the cornfields and big trees – they were more exotic to me than anything we saw on the wilderness expedition!

*(C) All photos by Dorien Kaandorp

This Backroads Life

At Backroads, I´m called a leader. I much prefer chasing sheep on horseback, but that job doesn’t pay as well, and I’m deathly allergic to hay, so I’ll stick to Backroads leading.

Skaftafell National Park for a Backroads day

You can also call us glorified tour guides, where we’re capable of acting as babysitters or bus drivers just as well as we get to shine in the spotlight, but Backroad’s leaders are really one of a kind – a rare and spectacular breed of individuals that are capable of so much. There’s benefits to being an Icelandic leader in Iceland, but actually it means I get to spend extra time defending Backroads in Iceland, and doing extra work for the company since Im the local language expert and live here anyway, so I’m not really that special, on the Backroads global scale kinda measurement.

on Fjallsjokull glacier

The trips I lead are called multi-sport: we do sports, different kinds, one for every day. Its a 6 day trip, and we hike, bike, glacier walk, and sometimes, horse back ride. We go from Hofn to Reykjavik, in our Backroads vans, and are always atleast 2 leaders working together. We sleep at Iceland’s best hotels; Hotel Ranga and Ion Adventure hotel, to name a  few, and eat like kings and queens. It’s hard to stay fit, even as an active tour leader, since the food weighs me down, day after day, in addition to all the snacks we’re meant to offer guests, but really just end up eating ourselves, out of boredom, or guilt, or satisfaction, or all of the above… I don’t know.

biking around Thingvallavatn

The Iceland season is short, beginning at the start of June and ending at the start of September. I start and end the season, with a few weeks off in between, and our groups are anywhere from 9 to 26 people, almost always only Americans. They tip, so I love them, and speak English, which makes my job easy, but the few weeks I get off from Backroads to lead horseback riding treks are also a blessing. I may be surrounded by middle-aged German women, who were expecting a Chris Hemsworth kind of Thor as their guide, and barely speak english, but the horses are always worth it.

horseback riding in Hella

A couple of nights in the highlands, in mountain huts without running water or electricity, sharing bunk beds in one big room, and I’m immediately ready to go back to Backroads leading. My Fosshotel glacier room feels more like home than my own bed in Reykjavik does, and I’m not sure I remember what life was like before Backroads… *sigh*

my well-worn hiking boots at Hoffell

This Backroads life was meant to be, the dream job I never had and the perfect lifestyle to enjoy Iceland and traveling. If only my midriff agreed.

Hornstrandir

Hornstrandir has been on my bucket list ever since I moved back to Iceland, and one overnight visit to Hesteyri a few summers ago didn´t really cut it. I wanted to hike Hornstrandir, with everything I needed on my back, sleep in a tent, meet some arctic foxes, and see the green cliffs rise straight out of the sea. My friend Gudny was down too, had a week off, and the weather forecast was perfect, so we set off in the plumber car to the westfjords, where we´d take 2 days to get to Isafjordur town.

Hellulaug

From highway 1, we turned towards Budardalur and picked up an Icelandic hitchhiker, and his dog Saga. We stopped for a bathe in Hellulaug, close to the Bjarnslaekur ferry port, before ending our day of driving at Reykjafjardalaug. There, we had another dip, made more Icelandic friends, and camped for the night in the plumber car.

Dynjandi waterfall

The following morning we stopped at Dynjandi waterfall, did some grocery shopping and ran some errands in Isafjordur town, and boarded the 17:00 shuttle boat to Aðalvík. Gúðny chatted up the captain while I napped, until we arrived at Sæbol and decided to jump off there and walk to Látrar (you can be dropped off there since both stops are considered part Adalvik). We expected 7 or 9 km of hiking along the shore, plenty of time when the sun doesn´t set til 11pm, but it was more like 16km, since hightide means you have to take the up-and-over route along one of the sea cliffs, and detour into the valley around one of the rivers thats only 2m wide at the coast but much too deep to wade (or swim). We camped at midnight, met the neighbourhood fox, after running into a local summer house family, who told us where best to wade the river inland, and slept like babies in our tiny Decathlon tent.

starting in Adalvik

Day 2 brought us from Látrar to Fljótavík, over a highland pass covered in fog. The visibility was barely enough to get us from signpost to signpost, or between piles of rocks in a field of rocks, so even though it was also a 16km day, it took us all day to finally arrive in the right fjord. Once we were down from the pass, we ran into another summerhouse tenant, who told us where we should wade if we wanted to get to the Atlastadir campground, but we decided to go inland to the more private Glúmsstadir campground. The ground was damp but the view was gorgeous, and we had the place to ourselves.

helping out the ranger with signposts

Day 3 was slightly longer, more than 17km, from Fljótavík to Hlöðuvík, and the highland pass was wet foggy this time. We got damp thru our clothes and used the emergency shelter to dry our shoes and socks whiles we played games of cards and drank our rations of alcohol. We saw another fox, atleast 5 other hikers, and slept on the beach in a sanddune with two other tents pitched.

bays like this were an everyday sight

Day 4 was another 17km roughly, from Hlöðuvík to Hornvík, the main show, but the low clouds didn´t show us much of the seacliffs when we first arrived. Instead, we were greeted by a welcoming committee of baby foxes, still too young and playful to even notice us, and remained completely distracted by them and their antics.

baby Arctic foxes

We did, however, notice that the one and only ranger of the whole Hornstrandir reserve park system was not in, which was incredibly unfortunate, or unlucky rather, since we would only be spending a night there and her house was connected to the only flushing toilets we´d see all week, which were also locked. The door on the outhouse had broken, and with atleast 14 other people there, it got weird real fast. But we still had running water, and our cards, so we could cook, eat and play, and by the time we were ready for bed after a short hike around the fjord, the clouds miraculously parted and Hornvík mountain appeared before us, in all its glory.

the breathtaking colours of the moss in the highland pass

Our last full day of hiking would be the highest climb, getting over the 519m pass between Hornvík and Veiðileysufjörður. It was approximately 16km, in scorching sunshine, and though there were patches of snow at the top, there wasn´t a breeze or a cloud in the sky, and we probably got even more burnt from the snow reflection. We were to meet the shuttle boat between 5 and 7 pm at the bottom of Veiðileysufjörður, which sailed us into Hesteyri and Grunavík before returning us to civilisation in Isafjorður. There we went straight to the house “Husid” and ordered something hot and freshly cooked – I think I got fish and chips – and green and healthy (vegetarian Gudny got some amazing greens and vegetables) and a pint of beer. Such basic food and alcohol has never tasted so good, but we filled our bellies and gorged the whole while thinking, “the weather is still so nice… shouldn’t we go back to Hornstrandir and stay there a bit longer?”

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.

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.