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Leaving Oslo is always a painful affair for me – and I’ve been finding myself in Norway once a year now, because I love it so much.

This time, I needed one more long trip to hit Star Alliance Gold, and Norway flights happened to be the most reasonable option for an extended Labor Day weekend trip. So naturally, I booked flights with a friend and hopped across the pond to the happiest country on earth (literally).

I hadn’t actually explored Oslo in at least three years – last summer, we spent about 12 hours there on our way out, and the year before, I came for a winter wonderland new years. But the last time I had a few days of decent weather in Oslo was 2013, so I was ready to see it all! After all, moving to Norway is a serious goal of mine, so I treat every trip as a research event.

We found the cutest two-bedroom apartment in the Grünerløkka neighborhood, and walked almost everywhere (unless we were crunched for time). When you arrive at the airport, take the local train to Oslo Sentralstasjon – seriously, it’s half the price of the Flytoget and only takes a few minutes longer – and stop by a Narvesson to pick up a bus pass. A 7-day pass costs 240 NOK, and you just have to tap it on a screen the first time you hop onto a bus.

If you ever head towards Oslo (or anywhere else in Norway – I’ve probably seen it), let me know! I’m madly in love with that country.

Eat

Villa Paradiso – bustling little pizza shop in Grünerløkka. Put your name in, and have a cocktail at the adjoined bar, Bar Bellini.

Egget Kafe – A cute little bistro overlooking a fountain with an egg in the middle. Catch a midmorning breakfast, and watch all the locals walking their pups!

Riwaj of India – great casual Indian spot with a warm, sultry atmosphere. Save room for dessert.

Hitchhiker – Asian tapas, located on the second floor of Mathallen Oslo (which you should also wander). Get 2-3 courses per person, and then get dessert.

Coffee

Stockfleth’s – this really ended up being our favorite coffee chain on the trip. We spent half a day working remotely, and I ended up taking a couple of bags of coffee home!

Tim Wendelboe – recommended by the New York Times, and a fabulous little roaster shop. No space for working, so just grab your espresso to go.

Drink

Kulturhuset – recently relocated to a large space on Carl Youngs Gate, this bar has several rooms on several floors. Check out the local beer selection, and cozy up in the library room.

Postkontoret – formerly an actual post office – this place is now a pizzeria, coffee shop, and bar. Grab an iced coffee and chat up some locals on the patio.

Oslo Mekaniske Verksted – once a mechanic garage (circa 1850), now a hipster cocktail bar with plenty of nooks and crannies and midcentury modern furniture to cozy up to – and a fireplace! They don’t have a kitchen, but you can bring outside food with you.

Escape

Oslo Opera House – this is usually everyone’s first stop as a visitor. How can you not? Snøhetta’s killer opera house is a stunner, and you can climb all over it.

Mellomkollen – taking the bus to a trailhead is the norm in Norway, and you can even take your dog. Based on the maps my hosts had, a ton of trailheads branch off from this area, and we even did some swimming in a lake. Pack a sandwich and live your best Norwegian life. Blue markers are for summer trails, and red ones are for winter trails.

Øya (Norwegian for “Islands”) – with your bus pass, you also get access to the ferries that cross the bay all day. You could pay $40 or more for a fjord tour, but taking the free ferries to the islands was a fun tip from our Norwegian friends. Bring a swimsuit on a warm day, and jump in to the water off Hovedøye – there’s nothing quite like it.

Ekebergparken – One thing I love about Oslo is that it can feel like you’re in the middle of an old world city one minute, and the next, you could be on the edge of a mountainside forest. Ekebergparken is one of those places. Wander the park, enjoy the views, and check out the weird sculptures all over the place.

Kleivstua – if you have access to a car and want to have a really, really good meal, head over to Kleivstua for a city escape, or just a fantastic fine dining meal for not a ridiculous price. We had 4 courses and several glasses of wine for about $160 USD per person. Get there early and take the 20 minute hike to Kongens Utsikt (The King’s View) – work up that appetite just enough to hike back down and relax in front of a fireplace.

“When I got to my gate at JFK, it was chaos — it was like we were already in Morocco.”

This was the response we got when we greeted my friend Lauren and asked how her flight was. To be completely honest, I had a similar experience on my flight from Brussels to Marrakesh.

I had a middle seat, which I don’t usually mind — short legs! There was an older, very glamorous Moroccan woman in the window seat, and she repeatedly tried to speak Moroccan Arabic and French to me. My modern standard Arabic was rusty at best, and French words just sound like Arabic words I simply do not know… so we quickly gave up on communicating.

But when my aisle seat companion arrived, she was a tiny young woman with a toddler — and before I knew it, she just handed me her baby while she got situated. And right before landing, the woman in the window seat made a phone call in Spanish (yes, mid-flight), and we realized we had a common language after all. She invited me and my two girlfriends to stay at her oceanfront home in Tangier.

This is Morocco.

Marrakesh is a loud, bustling cultural capital awash with pink clay — meant to keep the buildings cool and the light unblinding. The streets are really just alleys with names, and it’s a city of juxtapositions that feel comfortable and unnatural at the same time: Porsche SUVs  and donkey carts loaded with oranges share the roads, and in Djemma al-Fna, a cobra handler will put a snake on your neck no matter how hard you protest (in Arabic, French, and English, because that’s how we roll).

The Lonely Planet describes Fes as an assault on the senses, but Marrakesh has its own aggressive personality, too. Wherever you go, the fumes from motorbikes will invade your lungs — but then you’ll pass by a French bakery, or a fresh orange juice cart, and you forget about the fumes for a few minutes.

In the souks, the shopkeepers will pull you in and pour argan oil into your hands, and then open up tall glass jars of blocks that look like soap, inviting you to smell every apothecary glass in their shop. Tagines bubble over open flames, and butchers shoo kittens away from their windows. Someone almost always yells “NO PHOTOS”  at me as I capture moments in the souk — the lantern shops are the most mesmerizing.

I turned 30 in Marrakesh, with two of my closest friends, who not surprisingly, have more in common with each other than either of them has with me. We arrived in Marrakesh to a torrential downpour, and ran through the streets of the old medina in search of our riad.

Riad, in Arabic, refers to a large building with no exterior windows, but an interior courtyard — something that keeps the noise of the city out of the home. Some riads are restaurants, some are mini hotels, and most are both. All of them are simply beautiful.

Marrakesh is the perfect introduction to Morocco: aggressive peddling to tourists, souks that connect reality to what Disney portrayed in Aladdin, and plenty of rooftop restaurants and cafes to pique your interest with Moroccan food. But beware visiting only Marrakesh — because there is so much more to Morocco, and Marrakesh is simply the epicenter of all Moroccan tourism. It claims to be the center of all culture in Morocco, but if there’s anything we learned on our two week road trip throughout central and northern Maroc, it’s that Marrakesh was merely an introduction to what was a deluge of Moroccan history, scents, politics, and culture.

In all, go to Marrakesh — but don’t let it be your only stop.

Have multiple meals atI Limoni. We did.

Sleep and relax at: Riad Lena. I would stay there a million times again.

Buy a pool pass for: Palais Namaskar, or go with the classic, La Mamounia. Pro tip: reserve your day pass in advance, because they were sold out the whole time we were in Marrakesh.

Escape the city life for: Essouiara. Take a luxury bus from the Marrakesh train station, and spend the day wandering the seaside souks.

 

Tulum’s been on the hot list for several years now, and there’s a good reason why. It’s the ultimate place to relax on the beach, dine at incredible restaurants, and admire a minimalist beach chic design aesthetic. And there are many, many ways you can do up Tulum – it can easily add up to a pricey trip, but at the same time, you can explore Tulum and the Mayan Riviera on the cheap. And that’s really how I prefer to do Tulum!

To be completely honest, I’ve never been able to convince myself to fork over the cash for a room in one of Tulum’s boutique beachfront hotels… because even when you don’t do Tulum to the nines, it’s a pristine beach with great food and plenty to do. Here are my pro tips to getting the best value out of every dollar you spend on a trip to Tulum.

Where to Stay — Tulum Pueblo vs. Tulum Beach

I was an early adopter to the Airbnb scene – and the first time I used the website was actually to visit Puerto Morelos, a town about an hour north of Tulum. We visited Tulum for a day trip, on a recommendation from our host, back in 2011.

Tulum is really one city, made of two separate communities. There’s Tulum Beach – it’s what you’ve read about in Conde Nast Traveler, on DesignLoveFest, and in the New York Times.

Then, there’s Tulum Pueblo, which is less luxurious, a little rough, and much cheaper. I prefer traveling on the more adventurous side, so when I visit Tulum, I like to book an Airbnb in Tulum Pueblo – there are so, so many great options for luxe apartments and villas when you expand your search from the beach areas. Tulum Pueblo is about a 10-minute drive away from the beach areas (check the map above!)

Staying in Tulum Pueblo

Pros: better value for per dollar, and the ability to get a glimpse of what Tulum is like for people who live there – cheaper, less touristy, and easier to use as a jumping off point for other adventures on the Mayan Riviera.

Cons: not walking distance to the beach, dirt roads, and the need to rent a car. Related to that — dealing with parking when you go to Tulum Beach.

Staying in Tulum Beach

Pros: walking distance to restaurants, bars, and ruins. Posh hotels and wellness retreats, no need to rent a car

Cons: Expensive, boujie, touristy.

Real talk: If you’re someone who really values exploring and adventuring in your travels, then finding a nice Airbnb in Tulum Pueblo is probably going to be a great option for you. But if you’re someone who likes the luxuries of boutique hotels and the convenience of walking to dinner, then Tulum Beach is probably a better value!

Alas, I have never been much of a luxury traveler – I swear by Airbnb, and when I travel alone, you’ll probably find me in a hostel, taking swigs from a bottle of rum, with 5 new traveler friends. So this is my guide to Tulum on the cheap: what’s good, what’s expensive, and what’s worth it. If you haven’t done Airbnb before, and think I’ve sold you on it, please do use my link for referrals!

Where to Eat

Beach Fancy: Hartwood

You’re likely to read and hear a lot about Hartwood. I had a fantastic experience there, but I have several friends & colleagues who’ve come home to tell average tales of food and service. I say it’s worth a try, as it’s pretty affordable for a nice meal (about $45 per person, with a drink or two).

What’s notable about Hartwood is the minimal electricity – no joke, the small generator they have behind the restaurant is really only used for lighting. Every day, they purchase the day’s ingredients from a market in Valladolid, and put the catch on blocks of ice (all transported in by a local taxi driver). It’s pretty cool.

To go, either email in advance for a reservation, or get in line on an early afternoon to get a reservation for that night. Highlights from my meal – mixed ceviche, pumpkin empanadas, and a papaya salad that was to die for.

Pueblo Cheap: El Camello

The first time I went to Tulum, five years ago, a friend and I asked our taxi driver where we should eat in town. He sent us here. It’s a legit & local ceviche spot. Use perfect or broken Spanish, and unless there’s a whole bunch of you, get the small portions. They’re huge.

Other options:

Casa Banana — I’ve had drinks here. They were fantastic.

Gitano — cocktails were fantastic, and dinner was alright. Go for the drinks, the people watching, and the open air disco ball atmosphere.

La Zebra — lovely brunch and beach lounge spot.

Posada Margarita — I haven’t been, but everyone I know said the food was incredible.

Literally any beachfront spot with a bar — it’s all good. Live your life.

What to Do

Las Ruinas

Tulum’s known for it’s cliffside Mayan ruins, which are really cool to explore. It costs about $6 USD to enter the park, and you can walk around all the building structures. On the ocean side,  there’s a view point with stairs down to the ocean, where the waves crash against a little beach cove. Make sure you bring your swimsuit and some drinking water — this place gets hot.

Cenotes

The Yucatan Peninsula is known for its incredible sinkholes — in this part of the world, they’re called cenotes. Though there are several pretty close to Tulum itself, my personal favorite is hidden in the jungle near Puerto Morelos, about an hour or so north of Tulum. Drive yourself in a rental, or hire a taxi to find Siete Bocas — all the locals will all know where it is. Entrance fee is about USD $20, and it’s well worth the price. The cenote has six openings (there used to be 7, but they collapsed 2 holes into one giant one). Some have stairs for accessing, and others require a leap of faith! Say hi to Maria, and practice your Spanish. Bring a lunch and relax a bit.

Snorkeling off Playa Paraíso

Just south of las ruinas, you’ll find a beach that’s mostly used by the locals — a couple of beach bars with cheap cervezas and some bachata music set the scene. If you’re as lucky as I was, a local will offer to take you snorkeling in one of the boats on the beach. Pick up a six pack of Sóls at the bar, and hop on the boat to check out the reefs.

Siam Ka’an Biosphere Reserve

Also further south of the ruins is a huge wildlife reserve — to get there, you can either continue driving down the Tulum Beach road (and be prepared for a dusty, long, dirt road). Or, you can Enter through the town of Muyil, from the main Cancun highway. If you enter through Muyil, you can take a boat tour for about USD $45 and hopefully see birds, dolphins, and sea turtles! We explored a bit through the Tulum Beach road, and unfortunately didn’t see anything — but I’ve heard great things from people who have made a day trip out of it.

“Have so much fun — Cuba is a dream.”

That’s what a girlfriend texted me in the 48 hours before I left for Cienfuegos, as I was frantically tying up loose ends on some work projects. I was less worried about abandoning my team for a couple of days than I was about going to this place I knew almost nothing about.

I hopped onto a flight deal from American Airlines months ago, and notified a few girlfriends who had expressed interest in going to Cuba about my plans. Within two days, they miraculously committed, bought tickets, and were pumped for the trip – which, as many of you know, rarely happens when you’re trying to rally commitment out of friends for travel.

So, somewhere within that crazy work schedule of mine, I planned a three-day trip to Cuba for four women. It wasn’t ideal, but you know how I feel about flight deals… and, to be completely honest, it was absolutely incredible nevertheless. Like most of my trips, I wanted to see more than just one city – so we road tripped it from Cienfuegos, to Havana, to Varadero, and back to Cienfuegos. And this is what I learned.

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1. Cuba is a dream. And… it’s huge. Go for at least five days.

The hardest part about our trip to Cuba was how little time we had to wander. I can’t speak for everyone that was with me, but there was never a moment that I was ready to move on from. I initially allocated about 12 hours in Havana, with my focus being on the beaches and the views on our drives.

Boy, I was wrong.

Havana was teeming with excitement and an infectious energy that I could. not. get enough of. Within two hours of being in Havana, I knew I’d need to plan a trip back. A moment that stands out was our walk to dinner – from the Edificio Focsa, our casa particular, to our paladar for dinner, La Guarida. Over our shoulders, the sun began to set through the streets of Havana, and we got a glimpse of the city in the heat of the night: kids playing soccer in the street, teenage romance, and the overall atmosphere of Havana letting loose once the sun goes down. Salsa music played from open air windows, and a few puppies had a barking conversation from opposite balconies.

I tried to soak up every detail, from every stranger that yelled hello to us obvious tourists, to the visual of the steam that rose from the streets when it started to drizzle.

Side note, Cubans seem to have figured out how make cat calls genuine compliments, as opposed to creepy comments we scurry away from. Every time some guy yelled “HOLA GUAPAS,” Kristen and I would look at each other and say something to the effect of “Ugh! It’s so nice for someone in the world to finally appreciate all of this” — while motioning our hands towards our faces, of course.

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2. Cubans are the friendliest people in the world. Befriend them.

Spanish is a must in Cuba – unless you’re going with a guided tour group – and even the feeblest attempts at broken Spanish will help you make some new friends.

Crime is also ridiculously low in Cuba, so the chance of you getting robbed is slim. Scams, however, are common – so don’t be gullible, or prepare to be flexible with your cash.

For the most part, we found it difficult to walk down the street without making new friends – strangers were incredibly helpful and genuine with helping us navigate, and taxi drivers would write down their full names, phone numbers, and addresses for us, inviting us to dinner in their homes for whenever we return to Cuba. One morning, I was on the hunt for about 10 cups of coffee, and we stopped in a makeshift café, located in an abandoned playground. Ernesto (above, left), who owned the café, didn’t have coffee there, but he had some at home, so he disappeared into his own kitchen, and reemerged with four Cuban coffees. This type of hospitality is the norm in Cuba. And… I’m obsessed with it.

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3. Don’t stay in hotels. And maybe… skip Varadero.

I cannot begin to describe the contempt in people’s voices when they reacted to us saying we were going to Varadero – to the people we met in Havana, Varadero is not Cuba.

One of the realities of visiting a communist country is that the people don’t have much – so it’s best to not wave luxuries in their faces. While there’s no denying the pristine beauty of Varadero, it’s not exactly what I’d call an authentic Cuban experience. To be completely honest, our day at the Melia Las Americas — while absolutely lovely — didn’t feel any different than a day at a resort in Cancun or Playa del Carmen.

If you really, really want to get the whole resort experience, then by all means, go to Varadero — but if I could do anything from my trip differently, I’d either skip the beach experience entirely, or look into some less touristy options here.

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4. Go dancing.

In college, I went salsa dancing once or twice a week – and to this day, salsa dancing is one of my favorite things to do. A life goal of mine since then has been to go salsa dancing in Havana… so there was absolutely no way I was going to skip that while we were there!

After dinner, we hopped in a taxi and asked for all of his recommendations on dancing on a Havana Friday night – and he said Miramar, a neighborhood on the western side of Havana, was the place to be. But since we were in central Havana, Fabrica de Arte came in for a close second. Fabrica de Arte was featured by Anthony Bourdain, and I didn’t expect it to be as awesome as it was. Half art gallery maze, half night club, half patio hot spot – Fabrica de Arte was filled with Cubans and tourists alike, dancing, chatting, and admiring some provocative artwork. Definitely spend a Friday or Saturday night here, and catch a live salsa band. Dance with the locals.

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5. Plan the basics in advance – and don’t count on a schedule.

Like I’ve mentioned before, it was really hard to stick to even the most flexible of schedules. A few weeks ahead of your trip, schedule your Airbnbs and make reservations at the popular paladares, but outside of that, the only thing you should plan is to not have a plan.

One of the things I loved about our time in Havana was that whenever we had our sights set on one specific thing, we found three other things along the way that were worth stopping for. Whether that’s ducking into an artists’ gallery in an alley, or stopping for a late lunch on a breezy patio to listen to two guitarists sing Guantanamera – every spontaneous moment was an adventure worth savoring.

Also, budget how much cash you want to spend, and then double it. I ended up being short on cash, partially because of an unexpected hotel expense, and partially because I ended up covering more than I budgeted for our car rental deposit, but you’re better off with extra cash than none at all.
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When it comes to travel, I feel like I’m making up lost time.

Like many families, mine didn’t travel much – my dad worked hard and loved many things. Namely: fly-fishing, saving money, and any excuse to not shower for a few days. So, with the exception one absolutely heavenly stint to Hawaii when I was 16, my travel experience was mostly concentrated on High Sierra backpacking and non-organized camping areas surrounding a sleepy little town named Bridgeport – trips I did not appreciate back then as much as I do now. Sixteen-year old Sarah would have laughed in your face if you told her she’d spend 2 weeks hiking and road tripping through Norway when she turned 29.

That being said, some of my fondest memories are from family road trips to Yosemite, or trolling flies from the edge of my dad’s canoe. But, I went to private school, and was surrounded by people who had the chance to travel farther and with a little more luxury. I was always jealous growing up, but now, I’m grateful for seeing so much of the US when I was a kid. As an adult, I’ve been able to take advantage of some incredible opportunities for seeing the world.

These days, I’ve prioritized travel. I’m single. I love my job. And my company has an unlimited vacation policy. Why not get away?

There was a moment earlier this year, when Emily and I were casually walking in between the European and North American tectonic plates in Iceland. We were constantly awestruck by the beauty and individuality that Iceland had to offer – and she brought up the concept of acknowledging the differences between travel and vacation. Her paraphrase was that vacation rejuvenates the body, while travel rejuvenates your soul. This idea hit a note in my heart.

Nothing against vacation here – y’all know I love a good beach read and pleasantly buzzed 48 hours away from the office. And there’s absolutely no reason to think you can’t have travel and vacation in one trip. But being aware of the difference has enhanced my own experiences, and has helped me do my part in an attempt to leave no trace on my travels.

What sets travel apart from vacation

Perspective, perspective, perspective

 One of my favorite things about travel is getting to meet people who experience the world from an entirely different point of view. Whether it’s because of the system of government, what the climate is like, or the way people interact with each other, exposing yourself to other cultures can help open your mind to other opinions and perspectives.

Every time I leave the US, I try to talk to at least a few strangers. They could be locals or other travelers – but the point is to get a tiny glimpse of what they’re passionate about and what their lives are like. Befriending other travelers helps me keep an open mind… and in the process, I get to make some amazing memories, too.

Blending in

Nothing kills me more than being in a foreign place and seeing a group of loud American tourists, not even trying to blend in – it’s embarrassing to be compared to the tourist fulfilling every stereotype of the obnoxious American abroad.

Dress for the weather, and do some research before you get there. Is the culture more conservative, or is it on the sassier side? Do you speak the language? If not, learn the phrases you need to know to ask for help in English, or buy a picture book. If your voice carries, talk in a lower voice than you’re used to, to draw less attention. And more important than any thing else: be aware of your surroundings. Knowing your environment and your audience can help you avoid some death stares from locals or other travelers.

Being open to unexpected adventures

If there’s anything I’ve learned in the past few years, it’s that packing too much into a trip abroad is a recipe for disappointment – especially when you’re sharing your trip with others. My best trips have come out of planning where I’m sleeping each night, but little more than that! Have a few priorities, communicate them clearly, and be open to substituting items on your to-do list for other things that might come up along the way. You never know what could happen.

For example — many people travel to Iceland with the sole purpose of seeing the northern lights. But what many people don’t take into consideration is that the northern lights depend on variables that you, as a human being, have no control over: weather, moon phases, moon set and rise times, and solar activity. If you plan a trip to Iceland solely to see the northern lights, there is a huge chance that you’ll leave Iceland disappointed. But Iceland has 4 million other (and sometimes more) spectacular things to offer — so flexibility is key!

Being open to adventure is less relaxing, but can also be incredibly fulfilling. You might need a vacation from your travels, but if you come back from travel completely fulfilled, taking an extra day or two to recuperate is 400 percent worth it.

“Are you insane?”

That was how my friend Åse (pronounced “oh-seh”) reacted when we divulged our Norwegian road trip itinerary to her. We were just over halfway through our trip when we met her for what’s arguably the best restaurant in Bergen – Åse’s kitchen table, in her waterfront apartment.

With a handsome man at her side and a very cute, very serious baby on her hip, she was just as enchanting as the last time I saw her, three years prior. She is an incredible cook, and highly skilled at pushing food on her guests, no matter how many servings they’ve already consumed. And when dinner’s over, there is dessert. And leftovers. And extra snacks for your hike the next day.

We gladly accepted.

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Åse adores Bergen through and through, similarly to the way a born-and-raised New Yorker adores New York City: simply and utterly perplexed by anyone who would choose to live elsewhere. She even has me sold on the city – and I’m not exactly the biggest fan of rainy weather.

I agreed to move there if she found me a husband. To that, she responded: “Challenge accepted.”

I’ll be waiting for the notice when she’s found him.

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The two weeks I spent road tripping through Norway were easily two of the best weeks of my life. From Oslo, we drove north and west: with our first major stops in Geiranger and the Atlantic Road. From there, we hit Trondheim, and then powered through Trondelag and Nordland to Bodø, where we collected Silje – the woman who sparked my Scandinavian obsesseion. And thus began a ladies’ weekend in Lofoten (pronounced loo-foo-ten).

Lofoten is easily the most beautiful place in the world, in my eyes. Sharp, spikey mountains rise up from cerulean blue waters, and each horizon is dotted with little red fisherman’s cottages – rorbuer, in Norwegian.

Three tough hikes, four breathalyzer tests, and one mountaintop concert later, we all found ourselves aching to stay. At a bar, we were scolded for only giving ourselves three days in Lofoten. And I was finally in a part of the world where telling someone our nationality left both Norwegians and other travelers puzzled – what the hell were two American girls doing here? Nevertheless, we stayed out drinking with a German, a Swiss, and a Scot until two in the morning, only to realize that we’d have to hit the road at 4:30. Luckily, I sobered up in time to drive.

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The second half of our trip flew by in what felt like a matter of minutes — except the hike to Trolltunga… that happened very, very slowly. But a night in Stavanger and one last night in Oslo let us appreciate Norwegian cities in all their glory: walkable streets, stylish inhabitants, and architectural blend of traditional and modern design. On our last night, Silje and Greger brought us to Pjoltergeist, a spin-off by a Michelin-star chef, boasting a creative Icelandic-Japanese fusion menu. A handsome Norwegian man cracked jokes at our table in English, and yet again, I fell a little bit more in love with Norway. I’m not quite done with that country, and I’m not quite sure I’ll ever be.

Itinerary details below.

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Itinerary:

Day 1: Fly into Oslo. Drive to our 200-year old cabin in Fossberg.

Day 2: Drive Gamle Strynfjellsvegan, a beautiful tourist route along glacial valleys. Continue to Geirangerfjord, where we lucked out with incredible weather, and kayaked to the Seven Sisters waterfall. Drive further to our waterfront airbnb in Stordal, and eat burgers at a fast food joint on a fjord.

Day 3: Detour to the Atlantic Road (worth it, if the weather is good). Continue on to Trondheim. Commence Emily-Sarah Trondheim bar crawl.

Day 4: Long, very scenic drive to Brønnøysund, where the waters are an incredible turquoise blue. Hike Torghatten, a famous rock formation with a cave that opens up to a view of the islands and the Norwegian Sea.

Day 5: Long drive to Mo I Rana, where we stayed in a haunted hotel.

Day 6: Hike to Svartisen, a rapidly melting glacier. Drive to Bodø, pick up Silje, make her teach us how to count to twenty in Norwegian over pizza and beer.

Day 7: Ferry from Bodø to Moskenes, in the Lofoten Islands. Hike Kvalvika Beach, and drive to Henningsvær, our home for the weekend.

Day 8: Attempted to hike Svolværgeita – actually hiked to Djevelporten, which translates to “The Devil’s Gate.” Immediately throw out running shoes. Go as a group to a sporting good store and purchase legit (matching) hiking boots.

Day 9: Hike Festvågtinden for a Sondre Justad concert. Lots and lots of climbing.

Day 10: Drive back to Moskenes to catch the ferry to Bodø. Fly from Bodø to Bergen. Dinner in Bergen, and drive 3 hours to Odda.

Day 11: Hike Trolltunga. PTFO.

Day 12: Drive to Stavanger. All of the exploring. All of the coffee. All of the cake.

Day 13: Drive to Kvinesdal, sleep on a farm.

Day 14: Drive to Oslo. Exploring and dinner with Silje and Greger.

Day 15: Fly out of Oslo. Commence clinical depression as we return to the US during election season.

When we got off of the plane in Reykjavik, I had no idea we’d be spending so much time in Iceland’s hot springs. Before my first trip, friends and acquaintances had mentioned hitting up every swimming hole possible, but we just didn’t have the time in November — five hours of daylight isn’t a lot! So in March, after spending one morning at the Blue Lagoon, and another evening at Fludir, we decided we’d be in hot springs every damn day. And for the next day, I had my heart set on Seljavallalaug.

Note: yes, I can pronounce that word. It took lots of practice, but I’m now confident that I’ll make a great Scandinavian some day.

Anyhow, Seljavallalaug is one of Iceland’s oldest swimming pools — built in 1923 to teach locals how to swim — and it’s kept up entirely by local volunteers. So if and when you visit, I cannot emphasize your duty to leave no trace. Places like these will only last as long as we can take care of them.5 I can say with confidence that the time we had at Seljavallalaug was by far my favorite part of our trip.

Seljavallalaug, Iceland // Photo by Sarah Gerrity

We had spent most of they day at site after site — starting with Seljalandsfoss and Gjulfrafoss, where everyone was struck by their first moments of “ho-ly shit, what planet am I on” awe. The landscape transformed with almost every curve of the road, and we met other travelers, ranging from the very handsome, Czech law student who helped us not get lost on the road to the plane wreckage, to the recent Santa Barbara grad, on his fifth day of a year-long solo travel adventure. Seljavallalaug felt like the right way to end an incredible day.

There were a few minutes that we had to ourselves in the pool, right before the latter traveler from Santa Barbara stumbled upon us. We mostly savored every one of those moments, because there is nothing more beautiful than being in a warm pool, surrounded by mountains, enveloped by clouds and lightly falling snow — with the only soundtrack being falling snow and the slight trickle of water from the hot spring to the pool.

Seljavallalaug, Iceland // Photo by Sarah Gerrity

Several times throughout that trip, we all talked about the importance of soaking up every single moment — and as often as we could remember to, we put our phones away and I kept my camera at my side, and we would soak up every sound, every breeze, and every scent. With every blink, every breath, I knew it would be more and more painful to leave.

Seljavallalaug, Iceland // Photo by Sarah Gerrity

We hung around the pool waiting for an older couple to leave, and when we finally had the pool to ourselves, we stripped down and got in, because yolo (or, “yoiio,” which we coined for “you’re only in Iceland once,” which obviously did not apply to me). And shortly after, the Santa Barbara grad I mentioned before showed up, and timidly joined us. He was so nervous to have stumbled upon four skinny dippin’ ladies that his hand trembled when we passed him our flask of bourbon. And every time we forced him to be our photographer. But by the time we were ready to walk back to the car, he tagged along for the walk, and we wished him on his merry way.

Yoiio.

Finding Seljavallalaug

From the Ring Road, turn inland on Raufarfellsvegur road. After about 10 minutes, it’ll get pretty rough, but drive until you can drive no further, and park your car at the end of the road. There’s a little ridge on the left side of the valley that you can walk along. Our directions were “walk towards the valley for about 15 minutes,” which sounded crazy, but turned out to be 100 percent accurate. Once you cross a little stream, and turn around a bend, you’ll see the pool.

There are changing rooms and hooks where you can hang your clothes up to stay dry, and the pool is lukewarm, except for one corner, where the hot water trickles in. Try to avoid the hot spot, because if you’re there for too long, it’ll make the rest of the pool too cold to swim in!

Also, fun fact: the local volunteers do drain the pool out for cleaning once a year or so. When I visited in November, one of my hosts told me that they had drained it in September or October, and it took a month to refill and warm up again. So ask around when you’re visiting!

If you have a free afternoon in Iceland and are in the mood for a workout, Hveragerði is a great option for your day. From Reykjavik, it’s about a 40-minute drive – and you’ll be hiking for 60 to 90 minutes. I went in March, when the mountains were white as they could be, and it took us a solid 90 minutes. Beware, people who hate hiking. But I promise, the hot river is worth it.

Hveragerdi, Iceland, Sarah Gerrity 2016

Finding Reykjadalur

To get there, take Highway 1 towards Vik for about 40 minutes – when you descend the huge pass, you’ll see steam coming out of the ground, surrounding a small town at the foot of the mountains. That’s Hveragerði. Then, you basically take the main road in town to the very end – and the trailhead will be there.

You’ll likely see hikers high above the trailhead – that will be you soon! Just follow the trail and the red trail markers for 3 km, until you pass through an area where there are a few bubbling geysers and a ton of steam rising from the ground. When you’ve arrived, you’ll find some boardwalks and probably a handful of other tourists and locals enjoying a dip in the pools.

Start at the lowest pool, as they get hotter the farther upstream you go!

Hveragerdi, Iceland, Sarah Gerrity 2016

Hveragerdi, Iceland, Sarah Gerrity 2016

Hveragerdi, Iceland, Sarah Gerrity 2016

Hveragerdi, Iceland, Sarah Gerrity 2016

Hveragerdi, Iceland, Sarah Gerrity 2016

Sorry not sorry for the booty shot!

Sorry not sorry for the booty shot!

In November, I aggressively road tripped across the south of Iceland over five short days. And while it was one of the most beautiful trips I’ve ever taken, it was incredibly difficult to see everything we wanted to see when we were constantly chasing daylight and spending 75% of our time driving. So when I returned a few weeks ago in March, I had planned our itinerary a little differently for our quick little journey.

The main difference was that in November, I hopped from Airbnb to Airbnb – but in March, we stayed in one apartment in Reykjavik the entire time. I highly recommend staying in a different city each day for a longer trip, especially if you are traversing the whole Ring Road. But if you’re limited to a few days, I’d say staying in Reykjavik is the way to go.

Another thing you should keep in mind with this itinerary is that I was fairly confident that my travel buddies would be up and at ‘em every morning, and easy to mobilize out the door. And if your friends like to sleep in and take their time, go to Iceland when there’s a little more daylight to spare 🙂

Here’s how I planned out our March adventure, and we generally lingered in our apartment until 11 am or so – plenty of balance between rest and adventure.

Day 1: Arrive, Blue Lagoon, Reykjavik

Blue Lagoon, Iceland, Sarah Gerrity 2015

If you’re flying Wow Airlines from Baltimore, you’re probably going to be landing in Reykjavik just after 5 am. Not gonna lie – it’s a rough start to a trip. But if you pack some Zzquil and stock up on coffee when you land, you’ll breeze through. Take your time in the Keflavik airport (Joe and the Juice has great music, comfy seating, and handsome baristas that will gladly supply you with multiple lattes and ginger juice shots).

Grab your rental car around 6:30 or 7 am, and head over to Midlina, nearby the Blue Lagoon. It’s literally a bridge between the European and North American tectonic plates, so you can pull together a great Snapchat story of you running between the continents.

By the time you’re relaxed and all pruney from the Blue Lagoon, you’ll have a 40 minute drive back to Reykjavik, where you’ll want to eat and nap. If you wake up and it’s a clear night, check the aurora forecasts and take advantage of your jet lag by hunting for the northern lights.

Pro tip: book your Blue Lagoon tickets in advance, because they do sell out, especially on the weekends.

Day 2: Golden Circle Tour

Secret Lagoon at Fludir, Iceland, Sarah Gerrity 2016

Not gonna lie – I felt pretty meh about the Golden Circle. The views were cool, but having driven across the southern coast before, the attractions on the Golden Circle weren’t super exciting. THAT BEING SAID – we ended our tour at a little hot spring in Fluðir called the Secret Lagoon. It’s eerily quiet considering it’s an organized, pay-to-enter structure, but it made the Blue Lagoon feel like Disneyland on a crazy day. I would do the Golden Circle tour again just to spend a couple more hours in Fluðir.

Day 3: South of Iceland to Vik

Seljalandsfoss, Iceland, Sarah Gerrity, 2016

This will be one of the most amazing drives of your life. I promise.

One of the highlights of taking three girls who had never been to Iceland before was watching their reactions to seeing the southern coast en route to Vik – because every time the road turns, the landscape completely transforms from snowy wasteland to endless fields of furry ponies to majestic cliffs and waterfalls to jagged mountains that soar in the distance.

Reynisfjara, Iceland, Sarah Gerrity, 2016

Things you should absolutely stop for on the road to Vik (this order worked out really well for us) – I’ll write up more details about these spots in a later post.

  • Icelandic horses
  • Seljalandsfoss + Gjulfrafoss + Skogafoss
  • Basalt columns from Reynisfjara beach
  • View of Vik and its cliffs from the town church
  • DC-3 plane wreck, which is now said to be closed off because travelers were tearing up the “road” (we never really found a road – markers were knocked over and we basically just tried to drive in tracks)
  • Seljavallalaug – a warm swimming pool built into a cliff

Day 4: Hike to the Hot River at Hveragerdi

Hveragerdi, Iceland, Sarah Gerrity 2016

On our last full day, we had trouble deciding what to do. But after some research and being mostly fed up with spending hours in a car, I remembered seeing photos of a hot river that was only about a 40-minute drive from Reykjavik. The hike was described as a rigorous 45 to 60 minutes, but honestly, we’re all pretty damn fit and it took us 90 minutes – perhaps you should add time for climbing through mountains covered in snow.

You’re pretty much ascending the entire way, but once you’re there, it’s quite the sight to be seen – a hot spring river with a wooden boardwalk and small pools built from stones. Make sure you pack sandwiches, bourbon, and water. The hike in is no joke, but at least you get to soak in the incredible views in a hot river. There’s nothing like it. Read more about the hike at Hveragerdi here.

Day 5: Coffee in Reykjavik, Depart

Again, if you’re flying Wow Air to Baltimore, they have limited flights, so you’ll likely be leaving in the afternoon. Pack your bags, explore the design shops and cafes in downtown Reykjavik, and cry as you head to the airport. I’m pretty sure you’ll spend that 40 minute drive thinking about when you can plan your next trip back.

Packing for a winter trip to Iceland

Seeing as I just booked another five-day trip to Iceland, I thought it might be appropriate to write up a winter essentials list for visiting Iceland. To be quite honest, I was able to fit everything I needed, plus camera equipment, in the Lo & Sons Catalina bag, which was the perfect way to road trip from guest house to guest house along Iceland’s southern coast.

I’m heading back in March, and my packing list will be relatively the same, but I’ll probably bring a little bit less of everything. I’ve found that I generally wear the same outfits over and over again anyway!

Warm leggings — on most days, one pair of UnderArmour Cold Gear tights got me through the day. But when I spent more than 20 minutes in the snow photographing the auroras, I layered 2 pairs of leggings with some opaque every day tights. But, I will say, this pair of leggings is by far my favorite workout and everyday tight.

Layers, all of the layers — Lululemon’s long sleeve tech shirts and form fitted zip-up were a perfect uniform for comfort both outside and within the toasty restaurants and coffee shops. This Land’s End version looks perfect *and* affordable.

A hat that covers your earsthis is what kept my ears nice and toasty.

Legit boots — probably a good investment if you’re the kind of person who wants to go to Iceland in winter. Just sayin’, you’re adventurous, and you’ll probably want to go backpacking or exploring some other rugged terrain… and these boots gave me the warmth, protection, and traction I needed to frolic on some snow covered mountains. These Columbia ones did the trick. Grab a few pairs of these smart wool socks, too — pull em up high over your leggings, it’s super sporty and will keep your tootsies pretty warm.

Gloves — As a photographer, I prefer mittens that convert to fingerless gloves, so naturally, those fair isle knit Gap mittens called out my name. These mint tech gloves from Target, though… super cute!

Snow jacket — I ordered the North Face’s Snow Thermoball Triclimate as my attempt to prioritize warmth over fashion this year. It’s three jackets in one, and pretty damn lightweight. The inner layer is my go-to jacket in DC, and put together, the shell + insulated layer kept the snow, wind, and rain away from my layers in Iceland. If you’re looking for a comparable option without the typical North Face price, another version is half off here. The Columbia Bugaboo does essentially the same thing for $175, and the Marmot Alpine Component comes in some great colors.

Bikini — Iceland is covered in hot springs, and while we only made it to the Blue Lagoon, you better bet I’m stopping at every “laug” along the road when I go back in March. For traveling abroad, I swear by the super cheeky Stone Fox Swim Tucker bottom, and the surprisingly supportive triangle tops from Victoria’s Secret. Pick a couple of bright colors, or go with the icy blue lagoon blue to blend right in, like I did 🙂

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