Ah, Tulúm. The first time I visited, I was 22, and took a 60 peso “luxury” bus from my Airbnb in Puerto Morelos, and to be honest, I wasn’t even that interested in going. But once I got to the view from the cliffs at the ruins, I was hooked.
This was in 2012. Back then, the now-famed Hartwood had been open maybe 18 months (and I didn’t even go to that part of Tulum until my third trip). Only a few of the hard hitting hotels existed back then, and they weren’t even on my radar. That first time I went to Tulum, we walked from the ruins to Playa Paraíso, which was more than enough to make me fall in love with this seemingly undiscovered paradise. And for the record, even then, it was far from undiscovered.
Having grown up in Los Angeles, and being one of those people whose parents rarely understood the need to leave California, I could count on one hand the number of times I had witnessed snow falling. That is, until I moved to DC, where I heard it “rarely snowed,” and in my first winter, we got about 48 inches of snow.
There’s no better introduction to snow than one of those rare, city-shut-down, break out your skis blizzards. And since I haven’t seen snow quite like that first East Coast winter, getting to Montreal just before a blizzard gave me that magical winter wonderland that I had been craving for the last nine years.
My travel partner, hailing from Montana by way of Spokane, was less entertained – but nevertheless, entertained me by trekking through Vieux Montreal amidst a white out.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 SUVsand 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
If you’re looking for a hip spot in New York City to take some tacos to the face, this garage joint was pretty fun, and great for a group. And the tacos brought me back to a little hole in the wall spot in Los Angeles. Go for it.