Earlier this month we spent a week on the big island of Hawaii. We spent most of our time on the sunny Kona side of the island, but that does not mean we ignored the wetter Hilo side. Larger than all the other Hawaiian islands combined, Hawaii offers plenty for the casual and adventurous travelers alike.
September is over and October is here. Autumn is in full swing: the colors of leaves are changing, the air is crisper, and every white woman in yoga pants is buying all things pumpkin spice flavored. After it was a million degrees in northern California at the beginning of September, the temperatures have finally fallen and I can start wearing sweaters again. Life is good.
Southern California draws visitors from all around the world with its many urban attractions (Disneyland, Hollywood, Los Angeles) and its world class beaches. Central California has the giant sequoias and the big granite walls of Yosemite. Northern California brings wild beauty: volcanoes, endless miles of redwood forest, and waterfalls. This is a guide to my ten favorite northern California spots.
I walk the short paved path to Lower Falls. Pushed into a narrow slot between basalt columns, Lower Falls is the smallest of the falls but has the best swimming area above and below it. Even in the early morning, people are out fishing right at the edge of the falls. I follow a stairway up to a picnic area to get an overlook of the entire area. Later in the day, we follow the dusty River Trail to a secluded swimming area.
Iceland is a popular destination from North American and Europe, and with airlines like WOW offering rock bottom prices on flights to Europe with a layover in Iceland, it's popularity will only increase. Iceland is a magical place: waterfalls, volcanoes, glaciers, the northern lights. Its beauty is unavoidable. Here is how to spend five days in this small, adventure-packed North Atlantic island.
Day One “Reykjavik”: Most likely, if you’re coming from the States, you’ll be arriving in the early morning at Keflavik airport. I would highly recommend renting a car from Avis or Budget Rent-a-Car at the Keflavik airport. Make sure when you do rent a car you’re renting it from this location unless you want to be stranded at the airport without any way into Reykjavik like the poor women in front of us at the rental agency. Renting a car in Iceland is surprisingly inexpensive compared to California (less than $300 USD with insurance and extra damage protection for five days) and driving around the following recommended areas is surprisingly easy. Yes, there’s weather to consider and plenty of areas you should not take your rental car or any other non-ATV. Keflavik airport is approximately forty-five minutes from Reykjavik but it’s an easy drive.
Once you’re settled in and it’s at least nine in the morning (nothing really opens in Reykjavik before nine), head to Laugavegur shopping area in downtown Reykjavik for a cinnamon roll at Brauð and Co. Fluffy and tender on the outside and gooey on the inside without being overly sweet, these are the best cinnamon rolls I’ve had in my life and, sadly, it’s the best inexpensive food you’ll have in Iceland. If you’re looking for a more substantive breakfast, go to Sandholt Bakery for the simple yet tasty fare. After you slake your hunger, walk over to the Hallgrimskirkja, the towering organ shaped church you cannot avoid seeing. From the top of the tower, for a fee, you get some of the best views in Reykjavik, even on a day with near-hurricane strength winds and rain. I would just take this day to acquaint yourself with Reykjavik, discover the street art, and check out the main tourist spots: the Harpa, the Sun Voyager Statue, the Þúfa, and the Settlement 871 +/- museum. When you get hungry, head to a hot dog stand, it doesn’t have to be BAEJARINS BEZTU PYLSUR, which is the famous hot dog stand former President Bill Clinton ate at.
Day Two “The Golden Circle”: The Golden Circle contains the most bang for your buck in Iceland. There’s a number of ways you can visit the Golden Circle, a circular route through some of Iceland’s top natural tourist attractions: a small tour van, a large tour bus, or renting a car. Don’t be afraid of taking your rental car here and avoid having your schedule dictated by a tour group. As I wrote back in 2016, “The first stop on the Golden Circle is Thingvellir National Park. This national park is home to the first parliament in Iceland, truly the first parliament in the western world. When I think of this, what comes to mind is a line from the show Vikings ‘Are you going to the Thing?’ Because of this, Thingvellir was named the first national park in Iceland in 1930.” Thingvellir is not only an important historic site but an important geologic site. Next stop on your self-guided tour of the Golden Circle is the Haukadalur geothermal valley, home to geysers Geysir and Strokkur. If you’re hungry by the time you get here, then you can get lunch at Saup for a warm bowl of vegetarian soup. Your last stop of the day is Gullfoss, or golden falls, one of the largest and best-known waterfalls in Iceland. Typically, the water takes on a blue-green color but don’t be disappointed when it’s a murky brown. While there are prettier waterfalls in Iceland, this one impresses with sheer volume.
Day Three “The South Coast”: While the Golden Circle is more well known to people outside of Iceland, the more remote South Coast is home to truly stunning scenery. With barren volcanic landscapes, countless waterfalls, and one of Europe's largest glaciers, this area is a must-see for any visitor to Iceland. The highlight of the day will take some planning ahead: reserve a spot on a glacier tour at Vatnajokull Glacier. I would recommend the Glacier Wonders hike with Glacier Guides. This is a three-hour hike with a guide in a small group. The tour costs 10,990 ISK per person. If you want to rent boots, a fleece, or a waterproof jacket they cost an additional 1,000 ISK. They provide you with crampons and an ice ax. Hiking on western Europe’s largest glacier by volume is an incredible experience and a privilege; the quickly receding glacier will not be here much longer. The drive to the glacier is approximately four hours and along the way you should stop at both Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss, two of Iceland’s most famous waterfalls. One word describes this drive: majestic. At one point my vista was a rainbow, romping Icelandic horses, a waterfall, and a glacier, the definition of majestic.
Day Four “The Snæfellsnes Peninsula”: Now when we were in Iceland, we were hit by the tail end of a hurricane on the day we wanted to go to the Snæfellsnes peninsula. This area is not the type of place you want to drive in windy conditions and we stayed inside watching fifty mile per hour winds cuddling with the neighbor’s cats. From what I’ve heard it’s beautiful and a great place to view puffins and other seabirds. I Heart Reykjavik has a great post on how to drive through the area yourself and is a great resource for travelers to Iceland.
Day Five “The Blue Lagoon” or “Reykjanes Peninsula”: Everyone who has thought about going to Iceland knows the Blue Lagoon. With over 600,000 visitors a year, it is Iceland’s most visited tourist attraction. It does take some planning ahead, reserve a time slot before going, and it can be difficult to get a good time slot during more popular times of the year. We made the mistake of not planning ahead on this and ended up not going. Plus, it’s pretty expensive and crowded. Instead, we opted to drive around the Reykjanes Peninsula. On the Reykjanes Peninsula, where Keflavik Airport is located, you can visit Iceland’s oldest lighthouse Reykjanesviti, view the Bridge Between the Continents or hike around one of Iceland’s largest nature reserves, Reykjanes Nature Reserve.
On any of the above nights, try driving outside of Reykjavik to view the northern lights or book yourself on a northern lights tour. Remember the days are long in summer and your likelihood of seeing the northern lights in the summer is minimal. The best times of year to see them are from September to mid-April.
When people think of visiting Croatia they think of two things: Dubrovnik and the waterfalls at Plitvice Lakes National Park. With crystal clear blue waters and countless waterfalls, Plitvice is unbelievably beautiful and a must-do on any trip to Croatia.
The Golden Circle gets a lot of the glory in Iceland, but the south coast is a truly exceptional place. With barren volcanic landscapes, countless waterfalls, and one of Europe's largest glaciers, this area is a must-see for any visitor to Iceland.
An unexpected side of the highway waterfall. Okay, maybe just for misinformed rubes like us. This is apparently one of the most famous waterfalls in Iceland. Yeah, I wish I lived in a place where I'm driving and all of a sudden there's a gorgeous wall of water tumbling over a green cliff side. Seljalandsfoss is visible from Route 1, otherwise known as the Ring Road. We originally mistook it for Skogafoss, which is larger and further down the highway.
This 60-meter waterfall has a cave behind it that can be reached by stairs. Just be careful with your camera and be prepared to get wet.
It's hard to believe that we mistook Seljalandsfoss for Skogafoss (travel noobs we are) when looking at the photos. At over two hundred feet high and eighty feet across, Skogafoss is a beast of a waterfall and one of the largest in Iceland. The waterfall marks where the coastline used to be; the coast is now about 3 miles away. Legend has it a Viking buried treasure in the cave behind the waterfall, but I wasn't brave enough to go looking for it.
The hike up to the top is on a metal staircase. It's quite a trek but totally worth it. Just hold on as the stairs can get quite slippery with the rain and mist coming from the waterfall.
This part of Iceland does not fail to deliver on the pretty factor. The River Foss was an unexpected beauty. We were driving then saw this aquamarine torrent tumbling next to the road. We immediately pulled over and crossed the road. This was one of my favorite things about Iceland: seeing absolutely stunning countryside and natural wonders required almost no planning since it is just there.
Skaftafell and Vatnajokull Glacier
Now we get to the best part of our entire trip: hiking on Vatnajokull Glacier, the largest glacier by volume in Europe (Austfonna in Svalbard is larger by area).Through most of our trip we avoided guided tours, but this is the one thing I would highly recommend doing with a guide, especially if you're not familiar with glacier hiking. We decided to go with the Glacier Wonders hike with Glacier Guides. This was a three-hour hike with a guide, ours was a Slovakian man named Marek, in a group of about ten. The tour costs 10,990 ISK per person. If you want to rent boots, a fleece, or a waterproof jacket they cost an additional 1,000 ISK. They provide you with crampons and an ice ax.
Being a complete gear nerd and wannabe mountaineer, I was super fucking excited about getting to use crampons and ice ax for the first time. Our group was small and a mix of people from all over the world: two young women from Scotland, a couple from Holland, several people from Taiwan, a woman from South Korea, and a woman from Japan. Everyone in our group was most likely under the age of thirty-five. It was interesting to see so many young people traveling, especially in October.
The large tour bus drove about fifteen minutes south from Skaftafell and dropped us off near the base of the glacier. We hiked for about fifteen minutes through volcanic rock and across some sketchy makeshift bridges over a glacier lagoon. The glacier has receded drastically in the last twenty years and most likely will continue to recede rapidly. I considered it a great privilege to be able to see it.
When we reached the base of the glacier, Marek taught us how to properly attach our crampons and how to hold the ice ax. If you are looking for a tour where you learn how to arrest using an ice ax, this is not the tour to do it. If we had more time, I would have loved to do the ice climbing tour or the longer glacier tour but the glacier was a four-hour drive from our AirBnB and we wouldn't have had time.
Our guide took us to see a number of crevasses and we drank water straight from the glacier Viking style. Put your ice ax across a stream, hold on, lower yourself in a push-up position and drink from the water. One of the people on our trip tried it twice and fell on her face both times!
Iceland's south coast is wild and worth the long drive. Next time I would plan to stay in Hofn so we could have more time. Other things to check out are Reynishverfi Beach (the black sand beach with basalt columns), the Westmann Islands (perfect for puffin spotting), and the Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon.
After ten days of unrelenting heat, the seventy-degree weather and rain of mountainous Da Lat were a relief. We arrived at Da Lat’s regional airport from DaNang in a late afternoon drizzle. Our hostel, Happy Homestay, arranged the taxi for us and about fifteen minutes later we were in Da Lat. Walking into the lobby of the homestay, we were confused by the blasting television and the young man playing World of Warcraft on his laptop. A middle-aged woman smiled at us and greeted us in Vietnamese. I asked for Binh, the young man who I had been in contact with over AirBnB. I really thought were in the wrong place. I had heard multiple stories online of tourists being dropped off at a different place than what they told the cab driver. Turns out, this was not the case. Binh, in his puffy parka, runs into the lobby a minute or two we arrive.
We drop our bags off upstairs. There’s some kind of construction and the noise is relentless. Pounding, drilling, sawing nonstop. We hoped this was just going on during the daylight hours and things would quiet down by the time we were going to sleep. We were all really hungry at this point and asked Binh where we should go a meal. He pointed out a couple places including a chicken and rice place just across the street.
We headed over and were greeted by the female proprietor with a smile, almost all the people running restaurants in Vietnam are women. Her infant daughter toddled around in a fur-lined parka. Apparently, seventy degrees is cold in Vietnam. I found it refreshing in my shorts and tank top. She hands us a couple of menus and we have a seat.
Three of us ordered chicken with rice and cabbage and one person ordered fried fish, I think (it’s been six months since the trip and I can’t remember the exact details). The chicken was very similar to a lightly fried chicken you would have in the United States. The rice was lightly flavoured with vinegar and the cabbage was a lot like the greens you would get in the south. It was so unlike any of the other food we had in Vietnam: heavier, which made sense with the climate, and it felt like I could be eating this anywhere. It was really, really good. It was the perfect departure from the ubiquitous rice noodles, which while delicious I was getting a little tired of after ten days.
After our meal, we headed down to the local market. The road is quite empty for Vietnam and passes by a school, a public park where we saw a woman defecating out in the open, and the numerous small shops that are so common. Because of the rain, few people were out cooking on the sidewalk or napping on their motorbikes, which had so often been the background of our trip.
The local market is surrounded by hills covered with narrow, French-style buildings that you find throughout most of Vietnam. It reminded so much of San Francisco: the tall narrow buildings, the steep hills, and the cool, crisp air. The market features foods reminiscent of west coast farmer’s markets: mulberries, strawberries, and avocados. Da Lat is also known for its mushrooms, flowers, and coffee.
We retired early to the hotel because we would have an early morning start on our tour of the area surrounding Da Lat. Sleep was not something that came easily at the Happy Homestay. They were undergoing massive construction and the bed was possibly one of the worst we stayed in, though the worst really goes to the one with blood stains on it in the Mekong.
The next morning my boyfriend and I woke early to get coffee. The coffee in Vietnam is so good, especially for people who love strong coffee that gives you a kick in the ass in the morning. I like mine with condensed milk and iced. On our way back from the coffee shop, I spotted a woman making the delightful banh can. These are delicious pockets of rice dough cooked in a skillet similar looking to an aebelskiver pan with a quail egg cracked on top. They’re almost like the Vietnamese version of the best Egg McMuffin you’ve ever had. They serve it with chilli sauce and a fish sauce with green onions. We ate ours from a plastic bag on the curb outside the Happy Homestay.
Headed by Binh, the young man who runs Happy Homestay, our tour took us to the countryside around Da Lat. Covered with evergreens, this area is so unlike the rest of the places we went to in Vietnam. It reminded me of the countryside in the Sierra foothills. Our first stop was a coffee plantation where they make the famous “weasel coffee.” The weasels are actually civets who are captured from the forest and brought to the coffee plantation. The civets are very picky eaters and only eat the best coffee beans. These beans are then crapped out by the civets and roasted for your coffee drinking pleasure. The coffee is smooth and has a distinct caramel flavour. My friends, who are not coffee drinkers, enjoyed it, but I didn’t like the flavour. Plus, civet poop.
On our way to Elephant Falls, we stopped at a flower plantation, a strawberry farm, and what is called a “minority village.” The people who live here are from one of the multiple native ethnic groups of Vietnam. Most of Vietnam’s nearly 86 million people are from the Kinh ethnic group, which were originally from northern Vietnam and southern China. The houses are traditionally made from wood and differ in their architectural style from other Vietnamese houses.
A number of blogs claim Elephant Falls is difficult to find, but it had clear signage from what I could see. Yes, you will be charged a fee to enter. No, the walk down is not safe by American standards, but it’s not particularly dangerous either. I had a challenging time because the rocks were very high and I am very short. The rocks on the way down are also incredibly slippery and some of the time the only thing you have to hold onto is a vine or a rusty piece of rebar. However, the waterfall is large and the water plentiful. There are rocks you can go out to see the falls clearer, but I am a huge scaredy cat and I refused to go out to them. Off to the left is a pathway that goes under the falls. This, I really enjoyed, but be aware you will get filthy and soaked.
As we washed the mud off and dried in the sun, I watched a woman make traditional woven goods. The scarves around her were beautifully colorful and I would have loved to buy one, but they were a little out of my budget.
After the waterfall, we visited the Buddhist temple up the street then we got a lackluster lunch in a village restaurant. Our last stop of the tour was a silkworm factory. The factory’s air was fetid and stifling. The women worked for a piece work wage, a certain amount of money per kilo of processed silkworms. The women had to be careful working with the lye used to process the silkworms. Outside the factory were enormous piles of silkworm cocoons. It felt wrong going here as if this were a tourist attraction, and it felt like poverty voyeurism.
When we got back to Da Lat, we took short naps then my boyfriend and I headed out to see Crazy House. Crazy House is one of the top attractions in Da Lat. Designed by the daughter of a former president, the house is an ongoing architectural project and is unlike anything else in Vietnam. Part Alice in Wonderland, part jungle, and part Swiss chalet. I’ve never seen anything else like it. It was really fun to explore the different areas and enjoy the shade.
In the evening, Binh took us out for a food tour to some of his favourite street food places. We got what is called Da Lat pizza, banh trang nuong, which is made from a sheet of rice paper, Laughing Cow cheese, shredded jerky, spicy sausage, green onion, egg, chili sauce, and fish sauce. It was crispy, creamy, salty, and smoky charcoal grill. It was absolutely delicious and the best item of street food we had outside of HCMC. Other street food we had included bo la lat (a type of ground meat skewer wrapped betel leaf), bacon wrapped okra and a type of ice cream.
Da Lat was one of my favourite cities in Vietnam. It was relaxed, the weather was perfect, and food, especially the fresh produce, was spot on. I highly recommend adding it to any trip to central or southern Vietnam. It makes for a nice break from the unrelenting heat and traffic of the rest of the country.
6:30 am on the west side of Santa Cruz. I wait in front of the house with the green garage door and the egret painted on it. Alex, the biochemistry doctorate student who is my then boyfriend's childhood best friend, is loading the up the last of his supplies for our week long Fourth of July camping trip.
I have met Alex only a handful of times, but the last time he was over at our house, the purple one with the red door downtown, after finishing plates of made from scratch chicken alfredo, he brought up he wanted to go camping.
I had never been camping as an adult. Thinking back on it now, this is absurd. I go camping four or five times a year. Alex seemed like a competent individual who keep up a conversation so we compared calendars and came up with our itinerary.
Our ultimate destination was Crater Lake. On our way up we would stop at Lassen Volcanic National Park and camp at Castle Crags State Park near Lake Shasta. We would hit Crater Lake on our second day then camp at Valley of the Rogue State Park for Fourth of July. From there, our route would take us to the Oregon Caves National Monument, down the California coast through Redwoods National Park and Eureka, camp south of Eureka, then make our way to Fort Bragg via the Lost Coast, and make our final stop in Ukiah to stay with Alex's aunt. I had been to Oregon as a kid and may have even gone to Crater Lake, but I couldn't remember it so I was pretty fucking jazzed to see it.
I would be borrowing Alex's tent and sleeping bag. He would also be providing the rest of the camping gear. I got most of the food and we were taking my white Ford Focus. Gas would be split along the way.
The trip to Lassen is mostly a straight shot through the boring middle part of California. It's just almond orchard after dairy after dusty field growing dirt after another. Once you get started east towards Lassen the flat desolate landscape turns to rolling hills which eventually become the southernmost mountains of the Cascade Range.
I had been to Lassen as a child ( I have an aunt and uncle who own a ranch not far from it) and I remember the ice blue lakes frozen next to volcanic vents. This time around my initial reaction was to the sulfur smell and how few people there are. Sure, there are visitors crowding around the vents next to the main road, but these are small compared to the massive crowds at Yosemite or what we will see later at Crater Lake.
Alex and I don't want to hang out around the road, but we don't have time to do a very long hike. We've still got to get to Castle Crags to camp out for the night. We drive further into the park and see an informational sign for a waterfall about 2.5 miles round trip from the parking lot.
When you want to get away from most day tripper tourists in a park, select a destination of at least 1.5 miles from the parking lot. I have found this is generally the maximum most day visitors are willing to go for sight seeing.
The hike to Kings Creek Falls, now most of which is closed for renovation. is a gradual 700 foot descent over a mile or so at about 7,300 feet. We begin on a horse trail going through a relatively muddy meadow swarmed with mosquitos. It's pretty though. Big mountains in the distance, trees on steep hillsides surround us and the creek runs close by. At some distance, the trail splits between the cascade trail and the horse trail. We take the cascade trail, the part now closed for renovation, as there are rocks to scramble over and it looks way more fun.
It's a relatively easy hike with a great pay off, which makes it an incredibly popular destination for many day hikers, according to the National Park website, but we didn't see any other people while we were hiking. The waterfall rushes over a 50 foot basalt cliff into a shallow sheer walled canyon hemmed with ferns and moss. Alex and I took a few minutes to snap some photos and enjoy the relative solitude which we shared with hundreds of mosquitos.
Hikers can take this trail 2.5 miles further and join up with the Pacific Crest Trail.