Monthly Archives: May 2015

Read These Tips Before Traveling to Iceland


All images by Lauren Mowery. Twilight over the harbor.

Three days in Iceland sounds like too short a time to glean a comprehensive understanding of the country, and it is. If you can stay longer, do. Martin Miller’s Gin invited me to join them on a short visit to judge their international cocktail competition, and I added an extra day-and-a-half to see a few sights.

If you don’t know the premise of UK-based gin brand Martin Miller, you’d likely wonder why they would host a  mixology competition in Iceland. The answer is in the water. While the spirit is distilled in England, the gin is bottled to strength in Iceland using the country’s naturally filtered H2O. We visited the water source and bottling plant, looking and tasting for proof Icelandic water makes a difference in the quality and aromatic expression of the gin. And it does. Without going into scientific detail, the juniper and botanical notes manifest more delicately with less alcoholic burn than Miller’s competitors.


The water source for Martin Miller’s Gin.

After the close of the competition, a colleague and I stayed on to drive the iconic southern stretch of Ring Road 1, and walk around Reykjavik. Here are my ten insights.

Don’t Buy Bottled Water. The tap water is clean, delicious, and free. Most casual restaurants provide self-serve water stations. If you need to carry water around (which you will want to in your car), pack a reusable container with you, or else buy one bottle at the start of the trip and refill it throughout.


House in Reykjavik


Don’t Exchange or Take Out Money from the ATM. If you feel more comfortable carrying a little pocket change, go ahead, but every restaurant, shop, café, and gas station I hit, accepted credit card for payments as small as a few cents. I asked a local for an explanation, and she proffered that because their money comes in notes of thousands, and lots of heavy coins are used for hundreds, people prefer to use credit than carry around cash. Makes sense.

Icelandic horses are everywhere.

Icelandic horses are everywhere.

Rent a Car. Driving in Iceland requires little effort, with big financial savings. Two of us rented an automatic from Enterprise using the tourism office downtown, for $78/day. Gas was expensive, adding another $50, but we would’ve paid anywhere from $115 to $230/person to do a Bus/Jeep tour of the same route we drove independently. We stopped when we wanted, for as long as we wanted, and didn’t have to share a cramped space with strangers while doing it. We drove the “Southern Coast” and used a brochure to map out the sights the tour guides hit. Most were visible from the road, and well-marked. You can do the same for the popular Golden Circle tour, too. This rule doesn’t apply for activity-based experiences like glacier and volcano hikes, where you obviously need a guide. Since I didn’t do any of them, I can’t personally comment, although friends of mine loved the glacier hike but disagreed on the value of spending $300 for the volcano tour.


Scenery on the way to Martin Miller’s water source.

Bring Layers. I just returned from a mid-May visit and experienced rain, snow, and 45 degree sunshine in three hours. The nights were cold. If you plan to do any ice/snow related tours like a glacier hike, you’ll want to bring more than jeans and a sweater. Pack snowboard/ski pants and jackets, gloves, hat, and hiking boots. Some tour companies provide spare layers, but if you’re out on your own and the rain kicks in sideways, or you opt to walk behind a head-to-toe soaking waterfall, you’ll be thankful for your water-resistant apparel.


Solheimajokull Glacier. Frozen rain greeted us as we arrived.

Drive the Southern Coast. I had one day and could pick only one route, so I can’t comment on the most popular Golden Circle tour, which stops at a famous geyser and Europe’s largest waterfall. But for me, the southern coast offered the widest variety of Iceland’s prime assets in a compact two-hour stretch between Reykjavik and Vik, all of them free. Highlights: Multiple waterfalls including the lovely Skogafoss; changing landscapes from farmland, to moss-covered rocks, to desolate black sand beaches; and glaciers and volcanoes abutting the coastline. Eyjafjallajökull, which blew in 2010, is visible from the road, topped in snow and clouds. You can drive down Route 221 inland to the Solheimajokull glacier, and walk about a half mile up to its edge. Further towards Vik, two turnoffs lead to coal-black beaches, plunging cliffs, and unusual rock formations at Dyrholaey (the backdrop for several movies including Noah with Russell Crowe). If feels like the end of the earth. We had terrible weather the day we drove it – icy rain, whiteout fog conditions, and flat skies that wouldn’t cooperate with my photographic ambitions — and yet I still found the area stunning. I can only imagine how it would’ve looked with the sun filtering down from the firmament.


Black sand beach and rocks. The weather didn’t cooperate.

Don’t Let the Weather Ruin Your Trip. As aforementioned, I had a lot of photography hopes riding on a solitary day. The locals say if you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes. But it rained intermittently all day and the fog obscured the scenery. The rain nearly damaged my camera gear (I wasn’t prepared), and I lost a lens cap running to the car to escape a downpour. I admit to grumbling about it, a lot, but I ultimately chose to find beauty in the roiling sea and storming sky. Plus, if you’re in the city with bad weather, you can hit a few coffee shops, bookstores, or cafes to read, work, relax. They all have free wifi. In fact, so do the hotels. The city is extremely modern and connected!

Falls an hour north of Reykjavik

Lava Falls an hour north of Reykjavik

Drink Coffee. I had a list of eight coffee shops to visit, and I hit five. I highly recommend the following three: Reykjavik Roasters, not far from the church. This operation represent the city’s apogee as far as third wave specialty coffee with on-premise roasting, single origin offerings, and pedigreed founders (formerly of Denmark’s acclaimed Coffee Collective). Buy beans to take home and order a kalita wave to drink in situ. For espresso-based drinks, served in a dark, retro-Scandinavian interior, hit Mokka-Kaffi. Finally, Tiu Dropar, a basement-level, full-service restaurant and bar specializing during the day in waffles and espresso-based coffee drinks, has a cozy, candlelit throwback vibe that’s perfect for a rainy afternoon. You’ll spot tourists, hipsters, young professionals, freelancers, and wizened fishermen, all hanging out.


The sun came out on the last day. Great for shooting the city.

Bring Good Camera Equipment and a Smartphone. A high-quality camera, back-up batteries, and spare memory cards, plus a raincover for your gear (advice I wish I’d had), will help capture the splendor of the county. Reykjavik’s colorful buildings, set in a harbor framed in snow-dusted mountains, is extremely photogenic, as is every half mile, once you exit the city limits. Out in the countryside, you’ll want to stop for photos constantly; the ubiquitous Icelandic horses (they don’t call them ponies), small churches, or abandoned stone huts built into the hillsides, are quite alluring. But don’t break in the middle of the road. With few cars on the highway, the temptation to pull over and shoot quickly is high. But the Ring Road doesn’t have shoulders, so wait for a pull-off and walk back for the shot.

Blue Lagoon Spa Area

Blue Lagoon Spa Area

Hotel Location Doesn’t Matter. The city is so compact and walkable, don’t fret if the property isn’t nestled in the “shopping district of the city-center,” as many that are, advertise. Also, consider using AirBnB or apartment rentals like Luna (I happened to walk by and took a look and a card), as reasonably priced alternatives. Hotel prices seemed to vary wildly depending on the booking site, so check several, including directly with the property.


Panorama of cute houses on the water.

Don’t Shop Near the Marina/Waterfront. Prices are highest near the start of the two main shopping streets Laugavegur and Skólavördustígur. You’ll easily spot the tourist traps filled with Icelandic sweaters, black lava salt (which is just regular sea salt dyed black), and stuffed puffin animals. The Reykjavik locals  I spoke to claim they don’t wear those sweaters, but friends of mine who were in other parts of Iceland, say they’ve seen people wearing them. I was told that they wore them long ago, when they didn’t have money or access to finer things, and that they are mostly shapeless, scratchy relics of a bygone era. Use your own judgment if you want one, but the prices closer to the marina are highest. Also, there are lots of Icelandic brands of outdoor clothing shops, but none of their products are manufactured there. All of it is made in China or Asia and is quite expensive. Unless you arrived unprepared, sans coat, pants, gloves, there are no deals in the gear shops. The best Icelandic or Scandinavian clothing and home design, plus jewelry, galleries, and boutique shopping in general, begins on Laugavegur after it intersects Frakkastigur. That’s where the locals shop.


Most houses are painted vibrant hues, as though in defiance of the elements.

Other Observations

  • You need a reservation to visit the Blue Lagoon. Make one upon arrival, or before, if possible, to avoid disappointment.
  • Locals don’t tip. Food prices are high, so think of the bill as having the service cost built in.
  • Hot dogs are a thing. The average blend includes lamb, giving them a lamb-y flavor. Order one with “everything.”
  • Reykjavik airport has free wifi and loads of electrical outlets for both traditional 220 volt and USB. Airports around the world, TAKE NOTICE!
  • Everybody has free wifi! You can find a hotspot practically anywhere you are standing in town, even if you don’t go inside a shop/restaurant.
  • WOW Air just launched out of Boston and Washington D.C. (sadly, no NYC yet). It’s a discount airline. My friends flew them for $400 round-trip out of Boston. They also fly to Scandinavian destinations like Denmark, so you can extend your trip further into Europe via Iceland.
  • Iceland Air allows free 7-day stopovers en route to Europe.
  • Eat lots of lamb and fish.
  • As early as May, perpetual twilight kicks in. Bring an eye mask for sleeping if sensitive to light.

Eyjafjallajökull Volcano and the farm that sits before it.

What I Wish I Had Done

  • Listened to live music. The country is filled with promising musicians.
  • Chatted with more locals. I’d love to hear about their lives, and how they manage the cold and darkness for 9 months a year.
  • Driven to Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon. It’s 4.5 hours from Reykjavik making it too far for a leisurely day-trip. Next time, if not driving the entire ring road, I’d overnight along the way. The black beach is supposedly littered with glowing blue ice broken off of glaciers, that looks like glass sculptures. A photographer’s dream.
  • Hit the vibrant bar scene on a weekend (supposed to be manic) and several hotel cocktail bars like the Slippbarrin at Iceland Air Hotel Marina, 101 Hotel Restaurant and Bar, and the Kvosin Hotel Bar. All three looked chic with good quality cocktail potential. I only had time for a glance around each one.
  • Stayed Longer. Driven the ring road.

Three generations ago, desperately poor farmers lived in these tiny houses

Where to Stay

Iceland Air Marina Hotel

Affronting the wharf, the hotel pays homage to its location and the country’s maritime heritage with details like fishing nets as remote control holders, and sailor knots stamped on wallpaper. Antiques and oddities like a stuffed puffin collection, and books on Icelandic sagas, interspersed throughout the colorful, whimsical common spaces, feel playful and fresh rather than gimmicky. Rooms are cozy, but bright, and several have balconies facing the water and ships. The excellent breakfast spread is included with the rate.

View from my room at the Marina Hotel.

View from my room at the Marina Hotel.

Hotel Thinghholt

Located at the base of the main shopping streets, this former printing factory turned boutique hotel, retains much of its 1940s charm. The décor mixes modern-industrial materials like cement and steel, with textiles of leather and cowhide animal print. The mood is contemporary, dark, and romantic, marked by the enormous freestanding tub in my room. The candle-lit subterranean lounge makes a great spot to start or close the night. Breakfast included with the room rate.


Lobby and bar at Hotel Thinghholt

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Postcard: Barrels at Halter Ranch Vineyard, Paso Robles

HalterRanchBarrels HalterRanchBarrelCellar

Barrels at Halter Ranch Vineyard, Paso Robles, California

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Sleep Here: SummerWood Inn and Winery, Paso Robles, California


All images by Lauren Mowery


Over the last decade, Paso Robles, California exploded with new wineries and now boasts over 200 on the books. Unfortunately, the tourism sector — specifically the luxury hotel industry — has not kept pace. For a region capable of such artisanal, soulful wines, it’s puzzling more hoteliers haven’t opened commensurately boutique, aesthetically-conscious properties so synonymous with wine country in other parts of the state.

Fortunately, the team behind SummerWood Winery had the vision to open just such an inn, completing a total renovation more than a year ago.  And their fully booked calendar, sold out months in advance, proves the stylish lodging void desperately needed filling. Tucked off the main highway and abutting acres of newly planted vineyards, Summerwood Inn provides the region with a fresh, design-focused perspective evoking a chic, modern farmhouse.


Calming hues of sand, slate, and blue carry throughout the nine grape-themed rooms. (The theme is really in name only. There’s nothing gimmicky about this property.) Framing the vines yonder, picture windows in the spacious rooms deliver practical wall art through scenic country views. My suite featured a double-headed shower, plus a stand-alone tub which would’ve been tempting but for the drought crisis afflicting the state. Had I more time than a single night, I would’ve cracked open my complimentary bottle of wine, either on the sofa affronting the gas fireplace, or on the private deck. Alas, after a long journey from New York, and a few stops at wineries along the way, the soft cotton sheets tucked into a fluffy, pillow top bed beckoned my fatigued limbs to climb in and never get out. The next morning, I was lured away solely on the promise of a generous, chef-inspired breakfast which did not disappoint.

Great properties highlight the relationship between small details and big concepts.  An expansive great room filled with smart, custom furnishings draws shape and warmth from textured throw blankets, potted orchids, and mercury vases. From freshly picked flowers adorning breakfast tables, to locally-made custom bath products, to evening platters of decadent desserts and turndown service treats, it is evident innkeeper and chef Kelly Wangard and general manager Shayne Kline, understand the finer points of hospitality critical to leaving an indelible mark on guests.

SummerWood Inn’s only flaw: its handful of rooms can’t satisfy demand. If you’re lucky enough to plan in advance, or catch a last-minute cancellation, however, you’ll enjoy the best lodging experience in town.



Breakfasts are substantial and deftly executed by the innkeeper Kelly Wangard who is also a trained chef. Submit selections with preferred breakfast time, the night before. Fresh fruit, coffee, and juice complement main dishes ranging from smoky chilaquiles with a fried egg (essentially high-brow breakfast nachos), to fluffy biscuits and savory gravy.


SummerWood Winery & Inn is located in Paso Robles, California exactly halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. They are just one mile off Highway 101, on the corner of Highway 46 West and Arbor Road. From Highway 101 take the exit for Highway 46 West, Hearst Castle, and Cambria. Travel one mile west and turn right on Arbor Road. Summerwood Winery is on your left and the Inn is on your right.


  • Wi-fi
  • Choice of gourmet breakfast included
  • Large demonstration kitchen and dining area can be booked for private events
  • Outdoor patio
  • Wine hour with substantial hors d’oeuvres, plus evening desserts and coffee
  • Complimentary bottle of wine
  • Nearby Summerwood Winery tasting room. Definitely try the Grenache Blanc.
  • Parking


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Why South Africa Is One of the Most Exciting Wine Regions in the World

Mullineux Vineyards in Swartland

Mullineux Vineyards in Swartland. All images by Lauren Mowery

If you missed my Village Voice column Unscrewed

Lurching forward, rocking back, the black Jeep fought for purchase on the jagged rocks and loose soil of the Paardeberg mountain slope. Perched on the edge of the leather seat, I grasped the roll bar above me to avoid swaying into my co-passenger’s lap. Four adults had squeezed into the barely three-person rear of the vehicle as rides into the eucalyptus forest, our destination that evening, were scarce.

The Jeep continued climbing parallel to a vineyard studded with waist-high, twisted, thick trunks. Old bush vines, clearly, given their knobby appearance and the vineyard owner’s penchant for working with them. We had alighted just above the A.A. Badenhorst Kalmoesfontein Farm, the site of the Badenhorst family’s annual harvest party, and the vintage had just concluded. As dusk descended, the Jeep’s driver, a harvest intern at the nearby Mullineux farm, snagged a shadowy spot cast by two towering trees. Getting out of the car, I was enveloped in glowing pinpoints of light. Dust particles suspended in the late summer air sparkled with the last of the waning sun’s luminosity, setting the tone for the dreamlike night ahead.

I found myself tagging along to the party after working a few weeks of the 2015 vintage in South Africa this February. The Paul Cluver winery in Elgin (a cool-climate region southeast of Cape Town) was my station, but after the stint concluded, I’d scurried northwest by two hours in time to catch the precious ride I’d sourced via email through stateside South African wine importer Pascal Schildt. Rumors about previous years’ antics — all-night alcohol-fueled debauchery — coupled with a few outsiders’ impressions of Swartland as an ego-driven, insular community, left me feeling vaguely like an interloper crashing the clandestine celebration of a wine-worshipping cult. Whatever I would find, my goal lay less in rallying with strangers in the inky darkness of the South African woods, than in seizing the opportunity to encounter a multitude of the region’s vinous visionaries in one spot, even if they’d likely be plastered.

While Swartland’s winemakers are not actual members of a cult, they do fervently profess to abide by a common ethos: to sustainably produce transparent, terroir-driven wines with natural ferments and indigenous yeast. And those wines have ignited a cult-like following, with Eben Sadie of Sadie Family Wine, as the early de facto leader, soon joined by cheeky, charismatic Adi Badenhorst. Sadie’s study in syrah and mourvedre, blended to produce his now-legendary Columella (first vintage in 2000), first galvanized interest and investment in the region.

Swartland begins around 35 miles north of Cape Town, along with a creeping shift in scenery and terrain. It’s a hot, dry place with low rainfall and poor soils like schist and granite, once known for bulk production; vines planted decades ago in a burst of experimentation were practically forgotten as the fine wine industry moved on to focus firmly on Bordeaux-style blends in Stellenbosch or Franschhoek. Driving through its wide dusty expanse dotted distantly with golden, wheat bearing hills and rocky outcroppings, Swartland reminded me of a frontier region left to the devices of pioneers and ranchers, and evoked the last untrammeled enclaves of rural California.

Thus, the apparent chasm between Swartland’s wine producers and those of the rest of the Western Cape is not defined by miles, but by their collective outlook and ability to see opportunity in the region’s uniquely challenging growing conditions. Plus, they are imbued with an anti-commercial spirit (although prove shrewd at branding and pricing, which may strike outsiders as philosophically incongruous, perhaps explaining a measure of Swartland-directed enmity). With land priced much more economically than elsewhere, a likeminded set of younger, intrepid winemakers decamped for it, many seeking to plant new vines while rescuing some of the country’s oldest fruit — e.g., chenin, grenache — from demise by cash-strapped farmers on the brink of ripping out the low-yielding plants. The wines’ styles are largely unaltered; for example, producers eschew robust new French oak treatment (which requires money anyway) in favor of natural, balanced expressions that articulate the secrets shared between dirt and vine.


Loire (chenin blanc, sauvignon blanc), Rhone (syrah, grenache, viognier), plus Spanish and Portuguese varieties as well as South Africa’s hallmark pinotage, exemplify the diversity of plantings. Blends, especially for whites like Andrea and Chris Mullineux’s fragrant and full-bodied clairette, chenin, and viognier, and single vineyard expressions, such as their granite-based syrah, are a focus of production.

Swartland’s self-described “revolution” (actualized by an annual party in November celebrating the people and their wines), has spurred newfound international attention on the country as a whole. A rising tide lifts all boats, helping to spotlight the growing ranks of cutting edge producers hailing from other areas like Hemel-en-Aarde, Bot River, Elgin, and even a few newer projects in Stellenbosch. There has never been a more exciting time for South African wine, especially for American drinkers who now have access to them.

As for the rest of that moonlit night in the eucalyptus forest, what happened in Swartland, will stay in Swartland, although a highlight I can comfortably reveal was the sunglass-donning, cherub boy fountain urinating gin for self-serve G&Ts. I also discovered an eclectic, cautiously hospitable group of winemakers (shock that a New Yorker had made it to their remote party was a recurring conversational theme), who had developed a fierce sense of community. To move there, farm, and make wine paradoxically strengthens one’s independence while fostering dependence on one’s neighbors; such an endeavor will inevitably cultivate strong bonds.

Here are ten South African producers to watch (all available in NYC):

Mullineux, Swartland. White Blend ’13, $30. Husband and wife team. She’s originally from California. All of their wines are fantastic, from the entry-level Kloof Street label, to their high-end soil studies through chenin and syrah. White blend is one of their richer wines at a lower price point. It’s redolent of flowers, apples, and hay. Broad but focused. (Importer: Kysela)

Three Foxes Project, Swartland. Clairette ’13, $29. Joint project between importer Pascal Schildt, his brother, and Chris Mullineux. Made from 70-year-old dry farmed grapes rescued from destruction. A textural wine from skin contact, it’s bright, citrusy, and low-alcohol. (Importer: Pascal Schildt)

Fram, Swartland. Chardonnay ’14, $15. Young guy also making killer chenin, syrah, and pinotage at accessible price points. This chardonnay, the fruit sourced from Robertson, not Swartland, exhibits an unusual intensity of tropical perfume for the variety. Full of pineapple, ripe pears, guava notes, it’s surprisingly clean and refreshing on the finish. (Pascal Schildt)

David, Swartland. Grenache ’14, $45. Rising star with the last name Sadie, but since he’s unrelated to Eben, he uses his first name to avoid confusion. Wines coming soon to the U.S. The grenache is earthy and dusty with plums, red fruits, and a hint of mint on the finish. (Pascal Schildt)

Thorne and Daughters, Bot River. Rocking Horse White ’13, $30. Another promising young label blending wines with grapes sourced across the Western Cape. Roussanne, chardonnay, semillon, and chenin compose this broad, textured, floral, and fruity white. (Pascal Schildt)

Crystallum, Bot River. Peter Max Pinot Noir ’13, $30. Two brothers (descendants of pinot pioneer Peter Finlayson of Bouchard Finlayson brand) focusing on pinot and chardonnay out of Walker Bay. A savory, smoky, red fruit driven wine with firm tannins. (Pascal Schildt)

Botanica, Stellenbosch. Western Cape, Chenin ’12, $25. American female Ginny Povall moved to South Africa to make wine. She runs a wonderful guesthouse in Stellenbosch but sources fruit from all over, including from the same area as the acclaimed Sadie Family Skurfberg chenin. Similar old vine dry farmed fruit goes into her mineral-focused, slightly oxidative version. (Pascal Schildt)

Riebeek Cellars, Swartland. Cabernet Sauvignon ’13, $11. Value-focused producer with unbeatable wines for the prices. This cab shows dark black fruits, cassis, and herbs, with a soft structure. (Kysela)

Keermont, Stellenbosch. Red Blend ’11, $50. One of Stellenbosch’s newer projects, this merlot, cab franc, cab sauv, and syrah blend delivers a smoky, meaty, rich, dense and ripe experience. Filled with cassis, blue fruit, plum, spice, it makes a great swap for a Howell Mountain Napa Cab at a relatively economical price. (Kysela)

Tierhoek, Piekenierskloof. Sauvignon Blanc ’14, $18. Small, certified organic producer with a new female winemaker. The high altitude fruit for this wine brings a tingly grapefruit, citrus character with striking, fresh acidity. Not pungent like an NZ S.B.; rather, refreshing and well-priced. (Pascal Schildt)

Other notable producers available in New York include Swartland icons A. A. Badenhorstand Sadie Family, plus Savage, Alheit Vineyards, and Radford Dale. Paul Cluver in Elgin makes beautiful pinot, chardonnay, and riesling, but is not yet available in our market.


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