Goodbye London, hello open road

Alex and I have just under a month left in the UK before my Youth Mobility visa expires and we have to leave the country. This isn’t such a bad thing: in fact it’s an excellent thing. It’s only been 1.5 years but I’m quite tired of living in a city the size of London: the pedestrian and public transport congestion and the passive aggressiveness that comes with it is enough to make me long for the comparative simplicity of life in Melbourne. (I dread to think what it will be like when the Olympics are in full swing.) It’s been a fantastic experience living here and it’s provided us with many wonderful opportunities but I just don’t think I’m cut out to live long-term in such a big city.

But the best part will be the bit that comes between leaving London and returning to Melbourne: being back on the road again for 5 months of vagabonding across the globe. This is how our itinerary is shaping up:

FROM 24 JULY

Croatia: Split and Zadar

AUGUST

Slovenia: Ljubljana and Piran
Italy: Trieste
Slovenia: Bled
Austria: Salzburg and Halstatt
Germany: Munich, Mainz and Bremen
Denmark: Copenhagen and one other place (any recommendations?)
Norway: Oslo and wherever else our friends Mae and Tulpesh take us!

SEPTEMBER

Sweden: Stockholm and one other place (any recommendations?)
Latvia: Riga
Estonia: Talinn
Finland: Helsinki and one other place (any recommendations?)
Russia: St Petersburg and Moscow

OCTOBER

Trans-Mongolian rail trip across Siberia and Mongolia, stopping off along the way
China: Beijing
South Korea: Seoul and one or two other places (any recommendations?)

NOVEMBER

Japan: Fukuoka, Nagasaki, Hiroshima, Osaka, Sapporo, Tokyo
Malaysia: Kuala Lumpur and Penang
Sri Lanka: Wherever Alex’s cousin Matthew takes us!

DECEMBER

Singapore
Australia: Brisbane and a roadtrip down the east coast until shortly before Christmas

The plan is to travel from Croatia to Japan by land using trains, buses and ferries. Do let us know if you have any recommendations of things to and see in any of these places!

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Substituting cake and pudding mix in cupcake recipes

My super flatmate and his lovely girlfriend gave me this very cool book for my recent birthday:

Intoxicated Cupcakes by Kate Legere

41 cupcake recipes that feature alcohol in one form or another! From cupcakes based on all sorts of sweet and fruity cocktails to some rather intriguing entries including hot toddy cupcakes, Bloody Mary cupcakes, wine and cheese cupcakes, dark stout cupcakes – even Jägerbomb cupcakes!

I baked my first batch of Intoxicated Cupcakes on the weekend: Tooty-Fruity Sangria Cupcakes. Both the cupcake and the icing feature red wine, and the fruit comes from fruit cocktail in the cupcakes and chunky marmalade in the icing.

The only trick was the recipe called for 1 box of of yellow cake mix and 1 package of instant vanilla pudding mix. I turned out to be correct in my assumption that these were too American for any of my local supermarkets to stock so I hunted down some alternatives on the good old interwebs.

For any UK bakers who want to make one of the few recipes in this book that call for either of these mixes, you can successfully substitute them as follows:

Substitute 1 (18.25 ounce) box yellow cake mix
with Suzanne McMinn’s Homemade Yellow Cake Mix
+ 1 tsp vanilla extract

Substitute 1 (5 ounce) package instant vanilla pudding mix
with 1.5 cups of Brown Eyed Baker’s DIY Instant Vanilla Pudding Mix
(I used 1 tsp vanilla extract instead of real vanilla beans)

Both of these call for dried milk powder which you can buy from TescoSainsbury’s or Waitrose.

The sangria cupcakes went down a treat with both friends and work colleagues. :) I look forward to trying some of the other recipes soon!

Sangria cupcakes!

Iceland, Iceland, Iceland!

Alex and I were blown away by our short stay in Iceland last month. We spent 5 days there but easily could have spent more. It is possible to see some highlights in a long weekend from London as per the package holidays offered by companies such as Icelandair, but if you have enough time I’d recommend staying as long as you can, enjoying everything Reykjavik has to offer then hiring a car and getting out on the quiet, open roads to explore an almost primordial landscape.

When to go

Spring was a nice time to go because while it was brisk and a little windy it hardly rained and the skies were always blue and sunny. The days were getting quite long but not enough to freak out our body clocks. If you want to see the Northern Lights you need to go in winter, but of course you don’t get much daylight at all then.

Seljalandsfoss

Accommodation

We stayed at a super cool hostel called Kex. Kex means “biscuit” in Icelandic and it’s housed in an old biscuit factory. It’s cheap, has a great atmosphere, our bed was super comfy, the shared bathrooms are huge and very clean, they have a restaurant that serves great food (a buffet breakfast as well as other meals and bar drinks), the staff are very friendly and helpful and the location is excellent (everything is in walking distance). Plus the whole place just looks really cool! Interesting things all over the wall, retro furniture…

Common area, Kex Hostel

Budget

It wasn’t as expensive as we were expecting – I think other Northern European countries are more expensive at the moment. Food prices were about equivalent to London’s if not a little cheaper – but of course it all depends on where you go. We spent 1100-2000ISK per person on most meals (£5.50 – £10) although I did splash out on a very nice three course meal to celebrate Alex’s birthday one evening. :) In Reykjavik a pint of beer is around 800-900ISK (~£4) in a restaurant/pub or 200ISK (£1) at a supermarket. We didn’t need to spend any money on transport other than our flights and airport transfers because we either walked or were picked up for free by the tour companies we used. Most of our money went towards activities.

Icelandic krona

Things and places to eat

  • Get skyr from supermarket, cafes, etc. It’s technically cheese but it tastes like really thick and creamy yoghurt. Low in fat, super high in protein and you can only get it in Iceland.
  • Grab a cheap lunch at “The best hot dog stand in town” (that’s what the name translates into English). 320ISK (£1.60) for one with the lot.
  • Saegreifinn – 1100ISK (£5.50) for lobster soup and bread!
  • Tasty burgers – 1450ISK (£7) for a burger, fries and coke.
  • Fish and chips – about 2000ISK (£10) for fish, fancy chips and skyronnaise (a must).
  • 3 Frakkar for a fancy, uniquely Icelandic dinner. Whale, horse, smoked puffin, guillemot and fermented shark are all available. (Booking in advance recommended.)
  • Noodle Station. We didn’t get to eat here but it smelled amazing every time we walked past. 1080ISK (£5.50) for pho-style noodle soup.
  • Cute cafes: C is for Cookie, Cafe Babalú.
  • Icelanders love pizza.
  • There’s place called Ís-Land near Kringlan (a shopping centre) that’s supposed to serve amazing icecream, featuring all sorts of weird flavours including beer and whisky!

Icelandic Fish and Chips

Stuff we did/saw

  • Went on a cycling tour of Reykjavik – a great introduction to a lovely, friendly city.
  • Hiked across a glacier.  More money than we would normally spend on an activity but it was a fantastic experience.
  • Rode Icelandic horses.
  • Browsed the Kolaportið flea market.
  • Window shopped at cool design shops.
  • Admired Hallgrímskirkja, an unusual church. We didn’t go up the tower but I think we should have for an amazing view.
  • Visited 871±2 The Settlement Exhibition. Quite interesting, not too expensive and you can see it all in an hour.
  • Watched two volcano documentaries at Volcano House. (You could give this a miss if you’re running short on time – it’s interesting but a bit expensive for what it is.)
  • Swam and rubbed silica mud on our faces at the Blue Lagoon Thermal Spa. It’s quite near the airport so we did it on our last morning on our way out. (Note that most of the swimming pools in Iceland are filled with geothermal water and are a cheaper and less touristy alternative to the Blue Lagoon.)

Glacier hike

Other things you could do if you had more time

  • Go puffin watching.
  • Go whale watching.
  • There are lots of cool museums and art galleries in Reykjavik including the National Museum of Iceland and a Museum of Design and Applied Art a short drive/bus ride from Reykjavik.
  • Check out all the cool bars in Reykjavik. We went to one called The Lebowski Bar which serves almost 20 different kinds of white Russian.
  • Visit the Glacier Lagoon.
  • See the black sand beach at Vik.
  • See if you can visit an ice cave at Skaftafell National Park.
  • Do the Golden Circle (Þingvellir national park, Gullfoss waterfall and the geothermal geysir). Almost every tourist visiting Iceland does this though, which is exactly why I didn’t want to. Also, I was more interested in seeing a glacier than Þingvellir, and we got to see two big waterfalls on our way back from the hike anyway. Having said that, it would have been cool to see the geysir, and the friends I know that have done the Golden Circle did enjoy it very much, so it’s really up to you!

[more photos]