Bon Voyage: Reykjavik, Iceland

Ready for an adventure, the Doc and I took a long weekend break up to Reykjavik, Iceland.  We hopped a flight out after work on Thursday, arrived very late at our hotel, and woke up rested and eager to explore Reykjavik Friday morning.  Iceland, lying in the Arctic Circle between Norway and Greenland, is only as big as Virginia and Kentucky, but nearly the entire population lives in or around Reykjavik.

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Views of downtown Reykjavik from Hallgrímskirkja Church

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After grabbing fresh waffles and coffee at Mokka Kaffi, we walked through the downtown area to the modern Hallgrímskirkja Church for some great views over the city.

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A stroll back through town and down to the waterfront led us to lunch at Saegreifinn for amazing lobster soup and a sampling of grilled whale meat.  Whale meat is not for me, but the soup was just what we needed to warm us up after a cold walk!

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We made our way back to the hotel for a nap before dinner at the fantastic GrillMarket, with some of the best fresh fish we’ve had in a while.  The restaurant has a fun, modern atmosphere and was a great date spot for a belated Valentine’s celebration.

Saturday, we set out early on our Blue Ice Tour with Arctic Adventures.  The tour took us on a 2.5 hour drive east along the ring road to Skogar, where we spent the next few hours hiking the Sólheimajökull Glacier and getting our ice picks out for an introduction to ice climbing.

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The ice climbing was an introduction to something completely new. Despite losing a big toenail from slamming our feet into a wall of ice, both of us loved it and definitely have it on the list to do again.

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Worn out and hungry, we crawled back into the van for our drive to Reykjavik.  We managed to gather enough energy for a quick stop in at the Skógafoss waterfall and met some of the Icelandic horses from the farm next door.  Well worth the pitstop.

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In our planning for this trip, we hadn’t set any expectations of seeing the Northern Lights.  The weather has to be very cold, and the skies need to be very clear, for there to be much of a chance of the Aurora Borealis being active and visible.  After a week of snow and clouds, luck was in our favor.  Saturday was crystal clear and the Aurora Forecast was high.  Game on.

We booked a late night Northern Light Boat outing, giving us time to rest and eat before setting out into the Atlantic.  It didn’t take long before the performance started, and needless to say, it was a highlight of the trip.

*Because we were on a moving boat in the pitch dark, the pictures aren’t good, but they helped capture the movement and variety of the Northern Lights

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Completely blown away by Northern Lights and worn out from our day, we returned to the hotel sleepy and content.

Sunday, was time to head back to London, but not without a stop at the infamous Blue Lagoon first.   The Blue Lagoon is a man-made geothermal spa set in a lava field between Reykjavik and the airport.  The milky blue water is full of silica minerals that is meant to be very good for your skin.  While completely touristy (there’s even a swim-up bar), it was fun to do, very relaxing, and the facilities are really clean and well run.

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We returned to London relaxed and happy after a very good weekend away.

Sleep  We stayed at the Hilton Reykjavik Nordica, which is about a 25 minute walk or 5 minute bus ride into the center of town.  The hotel has been completely redone recently, is well known by all the tours, and has a very good concierge desk.  They also give you a bus pass for your stay so transportation into town is free (or a 2500 ISK cab ride).  While we thought it was great for this type of trip, it is not intimate/boutiquey and some people might be put off by being a bit outside of the main tourist area.

Eat  The food in Reykjavik, while expensive, is really good.  Seafood is the main attraction, but hotdogs are also extremely popular and hotdog stands abound as a cheaper option.

Lunch at Saegreifinn (lobster soup) is casual, easy and highly recommended.  We also really enjoyed dinner at GrillMarket (upscale Icelandic) on Friday as well as our late dinner on Saturday at the cozy bar in SNAPS (French Brasserie/Icelandic), which seemed to draw in a lively, and well-heeled, local crowd.  Lunch at the Blue Lagoon was fine, but essentially the same as what you’d get at the airport.  Getting snacks and breakfast from the grocery store to keep in your room helps out on the budget.

Do  There are so many options for day tours from Reykjavik, it really depends on what you are interested in.  It’s worth spending a day in the city seeing the Hallgrímskirkja, the Old Town, the Harbour, and the Harpa Concert Hall, but you probably don’t need more time than that to cover Reykjavik.  For our day tour, we used Arctic Adventures, and thought they were responsive, reliable, and fairly priced.  We really liked our guide and the size of our group (14 people).  Be careful when booking some tours because you likely will be on a mega-bus with lots of other tourists.  It’s worth asking if you don’t want do it that way.  The Golden Circle Tour, which we did not do, is very popular.  The Blue Lagoon was a great ending to our trip.  I would highly suggest doing it on the way to or from the airport.  The transfer companies, like Flybus, will stop there.

TTN

-Take Grayline or Flybus to-and-from the airport.  The buses are timed with the flight arrivals, so they operate even very late/early.  It was about £15 per person.  While definitely the cheapest option, it takes about 1.5 hours from the airport to your hotel.  I think a taxi would be about 45 minutes and closer to £75 (so may be worth it if you have a group).

-The currency is Icelandic Krona, and while always good to have some cash, credit cards are taken nearly everywhere, including taxis.

-There are LOTS of tourists (primarily Brits and Americans), expect to see them and be on a bus with them.

-Alcohol is very expensive, think £10 for a pint, so may be worth grabbing some drinks at duty-free at the airport

-Bring a swimsuit for the Blue Lagoon, and a towel if you have room in your suitcase.  You can rent robes and a towel when you get there. You’ll need a waterproof bag if you want to take your camera in, as there aren’t really any dry places to put it once in the water.  I just snapped some pics and put it back in my locker.

-There is no need to book your Northern Lights tour in advance of your trip.  I would wait and check on the forecast and then book accordingly.

-Reykjavik is one of the most tourist friendly places we’ve visited.  It is really easy to navigate, the people are friendly and helpful, and all the activities seem super organized.

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Bon Voyage: Tavira, Portugal

In November/December, when life was crazy with work and holiday parties, the Doc and I recognized our growing Vitamin D deficiency and knew we would a want a low-key weekend away in January.  There aren’t many places in Western Europe that are sunny, much less warm, at this time of year, but we found a cheap flight to the Portuguese coast and crossed our fingers for blue skies.

We arrived into the Faro airport late Friday night, rented a car, and drove to the Tavira, about 30km east.  Despite having minimal directions, and driving through rain (not a good sign), we made it to our hotel in one piece.

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Tavira is in the Eastern Algarve, just 18 miles from the Spanish border, and is arguably one of the prettiest towns in a region that has been overcome with large chain resorts, golf packages, and Irish pubs.  It retains a Portuguese authenticity that has been lost in many of the other coastal towns.

We awoke Saturday to partly cloudy skies and warm (ish) weather.  It was a perfect day to explore the town where, as the Telegraph so aptly describes,  “big hotels are few, churches are many, fishing boats crowd the river and everyone has time to dawdle.”

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After exploring the town, we hopped on a small ferry to take us out the to beach on Tavira Island, part of the Ria Formosa nature preserve.  It is very much the off-season right now, and we essentially had the island to ourselves.  I can only imagine how crowded, and fun, it would be in the summer.

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A sea-side lunch, walk along the beach, and afternoon nap rounded out our relaxing day. We had to all but drag ourselves out of the hotel to get a late dinner in town.

Having seen most of Tavira on Saturday, we decided to spend our Sunday driving along the coast, exploring the small towns and beautiful beaches of the Algarve.  There were plenty of moments where we thought about pushing our flight back and staying for another day, especially after finding Praia da Marinha beach…

20150131-IMG_2289Praia da Marinha

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Too chilly for us to get in a bathing suit, but there were a few brave souls soaking up the sun.

Overall, it was a great weekend escape from dreary and cold London and super wallet friendly. I’d love to go back when it’s warmer and actually get in the ocean!

Sleep:  We stayed at the fantastic, four-room, Casa Beleza do Sol, a fully renovated house hotel right along the river in the center of town.  Our room, at €30 a night, was a complete steal. High ceilings, comfortable bed, large and new kitchenette, and modern bathroom.  There is no restaurant, but there is a large roof terrace, which would be very enjoyable in warmer weather. I’d highly recommend this spot.

Eat:  Seafood, seafood, seafood.  As a small fishing town along the Atlantic ocean, going for the fresh fish option is always a winner.  We had no bookings or plans for meals before we arrived but ended up having a delicious lunch at Quatro Aguas (authentic Portuguese) and dinner at Aquasul (modern, but casual and arty Portuguese/Italian), both in Tavira.

Do:  Tavira is a great town to wander.  It’s easy to get lost along beautiful cobble-stoned streets observing the Moorish architecture, white-washed walls, and tilework.  The Mercado Muncipal, on the edge of town, is worth a visit as well.  Though not as charming as many markets we’ve seen, it is filled with locals doing their weekly shopping and fisherman selling their daily catch.  Catch the hourly ferry to Tavira Island and spend some time walking along the beach and through the preserve.

TTN:

-Flights into Faro are frequent, and there are plenty of rental car agencies to use.  Drive 4 Fun came highly recommended (there are a number of agencies to avoid), and we found them straightforward and easy to use.  A car for the weekend was about £50.

-A car is  recommended unless you are going to a large resort and don’t really plan to leave.  We found the roads easy to navigate and enjoyed the flexibility of having a car.

-January is very much the off-season and a lot of restaurants are closed for the month.  Definitely call ahead to make sure places are open (as we learned the hard way).

-The ferry to Tavira Island departs hourly but only leaves from Quatro Aguas pier in the winter months.  It’s a 2km walk from town or quick drive.  Ticket are 3euro round trip and the ferry trip takes about 10 minutes.

-Allow extra time for your return flight, especially if its in the early evening.  A lot of flights depart at this time and with so many people checking golf bags, it took a really long time to go through check-in and security.

-It is very quiet in January, which was fine for us, but may not suit those looking for more action and nightlife.

-The Algarve is split into Western (Lagos/Sagres), Central (Albufeira), and Eastern (Tavira) areas.  Most say to head far East or West to get better beaches, friendlier hotels, and less crowds.

 

A Stateside Christmas

Having spent last Christmas here in London, the Doc and I decided to head home for the holidays this year.  Over the course of two weeks, we visited with both families, caught up with friends, made new ones, managed to travel to four states, and had a really good, relaxing time doing it all.

Christmas was spent out in Montana with the Doc’s family.  Fresh snow, my first truly white Christmas, snowmobiling in Yellowstone, and cozy nights by the fire were just a few of the highlights of the trip. Santa even managed to find us out there!

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Big SkySunrise from our front porch

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Big Sky-32Winter Wonderland out the back

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Towards the end of the trip, we gave our tired legs a rest and went over to Yellowstone National Park for a snowmobiling adventure.  We bundled up in snowsuits to combat the negative temps and had a blast touring through the park with plenty of stops to observe bison, bald eagles, geysers, and hot springs.  Yellowstone in the winter is stunning, and I’d love to come back once the snow melts.

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Big Sky-24Gallatin River 

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Big Sky-13My moon snow man

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Big Sky-19Bacterial mats in the hot springs

Big Sky-30Up close and personal with a Bald Eagle

A trip to Yellowstone wouldn’t be complete without a visit to see Old Faithful.  The geyser erupts every 90 minutes and puts on a good, albeit quick, show of power.  The  2-5 minute eruption reaches 125 feet and is pushed to the surface from pressure of a volcano 9 miles below.  To quote our guide, “Nature is cool!”  Much cooler than we look in our snowmobile jumpsuits…

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Big Sky-21Old Faithful Simmering

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We said goodbye to Montana and went down to Alabama to spend time with my family over New Years.  I hadn’t seen my sister and extended family in over a year, and my parents in over six months, so it was really nice to relax, laugh, and catchup with them for the remainder of our trip.  My parents let us crash their 36th anniversary dinner and New Years Eve was spent cooking a divine meal, drinking some great wines, and watching a fireworks show put on (injury free) by our in-house pyrotechnics.

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Wehapa                                    The boys patiently waiting on us for NYE dinner

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It was so good to be home, but it was also bittersweet on landing back in London. We are now in our final six months of our time abroad and just not quite ready to leave.  So, here’s to a fantastic 2014 and to what we know will be a great, if not challenging (I’ve already started thinking about moving logistics), 2015!