Reykjavik, Iceland

If your idea of the perfect vacation is warm days full of continuous sunshine, then Iceland should definitely NOT be on your bucket list.  If, however, you are intrigued by quirky experiences, visually spectacular landscapes, geology, elves and trolls, go ahead and book your trip.

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I was amazed that the plants were thriving in this cold, gray weather! 

Those of you that have been following me know that I am a lazy, somewhat random blogger, but my friend Nancy is not.  If you want interesting, timely accounts of our trip, hop on over to her blog.  She’s done such a fine job, There is no need for me to take you over the same ground.  Instead, my post is a loose collection of whatever caught my eye.

Although Mike and I arrived in Reykjavik a day before the tour officially started, we took it slow, using our extra time TRYING (and failing ) to get over jet lag.  

The one in the middle belonged to a giraffe

While in Reykjavik we DID manage to make it to the museum Nancy (intentionally and wisely) missed.  Unless you are particularly intrigued by pickled whale penises, I recommend you do likewise.  Save your $15,000 kroners admission fee ($10,000 for seniors) and buy a glass of wine instead.  Good news: You can tour the gift shop for free.

 

 

 

My family will be pleased to know I did NOT do any Christmas shopping there.

 

 

I am  particularly fond of outdoor art and Reykjavik had plenty of it, both traditional, like the statue of Leif Erikson ( a gift from the USA), and unconventional (on the sides of buildings).

 

Icelanders are hearty souls.  Check out this sign above one of the restaurants.  1E24E02F-2AB3-4A9C-A011-22E2511561AF.jpegFor those of us not familiar with the metric system, 5 degrees Celsius translates to a balmy 41 degrees Fahrenheit.  While we were in town, the mercury skyrocketed all the way up to 52 degrees, still WE drank our coffee inside!

The Hilton Reykjavik is a lovely hotel some distance from the town center.  No matter.  During our stay, we were content to spend our evenings at the hotel.  One night, Mike organized a surprise party to celebrate the start of the last year I’ll be in my sixties.  Yes, that banner DOES light up and yes, it WILL be used again for the August birthday girl in my life.  

The second night at the hotel, everyone was gathered either around the big screen TV in the lobby area, or by the smaller one in the bar, to watch Croatia win the soccer semifinals.

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No restaurant meal for THESE soccer enthusiasts! 

Although ours is an organized tour, it is possible to go off on your own.  Sam did just that, hiring a guide to take him salmon fishing on  a “two rod river”.  What is THAT, you ask?  Well,  for that one day, Sam and the guide (2 rods) “owned” the river.  No one else was allowed to fish there.  Was he successful?  Well, OUR tour guide took home two of Sam’s three salmon.  (Photos courtesy of Sam’s guide).

 

While Sam was fishing, the rest of us were touring the Ocean Cluster House, an absolutely fascinating place.  With most of my family still living in or near New Bedford, Massachusetts, I am well aware of the impact changes in the fishing industry can make on an area’s economy.  Icelanders dealt with fishing restrictions very creatively.   They don’t (can’t) catch as many fish, so they have figured out how to extract maximum value from every pound of fish they are allowed to catch.4D7C4ED2-385F-4F10-A781-6D90B70F5B01
 This jacket is made entirely of processed fish skin.  It is incredibly soft.  Yes, I touched it. 

Fish skin is also being used as bandages.  Apparently, the fibers in cod skin are more similar to human skin than the skin of pigs, so the bandage can be absorbed into the body. 

Other products are used for cosmetics—fish intestines for hand cream, because (according to the Ocean Cluster House guide) someone noticed that Icelandic fishermen have very soft hands, and figured they got that way from handling fish intestines. (My Dad must have steered clear of fish intestines!) 

Even fish heads are utilized.  They are dried and exported to Nigeria for use in soup!?  By using all parts of the fish, Icelanders have upped the value from $8 per pound to about $3000. 

71551513-8F2B-4FF7-BDD6-F5B729E92814Better yet, because these products are manufactured in Iceland, they have created new industries and new jobs.  That’s a good thing, because today’s Icelandic trawlers are able to catch 200 metric tons in one trip, with far fewer fishermen, doing very little actual fishing; they now just monitor computers that run the equipment.   

72ECD07D-4C8C-4520-B301-B04F1823E5A0Our last stop was at the National Museum, an incredibly beautiful building, where we learned Iceland’s history through artifacts, clothing and household items.  Given that we will be riding Icelandic horses in a few days, I was particularly interested in the saddle exhibit.

Fortunately  women are no longer required to ride sidesaddle or wear corseted riding habits.

Next stop, Stykkishólmur.   Okay, so we have already been there for two days, and are now in Aqua-ree-ray (That’s how it is SAID, not how it is spelled).  I’m just having too much fun to keep current! 

Fire and Ice Fun for Fifteen Friends

Some people collect stamps or coins or shoes.  Me, I collect people.  Once I decide I like someone, it is hard to get me to let go.  So what do you do when people you really like are scattered all over North America?  Why, you plan a trip with that assortment of very interesting souls.

Are you curious about what happens when you put 15 friends together for 12 days on an island, coming within 40 miles south of the Arctic Circle?   Me too.  For all you inquiring minds out there, I have good news.  One of my traveling buddies is also a blogging buddy, so for THIS trip, you will have two, yes TWO blogs to peruse–this one, and the Canadian version of our Iceland Adventure.  Nancy is a fantastic photographer who always provides excellent information about the places she visits.  Another plus: her blog keeps pace with the trip, while I usually lag far behind.  (Translated: Nancy will likely be doing MOST of the blogging).   If you sign up to follow her posts, they will be delivered automatically to your in-basket, just click on that blue link above to be transferred over.

Some demographics: Our group is composed of 5 men and 10 women: 4 from Boston, 4 from New Jersey, 2 from Ohio, 2 from California, 1 from Oregon and 2 from British Columbia.  6 have never been on a group trip before, and 8 have never been on an OAT trip before.  11 of us are retired. 2 of the husbands were foreign-born:  (Argentina and Jordan).   I’ve known some members of the group for decades (the longest friendship is 53 years,) but others are newer relationships, including 1 traveler who I’ll be meeting for the first time when we arrive in Iceland.

Where will we be going, you ask?  After exploring Reykjavik, we will be traveling west and north to places with unpronounceable names.  Akureyri, I am told, is located just 40 miles off the Arctic Circle, in case you were wondering.   We then are flying back to Reykjavik, for a visit to the Golden Circle, before heading home.

For all you visual people out there, I have included a map, of sorts.

I’m excited about seeing the wonders of Iceland–the land of fire and ice.  But I’m equally excited about spending time with this great group.

Several of us decided to fly in a day early, arriving at Keflavik airport around (groan) 6 AM.  It takes about an hour to get luggage and emerge from customs, then roughly another hour to get to our hotel.  I think it is a pretty safe bet that our rooms won’t be available at 8 AM, or for  at LEAST several hours, so I have loaded up on suggestions from the OAT Forum of what to do in Reykjavik till we can crash in our hotel rooms.

Hope you join us for what we expect to be a very fun party!

National Parks Part 2 – The Hints Keep A Comin’

Okay, so you’ve decided to visit Yellowstone and the Tetons.  Now what?

Hint #1:  Jackson Hole and the Tetons
If you are flying in, it’s a good idea to spend your first night (or more) in Jackson Hole.  By the time you arrive and pick up your car, you will probably be tired.  Jackson Hole is great place to catch your breath, rest up and enjoy the scenery.  It is also much easier to get lodging, and because we were visiting outside of ski season, the hotel rates were quite reasonable.

So, what does Jackson Hole have to offer?  Museums, scenery, shopping, and great restaurants!  We particularly liked Gather, which was only a couple of blocks from our hotel.  The food was delicious, creatively presented and reasonably priced.  Chicken with pancakes and berries plus flourless chocolate cake were just two of our choices.

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chicken with pancakes
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flourless chocolate cake

If you have a sweet tooth (and as you can tell from the photo above, I do), then you will definitely want to stop at Moo.  In addition to great ice cream, they also offer truffle animals that are almost too good to eat.

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Did I mention shopping?  Every man needs at least one of these hanging in his closet.

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Nature lovers can’t miss with a hike in the Rockefeller Preserve.  Follow this linkfor trail maps, hours and rules for visiting.

Be forewarned.  To get there, you have to travel on some unpaved roads.   And some of the trails are a bit rocky, but the scenery is magnificent and oh so peaceful.

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We spent our first two nights in Teton Village,  then headed for Yellowstone early in the morning, stopping for breakfast in Jackson Hole.  If you follow my advice from my last post and stay in Jackson Hole at Springhill Suites, you would be able to enjoy a free breakfast (they start serving EARLY) and would get to Yellowstone even earlier than we did.  If, however, you choose to experience the Teton Village, check out the Mangy Moose for breakfast, and Osteria or Spur for lunch or dinner.

Hint #2 Take a Tour
Be sure to reserve your tours WELL in advance, especially if you are visiting during peak season!  If you visit Yellowstone during non-peak season, some activities might not be offered.  For example, none of the boating activities were available on Yellowstone Lake, but there was still more than enough to do.  The Event Plannerwill tell you what is available, when.

We booked two tours–the “Circle of Fire, and “Wake Up to Wildlife”.    The Circle of Fire tour lasted all day, and was a very good value at $86 per adult.   Every seat on this large tour bus is a good seat, with excellent views wherever you sit.

We paid $100 per adult for Wake Up to Wildlife.   We did NOT book in advance, so we ended up taking this tour on the day we were checking out of our hotel–not ideal, but it was all that was available.

The “historic” yellow buses used for Wake Up to Wildlife can only seat 13 people, ( three rows of 4, plus 1 beside the driver.)  The tour is supposed to start at 6:15 AM and last until around 11:30.

Both tours charge half price for children under the age of 11; both tours pick up and drop off at several park hotels, and for both tours, the bus driver is also your tour guide.  Both of ours were retirees who thoroughly enjoyed their jobs.  Their love for the park, its history, animals and lore was obvious.  While driving, they kept us entertained with stories, jokes and oh so much valuable information.

Hint #3 The Wildlife
You don’t need to take a tour to see wildlife.  It didn’t take long for us to encounter our first of MANY bison and elk.   These animals are very comfortable strutting their stuff along the roads, in the roads, pretty much where ever they want.  That does have an impact on travel time and traffic, so keep that in mind, relax and enjoy the show.

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The park literature does a great job reminding visitors that these are wild and potentially dangerous animals, so we kept a safe distance, but we DID observe others who got dangerously close.

We didn’t see any bears, and although we theoretically DID spot some wolves, an osprey, pronghorns, some mountain goats and a badger community,  most were way too distant to see without binoculars.

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Can you spot the mountain goat in this photo?  Neither could I, but I was TOLD there was one to the left of that snowy patch, near the bottom.

On the Wake Up to Wildlife tour, our guide supplied the scope, and some of “wolf watchers” we encountered along the way were kind enough to share their equipment with us.  But even with powerful scopes, I never was able to see the wolves.

Even with the very good zoom on my camera, this photo of badger butts was as good as I could get–so you can imagine what the deleted ones looked like!p1190766-e1529274095714.jpgI had better luck outside of our hotel in Mammoth Hot Springs, where several of these little guys were cavorting across the street.P1030127

My opinion, based on my ONE experience, was that we would have been better served to skip “Wake Up to Wildlife” and explore on our own.  (Others who have experienced the tour are encouraged to weigh in).  Here’s why: on our own, we could have stopped when we wanted, for as long as we wanted.  The bus was unable to stop  when animals were sighted along the way, so, for example,  we SAW many “red dogs” (the locals’ name for baby bison) during our tour, we weren’t able to stop and watch them, or get a good shot.

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photo taken from the yellow bus on Wake Up to Wildlife

Because of its size, the bus was limited to parking in specific areas.

On our own, we could have left when we wanted and returned when we chose.  Despite being in the lobby on time (at 6:15 AM!!!), the tour bus didn’t leave the parking lot till 6:40 AM.  If you think that made me grumpy, you’d be right.   Oh yeah, one more thing:  There is no coffee making paraphernalia at Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, and nothing is open at 6:15.  You DO get a bottle of cranberry juice and a muffin, but that’s it until your return at around 11:30.  We knew that, so stocked up at the nearby General Store the day before.

There WERE positives:  The bus driver’s stories and his telescope for viewing animals.

Hint #4  Yellowstone is MUCH more than Old Faithful
I was completely blown away by the incredible geological features of this amazing park.  The Circle of Fire Tour takes you to the main highlights, such as Geyser Basin at West Thumb.   This area, bordering Yellowstone Lake is fascinating.  Check out the colors from the mineral deposits!P1190635

When the Park first opened, visitor were able to board a ferry in West Thumb that would take them across the lake to our hotel.  While we were there, no boats were sailing or chugging across the lake, probably because the ice wasn’t completely gone until May 21 (according to our guide).  Even though the ice was about 30 inches thick, it is hard to understand how the lake can remain frozen with all the smokin’ hot activity close by. Okay, I am going to TRY to insert a video of the boiling mud.  Hope it works.

We stopped at a couple of waterfalls as we made our way to Old Faithful, arriving at the complex with about an hour and a half before the geyser was expected to erupt, just enough time to get lunch, before the show.

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I decided to avoid the crowd, take a seat under the trees, and watch from the distance.

The only place where we encountered crowds during our tour was at Old Faithful.

If I had to choose a favorite spot, it would be very difficult, but I guess I’d choose the Fountain Paint Pots.   I just loved the stark landscape.

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The male bisons travel solo.  I’m wondering how he manages to saunter over this hot area?

I could keep going with photos from the Circle of Fire Tour, but you get the idea.  The geological features are jaw dropping!  And it is great to have the guide explain what is going on.

Hint #6 Getting hungry?
The choices pretty much boil down to amusement park quality food, fine dining or “do it yourself”  from purchases at the General Stores.  We tried all three and for us, it was easy to determine that fine dining was the way to go.  Because we are used to New Jersey and New York restaurant prices, the food did not seem all that expensive to us.
I would NOT recommend eating in the Yellowstone cafeteria!  The food resembles airplane food, except at least airplane food is not served and consumed in the midst of chaos.  To be fair, it WAS fast.  In retrospect, I wish we gone with the slower, but probably better, restaurant at Old Faithful Inn.

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The entryway of the Old Faithful Inn

If you want to have dinner at the Lake Hotel, (and I hope you do), you will need to make reservations well in advance.  I made reservations for both nights we stayed there, figuring we could cancel if we didn’t like the food.  We liked it so much, we ended up having all our meal there.

At Mammoth Hot Springs, you can’t make a reservation; it is first come, so beware if you see a bus loads of tourists pulling into the parking lot.

An unexpected bonus?  All of the waitstaff were knowledgeable about the park and were happy to share information with us.  Their tips led us to some wonderful spots we might not have found on our own.

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Our waiter told us where to go to catch the perfect sunset on the lake.  We had the place all to ourselves.

Tip #7 Don’t miss theTravertine Terraces at Mammoth Hot Springs
The view from the top of the terraces is pretty spectacular.

P1030110.jpgAlthough you CAN drive and there is a parking lot at the top,  it is so much more fun to walk up and down.  It is roughly the equivalent of  26 flights of stairs (according to my fitbit), but there is plenty to see along the way.  You can stop, gawk, and catch your breath.

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We celebrated our 43rd wedding anniversary at the Mural Room, Jackson Lake Lodge in the Tetons.  Where else could your butter be shaped like a moose?

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Although I could go on and on about the glories of Yellowstone, I think you just have to experience it for yourself.

Next adventure?  Iceland.  Hope you’ll come along!