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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!I had better luck outside of our hotel in Mammoth Hot Springs, where several of these little guys were cavorting across the street.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
Tip #7 Don’t miss theTravertine Terraces at Mammoth Hot Springs The view from the top of the terraces is pretty spectacular.
Although 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.
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?
Although I could go on and on about the glories of Yellowstone, I think you just have to experience it for yourself.
Are you considering becoming a Global Volunteer? Wondering which program is best for you? I’ve volunteered six times, in five different countries: St Lucia, Vietnam, the Cook Islands & Mexico, where I volunteered twice, and most recently Portugal. I’ve done blog posts about four of them, describing how each program was wonderful in its own way, and oh, so very rewarding.
Because I get sucked into all of the “top 10” lists, I decided to do one that will encourage you to consider spending two very worthwhile weeks in that fantastic part of the world known as Portugal.
Highly motivated, interesting students:
My assignment was English conversation at the Polytechnic Institute of Beja,
where I spent evenings chatting with adults who already had an impressive grasp of English, but wanted the opportunity to practice and to improve their pronunciation.
Three of us taught together, breaking the students into smaller groups after the first forty five minutes of the two hour nightly class.
Other volunteers taught at the high school, middle schools and the prison. Some tutored restaurant owners and staff.
Interestingly, we each thought that WE had gotten the best assignment, which leads me to the next reason.
An Incredible team Leader:
Joe has been leading teams to Beja, Portugal for many years, and his extensive experience really shows. He quickly sized up the 10 of us and figured out which volunteer best matched which assignment. He’d give Match.com a run for their money, if he ever decided to get into the dating business!
Joe knows all Beja’s historical sights, the most fun restaurants, the best excursions for the weekend, the cultural events, where you can get your laundry inexpensively done…everything you need to know to thoroughly enjoy your non-volunteering hours.
Interaction with the Community:
When I say that Joe knows everybody in Beja, I’m not exaggerating. One night, we enjoyed dinner with Beja’s mayor and councilwoman. And yes, those are gifts the councilwoman is holding.
What was in the bag? Lots of local goodies, including my favorite–chocolate from the shop down the street.
Lasting friendships: Laurie, Jeanne and I met when we volunteered in St. Lucia in 2012.
Although Jeanne and I volunteered together in Mexico in 2017, this was the first time since that first meeting that I had had the pleasure of spending time with Laurie. Having her as my “partner” at the University made it even more fun!
The best part? I now have SEVEN new volunteers who I would be thrilled to see on a future assignment.
It almost felt like I was back in college. Because we pretty much took over the first floor of the Hotel Bejense, I knew just about everyone in every room on that floor. There was always someone to play with, just like back in the dorm. Want to have a chat over a cup of tea? No problem. Just walk down the hall, to the breakfast room and along the way, you are sure to bump into a buddy or two.
The hotel also had a cozy lounge, in which we gathered every night to share our experiences, before heading off to dinner. As you can see, experiences weren’t the ONLY things we were sharing! Our fee for Global Volunteers covers our housing, food, transportation to the work site but not wine. Again, no problem. We took turns purchasing wine, cheese and other snacks to make our evening meetings more enjoyable.
Serpa Cheese Festival:
Okay, so there is no guarantee that a future program will take place during the Cheese Festival. We just happened to luck out. (That cheese in the photo above was purchased at the festival by one of the volunteers.)
There were LOTS of free samples of cheese AND wine AND chocolate!
Not only that, but we got to experience “Cante Alentejano”. Okay, so I will never make my fortune as a videographer, but this 33 second clip will give you an idea of this very stylized art form.
Global Volunteers are free to travel during the weekends. Because public transportation is reliable, comfortable and inexpensive, we took the bus on Sunday to the beautiful city of Evora, spending the day enjoying all that it had to offer, like the Roman Temple,
the Chapel of Bones.
and even more music!
There is so much to say about this lovely place that I devoted an entire blog post just to Beja. Click here if you want a closer look at this delightful town. It is so worth visiting.
Lisbon It is also impossible to list all that Lisbon has to offer as one entry in a 10 item list. So, Lisbon ALSO has its own post. But here’s the best part: It is SO easy to get from Beja to Lisbon by bus. The bus station is just a short walk from the hotel. I was surprised that it was so inexpensive–just 14 Euros to ride in comfort with access to free wifi. Notice the stop in Evora.
Venture Outside of Your Comfort Zone:
Why not stretch your limits? Try something new and exciting? You may make new friends, accumulate lots of memories and experience another culture in a way that is not possible when you are just passing through, visiting the usual tourist sites.