Friday, January 6, 2017

Winter in Iceland - The Elusive Northern Lights

Sun Voyager, an ode to the sun
Travel Tips & 3 day Itinerary

  1. If the sole purpose of your trip to Iceland is tourism, then do not travel over the Christmas holidays (Dec 23 until Dec 26th). Almost all restaurants, shops, transportation, tours, venues are closed on Dec 24th and 25th. Many places are closed on 23rd and 26th as well. If traveling in winter best to visit after Dec 26th.
  2. It is very convenient to make Reykjavik as your base and then go on day trips to various sites. However, I recommend that if you are spending more than 3 days in Iceland, you may want to split your time between Reykjavik, and some town on the south east side (such as Höfn, Skaftafell), especially if you are doing the Glacier Hike (which I highly recommend) or in Northern Iceland.
  3. Reserve BlueLagoon months in advance. We reserved Blue Lagoon approximately a month in advance via Viator and then found out later that the lagoon was overbooked and our reservation was cancelled. Blue Lagoon allows only limited people for each time slot. Book yours way in advance (a month is not soon enough) and book your slot directly via Blue Lagoon's website above.
  4. The best time to visit Blue Lagoon is probably on your way back to the airport (to fly back home) when visitors are done with all their tours. Generally, on the fly back day, most people do not plan any excursions, flights are also later in the afternoon and most hotels require checkout by 10 am. Therefore, it makes a good opportunity to check out early, drive to Blue Lagoon (very close to the airport), spend a few hours at the lagoon, grab lunch/snack and then take off for the airport.
  5. If you are not participating in any adventure activities (such as ice caving, glacier hikes, snorkeling, lava tube hikes, etc. ) then, the best way to see the country is to drive on your own. Car rentals, both manual and automatic transmissions are easily available and driving in Iceland is easy. With a car rental, we were able to see a lot while adjusting the trip to our taste, and stop as many times as we wanted for pictures, coffee and food. Book car rentals in advance so a vehicle with your specifications can be readily available.
  6. There are a ton of tour companies providing tours. Greyline, Reykjavik Excursions and Viator are the large scale tour companies. We had booked our tours via GreyLine. However, given that all our tours got cancelled due to weather, I recommend that if you are traveling to Iceland in winter, probably better to use a smaller tour company such as Extreme Iceland, Outdoor Adventures; Arctic Adventures and others. [Disclosure: We had booked via GreyLine, but as I mentioned earlier, our tours were cancelled due to weather. However, when we drove to those sites on our own, we saw several of these smaller outfitters on the location but none of the large tour companies. Other than this observation, I have no direct experience using smaller tour companies in Iceland.]
  7. The heating in rooms, the showers in Iceland are all serviced by the hot water from various hot springs. Therefore, the bath water smells of Sulfur (for those who don't know what it smells like, it is the smell of rotten eggs/sewage). Keep in mind Sulfur is good for the skin and all natural hot spring water, so enjoy while that lasts.
While we spent 5 days in Iceland, we lost two days of sightseeing due to the closures related to the Christmas holidays and bad weather. On Dec 23rd and 24th, guided tours were not offered and all stores, restaurants, car rentals places, grocery stores are closed. We were able to hire a taxi and go into Reykjavik city center and just walk around the city which was charming, and nicely decorated. A few guests at our hotel had been able to pre-booked, whale watching and Snowmobiling with smaller operators for the Dec 24th and Dec 25th . The weather was rainy, some snow and hail and generally cloudy. For us, the northern lights remained elusive. I guess its destiny's way of saying, I need to visit the land of Ice and Fire one more time.

Day 1: Reykjavik and Laugarvatn-Fontana geothermal bath

Reykjavik is an easily walkable city from one end to another, narrow quaint streets sprinkled with cafes, art shops, clothing, souvenir stores, and restaurants. There are no skyscrapers, large concrete structures, metro stops. You either start from the Harpa museum and walk to Hallgrimskirkja or vice versa via Laugavegur. Between these two main points of interest lies the city center catering to tourism.

Hallgrimskirkja at 6pm in Winter
Since the city center is so small and safe, Reykjavik is good to walk around late into the evening when the tours are done, or on days when you have shorter tours and time to spare. This city is less about sight-seeing but more about people watching and just experiencing being in Reykjavik.

Approximately 1 hour drive from the city are Laugarvatn-Fontana geothermal bath. Fontana is a much smaller and less known facility located right next to a lake. There are three different pools with varying degrees of temperatures. There are 3-4 Sauna rooms built directly over the natural hot springs. Fontana is much less expensive, more intimate, less crowded than Blue Lagoon but it also offers a very different experience. If you go to Fontana you must try the Lava Bread (Rye bread) with loads of butter.

You can do the Reykjavik and Laugarvatn-Fontana in either order, but if I had to recommend I would do the Fontana baths first and then spend rest of the time in the Reykjavik city. Keep in mind, most stores in the city close by 6pm (at least in winter they do).

A few must-dos:

  1. Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur stand
    Eat Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur (hot dogs) in Reykjavik - Icelandic hot dogs are different from American hot dogs because they’re made mostly from Icelandic lamb, along with a bit of pork and beef. The flavor of lamb is quite prominent. I must say you have to try them once, although if you are an American, the flavor of lamb will throw you off (your brain is still expecting American hot dogs). The hot dog stand is open until 2:00am everyday.
  2. Jam Burger at Prikid – a burger with jam and different kinds of cheeses. Definitely one of a kind. People either love it or hate it. Prikid is marketed as the oldest café in the heart of Reykjavik's downtown. A cool hangout bar and restaurant.
  3. Lamb soup – We had lamb soup where ever we went, at the Geysir café, at Reynisfjara black sand beach cafe, and many other places. The best lamb soup was at Cafe Babalu in Reykjavik downtown (we also had tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwich and it was delicious).
  4. Buy Lopapeysa – the iconic iceland sweater. Beware, all things in Iceland are expensive and that certainly goes for Lopapeysa which will cost upwards of $200. They are incredibly warm sweaters made with sheep wool and traditional patterns handed down generation to generation. Icelandic pattern is completely different from the Nordic pattern. Most people buy these sweaters from “Icewear” branded stores that can be found all over the city center however close to Café Babalu is a store owned by the Handknitting Association of Iceland that sells authentic local handmade Lopapeysa. We got our Lopapeysa from here.

Day 2: Golden Circle tour

This is one of the most popular day trips for visitors. An easy sightseeing tour of 3 main areas of interest. The tour sites include: Gullfoss waterfall, Geysir, and Pingvellir National Park. Some tours start at the Pingvellir national park while others start at the Gullfoss waterfalls. Regardless, all tours to the Golden Circle cover the three areas of attraction mentioned above.

Pingvellir National Park - Tectonic plate gap also known as
"The Wall" in the Game of Thrones 
Pingvellir National Park is where the Flosagja Fissure is located. This is where the tectonic plates of North America and Eurasia meet and are slowly pulling apart creating deep fissures in the ground. This national park is one of the sites where many scenes from the Game of Thrones were filmed. The national park also has the famed snorkeling and scuba diving site known as Silfra. The water is freezing icy glacial water no matter the season. One of our friends who snorkeled, wore a wet suit and was still freezing despite the wet suit. The park seems to have many walking/hiking trails. The tour buses stop there for only for approx. 45 mins – 1 hour. So, if you want to explore the area more, definitely worth driving on your own. There is no café at the national park.

The Geysir is the second stop on the tour. It erupts approximately every 10 minutes or so. Having seen the Old Faithful at the Yellowstone National Park, I did not feel there was anything special about the Geysir in Iceland. If you have never seen a geyser before, its a worthy stop. If you have seen geysers before, worth skipping and adding one of the alternative attractions from the list below. The Geysir stop has a large café and a gift shop and a gas station. The lamb soup at the café was excellent.

Gullfoss Waterfalls

The third stop on the Golden Circle route (or the first stop depending on how the tour starts) is the Gullfoss waterfall. The cascading waterfalls and the surrounding scenery are spectacular. This is one of those waterfalls where you look down from above at the cascading falls as opposed to waterfalls where you are looking up to waterfalls. Going to the waterfalls requires descending a long staircase which in winter was very icy. Closer to the falls are strong winds and water spray. A good waterproof jacket and waterproof pants are advisable.

Golden Circle route is perfect for driving on your own. The drive is easy and scenic. Along the road are many “picnic” spots, where visitors can pull over to take pictures, eat and enjoy the countryside. The tour buses do not stop at these picnic areas.  

Alternate attractions along the Golden Circle route:

  • Secret Lagoon
  • Laugarvatn-Fontana geothermal bath – Cheaper and smaller than Blue lagoon, this is one of the popular hotspring baths located on the Goldern Circle route right next to a lake.  The best thing is their Rye bread baked in the hotsprings.

  • Fridhmeimar Greenhouse – locally grown, organic tomatoes. Popular as a lunch spot and Icelandic horse riding.
  • Kerio Crater -  a volcanic crater with a lagoon on the bottom

Day 3: South Coast and Waterfalls and Glacier Hiking

The drive along the south coast was incredible and very dramatic. Although we could not hike on the top of the glacier, we did drive to all the popular tourist sites along the south coast. This day trip starts in Reykjavik and goes until Vik, an approximately 10 hour roundtrip with several stops along the way. The route includes waterfalls, glaciers, volcanoes, black sand beaches and driving along a very unique landscape. The drive was fairly easy although we encountered blowing snow and gale strength winds a couple of times that at times made for zero visibility. In general, the drive is very scenic and pleasant.

Approximately 1 hour outside of Reykjavik are the Seljalandsfoss Waterfalls. Not too far from the main road, this set of 3 side by side waterfalls are surrounded by sheer cliffs and black volcanic soil. There is a path next to the main waterfall that takes you behind the waterfalls. Dress warm and wear waterproof.
Skogafoss Waterfall

Another 30 minutes or so of driving, brings you to Skogafoss waterfalls. All waterfalls look beautiful and so does Skogafoss. If you are pressed for time, then skip Skogafoss Waterfalls, particularly if you stopped at Seljalandsfoss. If you are not pressed for time, then stop and enjoy these falls. You can walk right up to the waterfall and touch the water. There are steps leading to the top of the waterfalls. From the top, the view out to the ocean is quite spectacular. From the top also starts a popular 22 km hiking trail called Fimmvörðuháls ending into the Porsmork valley.
Sólheimajökull Glacier

A few miles further up (5 mins drive) on the left is the turnoff (road nr.221) that leads to Sólheimajökull Glacier, a spectacular outlet glacier marked by a chaotic crevassed surface peppered with black volcanic soil. The road is paved so you can drive up, close and personal till the edge of the glacier. This glacier is relatively small and several tour companies take visitors for guided glacier walks. However, if you are not glacier hiking but want to see and touch the glacier, this outlet glacier is a short drive from the Skogafoss waterfalls followed by a short and easy scenic hike.

Reynisdrangar Black Sand Beach

The Village of Vik is approximately 30 kms further away. To visit the black sand beach which is on the way to Vik, the turnoff is on the right (of Route 1). Look for a sign to Reynisfjara black sand beach and the Reynisdrangar basalt rock formations. Stop at the parking lot off the beach. The beach is treacherous. The waves are high, rough with a strong undercurrent and the water creeps up on you very fast and suddenly. We were warned to stand as far away from the water as possible as several people have been known to swept away by the receding waves. The basalt rock formations are unique. The Hallgrimskirkja church's design in Reykjavik was inspired by these basalt rock formations. Nearby on the right you can see Dyrholaey, a natural rock bridge formation that is perhaps the most recognizable landmark in South Iceland. In summer you can drive to the rock bridge and walk to the lighthouse.

Alternate attractions along the South Coast Drive:

  • Eyjafjallajokull Vulcano
  • Village of Vik
  • Eldhraun Lava Field
  • 2-3 hours drive past Vik is the Vatnajokull the largest ice cap in Europe and second largest glacier in area in Europe. A lot of glacier hikes, ice caving occur in this area. Most locals and tour companies recommend an overnight stay in this area if you are doing the glacier hike/ice caving.
  • Diamond Beach - An additional 2-3 hours drive past Vik

Suggested Day 4: West Iceland – Snaefellsnes Peninsula
Disclaimer: We were not able to visit this route, so the itinerary above is what we had planned but did not get to experience first hand.
Snaefellsnes Peninsula sits just to the northwest of Reykjavik. Drive from Reykjavik to Borgarnes for approx 1 hour, get on Route 54 towards Snaefellsnes for approx. 30 min drive. Stop at Snorrastadir farm. Hike for 30 minutes to Eldborg crater. The farm is a great place for lunch and horseback riding. Supposedly this route southwest is quite scenic with many small towns scattered all over. The best way to visit this area is via a car. This area was made famous by Ben Stiller's movie The “Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and the  “Journey to the Center of the Earth”. The main points of attraction along this side are are
  • Eldborg crater
  • Snæfellsjökull volcano glacier
  • Gerðuberg basalt column
  • Bird cliffs at Arnarstapi
  • Kirkjufell church-shaped mountain and Kirkjufellsfoss waterfall

Public Transport

The public transport in Reykjavik is not very good. To be honest, the city center is all walkable so you don’t need any public transport. If you are staying outside of Reykjavik, then strongly recommend that you get a rental car. Taxis are readily available and you can call a cab using a smart phone but cabs can get expensive. A cab generally arrives within minutes. There is no Uber in Iceland.

Depending on the number of days, highly recommend staying within the city center of Reykjavik. The city is lively and charming. Very safe for kids and adults alike. It is small enough to just walk about, grab a bite to eat after a day full of touring and chill-lax. We stayed at a hotel in town called Hafnarfjordur right outside of Rekjavik.
The hotel T-10 was real nice, breakfast included every morning, each room was clean and spacious and had a separate bathroom, but it was a 10 min taxi ride to the city center. If you are doing guided tours every day, the tour operators pick and drop you off from your hotel. You don’t need to drive to the city center to meet with the tour. If you are touring on your own, then you need a car anyway and can afford to stay outside the city center. The only thing is you miss the city life when staying outside the city. In summer its less of an issue since Hafnarfjordur has a nice harbor but in winter, a city is more welcoming when you can pop inside a bar/restaurant/store to warm up for a few minutes.
If you are visiting for longer than 3 days, worth spending a night outside of Reykjavik (recommend somewhere on the South East of the island where the largest glacier is).

There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing – A winter trip to Iceland

December 2016, we visited Iceland. Prior to the trip, the biggest consideration was, what will the weather be like in Winter in Iceland? Considering we were flying WOW airlines (a discounted airline) that charges for each carryon bag and each checked bag, the question was What clothing should we take? While all the web sites say the weather in Iceland is relatively mild but unpredictable, the issue was what the right set of clothing to pack for the winter so we can be outdoors and warm and comfortable. If you’re too cold all the time, you won’t enjoy anything- and you most definitely won’t want to hike on a glacier, go into a lava tube or walk up to a slippery ledge behind a waterfall, and these are the things you kind of need to do to fully appreciate being in Iceland.

A common misconception is that Iceland is unbearably cold in winter. Due to the North Atlantic Drift of the Gulf Stream, winter in Iceland is relatively mild, compared to the extreme temperatures in parts of Finland and Sweden. As luck would have it, the temperatures during our trip were around or below freezing, there was little snowfall but a lot of blowing snow and rain, and we encountered gale strength winds. The combination of blowing snow, rain & hail, and very strong winds often made for near zero visibility, and freezing temperatures.

The good news was that even though we felt bullied around by the winds, we never felt cold given that we were dressed in multiple layers and good winter clothing.

 Suggestions to Pack for Winter (5 day trip)
  • 1 waterproof winter jacket or parka (for other seasons waterproof coat/jacket will be required)
  • 2 fleece
  • 1 dressy sweater
  • 1 waterproof pants /ski pants – I carried my insulated ski pants and wore them over thermal bottoms and was very comfortable. Others in our group carried waterproof rain pants and layered them over thermal bottoms and jeans. They seemed to have been equally comfortable.
  • 1-2 pair pants/jeans (city wear)
  • 3 baselayer thermal bottoms
  • 3 baselayer tops
  • 3 long sleeve tops
  • 3 nice tops
  • 3 pairs of socks
  • Underwear
  • 1 swimwear
  • 1 PJ
  • 2 knit caps/fleece caps
  • 1 scarf
  • 2 pairs gloves (waterproof and thick woolen)
  • Makeup, sunscreen, lip balm, other toiletries
  • Sunglasses
  • 1 winter hiking boots
  • Tripod for northern lights and waterfalls
  • Spikes to attach to winter boots (None in our group carried these, but they would have been helpful in the winter)

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Part 2: Greek Island Hopping, an Aegean Sea Cruise

For the second part of our trip, we booked a 7 day Aegean sea cruise on the Celestyal Crystal cruise line. Unlike the massive, mega luxurious ships sailing through the Caribbean sea, this ship was a small and more agile for navigating through the shallow waters of Aegean sea and the small ports of the various Greek islands. The ship had approximately 450 staterooms to support 1200 people. The ship was comfortable, had buffet style food service as well as ala-carte restaurants, daily evening entertainment and all modern conveniences. The ship is more like a 3-4 star hotel. The cruise itinerary was port intensive. During the 7 day trip we visited the 10 ports listed in the order below. One of the fun things we did on each island was to look for the traditional Loukoumades.

Mykonos, Greece - A small island with narrow, whitewashed streets,  clustered cubicle houses with their tiny balconies and colored doors and windows. Tiny gardens, windows sills and streets lined by bougainvillea. Numerous little churches and chapels dot every corner. Looking up on the hill are the island's distinguishing and famous landmarks, the Mykonos windmills. Mykonos is beautiful, lively, lots of restaurants right by the waterfront. The streets are not only narrow but also very confusing. It
seems the pattern of the streets was intentionally designed without a pattern to confuse the pirates in the years past. As you walk around the labyrinth of these little streets, the aura of Mykonos is unmistakable.

Kusadasi, Turkey - Kusadasi is a Turkish port in the aegean sea. The day long stop allowed us to  visit the ancient city of Ephesus, a popular destination for tourists visiting this harbor town and on mediterranean cruise. By car it takes approximately 30-40 mins from Kusadasi. The trip takes you through a fertile valley of fields and orchards.
Marble road - Ephesus

Celsus Library - Ephesus

Ephesus' greatest claim to fame was its temple to the goddess Artemis. It is one of the "seven wonders" of the ancient world, and is claimed to be four times larger than the Parthenon in Athens.

There is much of the settlement left to show the deep history and the splendor this settlement must have been. Two things struck me most about this settlement. One, was the marble road, the main road through the middle of Ephesus and being awed at how prosperous this ancient city must have been. The columns, the art, the science (of water flow and medicine) as evident in various artifacts excavated, all indicate the importance and prosperity of this city. Two, the public bath and toilets. The ancient city is one of the earliest constructions of public bath houses and public toilets using water to clean the sewer system.

Samos, Greece - I don't remember much about this island. But all greek islands are beautiful. Samos is one of the low key, off the beaten path island. 

Milos, Greece - The island of dramatic rock formations. Milos has the most extraordinary rock formations we saw at any of the islands due to its volcanic past. if you have ever seen pictures of boat houses right on the sea with brightly painted doors and the living quarters on the upper floors, that is the picture of the village of Kilma on the Milos island. After docking at the port, we rented a private minivan. The van took us to Kilma (village with the colorful boat houses), to the pumice rock formations at Sarakiniko and the blue sulfuric water at Papafragas. 
Boat houses
Rock formations

Syros, Greece - This is one of the off-the beaten path islands. There was nothing remarkable about the island, except that it was beautiful and quaint. 

Cesme, Turkey - Cosme is a resort town of Turkey along the Aegean sea. It is a popular sun and surf town. We chose to sped our day in this town by the beach, our first this whole trip. The sun was high, the water was warm and kids had a great time. We caught a cab and drove about 10 mins to a beach further out from the city, a beach recommended by the cab driver. The area seems to have many popular beaches.

Kos, Greece - is one of the larger islands close to Turkey. The ship ports in Kos Town. The first thing we noticed as we got off the cruise ship were the masses of refugees. The port, the parks, and the streets close to the port were full of refugees sitting, sleeping, and eating. Volunteers from ARC distributing tents for shelter, water etc. Families children sleeping on little mats on the street or any patch of green they could find. The locals were complaining about theft and violence with the onset of refugees. We probably were the first batch of tourists to greek islands who saw the refugees coming in droves from the shores of Turkey into Greece and its real impact on the local greeks. The combination of refugee crisis and the austerity measures being enforced in Greece leading to the high cost of daily necessities (food and water). 

At the entrance to the port is an ancient castle (castle of Knights of the order of Saint John). Right outside the castle is the site of the Hippocrates Tree. It is said that the father of modern medicine (Hippocrates) lectured his students under the shade of this tree. The tree is not marked, but it does have low stone fence around it. We hopped on a little tourist train that for 8 Euro per person gave a small tour of the Kos town. From the water front area (port), it goes until Asclepion and back. Asclepion is the site of an ancient hospital/sanatorium called Asklepeio, a ruin surrounded by cypress trees. It is believed that Hippocrates was a student here. 

Ios, Greece - is known as the International party lsland that supersedes all spring break locations in the U.S. Since we were traveling with the cruise ship, we never saw the partying side of the island. But what we did see was a typical port village, with cafes and restaurants lining the main square. We saw a lot of college age kids seemingly backpacking through the island hanging out at Starbucks eating croissants. We walked a little bit along the harbor and saw the typical white geometric houses with blue domes lining the hillside. The locals and the travel books will tell you that as the sun goes down, these little white houses open their doors and become clubs, discos and bars. All the young people lounge by the beaches in day time and disco until the early morning hours at night time.

Santorini, Greece - When people think of Greek Islands, they are thinking of Santorini.  It was by far the most beautiful and spectacular though cliched island. The beauty of Santorini was formed by volcanic action that submerged all ancient parts of the island, and created a large volcano crater filled with sea water. A caldera deep enough for cruise ships to anchor and sail. This is the island that all paintings and picture postcards showcase, the azure blue waters, white geometrical houses, and the churches with blue domes. It is a dessert island and other than rain there is only a single source of fresh water. From the port, you take a bus that takes you to Oia. Oia is a small village with a huge traffic of tourists, narrow cobbled paths between touristy shops of painting, trinkets, bards and restaurants. The dramatic views from Oia is overshadowed only by the stunning sunset views. 

Santorini vs Mykonos
Santorini has stunning scenery, natural beauty, sunsets, fine dining, wineries, boutique hotels, boat tours of nearby islands, and volcanoes. Beaches are kinda far (have to go way down to get to a beach)

Mykonos has easy access to beaches, nightclubs, dancing, and partying, fun times wandering the labyrinth of narrow streets.

if you see any of the greek island postcards, paintings and any other form of art, they all show whitewashed houses, narrow lanes, prominent blue colored dome or shutters, churches and chapels and island windmills. Each of the islands we visited had all of the above but each island also had a few distinguishing feature; the caldera on Santorini, the boat houses on Milos, the windmills of Mykonos and so forth. While Island hopping gave us a great flavor of the various greek islands, we did miss out on the night life, on visiting the beaches, on absorbing the aura and ambiance of any one island. If there is another opportunity to go to Greek islands, I will prefer to spend few days at just one island. 

Islands such as Milos, Syros, Samos are very pretty and off the beaten path.  If I had to pick an island that was low key, and beautiful I will probably pick Syros. If I wanted to stay at one of the highly visited and dramatic island, it would be Santorini. 
Loukoumades (Greek donuts)