ADVENTURES IN ICELAND: SPRING EDITION

I rang in 2017 in Iceland, watching the Northern lights dance vibrantly over the frozen terrain. With just about six hours of sunlight a day, winter in Iceland is dark, cold and windy, but also eerily beautiful. While many choose to visit at that time of year to see the Aurora, the spring and summer offer a completely unique experience – with green landscapes, rushing waterfalls, and a never-setting sun.

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Reykjavik and Its Environs

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Where to Stay – The Icelandair Hotel Reykjavik Marina is conveniently located at the Reykjavik waterfront, just a short walk from the Old Town city center. The rooms are small, yet comfortable, with touches of Icelanders’ cheeky humor. The property also includes a restaurant with an extensive breakfast buffet, a quaint cafe / bar for a morning cup of coffee or an afternoon cocktail, and a private cinema for a night in!

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Where to Eat – While expensive, the food in Iceland is excellent – using high quality, local ingredients and employing innovative culinary techniques. Lamb and cod frequent the menu, along with lobster soup, salmon, skyr (an Icelandic yogurt), fresh blueberries, and (surprisingly) hot dogs. Guide books also make mention of Icelandic delicacies such as cured whale and shark, however we had a harder time finding these than anticipated.

  • Food Cellar – In Old Town Reykjavik, Food Cellar’s ambiance is unparalleled, with subterranean rooms, live piano music and amazing craft cocktails. They also serve warm pretzels with ginger lemon cream cheese before dinner – just don’t eat too many and spoil your appetite! LRG_DSC01726
  • Kol Restaurant – We saved this for our final meal of the trip and went for the tasting menu – every bite was sublime! Make reservations in advance as it’s extremely popular and on the smaller side. They also have really interesting cocktails, some of which light on fire.IMG_9724
  • Salt Kitchen & Bar – Perfect for a more casual dinner near the hotel. IMG_9293
  • Pylsuhusid – Located at the center of Old Town, this hot dog house is a great spot for a quick lunch and a milkshake. LRG_DSC01727

What to See

  • Hallgrimskirja – The church sits perched atop a hill and is one of the main attractions to see in Reykjavik. You can buy tickets to ascend to the top of the spire for aerial views of the city. LRG_DSC01699LRG_DSC01707
  • Harpa – Harpa concert hall opened in 2011, showcasing an innovative architectural design. It stands out as a major landmark in the city and is worth a quick tour.LRG_DSC01725
  • The Sun Voyager – Designed by artist Jón Gunnar Árnason, the Sun Voyager sculpture pays homage to Iceland’s discovery by the Vikings.IMG_9215
  • Whales of Iceland – If you need a rainy day activity, this exhibition featuring life-sized replicas of the dozens of whale species that call Iceland home is extremely informative. IMG_9224

Excursions – Reyjkavik makes a great home base, especially for a shorter stay in Iceland. Many tour operators offer half day and full day excursions into the countryside with pick-up from your hotel.

  • The Blue Lagoon – The Blue Lagoon is a year-round destination with an average temperature of 100 degrees. As I mentioned in my winter post, it’s definitely a touristy activity, but still worth spending a couple of hours in the warm waters. I definitely recommend the Premium ticket for a more VIP experience and to avoid some crowds. This time I also enjoyed the in-water massage and thoroughly enjoyed it! Located closer to the airport at Keflavik, many visitors choose to stop by the Lagoon upon arrival or prior to departure.IMG_9201
  • Inside the Volcano – This half-day excursion offers the very unique opportunity to descend inside a dormant volcano. About 45 minutes outside the city, the tour begins with a 2-mile hike through lava fields. Groups then take turns descending into the volcano via elevator and spend about 30 minutes exploring the extraordinary geography within. Following a warm bowl of lamb soup, you return back the way you came. LRG_DSC01759IMG_9294

The Golden Circle

The Golden Circle is a popular route with departure from Reykjavik that takes you through the nearby countryside to see some of the area’s most unique geological features. I drove this route on my prior visit, and it was really interesting to see the juxtaposition of the main sites at two very different times of year!

On this trip, we also opted to snorkel through the frigid water at Silfra Fissure – the exact location in Thingvellir National Park where the tectonic plates are separating. This was a truly unique experience! Apparently you can also do this year-round, although I’m glad we didn’t do it in the winter, because it was freezing enough in the spring!

The Road North

From the Golden Circle, instead of returning to Reykjavik, we began our trek North and spent one night at Hotel Glymur along the way. The hotel is really in the middle of nowhere but has beautiful water views of an inlet. And while the loft-style rooms are a little unconventional, the restaurant more than makes up for it with gourmet food and an extensive homemade breakfast. IMG_9315

The next stop on our trip was the town of Husafell, where we spent one night at Hotel Husafell, one of the National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World.  Renowned for its sustainable and Scandinavian-style design, the hotel is a modern oasis in the Icelandic countryside.

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The main attraction in Husafell is Into the Glacier, a tour through a man-made cavern/tunnel within a massive glacier. You can either take a special bus to the site, or travel via snowmobile for added excitement and adventure. As an extension of the tour, you can also visit a nearby lava tube for a guided walking tour. While a little touristy in nature, the juxtaposition of the ice and lava formations is very uniquely Iceland.

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From Husafell, we continued our journey North on part of the Ring Road, stopping along the way at The Settlement Center in Borgarnes where we learned about the origins of Iceland, and at Glanni Waterfall for some show-stopping scenery.

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A couple of hours later, we arrived at our destination – Saudarkrokur and Hotel Tindastoll – the oldest hotel in Iceland. While Saudarkrokur is a tiny old fishing village with just 2 restaurants, we spent a night here due to its proximity to Drangey Island – my favorite excursion of our whole trip. From Hotel Tindastoll, we drove 20 minutes North to the end of the road at Reyki harbor and met our guides, a father-son team who had agreed to start their season a day early to accommodate our schedule. The tour began with a 25-minute boat ride to Dragney Island, which serves as a rookery for thousands of seabirds, including puffins! Once docked, we hiked up the steep trail to the top of the island (with the help of a rope!) where we continued our hike, learning about the history of the site and the many bird species that call it home. This was another truly unique Icelandic experience. The puffins were nesting and flew so fast it was hard to get a great picture of them but we still saw a lot of them, along with guillemots, gannets, kittiwakes, seagulls and ravens.

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Akureyri and Its Environs 

Akureyri is Iceland’s second largest city and located at the very Northern part of the island. This is a great home base for your Northern adventures around Iceland and where we headed following our stay at Hotel Tindastoll.

Where to StayIcelandair Hotel Akureyri is centrally located, and comfortably appointed. The rooms are bigger here than in Reykjavik and even the standard rooms feature small seating areas. IMG_9446IMG_9447

Where to Eat – Though the city is smaller than Reykjavik, there are still a number of fantastic restaurants to choose from. And if you’re getting a little tired of Icelandic food at this point (as we were) then the Asian/Icelandic fusion cuisine you’ll find is an unexpected, yet welcome, change.

  • Rub23 – Their extensive sushi menu is a great way to still eat local, fresh fish but prepared in a different way. And don’t miss dessert!IMG_9561
  • Strikid – Located along the waterfront, the view from the dining room (and from the patio during warmer weather) is lovely.

What to Do:

  • Explore the Town – Akureyri has some cute shops and cafes along the main street. You can also walk further afield along the edge of the Botanical Garden to the Old Town, which was the original city center. Plaques highlight historic buildings and explain their former use. IMG_9562
  • Whale Watching in Husavik – Husavik is just an hour’s drive from Akureyri and is the whale watching capital of Iceland. Several operators run tours in the town but we chose to go with Gentle Giants. The boat was small enough to get up close and personal with the whales yet not so small that I had any concern. They also provided dry gear in case of inclement weather. Humpbacks and minke whales are the two most common species to see in this area. You’ll likely see some puffin and arctic terns as well. This tour was my second favorite excursion – we saw DOZENS of whales and it was spectacular.LRG_DSC01937LRG_DSC01951LRG_DSC01979LRG_DSC01971IMG_9663IMG_9734LRG_DSC01938
  • Diamond Circle & Lake Myvatn – While the South of Iceland has the “Golden Circle”, the North is known for its “Diamond Circle,” which centers around the Lake Myvatn region. While you can do a full day tour from Akureyri, it’s also nice to stay in the Lake Myvatn region to minimize driving. Fosshotel Myvatn is a brand new property with stunning views of the lake shore and delightful copper accents incorporated in its interior design. IMG_9668IMG_9664IMG_9716Following the Diamond Circle there are a couple key stops along the way:
    • Godafoss – Another massive waterfall that seemingly appears out of nowhere. LRG_DSC01996
    • Skutustadagigar – These moon-like craters are a unique geological formation caused by steam explosions, found only one other place on Earth. LRG_DSC02003LRG_DSC02008
    • Dimmuborgir National Park – These lava formations are also unique in the world. Several hiking trails offer the opportunity to stretch your legs. And a small cafe provides a welcome break of warm soup and “geysir bread” – a local delicacy, this rye bread is baked in a pot underground near a hot spring. LRG_DSC02021
    • Hverfjall Crater – A massive ash crater you can climb to the top of. There’s not much to look at inside the crater except for a big hole, but gaining elevation offers unparalleled views of the surrounding landscape. LRG_DSC02025
    • Grjotagja Cave – This magical geothermal grotto is actually on private property, but was made famous as a filming location for Game of Thrones. LRG_DSC02027

**Pro Tip: If you follow a similar itinerary, driving North from Reykjavik to Akureyri and don’t want to drive back south, you can take a quick flight from Akureyri down to Reykjavik’s domestic airport before your international departure from Keflavik**

Overall this trip to Iceland was more extensive and allowed me to view more of the country’s otherworldly geological formations, seasonal wildlife (including whales, puffins and other seabirds), and dive a bit deeper into Iceland’s culture, history and cuisine. I would recommend a trip to Iceland at either time of year and would be hard pressed to choose just one, so I’m glad to have experienced both. One thing that I noticed again on this trip is how expensive the country is. While the flights from the US are fairly affordable, be prepared to spend more on the remainder of your vacation.

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LONDON CALLING: A WEEKEND IN THE UK’S CAPITAL

A few weeks ago, I was booking flights for a business trip to London and (naturally) decided to hop across the pond a few days early to spend the weekend exploring the city with a friend. I had visited London only once before and that was about 16 years ago so I was long overdue for a return trip.

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Where to Stay

Given the time since my last London visit, I wasn’t all that familiar with the city’s different neighborhoods. But after a little research, I stumbled upon Covent Garden, a quaint area of cobblestone streets, local shops and plenty of sidewalk cafes, just a stone’s throw from London’s vibrant theatre district.

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I booked a room at the Covent Garden Hotel, operated by Firmdale Hotels – a group that specializes in boutique stays in both London and New York. The rooms offer everything you’d expect from a luxury hospitality brand, but what really made our stay so special were the unique touches: the lavender room mist they left at our bedside during turndown service, the Honour Bar (complete with mini pints of local ice cream) adjacent to the wood-paneled drawing room, the adorable brasserie off the lobby with its (surprisingly affordable) breakfast buffet and afternoon tea, and (of course) the private screening room.

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[Hot Tip: I booked my room with rewards I had through hotels.com.  As a member, for every 10 nights you book through their site, you receive a free night at participating hotels equivalent to the average price of your 10 prior stays.]

Eating & Drinking Around Town

  • Afternoon Tea at Sketch – Well if you’ve read any of my prior posts, you probably know how I feel about afternoon tea. So this was one of the primary activities I wanted to fit into our weekend. And when two people recommended Sketch, I knew I had to go. The place did not disappoint – it was like stepping into a scene from Alice In Wonderland. Though a bit on the expensive side, the food was delicious and the whole experience was one surprise after the next. IMG_6884IMG_6895IMG_6897IMG_6898
  • Sunday Roast at The Princess of Shoreditch – Another iconic British tradition is Sunday Roast – basically a full Christmas dinner every week: roasted meat, veggies, potatoes, yorkshire pudding, and of course sticky toffee pudding. The Princess of Shoreditch was a friend’s recommendation and once again we were in food heaven. Luckily we’d been on our feet all day so this was a well-deserved meal. IMG_6938IMG_6940
  • The Culpeper Roof Garden – I’ve dubbed Shoreditch the “Brooklyn” of London. With trendy restaurants and bars on every corner, this seems to be the neighborhood where every young professional in London is living these days. Our first night in town, we grabbed drinks on the roof of The Culpeper, which offers amazing views of the London skyline. And their Aperol Spritz (aka the cocktail of the summer) was on point.IMG_6910IMG_6908
  • Flight Club Darts – Flight Club is basically the British alternative to an American bowling alley. With two locations – Shoreditch and Bloomsbury – Flight Club is a great option for an evening out with a big group. Each group gets their own “Oche” (ie. bowling lane of darts) with a digitized dart board offering a variety of popular dart games and a waitress to order food and drinks. Despite being a terrible dart player this place was still really fun, offering a modern twist on a traditional British past time (plus they served up a great Pimm’s Cup). IMG_6949

Cultural Sites

The first time I visited London, I hit all the must-see tourist destinations. Since this was a second visit, I was less concerned with checking off the to do list and more interested in just enjoying the city. One of my favorite ways to do this is to go for a long walk or run first thing in the morning. It helps you get your bearings, get in a little exercise and also see a lot of the major sites before the crowds. From our hotel, we were able to easily see all of the following:

  • Buckingham Palace – The Royal residenceIMG_6882
  • Piccadilly Circus – Famous road junction near the theatre district
  • Hyde Park – Large park in central London (don’t miss the rose garden)IMG_6926
  • Westminster Abbey & Big Ben – British houses of Parliament and the famed London clocktowerIMG_6923
  • The London Eye – Ferris Wheel with sweeping views of the city
  • River Thames – Main body of water that runs through the city. It’s lovely to walk along the bank of the river and across the bridges.

We also booked a historical walking tour with City Wonders UK. This particular tour offered a 1.5 hour walking tour of Westminster and the surrounding areas with a guided history pertaining largely to World War II and Winston Churchill.

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Following the walking tour, our ticket granted us access to the Churchill War Rooms (without waiting in the very long line!), a series of rooms in a bunker under the heart of London from which Churchill conducted the British war effort during WWII. The museum has audio guides and includes a full chronology of Churchill’s life, in addition to the restored “war rooms” from the 1940’s. Both the tour and museum were fascinating and though we looked a lot like tourists with our headsets, audioguides and cameras, we learned a lot about British history during the war.

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Other Recommended Things to See

If you have more than just a weekend and/or it’s your first time visiting London, I definitely recommend these sites:

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ALPS TAKE 2: CHAMONIX-MONT BLANC

Last year, my friend and I traveled to Zermatt to ski alongside the Matterhorn in the Swiss Alps. This year, we decided to check out the French side of the mountain range and ventured to Chamonix to ski alongside another iconic European mountain, Mont Blanc.

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Getting There

While Chamonix itself is in the French Alps, the resort is located right on the border of Switzerland, making it easily accessible from Geneva’s airport. From New York, we flew to Geneva on Air France, with a short layover at Charles de Gaulle in Paris. The drive from Geneva to Chamonix is an easy 1 hour and 15 minutes and many shuttle companies offer affordable transportation. We booked with Alpybus for about 50 euros per person (round trip).

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Where to Stay

The Chamonix-Mont Blanc valley consists of a few different ski areas and as a result, there are plenty of options for accommodation. We booked a little late but were able to get a room at Chalet Hotel le Castel, a boutique property in Les Praz de Chamonix, a quaint little village located about 5-10 minutes drive from Chamonix’s main downtown area.

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The hotel was absolutely perfect for a weekend – located just across the street from La Flégère cable car, offering ski-in/ski-out access. Le Ravenel Sportshop is also located between the hotel and the lift, so renting equipment is a breeze.

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Our room at Chalet Hotel le Castel was absolutely adorable – the perfect blend of modern amenities (hello TV in the mirror) and quirky furnishings (don’t miss the giant flamingo), while still maintaining the look and feel of a French ski chalet.

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The Mountain

As I mentioned there are several ski areas located within the Chamonix area. Since we were across the street from La Flégère, we stayed on the slopes in that area, which also connects to Brévent. There was plenty of terrain in the Brévent-Flégère ski area for two full days, although I’d recommend trying some of the other ski areas if you are visiting for a longer period of time.

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The lifts opened each day at 8:50 am and we were usually one of the first in line. We were lucky enough to have amazing spring skiing weather during our trip, so we were treated to warmer temps and plenty of sunshine. Generally, we like to ski harder in the morning and stop for an early lunch then head back out for a few hours in the afternoon before finishing the day with a little après-ski beverage.

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Where to Eat

On the Mountain:

  • Altitude 2000 – in the Brévent ski area, offers salads, sandwiches, pizzas and drinks with plenty of outdoor seating. Sunny and quick service.fullsizeoutput_826
  • Le Panoramic – Also in the Brévent ski area, but at the top of the mountain (take the gondola up); offers panoramic views of the mountains and valley.
  • La Chavanne – Back in Flégère, a great spot for a quick lunch snack or perfect for après-ski. Both days we stopped here around 3-3:30 to enjoy some live music and rosé. (Tip: don’t miss the chocolate crepe for an afternoon snack)fullsizeoutput_82bfullsizeoutput_828

In Les Praz de Chamonix:

  • La Cabane des Praz – A recommendation from our dear friend, this place did not disappoint. Offering refined french cuisine in a rustic setting, we had the perfect seat by the fire and a delicious three-course meal.
  • Restaurant le Castel – The restaurant in our hotel was so delicious, we ate there twice. Being so close to the Italian border, they had all of my favorite Italian dishes: fresh carpaccio, penne a la vodka and probably the best tiramisu we’ve ever had. Great comfort food after a tough day of skiing!fullsizeoutput_83bfullsizeoutput_81d

Overall, Chamonix was absolutely gorgeous, offered tremendous skiing, and delicious food. Plus, it was an easy weekend trip for Europe. We can’t wait to come back!

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WINTER ADVENTURE IN ICELAND

Iceland has been at the top of everyone’s must-see list for the past couple of years, and for good reason. The country is relatively easy to get to (only a 5 hour flight from the eastern US) and offers jaw-dropping scenery with plenty of opportunity for outdoor adventure. While Iceland is a prime destination year-round, I chose to visit in the wintertime with hopes of seeing the Aurora Borealis.

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Getting There

Icelandair and WOW Air both offer non-stop flights from New York to Keflavik, the international airport serving Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik. I definitely recommend renting a car during your trip. Orange Car Rental is a great local option offering 4WD vehicles with snow-studded tires (perfect for winter). Their office is 5 minutes from the airport terminal, so a representative will pick you up at baggage claim upon arrival.

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Where to Stay

Many people choose to stay in Reykjavik and book several day trips to the country with various tour operators. This is definitely an easy way to coordinate your visit, especially for a shorter trip. However the city of Reykjavik is relatively small and the list of “must-see” attractions, for the most part, falls outside the city limits. If you can swing it, I definitely recommend staying at one of the hotels in the countryside.

Hotel Grimsborgir is ideally located an hour east of Reykjavik along the Golden Circle route and is absolutely delightful. Since I took this trip with my father, we were able to book a small two-bedroom apartment which was perfect – we each had our own bedroom, as well as a shared bathroom, kitchenette, dining and sitting area. For larger families, the hotel offers 4-bedroom apartments as well. Hotel Grimsborgir also has an on-site restaurant, where they serve a daily breakfast buffet (included in the room rate) as well as a full buffet dinner. We chose to eat in the restaurant every night, not only for convenience, but also because the food was delicious. Last but not least, the entire staff was incredibly helpful and friendly.

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At the end of our trip, we did spend one night in Reykjavik at the Radisson Blu Saga Hotel. However I wouldn’t recommend staying here. The property is dated (and I suspect we were in one of the older rooms) and located about 15 minutes’ walk from the city center. The Radisson Blu 1919 Hotel is situated centrally in the downtown area and probably a better option.

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What to Do

  1. Ride Icelandic horses at Laxnes Horse Farm – Just outside of Reykjavik, Laxnes Horse Farm is a family-run operation with over 100 Icelandic horses, a unique breed with five different gaits. The farm offers daily riding tours at 10 am and 2 pm. Riding time is about 2 hours and suitable for all levels – from beginners to more advanced riders. Unfortunately for us, it was pouring rain during our visit so we were soaked and frozen. But I imagine this would be an excellent activity in more temperate weather. img_5692
  2. Drive the Golden Circle – While many companies offer day trips from Reykjavik to explore the Golden Circle, it’s easy enough to drive the route yourself and visit the stops along the way. Since we were staying in the countryside, we broke up the route a bit and visited different stops on different days. The main attractions along the circle include:
    • Crater Kerid – A volcanic crater lake dsc00974
    • Faxi Waterfall dsc00987
    • Geysir Geothermal Area – Stokkur Geysir spouts every 5-7 minutes dsc00993
    • Gulfoss Waterfall – The most famous waterfall in Iceland dsc00999
    • Thingvellir National Park – Founding site of the Icelandic parliament in 930 AD as well as the meeting point for the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. dsc01037
  3. Hike in Thorsmork National Park – Thorsmork is a small national park in the south of Iceland, home to lakes, rivers, valleys, mountains and several volcanoes, including the Eyjafjallajokull volcano which erupted in 2010 and famously shut down airports all over Europe with its ash cloud. Given the terrain, you definitely need to book a tour in order to visit Thorsmork. We selected Midgard Adventure, which operates a full-day superjeep tour in the park. From the Midgard base, we were driven to the Thorsmork in a superjeep (with massive wheels allowing us to cross rivers and drive on rocky terrain), stopping along the way to visit the Seljalandsfoss waterfall. Inside the park, we explored the Eyjafjallajökull volcano flood scene, had a hot lunch at the Volcano Huts, and took several small hikes in the winter wonderland. We were lucky to have beautiful weather that day and even luckier to spot a black Arctic fox! On the return trip, our guide drove us down to the black sand beach on the southern coast, where we had stunning views of Heimaey Island at sunset. img_5785img_5786img_5788dsc00913
  4. Snowmobile on a GlacierArctic Adventures offers half-day snowmobile excursions on the Langjokull Glacier with pick-up from Gulfoss. Total snowmobile time is only about an hour, but the guides and equipment are all top-notch. And zipping around a glacier on a snowmobile was an awesome and exhilarating experience. img_5878img_5799
  5. Hunt for the Aurora Borealis – Several operators offer nighttime expeditions in search of the Northern Lights. However, if you’re staying in the countryside, as we were, a tour is probably unnecessary. Light pollution is already at a minimum, so you may be lucky enough to spot the lights just outside your hotel room. On New Year’s Eve night we had clear skies and an INCREDIBLE show. dsc01014dsc01010
  6. Take a dip in the Blue Lagoon – The Blue Lagoon is definitely a tourist attraction, but it’s still worth doing. Conveniently located just 20 minutes from the Keflavik airport, most travelers visit immediately upon arrival or just before their flight home. It’s necessary to book tickets in advance as times do fill up. I recommend the premium ticket, which includes a robe, towel, sandals, a complimentary beverage at the swim-up bar, and two mud masks – silica and algae. After your swim, you can shower off in the locker rooms and enjoy a fine dining meal at Lava Restaurant on premises. There is also a cafe for a lighter fare option. img_5925img_5927

Visiting Iceland in the winter was amazing and seeing the aurora borealis in action was absolutely a dream come true. Given the close proximity of Iceland, and the ease of exploring the country in a few days, I definitely recommend planning a trip there soon! However, a few things to note before you go:

  • When visiting in the winter, daylight is limited. When we were there in late December, the sunrise was at 11:15 am and sunset around 3:30 pm – however the sunrise and sunset were quite long, so it was really light from around 10am – 5 pm. Plenty of time for daily activities! But, when you’re alarm goes off at 8 am and its pitch black outside, its tough for your internal clock to get the message.
  • Another note on weather… Iceland has limited tree coverage and as a result, can be extremely windy. Keep this in mind when looking at the temperature forecast. Thirty degrees feels much much colder in 20 mile an hour winds!
  • Despite the cheap flights offered by Icelandair and WOW Air, Iceland in general is expensive. Hotels and food are definitely on the pricey side (and I live in NYC!), plus many activities (snowmobiling, Thorsmork, etc.) require that you book tours, which are also quite expensive, especially for a larger family.

Now I’ll be working on planning my trip back to Iceland in the summer to see the “Midnight Sun”!

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TARTAN & BAGPIPES: EDINBURGH EXCURSION

Following a recent work trip to Cologne, my friend and I decided to take advantage of our European location and hopped on a quick flight to Edinburgh for a long weekend. The capital of Scotland, Edinburgh is home to the Scottish parliament and is the seat of the UK monarchy in Scotland. The city is so picturesque and steeped in history – plus it’s extremely walkable and easy to see in just a couple of days.

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WHERE TO STAY

The Balmoral Hotel is a five-star property located in the center of the city. A hotel since 1902, this historic building originally operated as a traditional railway hotel, due to its proximity to the Waverley Train Station. This is definitely the place to stay if you’re looking for an iconic and luxurious residence during your stay.

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For a slightly more affordable option, I would definitely recommend the Radisson Blu Edinburgh. Smack dab in the center of Old Town, the location could not have been more convenient. The rooms were also extremely comfortable and the hotel offered all of the modern amenities that you could want, including a large breakfast buffet!

WHAT TO DO

1. The Royal Mile. The Royal Mile runs straight through the center of Old Town Edinburgh, from Holyrood Palace up to Edinburgh Castle. Along the stretch, which is actually just over a mile, you will find plenty of shops, pubs, street performers and age-old stone buildings.

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2. Edinburgh Castle. Definitely a must-see for any visitor to Edinburgh! This historic fortress sits atop Castle Rock, a volcanic plug from an extinct volcano system dating to the Carboniferous Age. Tickets to the castle include a free guided tour (generally these start every 15 minutes), which I recommend since there is so much to see here.

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The castle served as a royal residence from the 12th-15th centuries, when it then became a military barracks. It was in a small room in Edinburgh Castle that Mary, Queen of Scots gave birth to her son James, who later became James I, the first joint king of England and Scotland. In addition to old chapels, dungeons, bedrooms and banquet halls, the site also houses Scotland’s Crown Jewels as well as the Scottish National War Memorial.

3. Holyrood Palace. Also known as The Palace of Holyroodhouse, this serves as the seat of the monarchy when they are in residence. Admission includes an audio tour, which I definitely suggest since there are no placards at all in the house (we actually had to go back to pick up the headsets when we realized we weren’t learning anything just by walking through!).

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In addition to seeing the great halls and dining rooms where Queen Elizabeth II entertains during her visits to Scotland, the palace also offers plenty of history around the Stuart Dynasty, including the plight of Mary, Queen of Scots. Adjacent to the palace, there is also a beautiful ruin of a cathedral set among very scenic gardens and a stunning view of Arthur’s Seat.

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4. Arthur’s Seat. I could not get over the fact that this amazing hike was so close to the center of town. From our headquarters at the Radisson Blu, the top of Arthur’s Seat – a series of hills (from the same extinct volcano chain) in the center of Holyrood Park – was just about a 2 mile walk. We were lucky enough to visit on an absolutely picture-perfect day where the grass was as green as could be and the sky was brilliant blue. The top of Arthur’s Seat is a great place to enjoy a picnic and take in the impressive views across the city.

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5. Scotch Whisky Experience. Aside from tartan and bagpipes as I noted in the title of this post, Scotland is definitely known for Scotch whisky, which can only be made in Scotland! The Scotch Whisky Experience, located along the Royal Mile just below Edinburgh Castle, offers daily tours explaining the production of this national beverage. They also have a great gift shop and a restaurant and whisky bar called Amber.

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6. Following in JK Rowling’s Footsteps. During the years that J.K. Rowling was writing the Harry Potter series, she lived in Edinburgh and as a result, there are many spots in the city famed for inspiring the stories. As a huge “potterhead” myself, I felt compelled to follow World of Wanderlust‘s advice and see the Top 5 Things To Do in Edinburgh For Harry Potter FansThe Elephant House and The Balmoral Hotel are two locations where J.K. Rowling is reported to have spent significant amounts of time writing the books. While the Elephant House was a bit crowded and touristy as a result of this acclaim, I still snapped a pic from the street.

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I was most excited to visit Greyfriar’s Kirkyard to find Tom Riddle’s grave, which may have subconciously influenced Rowling’s name for Lord Voldemort in the series, as she frequently walked through the Kirkyard on her way home from the Elephant House. From the Kirkyard, you can also glimpse George Heriot’s School, which was said to be a major inspiration for Hogwarts.

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7. Ghost Tour. Beneath the city, there is a labyrinth of vaults that were used for storage by merchants. Long since abandoned, these underground rooms are now said to be haunted and many historical tour operators in the city also offer ghost tours through the vaults in the evening. On our last night in Edinburgh, we did the Evening of Ghosts and Ghouls tour with Mercat Tours. The two hour experience included tales of witchcraft and torture at Mercat Cross along the Royal Mile, candlelit ghost stories in the vaults themselves, and to cap off the evening, a complimentary beverage in Megget’s Cellar. Our tour guide, Louise, was perhaps the best storyteller I have ever heard and I was thoroughly entertained the whole evening!

WHAT TO EAT & WHERE

I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of food we found in Edinburgh. I had expected more traditional pub fare, yet instead we found quite an elevated and diverse culinary scene. Along with Scottish Whisky, no visit to Scotland would be complete without trying traditional Scottish dishes, such as:

  • Haggis – Scotland’s National Dish. You don’t really want to know what’s in it but its surprisingly delicious, especially when served with “Neeps & Tatties”, or mashed turnips and potatoes.
  • Smoked Salmon – so much smoked salmon!
  • Fish & Chips – Typically made with Scottish Haddock, the fish is lightly breaded and fried, and served with a side of french fries and peas.
  • Cranachan – A version of a trifle, made of honey, cream, whisky-soaked oats, and fruit.

A couple of our favorite restaurants in Edinburgh were:

  • Lucano & Ross – Just across from The Elephant House on the George IV Bridge, we happened upon this small cafe, featuring a blend of Italian and Scottish cuisine. The decor was too cute! And the food hit the spot.img_5084
  • Whiski – This pub was right across from our hotel and was always packed and smelled amazing. One night we went in and split the fish & chips. While I’m not big on fried food, I have to say the fish was divine!
  • Afternoon Tea at the Balmoral Hotel – I absolutely adore going to afternoon tea at a fancy hotel, especially on vacation. My friend whom I was traveling with had never been to afternoon tea before, and let me tell you, she loved every minute of it. Tea at the Balmoral Hotel is served in the Palm Court. img_5140Aside from tons of delicious food and dozens of unlimited teas to choose from, I was particularly impressed with the Balmoral tea service as they really went above and beyond with a live harpist playing soothing music, big comfy chairs with tons of pillows, and a tradition of adding a glass of champagne to your tea (we had two). Reservations are required and it really is quite a bit of food so arrive hungry!
  • The Witchery – Right next to the Scotch Whisky Experience sits The Witchery, deemed the most romantic restaurant in Edinburgh. The ambiance here is excellent, and while the food is a bit more expensive than other dining establishments, its worthwhile for a celebration or to cap off the end of your trip.

DAY TRIPS 

While there really is so much to see and do in Edinburgh, I was eager to get out of the city and explore some of the countryside and smaller towns as well.

1. Loch Ness & The Scottish Highlands. Rather than rent a car and worry about driving on the other side of the road, we booked a full day trip to Loch Ness with Highland Explorer Tours. We chose the Taste of the Highlands Tour, which included a gourmet three-course lunch of traditional Scottish fare at The Lovat Hotel in Fort Augustus. The highlands were truly breathtaking and I was so happy we had a chance to visit.

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The downside of this tour is that Loch Ness is quite a trip from Edinburgh, so we spent a fair amount of the day on a bus. However, the upside was that our tour guide was extremely knowledgeable about Scottish history and culture, so we learned a ton! If we’d had a bit more time, I would have booked one of the multi-day tours offered by Highland Explorer so that we could have spent more time out in the countryside, as it truly was so relaxing.

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2. St. Andrews. About an hour from Edinburgh by train (take the ScotRail to Leuchars, where you can hop a free shuttle or grab a taxi to drive the 10 minutes into St. Andrews), St. Andrews makes for a really easy day trip – or even half a day. Known as the golf mecca of Scotland, St. Andrews is also very much a university town, home to the University of St. Andrews, Scotland’s first university which was founded in 1413. dsc00201-1Just on the outskirts of town, you will also find beautiful ruins of the St. Andrews Castle and the St. Andrews Cathedral – which are definitely worth a visit. dsc00226dsc00230

And lastly, if you have time for lunch in St. Andrew’s, head to The Adamson. This was perhaps the best meal we had in Scotland, which makes sense because it was named Scottish Restaurant of the Year in 2015. img_5165The food was so fresh and tasty and the cocktails were so innovative (dry ice anyone?). But my favorite was this warm homemade bread with butter and of course, the sticky toffee pudding with vanilla ice cream – it was just divine!

We had an incredible time visiting Scotland and I can’t wait to come back!

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TOP FIVE: COLOGNE, GERMANY

Cologne, the 4th largest city in Germany (after Berlin, Hamburg, and Munich), is situated in the Western portion of the country along the Rhine River. I recently traveled to Cologne for a work conference and luckily, had a bit of free time to explore. While there isn’t a ton to see in Cologne, it’s definitely worth a visit as part of a German tour. Here are my recommendations for the top 5 things to see and do in Cologne:

dsc000341. Cologne Cathedral (Kolner Dom) is hands down the #1 site to see if you spend any time in Cologne. Construction began on this cathedral in 1248 and it now stands as one of the preeminent examples of Gothic architecture in Europe today. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is also the most visited landmark in all of Germany. The Shrine of the Three Kings is believed to hold the remains of the three wise men and is the reason that the church has served as a pilgrimage destination for Catholics since the middle ages.

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2. Old Town Cologne is very close in proximity to the Cathedral. Though small, it includes a smattering of colorful and charming old buildings that mostly house restaurants, bars and gelato shops. Situated just along the Rhine river and a small park, it’s a delightful place to sit outside for lunch or in the evening and enjoy some fresh air in the center of the city.

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3. Hohenzollern Bridge is Cologne’s very own “Love Locks” bridge. With a wide pedestrian walkway along the side, the bridge offers great views over the Rhine River. The amount of locks on this bridge is also truly astounding and makes for quite a beautiful art display as you walk along.

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Image via Wikicommons

 

4. Gaffel am Dom is one of Cologne’s best known beer halls, featuring Kolsch beer (a light beer native to Cologne) made by the local Gaffel brewery. This beer hall is also very close in proximity to the Cathedral. It’s quite large and is a great place to enjoy a round of Kolsch with a larger group and to sample some traditional German fare. The schnitzel in particular was excellent!

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5. The Lindt Chocolate Museum is located just down the river from Old Town. While this is a bit touristy, who can resist chocolate? I, unfortunately, didn’t have time to tour the museum but I definitely spent some time in the gift shop and purchased a few “souvenirs” if you will. There’s also a great cafe in back with some delectable looking cakes!

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Beautiful sunny day in Cologne along the Rhine River

SUMMER ESCAPE TO PORTUGAL

One of Europe’s most underrated destinations, Portugal is becoming increasingly popular with tourists looking for an easy and affordable summer escape. While Lisbon is a thriving cultural center, Portugal also offers plenty of options for relaxation, from lush wineries in the north to pristine beaches in the south. I recently spent a week with a good friend of mine exploring and enjoying this beautiful country.

First Stop: Porto

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View of the Cais de Gaia

Porto (or Oporto) is the second largest city in Lisbon, situated in the northern part of the country. Famous for its port wine production, Porto is also the gateway to the Duoro Valley, a world heritage site.

From New York, we were able to fly directly from Newark to Porto on TAP Portugal Airline. While in the city for two days, we stayed at the Premium Porto Downtown, which was a lovely and affordable boutique hotel well situated for exploring the city.

Our favorite moments in Porto:

Day Trip: Duoro Valley

While the city was just beautiful, the absolute highlight of the trip was the full day tour we took to the Duoro Valley. 

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The town of Pinhao in the Duoro Valley

About an hour and a half drive from downtown Porto is the town of Pinhao in the heart of the Duoro Valley. Our tour included lunch in town with traditional Portuguese fare, tasting at two different wine estates (1 with regular Duoro wine and 1 focused on port wine), and a river cruise on a traditional Portuguese riverboat. Not only was the scenery stunning, but we also learned a ton about Portuguese culture, history and wine from our very knowledgeable guide.

Next Stop: Lisbon

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Panorama of Lisbon perched at the Castelo de Sao Jorge

Just a three-hour train ride from Porto, sits Lisbon, Portugal’s capital and cultural center. The city is extremely reminiscent of San Francisco, from its hilly streets, to its cable cars, to the 25th of April Bridge, which mirrors the Golden Gate.

Where to Stay

In Lisbon, we stayed at the Memmo Alfama, a boutique hotel located in the heart of Alfama, Lisbon’s historic district. The accommodations were comfortable and modern, the free breakfast was fresh and delicious, and the rooftop dipping pool was the perfect break on a hot summer afternoon.

Lisbon Highlights:

  • Castelo de Sao Jorge – A Moorish castle set on a hilltop in Alfama; panoramic city views
  • Rua Augusta – Lisbon’s main pedestrian street with plentiful shops & cafes
  • Praca do Comercio – Waterfront square; served as the port of entry to the city
  • Minibar – Our best meal in Portugal! Make reservations in advance and order the tasting menu.
  • Park Bar – a rooftop bar on the top of a Parking Garage in Bairro Alto
  • Belem Tower – a 16th century fortress in Belem
  • Monument of the Discoveries – a stunning monument which pays homage to Portugal’s rich exploratory history
  • Pasteis de Belem – home of the original custard tart! You will find these mini custard tarts all over Portugal, but the original version at this Belem bakery is hands down the best. Worth the wait, they are served warm with cinnamon and powdered sugar.

Day Trip: Sintra

While there is plenty to see in Lisbon, a day trip to Sintra and Cascais is well worth it. Sintra is an adorable little hillside town about 30 minutes from Lisbon, home to the Pena Palace, King Ferdinand II’s summer home, which offers daily tours.

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Pena National Palace in Sintra

And Cascais, only about 15-20 minutes from Lisbon, is a popular seaside getaway for Lisbon residents.

Last Stop: The Algarve

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Private beach at the Vilalara Thalassa Resort

For the last stop on our Portuguese tour, we rented a car and drove 2.5 hours from Lisbon to The Algarve, Portugal’s beach region. We checked into the Vilalara Thalassa Resort, a 5-star luxury resort in the heart of the Algarve region. While we enjoyed exploring the Algarve region including a drive to The End of the World, swimming at Praia dona Ana in Lagos, and enjoying the nightlife in Albufeira, the best part of our three days here was relaxing at our resort! We spent plenty of time enjoying the private beach and buffet breakfasts. And not to be missed, is a small boat tour along the coastline to explore the Algarve’s famous caves and azure waters. 

 

SKI WEEKEND IN ZERMATT, SWITZERLAND

Following a recent work trip to Barcelona, Spain, my coworker and I headed off for a few days of skiing in the Swiss Alps.

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View of the Swiss Alps from the top of Zermatt

Getting There

Train travel in Europe is so easy and Switzerland doesn’t disappoint. From our flight to Geneva, we boarded a train in the airport that took us straight to Zermatt (well with a transfer in Visp). The total train journey is about 4 hours from Geneva Airport and about 3.5 hours if you fly into Zurich. There are no cars allowed in Zermatt, but the town is small enough to walk through. The train empties right in the center of town so you can easily walk to your hotel. Or, if you have a lot of luggage, most hotels will pick you up via shuttle or horse-drawn carriage.

Where to Stay

We stayed at the Alpenhotel Fleurs de Zermatt, a beautiful hotel very conveniently located to the center of town. The rooms at this boutique hotel were extremely clean and comfortable, with every amenity you could want. Including a private balcony, robes and slippers, rain shower and tub. The staff at the hotel was also incredibly helpful with suggesting ski rental places and making restaurant reservations for us. And last but not least, they have a fabulous spa complete with indoor/outdoor pool, steam room, and sauna which is excellent after a long day of skiing (Side note: definitely try the warm vegetable bullion in the spa – it’s amazing).

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Skiing in Zermatt

Skiing

Zermatt is a big mountain with amazing views of the Mattherhorn. Different from the US, the trails are numbered rather than named, and range from blue to red to black, in terms of difficulty (rather than green to blue to black in North America). The first day, we took gondolas (and a funicular) up to the tippy top of the mountain (over 12,000 feet). We then skied down 12.4 miles into Valtournenche, Italy on the 2nd longest ski run in the world, breaking for a delicious lunch of pasta and wine at Foyer des Guides. The second day, we stopped for cheese fondue and gluhwein at Iglu-dorf, a literal igloo village in the middle of the mountain complete with live music.

Where to Eat

  • Unique Hotel Post – An eclectic spot with casual bar fare or fine Italian dining. Also has several bars and rooms for live music and dancing.
  • Molino – Slightly upscale Italian if you’re in the mood for artisanal pizzas.
  • Chez Gaby – Traditional swiss fare with a focus on grilled meats – absolutely delicious. And don’t miss the chocolate fondue.
  • Laderach – Don’t miss this delicious chocolate shop on the main street – Bahnhofplatz. A great place to buy some edible souvenirs.
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The Matterhorn