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 offers 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