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Iceland Thanksgiving Day 3: Golden Circle

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Today, we took the Golden Circle tour, which hits the “must see” natural attractions in western Iceland. For the 3rd time, we used the small tour operator, Iceland Horizons, which we continue to recommend.

The tour includes 2 waterfalls, the spot where the North American and Euroasian continental plates meet and the geyser Geyser, which gave all geysers their name. I’m just going to share all the pretty pictures.

I’ll start with a video of the Strokkur geyser eruption, followed by a waterfall video, then highlight pics.

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We arrived back in Reykjavik  around 4:30 and stopped for coffee/tea/beer. Dinner was a 15 minute walk to Kitchen & Wine, where Ellen and I both had trout and Robyn had lobster.

We have time tomorrow for one more museum, before returning home. We’d definitely enjoy a few more days and are pretty sure that our 4th visit to Iceland will not be our last.

 

 


Iceland Thanksgiving: Day 1

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When visiting a country you have been to 3 times previously, it’s pretty easy to hit the ground running. We got on the plane and slept. We landed and knew just where to get our SIM cards (Arrivals Duty Free store, ask the cashier, Nova cards). We knew where to catch the FlyBus to the Blue Lagoon.

What was different this time was it was dark. We landed at 6:30am, were on a 7:30 bus to the lagoon, arrived there at 8, and got out of the water just around 10:30am…when it was just starting to get light. It was cold and windy and rainy, but with 100ºF water, it was still really comfortable and relaxing. But you miss seeing the moonscape-like lava fields on the way in from the airport.

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We then bussed into the city, found our AirBnB (our first time using it), met up with our friend Robyn who had arrived one day early, and headed into town. It’s never a mystery what my first desired stop is. img_1737

Got to visit the new flagship store. But since I own 3 jackets, a shell, a hat and a t-shirt, there really wasn’t anything compelling to buy. So I bought a pair of socks.

We walked more through town, which just feels like home at this point. Like seeing City Hall. img_1733

The Christmas decorations are up, and since there are only 5.5 hours of light now, they get to be lit up a great deal. img_1738

Ellen had picked a tapas place that Ben had recommended to us, Tapas Barinn. Fairly traditional tapas, a good amount of fish offered.

We were supposed to do a Northern lights tour tonight, but it was canceled due to the weather. Although the lights were a big part of coming in November instead of our traditional summer visits, we had read that the weather can be uncooperative, so you shouldn’t have your heart set on seeing them. So we don’t. We have two more shots the next two nights, but we’ll see what happens.

We have museums scheduled for tomorrow and the Golden Circle tour for Saturday. On the way home from dinner, we had to walk by the hot dog stand made famous by Bill Clinton. img_1739

Hope everyone back home is having a happy Thanksgiving!

 


Peru Day 6: Aguascaliente

 

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We woke up to the beautiful view of the mountains that surrounded us. After breakfast at the hotel, we went to meet our train, which was easy since we were right there.

The train was the Vistadome, so lots of windows to watch the Sacred Valley go by. I didn’t take pictures of the train today, will do that tomorrow!

Our seats faced a mom and her daughter. We got to talking and talked non-stop the whole trip. A little unusual for us introverts, but the stories were fascinating. The mother was born in the Ukraine and left when she was 9, moving to southern California. She met and married another Ukranian. The daughter was 19, just finished her first year at UCLA. And the rest of the family was hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu as part of a group of relatives who had made the trip. So much to talk about!

We arrived in Aguascaliente, the town that is closest to Machu Picchu, a little after noon. Our hotel met us at the train station and walked us down the hill to the hotel, transporting our luggage to. We checked in, then headed out for lunch, as there was a 2pm pisco sour/cerviche class and we didn’t want to miss that!

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Our hotel, at the end

 

We got caught in a downpour and stood undercover for about 10 minutes to let the worst of it pass. We went into a French bakery for lunch. A tap on the shoulder and I turned around, it was our train companions. So we lunched together, then hurried back for our class.

The class was only another couple and us. The bartender taught us about the different kind of piscos. Pisco is a kind of brandy, grape based and aged in kettles, not oak. The pisco sour is a fairly simple drink, and we have the recipe to try at home. A hotel chef then came in to teach us ceviche, raw fish, lots of lime juice and several other ingredients. Tasty!

We headed back up the hill to town to explore more. We ran into our train friends again (it’s really a small town!). They guided us to a silver store, and Ellen picked up a few things. DSC_0321

We then walked through the central market. It was like most markets in what in sold, meat, chicken, fruits, vegetables. But the stray dogs roamed through it, it didn’t smell good, and I wouldn’t have eaten anything there for fear of getting sick. DSC_0316

We ate dinner at the hotel, it was included in our package. The meal was excellent. For an appetizer, I had quinoa crusted chicken nuggets. Better than any you get at McDonalds! Seriously, they use quinoa for so many things, we need to try to cook more with it.

The hotel secured our tickets for the bus to Machu Picchu and our entrance. Hoping it doesn’t rain, but ready for the experience tomorrow, no matter what.


Peru Day 5: Ollantaytambo

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We said goodbye, for now, to Cusco, and headed down a couple thousand feet in altitude to Ollantaytambo. We took a taxi from Cusco. For an almost 2 hour ride? The fare was $45 including tip. Beat that, United States!

A temple, an agricultural area, a fortress, Ollantaytambo had many purposes over time. Today, it just means SO. MANY. STEPS. TO. CLIMB. Ellen made it about 1/2 way up and wisely turned back. The steps are irregular stones at different heights with no handrail. We do have some advice about visiting Peru. Do it while you are young! The sights and size of Ollantaytambo were amazing though. DSC_0277DSC_0280DSC_0282DSC_0287

I made my way back down from the top. One of the buildings in the rock you can see in the picture above, you could walk up it. Um, no. We had enough climbing for the day.

We walked into the small town, having lunch at the Hearts Cafe. We then took a stroll through the town square. DSC_0292DSC_0294DSC_0295DSC_0288

The rainbow flag here is not a gay pride symbol, it is an Inca representation of the colors of the rainbow.

We stopped for coffee on the way back to our hotel, El Alberque. It is right next to the train station, which is good, because we take the train to Aguas Caliente tomorrow to prepare for Machu Picchu.

Our hotel had the #1 TripAdvisor rated restaurant for this town, so we took advantage of it and ate right on the property. Ellen had lamb with quinoa risotto, I had a lasagna with local vegetables and spices. Both were really good.


Peru Day 4: City Tour

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In most cities, a city tour is a bus ride that shows you the major sites. In Cusco, it’s a trip just a few miles outside of town to some of the most amazing Inca ruins. We visited Sacsayhuaman, Qenko, Puka Pukara and Tombomachay. I’m going to need to work on which is which. I’ve decided from now on, I’ll take a picture of a sign each time we enter a new place.

We had a guide/driver today. Carlos was a man of about 60. He had been up at 6 today to take a class at university before picking us up at 9. He’s a student of history, of the Incas and is studying English to be even more fluent. He’s written a book about Peru and the Incas. He wants to get it into the Library of Congress. We told him how close we lived to there and that we’d help. He said he really likes DC and its monuments. How does he know them? He says he watches House of Cards!

What was amazing was the formations. How did the Incas transport these rocks 22km from the quarry? How did they carve these huge stones? How did they lift them into place? How did they know to arrange them for strength and to withstand earthquakes? How did they fit the stones so perfectly that they’ve stayed in place, without mortar? So here are some of the pictures from the day.

I was no match for the size of some of these stones! DSC_0239

We finished back in the Plaza and Carlos gave us a tour of the Catedral del Cuzco. Pictures were not allowed inside, but it was an amazing church. DSC_0271

At our guide’s recommendation we went to Chicha for lunch. We had a great meal, I had corn-stuffed ravioli. IMG_0763

We did a little shopping, then did something exceedingly rare for us. We went back to the hotel and went to the spa! The hotel has a very large whirlpool and a sauna. Felt heavenly!

Ellen took advantage of the daily free pisco sour again, and then we went to dinner, a pizza place called Justina Pizzeria just two blocks from the hotel. It was a cute, wood-burning fireplace pizza joint. 2 pizzas and a 640ml beer for less than $20! IMG_0765

We leave Cusco tomorrow, but much more awaits!


Loire Valley Trip: Endnotes

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Monet’s garden in Giverny

Just getting around to summarizing our trip to the Loire Valley, here are some thoughts I am left with:

  • Short trip, but: We hear a lot “you went to France for 5 days?” But you’d go to San Francisco or New Orleans or San Antonio or Seattle for a long weekend. The flight to Paris is ~8 hours, but overnight going and part of a required travel day coming back. We’ve done these long weekend trips before, to Madrid and Barcelona. You can concentrate on a smaller geographic region and not feel rushed to do everything. In fact, this was one of our most relaxed trips, because we kept the distances short and took in what we could.
  • Off-line technology: It might come as a surprise to some, but I like being unplugged sometimes. Hey, the trip to Cuba proved I could be off the internet for 8 days and survive. So I chose to use nothing but hotel Internet (and occasional free hotspot). But being unplugged doesn’t mean you can’t take advantage of technology. I used 2 apps for the first time that work with no data connection, and can no highly recommend them. I already mentioned Navmii, which is a GPS app. You can download it for individual countries, which then includes all the maps and points of interest. We used it for driving and walking, and it worked wonderfully. The second app I loved was Microsoft Translator. You can take a picture of text (e.g. a sign or a menu) and it will translate it for you. It didn’t work perfectly, but often gave me the gist of something I couldn’t translate myself. Both apps are free and work without data, that’s great for a traveler.
  • Pack light: We both traveled with nothing but carry-on luggage. I used my new Tortuga backpack. 5 shirts, 2 pair of pants, socks/underwear, t-shirt to sleep in. Only thing I skimped on was only one pair of shoes. But being that light helped since we stayed in 3 hotels in 4 nights. And it meant no time waiting at the airport for the luggage to come out.
  • Get Global Entry: Global Entry really paid for itself this time. Now, at least at Dulles, you don’t even half to talk to an immigration agent. And while the line for Customs looked to be around 100-150 people, there was literally no one in the special Global Entry line. So we whizzed through, saving time and aggravation.
  • Keep traveling: Travel is easiest when you are young and healthy. We are no longer so young, but we want to travel our way (independent of tours) for as long as we can. Which is why we are going to keep doing trips like this as long as our health and money hold out.

Thanks for traveling along with us. Next trip is to Peru in early July.


Loire Valley Day 4: Three Châteaus

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For a day, we visited some picture perfect chateaus. And yes, the picture above is real, the frame is set-up to take this postcard-like picture.

Château de Blois was our first stop. We were somewhat surprised that it was an urban chateau. But we really liked it.DSC_0568

Château de Chambord was just too much. A 420 room “hunting lodge”?  It did have a circular staircase designed by Leonardi di Vinci. Not every hunting lodge has that.DSC_0589

I got the same feeling at Chambord that I got at Versailles. Too much. Just too much. The royals sure lived well, but where did the money come from and how did their subjects live? Europe’s history is full of excess

Leaving Chambord, we headed through the town of Bracieux. We were hungry and found a small place for an excellent lunch. We were the only English-speakers there, which we love. We had passed a chocolate factory just before that, Max Vauché. I’m not sure it was a formal rule before, but when you pass a chocolate factory, you stop. So we went back and bought a little bit. I mean, what the heck, we’re on vacation!

Château de Cheverny was of reasonable size. Nice gardens. And hound dogs!DSC_0596

 

Back in town, we had dinner at L’Epicerie. We had a half bottle of local Loire Valley red wine, salmon for Ellen in a creme sauce, steak for me. Ellen had cheese for dessert.

Sadly, we head home tomorrow. We had a full, but not too full, 4 days. We did the things we set out to do, and had some great non-planned experiences along the way.