Video: Ice cave tours and…a Bachelor sighting?

After ripping over the surface of Langjökull with our snowmobiles, we slowed it way down for our ice cave hiking tour on Vatnajökull Glacier.

Our tour (again affiliated with Guide to Iceland for $200) began in the city of Vik, a small town located about 2-3 hours east of Reykjavik, where another over-sized Land Rover collected us. Much like the snowmobiling tour, it takes a good hour of seriously bumpy, off-roading to get to the starting point where we can start hiking to the caves. And again, like the snowmobiling tour, pee before you go. Keep in mind that this tour is only available November-March otherwise be prepared to be on a waterfall tour.

The winds on the way to the ice caves were the strongest we battled all trip (in fact we did this tour in lieu of a glacier hike option that was cancelled due to the dangerous wind speeds). Even if it’s not sunny out, I recommend bringing your sunglasses to cover your eyes from the blowing dust and ice. The tour company provides crampons and helmuts–both of which you are required to wear.

As we hiked our way towards the ice caves, which takes approximately 10 minutes, it’s an astonishing sight to see the black sand volcanic landscape all around. Our guide told us that they filmed parts of Interstellar there. Once you get to the ice caves, it’s not the immense caverns that will astonish you. It’s the fact that what you’re seeing isn’t stone–it’s incredibly polished ice. It was almost like we were inside a giant, textured glass vase.

After the ice cave tour, we grabbed lunch back in Vik at Suður-Vík. This cute little lodge had an excellent seafood soup and fried camembert.

But the real highlight (if you would consider this a highlight) was randomly seeing the Bachelor Arie and his new, second(?) fiancé Lauren. When they walked in, I at first thought I recognized them because they were on a previous tour with us or something like that. But when I leaned over to the only female in our group and asked, “Is that man the Bachelor?”, her eyes lit up, and she gave 100% confirmation that it was indeed the reality show stars. I’m not sure what was more bizarre–seeing the pair in Iceland, or recognizing them in the first place.

 

Video: Glacier Snowmobiling

Special thanks to Vikram for filming. The tour guides said specifically NOT to film because of the risk of losing your phone. But Vik doesn’t really ever follow the rules…

Spending time in Reykjavik is nice, but the really good stuff that Iceland offers is outside of the city. While there were many highlights of the trip, the most “exhilarating” of them had to be the snowmobile tour on top of Langjökull Glacier.

It’s not the cheapest activity ($300 with Guide to Iceland), but in this traveler’s opinion it’s money well spent for a unique and memorable experience. To get to the outpost, you ride what can only be described as a monster truck sized rover for an hour to the top of the glacier. Be sure to pee beforehand because the ride is slow, bumpy, and will make your bladder feel like it’s on a one-hour bull ride.

Once you get to the base, and I know it’s an overused cliché, it really does feel like you’re on Hoth or North of the Wall. To give you an idea of how cold it is up there, the boiling hot coffee (and I mean it was boiling hot) they offer is ice cold within two minutes–just from holding it outside. And again, be judicious with what photos you want to take. Your camera will shutdown because of the cold. Keep it close to your body when you’re not using it to keep it from freezing.

Don’t worry about needing a jumpsuit as they provide those along with helmets, gloves, and masks–you’ll feel like an astronaut. The snowmobiles carry two people, though if there’s an odd number there will be solo riders. The vehicles are simple to understand how to use, but much harder to operate in practice.

The snowmobiles top out at incredibly fast 80 mph; you will feel it in your arms if you’re the driver. Turning these things while on inclines and declines is a serious workout, and if you don’t lean your body with the correct form it is not hard to flip these things. It’s even more challenging if you’re on one by yourself as you don’t have the passenger helping you lean with the turns. Luckily, none of us flipped! (Though we came heart-stoppingly close a couple of times…) Your face will take a beating as well from the howling wind and snow.

The views are nothing short of spectacular. It’s just 360 degrees of beautiful white, glistening snow–a really surreal sight especially with the silence. We also got lucky that it was a perfectly sunny day; we were told that weather that great comes very rarely.

The snowmobiling is an activity very much worth doing, even with the price you have to pay.

Reykjavik – Where to Stay and Eat

It’s no secret that Iceland is probably one of the trendiest countries to visit right now, and it’s not hard to see why. For those looking for a trip that is like no other, Iceland fits that bill. As the site of where they film Game of Thrones and created the world from Interstellar, it’s easy to wander around the country and feel like you’re on another planet.

The capital of Reykjavik is about a 50 minute drive from the airport. When you fly in, be sure to stop in the Duty Free liquor store to stock up on some alcohol for your trip if you want to save some money (liquor is very expensive in Iceland due to the taxes). Beer and wine can be purchased in country though for reasonable prices (Einstock and Borg are both excellent beer options). Vínbúdin was our store of choice frequently (this chain has locations throughout the country).

Driving around the country is quite easy, and it seems like most of the rental cars come with GPS. Everyone speaks English and are all very friendly, so it’s not hard to get around–which is lucky because any tourist trying to pronounce Icelandic words will undoubtedly be spewing out gibberish.

As I alluded to earlier, food prices are quite high. But despite the prices, the quality of most of the food we ate was excellent. DO NOT BUY BOTTLED WATER. It’d be a total waste of your money. The tap water is probably the cleanest tasting water I’ve ever had. Keep in mind that when you run the water hot, it smells a little funky, like rotten eggs, because of the sulfur, but it’s fine when it’s running cold.

Reykjavik itself is a very unassuming city. There are no skyscrapers, and the atmosphere is very slow-paced and chill. I’d recommend giving yourself a weekend to see everything in Reykjavik, but you probably don’t need much more than that. Most of the highlights from the trip are from the sights outside the city, and I’ll be getting into each of those in upcoming blog posts.

One other thing–obviously Iceland is cold. But what I hadn’t realized is how much the cold would affect the battery on my cell phone. So my advice would be to make sure your phone stays as close to your body as possible, and on the really cold days (especially when you’re out on the glaciers), be very judicious in choosing when to take pictures. My phone died on several occasions just from being out in the elements too long. My advice is also to invest in a portable charger like I did to kick start it back to life in the car.

Where to Stay

Hótel Óðinsvé
Þórsgötu 1, 101 Reykjavík

Great location, fantastic front desk staff. Don’t bother trying to put the address in the GPS because for some reason those Icelandic letters in the street name don’t show up. Instead, put the hotel name in the “Points of Interest” category and it should show up that way. For $300 a night, three of us shared one of their 3 bed flats.

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Where to Eat

SandholtBrauð & Co., and Bergsson Mathús for breakfast
Address and hours on their respective websites.

It’s gotta be something in the water. We were convinced of it based on how good the bread in Iceland is. Any one of these locations offers delicious brunch options with their pastries, such as chocolate croissants and raisin danishes, being the highlights. Sandholt and Bergsson Mathús are good options if you want to sit and eat. Bergsson Mathús is a bit smaller, and cozier, but Sandholt has more food options, including lunch options to-go. I recommend grabbing sandwiches from Sandholt for lunch later in the day, especially if you’re going to be driving the Golden Circle. Brauð & Co. is more of a grab and go place; be sure to grab one of their cinnamon rolls.

Sandholt

Brauð & Co.

Bergsson Mathús

Grillmarkaðurinn
Lækjargata 2a, 101 Reykjavík

This steak house was a little tough to find; we kept missing the small sign that leads to an alley which takes you to the building it’s in. This restaurant is quite pricey, but not any more pricey than going to a really nice steakhouse in the states. On the menu were various items which you probably won’t find elsewhere (such as puffin and whale). Full disclosure: We tried both the puffin and whale. Was there a bit of cognitive dissonance doing it? Absolutely yes. And although we were assured by one of our tour guides that the whale that is served isn’t the “endangered” kind, it still felt a little off. But alas, we tried it, and my advice — don’t bother. It’s nothing to write home about. You can order sashimi and it’s practically the same thing. What is worth writing home about from Grillmarkaðurinn? The black sea salt butter that came with the delicious bread (the bread again!), the 27 day aged ribeye, and the Golden Circle cocktail.

Sjávargrillið
Skólavörðustígur 14, 101 Reykjavík

You can make the argument that the single best entree may have been the 27 day aged ribeye from Grillmarkaðurinn, but I think most from my group would agree that Sjávargrillið was the best overall dining experience. The prices were a bit lower and the ambiance was a little brighter and more casual. The specialty of this restaurant is seafood, and that’s what we went with and on the whole, the entire meal was a winner. Each of our entrees was excellent: the catch of the day catfish with mashed potatoes, the salmon with cous cous, the fried cod with cous cous, and grilled tuna with bok choy. The appetizers included lobster tacos, carpaccio, and Arctic char. But the highlight was the creme brûlée with liquid nitrogen pistachio ice cream dessert which one member of our party declared “This is it!” and joked that his trip at that point may as well have been over.

Hot Dogs
Various locations

They love hot dogs in Iceland. Not totally sure where that love comes from. But it’s a lot like how Hawaiians love SPAM type thing. The street hot dogs are a good drunk food or if you just want a snack. They’re not really any different from a New York hot dog, but the bun is toasted and the gravy they put on it is pretty tasty.

Where to Drink

Mikkeller & Friends
Hverfisgata 12, 101 Reykjavík

This dark, cozy, bohemian style beer house offers 20 different styles of beer on tap. It’s definitely a great spot if you want to lay low after a long day of sightseeing, but because you’re so closely packed in with other customers, don’t be surprised if a conversation sparks with your neighbors.

Bjórgarðurinn
1, 105, Þórunnartún, Reykjavík

This beer garden could not be more opposite in atmosphere to Mikkeller & Friends. Located within the lobby of a hotel, this beer hall was brighter, had higher ceilings, live music, and the clientele was much more professional. That being said, the beer offerings were still quite excellent and Bjórgarðurinn had more more of a food menu.

Questionable Restaurants

Matur og Drykkur

We came to Matur og Drykkur in order to have a  traditional Icelandic meal. I feel a bit torn because I don’t want to give it a “bad” review; the service and atmosphere were actually quite nice. But the food was, shall we say, unique. Some of us really didn’t like it, other were okay with it. Personally, I didn’t hate it, but it is a meal that will test your palette.  A lot of the food is really salty. And the cod head I ordered was truly bizarre–again it didn’t necessarily taste badly, it was just weird. So my advice is this: If you really want to step out of your comfort zone, give this place a try. But don’t go if you’re really hungry, or are not willing to pay a high price for a meal that may not necessarily sit well in your stomach.

The bizarre cod fish head…

Slippbarinn

We stopped by here for a drink before dinner, and it wasn’t bad. But it also wasn’t as great as the reviews would make it seem. The cocktails were perfectly decent and fun, but for the price I’d prefer to spend my time and money somewhere else.

Coming Up: Things to do in Reykjavik

Video: Jeep Tour of Hoi An, Da Nang, and everything in-between

We booked an all day Jeep tour with Looking Glass Jeep Tours that drove us through Hoi An and the neighboring city of Da Nang, as well as the countryside in-between. Our driver/tour guide, Jeremy, is an American that has lived in Vietnam for about 7 years and was extremely knowledgable. His tour takes you to several historical sights, many of which are associated with the Vietnam war, in an open air Jeep that is a legit, Vietnam War-era Army vehicle. Overall, the tour is great, but there are pros and cons.

Pros:

  • Jeremy plays a lot of 60s, Forrest Gump soundtrack tunes to give the sightseeing a great vibe and brings along old photos which he will superimpose over your view so that you can see comparisons of how the landscape looked during the war.
  • You get to see the countryside, which you probably wouldn’t see on your own.

  • Jeremy stops at different parts of tiny villages, like Hua Nan, including the schools. With bags of candy he provides, you can hand out sweets to the schoolchildren in the playground during their recess. It’s intense–my heart was racing as dozens of Vietnamese children came up to the Jeep to get candy. It’s an unbelievable experience.
You get to talk to some of the local children and help them practice their English since they don’t get to do it that often outside of the classroom.

  • He stops at a slate factory, where you can experience splitting slate with the local workers, and introduces you to a local fishing boat maker, who shows you how he makes the bamboo basket boats like the ones we rowed in near the Coconut City.
  • The trip up Marble Mountain is long and challenging, but the view from the top is glorious. You also get to see temples made of old, shattered Heineken and Budweiser beer bottles, and a giant cave that was used as a hospital during the war.
  • The lunch spot that Jeremy took us to in Da Nang was called Ba Duong. It’s located down a tiny alley that you would never find unless you were a local. There we feasted on Banh Xeo, my second favorite dish of the trip. Banh Xeo consists of rice wraps with these crunchy, corn flour tortilla like things, shrimp, pork sticks, veggies, papaya, and the key ingredient–a savory beef, peanut satay sauce.

Cons:

  • It’s an open air Jeep, so it does get VERY hot, and you will get sunburned if you don’t put on the sunblock. Jeremy does provide water however.
  • Jeremy does get very political and keeps bringing up how all the farmers were getting kicked out to develop hotels, roads, etc. He will rant about how there’s no urban planning in place for cars, yet everyone has them now with no place to put them and brings up several other topics that can be a little draining.
  • The tour will at one point drive through a long tunnel (like miles and miles) and because it’s an open air Jeep, it’s really loud, and gets extremely hard to breathe. Believe me, it’s a very uncomfortable experience. So if that’s something you’re not willing to put up with for 10-15 minutes, don’t take this Jeep tour.

Hoi An

Of all the places we visited in Vietnam, it’s probably safe to say Hoi An was my favorite. Remember when I said that Luang Prabang was surprisingly my favorite part of our last SE Asia trip? Well in the same way, Hoi An is the city that wasn’t as famous as Hanoi or Saigon and that I knew the least about (like Luang Prabang), yet its small village, relaxing atmosphere made it the best part of the trip.

Where To Stay

La Residencia
35 Đào Duy Từ, Cẩm Phô
Tp. Hội An, Quảng Nam

I really liked this hotel. The location is perfect because it’s right outside of Old Town on the west side, so it’s closest to all the street food and the Night Market. The room we had was large and comfortable enough for three people, had a balcony, and the hotel provides a really good breakfast buffet. The employees were also very friendly and helpful and the price, unsurprisingly, was great ($53/night). It’s a bit of a walk to get into town, but it’s not overly exerting. And it’s much quieter at night because it’s not in the center of everything.

What To Do

The best way to take in Hoi An is to just walk around and get lost with all the other backpackers. Hoi An isn’t as remote as Luang Prabang, which makes it a bit more manageable in terms of getting around (there are no rickety old bridges that you have to cross over and over again to get into town). But it’s also not as touristy as Siem Reap, so it’s not overwhelmingly in your face like that city.

In order to see most of the historical sights within Old Town like the Japanese Covered Bridge and the Assembly Hall of the Fujian Chinese Congregation you need to buy a 120 dong ticket. You’re forced to purchase one at ticket booths on the outskirts of Old Town. Do not lose the ticket because they will check to see if you have one every time you walk in and out of Old Town.

Hoi An’s architecture was able to survive a lot of the 20th century wars, so strolling through town is like walking through a time capsule. In the evening, the Night Market bustles with pedestrians under the hundreds of colorful lanterns and, like the market in Luang Prabang, is filled with vendors where you can get souvenirs.

Get suited up.  They may as well call Hoi An “Tailor Town” because there are dozens of tailoring shops that line the streets of this small town. Some are obviously better than others, but in general I think you’ll find a deal on clothes no matter where you go. My buddy and I ultimately ended up getting suits made at Kimmy Tailor (which is a top rated store in both Lonely Planet and Trip Advisor). For $420 I bought 2 tailored suits and a tie. The process took three trips over the course of our stay there, but they can do it in fewer if you’re pressed for time (they just won’t be able to make small adjustments).

As of this writing, the suits have held together well and are still top notch. A competing store that we considered, Bebe Tailor, offered 2 suits for $385, and while that price is lower, Kimmy’s employees seemed a bit more on top of their work and the material was a little bit better. But if you’re a woman, Bebe does offer far more women’s options (my sister ended up getting a tailored suit from Bebe for $150).

Eat all the cheap food.  Specifically, eat Cao Lau. This is a dish you’re only going to find in Hoi An, and it was probably one of my favorite meals of the trip. The noodle dish is the perfect mix of pasta-y, salty, veggie, meaty, crunchy deliciousness with just the right amount of broth–all for $1. Also, go to Banh Mi Phuong and get a banh mi sandwich. Look for the place with a picture of Anthony Bourdain proudly displayed. Order the #9 (Pork, Ham, and Pate) for one of the best sandwiches you’ll get for 75 cents. If you go at lunch, expect a line.

Take a ride in a Basket Boat. In all honesty, we kind of ran into this activity by accident on our hike out of Hoi An to find Pho Dua Coconut City. On our way, we saw the Le Ha Basket Boat outfit and decided on a whim to give a go. For 100K dong, you can paddle your way through the coconut fields in a bamboo fishing basket. It makes for a fun, really unique experience. Our guide also provided us with Asian conical hats which made for some pretty ridiculously hilarious pictures. Note: I couldn’t find a website for the company; it was a pretty local outfit. At the end, our boat guide actually guided us back to her own house along the river where we disembarked.

Light a candle and put the lantern into the Thu Bồn River. Hoi An is the most tranquil at night, and the hundreds of candles floating down the river are a huge part of giving it that serene evening atmosphere. There are several meanings behind the floating candles, but I think it’s best to take the beauty of the tradition and interpret it however you’d like that’s personal to you.

Take a Jeep tour.  More to come in the next post.

Quick Tip: Getting back into the U.S. from Mexico requires a big cooler

I recently traveled to a friend’s beach house in Puerto Peñasco/Rocky Point, Mexico and discovered (but not at all surprised) that while you can get into Mexico really easily, getting back into the U.S.? Not so much.

This is a just a quick tip for those of you who are driving into Mexico and planning on driving back into the U.S.  Pack a cooler–a big one.

This was us for 3 hours

The traffic jam we hit trying to cross the border added about 3 hours to our drive, and most of that 3 hours was spent sitting in the 100 degree sun baking our van.  Despite the A/C being on full blast, only hot air was filling up the van because we were moving an inch every 5 minutes. We did not prepare for such a wait, and I’ve never experienced as much jealousy as when I could see folks in the cars around us popping open their coolers and drinking ice cold waters and beers.

Traffic, traffic, traffic…

While there were a few folks on the road selling drinks, tamales (yes, we bought some and they were delicious), souvenirs, and use of their toilets, even for Mexico the prices were a rip off, so you may as well get that cooler filled up yourself.

I’m not sure if all the border crossings are like this (we were crossing into Arizona), but I would suspect that they are.  And it probably should have been an obvious thing to prepare for; it was just an oversight on our part–one that you should make sure not to make.

But of course it was all worth it because for 4 days I got to see this…

Quick Hits: Good Enough To Eat

Good Enough To Eat
520 Columbus Ave, New York, NY 10024
Hours: Mon-Thu 8:00 AM – 10:30 PM, Friday 8:00 AM – 11:00 PM, Sat 9:00 AM – 11:00 PM, Sun 9:00 AM – 10:30 PM

The name of the venue doesn’t really inspire confidence, but you know what?  It was damn good enough to eat.

Alright, I won’t go too overboard.  Good Enough To Eat is a perfectly decent place to get brunch if you’re in the Upper West Side. It’s a typical NYC eatery that tries its hardest to make it feel like a farmhouse-style diner that you can escape into from the busy streets.  The food hits that comfort food craving if you’re in the mood for that kind of hearty brunch fare.

Much to my delight, the omelette that I ordered had giant nuggets of bacon, not the usual broken up bits that you’ll often get elsewhere. And the waffle lived up to what my friend told me was their claim to fame–though in my opinion it’s really, really hard to eff up waffles. Though what really stood out to me was the strawberry butter that accompanied the homemade biscuits that came with the entrees.

The one flaw of this place was the service–it was slow as molasses. Sure, it could be that our waitress was having a bad day, but I can’t give Good Enough To Eat a top review because of her lethargy.