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

Quick Hits: The best Caesar salad is in London

London.  It’s the city that boasts Big Ben, royalty, pubs galore…and evidently the best Caesar salad?  Returning from her honeymoon just a few days ago, I asked my friend the usual travel question, “What was your best meal?”  You don’t expect a lot of things from English food–maybe perhaps a great fish and chips, bangers and mash, or Indian food.  But I was quite shocked when she said an out of this world Caesar salad.  Here she is:

“Jet lag set in, which required a bit of a nap, and by the time we awoke most restaurants in the neighborhood had already closed, as it was a Sunday. We decided to pop down to the hotel restaurant for a bite to eat, and once settled in to the dimly lit, cozy lounge with its plush velvet chairs, serendipitously happened upon what was undoubtedly the world’s most exquisitely delicious Chicken Caesar Salad. Classic in its elements, though deconstructed enough to make it interesting at a glance, the salty, creamy, freshness of this salad made it one that I would plan another trip to London for. It was so mind melting, that my husband is planning on writing to Bon Appétit to beg that they publish the recipe so that we and the rest of its readership can feast privately on this edible masterpiece in the privacy of our own homes forevermore.”

So yeah…

whoa

Unfortunately, she was too busy eating her salad to take a picture, but I trust her culinary taste-buds like they were my own.  Where in London does one find such a delicious dish?

“We stayed at The Zetter Hotel in Clerkenwell which was amazing and the bar/restaurant is called Club Zetter Wine Room & Kitchen.   Right behind the hotel is The Zetter Townhouse, which is a much smaller sister hotel built into a Victorian townhouse, and hosts a super quirky cocktail bar, also pretty bomb. I had an absinthe cocktail there and sat in the chair with the yellow pillow :)”

The Zetter Townhouse Cocktail Lounge, Clerkenwell
The Zetter Townhouse Cocktail Lounge, Clerkenwell

Thanks Jenny Eggert Bourque for the Quick Hit!  And remember, if anyone has any quick recommendations or stay-away-froms, feel free to send them to Here and There Travel!

Quick Hits: Be wary of Get Your Guide; Use Reykjavik Excursions

Be wary of Get Your Guide if you’re planning to travel to Iceland.

When you travel, you always need to expect the unexpected.  Even if everything is planned perfectly, things can change on a dime.  Sometimes the changes are good, but sadly in this following example the changes are bad.

It’s a pretty simple thing–If a tour company confirms a booking for a tour, that means you have a spot reserved right?  Apparently not with Get Your Guide.  I’ll let my friend’s experience speak for itself:

“We had a tour booked to go to the Blue Lagoon, around a fishing village and some of the country well in advance of our trip.  And then, 5 days before our tour, they told us that time was booked and asked if we could go an hour earlier, and we said yes, not really a big deal.  Then they told us 2 days before we were supposed to go, that they didn’t have any slots.  WHY did we wait this whole time, if you never had any spots to open to begin with??  So then, by the time they told us all the slots had been taken, the individual Blue Lagoon tickets themselves were sold out.”

I always want to give people, and even companies sometimes, the benefit of a doubt.  But if I’m going to pay money to fly all the way to Iceland, booked one of the key sights well in advance, and then 2 days beforehand they cancel — that’s totally unacceptable.   You tell’em Joe.

malarky

To end on a happy note though, my friend ended up booking a different tour with Reykjavik Excursions that took them to another one of the less-touristy hot springs which they thoroughly enjoyed, despite not seeing the main attraction they wanted to see most, and said their guide was amazing.  Here she is again:

“We took a 9 hour tour around the Golden Circle, waterfalls, and geysers.  The small hot springs they took us to ended up being a really cool experience.  They actually cook their own bread under the sand along the beach, where one of the hot springs bakes it.  They bake it for 24 hours, and when we got there, they had finished a loaf, and so we got to try it!”

All’s well that ends well I guess! And a special thanks to Laura Remis for the heads up!

Tour guide for Italy

If you’re looking for a personal tour guide when you’re in Florence, Siena or the surrounding area, here’s the contact info of the woman we hired.  She’s very knowledgable, laid out a good itinerary based on our wants and needs, and is relatively affordable.  Obviously, there are hundreds of tour guides in Italy, so if you find another one who you think will give you a good tour for a better price, I won’t sit here and tell you that you HAVE to hire this woman.  But we were perfectly happy with the service she provided.

Elisa Camporeale, Ph.D.
Art Historian — Tourist Guide
Florence, Siena & Provinces
elisa.camporeale@gmail.com
+393285693802
http://www.tuscanyrevealed.it

For 10 people, she charged 30 euros per person for the day.  I’m sure you can negotiate a price depending on your group size and the season you visit.

 

Places to eat in Florence

First of all, I’m going to put this out there and say there probably isn’t a bad place to eat in Florence.  My best guess is even the worst place to dine in Florence is probably still better than going to Olive Garden, Macaroni Grill or Carrabba’s.  So that being said, here’s a quick list of some good spots to check out:

All’Antico Vinaio da Tommaso/Osteria all’ Antico Vinaio
Via De’Neri 65/74 Firenze 50122

This suggestion came from several different friends, and it’s hard to argue with them that this place has the best cheap eats in the city (or actually in the world in general).   Split into two locations, there’s a sit down restaurant and a take-out storefront across the street from one another.  My buddy and I opted for the take-out, which around lunch time had a line that was about a 10-15 minute wait.  It was worth it despite having to avoid all the pigeons hanging out above shitting on everyone.  For 5 euros, you can get an incredibly good sandwich.  The great ciabatta bread, delicious meats, and really fresh tasting vegetables and cheese practically had my eyes popping out of my head on the first bite.  You can order the sandwich however you want, but for the sake of not being that annoying customer, I opted for one of the Top 5 sandwiches they have on the chalkboard.  Stop in here for lunch.

Gusta Pizza
Via Maggio, 46R, 50125 Firenze

Obviously you have to stop into a place for pizza when in Italy, and again, you probably can’t go wrong with most places.  We came here at the suggestion of a friend (this will be a common theme), and it was perfectly good.  Would I say walk out of your way to find it?  I wouldn’t go across the city to do it, but if you’re in the vicinity you should stop in.  The pizza was as solid a pie as I’ve gotten anywhere, but didn’t go beyond.  The menu is simple, there’s not a whole lot of fancy pizzas to order, but the price is nice and it will definitely hit that pizza craving spot.

Ristorante Mastro Ciliegia
Piazza di San Pier Maggiore, 4R, 50122 Firenze

Another good pizza stop, one that was not suggested by anyone but rather we just stumbled upon because we were hungry (and hungover).  Its rather pleasant setting in Piazza di San Pier Maggiore actually made it one of the more relaxing parts of the trip; we got to people watch in a piazza that wasn’t huge so the low noise level was enjoyably peaceful.  Try the truffle and prosciutto pizza — it’s excellent there.

Osteria Vini e Vecchi
Via dei Magazzini, 3, Firenze

From the outside you might mistake this place for a tourist trap, especially since it’s super close to the Uffizi.  Don’t be fooled.  This great mom and pop restaurant had one of THE best Osso Buco’s I’ve ever had.  Add a Pappardelle with duck and you’ve got yourself one helluva meal.  It’s a perfect spot for a low-key meal after the museums.  And if you’re so inclined, we got a tip from a friend to ask the waiter for some of their homemade limoncello that wasn’t on the menu.  When we did that, the waiter gave us a little grin, a wink, and brought out a bottle with two shot glasses and a pat on the back that felt like he was saying, “If you know this exists, then you’re in the club”.

Ristorante Osteria Zio Gigi
Via Folco Portinari, 7-r, 50122 Firenze

Here’s another place we just stumbled into, and again it was a big score on our parts.  This restaurant had a great local vibe, and boisterous atmosphere.  The staff really makes you feel like you’re part of an Italian family, like you’re their kids.  The chef, who by my best guess was maybe the father, came out of the kitchen frequently to loudly serenade us with Italian opera, much to the embarrassment of his female wait staff who had the faces of “Dad, stop it!” written all over them.  As for the food, it was excellent (like everything on this list), but we did a number on ourselves in this place.  Since this was our last dinner of the trip, we decided to go all out, and all out we did.  We each ordered a 500 gram florentine steak, which was already more than enough.  But on top of that we each had a plate of tortellini.  The food was amazing, but you know what they say, “Too much of a good thing…”  Even our waitress acknowledged the fat shits we were and gave us complimentary digestifs at the end of the meal with a hearty laugh telling us “This will help with your” while rubbing her belly.

Gelato

Just eat it.  Everywhere.  It doesn’t matter what place you go to.  We went to everyone’s suggestions and they were all amazing.  But if you HAVE to be directed somewhere, Gelateria Dei Neri is as famous and popular as gelato places get.

All the gelati
All the gelati