Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Blue Lagoon

I'm not really one for communal soaking but you can’t really come to Iceland and not go to the Blue Lagoon, it’s just not done. And unlike the tubs at the spa at the Hilton which I visited last night, this promised to be spacious and interesting (as opposed to awkward and an invasion of personal space [sat in a tub with four other ladies in a nicely designed room which contained three other tubs which were also packed; sitting in what was at best a six-person hot-tub with strangers isn’t really my cup of tea. To be fair though, there were two nice, young therapists giving in-tub neck massages - from outside the tub- and getting a neck massage while soaking is a wonderful thing, regardless of others soaking next to you]). So the Blue Lagoon is a must, and I was definitely looking forward to the excursion.

The Blue Lagoon is located out in the middle of nowhere (most things in Iceland are out in the middle of nowhere) and close to the airport, so it was easy to book an excursion there and then a transfer on to the airport for my flight home.

And now it’s time to acknowledge that it might have been a little crazy for someone who gets cold as easily as I do to come to Iceland in November. But it also needs to be said that me and my warm blood were doing just fine on this trip. I wore either jeans with long underwear or my ski pants, my usual three layers on top, my winter coat, a scarf, hat, fleecy boots, and a double layer of mittens for walking around in, and I was just fine (as opposed to roasting like a bacon-wrapped hot dog like a normal person might if wearing all that). However, I was a little nervous about the few steps I was going to have to take IN MY SWIM SUIT to get from the spa dressing room to the lagoon itself. I wasn’t actually sure that I would survive. Look, there was frikkin snow on the ground and I walked outside, barefoot and nearly naked… probably ten steps
before sinking down into the water. It might have been the single most physically challenging thing I’ve ever done, but it was totally worth it. It was an overcast day which added to the ambiance – the clouds were really low and the steam coming off the water swirled around the pool surface. The lagoon water is saline, ranges from about 98-102° F, and is rich with silica (hence the murkiness). There are hot spots/currents running though the lagoon so you can experience different temperatures by paddling around the pool, and the best part of the whole thing is being outside. Mostly undressed. In winter. Yes, I just said that. And then it was on to the airport, an uneventful flight back to Seattle, and a day of doing nothing at home today before heading back to the office tomorrow. I’m really glad I trusted my instincts and decided that going to Iceland for only four days in winter was not actually a crazy idea. 

Friday, November 25, 2011

A Snowy Day in Reykjavik

Woke up this morning to a couple of inches of snow on the ground and a date to meet one of Cheryl's friends for lunch. Benni works for an on-line music store/streaming service called gogo yoko ( -- part Pandora, part iTunes, part CD Baby. We had a nice lunch at the Kex Hostel which is where KEXP broadcasted from last month during the Iceland Airwaves Music Fest, and then walked to the gogo yoko office which had the look and vibe of every tech start-up I've ever walked into; some things are universal, and it's always fun to meet friends of friends' in foreign lands. Oh, and that's a puffin perched on the table in the background in the portrait; from what I can tell, the national symbols of Iceland are puffins, trolls, and sweaters.
Benni and the President of Iceland

local graffiti

After I left Benni's office I went to the Hallgrimskirkja, which is in fact the name of a place and not an indication that my hands are going into spasms on my keyboard. The Hallgrimskirkja is a church, the belltower of which is the tallest structure in Iceland.

After I left the church, I wanted to do some shopping outside the donwtown-tourist area so I had asked Benni where his wife would go if she wanted to buy clothes. He told me to go to a place which sounded like "Gringotts" which I recognized as the place where Harry Potter does his banking, but after questioning the lady at the bus station, speaking to a lady on the bus, and quickly repeating what she said to the bus driver, I found myself at Kringlar, the local shopping mall. It kind of reminded me of Northgate Mall, and like at Northgate, there wasn't really anything there I couldn't live without. I would have liked to have bought a little something to take home, maybe something to wear or something for the house, but Icelandic fashion is a little too forward for me (and like next year's fashions which I've seen at home, everything appears to be shades of gray or brown which just don't work for me). I did see a cute coffee mug in a home store that I liked, but it was nearly $50 and that was $40 too many. There was a Hagkaup (excuse me) in the mall which is a grocery store (note about food shopping in Iceland: chocolate covered raisins are really popular here), so I bought some snacks and took the bus back to the hotel. Note about the bus: I don't often take buses when I'm abroad, preferring to stick to walking and subways/rail when available (not as easy to get lost), but earlier today I spent nearly $13 for a ten minute taxi ride (I heavily tipped the driver which Benni told me was completely unnecessary) and since buses are the only public transportation option in Reykjavik, I decided I had to hop on a bus. There is a small central bus terminal downtown where I found out what bus to take to the shopping center and the return bus dropped me off directly across from the hotel. I even got some smug satisfaction when a hapless traveler came up to the bus stop in front of the mall and asked a local guy how to get the bus going in the other direction, and when the guy said he didn't know, I butted in and told traveler-dude how to find the pedestrial bridge which crossed the highway and where to find the bus stop on the other side. The fact that this would have been fairly obvious if the dude had just looked around for a minute did not diminsh my sense of pride, given my deeply deficient sense of direction.

View from hotel looking toward downtown

Ice Land

Yesterday (Thanksgiving!) was spent on an all-day tour which took me back out into the nothingness, across the vaguely lunar mostly colorless landscape, and onto a glacier for a walk on the ice. Along the way, we crossed Iceland's longest river which supports five hydroelectric plants. Icelanders get their water not from rivers though, but from deep groundwater. The water is processed only by natural filtration though the lava rock,and piped into homes -- at no cost; people only pay for the electricity to heat water, cold water is free. After crossing the river and passing the farms, some with ponies and sheep, and after a quick stop for lunch, we  arrived at the glacier. We got geared up with crampons and ice axes and trudged on up. The guide gave us the run-down on the geologic happenings and history and we wandered around taking care not to plunge to our deaths by falling into a crevasse.
Notice tour group, center bottom third, for scale.

lunch - why aren't all hotdogs wrapped in bacon?
Dinner was a delicious lobster soup in a yurt which was conveniently located next to the ghost museum and the troll and elf museum. They were both ridiculously hokey but quite hilarious after a glass of wine, and the visit seemed like a perfectly appropriate way to cap a day of glacier-walking and lobster soup-eating, which I have to say, beats turkey and mashed potatoes any day.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Reykjavik, Iceland

Apartment-living, Icelandic style
It was still pitch dark at 9am on Wednesday when I got to the hotel. I left Seattle in the late afternoon on Tuesday, and 3 movies and 7 hours later, landed in Northern European sleety cold blackness around 7am. Short line at passport control then onto the shuttle bus for a drive through what appeared to nothingness punctuated by pelting rain to the Hilton. My plan had been to keep moving upon arrival, but that came with an assumption that I would sleep on the plane, which I did not, not even for a minute, didn't even try. So I got into bed around 9:30am, set an alarm for 1:30 (which I slept right through) and finally got up at 3:30 and walked into town. It's cold but not unbearable. Jeans and long-underwear, couple of shirts, sweater, parka, mittens, scarf, hat - pretty usual winter wardrobe for me. I hit just the main street of downtown Reykjavik which is lined with shops and not much else. I stopped into a few but they were either super-designery or tourist-kitchy so since I didn't need any troll dolls or $50-socks, I didn't buy anything. Wandered around for a few hours, got a tiny bit lost since suddenly it was dark out again, then back to the hotel for dinner. Trying local food is really important to me but I couldn't bring myself to stop for minke whale which seemed to be on a lot of the local menus so I ended up with a lovely open-faced roast beef sandwich at the Hilton. I told myself it was authentically European because it lacked a top slice of bread.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

New Yorker Festival - October 2011

That time of year again. Jenine and Peter; a hovel in the Bowery; hanging out with Roz Chast, Amy Poehler, and Malcolm Gladwell; John's Pizza in the West Village (who knew the best pizza is "coal fired"?); Eataly with [Uncle] Steven; and a spa day in the Hamptons. Note: If you're walking in Riverside Park and it's lousy with rats (both dead and alive), smells like death, and is "dank-ass" (quote from Jenine), you might be in the wrong place. We found the right place, went for a walk, did some shopping, ate plantain chips and salsa at a latin place, hung out at Liquor Bar (a.k.a., Schiller's but we preferred calling it "Liquor Bar"), and found Sri Lankan food on the lower East Side before heading home.

The Hamptons

at Eataly

artwork in the Bowery

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Giant Squirrles in Whistler, B.C.

Whistler Village
Last Weekend: Whistler. John, Huey, Josh, and Jenine. My super-cool cruiser-bike, no downhilling this time, and no mud, just sunshine and blue skies. Monday morning I trotted down to the information booth in the village to ask for what I've been looking for since last summer when I got the bike - a long, flat, paved, scenic trail. I got exactly that. Through the woods, to a park, by the river, behind the golf course, across the boardwalk, under the bridge, past the seaplanes... and so it went, spectacularly, along part of the Valley Trail loop for about 7 miles (I think).

Although it did not start well. Ten minutes into my ride I stopped to adjust my bike basket which was hitting my brake cable when I heard a snuffling in the bushes near me. Huh, I thought, is someone in the bushes? Didn't think so. Continued fiddling with my basket while wondering if a bird flapping around could make that much ruckus. Didn't think so. Just as I was wondering if it could be a bear, a bear walked out of the woods and onto the trail. Panic almost tied with my instinct to reach for my camera but panic won. I decided to peddle off in the other direction but then wondered if, a) one is not supposed to turn one's back on a bear, b) it was lumbering after me in an attempt to knock me to the ground, rip off a limb, maul me mercilessly, and ride off on my bike. I decided to turn around to see what was going on and it was standing in the path, dead-center, staring right at me, definitely coveting my bike. I'm still annoyed that I was too shakey to immediately get my camera. The bear eventually wandered across the street and into the bushes on the other
giant squirrel
side. However, I was paralyzed in my spot and didn't want to cross by the place where it came out of the brush (much like a superstitious sort wouldn't cross the path of a black cat; I'm not afraid of cats of any color, but it made perfect sense at the time to not cross the bear-path). So I just stood there with my bike, seriously considering going back to my room to spend the afternoon watching TV. Luckily (as it was a beautiful day), I saw a gentleman coming up the trail toward me. When he got to the spot where I was rendered imobile, I said hello and asked if he knew this particular trail well; he said he did, so I asked if I should be particularly freaked out that a bear had just come out of the woods a mere twenty feet from me. He laughed and said "absolutely not, they're like giant squirrels around here!" He said he'd been walking on that trail for twenty years and that the bears don't bother anyone. "You don't have any raw meat on you, do you?" he asked; luckily, I did not, so I thanked him for his reassurance and peddled on. Great ride; I did it again sans bear the next day with Jenine.

All the photos below (except the last one) are from the bike trail loop.
maybe next time

Monday, July 18, 2011

Day 3: Goats on the Roof

Jenine said it would be silly for us to go home. I concurred but we checked out of the hotel anyway (but first we watched a couple from Oklahoma shop for a vacation home in Panama). We drove south toward the ferry making a stop in Coombs on the recommendation of a chap in one of the shops in Cumberland whom we talked to on our first day out. He told us there was a farmers' market there with goats on the roof. He didn't really elaborate on the concept which of course made us want to investigate. The Coombs Country Market is a year-round market but it didn't appear to be a year-round farm stand in that there was no fresh produce to be seen anywhere (although there was some very nice fake produce, see picture below). It was more of a tourist gourmet shopping zone with cool gifty-souvenir-type things, a cafe, a bakery, a deli, and goats on the roof. We bought snacks for the 45 minute drive to the ferry and lunch to eat on the boat, and then had to high-tail it out of there in order to get to the dock on time. We made it there before the boat left but when we asked the lady in the ticket booth if we'd make it on, "it doesn't look good" was all she said. When pressed for a more definitive answer, she repeated her catch-phrase and she was right. There were two hours between the ferry we missed and the next one so we sat outside and got to [finally] enjoy some fabulous weather. Jenine studied while I read, we both eavesdropped on a group of fishermen who were also finishing up a long weekend on Vancouver Island. There were about 15 gents ranging in age from late teens (I heard one talk about his mom not letting him do something) to a mustachioed 60+ (men who fish seem to be the last bastian of mustache supporters). Halibut and ling cod were their prey and judging from their talk and the giant coolers I saw in one of their trucks, they were bringing home quite a haul. The boat ride back to Tsawwassen was spectacular and the entire weekend escapade was a smashing success.
fake produce

A Night out in Courtenay or, Always Listen to the Bartender

We capped off Sunday night by first tearing ourselves away from the Home Shopping Network (as in, watching people shop for homes; I think it was actually the HGTV), then traipsing down to the lobby to quiz the young lady there about dining options in the area. “Casual,” we said, “someplace you’d go, not someplace you’d send tourists.” She understood what we were after and pulled out a book of menus and steered us toward the pubs. We ended up in a pub in the tiny village of Comox about 20 minutes away where the bartender greeted us with a smile and asked us what we were drinking. We said we were eating, and he looked genuinely sorry to have to tell us that the kitchen had just closed, this being 9pm on a Sunday in the tiny village of Comox. We asked him to recommend another place and he rattled off three, the first of which was The Flying Canoe in the Best Western Hotel back in Courtenay, adding “that’s where I’d go.” We got back into the car, both torn by the exact same conflicting thoughts: always take a recommendation on where to eat from a local bartender/why the hell would we go to the restaurant in a Best Western? We decided to just be our practical selves – the Best Western was closest and on the way to the other options so we would check out the vibe and menu then decide whether to move along or stay. We got to the Flying Canoe just as the karaoke was starting. Ten seconds later, Dan, who belted out several “young country” songs that night, was kicking things off with impeccable tone and inflection, hitting every note with confidence, his paunch straining his golf shirt. There was no way we were leaving. We found a booth in the back from which we could hear each other and still have a good view of people who were clearly regulars, singing everything from Kenny Rogers to the Killers, Linda Ronstadt to the Kings of Leon. And with rare exception, these people could sing. Some were just good but a handful, all of whom sang several times, were fantastic. Dan hit every note of songs we didn’t know and didn’t particularly like (new country radio hits) in his golf shirt; Kevin who had a very pronounced limp and nursed a single beer the entire time we were there, knocked his numbers out of the park then slunk back to his table where he sat alone; and Kristie rocked the Linda Ronstadt number, her voice so full of natural projection that she seemed to be holding back a little in the small restaurant lest she blow us all backward. Of course, none were as awesome as Jenine who rocked the room with “Dancing in the Dark” to everyone’s delight, especially mine. After a long afternoon of lazing around our room recuperating from our downhill adventures, it was just the right thing to end the day. Additionally, it reinforced our belief that when you need a recommendation for food or drink, always trust the bartender.
clearly regulars at the Flying Canoe

Jenine singing Bruce