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Category Archives: Western Europe

  • 14

London, England

London is definitely one of the most iconic cities in the world, so when you visit here you always leave a little bit of your heart behind. Most of us have grown up knowing the names of many iconic places in London, thanks to the original Monopoly, and at some level have a longing to visit. With so many areas to cover and each Borough offering something different, you are guaranteed to leave satisfied no matter what kind of traveller you are.

London is one of the easiest cities to get around, the Tube and bus routes are undoubtedly some of the best in the world, however beware of the peak times where things can get a little crowded. Purchase yourself an Oyster Card as this is the cheapest most effective way for you to get around, it will work out around 50% cheaper than purchasing single tickets. Also, consider using the Oyster Card and London Underground (Tube) to get to Central London at a cost saving almost half of that for the Heathrow Connect Train.

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In our opinion there are only 2 downsides to London;

  1. Weather is generally cold, but you should see the energy rise in the residents when the warmth of the sun starts to kick in – it is glorious and everyone definitely has a new lease on life.
  2. Expense, London is a very expensive city, but there are a tonne of things to do that will not burn a hole in your pocket. Do your research, look for free walking tours, cheap eats at pubs and many of the iconic buildings you can walk past and feel satisfied.

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Our accommodation was booked in Clerkenwell, which is very close to where Moosh and FT used to live. This locale would provide a real feel for what it is like being a “Londoner”. Although getting there was quite a drama (with the Tube partially closed for maintenance that evening) we jumped off at Covent Garden and opted to share a black cab. Once we arrived at Apartment Clerkenwell One, London, we looked around, dumped our bags in our rooms and chilled for a brief second. The boys went for a walk to get some Nosh and drinkypoos, while the girls stayed back.

 

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Waking up the next morning in the fresh crisp air was certainly a delight (for some) and one where Moosh would take the opportunity to go for an early morning jog around the “Ol’ Neighbourhood”. Pillow over his head FT mumbled, “Girl you crazy”. Now we were all a little hungry (what’s new!?!) so off we went to Ottolenghi, Islington. A venue that brings back fond memories for Moosh and FT, they were thrilled to have the chance to share it with the Vades. The good thing about this place, besides the taste and quality of the food, is that the choices on the menu are limited so you do not spend a lot of time deciding what to eat (and hence eat and be happier sooner). We left feeling satisfied and ready to walk the streets of London. There is usually a line-up around brunch time, so come early and avoid the wait. Worth it, yes indeed!

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As we have mentioned London is very easy to get around, you can walk to many spots and so walk we did (our soles can testify to that!). We made it to King’s Cross, jumped on the Tube and made our way to Oxford Circus, Regent Street and Piccadilly Circus. Similar to Times Square in New York, albeit on a smaller scale, you will find neon sign boards with advertisements all around. Being in the heart of London, it is easily accessible and you can walk here from many Boroughs including Soho, Chinatown and the West End. If you are looking for some great priced sportswear check out Lillywhites, they got deals and steals!

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After a quick stop at a local pub for some refuelling (wink, wink) we headed for The West End. Covent Garden is a jewel tucked away in the West End of London and the area has pretty much everything you want. Easily explored by foot, it boasts shopping, great restaurants and bars and it is smack bang in the middle of the West End Theatre District. There are plenty of ticket booths around so if you have time, grab some tickets, sit back and enjoy taking in a comedy or a classic musical!

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One of our favourite pubs in London was The Easton, (perhaps biased, our local circa 2007-08) this little gem can be found in Clerkenwell and if you find yourself in the area, stop in for a pint or two and some great pub grub. Dinner on that night had been pre-planned, with Friends (London, Vancouver, Melbourne) and Family (Dubai) walking through the door, overdue catch-ups, much-needed hugs and introductions. We laughed and (block your ears Mum) boozed the night away.

 

There are many, many iconic sights to see in London so, as we did, be sure to maximise your time to get around and see what you can, while you can. Note that the below is in no specific order for an itinerary. London has a penchant for rain, so map your days into zones, but be flexible to swap the days around to suit the weather.

 

Buckingham Palace – Now let’s be honest you can’t visit London without having a gander at Buckingham Palace. Since 1837 this has been the home of the British Monarch. In summer visitors can see the lavish staterooms which are open from late July through to September. In total Buckingham Palace boasts 775 rooms…Wowza! 52 Bedrooms, 78 Bathrooms, 92 Offices, 19 State Rooms and a humble 188 Staff Quarters. Now don’t ask us which room the Queen sleeps in! If you would like to witness the Changing of the Guard – visit here and check the times. Be sure to check out the beauty of St James Park whilst you are in the neighbourhood!

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Westminster Abbey – This stunning Church sees over a million visitors per year, not including those that pray at the daily service offering. At 700 years old, this old beauty is the Church where the much loved Royal couple Prince William and Kate Middleton took their vows. Keep in mind that Westminster Cathedral (names often confused) is a different building to the west of the Abbey.

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Trafalgar Square – Officially named in 1830, it is a true hub for people gathering and people watching. Located in central London, it’s a perfect place to grab yourself a coffee and amuse yourself watching people taking photos with one of the 4 lions that surround Nelson’s Column (the growl pose…anyone?). The Square is jewelled by 2 glorious fountains and headed by The National Gallery, with the surrounding buildings providing many a perfect backdrop.

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Tower Bridge – The iconic Tower Bridge is often mistaken for “London Bridge” (maybe because of the age-old nursery rhyme?). It was built somewhere between 1886 and 1894 and has a Gothic style architectural appearance. It is in close proximity to the Tower of London, so be sure to walk across admiring all it’s glory and make your way to the Tower of London. Tower Bridge would have to be one of the most renowned Bridges in the world, so please don’t miss this… (need we say it?)

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Big Ben – For those who don’t know Big Ben is actually the bell that sits atop St. Stephens Tower, at the North End of the Palace of Westminster (aka the Houses of Parliament). It would have to be another one of London’s most recognisable symbols. If you are nearby on the hour, you will most certainly hear the loudest chime and one that people love to hear. If you can manage it, walk past at night and admire how well-lit it is. The illuminated clock faces draw you in to the history and the beauty of the Tower. Oh, and did you know that Big Ben weighs a staggering 13 tonnes! It is a short stroll to Number 10 Downing St the home of the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

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Oxford Street – Now for any shopping lovers out there, you would have definitely heard of Oxford St, we swear you could spend all day pounding the pavement and still not have been into every shop. You will find some major retailers like John Lewis, Selfridges and Marks and Spencer, plus another 300 or so other stores. We suggest you have your best walking shoes on if you plan on giving your credit card a workout!

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Hyde Park – Hyde Park is a huge 142 hectares of green open space in central London. In summer the Park is bustling with people playing Frisbee, having a picnic or simply sunbaking and taking in all the sunshine (whilst they can).

Many a concert have been held there, including The Rolling Stones, Queen, Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Nelson Mandela’s 90th Birthday. Hyde Park is open from 5am – midnight every day of the year. During the winter months they host a Winter Wonderland which provides a great opportunity to ice-skate (and fall over) in the iconic park…oh, and a warm mulled wine will add to the memories. They have placed a 7th July memorial to the victims of the 2005 London bombings and a memorial for the Late Princess Diana.

If you’re feeling a little bit fancy you can stop by the Grosvenor House for High Tea. They are well known for their Afternoon Tea service and although it is an expensive affair, it is worth the experience. remember to hold your little finger out and enjoy eating your dainty sandwiches whilst say words like indubitably with your nose held high.

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Harrods of London – No trip to London would be complete without visiting the luxury shopping destination that is Harrods of London.  The Friends were not in the market for any purchases. But we did partake in some foodie treats and checked out the tribute to Diana Princess of Wales.

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Borough Markets – The Borough Markets are a foodies’ heaven. They are open from Monday through to Saturday and closed on public holidays. The closest tube station is London Bridge. Walking through there, you can really admire the history and the smells…. Ohh the smells of all the deliciousness, the delightfulness, the….(you get the idea). One of the most amazing things about such a diverse food market is that each of the Traders aims to have biodegradable packaging with none of the rubbish going to landfill. If you want to find events that are happening at the Borough Markets head here for details. Treat yourself, you know you want to!

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Camden Markets – The Camden Markets are open from 10am til late every day. Some would say this market is a tad alternative, such that you will find a little bit of everything ranging from jewellery, clothing, souvenir stores and music stores (Vade found some rare Nirvana pressings at one of the stalls). Check out the photo of us re-enacting the debut studio album cover by The Clash. If you want to know about any events just head here for information. Nearby, Cafe Loren is a place noteworthy of a stop for some coffee and a delicious Shakshouka for breakfast. The neighbouring streets of Camden also boast the alternative vibe, somewhat punk-ish, with many colourful stores and street art. Take the time to walk around and take it all in.

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St Pauls Cathedral – Sir Christopher Wren’s English Baroque masterpiece sits at the highest point of the City of London. Construction took 22 years (1675-1697) and when you see the magnificent dome, you can appreciate perhaps why. Tickets to go inside can be exxy for families and groups, so check it out on “the Googles” and decide if this is an option for you. Whilst in the neighbourhood some other worthy visits include – for old world charm the Leadenhall Market and for some space-aged wow the “Gherkin” and Lloyds of London.

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Every time we travel we like to splurge on dinner one night and this time around our choice was Restaurant Gordon Ramsay. Now to say this place blew our minds is an understatement, a serious understatement! After having the experience of dining at the flagship restaurant you can really appreciate how and why they have received three Michelin-stars, providing their guests with some of the finest French Cuisine utilising techniques that are both classic and modern. We splurged on the Menu Prestige and have to say we have never ever experienced such “Fine Dining”, being treated like Royalty from the moment we stepped in. If you really feel like luxuriating yourselves, you simply cannot go past Restaurant Gordon Ramsey. Note that there is a dress code and for you #foodporn Instagrammers photos are not allowed.

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One of the newest icons of London is The Shard and it was most definitely on the list. We chose this option for a City view over the London Eye (weighing up costs is never fun, but realistic). Now you can book tickets to go to The View (levels 68,69,72) or you can do as we did and book a table at GŎNG Bar, located on level 52 (they take walk-ins also, but best to book). By taking this option, we spent our money on champagne and cocktails rather than entry tickets to a viewing level. The view is still amazing….(except for the rain)….and so why not enjoy a cocktail at the same time…just saying! Although there is no dress code per-say for Gong Bar, shorts and flip-flops are not advised if you are a walk-in. You will need to check-in at reception downstairs. One thing to note about photography from anywhere within The Shard is that they have a strict policy (click and scroll down) about handheld cameras only and we were not allowed to take in our DSLR camera! They also forbid photos being taken from within Gong Bar, which is understandable in order to preserve the atmosphere. In saying that we managed to take photos from one of the lower levels (from memory where you change lifts). But…London o London, it was raining and visibility was not optimal and despite our advice earlier, we were caught out on this day!

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Now on the completely other end of the scale, we ventured out to Tooting-Bec to visit some dear friends (a previous work colleague of FTs from some 8 years earlier). It was a shame that it rained continuously and our London friend took it upon himself to apologise for both the weather and the lack of available taxis. We took in some hugs, beers and conversation with our Friends at their house, migrating to a nearby pub for much of the same! It was nice to venture out of the city, opting for some local Sri-Lankan Cuisine and honestly it was amazing. Familiar with the menu, our Friend ordered for us all. “Over-ordered” for all of us is more like it! Full bellies, full hearts, we were delighted. Sometimes it’s nice to really just sit back and enjoy the simple things in life like, friends, honest food and a good mango lassi!

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Do not forget to take a trip on an iconic double decker bus (public transport not the hop-on-hop tour ones), take the London Eye for a ride, or have some fun taking silly photos with the red phone booths! Oh and one last thing, grab yourself a Cornish pasty from the West Cornwall Pasty Co. you will be delighted…trust us!!

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We could go on and on, but maybe it’s your turn to visit London….and write the next paragraph or three?

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  • 10

Iceland Part 2

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Iceland Part 2 (Waterfalls & Mythology)

ICELAND DAY 4

Waking up early because “sleeping in” is for the weak and lazy… Hit the road and see more of Iceland… A slightly bumpy road, but the views were to die for. Our journey would take us down to the south. Past some famous waterfalls to one of the most visited black sand beaches. The map was as follows:

Full Route

ION Luxury Adventure Hotel to Skogafoss

Iceland Part 2

First stop was Skógafoss, a 2hr drive from Ion Luxury Adventure Hotel through Selfoss. The scenery on the drive was breathtaking and we enjoy some Icelandic music provided by our driver DJ (AV). But nothing made our jaw drop like the view of Skógafoss as we drove into the carpark (parking lot).  

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Skógafoss was formed when coastline receded leaving the former coastline cliffs standing as a clear divide between the Icelandic highlands and lowlands.  The Skógá river provides enough water to make Skógafoss one of the largest waterfalls in Iceland. It’s 82ft (25m) width and huge 200ft (60m) drop produces double rainbows.  It did not disappoint, we loved the opportunity to snap some photos at the foot of the falls. AV chanting viral internet favourite catchphrase “Double rainbow all across the sky, what does it mean?” It meant another reason Iceland was like no other place on earth.

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The movie buffs recognise the location from Marvel Studios film Thor: The Dark World. It also featured in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. The site is stunning, it’s obvious why cinematographers love shooting it but is must be a challenge to deal with electrics and the constant mist from the falls.

For the energetic and/or adventurous, there is a cliff-side hike that takes you to the top of the falls. Be ready for stairs, there are many but it is very well worth the effort.  Nothing gives the full grandeur of its scale like the view from the top. During the summer hiking season, it is also possible to head down the eastern side towards the Fimmvörðuháls pass which winds through the glaciers Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull. Continuing further will have you passing through Þórsmörk then on to the famous Laugavegur to Landmannalaugar. We think the Friend’s will have to return to try the summer hike in the future.

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There is an Icelandic legend that says the original Viking inhabitants buried a great treasure behind the falls. Locals allegedly found the treasure chest centuries later, But as they grabbed the ringed handle the chest disappeared in front of their eyes. The ring was donated to a local church and is now housed in a local museum. Knowing the Icelandic love of mythology, it is a little hard to give much credence to the story.  That didn’t stop the boys from wanting to search for it. Luckily Moosh and Sherri’s votes count for double, so FT and AV were ushered back to the car before they getting too wet!

 

Back into the car, we were off to Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach a 30min drive from Skógafoss.

Skogafoss to Reynisfjara

Iceland Part 2

Reynisfjara and the Black Sand Beach, in is in Reynishverfisvegur which is near the village of Vík í Mýrdal. The site is an icon amongst icons in Iceland. The original Viking legend tells a tale of two Trolls caught by the morning light attempting to drag a three-masted ship to shore. Frozen to stone, by the rising sun they turned into the needles of rock that can be seen off the coastline.

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The Black Sand Beach is a black pebble beach. The wind was blowing hard reminding us that the arctic circle is at the whim of the elements. There have been many emergency situations and even fatalities from people caught in the strong and unpredictable wind and waves along the coast. We stayed away from the water and we suggest other visitor do the same.

The Basalt stacks are a great photo opportunity and there was no chance we could withhold our excitement clambering to climb on them for more photos. The Basalt is smooth and almost soft to touch (ironic for volcanic rock). The punishing wind and rain has polished the rock, not to mention tourist like us.

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There is a nice little cafe that takes advantage of the many tourists. The coffee and tea tasted ok, but the weather was rather cold, so anything to warmed us was beneficial.

We were on the road again and towards another waterfall. Seljalandsfoss, a 45min drive from Reynishverfisvegur. The roads are very good along this stretch so it was a very easy drive. We had planned to stop at the famous abandoned airplane that is a short walk from the main road. But time was getting short and we wanted to make the most of the last two stops. Part of travelling is setting plans, but also knowing when to change them for the betterment of the overall experience. Make the most of the time you have, but don’t get caught up in regret of missing something. There will always be things you can’t get done, cherish the things you do.

Reynisfjara to Seljalandsfoss

Iceland Part 2

Seljalandsfoss is another famous Icelandic waterfall. Situated along route 1 it is very popular with day-trippers from Reykjavík. The waterfall has a 60ft (18M) drop, but what makes it truly unique is being able to walk behind easily. Be prepared to get muddy shoes and a cold spray, but it is well worth the trek.

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Fed by Seljalands-river it’s water originates from the volcano glacier Eyjafjallajökull. Truly a case of beauty from Icelandic fire and ice.

Amazing Race fans will recognise it from season 6. We were not in a race, however, so we took our time and got some great photos and a once in a lifetime experience.

The final leg had us heading back 2hr through Selfoss and Grindavik to our final location the Blue Lagoon.

Seljalandsfoss to BL

Iceland Part 2

The drive through the southern coastal landscape is otherworldly. The Basalt boulders take on a rusted orange hue in the afternoon sun. The lichen and moss almost appears greener compared to inland. After a long day of driving it has hard to keep the wheel straight and not get lost in the surrounding. We needed a soak in the Blue Lagoon, to revitalise our minds, body, and souls. But first, we had to skirt the edge of Grindavik.

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Grindavik is a small but modern fishing village situated the on the Reykjanes peninsula. One of the 3 early Viking settlements on the peninsula the site was originally called Járngerðarstaðarhverfi. Járngerðarstaðarhverfi was established by the sons of Molda-Gnúpur Hrólfsson who along with Þórir Haustmyrkur Vígbjóðsson was instrumental in colonising the Reykjanes peninsula.

 

The Blue Lagoon is the premier tourist attraction in Grindavik and the best known geothermal health spa in Iceland.

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We booked ourselves into the Blue Lagoon Silica Hotel which is a just ten-minute walk from the Blue Lagoon. The hotel offers its own private bathing lagoon which is only available for hotel guests. Open every day from 09:00 to 22:00 dodging the tourists and locals make the room price worth it.  The hotel has won several design awards and it was obvious from the moment you arrive. Built in harmony with the surrounding landscape, it offers an oasis of calm, relaxation, and healing. The hotel has 35 bright and spacious double/twin rooms. All rooms offer private facilities and a veranda, with breathtaking views of the surrounding lava fields. To say it felt luxurious would be an understatement, it felt both stylish and high class, but incredibly relaxing at the same time.  A quick freshen up and we jumped into our bathing suits for a soak in the Silica baths.

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The Blue Lagoon is a man-made lagoon. It’s geothermally heated waters are rich in minerals like silica and sulfur. It is claimed they have therapeutic properties helping those suffering from skin diseases like psoriasis.

The water temperature averages 37–39 °C (99–102 °F) and is fed from the geothermal power plant called Svartsengi. The water is renewed every two days keeping it clean and fresh. The plant uses superheated water vented from the ground near a lava flow that runs turbines generating electricity for the local community. After passing through the turbines, the steam and hot water pass through a heat exchanger which heats the municipal water system. The water is then fed into the lagoon for recreational and medicinal use.

The mineral content is obtained from the underground geological layers. Which are pushed up to the surface by the hot water during the power generating process (at about 1.2 Mpa (170 psi) pressure and 240 °C (464 °F) temperature. Because of the high concentration of minerals the water cannot be recycled.  Therefore the only option is to deposit it in the nearby landscape. The milky blue shade of the water is primarily caused by the silicate minerals. The water slowly re-enters the ground after being pumped and stored on the surface. Leaving the silicate deposits impermeable to the volcanic rock. The milky blue deposits can be seen across the nearby the lava fields and the plant needs to continuously dig new ponds. Something the owners of The Blue Lagoon have taken advantage of, with their many expansions. The Blue Lagoon also operates a research and development facility to help find cures for other skin ailments using the mineral-rich water. Of course they have found a really good way to make money by bottling the mud for home use.

The experience was amazing, soaking, floating and sipping on some Icelandic lager made the Silica Hotel the right choice. There are something that are worth paying more for. This was certainly one of them.

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After an amazing dining experience at the ION Luxury Adventure Hotel, we were unsure if Iceland could top it. We booked a table at Lava at the Blue Lagoon. A restaurant that is headed up by Iceland’s first celebrity chef Ingi Þórarinn Friðriksso.  We scraped off the mud, put on our fancy clothes and walked across the lava fields to the main Blue Lagoon building that houses Lava.

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Head chef Ingi Þórarinn Friðriksson leads a team that prides themselves on having an international perspective, regularly seeking inspiration by spending time at Michelin star restaurants in New York, London and Paris. The food certainly lived up to those lofty aspirations. Check out the review on our Foodie page.

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ICELAND DAY 5

A restful night sleep in the Silica Hotel we arose to a nice buffet breakfast with a selection of fresh fruit and of course Skyr. We took one last soak and were ready for our last half a day sightseeing before jetting off to London.

Blue Logoon to Reykjanesbær

Iceland Part 2

Not wanting to stray too far from the airport we decided to stay in Reykjanes and check out some of the tourist attractions nearby. We headed up to Reykjanesbær a 20min drive from The Blue Lagoon and only 6min from Keflavik International Airport.

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Reykjanesbær is the 5th largest municipality in Iceland. It has a quaint little main street and is probably best known for being home the Viking World Museum. It was our first stop for the day. We enjoyed learning about Viking culture and history.

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Viking World hosts a permanent display of the Íslendingur, the replica of the Gokstad Viking ship. Built in the late 1990’s using traditional methods. It was sailed across the Atlantic Ocean to L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland. Commemorating the millennial anniversary of Leif Ericsson’s voyage there and then to New York.

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The curators have suspended the ship from the ceiling and allow people to walk on the deck. This gives you a really tangible understanding of the workmanship, skill, and bravery required to construct and sail a ship in such an inhospitable geography.  There is a selection of other Viking artifacts and information regarding the culture and challenges faced by the nordic colonialists.

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They have a space set aside for temporary exhibitions. When we visited it was housing an audio tour explaining the ancient nordic religious myths and stories.  Colourful UV light enhanced 2D dioramas complements the audio. The artwork combined with the fanciful mythology has an almost comic book feel. It is clear to see why Marvel embraced Thor as a comic book character.

 

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The staff were very friendly and even allowed us to put on some wool pelts and cheesy Viking helmets for a couple of fun photo ops.

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It was time for lunch and our last chance for some quintessential Icelandic flavours. Unfortunately, a lot of the main street restaurants were shut. We were departing on a Sunday which seems to be a sleepy day for the village of Reykjanesbær. We managed to find Rain Bar Restaurant and Caffe.

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It’s decor was dated compared to many of the other places we had visited and it was pretty obvious is wasn’t going to be a culinary highlight. The view was really nice and it gave AV the chance to order Whale Steak with Pepper Sauce.

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Nordic countries are renowned for being happy to devour sea mammals. AV was aware of this and he had been looking for it since arriving.  Most Non-Nordic or Japanese might be a little disgusted by the idea of Whale Steak. But as the Four Friends One World food daredevil, AV had to oblige. The things he does for our readers.

Whale Steak is an interesting dish. In this case, it was Grey Whal. As mentioned, we doubt this was the finest version of the dish, but interesting nonetheless. The meat was slightly gamey with a mild minerally aftertaste and unique umami. On the whole, not an unpleasant dish like some people had forewarned. AV said after finishing the dish “I look forward to trying again another day, at a restaurant that might do it with a little more class”. But remember this is the same person who said he wanted more Hákarl (Rotten Shark) so perhaps take his advice with a grain of salt worthy of a whale steak!

 

We piled back in the car and headed to the airport via a refill at a nearby gas station (petrol station). Iceland uses a card-based payment system. You purchase the card inside the store or at the end of the pump stand. Then insert the card at the pump to redeem it for fuel. This takes a little planning so that you do not overfill your card with more than your tank can take.  We didn’t do a great job with this and left Icelandic Krona on our card.

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We dropped the car off and boarded the shuttle bus to the terminal.

The Keflavik International Airport is a nice airport, they have great amenities and of course they sell all the quintessential Icelandic items we had grown love.  We picked up some candy and a bottle of Black Death.  I am sure we would have stocked up on more if we had been returning directly home from Iceland.

As we boarded the plane it became clear that we were leaving a little piece of ourselves in Iceland. We had seen so much, but there was still so much left to see and do. It’s a big world and we want to see and share more of it. It is hard to commit time and money to revisiting places. We like to tick them off the list and move onto the next. However, it is very hard to say we won’t be back to Iceland. We predict the Vade’s will take advantage of the many stop-over deals Icelandair is offering on routes to Europe.

 

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  • 14

Iceland Part 1

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Iceland Part 1 (Land of Fire and Ice)

Since the time of Papar and Leif Erikson Iceland has seen its share of visitors. In the tradition of the Norse adventurers, Four Friends embarked on their own saga. Our sights set on the small island nation, that saddles the Arctic and Atlantic Ocean. In true Four Friends style, the trip was a short 5 nights and 4 days.

Starting out in Reykjavík the self-drive journey would encompass some of the most popular locations in southeastern Iceland.

 

ICELAND DAY 0.5

Arriving late on a Wednesday night, we headed straight to the Budget car rental counter.  Despite some technical issues with the payment system the team at Budget had us on the road as quickly as possible. With a self-tour planned, we took advantage of the GPS and 3G LTE WiFi package. For a very reasonable daily charge, the WiFi helped greatly keeping us on the right routes with useful information along the way. The car fully loaded we drove the short 45 minutes to our first hotel in Reykjavik the Grand Hótel Reykjavík. Visit our Accommodation Review page for more information about the hotel.

ICELAND DAY 1

Rising early we set out to view the sites of Reykjavík. The first leg of our walking tour was as follows:

 

Walking along the foreshore we caught a glimpse of the arctic landscape that we would soon be immersed in. The grey arctic waters are framed by large basalt boulders sitting on black volcanic sands. A brisk chill in the air was very effective in waking us up and encouraging us to take a blood pumping pace in the hope of warming our cold extremities.

 

There are quite a few must-see sites in Reykjavik, the first we would encounter was the famous Solfar – Sun Voyager. Erected in 1990 a sculpture by the Icelandic artist Jón Gunnar Árnason speaks to the Icelandic spirit of adventure, the search for undiscovered territory combined with the dream of hope, freedom and progress. It is a beautiful flowing structure, resembling a Viking longboat. Constructed from stainless steel and standing on a round granite base. It juxtaposes beautifully against the basalt boulders and rolling arctic waves. Not only providing a great spot for photos but getting us inspired for the adventure ahead.

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Continuing our walk around the foreshore we headed towards the Harpa (Concert Hall). Opened in 2011 and designed by the Danish firm Henning Larsen Architects with artistic direction from Icelandic/Danish artist Olafur Eliasson. The building is a stunning construction of steel framework covered in geometric glass panels. The building plays with the viewer’s eye as if the glass panels are dancing in the Arctic sun. There were many great photo opportunities and was well worth the walk. We wish we had more time to investigate the building. It would be great to see the inside and attend a music or theatre performance.

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It was time for breakfast so we strolled through Arnarhóll Hill park past the statue of Ingolf Arnarson.  Normally we research our foodie travels heavily.  However this morning we decided to throw caution to the wind and walk up Hverfisgata to pick any place that sparked our interest. We stumbled upon Tiu Dropar Cafe. We ordered the Lủxus Brunch which featured: Eggs, bacon, potatoes, tomatoes, skyr with muesli, orange, toast & waffle. The Standard Brunch which had:  Egg, bacon, potatoes, tomatoes, orange, American pancakes & toast and the Smoked salmon, egg & horseradish Bagel. The food was simple but very tasty.  We highly recommend the local Skyr (yogurt). Skyr is a dairy culture that has the consistency of strained yogurt. It is light and mild in flavour and is a regular part of Icelandic food culture. Icelanders often mix it with breakfast cereals or porridge, fruit smoothie and even combine it with fish for a savoury dinner dish. It is low in fat and high in protein and would be a happy addition to our morning routines if it were available outside of Iceland.  
tiu-droparTiu Dropar Seating

With full bellies and energy renewed we continued our walk. No visit to Reykjavik is complete without a visit to Hallgrímskirkja church. Designed in 1937 by Guðjón Samúelsson, who took inspiration from the basalt lava towers prevalent around Iceland’s coast. The tower was constructed and completed in the 1940’s and 1950’s. The remaining wings were constructed in the 1970’s and nave consecrated in the mid-1980’s. For a small admission fee of ISK 900, we headed up a small elevator to the top of the tower. Looking out over Reykjavik we got a great vista of a quaint fishing village that turned into a city. Sure it lacked the same gravitas the other towering centres of commerce in mainland Europe. But Reykjavik, none the less, holds a reputation as the capital that leads Iceland’s unique cultural, social and political landscape. Looking out over Reykjavik it was hard to imagine that the small city, of just over 120,000 people, is so well known globally. It continues to be a major drawcard for international tourists. Is it the volcanoes, the Viking, the recent economic woes or even Bjork? What makes this small fishing village so damn intriguing?

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Descending the elevator it was time to stroll down the shopping district. Perhaps we could work up an appetite worthy of the famous Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur hotdog stand. After all, it had been well over 1 hour since we had eaten.

 

Iceland is renowned for hand knitted woolen products and arctic circle appropriate winter and adventure clothing labels like 66o North. Iceland is also a great source for other handcrafted and artisan fair. We walked past metalworks, jewelers, woodworkers and ceramics manufacturers.  But of course, a visit to any city with Four Friends would not be complete without stopping by a record store.  We found 12 Tónar, which is housed in a small and very Icelandic building. 12 Tónar is not only a record store but also a record label. Since 2003 they have released over 70 albums in a variety of genres. Their albums have been licensed as far and wide as Japan, Korea, and the USA.

 

That was more than enough window shopping and record digging. It was time to find the dogs! Straddled by construction sites the Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur was still very busy. We lined up for their world famous hot dogs. With simple branding and a modest stand. It is hard to believe that since it opened in 1937 the harbourside establishment has been visited by a wide variety of celebrities and world leaders. From Anthony Bourdain to Bill Clinton and James Hetfield. There are many toppings options, but in our opinion, the only way to go is “the works”.  A combination of ketchup, mustard, fried onions, raw onion and remolaði a mayonnaise based sauce with a sweet relish flavour. The remolaði, in particular, was a sensation, so popular it can be purchased at the international airport before you leave.

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Time for some more walking. We headed on the second leg of our walking tour as follows:

 

We strolled back through the tourist area and past many artisan studios. Heading up towards the Cathedral of Christ the King or Domkirkja Krists Konungs. It was built in 1864 to house the many Catholic priests who had travelled to Iceland since the Reformation. Its traditional design is in stark contrast to the modern and imposing Hallgrímskirkja church. The irony was not lost on us, that two of the historical sites we visited were religious. Especially given that in a recent poll 0% of respondents aged under 25 said they believe in a god and a huge 93.9% stated they support the big bang theory over creationist ideology. We wondered what Iceland’s top ten position in the world’s most irreligious countries would mean for the future of these monuments.  

 

We strolled through some more suburban-style streets, which gave us a nice look at “day to day” Icelanders. Heading down a small hill towards the Tjörnin, we saw the small but prominent lake situated next to the Reykjavik City Hall. The lake is popular with locals and tourist alike. It takes its name from the Norse word tjörn meaning “the lake” or “the pond”. It has become known to locals as stærsta brauðsúpa í heimi which translates to “the world’s largest bread soup.” This fun colloquial nickname has come from the locals love of feeding the many ducks and geese that take advantage of their generosity.

With weary legs, we made our way back up towards the main entertainment district. We were in need of a drink and knew exactly where we wanted to go.

 

Few movies have established cult status to the extent that the 1998 Coen Brothers, Big Lebowski has. This is no more evident than the Lebowski Bar. Situated in the middle of Laugavegur. Lebowski Bar is everything an homage to The Big Lebowski should be. The walls are ordained with movie and, of course, bowling themed memorabilia. Including a full-size bowling lane running from the entrance all the way to the end of the front bar. No Lebowski-themed bar would be complete without a rug. The idea of keeping a floor rug clean in a bar is indeed scary. But the owners of Lebowski Bar have smartly used rugs to line the front of the main bar and yes it really does tie the room together.  There is a good selection of local Icelandic beers, while the food menu features mostly American style items. Of course, any chance to reference the movie in the menu has been taken. The bar does not really embody the culture of Iceland but is a must for fans of the movie or any Americans craving a burger.

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A few pints and deep fried snacks in our bellies, it was time to walk back to the hotel via a supermarket. Bónus Supermarket is one of, if not the, largest chains in Iceland. It stocks the usual household groceries and home products.  Knowing we had a long drive ahead of us we stocked up on road worthy foods and water. Loaded with groceries we walked back to the hotel.

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Reykjavik is a very walkable city. Many of the tourist, shopping and entertainment areas are very centralised. Some small rolling hills can require a little more effort, but on the whole, public transit and a car are avoidable within the central district.

 

We took advantage of a quick rest and recoup break at our hotel before we prepared ourselves for a traditional Viking meal.

Fjörugarðurinn the Viking restaurant and hotel is situated south of Reykjavik on Strandgata, in Hafnarfjörður. Open for lunch and dinner every day, they hold on to a Viking inspired way of life and cuisine. Attempting to invoke the feel of a Viking longhouse and keep a functional restaurant is a challenge. But we think they have done a good job, be it a little touristy. We sampled the: Fish soup “a la maison”, Lobster soup with grilled lobster Tails and Viking Starter platter with shark, dried haddock, herring, rye bread, assorted whey pickled food (Thorri food) and taste of Black death (Brennivin).

No trip to Iceland would be complete without tasting Brennivin. It is an unsweetened clear schnapps with a distinct flavour of caraway and herbal notes. It is a very popular Icelandic liquor, often drunk as part of a celebration accompanied with the nordic salute Skál. Or as part of the mid-winter feast of Þorrablót.

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Another flavour that must be tried, but many shy away from is Hákarl. One of the national dishes of Iceland it is an acquired taste, to say the least. Consisting of Greenland Shark or the meat of other large arctic shark breeds, it is cured in a very particular fermentation process. Due to the high levels of urea and trimethylamine oxide present in the shark’s flesh, the curing process is required to make it edible and nontoxic. The preparation involves burying a gutted shark in a gravelly sand lined pit and covering it with stones. It is allowed to ferment for 6 to 12 weeks depending on the climate and season. The stones slowly push all the fluids out of the meat and the toxins slowly decay. Once the fermentation is complete the shark is removed, cut into slabs and hung to dry for several months. The meat is then cut into small cubes for consumption by brave Vikings.  Our Four Friends chief food daredevil Anthony took on the challenge with excitement and vigour.  He found the meat to be slightly fishy and very chewy, sort of like a fishy chicken tendon. But in no way as offensive as he had been lead to believe. To the extent that he stated, he would happily eat another chunk if offered. Take that review with a grain of salt, however, we have seen him eat things that would have most people running in the opposite direction.

Our main courses featured braised lamb shanks and some nice local fish dishes. We finished the meal with Skyr, blueberries and sorbs and a nice slice of apple pie with ice cream and whipped cream. Although it would not be the most impressive culinary experience on our trip, it none the less succeeded in achieving the Viking feel and left us very full and satisfied.  

 

The drive back to the hotel had us all ready for bed and the adventure that would come on the following day.

ICELAND DAY 3

We rose early and headed to the hotel buffet. The selection was very standard for a hotel of its style. With the notable offerings of the tasty Skyr and fresh fruit and some tasty blood sausage bites for the meat inclined.

We had a big drive ahead of us. We aimed to hit all the Golden Circle sites in one day and finish at our next hotel in the heart of southeastern Iceland. With our coordinates programmed into the GPS and the WiFi pinging google sites for more tourist info, we headed to our first stop Kerið.

The tour was as follows:

Kerið is a volcanic crater lake in the Grimsnes area, a 50min drive from Reykjavik. It is a shallow lake no more than 14 metres deep (depending on rainfall). The steep walls are lined with a mixture of red and black scoria and covered in moss and lichen which take advantage of the minerals contained in the rock. The small entry fee of ISK 400 was well worth the investment. We climbed to the top of the Caldera and all the way down to the edge of the lake. Resulting in some great photo opportunities.

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Next, we headed off to Geysir. 45min from Kerið, Geysir is a thermal geological site featuring some of Iceland’s most famous Geysers.  The name Geyser itself is taken from the Icelandic term geysa “to gush.” A hot spring spouting was quite a sight to see. Although The Great Geysir infrequently erupts its little brother Strokkur which is 50 metres south of it erupts every 5-15 minutes. Many photos and videos online, featuring the eruptions at Geysir, are mislabeled as Geysir. We will not make that mistake.  It was absolutely Strokkur that we saw and it was an experience none the less. The Geysir site is very well set up for tourists and bus tours. It is obvious that the resurrection of the Icelandic economy post the 2008 meltdown is very invested in the tourism industry.

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We piled back in the car and headed to the next site.  After a short 15min drive, we arrived in Gullfoss. The Golden Waterfall, or by its Icelandic name Gullfoss, is one of the largest and most spectacular waterfalls in Iceland. Water plummets 32 meters down two steps into a canyon with walls towering 70 metres. We were very lucky to have some winter ice and snow frosting adding to the rugged aesthetic. Although a little wet underfoot, it was well worth the hike to all the lookouts and photo opportunities. Aside from the obvious awe inspired by the power of nature, Gullfoss has another story to tell.  In 1907 an English investor attempted to buy the falls from a local farmer. His offer was rejected, but a lease agreement was set up. However, when the farmer’ s daughter Sigriður Tómasdóttir heard of the plans to dam the site she was horrified. Using her personal savings she hired a Reykjavik lawyer to challenge the rental contract. Through many years of legal struggles and political wrangling the site was kept in its natural state. It was not totally safe until 1940 when the adopted son of Sigriður acquired the falls from his grandfather and sold it to the Icelandic government who protected it and finally designated it as a nature reserve in 1979. Sigriður Tómasdóttir’s work to preserve the falls brought the Icelandic people’s attention to the environmental movement and she is often referred to as Iceland’s first environmentalist.

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With one more stop before our next hotel, we headed towards Þingvellir but not before an impromptu stop to see and pet some of the local Icelandic Horses.

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The Icelandic Horse is a breed unique to Iceland. They are a small, at time pony-sized, horse. They have a long history of use in sheep herding work and are very popular internationally with them exported worldwide.  The Icelandic government has legislated that no other horse breed can be imported into Iceland. They are a very cute horse with large majestic manes, flowing tails, and often striking blue eyes. Most are bred for the international export market, but quite a few are used as draft animals for farming and some even bred for the meat market.

 

Þingvellir, or Thingvellir as it is anglicised, is just over a 1-hour drive from Gullfoss. Þingvellir has had a place in Icelandic culture since AD 874 when it became the first permanent Norwegian settlement.  As the various settlements spread all over the south of Iceland, the social and political trials and tribulations grew with them.  In AD 930 it was chosen to host The Alþingi (assembly) because of its proximity to various settlements. Making Þingvellir the supreme legislative and judicial authority in Iceland until 1271. Þingvellir is also notable for its geological nature as a rift valley. It’s striking visual forms are created by the divergent North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. The Basalt pillars are awe inspiring and an obvious choice for many film locations over the years. Þingvellir has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site on cultural criteria. But it is expected to also qualify on geographical criteria in the very near future.

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A short 30-minute drive to our next hotel had us skirting the Þingvallavatn lake. We looked forward to a chance to rest in a geothermal spa. We arrived at ION Luxury Adventure Hotel, checked in and headed straight to their outdoor spa bath.  A full review can be read on the accommodation page on this site. Most notable was the Silfra Restaurant and Northern Lights Bar. The cocktails in the Bar were outstanding and the view was stunning. The Silfra degustation tasting menu was world class and featured some of the best fish and pork belly the Friends have ever eaten. Well worth the 5-star price.

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We highly recommend a self-drive option for the golden circle.  Seeing people being rushed on and off buses, made our relaxed journey and self-guidance via GPS and WiFi seem like a winning formula.

READ PART 2

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