Very few things in life make me feel small. And not just small – inconsequential. It is hard to stand at the edge of these cliffs and not be completely in awe. From the unpredictable weather to the 214 meter (750 ft) drop to the ocean below – these cliffs are a mother nature power trip.
The morning started early in Dublin. After dropping the in-laws off at the airport, Jared and I headed to pick up something which was the biggest source of anxiety in the weeks leading up to our trip – the rental car. As you’re probably aware, the Irish sit on the wrong side of the car and drive on the wrong side of the road. Jared and I developed a couple of rules of the road: (1) every time Jared made a turn I would yell “left”, and (2) if Jared veered too far left I would yell “curb check”. I’m pleased to say it was a success: we arrived in one piece.
The weather was misty and a bit windy. With scarves wrapped tight and hoods pulled down, we made our way up and out to the cliff path. On this day, we had the paths mostly to ourselves. A few groups of people would occasionally pass by, but once we got far enough away from the entry point, it was silent with the exception of the wind. We spent a couple of hours walking up and down the paths, marveling at the height of the cliffs and the sneaky pull of the wind. Over time, the rain started to fall a little heavier and the wind blow even stronger. The camera lenses took on a perpetual cloud that became harder and harder to wipe away. Soaked to the bones, we trekked back up the path to the safety and warmth of our car.
Breakfast may quite possibly be my favorite meal of the day. Eggs Benedict. Dutch Baby. Chilaquiles. Hash. French Toast. One of each please! Makes me hungry just thinking about it. It’s the only meal where it is 100% acceptable (in public) to eat dessert as your meal. In the US, brunch is something we take very seriously. It is the perfect way to refuel (and recover) after a late Friday or Saturday night, and it is essential in kicking off a Sunday Funday.
In our previous lives in San Diego and Los Angeles, brunch was a fairly regular part of our weekend routine – mornings spent lingering in the sun, mimosa in hand, catching up with friends. Weekend mornings out here appear to follow a bit of a different beat with most folks grabbing a quick café and croissant; however, the number of places catering to the brunch crowd are continuing to grow. It may be the promise of good weather to come, but I find myself yearning for those lazy Sunday brunches.
Last Saturday, we headed up to Amsterdam to get a much-needed break from work. Needing some fuel before we tackled the Rijksmuseum, I insisted that brunch be part of the day’s plan and Jared delivered.
It’s a New Zealand style cafe just a stone’s throw from the Heineken brewery (for those looking to fill-up before the “Heineken Experience”) or a quick jaunt from both the Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum. The menu isn’t exhaustive, but it is sure to please everyone. Unable to decide between sweet or savory, I went for the B&R Special which gives a taste of both. Jared opted for the Kiwi Brekkie. The food was delicious and the help friendly. We both left with very full bellies. I definitely recommend giving this place a visit if you find yourself in Amsterdam.
We lucked out with the weather. The forecasted gloom would have certainly added a bit of atmosphere on our visit to this medieval city, but it was nice to be able to leave the umbrellas behind and turn our faces up to the sun. In the bay where Normandy and Brittany merge, you can find the tiny island of Mont-Saint-Michel (population of 30). In the early 8th century, Aubert, the bishop of Avranches, claimed that he was visited by the Archangel Michael who told him to build a church on the rock island. Aubert dismissed the vision, until Michael, who appeared to him two more times, drove his finger into Aubert’s skull and ordered him to build. And build he did. The Abbaye du Mont-Saint-Michel, which was built between the 11th and 16th century, is the crown jewel of this island. It has inspired millions of pilgrims throughout the ages, and when you get your first glance of the abbey looming in the distance it is easy to why.
Long ago, the pilgrims would have braved the quicksand and infamous tides to pray at the abbey. Present day pilgrims can traverse the causeway connecting the island to the mainland. They recently built a new visitor parking lot a mile and a half inland, and they have shuttles going between the parking lot and the Mont. If you’re up to it though, I’d recommend you do as we did and leg it out to the island to really get the full experience.
Once on Mont-Saint-Michel, wander through the cobble-stoned streets and alleyways. There is a decidedly tourist feel to this island, but given it’s history, it’s purpose has always been to cater to the pilgrims that traveled so far. Embrace it. Once you’ve had your fill of the town, head up to the abbey, grab one of the brochures and do a self-guided tour (or join one of the guided tours instead if you prefer). Walking through the grounds you can almost imagine how peaceful and serene a life out here could have been back in the day. After spending some time taking in the views of the bay from the abbey terraces, we left Mont-Saint-Michel behind and make it back to the car just in time – the rain had finally arrived.
France is famous for its wine. It has long been a standard against which other wines are compared (I highly recommend watching Bottle Shock if you haven’t already seen it). So when we began planning our trip to the Normandy region, I was surprised to see that the French in the Normandy region prefer to cheers with a glass of cider instead of wine.
I like to consider myself a bit of a cider connoisseur. While most college-aged kids were developing a sophisticated palate for Bud Light and those other award-winning beers that poor college kids and frat boys would buy, I was instead exploring the world of cider.
A little more research and I discovered that there is actually a Cider Route (Route du Cidre) in the Normandy region, which is a 40km circular route through the Pays d’Auge countryside. Similar to wine tasting, you can stop at the producers to taste their various ciders, pommeau, or calvados. And, if you want to turn it into an educational experience and learn a little about the cider, pommeau, or calvados making process, some of the producers offer tours although the English tour options are limited.
Despite a very packed Normandy itinerary, we were able to squeeze in stops at three producers: Pierre Huet, Domaine Dupont, and Manoir de Grandouet.
First stop was Pierre Huet.Pierre Huet was offering a tour in English when we arrived, so we decided to join in. While it’s always interesting to hear about the history of the companies, I think Jared and I have both come to the conclusion that one wine/champagne/cider tour is much the same as any other. If you haven’t done one, then definitely have at it. Jared and I were not familiar with pommeau or calvados so it was great to actually hear how you go from an apple to apple brandy. After our brief tour, we headed back to the main building for the big finale: the tastings. As part of our tour fee, you get to taste quite a few of their offerings. First up were the ciders, and as you see above there are three types of ciders that they produce . We both got a little taster of both the brut apple cider and the demi-sec pear cider. I favored the pear cider (blame it on the sweet tooth) while Jared preferred the brut (less sweet). But both were quite tasty. Next up was pommeau. Pommeau is essentially a mix of calvados and pure apple juice, and is typically drank as an aperitif. It was, well, I think my tiny taster is all I think I’ll ever feel the need to drink.
And last, we got to try two vintages of calvados (apple brandy) – one was aged 8 years and one was aged 15 years. Much like the pommeau, I am not sure I’d be able to sip this without grimacing. However, I have seen quite a few tasty cocktails where calvados is the star like these, which have me wishing we’d picked up a bottle or two. Alas, we grabbed a few bottles of cider and then moved on to the next place: Domaine Dupont.Domaine Dupont is on some truly beautiful grounds (as the entry above surely shows). Through the windows of the tasting room you can see the seemingly endless rows of apple trees. True artisan cider. And so of course, I so desperately wanted to love their cider. Ultimately Jared and I agreed that the earthiness of the ciders was just a bit too much for us. I do appreciate that they are trying to do something a little different, but I don’t like funk with my cider (just my lambics and guezes thank you very much). They do have quite the impressive selection of calvados though.It was late in the afternoon, but we made one final stop at Manoir de Grandouet. This one may have been my favorite (my 12 bottles purchased being no indication…). We pulled off the road towards some nondescript buildings.Lucky for us that another person was just loading up their cider haul, otherwise we may have assumed that it was closed it was so quiet and peaceful. The woman running the tastings was incredibly helpful and was willing to give us as many tasters as we wanted. Ultimately, we ended up trying 5 different ciders here – all solid – and actually had a tough time figuring out which ones to buy because we liked them all so much. Lucky for us, cider tasting is a much cheaper affair compared to wine tasting: the typical 75ml cider costs just about EUR 3.You know what else the region is well-known for? Camembert. If you have a little more time and want do a real gastronomy tour of the Pays d’Auge region plan to make a stop in Camembert to see how this cheese is made. While you’re there, grab a few goodies to pair with your new ciders.
I can’t think of a better way to while away a lazy day than soaking in the famed Blue Lagoon. And so that’s what we did for our final day in Iceland.
After a few crazy long work weeks and two busy days exploring Iceland, we were looking forward to some serious relaxation. We caught an early shuttle from our hotel to the Iceland airport, checked in our bags, and then grabbed the shuttle from the airport to the Blue Lagoon.
The day was cold, overcast, and rainy, but that just provided a nice contrast to the warm, milky blue lagoon. We hurriedly hung up our robes, and slipped into the water.
Oh man. Heaven.
If I asked you what color the water is, I expect you’d say blue. And you wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. The sun reflects off the silica in the water and the water appears blue; however, the water is actually a milky white color. There is more than 6 million liters of water in the lagoon. And don’t worry about sharing that same bath water with thousands of other folks – the water renews itself every 40 hours.
In all, we spent about three hours in the lagoon. We grabbed some drinks, did some face masks, explored the perimeter, and sought out the warmest spots.
With our departure time fast approaching, we finally forced ourselves to exit the lagoon. [My pruned fingers and toes took hours to recover.] After a quick rinse off, we had a few moments to spare so we went up to get a better look at the lagoon:
I wish we had more time to explore the grounds and take a tour of the premises. I guess it’s an excuse to go back again in the future. Ah, shucks…
A few tips for enjoying the Blue Lagoon:
Purchase your entry online in advance, especially if you are planning to be there during the peak times. When we were leaving to go, the lagoon was at capacity so anyone trying to get in had to wait until someone departed. If you book online, you are guaranteed priority access. You can also add in a shuttle to and from the airport. It’s one-stop service.
Purchase the Comfort package (or Premium if you are feeling a little extra fancy). You may be tempted to save a few bucks and go for the Standard package, but splurge a little and you won’t have to worry about tacking on any additional add-ons (towels, slippers, robes, etc.).
If you’re looking for the warmest water, plant yourself right by the wooden boxes around the perimeter of the lagoon. This is where the hot water gets pumped in and it’s where I spent a good portion of my time.
For all the ladies – if you have long hair I highly recommend giving your hair a good coat of conditioner before heading into the lagoon and keeping your hair out of the water as much as possible. It took a couple of weeks of deep conditioning treatments to make my hair feel anything like normal.
And with that, we were off again and on our way to Boston. The stopover was an absolute success, and we are already talking about when we will be able to do it again.
One more Iceland fact for you. Iceland is expecting 1,000,000 tourists in 2015. Are you going to be one of them? We sure hope to be!
Our second day found us on the Golden Circle tour which hits three of Iceland’s biggest natural attractions: Þingvellir National Park, Gullfoss Waterfalls, and Geysir. A bit of a highlight tour if you will. We did the slightly shortened afternoon tour, but I’d recommend doing the full day tour to ensure you have adequate time to walk around at each of the sights.
First stop: Þingvellir National Park
Þingvellir means “Parliament Plains” and that is the most accurate description of the importance of this location. Þingvellir is where the Icelandic parliament was created in 930 and where it continued to hold its assemblies until 1798. In 1930, the national park was created in order to protect this important historical site, and in 2004 it was deemed a UNESCO world heritage site.
What’s even cooler? It’s also the rift of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which separates the Eurasian and North American Plates. The plates have been shifting about 2.5 cm per year, so there is a very clear gap between the two tectonic plates. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can actually go diving here. It is supposed to be home to some of the clearest water in the world, and at some of the more narrow points you can actually touch both the plates at the same time. We didn’t get a chance to do the dive this go around, but I would love to do this in the future.
Given that we only had limited time here, we didn’t get a chance to actually walk down to the actual parliament site. We definitely would have loved to explore the area more and hence the recommendation for the slightly longer tour.
Second stop: Gullfoss waterfalls
Gullfoss means “Golden Falls” and it is said that on a sunny day the water takes on a golden hue.
Apparently at one point some foreign investors had plans to rent Gullfoss and build a hydroelectric powerplant, which would have obviously destroyed the falls. The story goes that Sigríður Tómasdóttir, who was the daughter of Gullfoss’s owner loved the falls so much that she threatened to throw herself into the falls in protest against the plan. To show that her threat was in earnest, she walked barefoot from Gullfoss to Reykjavík (about 120 km). She was successful in her bid, and we have her to thanks for preserving the beauty of the falls for the enjoyment of all future generations.
If you’re lucky enough, the sun will catch the mist from the falls just perfectly to create a nice little rainbow. We had plenty of mist although not much sun, but we were able to get a little glimpse of a rainbow (squint and you can see it).
Third and final stop: Geysir
It was interesting to learn that the English word geyser derives from Geysir, which itself comes from the Icelandic word geysa (to gush). Geysir is said to have been active for 10,000 years and in the mid-1800’s the eruption was said to have reached a height of 170 meters. It’s currently inactive and in a dormant state, so do not expect to see any eruptions from this geyser.
Don’t fret though. Just a short walk away is Strokkur Geysir. Although not as impressive as Geysir, this one erupts about every 5-10 minutes, and the eruptions reaching a height of up to 30 meters.
Some adventurous souls decide to stand downwind from Strokkur and are rewarded with a blast of warm sulphuric steam/rain when the geyser erupts. Although the brief moment of warm water was tempting, in our older age we are smart enough to know that the warmth is fleeting and all you are left with is damp clothes in the cold air. And so naturally, we positioned ourselves upwind and played the waiting game.
And thar she blows!
Packed back into the bus, we settled in to enjoy the breathtaking landscapes as we began the drive back to Reykjavík. Did you know that Iceland has more than 600 types of moss? Or that the white substance on the rocks is actually lichen (essentially the pre-moss phase) and not bird poop? Me neither. All the random tidbits of information are what I love most about doing tours, and our tour guide was excellent.
If you’re visiting Iceland and have only limited time to view the sites, I would definitely recommend doing one of the Golden Circle tours as it is the easiest way to see some of Iceland’s most popular spots. Having tackled these, next time we plan to rent a car and head to some of the spots a little more off the beaten (tourist) path.
We come from the land of the ice and snow, From the midnight sun where the hot springs flow. Led Zeppelin
Iceland is hands down one of the most beautiful countries I have ever seen. After our brief stopover in July, it rocketed up the list of our favorite places.
Quick aside: Have you heard of Iceland Air’s free stopover? En route either to or from Europe you can stopover in Reykjavík for up to 7 days at no extra charge. With flight prices just a tad higher than those of the other airlines, it was an obvious decision for us. Friends and family – sounds like the perfect thing to do on your way to visit us.
From our walking tour of Reykjavík to our guided tour of the Golden circle, I feel like we learned all sorts of fascinating tidbits about Iceland. Wanna hear?
Iceland is nicknamed the land of fire and ice, and it couldn’t be more appropriate. 11% of the island is covered in volcanoes and 11% is covered in glaciers. The remaining is covered in lava rocks, hot springs, and about 600 varieties of the greenest moss.
There are about 325,000 people living in Iceland. 150,000 of those live in Reykjavík and that jumps up to 220,000 if you include Reykjavík’s suburbs. That means 2/3 of the entire population of Iceland lives in Reykjavík and its suburbs.
Icelanders begin learning English at age 6. As if two languages weren’t enough, they will also start learning Danish at 7 and then will usually pick up a fourth language before or in college. Every single Icelander we met spoke perfect English, and often with only the slightest hint of an accent. It was impressive.
The hot water comes from all the hot springs on the island, and provides super cheap heating for all the Icelanders. Word of warning, the water retains that super awesome sulphuric smell. So don’t be shocked when your shower smells slightly of rotten eggs. Don’t worry though, the smell goes away almost immediately once the water is turned off and you won’t be sporting any lingering effects either.
The tap water is some of the cleanest in the world. It doesn’t have any special taste, and that’s the beauty behind it. It’s just perfectly natural, clean tasting water. It’s delicious – drink lots while you are in town.
As you would expect with an island that has to import almost everything, alcohol can be quite expensive. Because the alcohol is so expensive, the locals like to drink at home before meeting up at the bars. Plus toss in the fact that Icelanders like to party late, and it means that you will be (a) the only person in the bar at 10PM, or (b) one of a group of tourists in a bar at 10PM. The streets were almost empty at 11:30PM, but were hopping when we were heading home at 3AM. The flip side of these late nights? Almost nothing seemed open until at least 10AM, so enjoy a late night out and then sleep in.
More than half the population believes in elves. Supposedly there is a law that requires companies filing a building application to include a letter from an elf medium confirming that the building would not disturb any elves living in the area. This is a magical land, so whose to say they don’t exist. Given how beautiful the Icelandic population is, if they do exist I’ll bet they all look like Legolas.
Shortly after arriving in Brussels last year, I stumbled on Kaelene’s blog, and then proceeded to silently stalk it for months. A few months further down the road a trip was booked, and instead of stalking it became “researching”. I’m pretty sure Jared got sick of the constant links I sent him with “let’d do this!” or “oh my gosh, we have to go here”. And yet, despite that all that, due to our crazy work schedules, we landed in Iceland with ideas but nary a plan.
That first morning, we grabbed a table at Café Paris and planned out our three days. A day in Reykjavík – check. A tour of the Golden Circle – check. Some relaxing at the Blue Lagoon – big check. With the agenda settled, we headed out to explore Reykjavík.
Despite being late July, the weather in Reykjavík was a bit schizophrenic as the sun dipped in and out of the cloud banks. One moment we would be shivering, wishing that we’d packed warmer clothes, and then the next we would be pulling off our sweaters as fast as we could.
We strolled up Skólavörðustígur towards Hallgrímskirkja.
Hallgrímskirkja is the largest church in Iceland. It’s a plain church – a far cry from the super ornate churches you typically find in Europe – but that simplicity is quite beautiful. Inside the church is one of the most unique organs I have seen to date.
After checking that out, we jumped in line for what is most definitely the biggest draw of this church: the best view in Reykjavík.
Isn’t it gorgeous? The brightly colored roofs and buildings are so stinking cute – it’s almost too much to handle.
Back safely on the ground, we made our way down to the harbor.
The glass structure above is the Harpa, a concert hall and conference center which opened in 2011. When the financial crisis hit, Harpa was only partially constructed and the money to finish the building was gone. And so, the government stepped in and funded the remaining portion and a few years later it was completed. The plan was to develop the whole area and add a luxury hotel and shopping, but right now it’s just cleared land.
I’m convinced that Iceland has the most sculptures per square foot than anywhere else in the world – they are seriously all over the city.
Eventually we turned back inland, and headed up to the cemetery. Our tour guide told us that it is tradition to plant a tree when someone dies. Add in the dampness of the air, and what has resulted is these eerily beautiful cemeteries where moss-covered graves are canopied by hundreds of trees. I quite like this tradition.
After a long day of walking and a brief visit to a food festival, we decided to kick up our feet and spend the rest of our day enjoying some of Iceland’s local brews.
With day one in the books, we eagerly looked forward to day two’s agenda: Golden Circle.
It’s been all quiet on the blog front these last few weeks. We’ve been busy. Busy celebrating THE event of the year: my little sister’s wedding. But more on that in the upcoming weeks. Back to our Croatia/Bosnia holiday recap.
Occasionally you find a city that exceeds all expectations. That was Mostar for us. We decided to detour out to Mostar on our way from Split to Dubrovnik, and I’m so glad we did. Mostar is a charming little town, and while it could be easily tackled in a day, I would recommend a day and a night to really get a true feel for the town. You can do as we did and catch a bus from Split or Dubrovnik out to Mostar. Or, if you only have one day to spare (and want a quick check-off on the countries visited list) you can catch one of the day tours offered out of Dubrovnik. Bosnia is definitely worth a visit if you are able to fit it in. We know we’ll be back again for sure.
Our evenings were spent exploring Mostar: we caught a collection of animated shorts, we ate döner kebaps and cevapcici, smoked some hookah, and drank some Bosnian craft beer. We strolled through the streets of Old Town eating gelato and perusing the market stall offerings. We took it real easy.
The last morning in Split, we braved the torrential rainstorm for the 25 minute walk down where we’d catch the ferry to Hvar. [sidenote: the streets in Split can be quite slippery when wet – flip-flops plus slippery stones leads to massive slipping and sliding action] With a weather forecast of rain, rain, and more rain, we sped away from Split towards Hvar and somehow left the rainstorms and grayness behind. We were welcomed to Hvar with sun and clear blue skies. The island averages over 2,700 hours of sunshine per year, so it’s not surprising that it promotes itself as the “sunniest spot in Europe.”
It could be that all the guide books chalked it up as overly touristy and expensive – even Rick Steves recommended spending just a day – but we hands down LOVED Hvar. We spent two blissful days in Hvar – swimming in the ocean, sunning on the rocks, unsuccessfully cheering on the USA against Belgium, exploring the fortress, and just being. Continue reading →
After the Plitvice Lakes, we hopped in the car and booked it out towards the coast – we had places to be and, more importantly, people to see. Waiting for us in Split were our good friends from San Diego, Bre and Dylan. Living in Belgium, we are so far away from friends and family, so we were really looking forward to having a bit of home in Europe. The schedule for the trip was open aside from the meeting point (Split) and the city of departure (back to life, back to reality) of Dubrovnik.
Split is the second largest city in Croatia. Our time in the city was short – just about 36 hours – but we made the most of it. Continue reading →