Return to Iceland

I finally had an opportunity to return to Iceland after I heard some coworkers talk about going to see the northern lights. We made some plans and decided to go to Iceland in the middle of January.

The flight to Iceland on Icelandair was uneventful and on time. The flight attendants hand out a big bottle on Icelandic water on boarding for everyone, which was greatly needed and appreciated. One thing that catches some travelers off guard is that Icelandair does not have free food onboard their aircraft. The non-alcoholic drinks are free, but if you want food, that will cost extra. I did not mind the extra 9 euros for a hot sandwich and chips.

We arrived early in the morning, as most flights into Iceland from North America do. Getting the rental car was pretty easy, except the fact that you had to walk outdoors to an outdoor waiting area for the rental car bus to pick you up in cold! It was about 33 degrees Fahrenheit when we arrived into Iceland! We rented thru Budget rental car, as that was the cheapest I could find a 7 person car. If you do travel with 7 people to Iceland and expect to fit all your bags in the car, forget it. We luckily only had 6 people traveling on this trip. The problem is that the 6th and 7th seats fold up to give you an above average trunk space if you have 5 people. If you use the 6th and 7th seats, there is no trunk space at all. We ended up packing in the back as best as we could with a couple of people holding on to their backpacks on the drive into Reykjavik.

On this trip, we were fortunate enough to stay at the Hilton Reykjavik Nordica. This hotel near downtown Reykjavik and is nothing short of amazing. We showed up at the hotel around 8AM hoping for an early check in on 3 rooms. To our surprise, one of the rooms was in fact ready! They graciously gave us keys for the one room, which included lounge access for breakfast and appetizers in the evening. After we had breakfast, all of us went downstairs to see if the other rooms were ready, which they were not. I give great compliments to the front desk agent for finding us napping in the lobby to inform us that our other rooms were ready with keys in hand about an hour after we left the front desk the 2nd time. One of the biggest tips that I can not stress enough on international travel while changing multiple time zones is to adjust to the local time on the first day. Most of our were still tired from the trip in from Denver to Keflavik as it is only an 8 hour gate to gate flight. Most of the people in the group wanted to take a nap, so we all agreed to meet back up in 2 hours. If you feel like you need to get some shut-eye after a red-eye flight, make sure you take a short nap and not sleep in for a couple of hours, because your body clock could be thrown off versus what timezone you’re in. After a short nap, we got up to explore Reykjavik a bit.

Reykjavik has a lot of things to see and do within a walkable distance. Laugavegur is a very long street in the heart of Reykjavik with lots of shops and restaurants to check out. At one end of the street, in the shadows of the Harpa Concert Hall, is one of my favorite places, Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur. I have written previously about this location and I still am in agreement that this is the best hot dog stand in Europe. I enjoy it so much that I not only got 1, but 2 hot dogs! After some eats and a lot of walking, we called it an early night to try to catch up on some sleep.

Once we awoke in the morning, we headed out to check out Seljalandsfoss, a beautiful waterfall in the southern part of Iceland. Seljalandsfoss was also featured as a waypoint on one of the seasons of The Amazing Race. As a huge fan of the show, we had to go check it out. We drove about an hour and forty minutes to get to the falls, but we made a pit stop in the town of Hella. For those of you not from Northern California, we use the word hella as an adjective, so it was a pretty exciting experience for the group to be in the town. Seljalandsfoss is one of the better known waterfalls in Iceland that has a 197 foot drop that forms the Seljalandsfoss river, which is fed from a glacier in Eyjafjallajökull. (Yes, the same Eyjafjallajökull that erupted in 2010 that shut down air traffic in Europe) You can actually climb a set of stairs on the right hand side of the waterfall and walk behind it! It is about an hour and a half drive from Reykjavik.

After the drive back from Seljalandsfoss, we went to the Blue Lagoon. There are a lot of mixed feelings out there for going there. Some will say it is overly touristy, as the lagoon itself is not natural. It is man-made that holds the geothermal water after it is ran thru generators to create electricity and energy from the nearby Svartsengi power plant. There are some that also had issues with its dynamic pricing system for reservations and that you MUST have a reservation to get in. We were lucky going in early January as it is very low season for tourism in Iceland. We were able to book tickets the night before. As I write this passage on February 9th, there is only 800pm, an hour before closing, available on February 15th! There were some late entry times about two weeks out, so book way in advance! The Blue Lagoon is currently expanding to have another lagoon sometime this year to help get more people in, as Iceland is currently going thru growing pains as tourism has double from 2010 to 2014. As for me, I think the Blue Lagoon is a must see location at least once in your life. When you check in and get you locker, it is customary the shower off before you get in the lagoon! Try to make sure you bring your own towel too, as there is limited space to hang towels at the lagoon and all the towels being rented out look exactly the same. Yes, you may feel the silica mud when you walk thru the hot water in the lagoon, but you definitely do not want to pick this up and put it on your face! There is a little hut that you can swim up to that has fresh silica mud and algae mask if you paid for the upgraded ticket. They also have a swim up bar with drinks to enjoy in the lagoon as well. We were there for about 3 hours in the twilight/evening hours. Once you leave the lagoon for the day, be sure to rinse your hair with lots and lots of conditioner, as the silica will make your hair stiff and difficult to manage!

The next morning we did the golden circle tour, which has no meaning or roots in Icelandic history, just a nice marketing name! The golden circle tour encompasses about 300 kilometers, or 190 miles, starting in Reykjavik and circling around the southern uplands and back. The day we went was the coldest day on the trip, about 18 degrees fahrenheit or -8 celsius. It is a beautiful sight though to leave in the morning darkness driving to the first stop of Þingvellir National Park and seeing the sun slowly rise over the mountains. Þingvellir National Park was the site of the Alþingi (assembly) of parliament in 930. There is a continental drift between the North American and Eurasian plates that is slowly pulling away from each other that can be seen at the park as well. It is about a 40 minute drive from Reykjavik. The next stop about 50 minutes from Þingvellir is Geysir. The Great Geysir seldom erupts, but the nearby Strokkur geyser is a lot more reliable, erupting every 6-10 minutes with an average height of 15-20 meters. A few more minutes up the road is Gullfoss. Gullfoss is a big, beautiful waterfall dropping 32 meters over two tiers. When you approach the waterfall at first, it appears as if the river just drops off in the earth itself. It is really a powerful sight to look at and be a part of.

Once we were back in town, we decided to head into downtown Reykjavik to eat at one of the more highly reviewed restaurants, Fish Company. Fish Company is an upscale seafood restaurant with a wide variety of different seafood dishes around the world. They list the country of origin along with the seafood for that dish, so if you want to get a different cuisine taste, you can. I went with the fish of the day from the local waters of Iceland, which happened to be 3 different fishes plated with different sauces and veggies. The presentation and quality for the price was very reasonable compared to other seafood restaurants.

On our last day in Iceland, we had just enough time before our late afternoon flight back to Seattle to check out Hallgrímskirkja. Hallgrímskirkja is Lutheran church and is the largest church in Iceland at 73 meters high. You can go to the top of the tower to their observation deck for 900 ISK. Keep in mind that the only way up is one very small elevator that only holds 6 people at a time. We did not go to the top, as the wait was about 45 minutes to get on the elevator! There is also an amazing statue of Leif Eriksson in front of the church that predates the construction of the church itself. It was a gift from the United States to Iceland in 1930 to celebrate the 1000 year anniversary of the Alþingi. We only had so much time to check out the surrounding area before we had to head to the airport to head home.

Why did we chose to go to Iceland in the dead of winter? We wanted to have the best chance of seeing the Aurora Borealis. The Aurora zone is usually pretty small, but it can reach down to cover Iceland in a glow of polar light depending on any geomagnetic storms or solar activity. There is never a guarantee to see Aurora Borealis, and we did unfortunately struck out. At least on Icelandair on the flight home, there was always a guarantee to see the northern lights. I looked at those LED lights dancing on the ceiling of the aircraft, dreaming of another day coming back yet again to see the Aurora Borealis in person. Til next time Iceland.

Christmas Markets in Germany

One thing that can put even the meanest Grinch in the holiday spirit is the Christmas markets, or Christkindlmarket, in Germany. First held in Dresden in 1434, they have been an annual Advent tradition throughout Germany and Austria since. Many markets are held in the town square and nearby pedestrian zones; which sells food, drink, and seasonal items from open-air stalls. I went for a week and drove all over Germany to experience as many markets as I could. It was quite the adventure.

I left from home and flew into Amsterdam as my starting and ending point into Europe. From Amsterdam, I ended up doing a huge 1,274 mile loop of Germany to see as many markets as I could in a week. Driving down the autobahns were an experience you will never forget. You will learn very quickly that the left hand lane is only for passing and that’s it! The first stop on my trip was Frankfurt, where I found out that would be eating bratwurst on this trip. Lotsmore lots, and even more lots of bratwursts. I made stops in Frankfurt, Schlitz, Bad Hersfeld, Erfurt, Weimar, Jena, Coburg, Nuremberg, Munich, Stuttgart, Cologne, Bonn, and Düsseldorf! Small markets were really small, others were crazy busy.

Some of the best markets to go to are the busier ones in Frankfurt, Nuremberg, Munich, Stuttgart, and Cologne if you are looking for a lot of various options for shopping and food. I liked the market in Erfurt because it has a ferris wheel in the town square. My vote for the best stall was in Bonn, because they had deer singing “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” in German. I went in early December, which is a great time to go to avoid most of the bigger crowds of tourists right around Christmas. If you get the chance to go to Germany in December, take it! It’s a wonderful time of year to go!

Costa Rican Beaches

One of the greatest assets that Costa Rica has is its beautiful beaches. My buddy Mike and I started out one morning at our hotel and decided just to go beach hopping the whole day along the Nicoya Peninsula until sundown.

From the touristy beaches of Playa Hermosa and Playa Flamingo, to a more secluded Playa Conchal, there is a beach that suits so many different tastes. My personal favorite of the day was Playa Conchal. It was different experience to get to the beach be driving down multiple dirt roads and driving right on the beach. The water was very warm and calm, which was great for swimming and wading. Tamarindo was a different story.

We finally reached Tamarindo at sundown, and it was a beautiful site to see. Tamarindo does not only have an awesome beach for swimming and surfing, but a whole lively beach town to go with it. They have everything any surfer could ever want and dream, from any budget range. From nicer full service restaurants, to little sodas on the side of the road, any one can enjoy a full day at Tamarindo.

Selvatura Adventure Park

One of the most exciting things to do in Costa Rica is to check out the scenery via a zip line! I highly recommend heading to Selvatura Adventure Park in Santa Elena.

From our hotel in Papagayo, it was about a 3 hour drive up to Santa Elena. The route does not look that long, but once you get off the Pan American Highway, some roads are dirt and very steep. Once you are in the cloud forest, you are in a completely different world from the sand and beaches just an hours drive below. Selvatura Adventure Park is partially located in the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, which contains over 26,000 acres of cloud forest. It is a very unique experience on this zipline company than most of the other companies in the area.

The zipline tour is about $50 USD, which is not a bad deal for the 3 hour experience. There are 12 cables and 18 platforms on this tour. One of the cables is 3,280 feet (1 km) long, which at the time of my trip in November of 2015 was the longest zipline in Costa Rica! If you have the time, or are in the Monteverde area, you should check them out!

Tough lessons in Costa Rica…..

I have traveled to Costa Rica a handful of times before with no issues. I usually travel with my passport on me for the most part. This time around I left my passport in the safe at the hotel for the whole trip. I have heard about random police checkpoints in the country, but I never ran into one until my last trip in November.

After a fun day of beach hopping around Tamarindo, we were driving back to our hotel in Papagayo in the evening. We ran into a police checkpoint about halfway back to the hotel. The police were nice and friendly, but they asked us for our passports, which were back in the hotel safe. It seemed to me that their English was limited, but I was fortunate to have a local wifi hotspot connection and used google translate to the best of my abilities. The one officer then decided to search the car for any drugs or alcohol, while the other one was calling “someone” at the station. Once our car was cleared, the other officer wanted to talk to someone on his phone that was more fluent in English.

The person on the other end of the line told me that since I did not have my passport with me, they could do one of two things. One, they could call a traffic police official to come out and write me a ticket, which could take an hour or more. Or two, I could pay the officers 60,000 Costa Rican Colons and go about my way. My friend and I did not have that amount of money on us, but the officers offered to take us to an ATM to withdraw money. My friend and myself were hesitant to give the officers money directly, but we did not want to wait and possibly suffer more consequences. We drove about an extra 5 miles into town to the closest ATM to pay the officers. Once I gave them the cash, I asked if there was a receipt, ticket, or anything in writing to prove I paid a “fine”. Both officers assured me that they made a radio call with our plate number and we should have no issues for the remainder of the night.

When we drove closer to the hotel, my friend said that maybe we should go to the Hard Rock Cafe, since it was just a bit out of the way and he collects Hard Rock Cafe items during his travels. Just before we got into Coco, there was another police checkpoint……. this time there was an official traffic police officer with them. I explained them what happened about 45 minutes earlier. At first, he did not believe me. Once I showed him my ATM receipt and that I had no cash on me, all three officers looked at each other, smirked, and then wished me a good night.

Once I got back to the United States, I did some research into this. It appears that the need for passports is to verify that you are still legally in the country within your visa period. Other than that, I have not seen or heard of anyone else paying a fine. If you have, comment and let me know! Did I get scammed? I may never know. If you do rent a car and drive in Costa Rica, please do yourself a favor and have your passport with you. It will save you time, and even possibly your money.

Experiences at Hyatt Andaz Peninsula Papagayo Resort

I was very excited to hear that Southwest Airlines was launching service to a second city in Costa Rica, Liberia, back in March of 2015. The first flight down was not until November 1st, but I was already doing research into the area and surrounding hotels. I found a hotel close by to Liberia where I had elite status at. The Hyatt Andaz Peninsula Papagayo Resort!

Once we flew in on the inaugural flight to Liberia on Southwest Airlines and picked up our little Suzuki  Jimny, we were on the way! The drive from the airport to the resort was an easy half hour drive. The check in process at the Andaz properties is different from your normal front desk check in. The lobby had a huge sitting area where the agents checked us in on a tablet while we enjoyed a cool refreshing beverage. Being a Diamond elite in the Hyatt Gold Passport program netting me an upgrade to a Relax Twin room. The room was amazing! It had a huge rainfall walk in shower that opened up into the room and balcony. The mini bar was included in the room rate and was restocked daily. We at an amazing view of the treetops and bay. The front desk also advised us to keep the balcony doors closed when we were not in the room, as the local monkeys may end up wreaking havoc in our room!

Luckily at this property, they offered breakfast in the morning for free for Diamond members and their guests. I took full advantage of the open breakfast buffet and picking an item from the menu, like the coconut french toast and Gallo Pinto, a traditional Costa Rican breakfast! The hotel also has two pools, one family pool and one adults only pool. One of the biggest benefits of the hotel is its two private beaches within walking distance on property. One of the beaches has hammocks (as seen in the featured image) and lots of chairs in the shade with towels neatly rolled up on each chair. The beach is swimmable and the water was warm even in November! There were also 3 different restaurants to pick from on the resort, but my friend and I ate off the resort since there were more options at a more affordable price.

If you are looking for a nice resort in Costa Rica, you should check out the Hyatt Andaz Peninsula Papagayo Resort. I used Hyatt points to stay at the resort since rates are very expensive and hover above $400 a night. If you can afford it, I highly recommend it!

Best Hot Dog in Europe?

My friends and coworkers usually come to me and ask about what recommendations and advice I have when it comes to travel. I was once asked what is to best place/thing I ate? I would have to surprisingly say that one of my top 5 places was easily Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur.

Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur (Town’s Best Sausages in English) is a small chain of hot dog stalls in Reykjavik, Iceland. The chain has been around since 1937, but its popularity took off after a visit from former President Bill Clinton in 1994 during a UNICEF conference. Afterwards, the chain started to appear in travel guides.

There may be a long wait to get a hot dog and soda, but the wait is worth it! A hog dog costs 400 ISK, or about $3.11 USD at this time. The sausages are lamb based, with pork and beef as well. All the toppings are a must, which include ketchup, sweet mustard, remoulade, crisp fried onion and raw onion.

This is a must stop, must have location if you are ever in Iceland!