Monday, May 2, 2016

Traveling Solo in Amsterdam: Where to go & What to Eat

Traveling Solo

My family trip to Paris was wonderful (see my previous post for tips) but after nine days, I was going a little stir crazy and anxious to be on my own. Good thing I planned a solo trip to Amsterdam! I was in love with Paris and did not expect to fall in love even harder for Amsterdam. It's compact and very walkable with picturesque canals forming circles around the core of the city. As a solo female traveler, I felt extremely safe walking alone in the evenings and it was pleasant to drink and dine alone. 

Here are some recommendations that I hope will help you fall in love with Amsterdam as well.

Getting to Amsterdam

Public transportation is wonderful in Amsterdam. If you're flying into Schiphol Airport, there are direct trains running every 10m to the city centre. Train travel in Europe is also ridiculously convenient. I took a direct train (3h 15m) from Paris Nord station to Amsterdam Centraal Station which is the heart of the city. It was a relaxing ride with some nice scenery and you pass through Brussels on the way. 

The Man in Seat Sixty-One is a great site for train travel in Europe; put in your to and from city and it'll give you all the travel and ticket-buying information you need. Do try to buy your train ticket early. They are like airplane tickets; the price goes up as supply goes down or as you get closer to your travel date. 

Best Neighborhood to Stay

I knew I didn't want to be in tourist and brand-name central so I stayed away from the hotels near the Dam Square and the innermost canal rings. I recommend the Jordaan neighborhood, which is just outside the innermost canal rings but you'll still be close enough to the canals.

The Jordaan is filled with local restaurants, art galleries, mom-and-pop shops and specialty stores and it's easy to take a tram or walk to the major sites from there (e.g. about 10m walk to Anne Frank House or 15m tram ride to museum row). The southern end of the Jordaan neighborhood borders De 9 Straatjes, which are 9 shopping alleyways with enough restaurants and independent shops selling coffee, books, chocolate, clothing, jewelry and designer-quality souvenirs to keep you entertained for a full day. The shopaholic in me loved these two areas and I did a lot of window-shopping too because I find Dutch design fascinating and thoughtful.

I stayed at B&B La Festa, a townhouse-style hotel with three rooms and an Italian restaurant on the ground floor in the Jordaan and a stone's throw from De 9 Straatjes. I enjoyed staying there and would absolutely stay there again: location convenient to major sites, good restaurants, bakeries and grocery stores, friendly owners and service, affordable (e.g. $100USD/night in late March), clean and good size room (my single room was quite big by Amsterdam standards) and convenient tram and bus service nearby.

Another neighborhood to consider is the Museum District where you'll be in walking distance to several of the major museum attractions in Amsterdam. B&B La Festa was booked the first night I arrived in Amsterdam so I stayed one night at Aalders Hotel which was right behind the Van Gogh Museum. It was fine for one night and convenient for me to hit the museums early the next day. However, I would not stay there again because the single room was really tiny (I felt like I couldn't turn around) and more importantly, the WIFI was very poor and kept disconnecting.

Tulips & Keukenhof

One major item on my bucket list was seeing the tulip garden and fields of Amsterdam. Tulips are in full bloom only for a few weeks of the year and it is very dependent on warm weather so there's no hard promise even if you go in the March to early May timeframe. I went on March 30th and I was lucky to catch just the beginning of the bloom season. Here are some tips that should help you get to Keukenhof from Amsterdam and have a good time.

  • Tulips in Holland. This is a great site you can subscribe to and they'll email you weekly bloom reports. There are also events and individual or group tour ticketing information on their site.
  • Short on time. You can pay more and join a tour which will take you direct to Keukenhof Garden. This will save you about an hour total. Plus, you have options to take the fancier tours that give you a private guide, bike tours and so forth.
  • Public transportation. This is the option I recommend if you have at least 6 hours and it is affordable (about $30usd total whereas the cheapest group tour I found was about $55usd). You can pre-buy your ticket and public transport from the site above or direct from Keukenhof. With this option, you first take Connexxion public bus #197 from Leidseplein (Leidse Square) or Museumplein. Those are the main stops in Amsterdam and Museumplein is a stop in the heart of Museum District. (Tip: if you're staying at B&B La Festa, bus #197 stops at Elandsgracht which is about a 5m walk from the hotel so you can take it from there instead.) The #197 takes you to Schiphol Airport and from there, you change to the #858 which departs at the end of Arrival Hall #4. There are signs and personnel to help guide you too. These buses depart daily during this short peak season so the operation is smooth as butter.
  • Keukenhof. If you pre-buy your ticket, you should walk straight to the entrance for admission. If you want to bike through the flower fields, you can pay an additional fee at the entrance. Or, if you walk to the middle of the garden where the giant windmill is, you can purchase a boat ticket to ride the canals that line the flower fields. I didn't do either of those things because there's an area where you can admire the fields from afar. Also, I went in the early bloom season and the fields were not in full force yet. Just the garden grounds and the various pavilions featuring tulips, orchids and other flowers is a lot for a day and I spent about four hours there. There are restaurants and food stands throughout but you might want to bring a light picnic because the gardens are beautiful and they have several seating areas for people to rest and enjoy the day out. Keukenhof is child-friendly too; there's a playground area for kids to work off some energy.
  • Spare the flowers. I guess this is more a plea than a tip. Please don't step on or manhandle the flowers in your eagerness to get the perfect picture. I saw quite a number of tourists trampling on the tulips or trying to twist them in the direction they want because they want a selfie. Also, put away those selfie sticks! 
  • Gear. You need comfortable shoes (Teva boots at REI or walking shoes from Clark's are my favorites) and dress in layers. Weather is unpredictable and can change quickly. A lightweight umbrella is a good call too. I'll repeat the tip I gave in my Paris post which is travel light and invest in something like those Columbia or Patagonia puffer jackets that have multiple zipper pockets. That way you can leave heavy bags or purses at home and just hide a few cards, cash and smartphone in the zipper pockets. 

What's Delicious to Eat 

After traveling around Switzerland and in Amsterdam, I can definitively say I'm not a huge fan of Dutch German food. I don't hate it but I won't seek it out and I did try it once in Amsterdam and didn't love it. So, my food recommendations will mostly be other cuisines:

  • Italian at Quattro Gatti. They were closed for Easter week but luckily, they re-opened on my last day in Amsterdam and I enjoyed a delicious linguine with clams. It was the best I've had since Italy a few years ago. I was sad that I only got to eat here once. The owners are really nice; you can tell they are passionate about their food and restaurant.
  • French at Bathalzar's Keuken. This restaurant is around the corner from B&B La Festa. They feature a 3-course prix fixe and the menu changes constantly. The meal started with a variety of small bites, then I had a really tender and moist duck confit and finished off with strawberry and meringue dessert. 
  • Thai at Rakang. I was really happy to find such good Thai food in Amsterdam and it's also a block from B&B La Festa. Both dishes I had (spicy beef salad and duck pad kee mow noodles) were fragrant, spicy and flavorful.   
  • Chinese at Nam Kee. This is a low-key and affordable place in Chinatown. Go there for classic Cantonese stir fries, noodles and rice dishes and barbecue meats.
  • Seafood at The Seafood Bar. Be prepared for crowds here and definitely make a reservation. It's near the museum district and features a trendy crowd to go along with the trendy and pricey seafood. Definitely the place to go if you're craving seafood tower.
  • Meat at Uptown Meat Company. If you can't bear the crowd at The Seafood Bar, go next door to Uptown. They feature steaks and hearty burgers. I really liked the burger and thick-cut fries, washed down with a glass of Affligem.
  • Breakfast or Afternoon Tea at Gartine. It was such a treat to enjoy two different meals here. Gartine uses produce from their own gardens and organic eggs and makes all sorts of delectable cakes and sandwiches. For afternoon tea, there are four options to choose from depending on your appetite.  I had the High Tea Classic and they even gave me two small pieces of cake so I could try more. I returned for breakfast and had really good dutch pancakes. I'd recommend Gartine over the touristy pancake places that dot the city.
  • Cheese & Charcuterie at De Kaaskamer. Walk in and admire the wall of cheese while you take a deep breath inhaling all the cheesy goodness. If you can't buy a block of cheese, look in the fridge case and you'll find small trays of cheese with strong, mild and weekly special varieties. Get one of those and some charcuterie and dry fruit then you're all set for a picnic by the canals. Or, come during lunch time and there's a variety of sandwiches to choose from too. I got a jamon iberico with pesto for my ride back to Paris and I felt like the luckiest person on the train.
  • Chocolate at Urban Cacao. Chocolate. Hot chocolate. Chocolate desserts. Need I say more? There are two locations: one in De 9 Straatjes and one in the Jordaan (on Rozengracht) which is a bigger location so less likely to run out of popular flavors. My favorites are the champagne cassis, coffee and almond ganache. I love their hot chocolate because it's not too sweet and you can really savor the cocoa flavor.
  • Ramen at Fou Fow Ramen. On the coldest night in Amsterdam, I had a craving for Japanese ramen and Fou Fow really hit the spot. It's really popular so go early or be prepared to wait.

  • Marqt and Albert Heijn. These are supermarkets where you can pick up drinks, food and souvenirs. Marqt is kind of like Whole Foods and Albert Heijn is more like your standard chain supermarket. If you like fresh-squeezed orange juice, go to Albert Heijn. The one I visited on Elandsgracht, features a Zumex machine where you can self-serve and squeeze fresh OJ. It's really cheap too!

Things to Do & Museums

Amsterdam has a lot of wonderful museums. A free museum map that I picked up listed 44 museums and that didn't even include the Cat Museum. Definitely pre-buy your tickets online direct from the museum and pick early or late times to avoid the crowd. Buying tickets from your hotel does not guarantee you'll be able to skip the line. I made that mistake with the Van Gogh Museum and I was still directed to wait in an enormous line even though I had a ticket.

Of course, there are plenty of other things to do if museums are not your thing.
  • Rijksmuseum. If you only have time to visit one museum, go to the Rijks. It's located right in front of the much photographed "I AMsterdam" sign and a beautiful garden surrounds the museum. They have a massive collection of classic Dutch porcelain and paintings from the 17th century and you'll see famous paintings from Vermeer, Rembrandt and Steen. One of my favorite things is to go see all the food paintings of that era and get hungry while admiring all those delicious-looking paintings. Currently, there are also two awesome temporary exhibits on show until May 22, 2016. One is the Catwalk, featuring Dutch fashion from the 1600s to mid-1900s. You've got to see the dress that is 6-feet wide. The second is George Breitner's Girl in a Kimono series. It's a rare occasion for his entire collection to be featured in one place.  If you get hungry during your visit, the Rijks has a restaurant that is practically art on a plate (sadly, I didn't get to try it this time).
Still Life with Cheese. Floris Claesz van Dijck, 1615
This dress is 6 feet wide. Worn by a socialite in 1750.
  • Van Gogh Museum. I went because I had the time and I like Van Gogh's work. If you're not a huge fan, I don't recommend fighting the crowds. A lot of his famous works are not here (e.g. Starry Night). No pictures are allowed and the whole museum is over-commercialized. However, there is a small temporary exhibit called "Easy Virtue" about prostitution in French art from 1850 to 1910. That's on show until June 19, 2016 and that's worth a visit. 
  • Katten Kabinet. Cat lovers should do a short excursion here. This museum is really just one floor of cat poster art, sculptures, drawings, memorabilia and there's even a cat mummy. The whole visit should not take more than an hour unless you get caught up in the gift shop like me. It's close to the Flower Market.
  • Flower Market. If you can't get to the tulip fields, you can do a short visit to the Flower Market in the city center. You can buy all kinds of tulp bulbs and flower seeds here.
  • Albert Cuyp Market. This street market is worth a visit. You'll find classic Dutch street food like stroopwafels, herring and more. There are also various vendors selling produce, souvenirs, clothes and home goods.
  • Anne Frank Museum. Good luck getting in. They hold a monthly lottery for time tickets into the museum but it's only for a limited number of tickets. The line is an hour+ long wait regardless of the time of day. I tried my usual trick of going at 9am when they open and 6pm near closing time and the wait was estimated at 2 hours. I didn't have that kind of time so I didn't get to visit this time. Some online forums mention that the Amsterdam Visitor Center may have some tickets and you can try your luck there a few days in advance of your visit.
  • North Amsterdam. I didn't have enough time to do this but you can take a free ferry from Amsterdam Centraal Station to the north side of Amsterdam. One of the places you can check out here is the Eye Film Institute. It's a really cool building and they have a huge collection of Dutch and foreign movies and posters.
View of The Eye from the canal cruise.
  • Canal Cruise. This is touristy but no trip to Amsterdam is complete without a canal cruise. There are a lot of choices right outside the Centraal Station. The cruises run by the bigger companies are pretty much all the same so I didn't bother to pre-book and found that you can hop on a cruise leaving every 15 minutes. There are smaller and more intimate cruises but those cost more of course. The boats are closed top to protect you from the cold. In the summer, they feature open boats so that must be pretty awesome.
Only on the canal cruise will you be able to this: all 7 bridges of this canal in one shot!

Goodbye...for now

I learned on this trip that Amsterdam is so much more than the red light district and smoking marijuana. In my six days there, I didn't pass through the red light district until my fifth day. And even then it was accidental because the red light district borders Chinatown and I was searching for a noodle soup lunch. I don't like marijuana and the only weed I smelled was in a cafe. I tried to go in and keep an open mind but I couldn't stand it and had to jump back out. I really don't like the smell. But those things are such a small part of Amsterdam.

I cannot wait to go back and sit on the canal with my cheese and charcuterie picnic while basking in the sun. I want to go visit all 44+ museums and taste more of the delicious foods Amsterdam has to offer. And most of all, I just want to go back and get lost exploring the streets and alleys of this charming city.

If you need more Amsterdam travel info, check out I Amsterdam.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Travel Tips for an Awesome Trip to Paris (with Seniors)

Falling in Love

Wow, in the last sixteen months, I've traveled around the world to Iceland, the Swiss Alps, Chengdu, Hong Kong, Sydney, Melbourne, Chicago, New York City, Washington D.C. and most recently, Paris and Amsterdam. You can read about my Iceland road trip here and please come back if you're interested in getting recommendations and travel tips for the other places. I have a lot of travel posts to catch up on and Paris is up first!

My sister and her husband are living in Paris this year so we decided it was the perfect opportunity to do a family trip and take our parents to Paris. I admit, I was really nervous about taking the parents to Paris: they are "senior citizens," it was their first time in Europe and their English is limited so forget about French. But thanks to some good planning and my sister and brother-in-law's awesome Paris-living skills, this was one of the best family trips we've ever had.

I've always had Paris up on a pedestal but my first trip there in 2012 was disastrous and I left the city pretty disappointed. This time though, I fell hard in love with Paris. What's different? I think traveling with the right companions or traveling solo is key to a happy trip. Of course, planning is key too so here are some tips that I hope will help a fellow traveler especially if you have seniors in tow. 

Notre Dame


Hotels are expensive in Paris and with a bigger group, getting multiple hotel rooms and not having a common space to relax and share experiences at the end of the day is a bummer. I recommend you identify the arrondissement you want to be in and then search for an apartment via Airbnb or VRBO based on the areas you want to be in. Make sure the apartment has an elevator if that's a requirement for you. A lot of buildings don't have elevators and Paris 1st floors are really the 2nd floor in the US.

Paris is organized into twenty arrondissements that spirals out like a snail shell and most of the popular Paris landmarks (e.g. Eiffel Tower, Louvre, Notre Dame) are located in arrondissements 1 to 7. It's more pricey to stay in those areas and it can be tourist central if you stay near a landmark but if you have limited time in Paris then maybe those districts would be best for you. 

I usually prefer to stay in areas that are a bit outside of tourist areas so I'm not assaulted by magnets and postcards at every turn, or worse, a Hard Rock Cafe. I've stayed in the 10th arrondissement (aka Canal district) before and it's lovely but the canal was drained in March and I wanted to be closer to my sister so I chose this lovely 2-bedroom apartment in the 11th arrondissement (Bastille district). This apartment had all the amenities we needed and it was the perfect location for us: close to three different subway lines making it easy to get anywhere in the city (average 20m-30m to any Paris landmark) and it's surrounded by amazing bakeries, bistros and the awesome Aligre Market.

Before you travel, look up places of interest on Google Maps. When viewing a listing in Google Maps, there's an option to *star* it and save it to your Google Maps. This can help you get oriented to a new place and sometimes help you decide what area you want to stay in. When you're on the go, pulling up Google Maps can tell you how close you are and transport options to any of the starred places. These are the stars I added just for the area near our apartment. I do not travel without Google Maps; it's indispensable. 

Museums & Landmarks

Paris has 100+ museums and countless historical landmarks and the crowds can make a visit feel like a contact sport. Make peace with the fact that you're not going to be able to do it all and don't rush. Decide on the key places you want to visit, be prepared to spend a few hours and follow these tips to help you navigate the crowds:
  • Check for advance tickets online. If you can deal with a schedule then get a timed ticket to help you get through long lines faster. We made the mistake of showing up at the Louvre at Noon on a weekday and the line to get in was about a mile long and we gave up. Lesson learned, we got timed tickets for a visit the next day. You may need to book tickets earlier during peak season.
  • Go early or go late. Visiting the museum when they first open or near closing time helps a lot. I got a timed ticket to visit the Musee d'Orsay at 9am and I was one of the first people inside. I was overwhelmed with awe walking into the Orsay and feeling like I had the place to myself those first few minutes.
  • Study the museum floor plan. Know what you want to visit first and build in breaks. For example, I went straight to the top floor of the Orsay because that's where all the masterpieces by Monet, Renoir, Manet, Degas and Picasso are housed and I got some precious alone time with my favorite impressionists! Then I got some rest by having lunch at the museum restaurant before continuing my visit (the food at the Orsay is so-so but the dessert and the views are great).
  • Check Google. Look up a place on Google or Google Maps and for a lot of popular sites (and restaurants), Google will tell you what the peak visiting times are. That can help you plan around crowds.
  • Invest in gear to travel light. Traveling light can help you get through security faster. Yes, there's airport-like security at the major sites and sometimes the security line is as long as the ticket line. You'll also walk lighter and faster not being weighed down by heavy bags and after hours of walking, you won't want to be carrying anything. March is pretty cold in Paris so I invested in a Columbia puffer jacket that had multiple zipper pockets that allowed me hide a few cards, cash and smartphone in the inner pocket and travel sans purse. Also make sure you have good walking shoes that you've broken into in advance. You can easily spend five hours walking around places like the Orsay, Versailles or the Louvre. I wanted some fashionable shoes for Paris and I discovered these amazingly comfortable Teva boots at REI that I wore the entire time (average 20,000 steps a day).
Edgar Degas. Dancers in Blue. 1899. Degas' ballet series at the Musee d'Orsay is beautiful.

Food & Shopping

Visiting supermarkets, farmers markets and department stores is one of my favorite things to do while traveling. It helps you get a feel for local life, discover new or different foods and products that you won't see at home, get an opportunity to interact with locals...and feed a shopping addiction. These are my favorite places:
  • Le BHV / Marais. Six floors of shopping heaven with smaller specialty stores focusing on men, pets, etc. in the neighborhood. This place is like a Bloomingdales and Nordstrom mash up but even better. Imagine, the second floor alone is dedicated to paper and arts/crafts goods. It's also conveniently located in the 4th arrondissement, right across from the Hotel de Ville (not a hotel but a city hall building since the 14th century with gorgeous Renaissance revival architecture) and within walking distance to the Picasso Museum, Centre Pompidou and Les Halles station (huge subway station with a mall attached). Closed on Sundays.
  • Monoprix. Think equivalent to Target with both food and home goods. There are multiple locations throughout the city. It's a great place for groceries and food souvenirs like jams, cookies, fleur de sel, chocolates and more.
  • Bakeries. Good bakeries in Paris are plentiful so go explore. So many were within 5m-10m walking distance that I would visit more than one just to gather all the goodies I wanted that morning for breakfast. I'll highlight the good ones that were in our neighborhood. 
    • Ble Sucre has butter croissants, baguettes, madeleines and cakes that you'll dream about forever. With all my visits, I think I ended up buying over two dozen madeleines here. 
    • Cyril Lignac Patisserie is also great for croissants, baguettes and some very fancy cakes (think about $6usd/piece). Across the street, they also have a cafe specializing in chocolate desserts with a nice sit-down area to enjoy your dessert with coffee. If you go on a weekend afternoon, the lines to both the bakery and chocolate cafe can be out the door.
    • L'Autre Boulange is a low-key neighborhood bakery and don't be surprised that popular items are sold out by 10am. My dad loved the sugar-crusted choux pastry puffs there. I would buy a dozen and they'd be all gone before I even get to them.
Breakfast spread with breads and pastries from Ble Sucre and L'Autre Boulange and delicious thick-cut bacon, eggs and fruit from Aligre Market. Another reason to do Airbnb is you get to put together a delicious spread like this every day.
  • Aligre Market. This wonderful indoor and outdoor market was a 10m walk from our apartment in the 11th arrondissement. In the outdoor area, you'll find about 2-3 blocks worth of vendors selling all kinds of fresh fruits and vegetables and some stalls selling used clothing, books, records and knick knacks. Read the produce signs carefully because not everything is local and if its marked "par avion" then it's flown in from somewhere else. The indoor area has several butchers selling all kinds and cuts of meat, roast chicken and roast pig if you're lucky and vendors specializing in seafood, fresh eggs, spices, and dairy products like cheese, butter, cream and yogurt. One of my favorite memories on this trip is shopping at this market with my mom and together marveling and drooling over all the delicious foods. 
Roast pig at Aligre
Fruit at Aligre
  • Rue Montorgueil. David Lebovitz has a detailed post about this street. Lebovitz is one of my favorite food writers so I'm not even going to try to repeat what he's written so check out his post. I will say that I enjoyed this street so much that I visited twice and bought foie gras, fleur de sel sea salt from Geurande and mirabelle plum, cassis and eglantine jams at G. Detou, chocolates at A la Mere de Famille and Charles Chocolate and a great assortment of cheese and charcuterie from La Fermette.
Cheese at La Fermette. That blue cheese on the left is made with lavender.
  • Pylones. Cute overload is probably the best way to describe this chain. It's a fantastic place for souvenirs (e.g. scissors shaped like Eiffel Tower), jewelry, household items, office supplies and kids toys. There are multiple locations and there's a pretty big store at the Les Halles station.
Squirrel-shaped rice paddles from Pylones.
Goodies from Pylones and Amsterdam

Traveling with Parents / Seniors

My mom is in her 60s and my dad is in his early 70s and they aren't super active in the US so I was afraid we'd over tire them. Everyone is different but these are tips that served us well on this trip. 

  • Don't over-schedule. There's a lot of walking in Paris so it's important to take it easy and not overdo it. We didn't schedule any activities in advance of arriving in Paris but my sister and I did prep a list of famous sites ranging from museums to gardens to markets (I translated it into Chinese of course) for the parents to review. Depending on energy levels and weather, we'd decide where to go the day before and we'd only pick one main activity a day. We would do more only if our parents were up for it and we made sure there were a couple of hours in the late afternoon for rest or a nap before dinner. This strategy worked well for us instead of scheduling activities from dawn to dusk and rushing from place to place.
  • Have something familiar. Yes, French food is delicious but at some point you and your parents will miss what's familiar. We're Chinese so we missed Asian food and we ended up trying Thai, Chinese and Tibetan food in Paris and they were all yummy. I know some people may think that's crazy. Why have Chinese food? You're in Paris! The world is fluid. People's nature is to roam and not stay behind arbitrary national borders and when they move, they bring their food culture and traditions with them. I think it's fun to try foods not considered to be "traditional" to a place. These restaurants are using local ingredients, so to me, it's still a local experience.
  • Tag Team. I'm lucky. I have two sisters (and a brother-in-law) and we were all on this trip with our parents. My sisters and I are all independent travelers and we often go on solo trips around the world. Knowing this temperament, my sisters and I tag-teamed and sometimes, one sister would take over sightseeing with the parents that day and the others were free to have a solo day. Hey, everyone needs some alone time. Trust me, it's good for sanity so if you're able to have someone tag team with you, do it.
  • Health Insurance. Investigate options and consider purchasing travel health insurance. Your US health insurance most likely will not cover you while traveling. If you do get sick and you're staying at an Airbnb (e.g. no concierge to help you), you can also try calling the Paris branch of SOS Medicins. They will send a doctor to your home so it's good for non-ER situations. I used it back in 2012 and it cost me around $100usd. Money well-spent.
  • Public Transportation. Figure out public transport options in advance based on where you're staying. Know where your nearest bus stops and subway metro stations are and what lines are served there. Get a Navigo pass if you're staying a week or longer in Paris. It's good for Zones 1-5 (that'll cover probably 99% of travel cases) and travel to/from CDG. Paris by Train is a good site for more train transport info.
  • Use Uber or taxi. Public transport is really great in Paris but there will be times when calling an Uber or taxi will be totally worth it like going to or from the airport with a lot of luggage (a lot of subway stations do not have elevators or escalators) or needing to go to some faraway place for dinner after a long day of sightseeing. 
  • Pack the right clothes. We were in Paris in mid-March so it was pretty chilly for us Los Angelenos (think average in the 40sF). But we were prepared. I bought these awesome "omni-heat" base layers and jackets from Columbia (like this) for my parents and they also brought scarves, hats and a pair of lightweight pants to wear underneath their jeans. All of this kept us pretty warm.
  • Google. If your parents have a smartphone, at least teach them to use Google and Google Maps. When visiting certain landmarks, my parents would use Google to look up the history of the place and learn more on their own. And after I taught my mom how to use Google Maps to navigate and find out which trains to take for places she wanted to go, she was ready to ditch me and go explore on her own. We're a T-Mobile family so we all had free 2G international data which was fast enough for us to do the above. If you're on another carrier, then you'll either need to get a local SIM card or consider switching to Google's Project Fi which charges a low flat-rate for access to 120+ countries.
  • Safety. The terrorist attacks in Brussels happened while we were in Paris. Were we scared? No but of course we were saddened by the violence. Would that stop us from visiting Paris or anywhere in Europe again? Of course not! There was definitely noticeable heightened security around Paris after the attacks but we felt as safe as we would be if we were in Los Angeles. Shit can happen any where, at any time.
In lieu of the usual light show, the Eiffel Tower lit up in Belgium colors in respect for the victims.

Like I said in the beginning of this, I fell in love with Paris this time and can't wait for the next opportunity to travel there again. I built many new experiences and had unforgettable moments with (and without) my family which I really treasure. I feel like there was something beautiful, historical or delicious at every turn. French people are not as rude as stereotypes would like to make them out to be; in fact, I found many were quite nice and warm to us. And yes, butter croissants are the best thing in the world.

Au revoir!

I leave you with one of my favorite paintings. Van Gogh's Starry Night Over the Rhone. It took my breath away when I finally saw it in person at the Musee d'Orsay.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Epic Taco Crawl in LA and OC & Raising Your "Taco Consciousness"

I embarked on a 7-hour epic taco crawl last Sunday with twelve other taco lovers.

Guided by Gustavo Arellano (author and editor of the OC Weekly), Bill Esparza (of Street Gourmet LA) and Lesley Tellez (author of the new cookbook Eat Mexico), we traversed the streets of Los Angeles and Orange County to raise our "taco consciousness" and enjoy some of the best street food and hidden gems SoCal had to offer. Between delicious taco bites and refreshing Mexican drinks, our intrepid guides introduced us to new neighborhoods and taught us about the differing styles of cuisine in each region of Mexico. We talked about how immigrants have innovated on these food traditions to give Americans the best Mexican food outside of Mexico and we lamented on the class warfare on street food and the often absurd and classist health department regulations on both street food and ethnic food traditions. Street food is not a crime!

One of the most memorable areas we visited was the Olympic Mercado / Pinata District. Gustavo called it "beautiful chaos" and I couldn't agree more. It's a shock to your senses. The giant piñatas (sadly did not find a Donald Trump piñata we could smash), vendors selling everything from household items to tchotchkes and of course, lots of lots of street food vendors. It's crowded but somehow orderly. The regulars and the savvy know when to slip through a crack in the crowd or make a gentle nudge to keep moving forward. It reminded me a lot of night markets in Asia and I absolutely love that vibrant energy. Olympic Mercado is only open on weekends and starts on Olympic Blvd cross Central Ave. From there, just meander along Olympic and let the scene or scent of grilled meat guide you.

                         Where's the Donald?                           Follow your nose at Olympic Mercado

Gustavo and Bill also gave us an eye-opening education on the tortilla evil that exists in Mission and Guerrero brand tortillas. In short, think Monsanto, think putting good small tortilla makers out of business and think corrupt business practices. This was one of the most important things I learned on this taco crawl. See Gustavo's write-up here to learn more. So, as Gustavo likes to say, raise your "taco consciousness" and eat good tacos by supporting good tortillas and stay away from that artificial, bland and evil franken-tilla!

But without further adieu, I give you our Epic Taco Crawl and I hope you'll go out and do some exploring yourself.

Epic Taco Crawl - LA Stop #1
Mariscos Jalisco specializes in seafood tacos, ceviches and more. We got there around 11:15am and there was already a sidewalk full of people enjoying an early lunch. We had to pace ourselves so we only tried the Tacos de Camaron (shrimp taco). It was so good. I'd take this over a fancy seafood dinner at Providence any day. Crispy taco shell, well-seasoned shrimp filling and the avocado salsa was a great paring. The owner said adding avocado is unique to his preparation for this style of taco.

Epic Taco Crawl - LA Stop #2
The stand on the corner of Kohler and Olympic has no name but you can't miss it. The stand was in full swing when we got there and there were no less than six to eight people pressing fresh masa tortillas, grilling the tortillas and manning the various ingredients on the grill. This was one of my favorites. I loved the charred crispy pork topped with Monterey Jack and salty cotija cheese. And the tortilla was outstanding too.

Epic Taco Crawl - LA Stop #3
Next, we drove about 5 minutes to Guerrilla Tacos which does creative spins on taco fillings and uses gourmet ingredients like veal sausage. The truck is always parked outside some fancy hipster coffee shop. On Sunday, it was parked outside Blue Bottle Coffee in the Arts District of Downtown LA. Standing amongst the well-dressed hipsters and the gleaming counters of Blue Bottle, I felt worlds away (and a little out of place). The tacos here were good but I prefer the energy and style at Olympic Mercado.

Epic Taco Crawl - LA/OC Stop #4
This was quite a find! Rocio's Mexican Kitchen is in Bell Gardens so I guess that makes it halfway between LA and the OC. The owner of Rocio's does a lot of restaurant consulting and this is her first brick-and-mortar which specializes in Oaxacan cuisine. The major highlight was this off-menu chileatole soup/stew. The chile gave the perfect spicy kick to the sweet corn and fresh masa in the soup. I want to eat this every day but especially on a sick day. It tasted like the perfect comfort food.

We also enjoyed chips with four types of mole and the chicken verde and pork purslane tacos. The pork purslane was stewed till tender in this fragrant herb sauce. I imagine that'd be delicious over rice or noodles too.


Epic Taco Crawl - OC Stop #5
Taco Maria is run by Carlos Salgado who was crowned best new chef of 2015 by Food & Wine Magazine. Classically trained, Salgado when back to the OC to help his family's struggling eatery and he ended up starting Taco Maria. It's a beautiful restaurant located in a slick shopping center in Costa Mesa and Salgado is doing something really creative and innovative here to expand and challenge people's assumptions about Mexican food.

We started our tasting with a Hokkaido scallop bathed in chilled aguachile broth. The sweet scallop paired extremely well with the spicy but refreshing aguachile. I loved the cilantro flowers that garnished the dish. Then we ended with a chicken mole taco topped with pickled onions, roasted almonds and cheese. The highlight of this taco was the blue corn tortilla that Salgada made fresh that day. I can't wait to go back for their 4-course dinner prix fixe. Gustavo says its an experience to be savored.


Epic Taco Crawl - OC Stop #6
Alebrijes Grill (aka Pink Taco Truck) is the David to the Goliath that is the City of Santa Ana. Eight years ago, the City of Santa Ana tried to enforce some absurd parking regulation that would have required food trucks to move every 30 minutes. Alebrijes sued the City and won!

Of course, Alebrijes is really known for their unique "Battleship Taco" (aka Taco Acorazado). What you see below is the half size which was still really big. The full size is a huge taco because it has a layer of deliciously seasoned rice and then it's piled with steak milanese, avocado, tomatoes, nopales (cactus) and grilled onions. In order to tackle this, you deconstruct it a little bit and eat some of the ingredients first. At some point, you'll see that you've eaten enough to wrap up the taco and pick it up to enjoy all the layers together. I won't lie. I was really full at this point but I soldiered on and was silently thankful that this was only a half-portion.

Extra Extra!
Olympic Mercado is full of opportunities for discovery. There were fresh crunchy chicharones (fried pork skin), chile lime mango, fresh coconuts, Mexican sherberts and all kinds of Mexican juices like lemon lime with chia seeds, tamarind, alfalfa and more. One of the most unique finds was this fermented juice called pulque made from the maguey plant. It's a milky and slightly viscous drink that reminded me of coconut water. Per our guides, pulque is made and drunk on the same day because the drink becomes too viscous from the continuous fermentation. And it is best made with fresh maguey; do not drink any that's made from canned maguey.


 Pulque drink. This picture is all sorts of awesome.

 Lemon lime juice with chia seeds.

With the end of our epic taco crawl, I just want to say again that street food is not a crime and raise your taco consciousness and support local tortilla makers! The OC Weekly has a regular Tortilla Tuesdays column that can help you find the best tortillas.

Monday, June 8, 2015

My 10-Day Guide and Tips to Driving Iceland's Ring Road

Almost ten years ago, a travel piece in the NYT about the ultimate Iceland road trip inspired me to add Iceland to my bucket list of places to travel to before I die. I finally fulfilled this dream last month.

Iceland is a beautiful country. To quote the NYT article, Iceland "feels like someone put the American West in a blender: California's poetic central coast, the Nevada desert's barren expanses, Alaska's glaciers and Yellowstone's geysers." I couldn't agree more. It's all there and no crowds or traffic! A sense of peacefulness settled into my heart and mind almost immediately and I felt so serene coming back from the trip. I can't wait to go back for the Northern Lights which is most likely to be visible in the winter time from October to March.

I want to share my itinerary and some tips and I hope you'll be inspired to visit this amazing land of fire and ice.


Plan on at least 9 to 10 days if you want to drive leisurely around the entire Ring Road which circles the country. The speed limit varies from 50 to 90 km/hr. We drove about 3 hours on most days and had ample time to explore and do the activities we wanted. If you want to include the West Fjords area too then add another two to three days. With the below, you should be able to take a map and get a good sense of the route and adjust the itinerary if you have more or less days in Iceland.

Day 1

After arriving in KEF airport, catch a FlyBus into Reykjavik. Laugavegur St. (aka Downtown) is the main shopping and dining area so stay near there and you can walk to everything. It's a small town (by LA standards) so you don't need a car (parking is expensive anyway). Take your time and visit local landmarks, enjoy the colors of the buildings, browse the shops and prepare for your road trip.
  • Eat: Fiskmarkadurinn (Fish Market). Before the trip, I was told hot dogs is one of Icelanders favorite foods so I wasn't expecting much culinary experiences on this trip. Boy was I wrong. We had an amazing 9-course tasting dinner here and both the food, service and restaurant decor/atmosphere were outstanding. Just to give you an idea, the bread for the table was served in a cloth bag filled with hot stones to help keep the bread warm. We devoured it with local butter. Reservations recommended.
  • Eat: If you're a noodle fiend like me and need to satisfy a craving, check out Noodle Station. They serve a Thai chicken, beef or tofu noodle soup and it was surprisingly good considering you're in Iceland. There are two locations in town on Skolavoroustigur and Laugavegur St.
  • Sleep: Room with a View. Super central location right on Laugavegur St and there's a supermarket a few blocks away in either direction. Most of the rooms have a mini-kitchen that has a refrigerator, hot plate and sink. The water at this hotel smells like sulfur but it is safe to drink and shower with and is perfectly normal for Iceland.

10pm in Reykjavik

Day 2
Pick up our rental car and start your road trip on Highway 1 (aka Ring Road). We drove counterclockwise and from what I could tell, the scenery is amazing either way. However, I do think you'll hug the coast more if you do counterclockwise so if you're wary of driving like that then do clockwise. The itinerary I'm describing will be counterclockwise.

Listed in order, these are key places you'll visit on the first day of driving which is usually called the Golden Circle.
  • Procar Car Rental. We rented a full-size Toyota Avensis with GPS. Grab a map at the car rental and with GPS and Google Maps on your phone, you'll be all set for navigating Iceland. You don't really need a 4-wheel drive unless you plan on driving what the F-roads. Car rental and gas is not cheap in Iceland. Procar picked us up at the hotel to our rental car. They're a local business.
  • Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park
  • Great Geyser area & Strokkur (an active geyser that spouts every few minutes). There's a restaurant, visitor center, gift shop and cafe here.
  • Gullfoss Waterfall (aka Golden Waterfall)
  • Kerið (Kerid) Volcanic Crater Lake 
  • EatRauda Husid (Red House). A restaurant in the middle of nowhere serving delicious dinner especially seafood and lobster bisque. 
  • SleepHotel Selid. This was one of our favorite BnBs on this trip and no sulfur smell in the water. You'll drive down a gravel road for about 10-15 minutes (#264) and wonder where the heck you're going and then be pleasantly surprised by this little oasis. I plan to stay here when I come back in the winter for the Northern Lights.
Gullfoss Waterfall. This is a huge and powerful waterfall. You'll get a little wet especially on a windy day.

Kerid Volcanic Crater Lake. The water was super blue. This picture doesn't do it justice because it was overcast that day.

Day 3
Continue on Highway 1 and you'll pass by the infamous Eyjafjallajokull Glacier and Volcano which erupted in 2010 and spewed so much ash into the sky that it shut down European airspace for 6 days and cost travelers and the economy billions of dollars. Here's a handy infographic if you want to see more numbers.  This day's highlights include:
  • Seljalandsfoss Waterfall. You can walk behind this waterfall!
  • Skogafoss Waterfall
  • Sólheimajökull Glacier. Off of Road 221, Arcanum Tours runs glacier hikes right at the foot of this glacier. If you Google it, there are plenty of other companies that do guided hikes here as well. I highly recommend it. It's an experience I hope to remember for the rest of my life - drinking cold glacier water, feeling the crunch of the glacier underfoot and admiring the majestic glacier views.
  • Dyrholaey Nature Reserve and Reynisdrangar. This is a black sand beach and there's a massive natural arch carved into the mountain by constant pounding waves. In the summer, it's a favorite bird nesting spot and we saw a few puffins high up on the mountain.
  • Vik. This is a small town with a grocery store so it's a good stop if you need to re-supply.
  • Kirkjubæjarklaustur. We passed this small village and saw the cute little waterfall behind it. There's supposed to be a "church floor" that's a protected natural monument but we missed it.
  • Eat/Sleep: Hotel Geirland. This hotel is sort of like a converted farmhouse. Plenty of sheep around. There's a restaurant onsite that we were very happy with.

Solheimajokull Glacier. The lava rocks are exposed as the glacier rocks. Unfortunately, the glacier is melting fast. According to the guide, where I stood to take this picture was where the glacier started last year.

Hotel Geirland. So peaceful.
Day 4
We were tired after the glacier hike but after a good night's sleep, we forged ahead. There will be some hiking on this day so if you're really sore then plan on taking it easier.
  • Skaftafell National Park. There's a nice visitor center here and we saw many campers in the area. We hiked 45 minutes one way to Svartifoss, a very picturesque waterfall hugged by these crazy looking rock formations known as basalt columns. Hike another 10-15 minutes from there and you'll get great views of glaciers all around. Tip: pack a sandwich and you can enjoy a picnic at the waterfall. 
  • Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon. This was truly breathtaking. Huge icebergs broken from the Breiðamerkurjökull Glacier floats in this lagoon. Twice while we were there, we saw chunks break off of the giant icebergs and the loud crash was surprising to hear. There are boat tours that take you into the lagoon but it was too windy the day we visited so it was not safe to go in. Still, it was so beautiful that we spent more than an hour just taking pictures and admiring the icebergs.
  • Hofn. A seaside town that seems to be popular with locals for a quiet weekend of biking, hiking and exploring sights around the area. 
  • Eat: We had a great seafood meal at Ossin inside of Hotel Hofn. The pizzas and langoustines (aka lobster) were excellent and we had them as a bisque and grilled with butter.
  • Sleep: Hotel Glacier. This is family-run hotel about 5 minutes from Hofn and there are two buildings, one of which is renovated and the rooms are really nice. We were booked into the cheaper building (it's kind of like a hostel) but the room wasn't ready so they put us in the new building. Hotel Hofn is also an option.
Svartifoss Waterfall at Skaftafell National Park

Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon

Day 5
After seeing Jokulsarlon, we wondered what else could top that. But today, you'll enter the East Fjords where the scenery and driving will change dramatically. Part of it will be very similar to driving Highway 1 in Big Sur, California with towering snow-capped mountains and cliffs plunging into the Atlantic. Part of it will be vast highland desert and it's a stark but beautiful contrast against the snow that is still abundant in the middle of May. Also, today will be the most driving - about 5 hours compared to 3 to 4 hours on previous days.
  • Continue east on Highway 1. Enjoy the scenery but drive carefully and find turnouts if you want to stop for pictures. Watch out for sheep and reindeer or stopped cars (it's a really stupid thing to do but some people just stop in the middle of the road for pictures)
  • Papey Island (near Djupivogur). Starting June 1st, there are boat tours to this island favored by puffins for summer nesting. We were too early for it.
  • Stöðvarfjörður. This is a tiny village with not much but a Stone Museum and the Saxa Guesthouse. But on the day we passed through, the sun was out and this village was absolutely sparkling. It's hugged by snow-capped mountains and the bluest river runs through the village. We had a picnic of cold ham sandwiches and instant cup of noodles by that river and it was one of the best lunches I've ever had. If we didn't have to keep driving, I would have stayed there and just read by the river for the rest of the day. 
  • Namaskaro Pass / Hverir Geothermal Field. Boiling mud pools that's worth a visit. The sulfur smell is really strong here so beware. 
  • Mývatn Nature Baths. Hate crowds? Then skip the Blue Lagoon by the airport and enjoy a bath here. Here's a quick write-up by Iceland Magazine comparing the two but if you're doing the Ring Road, you might as well make a stop to soothe those tired feed. Oh, one thing that nobody mentioned to me was that both the Blue Lagoon and Myvatn Nature Bath smells faintly of sulfur. If you're allergic then you might want to skip. Both facilities are like a spa so check out their website if you're interested in body treatments.
  • Lake Myvatn. This lake is situated in an active volcano area but its immediate surroundings are extinct volcanoes and pseudo-craters. There are hotels, guesthouses and restaurants in this area and plenty of hiking. If you're into birds, this area is a favorite of many birds for summer nesting.
  • Eat: Vogafjos (Cowshed Cafe) was a farm and they branched into a restaurant and now also run a guesthouse. They have their own sheep and cows so you can order milk and cheese straight from the source! I tried fresh milk for the first time and it was the sweetest glass of milk I've ever had. There's also a nice gift shop onsite where we bought a bunch of sheep's milk soap.
  • Sleep: Hotel Myvatn. Okay hotel. Wifi didn't work in the room. Sulphur is strong in the water but makes sense considering the area. I would try staying at Vogafjos for a more intimate experience.
Stodvarfjordur village. Doesn't it remind you of the scenery in The Sound of Music?
Cows at Vogafjos Cafe

Namaskaro Pass / Hverir Geothermal Field
Myvatn Nature Bath

11pm in Lake Myvatn. You're closer to the Artic Circle here so daylight is even longer here.

Day 6
The day before was mostly driving and admiring scenery. Today, you can take some time in the morning to explore the Lake Myvatn area. Hike to Viti Crater, check out the pseudo-craters and drive or hike to Grjotagia Volcanic Cave which has an incredibly blue and hot thermal pool underground. After that you should forge ahead.
  • Lake Myvatn. Check out Krafla volcano area, Viti Crater, Grjotagia Volcanic Cave, Dimmuborgir
  • Detifoss Waterfall. Continue east on Highway 1 to Road 864 to reach Detifoss. Unfortunately, there was a major car accident that closed the road and we had to detour and could not visit Detifoss which is a shame because it's the largest waterfall in Europe. 
  • Asbyrbi Canyon. A naturally horseshoe-shaped canyon that we also missed because of the closed road and detour. A couple of Icelanders told me this canyon is their favorite site in Iceland.
  • Husavik. This town is know as the "Whale Watching Capital of the World." There are a couple of hotels, a whale museum, a maritime museum, several recommended restaurants and another hot spring you can go dip in.
  • Eat: Gamli Baukur. There are several choices in Husavik but we were craving something simpler. I had a juicy blue cheese burger. I didn't even have to tell them and the meat was medium with a hint of pink - perfectly cooked. If we were craving seafood, we would have tried Naustid on the harbor which serves only fresh seafood. Salka serves a varied menu of pizzas and entrees but they were closed for a private party. Oddly, the whale watching tour company also has a cafe with a patio that overlooks the harbor so beautiful views there while you're enjoying a latte.
  • Sleep: Fosshotel Husavik. This is a small hotel chain in Iceland. Has a restaurant onsite but we ate in town since there were several choices.

Grjotagia Volcanic Cave. You used to be able to swim in this hot pool but it's not allowed anymore. Probably because too many sharp rocks?
Viti Crater covered in snow.

Hiking around lava rocks and pillars in Dimmuborgir / Lake Myvatn.

Day 7
The previous night, we booked a morning puffin and whale-watching tour. We saw puffins from afar (couldn't get close for fear of disturbing their habitat) and about 5 whales coming to the surface. I didn't have a good enough camera to capture any of it in a worthy picture but it was a great experience. However, the Zodiac raft is not recommended if you get seasick or have back/neck issues; take the regular boat tour instead. You'll also get wet so waterproof your clothes. They will give you a suit for the Zodiac tour but it's not 100% waterproof.
  • Gentle Giants and another company run whale-watching tours in Husavik. The booking office is on the main road through town, by the whale museum. It's hard to miss.
  • Godafoss Waterfall. This is a beautiful waterfall and if it's sunny, I think you'll likely be able to see rainbows.
  • Akureyri. This town is the biggest besides Reykjavik and is the northern center of trade, education, and culture. We spent a lot of time with the whale tour and at Godafoss so we didn't have enough time to really explore this town. It looked beautiful and has museums, galleries, shops and a notable botanical garden.
  • Skajafjordur. This area is popular for horse riding and white-rafting tours which we passed on.
  • Eat: Eat in Akureyri or buy something. We made the mistake of driving on because it was getting late and there were no dining options at our hotel that night.
  • Sleep: Bakkaflot off of Road 752. Really cute cabins here equipped with mini-kitchen and small BBQ grill. If we knew, we would have bought groceries to cook dinner. We had a nice dinner of crackers, sardines, an instant cup of noodles and leftover pizza from lunch. They also run whitewater rafting tours here.

Cabin at Bakkaflot
Icelandic horses. Watch out for them too while driving. They were really curious and not afraid to walk up to our car.

Godafoss. Wow, this waterfall was like a giant churning washing machine. I can't imagine how much more powerful Niagara Falls must be. You can feel water droplets flying up from the waterfall - enough to get you wet.

Day 8
This day's schedule was pretty chill but oddly, we still managed to use up the whole day with a lot of stopping and sightseeing. We were supposed to be able to see seals but no luck.
  • Hvammstangi. Small town with the Icelandic Seal Center. The center was small but the guide there is really nice and gave us a small area map with tips/directions to go visit the 3-4 areas most frequented by seals. Luck was not on our side. Did not see any seals.
  • Stykkisholmur. Another small town you can explore and it was the town we spent the night in. Has a harbor for more tours to see puffins and other birds. On the way into town, you'll pass Helgafell, a small "holy" mountain where legend says that if you hike up the mountain without looking back, make a wish and hike back down without saying a word the entire time, your wish may come true.
  • Eat: While driving Road 711 looking for the seal areas, we saw signs to Geitafell, advertising the "best fish soup in the world." I'm not sure if it's the best in the world but it's definitely the best I've had thus far. It's a family-run restaurant and decorated with care. The soup is rich with spices and chock full of local cod, artic char and shrimp. It was about $25USD for the soup which came with salad and homemade bread. Pricey but when in Rome...
  • Eat: Narfeyrarstofa. Popular restaurant in Stykkisholmur recommended by both my guidebook and the hotel concierge. The menu was a mix of burgers and entrees and I had a great lamb entree. A lot of people ordered the local mussels which they are known for but we didn't. 
  • Sleep: Hotel Stykkisholmur. Oddly, the only hotel that did not provide us with a water boiler to make tea/coffee in the room. Wifi in the room is poor too. Overall, okay hotel with big breakfast spread. I'd choose a smaller hotel or guesthouse next time.

Fish Soup at Geitafell

Scenery on the Road

Day 9
The main highlight is enjoying the scenery along the famous Snaefellsnes Peninsula on the way back to Reykjavik. Drive along Road 54 and continue onto Road 570 to go explore Snaefellsjokull Glacier / National Park. Or continue on the peninsula to Road 574 for more beautiful scenery. Don't underestimate how long all of this will take. We stopped a lot and before we knew it, we realized we wouldn't make it back to Reykjavik in time for the Blue Lagoon and car rental return by 6pm. Some highlights to note on the peninsula:
  • Olafsvik. This is a small fishing town with a visitor center here and the guide in there has handy detailed area maps and can give more tips.
  • Ondverdarnes. Beautiful plunging cliffs here.
  • Cave Vatnshellir. You can go on guided cave tours here.
  • Djupalonssandur. Sandy beach with powerful crashing waves on the day we visited. 
  • Snaefellsjokull National Park. Great geological and historic sites here. This was the inspiration for Jules Verne's "Journey to the Centre of the Earth." And here is another chance to do a guided glacier hike.
  • Ytri Tunga. Look out for seals on land or in the water in this area.
  • Deildartunguhver Hot Spring. It's off of Road 518 near Reykholt (which also has a hot pool called Snorralaug). It's the largest hot spring in Europe and it's actually used to heat nearby Bogarnes and Akranes. Sadly, we missed it.
  • Hraunfossar & Branafossar Waterfalls. If you go to the hot spring, continue on Road 518 to check out these waterfalls.
  • Bogarnes From Road 518, head back to Road 50 and connect back to Highway 1. You can detour to Bogarnes known for the Icelandic Settlement Center which recreates the Icelandic sagas about the birth of the nation.
  • Blue Lagoon. If you didn't have to return the rental car like us, you can drive 45 minutes from Reykajvik (it's near the airport) and spend some time at this famous man-made lagoon. We could have joined a tour - many leave from Reykjavik - but they are very pricey since the lagoon admission is not cheap to begin with. Plus, I have to save something for my next Iceland trip. If you do go, do not purchase the beauty products there. Wait for duty free at the airport; it'll save you a ton.
  • Eat: Snaps. Reservations highly recommended and a meal here is a must. I did not expect to find such a wonderful French bistro in Iceland. The place was absolutely hopping with locals and tourists even on a Tuesday night and it's a short walk from the hotel. They make wonderful use of local ingredients like smoked salmon, mussels and a variety of fish. We had the bouillabaisse where every single piece of scallop, shrimp, mussel and cod was cooked perfectly - tender and sweet - none of the eraser tough business. We also enjoyed smoked salmon, Icelandic catfish and a lovely duck confit. 
  • Sleep: Room with a View. We were back in Reykjavik for the night before our flight home the next day and this time we were upgraded to a bigger suite with views overlooking the city and we could see the Harpa Concert Hall from our balcony. It was gorgeous.

I imagine a hobbit runs this restaurant.



 Room with a View

Day 10
Time to go home! Make sure you book your FlyBus the night before to get a pick up to the airport the next day. Your hotel should be able to assist with that. If you can, check out Dons Donuts, a truck favored by locals for delicious donuts. Or, enjoy breakfast at Sandholt Bakery on Laugavegur St. and grab some pastries and sandwiches to enjoy on the flight home. The sourdough bread here is really good.

I was on an afternoon flight with WOW (roundtrip from BWI) and it was a smooth check-in process so I had almost 3 hours to kill at the airport. However, my cousin and friend was on a morning flight with Delta and even though they arrived 2 hours early, check-in and security took forever so they had no time to visit the shops. Blue Lagoon has a tax/duty free store at the airport so all the products are a lot cheaper there. There's a gourmet store next to it selling Smjor Icelandic butter (love this butter), smoked salmon and other goodies. There's also a giant duty free store to sell you all the chocolates, booze and perfume you'd ever want.

A rainbow to bid me adieu.

Overall, this was a most memorable trip. The Icelandic people are really nice. The food is delicious. I really enjoyed all the outdoor activities and being able to take in so much amazing scenery and nature.  I want to hold onto that serenity as long as possible now that I'm back. 

Also, my cousin and a childhood friend joined me on what was originally a solo trip and I'm so glad they came with me. I appreciated their company, the nice, long dinners we had every night and the trip was much more fun to have someone to share experiences with. It also doesn't hurt to have someone share driving and navigation.  

I learn so much about the world and about myself every time I travel. It sounds like a cliche but it's true. Traveling really does open up your world.

General Tips
  • Purchase gravel insurance when renting a car. It's worth it. I normally don't buy the extra insurance but there are lots of gravel roads in Iceland (marked brown on maps). Our car got hit by a rock three days into the trip and gave our windshield a circular crack. Thanks to the insurance (cost us about $7/day), we didn't have to pay anything to fix it.
  • Visit a grocery store in Reykjavik. Stock up on lunch items before you head out of town. There will be other chances to get supplies but Reykjavik will have the best choices.
  • If you make big purchases, be sure to ask about a VAT receipt. You may be eligible for a VAT tax refund at the airport.
  • If you're a T-Mobile customer, check your plan before you go and you should have free international text and data (2G) while in Iceland. This really came in handy and I didn't have to buy a local SIM card this time. This PCMag article can tell you more about this deal.
  • You don't really need a lot of cash. Every place we went accepted credit cards regardless of amount except for one gas station where the system was down and we had to pay cash. Make sure your credit card has no foreign transaction fees and has a microchip and a 4-digit PIN number (although my Citicard did not require a PIN). If you do get cash, there's a Western Union counter when you exit customs that will exchange US dollars with no commission fees.
  • Reykjavik Grapevine has a good "Best of" list for good eats around the city. Please consider NOT eating whale or puffin meat; both are "at risk" populations. There are plenty of other good food you can eat in Iceland.
  • Pick up a copy of Insight Guides: Iceland or a guidebook you prefer.
Packing Tips
  • Clothing optimal for layering and easy drying. None of the hotels we stayed at offered onsite laundry. Iceland weather changes throughout the day and especially when you're driving to different places so layering is good.
  • Waterproof shell or jacket and pants
  • Waterproof hiking boots. I learned this just before my Iceland trip. REI has an annual sale where all returned merchandise goes on sale. I got a pair of nearly new hiking boots for $15! Normal price: $250. In general, REI was really helpful in helping me pick out the stuff I really needed.
  • Thermal wool socks. 2 pairs is enough. You can wash and dry.
  • Jacket with insulation 
  • Ziplock bags (To pack those lunches)
  • Thermos. This was the smartest thing we did. We filled our thermos with hot water, tea or coffee each morning and it was a lifesaver after a glacier hike or to make instant cup of noodles.
  • Insulated bag (To store your groceries in the car)
  • Sunblock / sunglasses
  • Hair conditioner. Most of the places we stayed at did not provide conditioner.
  • Towel Leave it in car and use it to dry off post-waterfall/glacier hikes
  • Swimsuit
  • NO NEED to bring an umbrella. I brought one and it was basically useless or not needed.