Monthly Archives: November 2016

Trip Report: One day in New York City

brooklyn

You can’t do New York City in a day. Or a week. Probably not even a month. But all I had was about eight hours. Since I’ve been to the Big Apple a gazillion times, admittedly my challenge wasn’t as steep as it sounds. Statue of Liberty? Done it. Ellis Island? Same. Central Park? Yeah, that, too. Rockefeller Center? Of course. Yankee Stadium? It’s New York, isn’t it?

No, this trip was about digging deeper into what New York has to offer a museum and pop culture geek like me. And I’m pretty sure no matter how deep you dig in NYC, you’ll never stop finding cool stuff to see and do.

I woke up early and hit up Google to plan my day. Through a variety of sources, I came up with a list of about half-dozen places to hit. I put them all in Google Maps to figure out the most efficient path to take, and then I got ready to set out. But wait! For some odd reason, I lingered a little longer on the United Nations website than normal, and realized that I needed to buy my ticket in advance. And, for yet anther odd reason, just as I was about click “buy,” I noticed that warning to be sure to arrive plenty early to clear security. I bought a much later ticket, and was reminded that merely having a list of places to go and hours of operation isn’t enough. You have to make sure you know the policies, too.

Brooklyn Bridge

I was crashing with good friends who live in Brooklyn, and since I’ll probably be on the subway quite a bit today, why not walk across the Brooklyn Bridge? Great plan … except for the rain. So two pieces of advice: 1. Pick a sunny day and 2. Pick a day when you’re not in a rush, because no one else on that bridge will be walking across it. They’ll be strolling. And that means they’ll be annoying you. (I have places to see and things to do, folks!)

alex

Trinity Church Cemetery

OK, you got me. This wasn’t a new stop for me. But with all the ballyhoo over “Hamilton” on Broadway, I wanted to swing by and pay my respects again to the founder of our country’s monetary system. But fun fact about my first visit: I just lucked into finding it. I was meeting a friend for lunch in the Financial District, and simply walked past this church and cemetery. It seemed odd to me that a cemetery was almost in the middle of Wall Street, so I poked my head in … and there was Alexander Hamilton! This is why I prefer to walk in cities – you don’t accidentally bump into awesomeness on  the subway or in an Uber.

un

 United Nations

After a quick visit to Ground Zero to pay my respects, I hopped on the subway to get to what I expected would be my highlight of the day – the United Nations tour! First tip: There’s not a convenient subway stop. You’ll THINK there is, but once you get off in Grand Central Station, you’ll realize how big it is. And that you’re probably walking the wrong way. Which I was. Oops!

Winded and out of breath, I arrived at the UN, cutting it real close to having enough time to get through security in order to not miss my tour. Here’s the process: You wait in a very long line across the street. This is just to get signed in. After you’re signed in, then you make your way across the street and wait in yet another long line to go through security. I was panicked, but the whole process lasted about an hour and I actually had time to relax in the lobby before my tour.

Being a government geek, I loved every bit of this tour. Security Council Chamber? Are you kidding me? The General Assembly? Please and thank you! I got lucky and there were no meeting that day, so our tour was able to visit everything.

ghostbusters

Ghostbusters fire station

Enough with history. Now it was time to feed by pop culture soul!

I was in sixth grade when “Ghostbusters” came out. I remember listing it as my favorite movie even before I saw it. And, now a whole new generation of movie-goers were being introduced to it through this summer’s reboot. Turns out, the fire station featured in the original was in Lower Manhattan.

I turned the corner and …. found out that it was being renovated. Who you gonna call when scaffolding ruins your selfie?

 

 

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Love hair metal? You’ll love M3

keifer

I love hair metal. Not even ashamed to admit it. (Not really sure what I AM ashamed to admit, but I know it’s not my love for loud guitars played by guys with long locks). And if you love hair metal, the M3 Rock Festival needs to be on your calendar every year. \m/

amyFor three years, my RockBuddie Amy and I have been meeting in April/May near Baltimore for this two-day buffet of the best guitarists and longest hair you can find. The rock is non-stop (two stages, so when one band ends its set, another starts right away), and if you opt for the VIP package, as we have the past two years, you also get the opportunity to meet your rock gods and goddesses in between sets. And even if you don’t, you might score a selfie while hanging around the main hotel, and will certainly be in the presence of hundreds of other headbangers, and nothin’ wrong with that!

Never been? Here’s my quick guide to the stuff Amy and I have learned:

INFORMATION

M3 does a lot of things right. One thing it doesn’t is share timely and complete information. So you won’t find anything more than the bare basics on its website or Facebook page, and often you’ll find that information sooner somewhere else. To really be in the know, you’ll need to join the Facebook fan page M3 Rockers. (Warning: These folks are INTENSE! They eat, sleep and breathe hair metal – I only do two of the three). But this is the spot to get your questions answered, rumors floated or quashed or to see how many different people can post “Anyone know when the set times will be released?!?” In. The. Same. DAY! But you’ll no doubt become part of the rock ‘n roll community that’s developed around this festival.

m3sked

TICKETS

Remember when I said M3 does a lot of things right? Yeah, well this isn’t one of them, either. 🙂  Traditionally, the lineup has been announced in January with tickets on sale not too much longer after that, but last year both happened in December … no doubt to deprive children of an extra Christmas gift or two so their parents could buy tickets for a concert they won’t be at for another four months. Tickets are sold through an outfit called TicketFly, and the process is pretty much the Russian Roulette of ticket-buying. Spin the chamber, and hope for the best. Amy and I are at the ready when ticket sales start, so we have two chances to get the best seats. (If you’re not picky about where you sit, there’s no need to take a day off work to fight for tix with the rest of your new M3 Rockers family).

You have three options: VIP, Reserved and Lawn.

Reserved is simply a seat in the pavilion, and while no self-respecting rocker ever sits during a hair metal show, it’s nice to have a place to store your stuff. The Lawn is actually an intriguing option for the budget crowd, because the Festival Stage has no seats and they don’t rope off an area for those of us who donated plasma to buy VIP tickets (grumble, grumble), so for half the acts, you can have a VIP vantage point with a steerage-class ticket.

Is VIP worth it? Yes …. if you’re like us and have become accustomed to being right near the stage for any and all concerts … or if you like tchotchke, like the festival T-shirt and poster and other doo-dads that you get. But quite honestly, the rest of the VIP benefits of this festival are vastly overrated. (I promise I’ll get to all those things I think M3 does right):

janet tawny

  • Meet and Greets: For a selfie fanatic like me, this is quite attractive. In practice? Absolutely horrible. The two years we’ve had VIP tix, I’ve “met” a grand total of two people – one was Janet Gardner of Vixen, who pulled me back from the edge of a broken heart when I got to the front of the line and was only then told “no photos,” and the other was Whitesnake Girl Tawny Kitaen … and that wasn’t part of the VIP program … and it cost me an extra 20 bucks. The past two years, I’ve waited in long-ass lines that never move, missing awesome acts on stage, waiting for some humorless 20-something usher to walk by and tell us either that they have cut the line off completely or those of us wanting only a quick photo are SOL because the freaks in front of us brought every single item in their vast collection of rock memorabilia to get signed by the same band.
  • VIP Pre-Show: Two years ago, we missed Jack Russell’s acoustic show while waiting in an inefficient line for our T-shirt. This year, we bee-lined to catch an underwhelming Michael Sweet set.
  • Private bathrooms/bar: These are both more crowded than the GA options literally steps away. And depending upon where your VIP seat is, you might actually have to walk past the GA bathroom and GA bar to get to the VIP equivalents, like we had to two years ago.

HOTELS

Three years, and three different hotels for us.

jackThe Sheraton is the “main” hotel, is the only one walkable to Merriweather Post Pavilion and is a beehive of awesomeness the entire weekend. The problem? This year, they required you to prepay with no refund if you canceled. If you’re going to the show anyhow, why is that a big deal? Because as frenzied as buying tickets is, it looks like a Yanni concert compared to the hunt for hotels. Smart people usually reserve rooms for two or more weekends a year in advance so they’re sure they’ll have a room when M3 finally gets around to announcing the actual weekend (seriously, would it kill you, M3, to at least let us in on the dates before you announce the lineup?). So no more Sheraton for us. And that’s a shame, because that’s where we saw Jack Russell just milling around the hallway. \m/

So if you’re not at the Sheraton, you’re a short Uber ride away from some other comfortable options. The first year we landed at the Residence Inn, which is quite nice, and this year we were a block further at Sonesta Suites, also quite nice. One nice thing about M3 (see! I told you I’d get around to one!) is parking is free. You can save a few bucks by driving to the show and Ubering to your hotel if you drink more than the legal limit of $456 beers at the show.

BEFORE/AFTER THE SHOW

Merriweather charges for food like the government has re-established World War II rations. I go to a lot of concerts and sporting events, so I understand that part of the deal we make with the venue is that they get to ridiculously overcharge for food and drink, but Merriweather is not content with just doing what every other venue does. It finds sadistic pleasure in outdoing its competition i concession pricing. You can get more than two whole Hot-And-Readys at Little Caesars for what a pepperoni slice will set you back inside the friendly confines of The Post.

So you’ll want to have a hearty meal before you arrive. The Mall in Columbia is walkable to the venue and has tons of decent restaurants (you can also pick up a pair of mittens, or shorts, at the mall since you can never predict what the weather will be like). Unfortunately, most don’t open until Saturday’s acts have started taking the stage, so you’ll have to weigh whether missing some music for a reasonably priced meal is worth it.

A great option before and after the show is Clyde’s, the official unofficial headquarters of the M3 Rockers. Great bar and great food, and you might spot a rocker or two there. If you do this in order – 1. Reserve a hotel room for multiple weekends, 2. Buy tickets the second they go on sale and 3. Make a post-show dinner reservation at Clyde’s well in advance – you’ll be doing M3 right.

Union Jack’s is another walkable, post-show option  … if you’re a horn-dog male intent on annoying the hell out of women. We made the mistake of going there the first year. I left Amy alone for about 7 seconds when I ran to the restroom. That was more than enough time for some future “Dateline: To Catch A Predator” contestant to hit on her.

A more civilized post-show spot, for folks relegated to the Residence Inns and Sonesta Suites of the area, is The Judge’s Bench in Ellicott City. You’ll have to Uber there, and you’re not likely to find any of your fellow rockers, but you’ll get a good drink without the crowds of Clyde’s or Union Jack’s.

show

AT THE SHOW

This is what you came for!

This year’s show was an anomaly, because the venue was in the middle of renovations, so there was just one, rotating stage (terrific for those of us in the pavilion, because we never had to move; not so wonderful for the cheapies on the lawn who had planned to poach prime spots at the Festival Stage). But based on the two years prior, here are some things I’ve learned about navigating Merriweather Post Pavilion:

Get there early: If you don’t want to miss the early acts, and especially the VIP show on Friday, get there early. WAY early. For some reason, it takes forever for them to check your tickets. A tortoise or two will pass you while you wait to get in. It’s not rocket science. But they seem to be trying to turn it into rocket science.

Don’t miss the VIP show: If you paid for VIP, don’t make the mistake we made the first year we were VIP and head straight to the VIP goodies tent. You’ll miss your newborn’s high school graduation while wasting away in that Model of Inefficiency. Catch the VIP show, and then go get pissed off at the goodies tent.

If you have to eat, try the BBQ: As mentioned, you can buy a new Fiat 500 for less than a grilled cheese sandwich will set you back here. But the BBQ in the back of the venue is tasty, plentiful and can actually almost sorta kinda be considered a “deal.”

The cheap beer is not worth the effort: After seeing the price for beer, you might consider sobriety. But then you’ll hear people talking about this mirage of beer-that-costs-less-than-crude-oil they thought they saw on a hill over yonder. It DOES exist, but after scaling the Mayan Temple-esque hill and acquiring a cold can of Natty Boh, you’ll start to do the math and realize that it costs almost exactly the same per-ounce as the domestic swill available everywhere else in the venue – no mountain sherpa necessary.

You’ll be forced to make difficult decisions: When/if to eat, when/if to pee, and when/no if to get a beer come with the territory at all music festivals. But M3 has its own set of vexing puzzles, including how a cup of coffee can possibly cost $6. If you’re VIP, you’ll have to decide how many acts you’re willing to miss for a not-guaranteed chance to actually meet and greet a band. (In my experiences, getting in line one full hour before a meet-and-greet is scheduled will only end in heartbreak. So you’ll want to get in line even sooner). And if you’re in the pavilion, you’ll have to decide how much of the set of Main Stage performers you’re willing to miss to fight for a primo spot at the Festival Stage for the next set. If you go into the festival fully expecting to miss parts of it, even large parts of it, you likely won’t be too disappointed.

You’ll want to punch an usher. All of them: If you are in the pavilion, here’s what’s going to happen. You’re going to rush to return to your seat with a $10 beer in one hand and a $15 slice of pizza in the other. When you get to the front of the pavilion, one of those humorless 20-something ushers will ask you for your ticket, and you’ll have to juggle that $25 “worth” of concession sadness like you’re the post-dinner showroom entertainment on a cruise ship so you dig your ticket out to show her. Then you’ll put your ticket away, pick up your $10 beer and $15 slice of pizza and walk, I kid you not, 12 steps before ANOTHER humorless 20-something usher will ask you for your ticket again. You’ll repeat your Festival of Juggling, put your ticket away, pick up your $10 beer and $15 slice of pizza and, if you’re VIP, walk down 20 steps, where yet another humorless 20-something usher WILL ASK YOU FOR YOUR TICKET AGAIN. You’ll do this 78 times over the two days. Why M3 doesn’t issue pavilion ticket holders color-coded paper bracelets – one color for VIPs and one color for the others – like every other music festival on this planet, other planets and planet that haven’t even been discovered yet do, I can not answer. Maybe Merriweather wants to lock up all the gold stars on the federal government’s Annual Report of Usher Employment.

But despite my snarky comments about the overall experience, the one thing M3 definitely does right is put together the best lineup of hair metal of the year – anywhere. You’ll want to hide the M3 Rockers Facebook page about, oh, 456,298 times a year as people bitch about the lineup, but it is solid. It’s ALWAYS solid. And all the issues aside, it’s two days you’ll look forward to for months, and look back on (mostly) fondly for months after.

Rock on! \m/

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One-day roadtrip in the Northeast

Never before have I had such difficulty filling a travel day. Usually, my problem is trying to cram too many things in too few hours. But when I sat down to figure out the best way to catch as many sights as I could from Connecticut to Boston Logan, I quickly learned that there’s a museum “season” in the Northeast.

I combed my normal sources of museums, historical sights and pop-culture locations. I found plenty to choose from. But when I dug a little deeper, I found that almost all of them – literally, almost all of them – weren’t open in April. I guess this is what you get when you live in Florida – you forget how awful the weather can get in other places of our great country.

But in the end, I was able to put together a pretty fascinating day on the road, and ended up some places I never would have gone … but I’m glad I did.

mystic

Mystic Pizza

I left Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Connecticut, early in the morning. The historic seaport of Mystic, Connecticut, was a short drive away. I was drawn here to see Mystic Pizza, made famous by the movie of my youth, but found that I really should have planned a day here. So much to see! And, sadly, too early in the day for a slice of pie.

breakers

Breakers

My next stop was Newport, Rhode Island, to see the Vanderbilt family’s famous mansion known as The Breakers. I’m sure most make the trek to Newport to gawk at the immense wealth on display here in mansion after mansion. Wealth doesn’t necessarily excite me, but I do enjoy touring famous homes – any famous home – because I find myself imagining living there myself in that time. And that’s almost always an awkward exercise, especially older homes, because it’s tough to imagine not having some of the things that we take for granted these days. But I really struggled with The Breakers. It’s opulent, no doubt, as all Gilded Age mansions are. Gaudy, even. But what I struggled with was how “cold” the mansion felt. Even though lots of people had lived there, I didn’t get a sense that it had ever been “lived” in. Of particular note was an enclosed balcony on the back, overlooking the water. My audio guide told me it was a popular place for the Vanderbilts to relax. But there was nothing relaxing about it. It left me curious how a family that could afford to buy anything could find solace in such an uncomfortable place.

lizzie

Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast Museum

Next was the surprise of the day – a stop in Fall River, Massachusetts, to see one of those “notorious” sites – the house where the murders that Lizzie Borden was accused of committing took place. I knew almost nothing about this case before pulling up to the museum. By the time I left, I felt like an expert. THAT’S a sign of a great tour.

I was also lucky to get a private tour, which I love because I can ask all the questions I want without annoying my fellow tour participants, who almost always are not as excited as I am to be on the tour. But I barely had a chance to ask questions on this tour, as the guide fired off facts left and right. My favorite part? As soon as we made it into the room where Lizzie’s father met his maker, my tour guide grabbed my phone, told me to sit on the couch and he snapped a few photos. Now, it’s not THE couch Mr. Borden was axed to death on, but it is a reproduction and in the same spot as it was on that fateful day. Those who are not enamored of macabre might not have had the same reaction as I did, but I’ve been on a ton of tours where you are constantly reminded not to touch anything, to not  take any photos. And here I was with my tour guide not only encouraging both, but actively participating in doing so

As good of the tour is, I find it fascinating that it’s a working bed & breakfast. And, yes, you can book the room where one of the murders happened. In fact, it’s the most expensive because it’s the most popular. Or, you can opt to rent the entire house for your group, and they’ll conduct a seance. Maybe then you can find out what no one has yet – who really committed the murders?

adamshouse

Adams National Historical Park

My final stop on this road trip was Quincy, Massachusetts, where Presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams were born and where their bodies now lie. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the “season” for tours of the birthplace (seriously, folks, history doesn’t have “seasons!”), so I knew the best I could do is walk the grounds and peer in a window or two. So that’s what I did. Someday I’ll get back in “season” and get inside.

adams

United First Parish Church

My final stop was just up the street from the Adams’ birth house. The cemetery across the street, the original place where the Adams were interred, is full of history. But as I wandered from tombstone to tombstone, I was still angry that so many amazing historical places I wanted to go to this trip were closed – including the church where the Adams family is now entombed.

So I walked across the street to “The Church of the Presidents,” as it’s known, and soaked up a little history. Not only were tours not scheduled to be offered for another couple of weeks, but the sign on the door indicated the church itself, where services are still held, was closed. I’m not really sure why I did it, but I’m sure it was just my frustration bubbling up, but I gave the door handle a little jiggle. To my surprise, it opened and I walked inside.

Once inside, I noticed a few people were there. One walked toward me and asked if he could help me. In my best “pretty please” voice, I told him that I knew they weren’t doing tours, but I was from Florida and not sure when I’d make it back, and whether there was any way he’d let me walk down into the tombs to pay my respects to two of our earliest presidents. Turns out, he was the director of operations, and not only said, “sure!” but also ended up giving me a mini-tour of the church.

I got to see the Adams’ family pews and to imagine them worshipping there on a Sunday long ago. We then made our way to the basement. I really wasn’t prepared for how powerful this would be. The four graves were as stately as they could be, flags draped over them. It was an incredibly peaceful place. I probably would have just sat there for a while, if it I hadn’t felt blessed to even be there and not wanting to inconvenience my gracious host any more than I already had.

The lesson I learned? Even if the sign says “closed,” always try the door. You never know what it might open.

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Boston on a weekend? Try Hotwire

freedom-trail

My one beef with Boston is how expensive it is. I think it’s even more expensive than New York City. It’s darn near impossible to find a hotel for less than $150. But we got a cheap flight to Iceland from Boston, and we didn’t want to chance a connection, so we came in a night before knowing that we had one of the nation’s most historic cities to keep us busy before our flight.

Laura is a mad genius on Hotwire, and she’s a great reminder that when visiting big cities on weekends, Hotwire or other opaque booking sites are often your best bet. Why? Because hotels than cater to business travelers are empty on weekends, and most dump their inventory at a discount on those sites. For this visit, we landed The Godfrey for a steal. Just a few blocks from Boston Common, it was a terrific base camp for all we wanted to do, close to the subway station and, heck, they even had a Rubik’s Cube in our room for us.

godfrey

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Trip Report: Iceland

iceland

The Travelzoo headline screamed, “Iceland RT for $250!”

That HAD to be a mistake, right? And if not, there HAD to be a catch, right?

I clicked on it and, nope, not a mistake. And nope, no catch. Turns out, you really can fly round-trip to Iceland from the United States for just $250. It didn’t take long for me to talk The Wife into an impulse trip to the northernmost country capital in the world!

PREPPING FOR THE TRIP

Turns out, Iceland isn’t nearly as small as you’d think. The aptly named Ring Road, which circles the island, is 830 miles long. And even if you didn’t want to get THAT adventurous, there are a number of regions on the more populated eastern/southern side of the island worth taking a look into, so with only four nights, we had some decisions to make. And we decided on two nights in the capital city of Reykjavik and two nights in “the country” near the most famous natural wonders. We probably could have used one more night in the city, but otherwise, I think our plan was solid. With a couple more nights, we would have headed to East Iceland and with a lot more time, would have pondered the Ring Road, but if you’re looking for a quick trip, four nights is sufficient to see all the highlights.

Despite its name, Iceland isn’t really all that cold, even in March when we went. But it IS colder than Florida, and most of Iceland’s treasures are outdoors, so we both made trips to the local Columbia outlet to add some warm and, more importantly, waterproof clothing.

Wi-fi is fairly easy to find in the cities. Most bars and restaurants offer it for free, though many will require you to check-in to Facebook to get access. It’s a bit harder to find in the rural areas, but the big tourist attractions offer it for a nominal fee.

The day before we left, some friends who had just returned gave us our last big tip. Don’t exchange money at the airport. You won’t need currency. And they were right. Credit cards we accepted everywhere, even at the street-side hot dog stand. We did exchange $20 worth at the airport – on the way home – to give to friends and family as souvenirs. The only place we wish we had some coins was to tip bartenders at bars where the credit card machines didn’t allow for tips. So, yeah, maybe $20 at the airport just for that. But be sure your credit card doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees.

wow

GETTING THERE

That bargain-basement-too-good-to-true airfare? We can thank Wow Air for it. Wow is the discount airline of Iceland (who knew?), and as you can see from its route map above, it connects five U.S. cities to not only Reykjavik, but also several cities in Europe, so it’s a great, inexpensive way to get across the pond, no matter where you want to go.

I’ll admit I was a little hesitant. Even from Boston, where we left from, it was a five-hour flight. On a discount airline. But not long after we boarded, we realized this was no Spirit Airlines. The planes were bright and comfortable. Plenty of legroom and – gasp! – power outlets at every seat. Unlike Spirit Airlines, you had in-flight entertainment options – plenty of U.S. movies and TV shows to choose from to watch on your own devices or an iPad you could rent. Yes, you had to pay for all extras – checked bags, carry-on bags, snacks, drinks, entertainment, etc. – but a comparable flight on Icelandair, that included all of those things, was $589. Even with a fare increase because we delayed in booking, our Wow flight cost us about $360. There weren’t enough bags, drinks and food in the world that would have gotten us to $589.

Even more impressive was the airline’s efficiency – something all U.S. carriers could learn a thing or two from. Want a drink or a snack? Press your call button and a friendly flight attendant is at your seat in a jiffy. Also interesting: the airline has its own SkyMall-experience. Except you don’t order stuff and have it sent to your house. They have it all on board. Leaf through the catalog, order your perfume, hats, gloves and more from your flight attendant, and carry it off the plane with you. Really, really neat.

The only irritant with Wow is that the flight from Boston gets in literally in the middle of the night, so it might be difficult or impossible to find a hotel that will let you check in at 5 a.m. to get some sleep, which you’ll need after flying all night, without booking it a night early.

bab

After looking at all possible options, we actually ended up finding a really workable solution. We booked a room at the Bed and Breakfast Keflavik Airport, which is just a few minutes from the airport and offers clean, though Spartan, accommodations. (The photo above is from the hotel website, but our room was nowhere near as plush). It was about $80, but the power move is that they offer a very nice breakfast buffet starting at 4 a.m. So we landed, got our rental car, checked in, had breakfast and then got a couple hours of sleep. Since the airport is a good 45 minutes from Reykjavik, it also allowed us to start our Iceland vacation with the famous Blue Lagoon (more on that below), which is in between the two cities  so we didn’t have to back-track to do it. An added plus is that the Blue Lagoon is incredibly relaxing, so even if you didn’t get a good night’s sleep between the flight and the airport hotel, you had a relaxing day ahead of you to acclimate and rest up.

STAYING THERE

We had hear from plenty of friends about how expensive Iceland was, so we were bracing for that cheapo airfare to end up costing us. And the country IS expensive, but oddly, not in every way. Lodging was surprisingly affordable. Kayak.Com found us a number of really nice hotel options right in the Reykjavik city center for about $110 night – affordable by almost all U.S. major city standards. But I kept digging and turned up a couple real gems on AirBnB that made our trip even more enjoyable – and less expensive.

reyk.PNG

We spent our two nights in Reykjavik in the fantastic apartment above. It was just a couple of blocks from the main drag of Laugavegar. It was a full apartment with a bedroom, full bath, full kitchen, roomy living area, breakfast nook and an outdoor balcony. It was a perfect base camp for exploring all that Reykjavik had to offer. We walked everywhere from there.

Reyholt

We spent our final two nights at this fantastic “summer cottage” in the tiny town of Reykholt, not far from the famous Geysir and other natural wonders. It was certainly unique. It’s divided into two small structures. The main had a full kitchen, and a combo living/sleeping area, plus a full bathroom. A wooden deck separated it from a  smaller structure that had a half-bath, a mini kitchen, and a small sleeping/living area.

It also featured an outdoor hot tub that you fill on demand with water heated by the volcanic springs, perfect for sipping some wine and seeing the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights), if the weather conditions are just right (they weren’t when we were there, about our only disappointment). It also had a basketball court and trampoline, and was stocked with games and a TV that gets one Icelandic station (ha!).

If you book this place, beware of this – there is only one restaurant in town (fortunately, a really good one – more below) and no stores in town. So be sure you make it back in time to make it to the restaurant, or stock up on food before you get back from exploring or you’ll starve.

Between these two AirBnBs, we were able to see all the top Icelandic must-dos without much effort.

mars

GETTING AROUND

Getting around Iceland can be a bit tricky, depending upon how adventurous you are and your budget.

One option is to take the convenient Flybus shuttle from the airport into Reykjavik, walk or use public transportation or cabs to see Reykjavik, and then book day tours to the natural wonders elsewhere in the country.

Reykjavik is a very easy town to get around in. We were able to walk everywhere. We never used buses or cabs, but both were plentiful everywhere in town.

We’re more of independent spirits, so we decided to rent a car. “Cars” are actually quite affordable in Iceland. Almost insanely affordable. But just as I was ready to book a cheap ride on Budget, I did a little more research. Especially in winter, you might need a 4×4 vehicle to reach some of the natural wonders. Since that was a big part of our trip, we elected to use rental broker Auto Europe and got the most affordable 4×4 we could, which was about three times as much as a car. (As it turns out, we would have been just fine with a car, but I wouldn’t want to chance it in the winter. I’d buck up the extra dollars to be safe in a proper vehicle).

The rental process was not as smooth as I’m used to, which I suppose is to be expected. One selling point with Auto Europe was that it included a free GPS unit. While we are T-Mobile customers have have free data in most countries, including Iceland, I wasn’t sure whether we’d have service in some of the more remote areas, so a GPS sounded like a good idea. Unfortunately, instead of just picking up a car with a GPS unit in it, you have to have the company send you the GPS unit ahead of your trip (at a charge), pay extra for it for the days it is in transit (no, really) and then return it via FedEx when you get back to The States (no charge for this. Seems like they missed a final revenue opportunity!). Alas, we declined the “free” GPS unit, figuring we could buy one in Iceland for less than the extra charges if we really needed it. (Turns out, we didn’t, though we learned to put our next destination in Google Maps anytime we had a wi-fi signal, as service was spotty).

The company that actually provided the rental wasn’t at the airport to pick us up, and didn’t have a counter at the airport. After a couple calls to our U.S.-based Auto Europe representative, we were told they were on their way. When we got to the rental place, our first big decisions of the trip were on. In The States, I decline all rental car coverage. Between my personal car insurance and the credit card I use, I (and most people) am sufficiently covered. And, also to my delight, Auto Europe includes optional coverage in our rental. But then I started looking at the huge map of the country of Iceland, and all the “sandstorm” areas (are we still in Iceland?!?), many of which were close to some of our destinations. Sandstorm damage is not covered under any insurance. I got spooked. We booked it. (Turns out, there were no sandstorms our trip. In the future, I might decline it).

We were also advised of the many roads in which our 4×4 was not permitted to travel on. Surprisingly, it was most of the middle of the country, not that there is anything to see there anyhow.

After a frigid, middle-of-the-night inspection of our car, which showed a number of stickers covering small scratches, and not-so-cheap sandstorm coverage, we were off to our hotel. It was at this point that I saw the big sign that plastered the passenger-side glovebox. “Wind Damage Is Not Covered Under Any Coverage.” Hmmmm, I wondered ….

car

On our second to last day in the country, we booked a hiking tour on Solheimajokull Glacier (more below). We arrived early, and I was walking around the area when I heard Laura screaming. I ran over to our 4×4, and saw the driver door had broken its hinge. Laura had opened the door to answer a question from another tourist when a wind gust ripped the door out of her hand. We had no idea at the time, but our tour had already been canceled because of high wind. And now we had a second casualty of the day. We were able to finally cram the door shut, but the rest of the trip Laura, our driver, had to climb through the passenger seat to get to her seat, since we weren’t able to open the door.

We dropped the 4×4 back off at the rental counter, prepared for the worst. As it turns out, the representative was super nice, told us the damage was minor and our card would be charged in a few days. Fearful that we were looking at hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars of damage, we were pleasantly surprised when the final bill was about $140. Whew.

(Side note: That coverage your credit card provides is invalidated if you accept any optional coverage, which Auto Europe conveniently included at no charge. Except wind damage. LOL. I probably could have pressed the issue with my credit card company, but decided that it probably wasn’t worth it.)

One more tip I wish we had known: Europe uses Chip-and-PIN credit cards, and while U.S. cards now are coming with chips, we had no idea what our PIN numbers were, or even whether we had one. This wasn’t a problem in bars and restaurants and shops, but it WAS a problem at gas stations, where you’ll need your PIN to pump gas. The first station we went to was in a small, rural town and fortunately the attendant over-rode the system so we could fill up without a PIN. But the second time – when we were getting close to needing to be at the airport – we learned that there was only one gas station in all of Keflavik that will sell you gas without a PIN number. Fortunately, it was close to some other stops we just made and we got to the airport without issue.

THINGS TO DO/SEE

Iceland, as you might imagine, has some of the most breath-taking natural phenomenons you’ll see, so you’ll spend most of your time exploring outdoors. But there are few indoor things not to miss.

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Blue Lagoon

Yes, this is a tourist trap. But not all tourist traps should be avoided. And certainly not this one. This large, geothermal spa between Keflavik and Reykjavik is truly incredible. Reservations are required, so be sure to book well in advance.

There are four price points for tickets, and we chose the most popular – Premium. That got us into Blue Lagoon, use of a towel, robe and slippers, a free drink, a reserved table in the restaurant and a glass of sparkling wine there. The meal was delicious, but for travelers on a budget, it’s an easy skip since you’ll have many more wonderful meals during your trip.

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We started with our meal, and then went to our separate locker rooms to change. At check-in, you’re given a high-tech bracelet. It acts like your wallet (they scan it anytime you buy a drink or food) and your locker key (which is really neat, because you don’t need to remember your locker number. Just scan your bracelet in the center console and your locker opens). After changing into your swimwear, you then tip-toe into the chilly outdoors, find a hook for your towel and robe and then wade into the naturally heated, 102-degree water. It is an incredible experience and very relaxing. The lagoon is quite large, so even at peak times, it’s easy to find your own space away from the crowds. You can wade up to a bar to get a drink if you want, and a basic mud mask is included in all admissions. (Those with Premium or Luxury admissions get an extra algae mask, which was really neat but, again, not worth the upcharge for travelers on a budget.) There are also natural saunas on site if you want to stay warm, but not be submerged.

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Harpa

You’ll be amazed blocks away by this striking building, day or night (but especially at night when it’s lit up). The opera house and cultural center is a must-do and also offers a good warm-yourself-up break while exploring chilly Reykjavik. The guided tour is  must-do, and takes you throughout the entire building, which is open to the public during the day as a place to just relax or read a book. Big-name shows are booked here, as are little ones, as there are a number of different venues or all sizes. It also had a David Bowie photograph exhibit during our visit.

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Government buildings

If you’re a history nerd like me, you’ll love how accessible all of the government buildings are in Reykjavik. Above is Parliament, which just a few days after our visit was the scene of massive protests as the country’s government crumbled in a scandal. We also visited the prime minister’s office and Hofdi House, where the famous Reagan-Gorbachev summit was held.

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Icelandic Phallological Museum

Yes, that’s a whale penis behind me. So, yeah, this museum is not for everyone. But before you think it’s nothing but shock factor, let me tell you this – it was fascinating. The museum was created by a guy who has been collecting preserved boy parts for most of his lifetime. Some kind of prurient interest? Perhaps. But the collection is presented in a scientific manner. It claims to have a penis of all species of mammals that inhabit Iceland or the waters around it. Yes, even human. (Turns out, some people are so enamored of the museum, that they bequeath their organs to it). There’s also some pop cultural displays, but largely, it’s a museum where you’ll learn stuff rather than giggle at stuff. (Now, the museum shop is another story …)

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Thingvellir National Park

After two nights in Reykjavik, it was time to explore the country’s natural beauty in the region known as “The Golden Circle.” As mentioned, getting lodging in the northern end of the Golden Circle worked well for us. We got to hit all the big stops the first day, and had a convenient base camp to get to the glaciers the next day. The first stop, not too far outside of Reykjavik, was this breath-taking national park. Have some comfortable hiking boots on, because you’re going to want to explore this entire park. Plenty of waterfalls, but also a remote church and cemetery and plenty of water made for a great day of scenery.

geysir

Geysir

The next stop is the “Old Faithful” of Iceland. Every so often like clockwork, one of the geysers will blow its top and people will clap. It really was neat to see, and it takes you a couple of eruptions to get your timing down to get a good video.

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Gullfoss Waterfall

We ended our first day of exploring at the “Niagara Falls of Iceland.” Depending on the time of year you visit, it could be mostly frozen over or lush green. We got a little of both. The national park, Geysir and this stop are completely doable in one, non-rushed day, if you’ve picked lodging in the northern end of the Golden Circle.

glacier

Solheimajokull Glacier

Day 2 in the Golden Circle was almost exclusively dedicated to glacier hiking. You can’t go to Iceland and not get on a glacier! There are a number of guides that do hikes. We picked this one, which was about a two-hour drive from our cottage. Along the way, we stopped at a bunch of waterfalls, so it’s a really scenic drive. Unfortunately, high winds forced our tour to be canceled, but even without a guide, you can hike out to the beginning edges of the glacier. Since the tour was $114, budget travelers might want to skip that and just park and do a little self-hiking. You’ll eventually reach warning signs, but there’s plenty to see before you get to that point. (And, remember, be careful opening the doors to your rental 4×4. lol)

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Icelandic Museum of Rock ‘n Roll

This was a nice gem just a few minutes from the airport. When you think of Icelandic music, you think of Bjork. But there’s actually more that you’ll recognize. Plus, they have a studio where you can rock out on guitars and drums, and that’s always cool.

THINGS TO EAT AND DRINK

HERE is where your Iceland trip starts to add up. There’s really no enjoyable way around blowing your budget on food and drink. (You can stock up on snacks at supermarkets, but what fun is that?) You just need to grin and bear it and remind yourself you are on vacation.

For food, expect a minimum of $20 for an entree, and often much more. And even items that aren’t imported, like fish, didn’t offer much in the way of savings. We found pizza to be the value move pretty much everywhere, usually $10-$15. And it was uniquely tasty. You WILL expand your taste buds in Iceland, and that’s a big part of the fun. We didn’t get as adventurous as we could have, but you’ll have plenty of opportunities to do so. Several restaurants offer Icelandic tasting menus for about $80-$100 per person.

For alcohol, you’ll want to plan most of your drinking during happy hour. Fortunately, that’s a wide window at most places. But even at happy hour prices, you’re looking at about 10 bucks for a beer or glass of wine. The one mistake we made in this regard was in passing up the duty-free booze at the airport when we landed. I figured if we decided we wanted to drink in our apartment or cottage, we’d just pick something up at the store. First, grocery stores only sell near-beer. For all alcohol, you have to go to a liquor store/wine shop, and they have very odd and restrictive hours. Usually something like 2-6 p.m. daily. Miss it, and you’re out of luck. But if you make it, prices are ridiculously cheap. Like $10 for a bottle of wine that would cost you $50-$60 in a restaurant. Prices are also low at the airport, so stock up there and then be sure you research the liquor store location and hours to replenish your stocks.

Here are a few our favorite places:

creme catfish

Sjavargrillid Seafood Grill

Even though we didn’t get AS adventurous in our eating as we pondered getting (no, we didn’t eat puffin), we did want to challenge ourselves a bit, especially with seafood. This restaurant was highly rated, so we made a reservation and decided this would be our “fancy” night out. Despite service that we found to be unattentive to outright rude (extremely rare in this very friendly country), our meals were wonderful. The grilled lobster and spotted catfish dinner was delicious, but the highlight was the creme brulee, which I still maintain is the best dessert I’ve ever had anywhere.

risotto pizza

Primo

This Italian restaurant provided us one of the most affordable meals of our trip. I had the lobster risotto, which was the cheapest entree and delicious. Laura opted for the pizza, which came with jelly! The various cheeses on the pizza were a difficult taste, so the jelly actually helped “cut” it a bit.

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Icelandic Fish & Chips

You can find fish & chips most everywhere, so the trick is to find the BEST. While I can’t say for certain this restaurant in the harbor area was the best, I’d love to see the challengers to the title. You had your choice of two kinds of fish (whatever came off the boat that morning) and a number of sauces to choose from. Plus, they make their own unique lemonade!

hot-dogs

Baejarins Beztu

You can’t go to Iceland and NOT get a hot dog. All of your travel guides will tell you this is the “national” food, and they dress their dogs uniquely. The best toppings? Remoulade sauce and crunchy onions! So good. Hot dogs are also one of the power moves to avoid the high prices of restaurants. This stand is the most famous, and is down near the harbor, so it was perfect for a lunch break on a day of exploring.

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Dillon Whiskey Bar

We came to Iceland to experience Iceland, not America, but every once in a while, it’s nice to be reminded of home. Dillon had a really American feel to it, right down to our bartenders, who were Americans who had moved to Iceland. Beer was affordable, by Iceland standards, and they had an impressive list of whiskeys and scotch and a number of different flights of each.

lebowskibar

Lebowski Bar

Another spot that will Americans feel like home. The entire bar is themed around the classic movie, “The Big Lebowksi.” I suppose it would qualify as a “hipster” bar for those who like that kind of thing. I don’t, but this was a fun spot and I’d return.

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Restaurant Mika

As mentioned, the tiny town of Reykholt has only one restaurant. Fortunately, it’s a phenomenal one. It starts with reasonably priced wine (for Iceland) and only gets better. Plus, it has a real mom-and-pop feel, but with gourmet food. Best of all worlds. For starters, you have to get the lagoustines (little lobsters) in panko breading with white chocolate chili dipping sauce.  For entrees, it’s Italian, but once again, the pizza was the power move, both in price and in deliciousness. They have several to choose from.

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