I was in St. Petersburg for three days in 2013. Three days specifically because it's the longest we could stay in the country without requiring a tourist's visa, so long as we entered the country via boat. We sailed overnight from Helsinki to St. Petersburg on one of the strangest cruise liners and to this day, it's the only cruise experience I've ever had. This post is not about that cruise but also that cruise deserves some space because it is one of the most memorable, weird travel moments of my life.
We checked into our rooms which had bunk beds that were basically Murphy beds mounted to the wall, one above the other. My brother and I in one room, my parents in another. They also had the twin-Murphy beds. The rooms were cramped as you are not meant to stay in your rooms on a cruise. Cruises were for activities. We decided to get drinks on the deck and watch Helsinki shrink in the distance. At the bar, there was both gin and vodka on tap as well as some simple beers and hard ciders in bottles. My dad tried to order a gin and tonic. The bartender poured him a hefty glass of gin. My dad asked again for the tonic water and the bartender asked why. He did not get any tonic water. We went inside for the buffet which was mostly a drab selection of unnamed cold-cuts, cheeses, and what looked to be questionable seafood. I grabbed food from the only two heated trays--potatoes and sausage. There was gambling but it was mostly older men and smelled like they had all been there a while. My parents decided their night was done. I wasn't far behind--I ordered a drink for my room and went back to read. My brother on the other hand, newly eighteen, decided he would stay out for an extra drink and go to the "club" they had on board. He came back to the room a half hour later with a drink in his hand. "That was surreal."
To this day St. Petersburg is one of the most fascinating places to me both in actuality and in memory. There is so much history, tragedy, resilience, beauty contained in one place.
In actuality, it's a coastal city that was pivotal in several historical contexts. From afar, the buildings were painted bright colors and accented, punctuated with any architectural flourishes that seemed fitting; when I got up close, the bright pinks and yellows and greens were dingy as though it was covered in cigarette smoke and history. It was the beginning of summer and was either sunny or slightly overcast, and even still the city looked grey.
In memory, the city looks greyer still. In 2013 I had just graduated college. I knew that Putin was the president and that he wasn't the best, but my political acuity and awareness were low. Looking back now, and even then, I think my bias of the city and the country were fairly minimal. I was excited to visit a new place in the world and get my passport stamped. The people were lovely; a tour guide recommended her favorite restaurant and a couple other places that weren't very touristy. But in talking to her, every answer was cautious, which she said openly. This was seven years ago so I do not remember all of our conversations with her in detail, but she shared stories about the education system, how her family lived, what her childhood was like. She shared all of it with a sort of sullen pragmatism. She said she and her family were lucky because she was able to learn English and get a job in tourism but even then tourism revenue couldn't be trusted. I remember her telling us that most Russians would not say they shared some or most of the same opinions.
If you ever get the chance to visit St. Petersburg, there is one place I would tell everyone to visit--The Hermitage Museum. The building had a slight bend and was painted the dingy yellow and white. Hundreds of tourists were outside in the palace square. It reminded me of the Louvre in some ways. When I entered most buildings in St. Petersburg, there was a stark transformation from the exterior to the interior. The Hermitage was no different. Every piece of intricate molding was gilded gold. Wood inlaid floors looked like paintings, fitted so tight together one could barely see the seams. Lapis Lazuli and Malachite urns stood on either side of multiple staircases. At first I thought they were carved. They looked solid and heavy. I was very surprised to learn that they are all mosaics with the respective stones carved to precision to fit the convex surfaces, more fine and intricate than the wood inlaid floors.
Past these grand halls and atriums was the real treasure of the Hermitage. Paintings, drawings, sculptures, textiles--every medium of art you might imagine lined the walls from floor to ceiling with very little space in between. The sheer volume of art was overwhelming and impressive. Highly regarded paintings by canonical painters hung, nearly hidden, amongst the collections. I asked my brother, a history buff, how much of it was likely stolen art. "It depends on your definitions of stolen versus appropriated," he said. I nodded. A lot of it was likely stolen, but an impressive collection nonetheless.
After our three days, we took the same weird cruise back to Helsinki.
In 2013, my brother, parents, and I went on a trip to celebrate our respective graduations--mine from undergrad and my brother from high school. As any other family trip, the itinerary was stacked. Very few open moments to sit and people watch or drink at a café or bar, as is the Kolick family way. If an international plane ticket was purchased, we would see as much as humanly possible in the time allotted.
Helsinki was our hub--where the trip started and ended.
If I'm being honest, I don't remember a great deal about the city. It all felt like a whirlwind of jetlag and hustling to our next destination. I remember that in attempts to deal with jetlag but not overexert ourselves, we took a tram or bus tour of the city where I learned that during World War II the Germans had some bad intel and bombed their own embassy.
We saw a lot of cool art around the city.
During our first dinner, my brother ordered reindeer to which my dad replied, "you best hope Santa doesn't find out." I wish I could chock that up to jetlag, but that's just my dad one hundred percent of the time.
The most memorable thing about Helsinki was the sauna. Typically, this is a luxury amenity but it Finland saunas are very common. According to This is Finland there are an estimated 2 million saunas in a country with a population of 5.3 million people. They take saunas very seriously. The sauna was on the top floor of our hotel. On one wall there were wooden benches to sit and relax. Opposite of the benches were floor to ceiling windows overlooking the city. It was one of the most relaxing experiences of my life.
2020 has been a year--and it's only APRIL. I've seen many posts, articles, tweets, insta-stories start this way and I'm convinced that it still isn't a cliche. It feels especially heavy after the last three years that have felt like six years. There is little I can do about what's happening in the world, other than stay at home (please stay the fuck at home) and donate to organizations trying to get food, shelter, and protective gear to those in need. And so I've been trying to affect change to my world and to the worlds of people I care for deeply.
For myself, this past month has been a bit of a triumph--after nine years and many, many rewrites, I finished my novel. I've had "finished" drafts of it before but they were not even close to finished; they were just getting started. I credit the evolution of this novel to the classes I took at University of Washington and University of Glasgow, to reading the work of my peers and listening to their feedback during workshop, and a great deal to Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff, as well as advice she gave to me at a reading I attended. And really I am only done writing this for now. With any luck, this manuscript might be picked up by a contest or an agent and I'll be given a whole new set of notes and feedback and changes that need to be made. But for now, it's onto other projects. Because I need structure in my life, I created a quarantine syllabus for myself similar to the one I made when we lived in Scotland. It includes a list of books I should read, a goal for the number of short stories I want to write, and in a few months I'm going to start writing my second novel.
The other project I've had on my to-do list for a while is updating my travel archives. I find it humorous that my first instagram post of the year, and the decade, was reflecting on places I've been to and all the places I still had yet to see. I was contemplating where we might go this year. January Alli was optimistic. The answer is nowhere; we're going nowhere. But even that answer is short-sighted. I've decided to go back to some of those places.
When I re-built this site, a lot of the older content no longer met my own writing standards. The words didn't capture the experiences, didn't do justice to the great places I've had the privilege of visiting. Time to change that. Over the next few weeks I hope to add stories from places like Rome, Stockholm, Barcelona, and Dubrovnik to the site. I'll also be giving some love to Seattle. I'm missing a lot about my home city these days. Here's to making the best out of a strange and dark time.
I've had a draft of this on my computer for years. It's never quite felt finished; it still doesn't. Every time I revisit Edinburgh I find something new and charming about the city. It's the only place I've truly felt homesick for. Time and again, I've found reasons to go back. But as I sit here, revisiting the words I've written and re-written, I have no travel booked back to my favorite city in the world. I think perhaps that's why it feels like as good a time as any to finally share this post.
Walking through the city, history unfurls itself like a map. From the epicenter of the castle and Old Town are buildings hundreds of years older than the founding of the US. At the edge, overlooking New Town, is University of Edinburgh's New College which was built in 1846. I suppose in the context of the city, it's new.
It's hard for me not to be romantic about Edinburgh, and Scotland in general. Part of me wants to say I feel most creative when I'm there, but I think that has more to do with me spending a focused year there writing and producing than me actually being more creative in a specific place. Since moving back to Seattle, I've written some of my best work. But in each story, a piece of Scotland was woven into the sentences.
This last visit felt like a combination of vacation and stay-cation. Having lived there not that long ago, Reese and I have done most of the touristy things around the city so we spent the bulk of this trip revisiting our favorite spots and catching up with friends.
The fun excuse for going back to Scotland this year was my graduation from University of Glasgow. I'm officially a Master of Letters in Creative Writing! I got to celebrate with my lovely cohort of writers and toast to our year of hard work.
I'm not going to list all of my favorite places and recommendations here, but if you're a first time visitor, here are my musts:
Pack good walking/hiking shoes--Edinburgh has so much beautiful green space in the city like Arthur's Seat and Calton Hill. But even if you're not that interested in the outdoors, you'll appreciate comfy shoes when you're walking up worn stone closes in old town and cobble stone streets.
Coffee shops are plentiful in every corner of the city. Artisan Roast (which has a few locations) is one of my go to's up there with Black Medicine Coffee Company. But if you're looking for some breakfast, my recommendations are on opposite ends of town. Twelve Triangles at the top of Leith Walk is possibly my favorite pastry place ever--I love the cinnamon buns. But if what you're in the mood for is a full Scottish, you have to go to The Birchwood.
If you're curious about where else you should go, I created a public Google List full of dinner spots and local bookstores and pubs. Sláinte.
On the west coast of Japan, a few hours from Kyoto, is a small town--Kinosaki Onsen. We were only in town for about 24 hours and you can't take photos in the baths, so this post will be a little lighter than the others.
We took a train from Kyoto to Kinosaki that dropped us off at the edge of town. The air was thick with mountain clouds and impending rains and the streets were quiet. Through the center of town cuts a quiet river filled with koi. They seemed excited as more people arrived and would gather under bridges and near the banks in hopes that people would throw food down to them.
We stayed at the Mikiya Hotel which we were allowed to check into at 3pm--not a minute sooner. Normally check-in wouldn't be a featured part of any blog but when we arrived in town around noon and tried to go to the hotel early because it was pouring rain there was no one around. The lights in the lobby were off. The front desk seat was empty. So we walked back to the center of town to have lunch and sit at a coffee shop and wait.
After 3pm, we checked in. The hotel gave us a much more traditional experience with shoji screen walls, tatami mats, and a futon on the floor. Our room looked onto a shared garden bringing nature a bit closer to us during our stay.
Prior to our dinner, we used the hotel onsens. Like many things in the Japanese culture, there's a process to be followed when using the onsens. First, the baths are gender segregated as everyone is required to be nude in the baths. Then everyone must wash themselves so that the waters remain clean. If you have long hair, it must be tied up as it is not supposed to go in the water. Finally, each person is given a small towel to bring with them--this must also remain out of the baths. So you either put this on your head or on a ledge of the hot springs.
After our first onsen experience, we enjoyed a kaiseki, or seasonal, dinner. Winter time means crab. This was a night of me eating many new things. We gathered in the dining room in traditional yukatas, or robes, and prepared for a meal of wonderfully strange (for me) foods. Over the course of the night I tried new types of sushi (amberjack and seabream), fresh raw crab, eggplant and eel jelly, and yam tofu. There were some things, particularly at the beginning of the night that I just couldn't bring myself to try. Namely the whole fried fish and sea snail. Couldn't do it.
But as a whole, the dinner was delicious and I'm proud of all the new foods I did try. Maybe next time, sea snail (but probably not).
Kinosaki is a town with a purpose. When you look it up on Google Maps, be sure to type Kinosaki Onsen to get the right town. In town there are seven public onsens, or hot spring baths. In addition to the onsen at our hotel, we visited the Goshonoyu Onsen. From the outside, it looks a bit like a temple and greeted us with a soft waterfall feature as we walked inside. At this onsen, there were baths both inside and outside. I opted for the outside bath. The cool mountain air surrounded us and met the steam rising from the hot waters. The onsen was easily 105-107 degrees Fahrenheit, leaving a red line on my skin dividing my body into hot and cold. Women of all ages gathered and talked. The younger girls seemed to be learning the traditions of the onsen. Some had been going for most of their lives and were teaching their younger sisters the rules.
While my mom and I waited in the lobby, we watched the families come back together. Little kids changed into their pajamas and fell asleep in their parent's arms. A family ritual to end the week. Not too dissimilar from our own evening as we concluded our time in Japan.
While Tokyo has something for everyone, Kyoto was more my speed. I could've spent weeks browsing pottery shops, visiting some of their hundreds of temples, and eating my way through Nishiki Market and been a happy lady.
Kyoto, Japan's ancient city, was spared during World War II giving present day travelers a glimpse into the past. And for this reason, and many more, Kyoto feels much more like a tourist destination. If you want see all that Kyoto has to offer, start your day early and be ready to walk.
There are so many wonderful things to see and do in Kyoto but I think a good place to start the day is Kiyomizu-dera Temple. We were fortunate enough to stay nearby, but even if you're staying elsewhere in the city, this acts as a great starting point. We arrived in time to see the vibrant, autumn leaves decorate the city and surrounding mountains. The garden at Kiyomizu-dera was no exception. The temple was surrounded by the richest reds, oranges, and yellows. Even with all of the other tourists, the grounds were peaceful and quiet.
From Kiyomizu-dera, we walked down the main road leading up to the temple, Matsubara Dori, to visit some of the many pottery shops and food stands. I could spend hours looking at pottery--and I did. So many of the shops featured beautiful, handmade pieces, some of which came home with me. We made a lucky right turn and headed down a staircase towards Masuyacho. These pedestrian walkways are packed with tourists wearing kimono in search of an authentic Kyoto experience and lined with artisanal tea houses and incense makers. Almost in camouflage, a Starbucks stood in plain sight beneath a tile roof and wood siding. But this isn't like every other Starbucks in the world, it's the only one in the world with tatami mats for seating. The drinks and food were the same but it was interesting to see a big company try to blend into their surroundings. Even in the midst of hundreds of people, all enchanted by the side-street, I couldn't help but feel like a new part of history, a new part of the world was seeping into me.
Not far from Kiyomizu and Maruyama Park is Gion. The Gion neighborhood straddles the Kamo River. It's home to the Kyōto Minami-za, a kabuki theater, and many fantastic restaurants. But my favorite place to eat in Kyoto was, without question, Nishiki Market. The market, known as Kyoto's Kitchen, runs six blocks. For about a half-mile, we were surrounded by fresh seafood, pickled foods, wagyu beef, and the most vibrant fruits and vegetables I've ever seen. While in Kyoto, I fell in love with persimmons. Persimmons are a winter fruit that's about the size of a peach and tastes, in my opinion, like a peach crossed with a cantaloupe. They are delicious! I could've eaten them by the handful.
Reese and my dad enjoyed some of the freshest, and cheapest, sushi they had ever eaten but it came with a catch--they had to eat it at the fish stand. Some markets like La Boqueria in Barcelona have counters where patrons can eat their freshly ordered food. But at Nishiki, they were invited around the counter to eat at a small clearing on a table next to where they were preparing other cuts of fish. It was a different kind of ambiance.
Two of the mornings, we started our days a bit outside of the city. The first morning we headed east to Arashiyama Park, or the bamboo forest. By 9am the town around the park was already filled with people. Walking along the path, surrounded by bamboo stalks was incredible but in my opinion there are two spots along the way that are far more incredible--the Ōkōchi Sansō Garden and Tenryuji Temple.
The Ōkōchi Sansō Garden was built by a silent film actor in the 1930s and 40s. Nestled on the side of Mt. Ogura, this villa and tea house are privy to sweeping views of Kyoto and has some of the most beautiful gardens I've ever seen. The forests around us were bursting with reds and yellows and oranges as if it were on fire. It was the most peaceful fire I have ever witnessed.
On the way back down, we stopped at Tenryuji Temple, a UNESCO world heritage site. If I stood in the right places (like I did for the photo above) this was one of the most serene places we stopped at on our trip. However, behind me were thousands of other eager visitors clamoring to see the vivid trees reflected on the lake. Despite volume of tourists, I highly recommend visiting.
After walking through the bamboo, and tea houses, and temples, we headed to Kinkaku-ji, or the Golden Pavilion. Lining the fence around the koi-filled pond were bus-loads upon bus-loads of tour groups fighting for space to see the gold-leaf covered structure. Patience is a virtue when one wants calm photos (that's how the saying goes).
By mid-day we were back to city center visiting Nijō Castle, the residence of the last shōgun. Walking around the main building we saw paintings on the shoji screens and listened to the tweets of the faux nightingales summoned by each step visitors made. In order to prevent covert attacks, they built the floors in such a way that each step someone takes, the floors squeak to sound like a bird, warning occupants of unwanted visitors. With all of the tourists walking around, it sounded like a flock of nightingales were following us around the palace halls.
The second morning we headed south to the Fushimi Inari Trail, dedicated to the god Inari--god of foxes, sake, tea, and fertility. Though it is clearly listed at the top of the Wikipedia page that this trail goes up a mountain, we went here under the recommendation of several people and did very little follow up research. I absolutely echo their recommendation--it was a spectacular way to start the day. Though it's safe to say that none of us were as prepared as we should've been to go on a wee hike that morning. The hike takes about 2 hours (despite all the signs saying it's 20 minutes to the top) and is lined with orange Torii gates the entire way.
By the time we were leaving Kyoto, I couldn't get enough. I'd fallen in love with a new city for its old-world charm. For me, there will always be a beautiful balance between the ancient and modern coming together.
If I'm being honest, I was nervous about Tokyo. I don't like grocery shopping during peak hours because it feels like I have no space to process what's going on around me. As someone who's never lived in a city with over a million people, the thought of being in one that's 20 million strong was daunting. I was nervous about not knowing cultural traditions (and things that might be considered disrespectful). I was concerned about hitting a point of sensory overload in markets and neighborhoods that had countless bright signs in a language I can't read in a city I'd never been to before.
But Tokyo didn't end up being all that I was nervous about. Don't get me wrong--Shinjuku and The Robot Restaurant heightened any anxiety that I thought had been managed. But I did okay. I even enjoyed myself. Tokyo is a multi-faceted city. In many ways, it felt like any other international metropolitan city. Then you'd turn a corner and knew you couldn't be anywhere else but Tokyo.
For starters, Tokyo is organized unlike any other city I've lived in or visited. If you need anything, you go to the corresponding district. Need a book? Go to Jinbōchō, home to 160+ bookstores. Need a camera? Television? Obscure electronic part? Head over to Akihabara and get lost in one of the many humungous electronics stores. We went to Yodobashi Camera. Don't let the name fool you--only one corner of one floor (out of eight) was dedicated to cameras. It was heaven. I've been debating what kind of camera I'd eventually like to upgrade to and I got to try out all of my prospects and all of the lenses I've had my eyes on. It was magical. But on that same floor were designer handbags, high end pens, cosmetics, scrapbooking materials, kitchen gadgets, and hair styling products. There was not an inch of exposed wall. Each shelf was stocked and well organized even though it looked like a Black-Friday spectacle. We didn't even make it to the TV floor.
One of the things that I loved about Japan is that everything was art--from everyday, utilitarian items to the niche interests, it seemed that everything was made with the intention to be consumed as art. At Meiji Shrine, sake barrels were intricately painted and displayed. Manhole covers were casted with illustrated scenes of their purpose. Wrapping cloths were folded around gifts as if they were paper origami. Everything seemed to have a purpose and an intent to delight.
There was no better display of this than when we went to Roppongi Robataya, a robatayaki (meaning fire-side cooking) restaurant. From the moment we walked through the front door our eyes were greeted with a colorful array of fresh vegetables, meats, and seafood (including a tank of still-swimming tiger prawns and abalone). Two chefs knelt in front of their charcoal grills and made each dish to order. This was not a line kitchen--each chef knew how to prepare, cook, and plate each dish masterfully, treating every ingredient with respect. From start to finish, each bite was delicately seasoned to heighten the true flavors of the main ingredients. If you have a few hours in your schedule and some room in your budget, please do not leave Tokyo without eating here.
I'm not an overly adventurous eater but in Japan I pushed past my comfort zones. For me, Robataya was not only an artful culinary experience, but the start of me trying new things. It felt wrong to travel all that way and not taste things that were of such significance. That night I tried raw tuna, tiger prawn, lotus root, and mochi for the first time, all of which I would eat again. The seafood was a particularly big feat for me as I do not like fish.
For an entirely different experience, I give you The Robot Restaurant. After Reese and I went, people asked if we liked it, which is usually a yes or no question. But neither answer felt sufficient. There was too much to take in to just like it or not. Instead I've decided that I experienced nothing else like it and it will forever be engrained in my memory. It felt like a live-action version Dance Dance Revolution combined with a story line from the cartoons I used to watch as a kid. For 90 minutes colored lights flashed and electronic music filled the air while the characters of the show danced and interacted with the animatronic robots.
The Robot Restaurant is filled with 99% tourists, however I still think it's worth going. While they serve food, book your show before or after dinner and enjoy some drinks instead. There's too much good food in Tokyo to waste a meal here.
If you're interested in visiting shrines or temples, make sure you plan a trip down to Kyoto (there are hundreds). But we visited a few in Tokyo as well. Meiji Shrine and Sensō-ji Temple are the two larger spiritual monuments in the city that we visited. But my personal favorite was Hie Shrine in Akasaka. There's a large white gate that you can enter through, or if you walk north for a bit, you will find a smaller staircase lined with Torii gates. For a couple minutes, it didn't feel like I was standing in the center of a giant city.
Planning a trip to Tokyo?
The dogs are sleeping--Islay curled up on the bed and Nala laying on the cold spot under the window--and Reese is interviewing people for his dissertation at his desk. I am working at our table trying to finish a short story I started this summer so I can send it off to literary magazines. I haven't written a word in an hour and a half. Instead I've stared out the window watching the mist cover the leaves in flowers in a thin layer of moisture.
In 23 days Reese and I and the dogs are moving back to Seattle.
I struggle writing that sentence because, even as a writer, there's very little you can do with punctuation to evoke bittersweetness that is this transition period. Of course I'm elated to go back to Seattle and see family and friends, to live in our house again, to drink really good cider again. But going back to Seattle means missing the life we built in Edinburgh.
This past year has been a constant unknown. As a planner, it's been a year-long life lesson in patience and flexibility. It's also been one of the best years of my life. For both Reese and I it's been a big life shift. This year started out as a goal, as a dream to live abroad somewhere. We wanted different life experiences and opportunities. And when moving costs, living expenses, and tuition is cheaper than staying put, take the opportunity!
And what an experience it's been.
Over the course of the year, Reese has worked towards his MBA which he's been finishing up this month and I've been writing a collection of short stories, working on a novel, and preparing for my masters program that starts in a month(!!!).
In between all of our academic goals, we took advantage of being so close to so many wonderful places. Since we've been here we've visited:
I don't think I can pick a favorite. Tromsø will always hold a special place in my heart. Watching the Northern Lights dance above us while we lay in the snow was one of the most magical experiences of my life.
That being said, living in Edinburgh and getting to spend time in the Highlands was magical in a different way. The gothic architecture will always make me swoon. The rugged richness of Highland terrain will always captivate me. The whisky will always be delicious. The storytelling will always be enchanting.
And of course, there was a lot of park time with the doggos. I think they'll miss being able to run around off-leash all the time and chasing golf balls at the park. We'll find a way to make it up to them.
Scotland will always be my second home. I am so grateful for all of the wonderful friends we made while we were here and for all the experiences they brought into our lives.
Moreover, I'm grateful to have had this experience with you, Reese. Thank you for getting into your program so we could have this adventure. Thank you for being my forever travel partner. For being my life partner. I love you.
For the past five weeks, I've been across the Irish Sea from Reese and the dogs, writing in Cork, Ireland. What started off as a solo adventure ended up being an adventure of community and camaraderie. As far as spending time away from my family, this was well worth it.
Each summer the University of New Orleans meets in Cork, Ireland for their Writer's Workshop, hosted at University College Cork. Luckily for me, the program is open to writers outside of the program as well. Throughout my time there, I participated in two writing workshops, one fiction and one non-fiction. Both were led by published authors who also happen to be wonderful teachers. For weeks, my peers and I immersed ourselves in each others work, learning new craft techniques, asking questions, pushing each other to create better work.
On free weekends, I took the chance to do some exploring. The first weekend I headed up to Belfast, but the rest of the time I enjoyed some little day trips to Cobh and Kinsale. Both are little seaside towns that are less than an hour by train or bus, respectively. While many go to enjoy the delicious, fresh seafood (so I've been told), I went for a change of scenery while I write and people watch. Both towns have charming cafes and pubs with some of the most friendly people I've ever met. If you're traveling through southern Ireland, these should be on your must visit list, even if it's just a fly-by.
There were so many good moments that came out of these past weeks, but here are my top three:
And while I had an amazing time this summer, I'm happy to be reunited with Reese and the dogs in Edinburgh.
The more I travel, particularly in the last year, the more I approach adventures with fewer expectations. I start by looking at where I'm situated in the world and my research usually follows a path spurred by the curiosity of where I can take cool photos. And while I love posting the photos online, it's always about the experience and I have yet to be upset by beautiful places in the world. So what piqued my curiosity of Northern Ireland? The Giant's Causeway.
While I've been staying in Cork this past month, I had a couple free weekends. So few weeks ago I booked my train tickets and headed north. I love traveling by train. It was about a six hour trip with a transfer in Dublin. For six hours I got to see the Irish countryside while I wrote a story for my non-fiction class. It was a lovely way to spend travel hours.
Belfast was a wonderful little surprise. Coming from Cork, I naively thought that the architecture might be similar--that there would be old buildings nestled together oscillating between bright and pastel exteriors. But between WWII and the troubles of the IRA, the city has essentially been rebuilt over the past several decades. It resembled a city closer to Dublin--more industrial, modern. The city sprawled further than I thought it would but walking more than thirty minutes from the city-center would likely put you in a residential neighborhood.
I stayed near the River Lagan, not far from the train station, at Bullitt Hotel. It was such a fun find. If I'm being honest, I didn't look through the reviews of the hotel past the star rating. But the bar and restaurant were packed to brim every night with locals who were there for live music and delicious food and drinks. If you're a light sleeper, this is not the place for you. Music and bar banter were roaring until at least 1 AM every night.
Church Lane was my home for the long weekend. It also happened to have every bar and restaurant locals recommended to me. Muriel's Café and Bar as well as Pablo's Burgers were my favorites.
Over the course of my time in Belfast, I kept wondering if I was in the tourist part of town, but in talking to some locals and my own experience, tourism is only just starting to pick up in Northern Ireland in the last ten years or so. A lot of this has to do with the fact that popular shows like Sons of Anarchy and Game of Thrones have filmed in Belfast or surrounding areas. Which brings me to my favorite part of my trip to Northern Ireland--my Game of Thrones tour.
As hokey as it may be, this is my third Game of Thrones tour. I've taken them in Iceland, Croatia, and now Northern Ireland. I will always recommend these tours. In every case, I've seen part of the country that I wouldn't have on another tour, and it usually doesn't cost that much more than a standard tour. For instance a tour to The Giant's Causeway was £25 and stopped at two locations. My tour was £35 and stopped at seven locations. It was great.
Of the locations we visited, my favorites were The Giant's Causeway and Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge (and surrounding beaches). The Giant's Causeway is essentially a break wall consisting of over 40,000 hexagonal basalt columns on the Antrim Coast of Northern Ireland. Depending on which direction you're facing, you can see some of the Scottish Isles. The Isles of Mull and Islay are the easiest to spot, especially on a clear day.
The Carrik-a-Rede Rope Bridge was a very different experience. Where the Causeway kept us close to the waters, the Rope Bridge put us high above them, letting us marvel at the clarity and colors of the frigid waters fifty feet below (for the GoT fans, this is the same bridge that Balon Greyjoy gets pushed off of). The bridge connected us to a small island with landscape similar to the ones it had separated from centuries ago. The view was not all that changed. But walking across a wood and rope bridge made it a special place to take in the sights.
Overall it was a quick trip, but I was trilled that I decided to take the long train ride there and back. If nothing else, I got plenty of writing done on the train (obviously not this blog. It's so late. But my homework was done).
If you’re twenty-two, physically fit, hungry to learn and be better, I urge you to travel — as far and as widely as possible. Sleep on floors if you have to. Find out how other people live and eat and cook. Learn from them — wherever you go.
I am not someone that usually mourns the deaths of those I have not met. But hearing the news of Anthony Bourdain's death shook me in a way I did not expect. As I read the tributes and news articles, I couldn't help but feel like I had lost a mentor.
Like many people, I grew up watching his CNN shows exploring various parts the world - unknown, underrated, trendy, or otherwise. In a time before the boom of smart phones and social media, he was a guest in my house, A friend in our living room, teaching us not to be afraid of what we don't know.
But I don't want to spend a lot of time mourning him - I don't think that's what he would have wanted. I think he would have told us all to have good food and drink with those we hold dear and keep exploring the world. And as I thought about that this morning it baffled me that I felt as if I knew such an intimate detail about someone I had never met.
Bourdain shared his perspective and opinions with candor and prolificness that made people feel like they could call him a friend, even at a distance. His social media accounts were full of behind the scenes footage sharing the stories of those he worked with. I cannot think of a single person that did not talk, post, tweet, share about their grief in the wake of this tragedy.
He was and is a great unifier. And while that says many great things about him and the legacy he leaves behind, I'd like people to think about this as well - while he is a shared connection for many, Anthony Bourdain is not what we have in common. What we share are the values he lived by.
Embracing new experiences
Seeking out the unfamiliar
Creating memories with friends, old and new
Eating damn good food
These values are the foundations for building bridges, making friends, understanding different world views.
So as we all come to terms with this loss, remember that you share these values with millions of other people. Be honest but be kind. Do no harm, but take no shit. It's what he would've wanted.
Over the past few weeks, I've spent a fair amount of time on travel sites, both researching and leaving reviews. My go-to's are Expedia, TripAdvisor, and the ever handy Google.
Most of the time, I find useful guidance but sometimes it's because of someone else's negative review. This was the case with the Strahov Library in Prague. Someone had given a one-star review because they didn't do their research. This TripAdvisor user had rocked up to the front door expecting to get a tour. Yet on the library website it states clearly that all tours must be arranged prior to arrival and that they have limited availability, therefore cannot accommodate everyone's request. Now, that's not to say that the TripAdvisor user didn't have a bad experience, but I don't think it's fair to put all the blame on the library, or any similar tourist attraction.
As tourists, world travelers, curious minds - it's on us to do some research and not expect tourism workers to hold our hands and spoon feed us while we visit their countries.
That being said, I think it's also on us to read reviews and conduct research with a grain of salt. As I've gone back to leave my own reviews, I've read some of the new ones posted at the attractions we visited. Many are like the one mentioned above. Travelers that do no research and therefore have created their own mythical expectations and are outraged when a place does not meet the false realities they've conjured up in their minds.
While those are funny enough to me, the ones that make me chuckle even more are posted by users that have done their research and expect things to be carved in stone. I read a couple reviews for different restaurants where the people seemingly had a nice enough time, but they had looked at the menu ahead of time and when they arrived, the menu had changed. They could no longer order the food they had been looking forward to. Part of me gets it - half of the fun of travel is in the anticipation. Looking forward to all of the new experiences you'll have on your trip. But the other part of me wants people to manage their expectations. When we stayed at the Lokal Inn, their hotel restaurant had a daily menu. They posted an example menu online but every day their options were a bit different depending on what kind of food was fresh and available. Use these opportunities to ask your server for a recommendation and try something new. More than once something similar happened to us and we were always delighted with what was recommended.
Finally - the most amusing reviews to me are those from users that want to seem worldly but come off as pretentious and ignorant. In Amsterdam, we visited the Rijksmuseum. A gorgeous museum in the heart of the city housing spectacular paintings by Rembrandt and Caravaggio and Monet and even one or two from Van Gogh (the Van Gogh museum is the neighboring building). Huge exhibits including relics from the houses of the outrageously wealthy. But then you have reviews like the ones below.
My favorite is the first. I just want to send them a dictionary definition of the word museum, which according to Merriam Webster is "an institution devoted to the procurement, care, study, and display of objects of lasting interest or value." But please, John P, continue to tell the world more about how you define museums.
All of this is to say, when you're planning your next trip do some research with the context of what interests you and some reasonable expectations. I'd hate to think that people decide not to go visit the Rijksmuseum or Strahov Library because someone else had a bad experience due to their poor planning. There's so much history and art to be experienced in the world. What a shame it would be to travel all that way and miss it.
You see that white house boat across the river? That was our home for the three days we were in Amsterdam. Already on our trip, we had lucked out with two boutique hotels, that were slightly off the beaten path while still being close to city-center, and that we could book with travel points. It was great! But Amsterdam was unlike Prague and Lisbon when it came to booking accommodations.
When I look for a place to stay, I have an order of operations in terms of where to look first. I always try to get a measure of the average hotel cost compared to a vacation rental. But most of the hotels that were available to book with points were part of a big chain, had the same food that I could at anyone of their other locations, and they were much farther from the central area that we wanted to be. I moved my search to Airbnb. I think ideally, I'd like to say I always prefer Airbnb but it always comes down to cost for me and they don't offer loyalty points.
We ended up staying on a houseboat in the Weesperzijde neighborhood of Amsterdam. Though we know not everyone in Amsterdam lives on a houseboat, it felt like a very local experience to be had. Every day we'd go out and explore the streets and canals of the city and every night we'd be rocked to sleep by the gentle wake of passing boats out enjoying the late summer sun
Highlights of Amsterdam
Van Gogh Museum
Like many others, I grew up seeing his paintings as prints in a book or as a poster in my public school art class. And while those images are impressive enough, they don't come close to doing justice to the paintings themselves. On a two-dimensional surface, you cannot appreciate the three-dimensionality that Van Gogh painted with. Layers close to an inch thick created ridges on the canvas, casting shadows onto the painting where they otherwise wouldn't exist.
I learned a lot about Van Gogh, but perhaps my favorite thought is one that I had while walking through his self-portrait gallery. Over the course of two years, Van Gogh created nearly thirty self-portraits all in varying styles. That's, on average, two a month. I think he would've enjoyed Instagram and been a selfie king.
In any case, this was certainly one of my most treasured experiences in Amsterdam. If you're visiting make sure to book tickets online ahead of time. You cannot buy tickets at the museum.
If you're an art lover, go early and plan to spend some time here. Reese and I visited and thought we were walking through at a decent pace, but still ended up spending four and a half hours here. While the prized piece is Rembrandt's Night's Watch (which is pretty spectacular, but I love Rembrandt), Rijksmuseum has an extensive collection. From paintings to carved weapons to antique furniture with intricate inlays to books (they have their own impressive library), there's something for everyone.
And while we had two great days looking at beautiful art in hanging on museum walls, my favorite part of Amsterdam was the city itself. Every time someone has asked what I enjoyed most, I can't put my finger on any one experience or moment. It's a city that will forever charm me with its buildings of all shapes, colors, and leanings; forever beckon me to wander along the edges of the canals, marveling at the cars parallel parked without any guard rail between the wheels and the water (or houseboat) below; forever provide an abundance of captivating doors to photograph.
I'm not saying it was my favorite stop of the trip, but I can't say that it wasn't either.
Nestled in the heart of Lisbon, between the Chiado and Bairro Alto neighborhoods, Reese and I spent three days exploring the coastal city. Lisbon is much larger than I imagined, but fairly easy to get from place to place. There is the famous tram system in Lisbon as well as the metro and bus system, but Reese and I walked just about everywhere. As long as you're staying in the central area, sites are fairly walkable as long as you don't mind some hills.
In many ways, Lisbon felt like patches of other European cities stitched together but somehow still its own, unique place. Walking through the close streets of Bairro Alto reminded me of Dubrovnik and Dublin, with all of the bars tucked into the old buildings. The streets were paved with small, square stones like in Barcelona. Terra cotta roofs like Florence. Graffiti like Rome. Tiles so detailed they could've been seen in Granada, Spain. But yet, Lisbon had it's own energy and life. Like many coastal towns, seafood was abundant though octopus seemed to be the specialty, though neither of us dared to try it.
Highlights of Lisbon
Time Out Market
Can't decide what to eat? Traveling with a big group? Only in town for a quick trip? Go to the southern part of the Bairro Alto neighborhood and stop before you hit sea. The Time Out market is home to over 50 different merchants, ranging from food and drinks to home décor to flower shops. There's truly something for everyone. Reese and I ate there twice in three days and we were not disappointed.
São Jorge Castle
Reese and I are always ready to explore a castle. The São Jorge Castle let us view Lisbon from a birds eye. You could see the sprawling city for miles past the Moorish fortress. The best part of the castle was being able to walk the tops of the walls, but it is not for those afraid of heights. Proceed with caution but the payoff is totally worth it.
Carmo Archaeological Museum
Once a Gothic church, now a Archaeological museum after it was ruined in an earthquake in 1755. While quite a bit of the church fell apart in the earthquake, much of the original structure still stands. I love Gothic architecture, so I'm biased, but it is an amazing structure in the heart of the city. Definitely worth a visit. Even if you don't go inside, there's a nice square near by to have drinks and enjoy the view.
Some extra recommendations
Chiado Arty Flats: Our accommodations that were a perfect mix of hotel and Airbnb, surrounded by plenty of good food and drink.
The Decedente: Just north of the Chiado neighborhood, The Decedente has amazing cocktails and food. Just make sure to make a reservation.
Livraria-Bar Menina e Moça: Of all the cool things we got to see on our trip, little places like this often end up being some of my favorite moments. It's a bookstore and a café. Reese and I spent a couple hours reading, writing, and enjoying some drinks and snacks. It was perfect.
We're at the beginning of our three city tour but just about out of time in the first city, Prague. I've heard so many good things about this city over the years, so it has been amazing to finally see it in person!
Overall, we have been really pleased and surprised with our accommodations. We stayed at the Lokal Inn, which is a great location in the heart of the city near the famous Karlov Most bridge. But it also happens to have one of the best restaurants in the city. What's more is the restaurant, also called Lokal, is in Michelin's guidebook for having high quality, affordable food. And that's not just by Michelin standards. In a city full of affordable food and drink, this was one of our cheapest (and most delicious) meals.
Highlights of Prague
This was absolutely at the top of my list in Prague (and maybe Europe). And it delivered. Past the Prague castle is a beautiful monastery where they make delicious beer (according to Reese - I'm not a beer drinker) and grow grapes and cherries, they also have a gorgeous library that was ahead of its time. On the ceiling of the room dedicated to spirituality, religion, philosophy, the founder had painted "Science leads, faith follows." He wanted to make knowledge accessible to the public but he wanted the library to be progressive and thoughtful; to have purpose. So when many private libraries were being auctioned, he bought the books to be housed in the second room, dedicated to science. He came back with books and very tall bookshelves and remodeled the building to fit the needs of the books.
There are many more details about this heavenly library, but it's so much better to hear it in person. If you're ever in Prague and want to see the Strahov Library, be sure to book in advance. They only do limited tours and book up quickly. If you don't book a tour, you just get to see each of the rooms from the threshold. Worth every penny!
Inspired by Hemingway's drinking habit, Hemingway Bar in Prague has crafted some delectable cocktails. They have twelve signature drinks but can make any classic cocktail (and I'm sure other ones you haven't heard of). Be sure to book ahead or show up when they open their inconspicuous doors.
While we've seen the castle from almost every angle, we did not actually go in the castle. It's the beginning of summer and there were many, many tourists and school/camp groups visiting. But we did walk around the gardens and building grounds (which is free) and admired the architecture. From the castle, you get a great view of the whole city, but be prepared to walk up some steps to get there. We were told there's also a tram, but we try to walk whenever possible.
One thing we weren't able to see while we were here was the Astronomical Clock. Unfortunately, it's under construction until August 2018. But hopefully we'll get a chance to see it in the future.
We've had an amazing few days exploring Prague and getting to know some of the Czech culture. Now off to Lisbon!
Then this past weeked, Reese and I took a holiday with our friends, Ruth and Kaleb, to Isle of Islay where we tasted some of our favorite whiskies at their respective distilleries.
The first day, we tasted whisky at Bruichladdich (brook-laddie). If you're looking for an unconventional whisky, look no further. Though each bottling boasts of the flavors from bottlings past, each bottling is achieved by a unique blend of their single malt casks. For instance, my favorite whisky made at this distillery is called the Classic Laddie. Some years it might be only made from ex-Bourbon casks while others they might blend ex-Bourbon and ex-Sherry casks together to get their desired taste. And because they're blending different finishings together, it's still a single-malt whisky.
After Bruichladdich, we took a ferry over to Isle of Jura. I was particularly excited about this stop. The island itself is sparse and beautiful. The ground is painted with rich, amber soil highlighted by dormant heather bushes. We drove down the island's single lane, two-way road until we reached our destination, Jura Distillery. It's the home to my favorite whisky, Jura Origin. As Jura recently released a whole new series of bottlings so my beloved Origin will soon be non-existant. However their new line is equally delicious.
If you'll be in town for a meal, stop at the Jura Hotel for a bite before catching your ferry back to Islay.
On our second day of whisky tasting, we lucked out with some amazing weather. We were headed to Lagavulin, Reese's favorite whisky. Their grounds are picturesque. White stucco buildings with dark roofs ordained with plants potted in old whisky casks. Nestled in Lagavulin Bay, the Lagavulin Distillery looked out on castle ruins and wee cliffs leading into the bay. On a day like this one, the view hardly gets better.
I adored our time in Islay and could've extended my stay. I loved seeing all of the small, coastal towns and the rugged terrain throughout the island. For me, it is idyllic and quintessentially Scotland.
Our travel day got a little lengthy due to the poor logistics of SAS Scandinavian Airlines (I don't recommend them) but we finally got into Tromsø.
Last summer, Reese and I spent our honeymoon in Iceland during the period of midnight sun where we didn't see darkness for about ten days. This time, it's the exact opposite. It's not dark the entire time, but this is as bright as it gets:
Yesterday, we wandered around town today, taking it easy while everyone recuperates from their exams and lack of sleep. The town center is small but lively, full of people enjoying the holiday market and lights hung across the snow and ice covered streets.
It's not as cold as everyone expected - at least not as cold as I was expecting, thank you Midwest winters. Right now (as the sun is almost down at noon) it's about -1 Celsius or 28 Fahrenheit. Overnight it snowed about two more inches and has been snowing on and off all day. They only use plows when they have to, trying to keep the roads nice for the summer, so they drive around with giant snow blowers to clean the fresh snow off the streets.
Tonight we are chasing the Northern Lights! This is what we came here for, why we even booked the trip - the Northern Lights. High on everyone's bucket list, we were determined to see them and see them we did.
I have pictures. If you're impatient to see them (dad) you can to scroll to the bottom and take a look. But, even though they say a picture is worth a thousand words, there's so much you cannot see in any of these photos.
We drove out with a small group of eight bracing for the colder air as we moved inland towards Sweden. Just a few miles from the border, we stop and pull over to the side of the road. "This is where we'll make our camp for the night," our guide told us. There was nothing in particular around. Our eyes had not adjusted yet. The only tracks in the snow before ours was that of a dog sled pack and the skis. "We'll make our own," the guide said.
Head lamps lit reflected off the snow in front of us making our immediate path bright and narrow as we lifted our legs through the foot and a half of virgin snow. We came to a clearing and set our stuff down. Our guide instructed us to turn off our headlamps and give our eyes a moment to adjust. We were nestled in between three mountains covered in snow bathing in the glow of the stars hanging in the night sky, undisturbed by city lights. It was almost brighter without the lights. The trees around us and up in the mountains had distinct outlines even without the lamps. The ground below us was not true ground but a frozen marsh leading to a lake. Our guide made a fire and hot chocolate and we settled in for the evening.
At first, you notice a cloud but it looks more like a stream in the sky. Your eyes adjust and then the stream is dancing. Then there are more colors. More beams of light. As if we'd summoned them, the lights appeared diffused and then more distinct. For a good portion of the night I captured the light and the colors in my camera, forever a souvenir of this magical night. But I'll be the first to admit, the photos I share are not the greatest lights of the night. No. For those the camera was untouched, unmoved while I laid on the ground in my heavy snowsuit and boots staring up at the sky hand in hand with Reese. Those are our moments.
But I'll share a few moments with the rest of the world and then it's bedtime for me.
A couple of weeks ago, I had the privilege of spending a week, up near Inverness, writing and doing almost nothing else. At a place called Moniack Mhor, writers gather several times a month to attend tutored or non-tutored writing retreats to finish a project, improve a particular skill, or find some creative inspiration in the midst of the highlands.
I spent the week working with Michèle Roberts and Romesh Gunesekera, and twelve other eager writers, where we discussed writing short stories, what we were all reading at the time, and what troubled us most in our creative endeavors. The layout of the week was split between the two authors and their different workshops they had planned for us each day. We spent the mornings in workshop, doing various exercises, having interesting discussions, and then spent our afternoons writing, editing, sharing, reading, and sometimes taking a walk through the highlands.
For me personally, it was a concentrated week of creativity. I've never really experienced anything like it. All we were meant to focus on was writing with the least amount of distractions possible. It was amazing. I tried to get in a routine in the short time while I was there. Each morning I woke up, had tea, read, went to the workshop, took a walk in the afternoon, went back to my room to write, and then joined the group for dinner.
I can't say enough good things about getting to spend concentrated time with other writers. For one, there was a distinct understanding between everyone about how nerve wracking it is to share new work or to start a new project. Everyone was kind and thoughtful to one another but also really pushed each other to think about our own stories from a different perspective. Almost every time I've gotten into a room with a new group of writers in a classroom setting, I get a bit nervous that my writing will be too similar to someone else's. But each time I am reminded that every voice is so distinctly different. We all were native English speakers working from a similar education level, but each person approached the same writing prompts with our own, unique perspectives that always resulted in a distinctly different story.
During the week we each got a one on one feedback session with Michèle and Romesh, which was wonderful. They were each very thoughtful in their critiques but approached my stories from a different angle which gave me a very thorough and well-rounded understanding of things I got right and areas of my writing that I needed to work on.
I'm so grateful to have had such an experience in such a beautiful and relaxing setting. I look forward to my next trip up there in January.
It's hard to believe that we've been in Scotland for a month now, but it's fascinating to me how quick a new place feels like home. Reese has a busy school schedule while I've written more in this last month than I probably have this whole year. And it feels great.
And I think what makes it super official is that we've driven on the left side of the road! To give credit where it's due, Reese drove because our car was manual and I haven't learned how to drive stick yet, but it was an experience for both of us. I think we can safely say we've experienced most of the different types of driving Scotland has to offer all in a 36 hour period. We packed up the dogs and headed north to the Isle of Skye. We drove through the city and then onto highway driving. And for the first hour or so, it seemed fairly manageable, like a good way to get used to driving on the other side of the road. Then it went down to a normal two lane road with standard lane widths, painted lines, shoulders. Then they narrow and you lose your shoulders. Then for the better part of the trip it was a narrow two-way road with no lines - just signs suggesting when you might want to slow down (FYI - no one really slows down). Then, should you decide you want to see anything of significance, you're down to a one lane, two-way road that winds through the highlands around blind corners and up blind summits (that usually have a drive way at the top) with the occasional passing shoulder. Mind you, you follow the national speed limit on all of these roads, which is 60 miles per hour. So the first day was stressful but successful. Adapt or die, right?
Overall, it was a pretty quick weekend trip. The first day we made a quick stop at Talisker Distillery, the only distillery on the Isle of Skye, and then went to the Fairy Pools. It was towards the end of the daylight hours so there weren't many tourists, but some to share the path with. We were surrounded by the deep amber hills that ascended into the clouds. And even with other people around us, most of what you heard was the water falling over the rocks and making its way down stream.
We stopped in a little town called Uig for the night. It was a little hotel and lodge just near the cliffs on the north western point of the Isle of Skye. When we left the next morning, the hotel staff advised us to drive through the highlands rather than around the peninsula. We had debated our route given the previous day of driving but decided to take their advice. Though the roads are tricky, they come with quite the reward. Rich, emerald green hills dotted with wild roaming sheep and beautiful rock formations that you wouldn't see driving around the coast.
Our last stop before heading home was Kilt Rock and Mealt Falls. Cliffs formed the edge of a seaside farming village adorned with Mealt falls. We were lucky that we got to see as much of the cliffs as we did because as we started driving towards our next location (Old Man Storr) some serious fog rolled in where we couldn't see much at all. So we're saving Storr for another, less foggy day.
All in all, it was a great trip. We're lucky that the dogs travel so well and don't seem to mind one another. Hopefully we'll have more trips like this in the future. For now, back to class and writing projects.
This September, Reese and I are setting out on our best adventure yet: we're moving to Edinburgh Scotland!
First, let me say how proud I am of Reese. Reese was accepted into The University of Edinburgh International MBA program. This is a highly competitive program and has a rigorous schedule over the next year. Congratulations love!
Second, I am SO excited to be moving back to Edinburgh! It is one of my most favorite cities in the entire world. It has such a rich history and a fantastic culture - I'm so grateful that we'll be living in this medieval city for an entire year.
This is also a very special opportunity for me as well in a different capacity. I'll be spending the year pursuing a lifelong dream of mine - I'll be spending the year focusing on writing, hopefully concluding my time there with enough to submit to publishers and/or literary magazines. A lot of this I'll be doing on my own, taking guidance from the course I took at UW over the last year. But I also plan on attending some short courses at The University of Edinburgh and Moniack Mhor.
We will miss our family and friends more than we can say but we look forward to all of the new experiences we have ahead of us.
I've always wanted to visit our national parks and I've been to a few before.
The Badlands, in South Dakota, for one. I've also been to Niagara Falls and Mount Rushmore National Monument but was rather unimpressed with both of them. At both locations I got out and said "I thought it would be bigger," (insert "that's what she said" joke here).
But, this week, I visited Mount Rainier National Park, not once but twice in since I moved to Seattle three years ago. And I also took the opportunity to drive through Gifford Pinchot National forest as I made my way down to Hood River, OR yesterday. And I have to say, these are, hands down, some of the most beautiful places I've ever been.
So, first of all, thank you National Parks Service. Thanks for taking care of the great landscape that makes up our country.
Secondly, if you live in or around Seattle, you have to visit these parks. With only a two to three hour drive in between you and this scenery, it's hard to say no.
I mean, are you looking at this?
There are hundreds of miles to be explored and I've only covered a small portion of it. So what's the hold up? Get exploring!
If you're ahead of the game, what's your favorite US National Park? I still have a lot of ground (and now ocean) to cover.
The capitol of the island nation and absolutely buzzing after the win over England. For the rest of our trip, Reykjavik and the Icelandair Hotel Reykjavik Marina was our home base. (Side note - this hotels has one of the best cocktail bars in the city, Slippbarinn. Definitely check it out.) If you look at a map, the Marina might seem out of the way from city center, but everything was very accessible. Most things were no more than a ten or twenty minute walk.
While we were in town, we got our photos taken by Rakel at Flytographer. Given that it was our honeymoon, and the fact that I'm never in photos, we wanted a souvenir to commemorate our trip. It was one of my favorite parts of the trip because it was much more than a photoshoot. While we walked around with Rakel, we learned about everyday life in Reykjavik and Iceland and got to see the city through a local's eyes. A traveler's dream come true.
Reese and I left Reykjavik to head out on our DIY Golden Circle tour. Depending on what attractions you want to see, it may be better to do a guided tour but we were willing to forego driving on a glacier today, which made our trip entirely more doable on our own. We got our car and headed out of the city around 10am. There's no traffic and the roads were easy to navigate. We were on our way.
The Golden Circle
First stop, þingvellir (Said: Thingvellir. Pronunciation here). þingvellir is really interesting for several reasons. For one, it is the historical site where Icelandic parliament was held there from 930-1798. Secondly, this cultural site lies atop of the fault line between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. According to our Lonely Planet book, these plates are still moving every year causing major geographic changes over time. It was quite the site to see.
Heading East, Reese and I went to go see the Geysir that all others are named after. Now mostly dormant, Geysir is still one of the largest tourist attractions in Iceland with several hotels and shops across the street from the natural wonder.
The air is sulfuric and (non-biting) flies are abundant, but the views of the surrounding mountains, glaciers, and geothermal steam vents is pretty spectacular.
Skógafoss is by far my favorite waterfall I've seen in Iceland. It's not the biggest, or the most powerful, but it falls into a shallow valley between two mountains and a glacier and the view can't be beat. Across from the viewing platforms, on the opposite side of the river, are fields of Lupine, painting the rolling hills purple and white. I, of course, can't get enough of this flower. It's my favorite color, and here in Iceland, it covers the land. It's gorgeous.
You can get close enough to the edge of the falls to touch the glacially chilled falls. I didn't dare attempt to get close enough but I watched others do it and tell their friends how cold the water was. Instead, I took photo after photo of the beautiful scenery around me.
The Blue Lagoon
Opting for a late admission to the geothermal pool, Reese and I arrived at The Blue Lagoon around 11pm, giving us a chance to relax and enjoy the midnight sun. And boy did we luck out. Last night, we saw the best "sunset" since we arrived in Iceland. Of course, the sun only set enough to paint the skies with beautiful pinks, oranges, and yellows before it started to rise again. In fact, when we got to the hotel at 2:30am, it was brighter out than when we started to head back from The Blue Lagoon.
The Blue Lagoon is a different from Myvatn in a few ways. For one, it is placed near a geothermal plant that mixes the water to ensure the optimal levels of algae and minerals in the water. These are what give you the light, milky blue color. The lagoon is also much more geared towards tourist than to the locals.
With a poolside bar, in pool spa services, and onsite restaurant, The Blue Lagoon caters to every visitor. Reese and I relaxed with champagne and algae masks until closing, watching the entire "sunset" and playing with our GoPro (so much fun if you like gadgets and photography).
Game of Thrones Tour
For those of you that aren't devout Game of Thrones fans, that is a common way to leave a conversation if you were a believer of "The Seven" or the old gods in the series. If it's not already apparent, we were having a themed day around the hit series Game of Thrones.
A gorgeous valley in Iceland
Our first stop, I can't find the actual name of, but it's at these coordinates (64°06'49.7"N 21°17'46.0"W) if you're interested in visiting. While it was a quick stop, it was a beautiful valley that was a filming location for Game of Thrones. It is quintessential scenery for what we've seen of Iceland thus far.
Þingvellir National Park
We also happened to head back to Þingvellir on our tour today, but this time from a different vantage point. We were there to see a waterfall and one of the travel routes used in the show. The ravine itself is not that long, but we learned that the actors walked back and forth in the ravine to create the image that producers were looking for.
Viking Lodge in Þjórsárdalur Valley
Another quick stop, but definitely worth it. Surrounded by Lupine flowers with a waterfall in the background, these turf houses were rebuilt as replicas of a commonwealth bar that Vikings used to frequent. This location was used to film a scene north of the wall though it wasn't a very long scene.
Gjáin in Þjórsárdalur Valley
My favorite stop! This location is basically irrelevant to Game of Thrones but it is everything I imagined I would see in Iceland. Only accessible if you have a 4x4 vehicle, this hidden gem is tucked away in central Iceland. With clear, drinkable (I actually drank out of the river. It was delicious) glacial waters, the gorge, or Gjáin, is a must see. Since it's featured in a fantasy, fictional, TV series, it almost seems redundant to say that this looks like it's out of a book, but it does. The waters are transparent to every depth of the river bed unless waterfalls are crashing over it. I'm so glad we got to experience such a magnificent place in Iceland.
Our last stop on the trip was a surprise visit to a nearby horse farm, where the owners breed, raise, train, and show the well known Icelandic horses. Extinct outside of Iceland, the Icelandic horse is a great artifact of what Viking life used to be like.
Unlike many other cultures, Icelandic horses were raised for their temperament and their strength as they were only needed for transportation and farm work. In modern days, Icelandic horses are used primarily for show, breeding, and racing. They are indeed the most friendly horses I've ever met and far less intimidating as I am of a similar height. Much better.
Overall, we had a wonderful trip and it was all made possible by Greyline Iceland. We had an amazing guide and driver and got to ride in an awesome 4x4 bus all day. We were worried that the tour would be a little kitschy and lame, but it was great. A perfect balance of themed fun and historical information. I highly recommend the tour and the company.
On one of our last days, we rented a car and headed south. This was a pretty breath taking day. We headed down to Vík to see where the black sand beaches and glaciers meet. All at once the sea looked clear but black as the surf crashed into the sand.
We could've spent a whole day walking around the beach looking at the different geological formations and wild sheep that occasionally wanted to visit. I highly recommend taking a drive down, especially without a tour group. Give yourself all the time in the world to see a new part of the world.
To start our honeymoon, we head to the north. Akureyri is our first stop.
The first two days we stay in town, exploring shops, celebrating a friend's wedding, and enjoying the community pool which is quite the experience and nothing like the pools in the US, in the best way possible.
Enjoying geothermal pools is not just an activity that people in Iceland do; it's a way of life. As I understand it, many people plan their days around trips to the community pools. Go in the morning before work, during lunch breaks, and before their day is over. These baths also create an enjoyable way to end your hikes, as there are many you can choose from in any town in Iceland.
These aquatic traditions have been said to have been around since the island was settled. Hot water runs abundantly through, over, and under the entire island, creating these natural baths for its citizens to enjoy. As a visitor, it was wonderful to experience such a ritual that is so deeply imbedded into the culture.
I went to the Akureyri pool with my friends and their family. Many of my friends family members had been going there since they were children and said that there were many years where they would go every single year. For some, that may seem like a lot of pool time, but it is so much more than that.
The facility has a lap pool, a leisure pool, a kids pool, two slides, three hot tubs (all at various temperatures), and a steam sauna. Not to mention various workout equipment that is on the grounds both indoor and out. There is something for everyone, young and old - lazy and outgoing. Personally, I enjoyed the hot tubs and the steam sauna. It was great to go from hot and cold and enjoy the fresh, Icelandic air while spending time with my friends.
If you plan to stay in Akureyri for a few days, I highly recommend Accommodation Akureyri. We found out about this company on VRBO and I can't say enough good things about it. The prices are half of what you'll pay at any hotel in town, and your money goes a long way. The unit is nicely furnished, recently renovated, and spacious all in the heart of town. It's one of my prouder booking moments. Everything, including the airport, is less than a 20-30 minute walk, or 5 minute drive if you're renting a car. The place also has a full kitchen, washer and dryer, and a balcony so it's the perfect place for longer stays.
I know TLC told us not to do it, but when in Iceland, I highly recommend it. Reese and I spent the last two days exploring Iceland's aquatic features from Dettifoss to the center of the island.
To do any of these trips, we found it easiest if you rent a car and journey with your map. We saw several tour buses at each place we stopped along the way, so if tours are your thing, you won't miss out. However, from our experience, Iceland is by far one of the easiest places to rent and drive a car. Renting the car obviously gives you some additional freedoms to change your course, stop and get lunch or snacks, leg room, and saves you plenty of money. While car rentals and gasoline are more expensive in Iceland, you will double your costs on tour fees, unless you are traveling solo.
We spent all day driving around Northern Iceland from Akureyri to Dettifoss and if you have the time, I highly recommend the trip.
Heading out of the Akureyri, we were instantly surrounded by rolling hills and mountains and occasionally the shorelines of a fjord. On the way to our first destination, we are greeted in the country side by Icelandic horses and vast Lupine fields. Not far out of Akureyri, we reached our first stop.
Goðafoss (pronounciation)is not the biggest waterfall in Iceland. That one we visit later. Instead, the waterfall is of cultural significance. It is the location where Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði made Christianity the official religion of Iceland around 1000 AD. We were able to walk around two sides of the waterfall and feel the spray from all angles and even hike down to the river bed at the base of the falls.
This may have been one of my favorite stops of the day. Not far from Dimmuborgir, there are two small openings in the ground that lead to the clearest, blue waters I've ever seen. These caves used to be popular geothermal baths but from 1975-1984 the temperature of the water rose above 122 degrees Fahrenheit due to eruptions in Iceland , forcing people to find other bathing sites.
The temperature of the waters have since cooled to a soothing temperature but are now considered to be for private use only of nearby landowners. You can sit inside the caves and enjoy the view but check out nearby locations if you want to soak in the geothermal waters.
Second to last stop of the day was Dettifoss - the most powerful waterfall in Europe. Only a kilometer or two from the visitors center, Dettifoss can be heard before it can be seen. The thundering waters plummets to the river below with immense force, pushing spray back up the cliffs making it partly cloudy and rainy at all times, regardless of the surrounding weather.
If the sun does happen to peak through the clouds, you will see one of the most stunning views of a rainbow. I can officially say I saw the end of a rainbow and there is no pot of gold. Just the muddy lands that used to be covered with moss.
Myvatn Nature Baths
Similar to the Blue Lagoon, the well-known geothermal bath near Reykjavik, Myvatn (pronunciation: Mee-vat) Nature Baths are wallet friendly alternative with an equally stunning view.
This was the last stop of the day before heading back to Akureyri to catch our flight to Reykjavik. I won't say we saved the best for last, but it is certainly a relaxing way to end a day of adventuring. With the sun still high in the sky and the air a crisp 55 degrees, Reese and I nestled in the warm, mineral rich waters for an hour or two, surrounded by mountains and pastures on all sides.
We got back into Akureyri in time for two things: The Iceland v. England match and our flight. We had our priorities sorted out, for sure. We huddled up next to all the locals, in the rain, who had gathered in the town square to watch the match on the big screen they had brought in especially for the event. The match was happening against all odds and Iceland came out victorious. About 20 minutes before the match ended, we had to head to the airport (a 5 minute drive) to return our car and check in. Even after all that, we caught the last 10 (most stressful) minutes of the game. We celebrated with everyone in the (singular) terminal. It was an incredible moment to be a part of. Reese and I were here by chance at the same time as this match, but made memories to last a life time.
Everywhere I travel, I constantly hear how different cultures are. Mostly how different the culture is from home from whoever is talking about it. But, during my travels, I've found that cultures aren't all that different and they all have universal truths, currencies, and languages. Among them are love, pride, and kindness.
Tonight I witnessed many of these translated among many international guests. I don't speak Icelandic, but tonight I easily understood what my friends parents were saying at their wedding celebration. There was such love and pride in their hearts, minds, and voices, and I am so grateful to have been a witness.
In times of such political and financial turmoil, it's important to remember what's important in life and to recognize what we all share with one another. Tonight, I witnessed two families celebrating the love between two wonderful people. Words were said in two languages but many of it did not need a translator. Love poured from their hearts as they celebrated and cherished the love shared by two people, and they could ask for nothing more.
As the night carried on (minus the darkness), Reese and I got to know the family and friends of our friends and found many more things in common than we had differences. These are people thousands of miles from the familiar for us and we all wanted nothing more than to be happy and healthy.
It is nights like this that remind me how fortunate I am to:
Love knows no bounds. This is what people forget. I am on my honeymoon, in a foreign country, and EVERYONE should get to know this bliss. This feeling, this experience should not be privilege but a right. And I will do all that I can to make sure that happens for all during my lifetime.
I love traveling. For those that know me, this is not a secret. For those of you reading my writing for the first time, check out some of my travel photos.
Only recently I started traveling for business. Currently, I'm on business trip number two in my big girl career. It's ok if you do it right. I'm still learning what that means, but there are five things I've learned so far that can drastically improve your experience.