My Continuing Love Affair with Minneapolis

I’m here to tell you that Minneapolis is an AMAZING city!!

Travel is my passion. Whether it be to lounge on a gorgeous beach and do nothing, hike to some secluded destination, eat my way across France, do yoga while peering into Santorini’s caldera, or jump off a bridge in New Zealand, I’m in. I don’t claim to be the most well-traveled person out there, but I’ve done my fair share of exploring. With that in mind, I want the world to know that Minneapolis (and St Paul, for that matter) is winning me over with each passing meal. And each street festival. And each walk around a lake. And each wonderful person I meet. The city has just enough hipsters, just enough trendy people, just enough tattoos to make me feel at home, all the while being friendly, gorgeous, clean, and full of fantastic activities. I may never leave. Seriously. Yeah, yeah, I know I haven’t lived through a winter, but that’s the beauty of being an independent contractor–I’m pretty sure I could take off one week a month to go somewhere warm, but I digress.

My platonic soulmate/life-partner-who-lives-on-the-other-side-of-the-earth/travel mate (See here, here, and here for prior adventures) came for a visit and left “loving it large,” as he’s known to say. We checked out a festival called Art a whirl

 

IMG_1256

Also a rosé tasting event (my second since coming to the Twin Cities), put on by my new favorite wine shop–Cork Dork–but held at Italian Eatery.

Basically our friendship revolves around laughter and booze.

IMG_1237

We even ventured over to a St Paul Saints game. The stadium is great and we had a fabulous time.

IMG_1209

Fast forward a couple of weeks, and a few other adventures, and although I was getting over a deathly illness, I found myself at yet another festival called Northern Spark. This one started with the launch party in the ruins of an old flour mill on the most gorgeous night.

IMG_1362

They had a great jazz hip hop band called Doks Robotiks, small bites from several local restaurants, and (of course) a bar.

IMG_1340

After the party, the festival opens and runs all night. It was full of really cool stuff and really weird stuff that, collectively, add to the splendor that is this city.

 

My first stint here is about to come to an end, yet I love it so much I will be returning in August. I even went from a complete lack of interest in riding a bike to feeling like I MUST own one to ride around the Twin Cities. I mean, look at what it’s like…

My trip to Western Australia, Cambodia, and Vietnam is up next, but in all honesty, I’ll be ever-so-slightly missing Minnesota while I travel.

I’ll leave you with a little collage from pride weekend:

Minneapolis, I totally heart you!

Minneapolis restaurants. Oh, the restaurants!

I came here with exactly 1 friend in the Twin Cities. That beautiful woman has managed to see me about 10 times already, despite the fact that she has a toddler, infant twins, and works full-time. At the recommendation of my amazing friend and her husband, my mom and I made reservations at Spoon and Stable. I have since found out that we were incredibly lucky to get said reservation since most people book weeks in advance. It was either meant to be or someone cancelled at the last minute–probably the latter, but the end result was the same.

I’ve lived in some foodie havens–New York City, Charleston, SC, even Washington, DC is catching up–but I am so impressed with what Minneapolis/St. Paul has to offer. Like, seriously impressed.

Everything about Spoon and Stable makes it worth the trip. Each morsel that touched my lips was delicious. The One of the most important things to me about a meal is the wine that accompanies it, and they have many great options, as well as craft cocktails.

The restaurant is truly beautiful and has top notch service. I am anxiously awaiting my opportunity to return.

IMG_1136

IMG_1147

IMG_1144

delicious endive salad

IMG_1132

my pot roast was so good I forgot to take a picture

IMG_1133

for “special” occasions there is cotton candy

 

Don’t get me wrong, I loved Spoon and Stable, but I really LOVED Corner Table. I’m on a constant mission for restaurants that can be my place–ones in which I can go frequently and kind of be known. Corner Table is definitely more that than Spoon and Stable. It’s neighborhood-y, friendly, and completely fabulous. Unfortunately, I have no photos of my trip there, but I shall snap some on my next visit… and there will be many more visits. When I went, we asked one of the owners to pick our courses and pair the wine. OMG, was it fabulous! Not all of the wine pairings were what you’d traditionally receive. For instance, he paired a lamb dumpling with a really funky white wine (versus a red that you may expect with lamb) and it was glorious perfection. If I lived in their neighborhood, my waistline and wallet would be in big, big trouble.

You need reservations (unless going at some odd time and hedging your bets), so plan ahead. I have so many restaurants left to try, so bear with me. As of now, I absolutely love this place!

 

**Online dating update: The 1 guy, out of 4, that I liked, that I didn’t hear from after meeting, finally did reach out…

I’ll leave you with a pre-debauchery photo of my friend and me at the Solo Vino wine tasting event in St Paul.

aforementioned beautiful friend at the Solo Vino Rosé tasting

Roatan: the food and the activities

Roatan is home to the second largest barrier reef–you know, after that other one in Australia–and, therefore, has a huge diving community. Full disclosure: I am not a diver, so I can only give partial advice. That being said, I did ask some people who know, and did take a snorkeling trip with a dive company. Next trip, I WILL get scuba certified.

Since I’m already talking about scuba, I’ll start with the activities…

You do not need to do a boat tour, but for approximately $75/person, it’s totally worth it. Our house was located on Orchid Beach–convenient walking distance from both West Bay and West End. Our first morning, we hopped in kayaks and paddled out to the reef, tethered the boats to a buoy, and snorkeled around the shallow reef. Not many large groups of tourists make it there, so the reef is very much intact and alive.

Several days we walked to West Bay Beach and set up camp all the way at the end, in front of the Grand Roatan Resort. If you go there a couple of days in a row, and are like us and will talk to anyone, make friends with Xiomara (Flaca for short). She gives a decent beach massage for dirt cheap and will give you tips on where to get cheaper beers and locally made (DELICIOUS) empanadas.

The water in West Bay is so clear and so blue (due to the white sand and probable blasting of the reef to create tourist swimming zones) and it’s an easy swim to AMAZING snorkeling. The reef is shallow, but if you carefully navigate past that part to the drop off, it’s quite surreal. Observing the other world that exists under the sea is spectacular.

*Do find out from the locals which days are cruise ship days. If there are only 1-2 in port, it’s still ok, but once you get more, this beach is kind of a zoo. Now, I was able to witness several cruise ship people suit up in their snorkel gear (with flippers) and carefully back into the knee-deep, perfectly still water. Those laughs were worth the crowds for a day, as people-watching is a favorite pastime of mine. Here’s a tip: If you’re planning to snorkel at West Bay Beach, and don’t want people like me to poke fun at you, put your flippers on in the water and just walk straight in. After all, the water looks like this:

IMG_0311

Shea ladies at West Bay Beach

For our snorkeling trip, we went with Clearwater Adventures and were so happy with that decision. Denisse Mazu, the dive master, was lovely and really provided us with a fabulous experience. When staying at The Pink Orchid, Clearwater couldn’t be more convenient as it’s, quite literally, a stone’s throw from the house.

Our snorkeling trip included a few stops at great reef sites as well as an old shipwreck. A truly unique highlight was our lunch stop in the village of Crawfish Rock, where Miss Dulce invites you into her home and serves a yummy, homemade lunch (for $10/person). Another family on the boat was far more prepared than we were, and brought some toys and trinkets for the kids in the village. I have a few pictures of the adorable kids, but if you’d like to see professional ones, that family just so happens to contain photographers and you can see the better versions here.

IMG_0358

Some of the children of Crawfish Rock

IMG_0354

IMG_0435

The View from Miss Dulce’s Porch

IMG_0353

Crawfish Rock Dock

Another dive company that came recommended by someone more experienced than I, is Las Rocas, located in West Bay. I cannot personally vouch for their dive experience, but I can say that their $7 fish tacos were one of the best things I ate the whole time I was in Roatan. The restaurant is super casual, super beachy, and it just feels right. I would be remiss if I failed to mention the “monkey lala”, which is apparently the drink of the island and available everywhere. It’s kind of a cross between dessert and drink as it’s a combination of vodka, kahlua, vanilla ice cream, coconut cream, and half and half. This is not my drink of choice, but it is delicious.

So, on to the food…

  • I mentioned Las Rocas’ restaurant and you should definitely give it a try for a casual, affordable, beach dining experience.
  • Creole’s Rotisserie Chicken in West End is so good! Another destination if value is your goal (approximately $8/person for a full meal with sides). They don’t appear to have a website, but here is their Trip Advisor link.
  • Beachers, on West Bay Beach is a good day drinking spot that has tasty bloody marys and a scrumptious jalepeño cheddar burger that they just could not understand why I wanted without a bun. If you eat/drink here, you’re welcome to use the beach chairs in front…a win-win.
  • Roatan Oasis came highly reviewed and recommended, but we found it to be just ok. Some items were really good, but some were so-so. At the prices they charge, it all needs to be really good, in my opinion. Look here for other reviews though. Perhaps we went on an off night and I would certainly be open to trying it again, but give me fish tacos at Las Rocas over this any day.
  • Our last night was spent with a little treat to ourselves because, can you really ever treat yourself enough? As I mentioned in my other Roatan post, Caribe Tesoro is a B & B in a fabulous location, with a decadent restaurant called Leña Parilla. What a treat it was to sit right on their dock and watch the sunset complete with cocktails and exceedingly friendly waitstaff. Four of us opted for the tomahawk steak, and one went with the Mahi Mahi. Everything, from our grilled romaine Caesar salads to the steaks were delicious. The meat was perfectly cooked to the chef-recommend medium rare and was paired with Gorgonzola mashed potatoes and asparagus. The wine list could afford to contain some higher quality wines, but we did end up with a good Malbec. My sister lived in Chile for 7 years, worked in the wine industry there, and is a level 2 sommelier. I am a self-taught wine aficionado (translation: I drink a lot of wine). So bearing that in mind, we thought the wine list could use some help, but we’re picky when it comes to our booze. For the more casual wine drinker, it’s probably fine. In their defense, they had been open one week when we dined. Our experience wasn’t complete until our very friendly and accommodating server (Glenn Jr) pointed out his “pet” barracuda living under the dock.
IMG_0383

Dinner on the Caribe Tesoro dock at sunset

Some miscellaneous info about the island:

Pretty much everyone speaks English, although the island is part of Honduras. The locals seem to speak Spanish, a local dialect, and English, which is apparently the first language they learn.

West end is buggier than West Bay. There are “noseeums” and mosquitos just waiting to devour a sweet succulent human such as myself. If you’d like to bring me with you, no need for bug spray, otherwise I highly recommend it.

Off the beatean path, and reportedly great, is Hole in the Wall. This place is NOT fancy, go figure, so disregard the reviews that complain about how rustic it is.

I did not make it to La Sirena de Camp Bay, but it is owned by the brother-in-law of a friend of mine, has great reviews, and is in a remote location that I WILL visit next time.

In true Caroline fashion, I did experience a touch of gastrointestinal distress (no one else did though), so I always recommend traveling with the appropriate drugs.

For now, that’s all I’ve got, but I shall return to this beautiful little island paradise one day.

IMG_0334

West End sunset

 

Roatan for the Win!

My family and I decided we’d do Christmas differently this year (er, last year, 2015) and planned a Caribbean getaway to the beautiful island of Roatan–the largest of the Honduran bay islands. We live in the Washington, DC area and were able to fly United from Dulles to Houston, Houston to Roatan.

At first sight, I was hooked…

IMG_0272

As we walked into the airport, an American expat greeted everyone and helped to organize the lines. She was a volunteer because she claimed “you can’t spend every day at the beach,” though I’m not convinced of that. After clearing customs, we were scooped up by our van driver and taken to Eldon’s Market for booze food and supplies. The store has a good selection of food, alcohol, and other necessities. If you’re renting a house or condo, this is a smart/essential stop to make.

As for rental houses, I did hours of research. Hours. Being our first visit to the island, I thought it would be nice to stay somewhere between West Bay and West End–two popular areas among visitors. Our house, The Pink Orchid, was nestled on a hill between them. I thought I did my due diligence in lodging research, but even I was pleasantly surprised by the house. The kitchen, for starters, was better equipped than my own (minus the Vitamix), the owners–on account of their variety of vessels from which to consume alcohol–could definitely be my friends, and the house was clean, comfortable, and charming… with this view:

IMG_0275

IMG_0305

Pink Orchid deck hammock

IMG_0317

Pink Orchid sunset

If you’re trying to view the house website from an apple mobile device (without flash), try their VRBO site here. There is a dock just below The Pink Orchid where you can float, swim, or flag down a water taxi to take you either to West Bay or West End. The reef beyond the dock, which is an easy kayak to the buoy, is intact and teeming with sea life. Oh yeah, and the house comes with two 2-person kayaks.

If you’re interested in a similar area, but prefer a hotel, check out Xbalanque. We walked by it each time we went to West Bay Beach and it is quite chic, serene, and beautiful.

If staying in a town is more your speed, look no further than Caribe Tesoro. Seriously. We happened upon this gem of a B & B each time we walked from The Pink Orchid to West Bay Beach, remarking on its beauty with each pass. Quite unfortunately, it took until our last day to stop in. As far as I can tell, they are the only place with a beachside pool, which also has a little island with hammocks, a water slide, and a swim-up bar. The friendly staff and beautiful view are a nice addition to an already fabulous spot. After touring a few of the B & B rooms, as well as their 3 bedroom, 3 bath condo, I know a stay there is in my future. We spent one day of leisure at Caribe Tesoro, and were smitten with the place–enough to book dinner on their dock for that (our last) night. My next Roatan post will be more food/activity-focused, but I must mention that Leña Parilla, the CT restaurant is well worth a try.

IMG_0380

Caribe Tesoro in late afternoon light

IMG_0379

IMG_0375

Shea ladies enjoying the swim-up bar

 

IMG_0321

The stunning water of West Bay

There are some un-touristy places to stay, that I did not visit, and can only mention by name, should you care to dig deeper:

-Sandy Bay is an area where many locals live, but also has rentals available.

-Even quieter, yet reportedly stunning, is Palmetto Bay (see 2 beautiful rentals I found here and here).

-Pristine Bay is home to the only luxury golf resort and 5 star restaurant.

As always, I recommend bringing meds to cover all sorts of potential ailments (primarily gastrointestinal in nature). See here for info.

More to come!

 

Machu Picchu on a Budget

I took this trip several years ago, but think the information is useful enough to go ahead with a delayed post of it. I shared the details with a friend, who used the same hotel and trek company, more recently, and loved it. Whether or not you plan to hike some version of the Inca Trail, visits to Cusco and Machu Picchu are so worth it. I did this for quite a reasonable price considering the level of service received… naturally, I want to share the info.

You’ll most likely fly into Lima, then connect to Cusco.

Tip: schedule the flight to Cusco early in the morning, when the chance of cancellation for wind conditions is less likely.

Less wind over the Andes = less scary

Cusco is a beautiful little city, set at a gentle 11,000+ feet (3,400 m) of elevation. If you don’t live at that altitude, you WILL feel this. You might even wonder, “how the hell will I walk for 4 days like this?” It is possible to have that thought and still complete the Inca Trail hike. Diamox also helps with the elevation (see here for some drug info).

DSCF0170

Beautiful Cusco

I stayed at a quaint hotel, called Encantada, on the outskirts of downtown Cusco. It was quiet, comfortable, and cozy, with warm and helpful staff. The location keeps you off the noisy streets of the city and also allows some time to practice walking up hills at a higher than normal elevation.

Breakfast is offered every morning and coca tea is always available in the lobby, which is more like an idyllic living room (with fireplace) than a hotel lobby.

There are plenty of restaurants, shops, and day hikes to keep you occupied and happy in Cusco for days. My main goal was to hike the Inca Trail, so I only planned for the “required” 2 days of acclimation before setting off. I wish I’d had more time to explore.

The hike

If you are relatively active and fit, you can do this hike… and should. I’m referring to the 3 night/4 day Inca Trail trek. There are tons of guide companies, of varying cost and amenities, from which to choose. After hours of reading reviews, I went with Llama Path–a porter and eco-friendly company that seemed to have smaller groups, happy customers, and were reasonably priced.

Our group of 8 also had 1 guide, a chef, and whole staff of porters tasked with carrying (and setting up/breaking down) camp. We saw other groups out there with at least 20 people in them. 8 was nice.

DSCF0188

Our small group + our “red army”

At times, I felt as though I couldn’t take another step, even with the mound of coca leaves in my cheek, but we all made our way up countless steps, over an almost 14,000 foot pass (Dead Woman’s Pass–named because the mountain looks like a woman in repose, not because they’re terribly sexist), down through the jungle, only to go up again, and finally to Machu Picchu.

DSCF0205

Day 2 is definitely the most trying with 2 high altitude passes

Somehow, the food they serve is actually really good. Perhaps it’s the combination of altitude and exhaustion, but I swear it was delicious, relatively speaking.  Each morning you’re awoken by one of the staff members bringing coca leaf tea to your tent in an effort to help with the altitude. It may or may not work.

The views are stunning and the hike is a wonderful experience which ends (obviously) at the breathtaking site of Machu Picchu. Once you’ve walked 4 days to get there, you do feel ever so slightly more entitled to it than the folks who took the train in, but there’s nothing to be done about them. When we arrived, however, the Machu Picchu from all the famous photos was not who greeted us…

DSCF0249

A cloud-masked Machu Picchu

There is another peak to climb, called Huayna Picchu, that requires a separate ticket and does sell out. I missed the opportunity when I went, but heard the views are spectacular. If you want to walk up another hill, buy that ticket as soon as you can upon arrival.

I highly recommend doing this hike if you’re physically able. Walking through such a beautiful part of the world, en route to the magical place of Machu Picchu is quite rewarding… and worth it. You’ll pass many Inca sites along the trail as well. After touring MP, a bus takes the group to Aguas Calientes, where you can explore, eat, and wait for your scheduled train back to the bus, which takes you to Cusco. The last day is a long one, worth it, but long.

Without further adieu, more pictures:

 

DSCF0179

Day 1

DSCF0180

DSCF0198

Dead Woman’s Pass did not harm this woman!

DSCF0229

Day 3 Inca ruins

DSCF0280

DSCF0284

The alpacas are adorable and everywhere

DSCF0312

Who doesn’t do yoga at MP?

DSCF0319

IMG_0087

A far less dangerous perch than it appears

DSCF0300

The End!

Washington, DC: the quick and dirty tourist’s guide

You take delight not in a city’s seven or seventy wonders, but in the answer it gives to a question of yours.” ~Italo Calvino

Washington, DC is a beautiful, iconic city. A friend once said, after making her first visit to DC, that it looks exactly as our nation’s capital should look. I have to agree. Having lived in or near it for most of my life, I love to show it off to tourists. I am a self-proclaimed expert at the quick and dirty tour for out-of-towners.

If you have a few days, the museums are great and many of them are FREE. That being said, my quick tour doesn’t include them, but click here for info on the Smithsonian (i.e. free) ones.

Without further ado, here is the best way to take in the history and grandeur of Washington, DC quickly. I first did this with a friend who had just a few hours to see the sights. After the tour, he left saying it was the best part of his trip to the US.

W Hotel Rooftop bar views:

If you get lucky, you’ll see Marine One come in for a landing on the White House lawn.

IMG_1942

You can eat there for brunch or just have cocktails prior to going elsewhere. The view is fantastic, but you definitely pay a premium for it. It’s kind of a club scene after dark, which I don’t appreciate, so I prefer brunch/lunch/pre-dinner drinks.

*special note: if the snipers are on the roof of the White House, someone important is home, or will be soon*

 

The White House:

Just a short walk from the W Hotel

IMG_0046

My mom, sister, and a visiting Australian in between

 

Monuments and the Mall:

If you find yourself there during the day, park near the mall and take a walk. Even quicker, though, hop in a cab/uber after dinner and ask them to drive you past the Jefferson, stop (and leave the meter running) at the Lincoln–definitely run up the steps for photos, then turn and observe the Washington Monument towering over the Reflecting Pool. Round out the tour by driving past the Capital dome, my favorite building, and a stunner whether set against the dark night or a blue, cloudless sky. Right now there is scaffolding on it for repairs, but hopefully it will be back in all its glory soon.

IMG_3549

Vietnam Memorial

IMG_3568

World War 2 Memorial

 

Turn 180 degrees, and here’s what you’ll see (click here for the movie version):

IMG_0049

Washington Monument and Reflecting Pool

 

A side trip, which is WELL worth it is to Arlington National Cemetery for the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It’s somber, powerful, and wonderful.

 

Restaurant options:

Founding Farmers  – good for brunch, lunch, or dinner with yummy drinks and very reasonable corkage fees should you decide to bring your own wine to save some $$. The food is delicious also, but can you tell where my priorities lie? Yes, with the booze.

Old Ebbit Grill – historic (the oldest saloon in the city), iconic, and walking distance to the W, the monuments, and the White House. It’s a little dark on the inside, but so convenient.

Blue Duck Tavern – only nearish to all the monuments, but so so delicious.

There are, of course, tons of other scrumptious options for food, but I had to stay on task.

 

Iceland Part 2… the details

This trip was planned on a whim, just 2.5 weeks in advance. I booked my flight on Wow Air, as it was the only cheap-ish flight at the time. They are a budget airline that offers no frills and cheap fares, but charges extra for everything– from water to a carry-on over 5 kg (11 lbs). I did the backwards thing and booked my non-refundable ticket prior to reading reviews of the airline I’d never heard of. Many reviews were terrible, but I had no problems. On top of a fare deal, they seem to have a nice sense of humor–a much appreciated feature. Oh, the planes are a stylish fuchsia.

(click photos to enlarge)

Due to the snow potential and time constraints, we stuck with the southern part of Iceland for our exploration. After landing at 5:30 am, we got our rental car, and headed to the blue lagoon, with a breakfast stop along the way. The lagoon is only about 20 minutes from Keflavik airport, so it’s convenient to go on your way in or out of the country. I highly recommend getting your tickets online in advance here. Yes, the lagoon is a tourist trap and, yes, it is worth visiting. Arriving when they open will cut down on the amount of people there ever so slightly. Be sure to put the lagoon mud (located in pots around the edge) on your face–meant to soften skin and contain anti-aging properties. Don’t get your hair wet! The high silica levels in the water render hair completely unmanageable.

Vik and beyond

I chose Vik as our first spot. It’s a very small town on the southern coast, about 3 hours from the airport and 2.5 hours from our farthest destination of Jökulsárlón.

Airbnb has several listings in Vik, but none of the available ones were quite what I wanted, so opted for the Icelandair Hotel. It was quaint, reasonably priced, and clean. As someone who lives for her next meal, the restaurant being good was an added bonus. After only 2 hours of sleep on the plane and driving most of the day, staying in for dinner was a welcomed option.

Vik has black sand beaches, birds, ponies, and picturesque views such as this:

Church on a hill in Vik

Church on a hill in Vik

It is not uncommon to see the picnic site sign while driving around Iceland. Such a sweet country.

IMG_8555

The first night in Vik, we could barely muster the energy to go to the restaurant in the lobby (which was fantastic, by the way) and almost had Jameson on the rocks for dinner. Our second night, however, we did some research and set out for Haldórskaffi, a small, warm restaurant in town. I can’t say it’s a locals place, but it’s hard to tell if any Icelandic haunt is really for locals or not. The population in the entire country is just over 300,000, so a large group of tourists can easily take over an establishment on a given night. Haldórskaffi was packed, so we sidled up to the bar for our wait…go figure. The food is pretty good, but not great. For some reason I didn’t get the burger, but had read that it’s fabulous. 

While eating, we missed a brief Northern Lights appearance, but set out in search of them. Plenty of Jameson, and hours later, we gave up and went to bed. The quest for Aurora led to a hungover late start on the third day. The drive from Vik to Reykjavik is easy and, of course, stunning. Even if retracing your steps in Iceland, the scenery looks different in the other direction. 

On to Reykjavik

Perusing AirBnB listings in Iceland will teach you 2 important things: 1) Icelanders love to use the word “cozy” when describing apartments–something they must think tourists are seeking when visiting a place with “ice” in the name. 2) All listings will tell you the proximity to a pool. The natives LOVE their heated pools and even frequent them after work to socialize.

There are SO MANY great AirBnB options in Reykjavik, so I picked one that was centrally located and adorable, with a really comfortable bed to boot. Most of the island has geothermically-heated water… which means it smells like sulfur (or rotten eggs). Get used to it and embrace the natural resource.

Hverfisgata37-forstofa Hverfisgata37-stofa3

Hverfisgata37-stofa4-1 Hverfisgata37-Eldhus1

Hverfisgata37-herbergi-clone

The owners have a few other rental apartments, as well as a hotel, which I did not see, called OK Hotel. A perk of staying at any of Kathy’s properties is the 15% discount at her really yummy K-Bar–a Korean restaurant infused with a little Icelandic flair. DEFINITELY try the cauliflower and the dumplings (both pork and tofu were delicious).

The warm decor at K-bar

The warm decor at K-bar

Whether you’re in Reykjavik for just a day, or longer, you have time to explore the Golden Circle–see my other Iceland post for pictures–and knock out a few top tourist attractions. It’s easy to do this on your own, but there are plenty of tours to take as well. If on your own, be sure to stop in Laugarvatn and eat at Lindin. IT IS DELICIOUS! And, sadly (kind of), so is the reindeer burger… like, really good. I ate Rudolph.

In addition to all of that, here’s the view:

IMG_8791

So, my 4 full days in Iceland definitely weren’t enough and I WILL be returning. The country is not only stunning, but easy to navigate on your own. At least a week is needed to drive the Ring Road, which is as it sounds and circles the whole country. I’m not sure how passable the road would be during the winter, so it will be a summer trip for me.

Tips:

  • Food and alcohol are expensive–pick up some booze at duty free, preferably in the US, where it’s cheaper, though it’s possible to stock up when you arrive at Keflavik airport. The second duty free you encounter is for incoming passengers.
  • Note that it almost never gets dark during the summer and there is very limited daylight in the dead of winter.
  • The Aurora Borealis is more elusive than you might expect. The lights start showing up in October, but are the strongest on cold, clear nights, and best seen away from the light pollution of cities. If you happen to see anything like the famous photos, consider yourself lucky. They don’t always show up as colors and those photos are often the work of a DSLR camera on a slow shutter speed.
  • Airwaves is a music festival that occurs at the beginning of November every year. Next year, I think I’ll go. My cousin and his wife DID go last year and loved it. If you’d like to know more about Reykjavik’s coffee and music scene, go here.
  • Learning to pronounce the name of that volcano that shut down Europe for a bit–Eyafjallajökull–is a fun activity.

**I get nothing for recommending these places, but would be happily accept freebies**

If the Question is Iceland, Your Answer Should be Yes!

My childhood was full of magic. I grew up in an environment where gnomes, fairies, and elves were very real–a beautiful thing for the imagination. Fast forward 30 years, and Iceland is a dream country. Its craggy, moss-covered landscape lends itself to a mystical world. Icelandic culture is rich with mythological creatures, such as huldufólk (hidden people), that many believe exist. If that isn’t endearing, I don’t know what is.

Iceland’s popularity has increased in recent years, partly due to the fact that Wow and Iceland Air offer relatively cheap flights to Europe. Frequently, it does not increase the fare to layover in Iceland for a few days. Even with a stopover of a few hours, it’s possible to visit the Blue Lagoon, one of the 25 wonders of the world and quite a refreshing experience after a flight.

I had 4 full days to explore and needed to pick a region on which to focus. Our tiny rental clown car wouldn’t have stood a chance in the event of snowfall, so we settled on the southern part of the island. 2 nights in Vik and 2 nights in Reykjavik would allow us to venture out from there.

Now, on to the pictures! My next post will contain all the planning details, accommodation info, and restaurants, but this one is to introduce my thousands 5 readers to the beauty and wonder that is Iceland.

click images to enlarge

the blue lagoon

the blue lagoon

more blue lagoon

more blue lagoon

After a luxurious soak and indulging in our complimentary drinks, we loaded into the car and set out for the seaside town of Vik, about 3 hours from the airport. Driving pretty much anywhere in Iceland is beautiful. Despite extreme exhaustion from the flight and no sleep, everything looked like a postcard.

Skogafoss

Skogafoss

View from the top of Skógafoss

View from the top of Skógafoss

Waterfalls galore

Waterfalls galore

On day 2 we went east from Vik in pursuit of Jökulsárlón, a stunning glacial lagoon that served as a site for James Bond’s Die Another Day. For the movie, they blocked the flow of seawater into the lagoon, which allows it to freeze and enable these shots.

Jökulsárlón-- glacial lagoon

Jökulsárlón– glacial lagoon

IMG_8500

The boat ride on the lagoon is worth the, approximately, $36 for the vantage point and photo ops.

IMG_8491

The glacier! It's hard to concentrate on the road in this country.

The glacier! It’s hard to concentrate on the road in this country.

If you find yourself dissatisfied with the Icelandic weather, fret not! Just wait 5 minutes and it will change.

Fickle Icelandic weather

Fickle Icelandic weather

Another site on the road back to Vik

Another site on the road back to Vik

Driving around Iceland is never boring… nor ugly. On the drive to Reykjavik we encountered more stunning sights. Whether or not we saw the Aurora Borealis is debatable, but screw those northern lights! Check out the rainbows! All three of these photos are from the same day.

IMG_8608 IMG_8605

There *may* be more sheep than people in Iceland. I called them. They turned. Just call me the sheep whisperer.

Reykjavik is a quaint town city–the northernmost capital in the world–and we finally reached it on day 3.

IMG_8615

Iceland’s pride week is a huge event and, this year, they painted the street. The mayor said, “This is one way to make our city livelier, more human and simply a better place by great collaboration and beautiful thinking.” Seriously, Iceland is a magnificent place!

IMG_8620

TROLLS! In Reykjavik

TROLLS! In Reykjavik

We didn’t make it to this museum, but there’s a documentary about it called The Final Member.

IMG_8619

From a stay in the capital, or even a day long layover, it’s easy to tour what’s known as the Golden Circle. First stop is the site of the Viking parliament, or Þingvellir.

a view from Þingvellir

a view from Þingvellir

After Þingvellir, it’s off to Geysir– the now relatively dormant geyser after which all others are named. Strokkur is there as well and erupts every few minutes.

Excellent advice. Note the nearest hospital

Excellent advice. Note the nearest hospital

IMG_8638

IMG_8664 IMG_8666

IMG_8668 IMG_8672

IMG_8790

The Icelandic horses! Perhaps the highlight of my Golden Circle drive. From sheep whisperer to horse whisperer.

From Geysir, Gullfoss (Golden Falls) is about 10 minutes up the road, named as such because the water appears gold when the sun hits.

Gullfoss

Gullfoss

Have I convinced you to go to Iceland yet? If so, stay tuned for my next post with all my trip-planning details.

*all images are the property of Caroline Shea, unless otherwise noted. reproduction without permission is prohibited*

My Ideal Day in Napa

Anyone can tell you to go to Opus One and The French Laundry. I certainly do not discourage that, but it’s not what I’m going to do. Places like Caymus and Opus One make great wines. In my opinion though, the soul of Napa and is in the smaller, boutique winery, many of which do not have tasting rooms. So here’s my favorite mix.

I like to stay in downtown Napa when I head west–it’s quaint, walkable, and has many eating and drinking options. La Casita Bonita is an adorable little cottage where I’ve stayed several times. On my most recent trip, I stayed at The Westin and loved it! They have a salt water pool and it’s within walking distance of my favorite Napa haunts.

Without further adieu, here is my ideal day, or two:

From the Westin, the Oxbow Public Market is a short walk away and filled with goodies. As a gluten free person (I know, I know, but I do have good reasons), I can grab a positively scrumptious breakfast sandwich from Cate and Co. Bakery and a perfect chemex brew from Ritual Coffee.

What could possibly come after a nice breakfast and caffeine? Well, sparkling wine, of course…

I celebrate days that end in “y” with sparkling and Mumm Napa is definitely one of my happy places. For starters, it’s picturesque and stunning, but it also has delicious bubbles and a charming gift shop, full of knickknacks for the taking.

ahh, Mumm

ahh, Mumm

Next, head over to Palmaz Vineyards to explore their beautiful property. Built into the side of a mountain, the unique winery is also partly underground/in the hillside. The wines are never pumped, but propelled by gravity all the way through to bottling, so as not to bruise the wine. It’s pricey to tour/taste and even pricier to buy, but those wines sure are delicious! A gigantic cab sauv is good right out of the bottle. Seriously.

IMG_2908

IMG_2909

IMG_2910

While I adore the idyllic setting of a vineyard, I’m also a fan of the tasting room. They introduce you to wines you may not otherwise discover and have such variety from which to choose, all while sitting in one spot. My absolute favorite wine expert in Napa is Andy Renda at The Wine Thief–also conveniently located across from Oxbow and down the street from the Westin. Andy is beyond knowledgeable AND fun. The Wine Thief is a new business and isn’t it human nature to enjoy saying, “I went before it was famous.”?

IMG_8366

one of the private tasting rooms at The Wine Thief

one of the private tasting rooms at The Wine Thief

If you’d like to get the most bang for your buck (and have an idea what you’ll be eating), take a bottle of wine and bring it to dinner with you. Many restaurants have a reasonable corkage fee, so bringing wine saves you the massive up-charge.

Dinner options:

Kitchen Door– back to the wonderful Oxbow Market for this casual, delicious, and beautifully affordable restaurant. When in Napa, the wine seems to flow, making driving an unfortunate experience, so I LOVE a walkable option.

Angele– again, walking distance from my beloved Westin and more white table cloth than Kitchen Door. Amazing food, great ambiance, quaint location. Oh, and white table cloths.

Ad Hoc– another favorite, not walking distance, but located in beautiful Yountville (yes, Napa has Uber). This is another of Thomas Keller’s wonderful restaurants, but more casual and MUUUUCH cheaper than The French Laundry. Ad Hoc is a family style restaurant that serves one entree each night. I’ve been 3 times and have yet to be disappointed. I believe Monday is still fried chicken night… perhaps, don’t go that night, for you can go to Addendum Thursday thru Saturday 11 am – 2 pm for boxed lunches of either fried chicken, pork ribs, or pulled pork. The fried chicken is ah-mazing! Side note: the last time I dined at Ad Hoc, Thomas Keller did as well.

IMG_2888

*I get nothing for recommending these places, but would be happy to receive freebies*

Drugs, drugs, and more drugs!

I am a nurse infected with wanderlust. If an opportunity to explore a new place presents itself, I jump at the chance– sometimes with or without the means, much to the chagrin of my piggy bank, er …”savings account”.
Because of this passion for new experiences, and as a byproduct of my day job training, I travel with a small pharmacy for all of those “just in case” scenarios. Taking these precautions has enabled me to turn what could be a really terrible vacation into just one unpleasant day, for myself and my traveling companions.
When it comes to the aforementioned “just in case” situations, I am most commonly the one afflicted. From GI bugs in Bali and the Dominican Republic to strep throat from a rented snorkel in Hawaii– all little ol’ me. My bevy of drugs have also been helpful for friends with carsickness, food poisoning, panic, and insomnia. So, what, pray tell, is on my “essentials” list?

For starters, the OTC, or over the counter stuff:
Pepto bismal – always my first line of attack for any stomach issue. A doctor colleague of mine takes a prophylactic Pepto pill every day when traveling abroad to “coat [his] GI tract” and help prevent bugs from catching. Whether or not there’s actual science to that, I have no idea, but it sounds good. And who doesn’t enjoy a black tongue and black stool on vacation (both normal side effects of taking Pepto)? Kidding!
Melatonin- sleepless nights are a sure way to ruin a good time and melatonin is the most gentle and natural way to combat insomnia. When going for a long trip, you can even start taking it a couple days in advance at the time you intend to go to sleep in your destination (or the reverse, before you head home).

Now, onto the list you’ll need to see a doctor or nurse practitioner to prescribe:
For sleep/airplane-
Ambien- I don’t like to rely on this at home, but when you go to sleep in Los Angeles and wake up in Auckland, sometimes melatonin won’t do the trick and staying au naturale isn’t as important to me as being bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for my early morning arrival. Sleeping on the plane is sometimes a must.
Xanax- I like to spend my money on my actual trip activities, so always fly coach. Xanax is my way of tricking my body into thinking we’re in business class. Almost 30 years of horseback riding has riddled me with a bad back that is prone to muscle spasms from sitting in bad chairs for too long. Can we collectively say “airplane seat”? Since it’s a benzodiazepine, xanax or alprazolam also bears some muscle relaxing properties. It’s really lovely to have a relaxed mind (and body) when settling in for an 18 hour flight in coach. Everyone responds to drugs differently, but for me, xanax doesn’t put me in a coma, so I’m still able to wake up and stretch my legs. The risk of blood clots increases exponentially due to long  flights, so it behooves you to go easy on the sedation.

For the potential stomach bug-
Ciprofloxacin- this is only to be taken when truly needed (I’ve taken it twice). Cipro can take that traveler’s diarrhea and knock it right out. A friend, who shall remain nameless, had her 4 day hike to Machu Picchu completely saved by this drug. Damn raw tomato tried to take her down, but cipro enabled her to have just one terrible day and one underwear casualty. **I am not giving actual medical advice, just tips to bring to your doctor. Many travel clinics are very used to sending people on vacation with meds for the just-in-case scenario**
Zofran- for nausea/vomiting. This is a non-drowsy absolute gem! It has helped me when I just don’t feel right, when altitude is bothering me, and when I’m actually ill. Zofran is up there with Xanax in my travel bestie category. I’m a self-professed vomit phobe, so I never leave home without zofran, literally.

Altitude-
Diamox- if you’re traveling somewhere with high altitude, speak to your doctor about diamox. My favorite effect is that you can actually sleep at altitude when taking it. That being said, it has some weird side effects like tingling extremities and odd taste alterations. Everyone is affected differently, but I was helped immensely when in Peru at elevations of 12,000-14,000 feet.

Again, I am not peddling medical advice, but passing along tips to ponder and, possibly, mention to your physician/nurse practitioner. A few of these medications have helped me immensely while traveling.