This island. It will always hold a very special place in my heart. I truly love it for so many reasons. Cyprus in my heart forever.
How do I love thee? Let’s count the ways…
In March 2020 after fleeing lockdown in Israel we landed in Cyprus. Our thoughts at the time were that we would sit tight for two or three weeks and wait out this crazy Corona thing. Five days later, we went into total lockdown which I always describe as house arrest. We could only leave our house once a day with permission from local Cyprus authorities, which we obtained through an app on our phones. What initially was presented as a ten-day lockdown became two months for us…and even longer for the Cypriot people.
The airport shut down with no flights in or out, and so we hunkered down for a long stay. It was March, still cool in the Mediterranean, but dry and sunny most days. All archeological sites and museums, all beaches, trails and recreational facilities were closed. As well as all shops and restaurants except for a handful of grocery stores and pharmacies.
Lockdown 2020 on Cyprus was definitely not something we had on our travel itinerary, but it became one of the most unique and memorable experiences of our life – putting Cyprus in my heart forever.
2.)Lemon Grove Villas, Argaka
Lucky for us, we were in an Airbnb called Lemon Grove Villas in the tiny village of Argaka. Argaka is on the far northwest corner of the island, about as far as you can get from the international airport city of Larnaca.
Not only was Lemon Grove Villa comfortable and spacious, but it also had one of the absolute best hosts we have had in all of our travels. Maria and Fytos were outstanding and made such an effort to make our unexpectedly long stay, unexpectedly comfortable.
3.)We Shall Return
When we finally left Cyprus after two months, we vowed to return – and we kept that vow, returning 26 months later this past June. We only had a week this time, but we spent the entire week back at our beloved Lemon Grove Villa, getting to see our sweet hosts Maria and Fytos. And this time, thanks to fabulous weather, enjoying the beautiful pool.
4.)Sunshine and Sand
If you have been to Greece, Cyprus feels just like that. But without the crowds or the price tag. Sunny skies, turquoise water, beautiful beaches. It’s surprising Cyprus is not one of the Greek islands, but most Cypriots consider themselves Greek and you will see the Greek flag everywhere. At least on the Greek Cypriot side (south side) of this island.
5.)Ancient History, Recent History
This island is said to be the birthplace of Aphrodite, the Greek Goddess of love. The island has been occupied by many civilizations dating back as far as far as the 12th century BC. Given its strategic position in the Mediterranean it’s no wonder so many wanted a piece of it over the millennia. Throughout the 140 mile long by 60 miles wide island you will find a fascinating array of ancient ruins and archeological sites all worth a visit.
More recent history has included a civil war in 1974 when Turkey invaded northern Cyprus, occupying and taking over entire cities including property and homes. Greek Cypriots fled south and Turkish Cypriots fled north, leaving everything behind. Still today Turkey has control of the northern part of the island but it is not recognized by the United Nations. It wasn’t until 2003 that a border crossing was opened. Today you can still see the sad remains of people’s homes and businesses abandoned and bullet ridden along the UN Buffer Zone.
6.)Hiking and Running
We love to run and hike and Cyprus offered beautiful and safe places to do both. In Argaka we ran nearly every day, both during lockdown and in our recent visit. And we also enjoyed several hikes along the ocean, in the mountains and through some glorious slot canyons.
7.)Food Glorious Food
Very similar to Greek food, Cypriot food is abundant with fresh and locally grown produce. Throughout the island and especially in Argaka you will find citrus, olives, nuts, and berries growing next to wheat, barley, watermelons, zucchini and tomatoes. Honey and breads are abundant as are candies and amazing coffee. You can find local wine that is cheap and delicious and recently a surge of craft beer. It is a breadbasket of the Mediterranean. The cuisine includes a lot of fish, lamb, beef and chicken as well as yogurt, feta and amazing halloumi cheese. Oh my goodness. I was in heaven. Learn more about Cypriot foods and cooking in this post In the Cyprus Test Kitchen.
8.) Kind and Hardworking People
And then there are the quiet and kind Cypriots. Some of the hardest working people I have ever met, yet always ready with a shy smile and a welcome.
Cyprus in My Heart Forever
What more could anyone want in a destination? It’s inexpensive, beautiful, delicious and great weather. There is interesting history and architecture, nature and views. Each city offers a wide variety of accommodations and restaurants. If I compare it to Maui it is half the price or less, with fewer tourists and traffic. For Americans it’s a bit difficult to get to, but there are lots of direct flights from London, so that’s typically the best way to get here. But however you get here, just get here.
I am already working on a plan to get back to Cyprus for a long extended visit in 2024. Cyprus, in my heart forever.
We were supposed to visit Malta in May 2020…well you know why we didn’t. So it was exciting to be able to add Malta back into our travel itinerary. In 2020 our plans were to spend 10 days on the island of Malta and an additional six on the island of Gozo. Our rescheduled trip however needed to be shorter, so we spent our time on the main island of Malta with a quick day trip to Gozo. I fell hard for this beautiful and ancient place. Marvelous Malta – A New Favorite.
Two Years Later
This itinerary was pretty tight, as we attempted to resurrect our original trip we were on when the Pandamit made its nasty entrance. At that time, you might remember, we fled Israel to Cyprus but were locked down in Cyprus for two months. Eventually abandoning the remaining itinerary, which included Malta, and making our way back to the USA to wait it out. Wait it out we did, with the rest of the world, and two years later we are out here again…Marvelous Malta – A New Favorite.
Marvelous Malta – A New Favorite
From the moment we arrived in Valletta, the fortress city on a peninsula, I knew this was my kind of place. So much history as well as pre-historic history, yet alive and so incredibly beautiful. The most surprising thing we found was it is CHEAP. By far the cheapest country we have visited in the European Union. Gotta love that!
Malta is also friendly, clean, delicious and just about everyone speaks English. English is an official language, but the local Maltese language prevails. It is an interesting mix of Arabic and Italian.
Where We Stayed
We stuck pretty close to Valletta, opting for an Airbnb in the historic area rather than a resort in the more cosmopolitan areas of St. Julian or Sliema. In hindsight I think with more time I would have also enjoyed a night or two inside the walled village of Mdina, and a longer more leisurely visit to Gozo Island.
There is no shortage of accommodations all over the island, which is only 17 miles long and 9 miles wide. Depending on what is important to you (history, nightlife, beaches) you will find something to match your desires.
Malta can trace it’s history back to 5200BC. I mean wow. That is crazy right? I love this kinda stuff so much and it is one of the astonishing things about Malta that caused me to fall in love with it. In recent years some incredible pre-historic ruins have been found, known as the Hypogeum. The Smithsonian Foundation claims this site to be the most significant pre-history site in the world. (Tip – only 80 people a day are allowed to visit the Hypogeum. Plan ahead for this. Unfortunately we did not get to see it.)
From the arrival of man Malta became a place everyone wanted to get their hands on, due to it’s central location in the Mediterranean. Over the centuries the island was controlled by the Phoenicians, Carthaginians and the Byzantines. Then came the Arabs, followed by the Normans and then the Knights of St. John before the Ottomans arrived. Napoleon gave it a try, but the British secured the island for 170 years. In 1974 Malta became independent.
This vast and diverse history is evident in the architecture, language, people and food. Absolutely fascinating to a history geek like me.
Recommended Things To Do
First of all Malta is surprisingly affordable compared to most of Europe. We were astonished at how cheaply we could eat, drink, shop and be entertained. Malta uses the Euro and credit cards are accepted everywhere. A dinner with wine or beer for two could be had for around 45 Euros.
Some of our favorite things we did were;
As you likely know I love to take a food tour whenever I visit a new destination. I usually try to do it early in my itinerary because it is always both a history lesson and yummy. We booked our tour through Viator with Best Tours Malta and our guide Chris was not only knowledgeable about food but we learned a great deal about the history of Valletta.
We rented a car for two days to get out of Valletta and see some sites. Seeing some significant archeology sites made us thankful we made the effort. Hagar Qim is a significant pre-historic site on the island of Malta dating to 3200 BC. It is one of several UNESCO sites in the country and it is fascinating. A very well done interpretive self-guided tour is included with your admission. At the Hagar Qim site you will also see another pre-historic temple site called Mnajdra. Both sites worth your time.
There are multiple other ruins on the island of Malta and on Gozo as well. I wish we had the time to see more. We briefly visited Dingli Cliffs, not known for ruins although there are some, but known more for the spectacular views of the cliffs and the beautiful sea.
Because we were short on time, we only did a day trip to Gozo. Our original itinerary had us spending six days there with a car. I sure wish we could have done that, because a day trip did not do it justice. Partly because we were with way too many people and it just was not enough time. IF YOU ONLY HAVE A DAY, here is what I recommend. Take an ECab (Malta’s version of Uber and highly recommended over a regular taxi) to the ferry, walk on the ferry, and prearrange a PRIVATE GUIDE to meet you on the other side. This way you can gear your day to the things that are important to you; architecture, pre-history, churches and cathedrals, agriculture, salt pans and more. I’m still glad we went but if I did it again I would definitely spend the money for a private tour.
Blue Grotto and Sea Caves
On Malta’s south coast you will find the most beautiful blue water. The Blue Grotto viewpoint is definitely worth a stop (it’s on the way to Hager Qim) and with more time you can also take a boat to the Blue Grotto and the Sea Caves. We did not go in the boat but it looked really fun. It is a beautiful spot.
St. Peter’s Pool
St. Peter’s Pool is a popular swimming and sunning site of St. Peter’s Pool. Although we were the oldest people there (easily by 30 years), we had a blast!! Stunning location. Parking is tight, but there is overflow parking for busy days. On the day we visited it wasn’t terribly crowded but I understand it can get very crowded. Try to go on a weekday. So much fun and worth the effort to get there.
After our swim we continued on to the beautiful fishing village of Marsaxlok. We had a delicious lunch on the seaside.
Mdina & Rabat
With our rental car we went to the inland walled city of Mdina, which is surrounded by the newer city of Rabat. We were really glad we arrived an hour before our 11am guided walking tour because the village was abandoned and so quiet. And boom, at 11am all the tour buses from the cruise ships arrived. Wow, suddenly it was like Disneyland! We learned a lot from our walking tour and our guide was exceptionally knowledgeable in the history of the two cities. I am so glad we did this and recommend it definitely if you visit Malta. In hindsight it would have been fun to spend a night or two inside the ancient town.
On a whim we looked up what our options were to attend a live performance in Valletta. This is something we have come to enjoy in places we visit around the world. The only thing on during our short visit was a dance performance at the remarkable and historic Teatru Manoel right in old town Valletta. The performance, an interpretive dance about the life of Frida Kahlo, was incredible, but the historic theater was astonishing. We would not of visited the theater if we hadn’t decided to go to the performance so I am so glad we did.
Marvelous Malta – A New Favorite
Sometimes I am flabbergasted at the wealth of history and beauty we discover in our travels. It never ceases to amaze me and Malta was all that and more. I am so very glad we finally made it to this fascinating island nation. I hope you can visit too. Marvelous Malta – a New Favorite.
When we went to Iceland in June 2021 I thought travel was back. But then the Greek alphabet started to wreak havoc on our travel life. First Delta hit in the summer and then Omicron almost shut us down when we were in Mexico. That Pandamit refused to loose it’s grip. Now, more than two years since it started, we once again are cautiously dipping our toes into travel with a ten week tour. We are ready and The Grand Adventure Continues.
My word of the year for 2022 is caution. And although we always travel with caution, navigating a travel life today requires a great deal more preparation and caution than in the past. Changing rules for testing and entry requirements require constant monitoring. It requires patience. It requires time. And it also requires being a bit of a gambler.
Off We Go
So with all that in mind, we have spent the past several months planning, studying the CDC information and reading the US State Department guidelines. We have put hundreds of hours into our preparation to embark on this tour. The destinations listed below each are chosen for a specific reason – personal and cautionary…and the Grand Adventure continues.
New York City
Twice we have canceled a week long winter visit to NYC due to the Pandamit. When we decided to try again for a spring visit, it was because we were headed to Boston for a college reunion. But alas, the college reunion was canceled (sigh). So we added the days we were going to be in Boston to the days we had already booked for New York…giving us a nice long stay of eleven days.
We have been to New York at least a half a dozen times, but each time has always been only 2-3 days. Having eleven days gives us time to slowly see the city and all it’s fabulous museums, restaurants, neighborhoods and history. We have a full itinerary and are really looking forward to it. April 21-May 2.
When we first decided to head to the Caribbean after New York the other countries on our itinerary (see below) hadn’t totally opened up. So we decided to head to the turquoise waters of two islands we had never been to before. It’s been a long time since we spent time in the Caribbean and we are looking forward to ten days in Antigua (in an Airbnb with a car) and ten days in Turks & Caicos (a resort with no car). For us it’s incredibly rare that we stay in a resort, so this should be interesting. It’s not a super fancy all-inclusive, but it is nice and we expect it to be very relaxing and within our budget. May 2-May 21
From the Caribbean we fly to Washington DC for a one night stay, where we will also do a Covid test for entry into Morocco. This is also where we will rendezvous with our two adult sons, who are joining us for the Morocco portion of this itinerary. We are off to Morocco to attend a wedding reception of a friend of our family…a party that has been canceled three previous times since the Pandamit hit. Before the wedding in Fes, our family will spend a week touring Morocco. This is my second visit to Morocco and I am really looking forward to seeing this beautiful country again, sharing it with my two adult children and attending a traditional Moroccan wedding. It should be an incredible experience. May 23-May 31.
The West Africa nation of Senegal has been on my list for a long time due to it’s fascinating history, but we have never been able to squeeze it in. But it’s a short flight from Casablanca to Dakar so we will check Senegal off the bucket list. We have a brief visit (five days) and have hired a tour guide for two days to take us to some of the major sites. May 31 – June 5.
From Senegal we are headed to the island of Malta, but to get to Malta requires a flight and an overnight in Paris. Well Paris is always a good idea, right? Fingers crossed for good weather to spend one full day strolling around my favorite arrondissements of the city of lights and eating everything I can. June 5-6
The next three stops on this tour are three places Covid shut us down in, and we have been counting the days until we could return. So we begin with Malta.
We were supposed to spend three weeks on Malta in May of 2020…of course that didn’t happen. It’s a destination I have wanted to visit for years. Full of beauty and history and fascinating geography…if you don’t know much about Malta you would probably recognize it from the role it plays in many movies and TV shows including Game of Thrones. We are staying in the historic town of Valletta in an Airbnb and we will not have a car except for one day when we have a car to see the ancient city of M’dina. I’ve booked a food tour and a one day tour to the island of Gozo. The rest of the time we will explore on foot. June 6-15th
In March of 2020 after only five days of our 17 day itinerary in Israel we fled the country to avoid being put into a two week quarantine. We fled to Cyprus (more on that below) and I cried in the car as we drove to the airport. We had seen some amazing sites in Israel, but no where near all, including Jerusalem and Masada. I had waited to visit Israel since I was a child and learned about it from a Girl Scout leader. My heart was broken.
So let’s try it again. This time we will spend our entire 7 day visit in Jerusalem in an Airbnb. We have a Jerusalem tour one day, another tour to Bethlehem in Palestine one day, and we will rent a car and drive to Masada one day. We also have booked a Shabat dinner with a local family. These are all high on my wishlist. I love the food of this region too, and I can’t wait to eat all of it! June 15 – 22
Dear sweet Cyprus. It holds such a special place in my heart, after we spent two months in lockdown on this gorgeous island. But during that two months we did not see any of the amazing historic sites, enjoy any of it’s stunning beaches or eat in any of it’s amazing restaurants. Covid had everything shut down. We have vowed to return and now we will.
Unfortunately we only have seven days, but we know exactly what we want to see and do, and we can make it happen. Looking forward to staying in the same Airbnb we were trapped in for two months and we can’t wait to see our hosts who were so kind to us. We also hope to see our friend Leza who we met and spent a day with in a cooking class – the only thing we got to do before we went into lockdown.
Cyprus is a fascinating tiny country with a disputed border, fantastic food, ancient history (supposedly the birthplace of Aphrodite), mountains and beaches and so much more. Dear sweet Cyprus. We are coming. June 23-30
Ten Weeks and The Grand Adventure Continues
This itinerary is busy…much busier than we usually pursue. But we are taking a deep breath and tackling it, because life is short and due to the Pandamit we have some catching up to do! We will arrive back in the USA June 30th for the summer months before we go again.
We spent two weeks in Iceland recently, our first international trip in 14 months. After no travel for more than a year, we were so excited to get back out on the international travel scene and Iceland was a perfect place to start. I’ve already written two blogs about our visit, Iceland by the Ring Road and Reykjavik on Foot. But today I want to tell you about the Icelandic Cuisine Surprising & Delicious.
Since we were on a pretty strict budget in a pretty expensive country, we actually didn’t eat out too many times. In our campervan we cooked seven of the nine nights. While in Reykjavik we had two excellent meals out and did a really fun and interesting food tour with Your Friends in Reykjavik.
These meals all provided us some surprising and delicious discoveries of the Icelandic cuisine both old and new.
HOW TO LEARN ABOUT ICELANDIC CUISINE
If you follow our blog regularly you know that I love how cuisine and culture go hand in hand in countries we visit. When I can, I take a cooking class where we travel, and we also often do food tours. In both classes and tours, you can learn from locals about what makes certain foods important to their culture, how certain foods became part of the local cuisine, and how ‘nouveau’ cuisine incorporates both the old and the new. I love learning all of this stuff. Fascinating.
Like in all countries, certain foods grew from humble beginnings. In Iceland, fish of course played an important role, but due to the difficult growing seasons and soil, few vegetables were included. Sheep have always been a big part of the diet, and Icelanders learned to use every part of the animal. Later, potatoes and hardy colder weather plants like fennel became important.
Although some of the age-old items may sound unappetizing to us today, try to think about the Icelandic people of long ago and their struggle to make it through the winter. It is this struggle that developed some of the foods that are still considered comfort foods today.
Traditional Foods of Old
Dried Cod – When barley was scarce but cod was abundant, Icelanders saved the barley for beer and used dried cod spread with butter like bread.
Svidastata – what you might know as head cheese, a concoction of all the left over parts of the sheep (or other livestock) set in aspic. Today still served with crackers or bread.
Fiskibollur – fish balls made from cod. There are so many cod dishes and this old dish was one the fishwife could make with all the left over bits.
Pickled Herring – as in many Scandinavian and Eastern European countries, pickled herring is and was a staple in Iceland. Today you can buy it in numerous flavors at the grocery store and it is often served for breakfast, but at other times of the day as well.
Reindeer – not native to Iceland, they were brought from Norway and attempted to develop commercially long ago. But that endeavor failed. Yet reindeer can be found in use occasionally on menus. We had it twice.
Fermented Shark – my least favorite thing from the Icelandic cuisine. It is definitely an old-school survival dish, fermented to last long and through the winter – it tastes like ammonia.
Plokkfiskur Cod and Potato Mash – I enjoyed this dish very much. It’s basically mashed potatoes with butter and mixed with cooked cod. Definitely a comfort food in Iceland.
Kartufulsalat (Potato Salad) – since potatoes are easy to store through the winter they became a staple in Iceland. Potatoes are not native but are easy to grow and represent another comfort food. The Iceland Potato Salad is very unique, using apples! Here is our Tasty Tuesday all about Icelandic Potato Salad.
Salt – surrounded by water Iceland has always had an abundant source of salt, and it was used for preservation. Today you can find dozens of flavored salts.
Smoked or Cured Salmon – another way to preserve fish of course is by smoking and smoked salmon continues to be a popular dish in Iceland today.
Fennel and Anise – like potatoes, fennel and anise grow well in a cool climate. Anise is the reason Icelanders love licorice treats, and you will find licorice used in many things. We also had fennel flavored butter which was delicious.
New Foods – The Nouveau Cuisine
Don’t assume that Icelandic food is bland or boring. In fact, Iceland like many places, is undergoing a food revolution. Innovative chefs are introducing nouveau Icelandic cuisine and it is surprising & delicious. Taking parts of the old, and adding new flavors and ingredients.
On both our food tour and at the handful of restaurants we ate at (most in Reykjavik) we were delighted to find delicious dishes made from local and fresh produce, meat and seafood. When in Reykjavik don’t miss these favorites:
One of the best meals we had during our two weeks in Iceland was at Rok. This beautiful restaurant is housed in a small historic building right near the Hallgrimskirkja church. Make a reservation if you can, it is very popular. We enjoyed a variety of small shared plates, with our favorites being the lobster bisque, the arctic char and the smoked salmon bruschetta. Absolutely delicious all. A fabulous mix of traditional and new ingredients prepared in innovative and delicious ways.
On our very first night we got super lucky to stumble (literally we were so jet lagged) into Skall. Skall is located in the Hlemmur Food Market, a foodie heaven inside a former bus depot! We read about Hlemmur in our Rick Steves guide so we headed there, not knowing what we would find. We pulled up a chair at the bar and the rest is culinary history. We enjoyed spectacular baked cod with fennel mash, deep fried cauliflower, lumpfish roe and the best tomatoes I ever had.
As part of our food tour with Your Friends in Reykjavik we had two courses at the Islenski Barinn, a popular restaurant with locals in a historic building in the center of town. Here we enjoyed smoked reindeer with cheese and Iceland’s favorite comfort food of Lamb Stew. Thinner than what we usually call stew in the USA, but very flavorful broth with lamb and vegetables.
Also on our food tour we enjoyed Icelandic Fish Stew at Kopar, a popular seafood restaurant portside. The fish stew is made from cod but traditionally all the left over fish bits, fabulous broth and includes potatoes and celery. At Kopar we also had the most amazing fennel butter with warm bread. Divine.
On the Ring Road tour don’t miss;
Sker in Snaefellsbaer
In the far north on the Ring Road we stopped for lunch one day at Sker in the small town of Snaefellsbaer. We both ordered the Fish and Chips and it was one of the best I have ever had. Cod was incredible. Cod is everywhere here, but also so versatile.
North West Hotel and Restaurant in Hvammstangi
After a really long driving day we stopped at this road side hole in the wall that was recommended in our Rick Steves book and were astounded at the quality of the Lamb Chops. Perfectly prepared and served with red cabbage coleslaw and potato salad. We went away very happy.
Kaffi Lara El Grillo Bar
We took a wee bit of a side tour from the Ring Road in the East Fjords to the tiny village of Seydisfjordur. It was fun to see how the locals live in a small village. We stepped into this restaurant with a bizarre name and enjoyed a fabulous lunch of foil baked cod and possibly the best baked potato I have ever eaten. We complimented the waitress on the baked potato she told us there was a special ingredient…love.
On the Snaefellnes Peninsula be sure and visit;
We did a short 4 mile roundtrip hike from Hellnar to Arnarstapi – along the fascinatingly beautiful oceanside basalt cliffs. If you start in Arnarstapi you can take a break at the tiny historic seaside cottage turned small cafe called Fjoruhusid at the halfway point in Hellnar. Enjoy a pastry with coffee of tea, or order the authentic and delicious Iceland Fish Soup (which is what we did). With fantastic bread too. We splurged on the “cheesecake” made from skyr, a popular yogurt/sour cream-like favorite of the Iceland people.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
There were many more restaurants we would have liked to try during our time in Iceland. Well I guess we will need to go back! We equally enjoyed the traditional and the nouveau. As gifts we brought home lots of licorice, salt, and pickled herring. All delicious and well received. I am trying my hand in my kitchen with many new things including Fish Balls, Lamb Stew and Lobster Bisque. Keep an eye on our Tasty Tuesday YouTube channel for those upcoming Icelandic specialties.
Icelandic Cuisine Surprising & Delicious. Just one of many reasons to book a trip to beautiful Iceland. Such a breath of fresh air.
We spent three days in Reykjavik (well more like two and half due to jet lag), but we found it compact and easy to maneuver. We saw several interesting sites all within easy walking distance from our hotel. If you are passing through the beautiful Icelandic city of Reykjavik, we recommend the following – Reykjavik on foot.
Take a Stroll and see Reykjavik on Foot
Consider picking up Rick Steve’s Iceland Guide, as we found it very helpful and on our first day we did his self-guided walking tour in the downtown core. It’s compact and very easy to do this walking tour in just a couple of hours. If you don’t have the book, Reykjavik on foot is easy with our suggestions;
Start at Ingolfstorg Square – location of the original Reykjavik farm. Currently a gathering place, although somewhat drab, there are a few historic buildings near by, as is Vestiurgata which is the original shoreline. This area was filled in but a brass marker in the sidewalk marks the spot.
We enjoyed wandering the back streets and seeing the local homes. Most of the homes today, even the historic ones, are covered with galvanized steel siding that protects from Iceland’s rough climate. Homes are small and tidy and often very colorful and patriotic. Two streets we recommend are Mjostraeti and Athalstraeti.
A fascinating relief map of Iceland is available for viewing inside Reykjavik’s City Hall. We definitely recommend this if you are in Reykjavik on a week day. It’s free and really interesting.
Adjacent to city hall is the Pond (Tjornin) where on a nice day residents stroll and relax and feed the ducks. Across the pond you can see the University of Iceland and the National Museum which we recommend below. For more exercise you can extend your Reykjavik on foot tour with a walk all the way around the pond, about 2 miles.
Head away from the pond to see Austurvollur, Iceland’s Parliament Building and Square. Both historic and modern it is another gathering spot with lots of history.
Main Street Reykjavik on Foot
If you can, we recommend booking a hotel near the main street of Reykjavik known as Austurstraeti. We stayed in the very modest Hotel Fron. Nothing special, but comfortable and included breakfast for about $150 a night. The location however, is excellent for enjoying Reykjavik on foot, on one of the main streets called Laugavegur.
The Main Street area known as Austurstraeti is great for strolling and shopping. From our hotel we could head down the hill to several sites including Laekjartorg Square.
Angling off up the hill from Laugavegur is Skolavorthustigur Street, lined with a rainbow. Many shops and restaurants line this historic street. From the bottom of the street you have a great view of Hallgrimskirja Church. Head up the street to see this iconic landmark.
In the neighborhood of Hallfrimskirja you can also enjoy the Leif Erickson statue as well as Einar Jonsson Sculpture Garden just across the street.
Museums and Exhibitions
We did not see all the museums in Reykjavik but we were so glad we visited two. Both gave us a wonderful introduction to the history and geology of Iceland, prior to embarking on our camper van trek.
We highly recommend The National Museum of Iceland, just across the pond near the university and an easy walk from town. About $18 entry fee. The exhibit takes the visitor through ancient Iceland history and up to the 20th century. Superbly done and fascinating.
A bit further walk but still doable is the brand new experience known as the Perlan. The first fascinating thing about this is that it is built into two old water tanks (great use of a former eyesore). Entry fee is just under $40 but for that price you explore a variety of exhibits about the natural aspect of Iceland as well as enjoy a really well done movie about the aurora borealis. In addition you can walk through a very authentic ice cave. Upstairs don’t miss the coffee shop with the best view in Reykjavik.
On the Harbor
Just a quick mention of two sites of interest on the waterfront. If you have time take a walk through the Harpa Concert Hall, a architectural wonder. Check the schedule online for performances.
We also enjoyed a brief stop at the Sun Voyager sculpture. You will probably recognize this metal sculpture of a Viking Boat, particularly beautiful at sunset.
Eating in Reykjavik
Next week I’m going to explore more in depth the foods we discovered in Iceland, but today let me touch on a couple great places to eat. Thanks again to the Rick Steves guide we learned about the Hlemmur Food Hall – a converted bus station now housing several restaurants. We walked in and sat up at the bar of Skall without knowing anything about it. An excellent decision. Absolutely delicious and unique variety of small plates from cod to tomatoes, lumpfish roe to cauliflower.
We also had a fantastic meal at Rok. Reservations are a good idea here, but we arrived early enough that we were able to squeeze into a table. Rok is in a historic old house with beautiful wood beams and we again did a selection of small plates, sharing everything from langoustine soup (divine) to Icelandic char, reindeer and green salad. I’ll talk more about all these next week.
One thing I really recommend is to consider either a food tour (which we did) or a history tour with Your Friends in Reykjavik. Our food tour opened our eyes to some of Iceland’s most traditional (and a few bizarre) dishes. I’ll tell you about that next week.
Reykjavik on foot. Compact and easy, this city is interesting, maneuverable, colorful and delicious. I hope you will visit soon.
Have you ever considered visiting Iceland? Well, why not? Seriously, it was on our travel list for a long time, but we never managed to get there for more than a quick layover. That is until last month when we spent two weeks in this surprising island nation, about the size of Washington State. So join me as we explore Iceland by the Ring Road.
This is the first of three blogs I plan to write about our fun trip to Iceland. Today I’m going to tell you about touring remarkable Iceland by the Ring Road, (Route 1) that circumnavigates this arctic island. Next week I’ll talk about visiting Reykjavik and after that I’ll write about the Icelandic cuisine. I hope to inspire everyone to go see Iceland.
Iceland by the Ring Road
But first, Iceland by the Ring Road – after three days in Reykjavik we picked up our camper van from KuKu Caravans. We rented the medium size camper van. I knew I would not be happy in the small size, which is basically a regular soccer mom van converted with a bed. Our KuKu was larger, about 17 feet long with a tiny kitchen and a table that folded down into a bed. We were able to stand up in the van, which was really important for us. It wasn’t very comfortable but we made do. It did not have a bathroom. You see some people on the road with small RV’s and many locals have trailers. But the self-drive camper van is very popular. Our van cost about $200 per day. Diesel runs about $7 a gallon.
Pros and Cons
Pro’s and Con’s – If I did it again I’d spend more time looking at the total cost of the camper van including petrol and campground fees (around $30 a night for two people) and doing some comparative research to renting a car and staying in a hotel along the Ring Road. In hindsight I don’t think the hotel/car option would have been all that much more. However, we did save money cooking in the camper van, which we did 7 of the 9 days.
Another thing I would do differently is stay a few extra days in Reykjavik and do the Golden Circle and the Snaefellnes Peninsula as day trips from Reykjavik with a car. This way you could do the Ring Road in 6 to 7 days. Although this would mean renting a car to do the day trips, but for what we paid for our transfer from the airport ($150!) it would have been worth it.
Also consider your clothing, no matter what time of year, nights are chilly. I slept in my fleece lined leggings or my silk long underwear each night. Some nights I even wore a stocking cap to bed. The camper van does have heat, but temps in the 30’s Fahrenheit overnight were brisk. We brought our own sleeping bags but you can rent them from the camper van company. Bring lots of layers, even on sunny days the wind can be bitter. My down jacket was a lifesaver and a stocking cap a must.
So, before embarking, figure out what is most important to you, what your budget is and what your comfort level is. Iceland is expensive, but with some planning, you can make it work. Use what we learned to help.
After three days in Reykjavik we headed to pick up our KuKu and were on the road about 11:00am. We headed first to the Golden Circle, the closest area to Reykjavik. I should mention we chose not to go the Blue Lagoon, because we have visited there on a quick layover a few years ago.
The Golden Circle offers some fabulous introductions to the wonders of Iceland and its geothermal magic. Here you will also witness the first of thousands (no seriously, thousands) of waterfalls throughout the country.
Golden Circle Highlights
I recommend these five things on the Golden Circle for your planning purposes;
Thingvellir Rift – where the North American and European continents are slowly being pulled apart. Walk through the tectonic rift where ancient Icelandic chieftains met for annual governance.
Church and Cemetery – an easy walk across the river also gives you a great view back to the rift.
Oxararfoss Waterfall – easy walk to a beautiful falls in the Thingvellir area.
Geysir and the Strokkar Geyser – the word Geyser comes from the town of Geysir, a village sitting on a geothermal hot spot. Right off the road you can walk to the Strokkar Geyser, to watch it spew every three to four minutes.
Gullfoss – meaning Gold Waterfall, Gullfoss’ thundering falls can be heard from a long ways away, and the mist can be seen well before you actually make it to the viewing area at the edge of the falls. Come prepared to get a bit wet.
South Island Highlights
We left the Golden Circle and drove south to the teeny town of Vik for our first night in the camper van where we stayed at the Vik Tjaldsvaedi (this word means campground, you’ll get used to seeing it!). On our first night we enjoyed some homemade chili then bundled up and walked to the beautiful beach to see the low sun in the sky and the lava formations. We spent two nights along the south section of the island and these are our favorite things:
Black Sand Beach at Reynisfjara is stunning with giant basalt cliffs raising up from the black beach. This is where you might see nesting Icelandic puffins. Caution – the surf here can be very high and dangerous.
Svartifoss (Black Waterfall) is a great little hike with about 850 foot elevation gain. We did the 2.5 mile round trip in a downpour, but we still were glad we did it as the 60 foot waterfall that cascades through the black basalt columns was beautiful.
Skaftafell National Park is where we spent our second camper van night…a very rainy and windy night. We got cozy and ate homemade tacos in the van and went to sleep early. We woke up to a bright sunny day.
Jokulsarlon Lagoon is one of the top sights in Iceland and it’s easy to see why. The glacier lagoon is full of floating icebergs the color of turquoise. Just beautiful. You can wander around and also visit the black sand beach known as Diamond Beach where the icebergs get “beached” in the sand before melting or floating away.
The drive from here continuing east and eventually north is full of a jaw dropping beauty. Each mile presenting bucolic views with sheep and horses and cliff side coastal vistas and mountain scenery.
East and East Fjords Highlights
Our third night in the East was spent in tiny Atlavik campground on Lagarfljot lake. It was a bit out of the way, with no services anywhere near, so I was glad we stopped and picked up a few essentials. Spaghetti on the menu this night. A very quiet campground too.
Hengifoss Double Waterfall Hike – we were up very early and the first ones on the trail for this beautiful hike, across the lake to Hengifoss Waterfall. It’s a two-fer waterfall and for me one of the prettiest hikes we did. Leaving we took the road on the other side of the long lake and enjoyed beautiful views of forests and fields of lupines.
Seydisfjordur was our next destination, about an hour detour off of the Ring Road. This tiny village is home to the ferry terminal to Denmark. Getting there you drive over the top of a mountain with a moonlike landscape then drop down into the stunning narrow fjord where Seydisfjordur sits peacefully minding its business. It’s a fun detour to see life in a small Iceland Village. We walked around and enjoyed lunch then drove back over the mountain to the Ring.
Fourth night we stayed in a campground that was on a farm called Modrudalur. It claimed to be the highest altitude farm in Iceland. Driving there we went through another moonlike landscape, sitting inside a vast gray crater. The campground was quaint and quiet. There was a tiny restaurant and some cottages, but we cooked a frittata for our dinner in our camper van.
We headed out early the next morning as we had a long drive today, but the sun was shining and the landscape was incredible.
As we swung to the west and north we were now at the furthest north section we would travel, only about 63 miles from the arctic circle. At this point we were having 23 hours of sunlight each day, and even during sundown it never got dark. At night we would black out the windows in the camper van with coats and clothing as it never got dark the entire time we were in Iceland.
Dettifoss detour – an hour on a gravel road we were wondering if it was going to be worth it as we bumped along rattling everything in the camper van. But oh yes. It was worth it. Only a couple of other people at this site, and on this crystal clear sunny day we not only got to see the spectacular waterfall but a glorious full rainbow over the falls as well. Stunning.
Namafjalal Geothermal Area is right on the Ring Road just as you approach the Myvatn Lake area. It’s kind of like a miniature Yellowstone. Lots of midge flies here too, so if you have netting wear it. It’s also very stinky. The sulfur fumes can be overwhelming. But it’s also interesting and unusual.
We learned a lot about the geothermal and volcanic history of this region with visits to both the Skutustadir Pseudocraters and the Dimmuborgir Lava Formations area. Easy hikes at both give you views to both the ancient and the ever evolving Icelandic volcano activity.
Myvatn Geothermal Baths is one of the best and most popular baths in Iceland. This is a great option to experience bathing in a geothermal pool. We had planned to come back to the baths the next day…but unforeseen weather kept us from it.
We arrived in Akureyri at the end of this day and we loved our large and beautiful campground called Camping Hamrar where we planned to stay two nights. We finally got to do laundry here so I was very happy about it! On our first night we ate Pesto pasta in the camper van and headed to bed early after our full day.
The next day we received an email from the Kuku folks asking us to not drive this day, and all of Iceland was under an extreme wind watch. The government was asking folks not to drive on the Ring Road until the storm passed. Luckily we had some flexibility in our schedule so we took this day to enjoy the town of Akureyri with a few fun activities that didn’t require a long drive.
Akureyeri Botanical Gardens – it was very windy, but this beautiful, free city-owned park was a highlight. So unexpected. I have seen a lot of botanical gardens in my day and it was one of the best. Highly recommend.
Bjorbordin Beer Spa – since we weren’t supposed to drive very far, and I was nervous about it, we only traveled about 45 minutes north of Akureyri to this beer spa. It wasn’t something we had planned to do, until we had a day with nothing scheduled so we took the “plunge”. At $80 a person it was extravagant for us, but it was also really fun. The price includes all the beer you can drink.
In the camper on this night we cooked a delicious dinner of local Icelandic scallops and couscous.
Day Seven dawned bright and beautiful and the wind abated. We started our day getting a Covid test at the local medical center…still required for our return to the USA. It was well organized and we were done in a jiffy. The windstorm had passed so we took a hike in the mountains outside of Akureyri before heading west. About a five mile hike on the Lambi trail gave us some of the most spectacular views we had anywhere in Iceland. And we didn’t see another hiker the entire time.
West Iceland Highlights
After our hike we spent most of the day driving west and south, as we headed to the Snaefellness Peninsula. The drive was so beautiful. We stopped at a tiny campground/hostel called Saeberg, right on the fjord, and enjoyed both a geothermal hot tub and a wonderful conversation with a local woman who was a guide for a group on horseback who were staying at the hostel. We ate in a restaurant on this night, enjoying wonderful local Icelandic lamb chops.
Day 8 we arrived on the Snaefellnes Peninsula. We spent a leisurely two days seeing the sights here, some of the most beautiful in Iceland. It would be easy to see the Snaefellnes in one day, but we were happy to not be in a hurry.
Stykkisholmur Fishing town – this tiny town is another great example of how the locals live. Most Icelandic homes are modest one story houses. Near the port are the majority of the historic buildings and we enjoyed a coffee and croissant in a sidewalk cafe in the sun. The port is home to the ferry that goes across from the Peninsula to the West Fjords.
Beserkjahraun Lava Fields – you will drive right through the middle of this vast ancient lava flow of unusual shapes covered in a pale yellow lichen. Formed more than 4000 years ago, Icelandic folklore tells a tale of Viking warriors going to battle without armor, that the lava fields are named for.
Kirkjufell View Point – Kirkjufell Mountain and the waterfall adjacent to it is one of the most picturesque views in all of Iceland. In fact, this photo often graces guidebooks and websites. Be sure to stop and see it, even if it’s not a good weather day. It’s stunning.
We stopped in the teeny fishing village of Rif where we had a delicious early dinner of Fish and Chips, Icelandic Potato Salad and Coleslaw.
Skarthsvik Yellow Sand Beach – worth a quick stop if only for the uniqueness of the color of the sand against the black basalt cliffs. This is the only beach we saw on the island that was not a black sand beach.
Saxholl Crater – is a nearly 400 foot crater that juts out of the landscape very close to the road. It’s red and black conical shape is impossible to miss. A set of rust colored steps lead you to the top where you can peek into the crater and enjoy a remarkable 360 degree view. If Snaefelljokull Mountain is out, this is place to enjoy it.
Our campground on night 8 was a tiny but brand new spot in the town of Hellissandur called Hellissandur Camping, with sparkling clean bathrooms and common area. It was a treat. We woke up in the morning to a crystal clear view of Snaefelljokull Mountain (the name means ‘snow mountain glacier’), which we never expected because it is usually hidden in clouds. Special treat.
Hellissandur Murals – the teeny village of Hellisandur is all residential with almost no services, but it is proud to be Iceland’s Mural Capital. If you have time take a stroll through the tiny village and look at the many murals.
Djupalonssandur Black Sand Beach – worth a stop and walk through the lava formations out onto the beach. This used to be a thriving fishing spot where hopeful fisherman had to do a strength test by lifting stones from the beach. You will also see the remains of a British fishing trawler that crashed in 1948.
Hellnar to Arnarstapi walk – this was one of the funnest things we did on our trip. A short four-mile round trip walk along the fascinatingly beautiful ocean side basalt cliffs. The cliffs are home to thousands of nesting seabirds as well as an abundance of wildflowers. If you start in Arnarstapi you can take a break at the tiny historic seaside cottage turned small cafe called Fjoruhusid at the halfway point in Hellnar. Enjoy a pastry with coffee of tea, or order the authentic and delicious Iceland Fish Soup which is what we did. With fantastic bread too. We splurged on the “cheesecake” made from Skyr, a popular yogurt/sour cream-like favorite of the Iceland people.
Rauthfeldsgja Gorge – A literal gash in the side of the mountain is a short walk from the parking lot. Crawl over a few boulders and across a tiny creek to walk into the mouth of this gorge and look at the green moss and beautiful light.
Budir Black Church – a tiny settlement is home to one of the most distinctive church landmarks in Iceland.
Gerthurberg Basalt Cliffs – fascinating interlocking row of basalt pillars that look like a row of black piano keys. Worth a quick stop for a photo, or with more time climb to the top.
We spent our final night in a facing the beach in the Akranes Campground about 45 minutes outside of Reykjavik. We returned the camper van the next morning and took the shuttle to the airport.
Final Thoughts Iceland by the Ring Road
We did not tour the West Fjords, which are off the Ring Road. With two to three more days you could add the West Fjords, but the roads are rough and winding and you can not be in a hurry.
The Ring Road can get crowded during peak season with camper vans, cars, cyclist, hitchhikers and sheep! This two lane road has no shoulder and certain sections of the road are gravel. You will cross countless small bridges, many of which are one lane. You just can’t be in a hurry. Take that to heart and plan some extra days for bad weather or potential mechanical difficulties etc. Take it slow when doing Iceland by the Ring Road.
We did not see everything…not even close, despite our 13 days. So good planning is important to see the things of most interest to you.
The photos don’t do it justice…one of the most uniquely beautiful places I’ve been. See it now before the word gets out. Check out Rick Steve’s Iceland Guide – we found it very helpful. And visit www.visticeland.com the official tourism website for Iceland.
Be sure to check in next Friday for our Reykjavik recommendations.
We welcome questions if you are considering visiting Iceland. Ask away in the comments. We promise to respond.
Not everyone is ready yet to travel….and not every country is ready to accept international travelers. But after 13 and a half months stuck in the USA, we are ready to go. So many of you have been asking about our plans, so today I thought I would share with you how we are restarting the Grand Adventure.
The Grand Adventure which began in 2016 has evolved over time and will continue to evolve as we mitigate a new world. We may never again be able to flit from country to country the way we did before, but with planning, caution and ingenuity we think we can have a travel life full of adventure and intrigue.
Restarting The Grand Adventure
After abandoning our travels mid-itinerary in spring 2020, this week we embark on our first international trip. During our time in the USA we have done a lot of travel to eight different states. But this will be our first trip out of the USA since April 30, 2020.
We fly this week to Iceland for a two-week adventure. No tour, just on our own, using the Rick Steves Iceland Guide. Our visit includes three days in Reykjavik, then nine days in a camper van exploring the island. We have visited Iceland before, but only for two short days so we have always wanted to go back. Iceland seems like a safe place for restarting the Grand Adventure.
Summer and Fall
After two weeks in Iceland we will return to Washington State for the rest of the summer, as summer is the best time of year to be here in the Pacific Northwest. We have a couple of short excursions planned within the state as well as a trip to Maine in early September.
On September 20th we fly back to Maui where we will stay in the apartment of a friend who will be off island for six weeks and then two additional weeks in an Airbnb. Then we fly to Los Angeles before heading on to Arizona and the Grand Canyon. Next we have a trip to Mexico City for a Taco Tour (no joke, a whole week of eating tacos with a guide) and on to Oaxaca before returning to Washington to spend Christmas with our family.
2022 Away We Go
January and February will be spent in French Polynesia. OMG yes it will. First time there so I’m really excited. We will spend two months on the island of Moorea as a big step towards restarting the Grand Adventure.
March is still unplanned but we tentatively hope to fly back to Washington, say hi to the fam, repack and reorganize and then, embark to Israel and restart the itinerary we abandoned, almost two years to the day in March 2020. We have not booked that yet…we will wait and watch and keep our fingers crossed that the world will find its way and we can find our way back to the retirement life we were living and had always dreamed of.
I plan to continue to blog until its not fun anymore so keep following and we will tell you what we are doing. Finding us on Instagram is a great way to get daily updates and beautiful and fun photos and videos. We love your interest and are grateful. Cheers to all of you for your continued support!
I’ve learned a lot of things from living in the PanDamit, mostly to be more patient and flexible. Additionally I’ve learned there are a lot of crazy people and I just need to keep my head down and do the things I believe in, without judging even when I am being judged. Like I’ve said before, I absolutely refuse to be a victim in all of this. Instead I am searching for the learning opportunities and growing each and everyday from this life we are handed. It is still a fabulous life. And if our adventures help others make the step forward cautiously into the brave new world, then our work here is done.
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