I was trying to write a blog about the local food for this week, but oh my goodness there is so much excellent food and I am still experimenting and eating my way through! So, instead I will wait and have a foodie post next week. I should be ready by then so be sure not to miss it – the flavors of French Polynesia are wonderful. Meanwhile, this week, we have been happily exploring and settling into our long stay on this remarkable island. And so I give you Mo’orea Musings – French Polynesia Week Two.
Week two provided us exactly the weather we had expected when planning this trip. No more monsoons! Just showers now and then with lots and lots of sunshine in between. We are very happy about all of that. We know we will have more rain, but Mo’orea Musings – French Polynesia Week Two has provided us many opportunities to be active and explore in the warm (and humid) temperatures. We are now into a regular running and hiking schedule. No golf though, as we left our clubs at home this time.
Food and Culture
Week Two we discovered so much about the local food and culture and this is why it needs its own entire blog post. The local influence of French and Chinese to the Polynesian foods has created a wonderful and delicious as well as eclectic cuisine. I’ll tell you more next week. Meanwhile, the local people are incredibly friendly and helpful. On more than one occasion we have had locals drop what they were doing to help us find our way or interpret for us. They are kind and sweet and make us feel very welcome.
Life is pretty simple on Mo’orea. People live in simple homes and live simple lives. I’m sure on Tahiti it’s a bit more citified…but here it’s very laid back and slow.
The culture of these islands is influenced by many factors. The Polynesian people, known as great navigators, migrated to these islands from all over Southeast Asia starting in 500BC. They managed to govern themselves fine, but the French arrived in the 1600’s and took over. C’est le vie. Today French is the official language but English is spoken by many and the native language of Tahitian is spoken by many. There are still about 2 million people who claim Polynesian ethnicity.
This week we took a food tour, a cooking class, ate in a couple of restaurants and went to a Polynesian cultural show and dinner. All of these experiences will get pulled into next week’s post.
Mo’orea is an ancient volcanic island, about ten miles from its larger sister of Tahiti. This beautiful and lush island is very reminiscent of the Hawaiian island of Kauai. Kauai is estimated to be about 5 million years old while Mo’orea is closer to 2 million years old. The green mountains rise dramatically out of the incredible turquoise water with spires and peaks and craggy rocks jutting here and there. This makes for difficult but beautiful hiking options.
The coral reef that surrounds the island was described by Darwin as like a picture frame and helped him solidify his theory about atolls. The coral was originally part of the island’s lava flow. Over the millennia it pushed it way out to ring the island and the coral thrived in the environment. It makes a beautiful lagoon around the island and provides safe snorkeling, paddling and swimming opportunities as well as a wonderful home for sea life.
Although Mo’orea is not an active volcano, the recent volcanic explosion and ensuing tsunami in Tonga (1200 miles west) reminds us how our planet is in constant evolution. Following the tsunami we went in search of information regarding the local tsunami procedures and warning systems here on Mo’orea and learned where we are to go in such an emergency. We feel prepared.
There are however a few negatives, but they are hardly enough to mention. But here they are anyway;
Dogs – like many places we have traveled around the world there are ALOT of feral dogs and clearly there is no spay-neuter program in place. It’s sad to see the condition of many of these animals.
Speed – people drive REALLY fast on the two lane road that rings the island and often pass. Yikes. However, over the past couple of years a bike lane has been added on both sides of the ring road all the way around the island. This gives me a safe running lane, although staying alert with the speeding cars is important. Many people use bikes to get around an Motos too, but the bike lane is a nice addition for all of us.
Mosquitos – not the worst place I have been for bug bites (Seychelles Islands wins that award) but the mosquitos have been pretty annoying. Hopefully now that the sun is back, the mosquitoes will go!
Mo’orea Musings – French Polynesia Week Two
We are relaxed and enjoying our new little island life. I promise next week we will have lot of foodie information to share! So I hope you will check back! Merci!
It’s been a weird and wonderful first week in French Polynesia (our 111th country!) where we will be living on the island of Mo’orea for two months. Getting here was no simple task…with ever changing PanDamit rules, overnight flights, weather woes etc., we were filled with gratitude on arrival. Here is our story – Mo’orea Musings – French Polynesia Week One.
As our departure date loomed and Omicron exploded we found ourselves checking the French Polynesia entry requirements incessantly. We didn’t honestly know if we would actually go. But as we have said before, we are approaching travel in the brave new world like a poker game…some skill, some luck, and some divine intervention. Living the gamble and a few prayers for good measure.
In November FP changed it’s entry requirements to a 24 hour test from time of departure. Our embarkation point was San Francisco so we had to base our 24 hour test on an 11pm departure from San Francisco. This meant testing in the morning before departing out of Seattle. No easy task. We pinpointed three Rapid Antigen sites and headed to the first one in Port Orchard Washington at 8:30am where we found a three hour wait (outdoors). Ugh. Moving on to Tacoma we lucked out at a site that took us in about 15 min. Only 30 minutes later we had our negative results. Hallelujah.
Both our flights were pretty full and we were happy to have our newly acquired N95 masks which feel much more secure and more comfortable than what we have been using (KN95 and regular surgical mask). We dozed but didn’t really sleep very well on the nine hour flight from SF to Tahiti so we were pretty dazed on arrival.
Despite all our research we weren’t really sure what to expect on arrival. One thing we were grateful for was that we had printed all of our Covid documents, entry documents as well as an email we had with correspondence from the French Polynesian President’s office. Although we had all this on our phones it was quick and easy to show the printed documents as we proceeded through the three step process on arrival;
Step One – showing our documents from our negative Antigen test 24 hours before departure.
Step Two – Anyone who had Antigen tests (even if negative) had to have a Rapid PCR on arrival. We knew this and got in that line next. There were about a dozen testers and it went really fast. We expected to pay for this but it was free.
Step Three – Our research had given us the impression we would need to quarantine for up to three days as we waited for the PCR. But instead, step three was to go through to passport control and into baggage, get the bags and then wait 25 minutes. A sticker on our passport said the time when we would be clear to leave the airport. So after 25 minutes and no red flag positive Covid results we were free to leave.
From landing to taxi was about one hour and 45 minutes. It was well organized and everyone was nice and helpful. So off we went to Mo’orea Musings – French Polynesia Week One.
On to Mo’orea
It was POURING down rain. We grabbed a cab for the short ride to the ferry terminal to leave the island of Tahiti and head to Mo’orea. We made the 8:10am ferry but got absolutely drenched running from the terminal to the vessel. The stormy weather gave us rocky seas and I was really nervous given my motion sickness history. But, with mama’s little pill, and staring out at the horizon for the thirty minute crossing I made it. Maeva Mo’orea!
Avis Rent a Car right at the Mo’orea Ferry Terminal was convenient and very helpful. So we were in a car within minutes. Then we had two hours to kill before we could check in to our Airbnb. Super jet-lagged driving seemed dangerous. But since the weather was crappy there was really no where to go so we ended up stopping for groceries and then driving all the way around the island.
Mo’orea by the Numbers
Bigger than Praslin in the Seychelles and smaller than Maui, Mo’orea is about the same size as Orcas Island in Washington State. About ten miles by 7 miles. The ring road is about 61 km (38 miles) and encircles the island. A few roads go inland off the ring road but it is the main road for most of the traffic. The area is 134 square kilometers and the population is around 18,000. The highest point is Mont Tohi’e’a is 1207 m (3960 feet). It’s very mountainous!
Mo’orea has six communes (villages) scattered around the island. We are in the commune of Teavaro, home to about 2000 people.
French Polynesia is 60% vaccinated and a mask mandate is in effect for indoors, although many people where masks outdoors as well. FP had a huge Covid spike in August which dropped off to zero for early winter, but began a gradual climb again over the holidays. But nowhere near what it was in August. Mo’orea has one hospital and several clinics that service the population, which currently is very light with tourists. We feel quit alone in the tourist category. We feel safer from Covid here than we do at home.
Parlez Vous Francais?
French is the official language but most people speak excellent English as well as the local Polynesian language Tahitian. Our Airbnb host, who lives on Tahiti but is here one day a week, speaks excellent English. I know bits and pieces of French but not enough to carry on an intelligent conversation. Of course through all our travels we have learned to use Google translate to read information on packages and signs. Even with Google it took us 20 minutes to figure out how to turn on the washing machine. Oh la la.
Meanwhile our darling little bungalow in the village known as Teavaro is a fabulous space, with a kitchen, large covered porch, tiny pool and beach front. Less than a mile to grocery and restaurants and large public beaches. We feel very comfortable here and our host is wonderful. Merci!
Tsunamis and Celebrations
We arrived on January 13th and I celebrated my birthday on January 14th. Still incredibly jet-lagged we enjoyed a quiet birthday at the bungalow, and watched it rain nearly two inches in 24 hours (more on that below). It was an uneventful but nice birthday. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to us, 1200 miles West a giant volcanic explosion near the island of Tonga created tsunami warnings all around the Pacific. We didn’t learn about this until nearly 12 hours later when we awoke on the 15th and read it in the news.
Although Hawaii (due north of us 2600 miles) as well as the West Coast of the USA, Australia, New Zealand and even Japan all went into Tsunami alert, we heard absolutely nothing from the FP government or warning systems. What the heck?
There were no visible signs of anything unusual on our beach, which is only about 30 feet from our front porch. This experience however prompted us to take a good look around at what our evacuation options are. When we first started traveling we used to do this regularly, but I admit I have gotten a bit lax about it. I still am that girl on an airplane that pinpoints my nearest exit before settling into my seat…but tsunami evacuation route isn’t something I think about…until now.
The reality is, no matter where we are, or what disaster might present itself, we will be on our own to save ourselves. This is true at home or abroad. A little preparation goes a long way.
Monsoons and Mosquitoes
Well we are here in the rainy season. However, everyone we meet, including our host, says this sustained rain is extremely unusual. If you have any doubt about climate change spend a few years traveling around the world. Because EVERYWHERE we have gone over the past five years we have heard these words about the weather, “this is not normal”. Not normal is the new normal from what we can tell. And the incredible amount of rain we have seen since arriving on Mo’orea is not normal. Not much to do about it though, and so we are okay. Hopeful it will clear eventually.
Meanwhile the rain and floods have brought out the mosquitoes in droves. Mosquitoes generally find me exceptionally tasty anyway, but at the end of week one I am covered in bites. C’est la vie!
Mo’orea Musings – French Polynesia Week One
After a week of pretty much doing nothing but reading, playing scrabble and watching it rain, we have some plans for the week ahead. We have a reservation to do both a street food tour and a Polynesian dinner and show. With improving weather we also plan to get out to some of the beaches and restaurants. But we have enjoyed a relaxing week and have been perfectly fine just hanging out and doing very little for our Mo’orea Musings – French Polynesia Week One. We may or may not blog each week…time will tell.
Thank you for joining us in this weird and wonderful week.
We have always stayed in Kihei when visiting Maui. Kihei is in the southern part of the island, with a dry and almost desert like climate. But this time we are house sitting for our friends, and are finding we are loving the west side and the experience of many new things. Although I have spent so much time on the island of Maui, it never ceases to surprise me! Here are some thoughts – Napili Surprise Our New Favorites.
Napili is a tiny hamlet tucked in between Kahana and Kapalua about three miles north of the more well-known and touristy Kaanapali area. Technically all these places mentioned above are part of the city of Lahaina, but each has a distinct flavor of its own.
Napili is book ended by Kapalua on the north, which I would describe as affluent and upscale, home to the renowned Kapulua Golf Club. On its south flank Napili borders Kahana, more simple and family oriented with condos but also many local residential neighborhoods.
It’s actually hard to define where Napili begins and ends, but for my purposes in this blog post, my reference points are from Kapalua Beach to Kahana Sunset Condos along the Lower Honoapiilani Hwy.
Climate and History
Napili has a long and rich history going back to its first Polynesian settlers arriving in the 8th century. Wet and lush, the region was and still is a prominent agricultural area for native islanders.
Although not the rainiest part of the island, Napili’s annual rainfall is four times that of the arid Kihei area. While we were here we saw spits of rain nearly everyday, but only two times was it significant enough to keep us from our plans. Much of the rain happens overnight or early morning from my observations. And due to this, there are rainbows every single day. So beautiful.
During our six weeks living in Napili we have loved the low-key local vibe, especially since we have been living in an apartment complex of locals rather than in a tourist resort. The school bus comes each morning and neighbors are friendly and it feels very much like home.
The Napili surprise – finding our favorites in this small little village has been very easy. There are a few ocean side resorts, and I hope when people stay in one of those, they get out and see some of this tiny town. For instance;
Napili Plaza – the only shopping area in Napili, the plaza is home to a small but great grocery store (the Napili Market), as well as hair and nail salons, mail services, a coffee shop and bakery, a boutique and a handful of small restaurants which are all worth a visit.
A’ A Roots – I’m not vegan, but I am very much into healthy eating and sustainable food and that is the mission of A’ A Roots, a small vegan restaurant in Napili Plaza. When we visited the inside was still closed due to Covid, but they had a few outside tables and take away as well. We had a fantastic meal for lunch and it’s a not-to-miss spot in Napili.
Slack Key Show – Grammy winning George Kahumoku Jr and a group of very talented local artists perform twice a week at the Napili Kai resort. This fabulous series is in its 18th year and is a great way to learn about Hawaii’s love of the slack key guitar, as well as the ukelele. This concert was an amazing Napili surprise and we enjoyed it very much.
Kapalua Coastal Trail – Although named after Kapalua, the trail begins in Napili and heads north through Kapalua. This trail offers astonishing views of the ocean, the island of Molokai and sometimes whales and dolphins. At the northern end of the trail you will find the Dragon’s Teeth Labyrinth, definitely worth a visit. If you are up to it, from the Labyrinth take Office Road up the hill past the Honolua Store to Pineapple Hill for a beautiful view and work out.
Napili Farmers Market – walking distance from our apartment and Napili Plaza is the twice-a-week Napili Farmers Market. Held every Wednesday and Saturday, the market changes regularly but offers local produce, honey, baked goods and crafts. We purchased some delicious Baba ganoush and flat bread.
Sunset at Honokeana Bay – This rocky bay is a bit difficult to access (look for the gravel trail between Honokeana Cove and Napili Point Resorts), but is a beautiful place for spotting sea turtles and for watching the sunset. Check it out.
Honu (Sea Turtles)– The native Hawaii Green Sea Turtle is protected under the endangered species act since 1978. It is against federal law to touch or harass these beautiful creatures either in the water or on land. Every beach we visited in Napili offered a great way to view the turtle population from the beach. The Honu have increased in number since they became protected, and as frequent visitors to Maui we definitely have noticed an increase in Honu sightings. Napili is a great place to watch these beautiful creatures from a respectful distance.
Check out this link below of a video we posted on Instagram of a green sea turtle.
Napili Bay – This beautiful bay is a great place to snorkel, swim and enjoy the sandy beach. There is a small public parking area on the south end of the beach. A handful of small condos front the beach as well as the historic and beautiful Napili Kai Resort.
The Sea House Restaurant – One of my top restaurants on the entire island, the gorgeous beach front restaurant The Sea House is in the Napili Kai resort on the north end of beautiful Napili Bay. Make a reservation and don’t miss a beautiful evening at The Sea House. Funny story, when we ate there it started to pour down rain but my food was so delicious I carried under the eaves to finish it…I didn’t want to miss a bite!!!
The Gazebo – So this is one of those places that gets a reputation and then it explodes…some people waiting hours to eat macadamia nut pancakes or a mountain of fried rice with eggs. I’m not sure it warrants a two hour wait, but the view is nice, it’s fairly inexpensive by Maui standards and it’s kind of a local icon. If you don’t want to wait for hours arrive by 7am for the 7:30 opening.
On the Fringe
Technically not in Napili, we also spent a lot of time at Kapalua Bay and Secret Beach in Kahana. Additionally we frequently visited The Fish Market on the border between Kahana and Kaanapali as well as the long stretch of Kaanapali Beach. Our favorite beach was Secret Beach in Kahana, because, as it’s name implies, we usually had it to ourselves, except for the dozens of green sea turtles that call this beach home.
Through the years and our many visits to this beautiful island I continue to be astonished by the variety of hidden gems we find each visit. You will never see everything because Maui constantly changes and evolves while remaining graceful and beautiful and friendly. Maui – The Valley Isle. Napili Surprise – Our New Favorites.
Maui is hands down my favorite of all the Hawaiian Islands. We have now been on Maui for seven weeks and still have two more weeks to go! Everything about it I love. And despite the fact there isn’t anything negative I can say about this beautiful place, I do have some favorites. So today I thought I would share with you my Maui top five things to do – best of the best.
Top Five Beaches
Keawakapu – our most frequented beach in South Kihei offers a wide sandy beach, warm clear water and gentle waves
Makena Beaches – Makena also in the south, is dotted with public access to dozens of beautiful and often secluded beach. Secret Beach is worth finding. MaKena Beach State Park is a wonderful huge expanse of a beach and rarely busy.
Black Beach Hana – for the sheer beauty of it, Black Beach on the road to Hana is worth a visit
Baldwin Beach – on the north shore Baldwin Beach is great for body surfing
Napili Bay Beach – I have not swam at this beach but it is so beautiful and has easy access at the north end of the island
Top Five Snorkeling
Black Rock Kaanapali – the beach in front of the Kaanapali Sheraton known as Black Rock is one of my favorite places to snorkel. Clear and full of fish and turtles.
Turtle Rock – On a guided snorkel trip a few years ago we had the most amazing time at Turtle Rock – hundreds of turtles here.
Molokini – Though sometimes crowded, a snorkel tour to Molokini is a must at least once in your life to see the abundant marine life here.
Makena Beaches – there are several public access beaches on this long stretch of south Maui with some of the best and easily accessed snorkeling on the island.
Keawakapu – my favorite beach, and the one closest to where we usually stay, has an easy access into the water with snorkel options at the far north of the beach around a large lava reef. Wonderful sealife, turtles and fish.
Top Five Activities
Old Lahaina Lu’au – the creme de la creme of Lu’aus, Old Lahaina has just recently reopened after being closed for 8 months due to the pandemic. I have enjoyed this Luau several times, and although expensive, it is worth every penny. Reservations are required.
Maui Zipline – Maui Zipline is where it all began, the first zipline in the USA. Safe and fun and now reopened with even more safety features.
Whale Watching – from November to April Maui is home to some of the earth’s most amazing creatures, the magnificent humpback whales. A must-do activity while visiting Maui is enjoy a guided tour with the Pacific Whale Foundation.
Ghost Tours Lahaina – more of a history lesson than a ghost encounter, this walking tour with a local will open your eyes to some of the hidden history and mystic Hawaiian lore. Very informative and entertaining.
Chef Prepared dinner – many local chefs are available to bring dinner to you, cooking and serving a beautiful Hawaiian meal for two to ten or even more in your condo or local hale.
Top Five Hikes
Waihee Ridge – mid island, five mile roundtrip with incline to spectacular views but weather can be unpredictable.
Kapalua Coastal Trail – hugging the coast from Kapalua to Napili this rugged and beautiful hike has views of Molokai, Lanai and the ocean. Windy.
Halemau’u Haleakala – hike down into the crater starting at 8000 foot level where you will find easy parking. The trail is a switch back and easy for most fit hikers. Temperatures can be very cold at times.
Sliding Sands Haleakala – this is a work out let me tell you, but if you are fit it’s spectacular. Bring lots of water, be prepared for wind and cold or heat and sun you never know. A great place to see the rare and beautiful Silver Sword plant.
Hoapili, La Perouse – past Makena where the road ends you will find parking and the trailhead of the Hoapili, the historic Kings Road. The rough trail takes you over a 300 year old lava field to the far south end of the island. Bring lots of water, it is a hot and dry trail.
So if you are thinking about visiting Maui for the first time, or are planning to return for another visit, check out some of my top fives – you can’t go wrong with any of them.
Be a Kind & Generous Visitor
And remember, Maui took a big hit during the 7-month closure during the pandemic. The local people lost jobs, income and businesses closed permanently, on this island that depends on tourism. If you can afford to visit Maui, you can afford to make a donation while you are there. Many local agencies can use your support now. The Maui Food Bank is one that is helping some 32,000 local residents who don’t know where their next meal is coming from.
Help breathe life back into the local economy by shopping and dining at locally owned stores, supporting locally run activities, taking time to talk to and understand the local people and their culture, and donate to a local non-profit agency that is helping the local people.
We weren’t going to do the road to Hana this time – we’ve done it before, more than once. So it wasn’t on our list. But somehow we ended up driving it today – backwards. Let’s talk about Going to Hana Backwards.
Well, not actually backwards, but the opposite way that most people do the road to Hana. And now, I’ll never do it the other way again.
The Road to Hana (Canva)
We were just going to go to Oheo Gulch and do the four mile round trip hike to the waterfall. This hike is also known as the Pipiwai Trail (formerly known as the Seven Sacred Pools, which are neither sacred nor seven). So we thought we would go in the backdoor, up through Kula and along the roughest part of the Hana road which many people never see. By the way, many people still think this road is impassable. It is not. And also many people think the rental car agencies say you can’t take your car there. Most do not. Read your agreement to be sure. The road is perfectly drivable in the Hundai rental car we have.
Driving that part of the road you get to have it mostly to yourself. The views across to the Big Island are beautiful on a clear day, and even on a cloudy day the crashing waves on the jagged rocks below are magnificent.
We planned to return to Kihei on this same stretch of road, but decided after our wonderful hike to go visit Black Sand Beach just North of Hana. And then it seemed to just make sense to take the road all the way around.
Black Sand Beach (Canva)
When you head north from Hana back to Paia late in the afternoon you are moving with the majority of traffic, given that most people turn around at Hana and head back late in the afternoon. This actually works in your favor because the caravan of cars going the same direction makes for easy access on the many one lane bridges you cross on the Road to Hana. Very limited traffic heading south at that time of day makes the crosses easy. You rarely need to stop for oncoming traffic.
Combine that with the nearly deserted section of road we drove in the early part of the day, we made really good time doing the entire Hana Loop. In addition we got to enjoy breakfast in Kula, beautiful vistas of Kihei, Makena and the Big Island. Early birds at Oheo Gulch made the parking perfecto and because we were traveling in the opposite direction of most people, we were arriving at Black Sand Beach in the afternoon just as most people were leaving there to go to Oheo Gulch.
So Backwards is the new Forwards.
Well, when it comes to going to Hana anyway. Try it!
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.
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