Tag: Europe

My Travel Planning Process

My Travel Planning Process

How to Plan for an Amazing Trip (My Way)

I recently found a great airfare deal and booked myself a ticket to Paris. Just me. No one else. This is my first ever solo trip, and I’m a little nervous but also very excited. Okay, considering that I don’t really speak French, I’ma lot nervous. But in the words of Dr. Sheldon Cooper, “If there were a list of things that make me more comfortable, lists would be on the top of that list.” So I’m making a lot of lists in preparation for my trip.

Travel Planning Process: How I'm planning my first ever solo trip to Paris.

As I dive into doing this trip 100% my way for 100% me, I thought it might be helpful to show you what my travel planning process looks like.  But first, a disclaimer: I am a highly structured, type A, over-planning kind of person, even on vacation. If you prefer to be a little less organized more spontaneous than me, you might want to follow this guide loosely and omit anything that seems like it might be too much effort.

Step 1: Have No Destination or Date in Mind

travel planning process - if possible, and to save money, start out being flexible on destination or dates

Yes, you heard it here first. The best plan starts by having no plan. Amazing vacations often present themselves as unanticipated opportunities in the form of cheap airfare. When you choose your destination or dates first, you lose a lot of flexibility in how much you will need to spend. My family and I have flown from Baltimore to both Peru and Iceland for around $200 per person round trip. It can be done. And since we want to travel as much as we can, it only follows that we need to do it as cheaply as we can.  After all, money saved on this trip means more money for the next trip!

Step 2: Start Putting Together a Destination List

travel planning process - make lists of where you want to go

One of the first places I look once I’ve booked my tickets is Pinterest, which I have written about before. Pinterest is great because not only is it a place to find destination ideas, it’s also a place to keep destination ideas. As soon as I’ve booked a trip, I create a board for my new destination and start pinning away. At first I pin everything that looks even vaguely interesting. For instance, my trip is to Paris but I’m pretty much pinning everything in France that I find of interest. I’ll be able to go through later and scale down, but if I find 3+ points of interest relatively close together outside of the city, that might make for a good day trip.

Depending on how anal organized I want to be, I might then set up a different board for each day of the trip with the activities for that day. I realize that it sounds over the top, but when you’re in an unfamiliar place, it actually makes sense to plan a day’s activities according to where they are located. Less time in transit between points makes for more time to see the sights.

The only caution I have to offer about using Pinterest as part of your travel planning process is to not allow your board to become oversaturated with images. You only need one pin with helpful information about visiting, for example, the Eiffel Tower. You do not need eight to twelve pins about the Eiffel Tower because they all have stunning images to go with them. The more you look at pictures, the less impressed you will be when you stand before it in person.

Other sites I like to peruse for things to see at a particular destination are Roadside America (US travel only) and Atlas Obscura. Both of these sites offer tips for seeing things that are off the beaten path and not likely to be on every tourist’s must-see list. They also usually have some history attached to them, which you know I love.

Corollary to Step 2: Accept That You Can’t See it All

travel planning process: to stay sane, set limits as to what you can reasonably hope to see/do on your trip

Unless you are visiting your destination for a very long time, you will have to prioritize what things you want to see and do on your trip. You cannot realistically expect to see every great architectural wonder, museum, monument, cathedral, park, and restaurant in one week’s time.

If you compile a massive list of all the places you want to see, and add to it all the places someone (friends/family/blogger/travel guidebook) recommended that you see, you are going to end up with a very long list. And when you find that you only have time to do about 20% of the things on that list, you will probably be disappointed and/or feel like your trip has been a failure.

I prioritize my destinations into three distinct lists:  Must See (I will not forgive myself if I don’t do this), Should See (important in order for me to consider the trip a success), and If There’s Time (everything else). The Must See List should be reserved only for iconic sights and experiences – things that, if you don’t do them, you won’t feel like you really even went to that location. In the case of Paris, it would be visiting the Eiffel Tower and seeing the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. The Should See list will have a reasonable amount of attractions/activities – between one and four per day. The If There’s Time list, if you’ve kept track of all those recommendations, should be the largest list.

Step 3: Finding Lodging

Travel Planning Process: Things to consider when booking lodging on your trip

A lot goes into finding the perfect place to stay. Here are just a few of the things you must consider:

  • Expense – How much can you afford for this portion of your trip?
  • Area – What sort of neighborhood do you want to stay in? Hip and trendy, or residential and quiet? How safe is the neighborhood you’re considering? Do you want to have a room with a view?
  • Type of accommodations – Do you want complete privacy? Do you want to be able to fix some of your own meals? Do you want to stay someplace that provides you with breakfast each day? Will you need local staff to provide you with recommendations on where to go?
  • Convenience to public transport – If you aren’t renting a vehicle, you may want to make sure that you are within walking distance of a subway station or bus route

As for when to book, I’ve found that you want to do it far enough in advance that you have plenty of options (particularly if you plan to stay in an Airbnb or private home), but not too far in advance in case your itinerary changes. There is nothing worse than booking a place for an entire week, only to decide later that you want to spend part of the time elsewhere. I’d say three months ahead is probably a good window, but you can go with less advance booking if you’re staying in a hotel.

Step 4: Buying Tickets in Advance

travel planning process: consider buying tickets for attractions in advance online so you won't have to wait in line when you arrive

I will admit, this step is riskier than the others. The potential benefits of buying your admission tickets in advance are:

  • Little to no time spent waiting in line when you arrive at the attraction.
  • Allows you to start paying for your vacation expenses before you go
  • No need to worry about an event being sold out; your admission is guaranteed
  • Some venues offer a cheaper admission rate when booking online.

The potential drawbacks of buying your tickets in advance are:

  • Your plans change and you cannot go on the day for which you purchased admission
  • You forget to take your tickets with you when you go (or lose them, or they get stolen, etc.)

Now, as you can see, there are more pros than cons here. Also, in many cases, venues who offer online admission sales either are not date specific or will honor your ticket on a different date if you cannot use it on the date you originally booked. These days, you will most likely have an email or other electronic record of your ticket, which should suffice if the printed version got lost.

Step 5: Keep it Together, Girl!

travel planning process: keep your information color coded and organized in a binder or folder

This is where my type A super-efficient personality makes most people roll their eyes and groan. I color code all of the information I’ve assembled (green for financial, blue for nighttime activities, orange for daytime, hot pink for anything in the Must See category, etc). Then I make a folder or three ring binder with all of the information I will need for my trip.

I keep everything that I need together and sort it by day. Typically, each day’s packet will include:

  • a list of activities for the day
  • maps and/or directions on how to get from A to B
  • printed admission tickets if purchased online
  • brochures or other information about what I will be doing (opening and closing times, special significance, etc.)

It might be important to note that I do not carry the entire binder around with me – just that day’s pertinent documents. Apps are great, but I’m old school enough that I like paper. Using paper doesn’t have me at the mercy of finding a wifi connection.

YMMV

I cannot stress enough that this is the process that works for me. Following these steps is what gives me peace of mind so that I can relax and enjoy my trip. If you prefer to be impetuous and plan as you go, that’s great. You do you! The point is to be prepared for your trip, know what you want, and not spend valuable vacation time under stress.  Bon Voyage!

The travel planning process - practical tips to get the most out of your trip.

 

 

 

Iceland in One Week – A Budget Friendly Itinerary

Iceland in One Week – A Budget Friendly Itinerary

Iceland on a Budget: An Oxymoron?

Talk to anyone who has been to Iceland and one of the first things they tell you is that it is absolutely stunning, and should be on everyone’s bucket list. Another thing they will tell you is that it is an incredibly expensive place to visit. Like, probably the most expensive country in the world.

I’m not a fan of carrying debt, and I try to do most things as cheaply as possible without compromising the experience. So here’s the itinerary my family used when we went to Iceland in February. If it cost money for us to do it, I will note the price. If no price is listed, the site did not charge an admission fee.

Day 1: Arrival & Jet Lag in Reykjavik

We flew non-stop from Baltimore and arrived local time around 5:30 AM. Our bodies, however, thought it was midnight, and we were ready for bed. No such luck… check in at our Airbnb was not until 2:00 PM.  That left us with a lot of time to kill and not a lot of energy.  Fortunately, I stumbled upon a great little museum that opens at 7 AM and is very close to the airport. By the time we claimed our bags and got our rental car, it was 7:00, so we went straight to the museum – Viking World (or Vikingaheimar in Icelandic).

The museum also has a breakfast buffet which costs roughly $5 more than museum admission alone. So, for $20 each, we got a hearty breakfast, coffee (thank you, Lord!) and an introduction to Viking lore and history. We spent 2-3 hours there, taking in the exhibits and feeling like we had the place to ourselves.

After that, we explored Reykjavik a little bit. There was a great bookstore I wanted to visit (Bókabúð Máls og Menningar), so hubs found a parking garage where he could nap while I explored. Also nearby was a Christmas shop where I bought an ornament as my only souvenir, and this really cool building covered in artwork:

Iceland on a Budget - Look out for amazing street art in Reykjavik.

By this time, though, I was starting to drag. I went back to the car, woke hubs up, and off we went to buy groceries. (The only smart thing to do if you’re trying to do Iceland on a budget. Eating out can cost a small fortune.) By the time we finished that, it was time to check in and unpack. I then crashed for a much-needed but all too brief nap.

After we had rested a little, we got back in the car and drove back to downtown Reykjavik. We went to the iconic Hallgrimskirkja church. The inside is a lot less ornate than older European churches, but it was still quite grand. We purchased tickets to go up inside the clock tower ($10 per adult, $1.50 per child up to age 14). From there we enjoyed amazing views of the city:

Iceland on a Budget - There is a fee to go to the top of the clock tower of Hallgrimskirkja church.

After that, we still had some daylight, so we headed to Perlan. I hadn’t run across many people talking about this site on travel blogs, but it seemed intriguing, and they had a simulated ice cave.

Why should that matter, you ask? Well, I really wanted to tour an ice cave while in Iceland, but it was cost prohibitive. At roughly $200 per person, it would have cost $600 for Hubs, Daughter and me to do it. That’s not even within the realm of possibility when you’re trying to experience Iceland on a budget!

Perlan admission, on the other hand, was roughly $29 per adult and $15 for children age 6-15. Still a bit pricey, but much more manageable.  Was it as cool as being inside a real ice cave formed by nature? No, of course not! But it was still a neat experience that provided us with some really great photos.

Iceland on a Budget - See a man made ice cave at Perlan for $30, or the real thing for $200.

Additionally, our guide was very entertaining, and we learned a lot about Iceland and glaciers at Perlan’s other exhibits. But the best part of Perlan was going out on the 360 degree observation deck, where we were treated to beautiful twilight views of the city.

Iceland on a Budget - The view from Perlan's 360-degree observation deck,

When we finished up exploring Perlan and looking at the view, we headed back to our lodging and off to bed.

I should note that while this day’s adventure’s may sound expensive and not at all budget friendly, it is the only day that we spent any money on anything other than food, shelter, and transportation. Our activities on all of the days that followed were free of charge.

Day 2: The Golden Circle

The husband of a friend of a friend is a native of Iceland, and is still living there while he tries to get immigration to the US sorted out. We contacted him and he graciously offered to be our tour guide around the Golden Circle for our second day in Iceland.

The Golden Circle consists of three sites of interest that are more or less arranged in a circular loop not too far from Reykjavik. It’s a popular tourist route, and while it makes for a full day, you really don’t need more than a day to do it. Here’s our Golden Circle map:

Iceland on a Budget - Most sites on the Golden Circle route are free to visit.

We started by driving to Thingvellir National Park, about 30 minutes outside of Reykjavik. The cool thing about this park is that it is the site where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet, and you can walk in between them. The park has both natural beauty and historic significance, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Iceland on a Budget - Thingvellir National Park is part of the Golden Circle and, aside from a small parking fee, is free to visit.

From Thingvellir, we drove about 40 minutes to Geysir and Strokkur, a geothermal site featuring one dormant and one active geyser. The active one, Strokkur, erupts every 5-10 minutes. And I’ll just warn you… even if you are standing there with your finger lightly resting on your camera button, waiting for it to erupt and fully aware that it will do so at any moment… it will still scare the crap out of you when it does, causing your photo to come out crooked.

Iceland on a Budget - Strikkur is a very active geyser that you can watch for free.

Our third stop on the Golden Circle Tour was Gullfoss, a massive waterfall just 10 minutes away from the geysers. Unfortunately, when we were there, most of the waterfall was frozen.

Iceland on a Budget - Gullfoss, on the Golden Circle, is a huge waterfall that is free to visit.

However, the highlight was the visitor center. Our friend/guide insisted that we try the lamb stew. I was skeptical, as I’ve had lamb before and did not care for it at all. But I must say, the stew was amazing! Even my daughter, who picks bits out of her Campbell’s chicken noodle soup if she doesn’t like the way they look, finished every drop. Now, nearly two months later, she will occasionally say with a wistful sigh, “I wish I had some lamb stew.” It is that good. I don’t remember how much we paid for it but it was worth every krona.

From there, at the recommendation of our friend’s friend’s husband, we went to a place that is usually not included on Golden Circle tour routes: Faxi. It is the site of a fairly wide waterfall with a curious-looking set of steps on one side.

Iceland on a Budget - Faxi Waterfall can be added to your Golden Circle route; it is free to visit.

We asked our guide for the day what the steps were for. It turns out that they are built for salmon, not people. By having the steps there, salmon are able to swim up to the top of the waterfall, where people are eager to catch them. Coming from very flat land, I had never heard of such a thing before, but they aren’t that rare and known as fish ladders.

Our last stop on the Golden Circle was Kerid Crater. If you’re going to Iceland in the winter, like we did, you may want to skip this.  It’s not much to look at.

Iceland on a Budget - Kerid Crater on the Golden Circle

Day 3: Reykjavik to Hof

We said goodbye to Reykjavik and headed off to explore the southern part of the island.

Our first stop was Seljalandsfoss waterfall, which was beautiful. Unfortunately, the tourists there were not. We didn’t stay long.

From there, it was on to another beautiful waterfall, Skogafoss. This one is situated in such a way that if the sun is out, you have a really good chance of seeing a rainbow in front of the falls.

After our experience with the tourists at Seljalandsfoss, we decided to just appreciate this waterfall from a distance.  Besides, at this point I was ready to see something other than waterfalls.

We traveled next to Reynisfjara, the black sand beach that was featured as a setting at the beginning of Star Wars: Rogue One. What a wonderful, beautiful, epic place it was! Huge basalt columns, caves, squawking birds flying overhead, huge rocks jutting out of the sea, and crashing waves with a reputation of being sneaky. We spent a good amount of time here, laughing, exploring, taking photos… it was easily one of my favorite places in Iceland.

Iceland on a Budget - Reynisfjara Black Beach is free to visit and breathtaking to behold!

When we finally tore ourselves away from the black sand beach, it was time to head to our lodgings in Hof. I wanted to make one more stop, at Fjaðrárgljúfur, an ancient river canyon. This is another one of those sites that you can completely skip past if you’re going in the winter. When it’s all covered with snow, it’s hard to capture the depth and the scope of it.

Iceland on a Budget - Fjaðrárgljúfur is an ancient river canyon that is best appreciated in spring & summer.

If you are not going in the winter, then consider exploring this area and/or driving farther. Lodging and dining options in Hof (as opposed to Hofn, which is 90 minutes farther east) are limited.

Day 4: Heading East to Egilsstadir

First thing in the morning, we got up and headed to Skaftafell National Park. I had fallen in love pictures of the Svartifoss waterfall there and classified it as absolutely-must-see.  I think you can see why:

Iceland on a Budget - Svartifoss waterfall in Skaftafell National Park.
Photo via Flickr by Victor Montol.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look quite as good in the winter. And there is a 90 minute hike to reach it.

Uphill.

In the snow.

We didn’t get as close as the photographer above did, because frankly, I was exhausted, hungry, and cranky. Not to mention disappointed.  This is as close as we got:

Yeah. Significantly less impressive in the winter.  But at least I tried.

From there we headed to the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon. It was absolutely breathtaking… still water clear enough to see down several inches, big chunks of pale turquoise ice, and the cold, crisp air. I’d like to think that it’s nowhere near as pretty in the spring and summer months.

Iceland on a Budget - Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon is free to visit and stunning to behold!

From there, we went over to the opposite side of the road to the stretch of black sand known as Diamond Beach. Chunks of ice break off of the glaciers and wash ashore. The contrast between the slowly melting ice and the dark black sand is striking, and when the sun hits the ice fragments they can resemble diamonds. However, most of the ice chunks I saw were opaque and white rather than clear and diamond-like.

After that, we were supposed to stop near Hofn to check out a Viking village created for a movie/television series. Unfortunately, we forgot about it until we were well past it on our way to Egilsstadir.

Day 5: Egilsstadir to Akureyri

Driving from Egilsstadir to Akureyri in the winter can be a white knuckle experience. If you are attempting to do this, make sure you have a car equipped with 4 wheel drive and tires like these:

Iceland on a budget - tires for winter driving

Our first stop on Day 5 was Námafjall, a volcanic site that features fumaroles and boiling mud pots. A fumarole is an opening through which sulfurous gasses pour out with a loud hiss. In layman’s terms, it’s like a giant anthill blowing out steam that smells like rotten eggs. It is every bit as disgusting as it sounds. In fact, my daughter started gagging as soon as we pulled up and refused to get out of the car.  But also visually striking.  It felt like we were on another planet.

Iceland on a Budget - Fumaroles at Namafjall

Boiling mud pots are pretty much what they sound like – essentially deep mud puddles that are so hot they are boiling. Every once in a while you would hear one go BLLUUUURRRPP as a large bubble broke the surface, but for the most part they are much quieter than the fumaroles.

From there we rode to Grjótagjá cave, which was a popular hot spring bathing site until volcanic eruptions from 1975 to 1984 made the water too hot – 140 degrees. Today it is cooler, more like 110-115 degrees, but bathing here is prohibited. Save for a few cars parked nearby, you wouldn’t know that anything was there at all. But inside, it’s easy to see how people would have enjoyed slipping between the rocks for a warm soak.

Our third and final sightseeing venture for the day was Godafoss, which means the Waterfall of the Gods. It was easy to see how this waterfall earned its nickname. It was very big, very powerful, and very impressive.

Day 6: Akureyri to Borgarnes

Our drive across the northern part of Iceland was quite nice and relaxing. It was one of the warmer days we spent there, and it almost seemed like spring was right around the corner. Looking out  we actually saw grass where previously we had only seen snow. This, coupled with the fact that the road follows the coastline, made it a remarkably enjoyable drive.

We headed to Grafarkirkja, which is the oldest church in Iceland, and nearly missed it altogether. It was only by sheer determination that we found it, as it is quite small and in a rural location, even by Icelandic standards.

Grafarkirkja is a turf building, common in Icelandic architecture centuries ago. Icelanders would fit turf to the frame of their buildings, providing excellent insulation against the harsh weather.

Iceland on a Budget - Grafarkirkja is the oldest church in Iceland, and is free to visit

From there we journeyed in search of dragons. Stone dragons, that is. Hvítserkur is the name of Iceland’s famous sea stack off the northern coast that looks a bit like a dragon taking a drink of water from the sea, don’t you think?

Iceland on a Budget - Hvitserkur is said to resemble a dragon taking a drink from the sea.

We ended the day in Borgarnes, which has a Viking Settlement Museum and restaurant. We had dinner at the restaurant and it was crazy expensive, also not that great. (I ordered lasagna. It had carrots in it. Who puts carrots in lasagna?) We did not visit the museum, but I have a feeling our money would have been better spent there.

Day 7: Borgarnes to Keflavik, then home.

The day of our departure we didn’t do any sightseeing… just drove back to the airport and turned in the rental car, mailed off the portable wifi, went through airport security, and flew home.

We loved Iceland, and hope to return in the future – but would like to do so in spring or summer. It would be wonderful to see sites like Svartifoss and the river canyon when they are green and vibrant instead of half-frozen and covered in snow. 😉

I hope you find this itinerary useful. I cannot stress enough how glad I am that we journeyed around the whole island. The crowds in Reykjavik and along the southern coast were stifling, even in the off season. Once we got past Hofn, however, we found most places to be less crowded and also enjoyed some of the most beautiful scenery I have ever seen.

Iceland on a Budget - One Week Itinerary
Your guide to spending one week in Iceland without breaking the bank.

Why Viking World Needs to Be Your First Stop After a 5 AM Arrival in Iceland

Why Viking World Needs to Be Your First Stop After a 5 AM Arrival in Iceland

I Get in at What Time?

If you are flying to Iceland from the United States or Canada, the chances are overwhelmingly good that you will arrive at Keflavik Airport sometime between the hours of 5 and 7 AM. The chances are equally good that after getting through immigration, baggage claim, and picking up your rental car, you will be wondering what to do after an early morning arrival in Iceland.

Check in time at your hotel/hostel/airbnb won’t be for another six hours or so. To complicate matters, most stores and attractions won’t be open for at least two to three hours. So what can you do? You’ve just landed in a foreign country but you can’t go anywhere or see anything because everything is closed. To make matters worse, it’s still dark outside and your body thinks it’s the middle of the night.

A Stroke of Genius

Fortunately, someone had the brilliant idea to build a museum fairly close to the airport, have it open at 7 AM every day, and serve a breakfast buffet with admission. Viking World Museum (Vikingaheimar in Icelandic), absolutely should be your first stop in Iceland.

When we picked up our rental car, we asked the clerk about the museum. He told us that it wouldn’t be open until 9:00 am at the earliest. The web site said 7:00 am, though, so we decided to take a chance and at least drive by it because we had nothing if not time to kill.

Getting to the museum from the airport only took about ten minutes. When we arrived, we noted that the lights were on and it did, in fact, appear to be open. So in we went, bleary eyed and not sure what to expect. Admission to the museum is 1500 ISK, which is in the ballpark of $15 per person. The breakfast buffet, which includes the museum exhibits, is 1800 ISK, just $3 more per person.  It’s probably the only place in Iceland where you can get a meal for $3.

UPDATE 4/30/18: The price for breakfast + museum admission, according to Viking World’s website, is now 2000 ISK, about $20 per adult.

It was an impressive spread, too, with scrambled eggs, hard boiled eggs, toast, sausage, pastries, fish in two types of sauce, fruit, jellies, biscuits, and probably some other things that I can’t remember. We took our time eating and when we’d had our fill, we proceeded into the museum exhibits.

The Exhibits

The first floor exhibits told the story of how Vikings expanded across the North Atlantic Ocean and settled in Iceland. The expansion began around 800 AD and lasted about 200 years. There were archaeological finds and reproductions. One of the most interesting to me was the burial boat of a Viking chieftain.

The burial boat of a Viking chieftain at Viking World Museum in Iceland.

In the Viking culture, it was customary to provide the dead with objects that they might need in the afterlife – men with tools and weapons, women with jewelry and utensils. Placing the bodies of the dead, along with these items, in an actual boat implies a belief that the dead journeyed to the next life.

The sample burial boat shown above held a plaster figure of a man, with a shield, furs, a drinking vessel, antlers, and other animal bones.

Just beyond the burial boat, there was a collection of figures known as tupilaks. These menacing figures, carved from bones or antlers, functioned as sort of Viking voodoo dolls.  Shaman chanted over the tupilaks to give them life, then put them into the sea to find and kill their intended victims. However, if the victim had his own witchcraft skills, he could send the tupilak back to kill its maker. Here are a few of the specimens on display:

tupilaks at Viking World Museum - what to do after early morning arrival in Iceland.

Tupilak carved figure at Viking World Museum - what to do after an early morning arrival in Iceland.

From there, we went into a room that was showing a documentary about the Viking settlement of Iceland and Greenland. My poor daughter was suffering badly from jet lag, and she fell asleep almost as soon as we sat down. We decided to stay put for a while and let her rest.  I’m not a big fan of watching movies when you travel, but this one was exceptionally well done and informative.

Up and Away

When we decided to move on, we headed up to the second floor of the museum, where we were able to walk on board the huge Viking longboat that dominates the museum’s interior.

Okay, so you know by the name longboat that it’s going to be, well, long.  But until you’re actually standing on it, you can’t fully appreciate just how big this type of boat really was.

Viking World Museum’s ship Íslendingur (which means The Icelander) is an exact replica of an ship excavated from a burial mound in Norway in 1882. That ship dated to A.D. 870, the time of the settlement of Iceland. It is likely that the settlers of Iceland sailed ships similar to the this one, with crews of about 70 men to power its 32 oars.

This ship isn’t just a pretty replica, however. It’s a seaworthy vessel that sailed across the Atlantic Ocean in the summer of 2000. It made the journey to commemorate Leif Eriksson’s trans-Atlantic voyage one thousand years earlier.

Viking World Museum longboat  Íslendingur - what to do after an early morning arrival in Iceland.
The length of  Íslendingur

 

Viking World Museum - what to do after an early morning arrival in Iceland.
Local students made the shields on the sides of Íslendingur. In Viking times, shields were used not just for defense, but also protection from the elements while rowing.
After exploring the massive ship, we moved on to the Fate of the Gods exhibit, an artistic expression of Norse mythology. These were very colorful figures arranged in dramatic ways to evoke the suspense and emotion of tales from Norse mythology.
Viking World Museum exhibit on Norse mythology - what to do after an early morning arrival in Iceland.
Odin and his ravens, Huginn and Muninn, in the Fate of the Gods exhibit.

 

Norse mythology exhibit at Viking World Museum - what to do after an early morning arrival in Iceland.
Thor defeats the Midgard serpent.

When we exited Fate of the Gods, it was about 9:00 AM and the sky was just starting to lighten. The huge window located in front of the longboat provided us with a lovely view of the harbor outside.

View of the harbor from Viking World Museum - what to do after an early morning arrival in Iceland

So, if you’re getting into Iceland in the pre-dawn hours, I really recommend stopping by the Viking World Museum for breakfast and a little history. It will be an enjoyable way to kill a few hours and acclimate to your new surroundings.

Wondering what to do after an early morning arrival in iceland? Check out Viking World Museum, which opens at 7 AM every day.
Are You Being Spied on When You Travel?

Are You Being Spied on When You Travel?

Just Imagine This:

Say you go on vacation and later discover, to your horror, that there is a hidden camera in your hotel. Most recently, it was an Airbnb lodging that had a hidden camera in the smoke detector. But it could just as easily happen in a hotel room. Just ask Erin Andrews, the Fox Sports reporter who was secretly filmed through her hotel room’s peephole.

hidden camera
Photo via Flickr by Monchoocnom

Fortunately, there are things you can do to prevent being spied on when you travel. Here’s how.

1. Know Where to Look – Which Room?

There are basically two reasons why someone would use a hidden camera. Either they want to make sure you don’t steal anything, or they want to catch you naked. If it’s the first option, you should be looking for cameras near items of value (high end electronics in the living room, for instance). If it’s the second, the bathroom and bedroom are the most likely locations.

2. Know Where to Look – Where Is It Hidden?

There are a million different ways/places to hide a small camera. Some examples of everyday objects that could be hiding a camera are a hidden camera wall charger, a clock, a pen, a light bulb, a smoke detector, a key chain, a clothes hook, and a picture frame.

It’s easy to slide from “protecting my privacy” into full-fledged paranoia when you think about all of the places they could be. But take a deep breath and approach it rationally. Here are a few pointers on where and how to look for hidden cameras. First, remember that a hidden camera cannot work without an exposed lens. So look for anything that might conceal (but not cover) a small lens.

Also, if you’re renting a home, check anything that looks like it was accidentally left behind by the owner. I’ve seen cameras concealed in water bottles and coffee cups. Did the owners leave a gym bag out? How about a shirt with buttons? Tissue boxes and pens are another likely spot.

Consider the placement of a camera when looking. It will most likely be on the periphery of a room, facing the center where people will be spending time. Or it may be facing a mirror that will capture the events of a room. If you see a mirror hanging in an odd place, that would be a good area to examine.

hidden camera

3. What to Do When You Aren’t Sure

If you can’t rely on your eyes to spot a camera, try your ears. Many cameras have motion detectors, and are dormant until someone or something moves in front of them. In an absolutely quiet room, you may be able to hear a click or whir sound as the camera activates.

Some people recommend using the flashlight of your phone to look for hidden cameras. Because camera lenses are glass, they will reflect light. Shine your flashlight around a dark room very slowly and look for the glint of a reflection.

4. Fight Fire with Fire (or Tech with Tech)

If your accommodation has wifi, you can use a network analysis app to see how many devices are connected to the network. If there’s no hidden camera installed, you should only see the router and your phone listed. If you see more than that, there is a possibility that a hidden camera is installed on the property. Something listed other than the router and your phone could be another “smart” device in the household, so keep that in mind before jumping to conclusions.

If all of this just sounds like too much work, I’m inclined to agree. After all, who wants to spend precious vacation time looking for something the size of a screw head? Not to mention being paranoid about the possibility of overlooking one.

Fortunately, there is a gadget that will help you find any hidden cameras in your lodging, and they aren’t expensive. I recommend this  Hidden Camera RF Signal Detector, which is in the $15-$20 range. For a professional grade device, you could get this Anti-Spy Amplification Signal Detector instead or about $80. In both cases, you don’t have to do much more than turn the gadget on.

Even cheaper is an app for your phone that will detect hidden cameras. There are many available, for both iPhone or Android, and they run $2-$5.

5. Okay, I Found One… Now What?

First and foremost, take pictures of the hidden camera and its location. Report it to management (hotel desk or Airbnb, whichever the case may be.) Then contact local authorities, as secretly filming someone in a private residence may be illegal in that location. If you’re really angry about it, you can use social media or place a call to local reporters. Third, find yourself another place to stay.

What not to do:  Do not destroy the camera. Do not angrily confront the property owner. Do not stay there after discovering the hidden camera.

If you’ve ever found a hidden camera in your lodging, I want to hear about it.  Leave a comment below!

 

Hidden Camera
5 essential tips for making sure you are not being secretly filmed in your lodging when you travel.

Disclosures:

We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.

Pinterest image via Flickr by kimubert.

Russia’s Hermitage Museum

Russia’s Hermitage Museum

Six Things You May Not Know About the Hermitage Museum

The state Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, is one of the oldest and largest museums in the world. Catherine the Great founded the Hermitage in 1754 and it has been open to the public since 1852. In addition to its stunning architecture and beautiful works of art, the museum has a fascinating history. Here are six secrets of the Hermitage.

Secrets of the Hermitage #1: It’s really big.  Like huge.

It covers 765,567 square feet and contains over 1 million works of art, over 1 million numismatic objects, over 770,000 archaeological artifacts, and nearly 14,000 pieces of arms and armor. There are 2.7 million exhibits and displays in all. I’m thinking it’s probably not the sort of place you want to try and see in just a couple of hours.

Secrets of the Hermitage #2: It isn’t just a building.

The museum is actually a complex of many buildings, including the Winter Palace, which was the main residence of the Russian tsars.

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Interior of the State Hermitage Museum

Catherine expanded the museum beyond the palace to have additional buildings erected, creating the Hermitage Complex. The Russian rulers hosted all kinds of festivities in these buildings, which helped the Hermitage garner a reputation as not only a dwelling place for the Imperial family, but also as an important symbol and memorial to the imperial Russian state.

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Portrait of Catherine the Great by Fyodor Rokotov

Secrets of the Hermitage #3: Its initial pieces were art rejects.

The King of Prussia rejected the initial collection of artwork that started the Hermitage. The first pieces (225 or 317, there are differing accounts as to how many) obtained by Catherine the Great were assembled by an art dealer named Gotzkowsky. He put the collection together for Frederick II, King of Prussia, who was not impressed and did not want them. Frederick’s loss was Catherine’s gain: that collection included 13 works by Rembrandt.

Secrets of the Hermitage #4: Art can be addictive.

Catherine didn’t stop after that initial purchase. In her lifetime, she acquired 4,000 paintings from the old masters, 38,000 books, 10,000 engraved gems, 10,000 drawings, 16,000 coins and medals, and a natural history collection filling two galleries. Competitive art collecting was popular in European royal court culture at the time of her reign, and Catherine was an enthusiastic collector. Her art collection enabled her to gain European acknowledgment and acceptance, and to portray Russia as an enlightened society.

Secrets of the Hermitage #5: Special precautions were taken in WWII.

Art treasures from the museum were evacuated in World War II. Officials feared that the artwork would be lost in the event of an attack, so items from the collection were taken from the museum to the train station. Two trains then carried art treasures off into the Ural Mountains for safekeeping. It turned out to be the right call: two bombs and a number of shells hit the museum buildings during the siege. Once the war was over, the collections were returned unharmed.

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Protecting the art treasures from the State Hermitage Museum.

Secrets of the Hermitage #6:  Crazy cat … museum?

A population of about 50-60 cats lives in the basement of the Hermitage museum. In 1745, Elizabeth of Russia required cats in the palace in order to keep the mice at bay. In times past, the cats would freely roam through the galleries of the museum.  These days, however, they are only permitted in the basement or on the museum grounds. They have their own press secretary, Instagram account, and three caretakers.  You can even adopt a Hermitage cat!

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The Hermitage should definitely be one of your top five things to see in Russia – where else could you see such a vast collection of art in a lavish setting like a palace? Just be sure to allow plenty of time for your visit.

The address for The Hermitage Museum is 2 Palace Square in St. Petersburg.  You may purchase tickets up to 180 days in advance online in US dollars for $17.95 (one day) or $22.95 (two day). However, admission is free on the first Thursday of every month for all visitors, and it is free daily for students and children. Closed on Mondays, New Year’s Day, and May 9.

Bucket List: Canary Islands

Bucket List: Canary Islands

Imagine a place with an average temperature of about 72 degrees, with no extreme cold or heat.  Nearly every day there is sunny – 27 days each month of nothing but sunshine!  The terrain is so varied that it includes volcanoes, ancient forests, dramatic cliffs, and waterfalls. The skies are so brightly lit with stars that they are considered the clearest and brightest in Europe.

Do you want to go yet?  I know I do.  The place described above is the Canary Islands, and I am ready to go!  This archipelago of islands is an autonomous community of Spain. Even though I will refer to it as being Spanish, you should be aware that it is actually located off the western coast of Africa.

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The islands are:

El Hierro

The westernmost island and also the smallest. It is about 104 square miles and has only 10, 000 inhabitants.  It is a marine reserve with 46 dive sites, so if SCUBA is your thing, this is the place to be.

El Hierro Diving.jpg

Fuerteventura

This is the island for beach lovers.  White sand, turquoise waters, and (of course) plenty of sunshine make this the island to be on for swimmers, surfers, and sun-bathers.

Fuerteventura Beaches.jpg

Corralejo is one of the most stunning of the beaches on the island, and also one of the most touristy.  A more secluded beach experience will be found on the sand of Cofete.  Gentle waves are the norm on Playa Esmeralda. La Escalera beach, formally called  El Aljibe de la Cueva, is a hidden beach just south of El Cotillo, a fishing village that has become more resort-heavy over time.

Gran Canaria

This large island has a population of close to 850,000 inhabitants. One of the most unique places on this island is the Maspalomas Dunes (which would look like the Sahara Desert if it weren’t for the water in the distance).

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Pico de las Nieves (the highest peak on the island), and if you make the trek to the top, you will be rewarded with some stunning views:

Pico de las Nieves.jpg

Pico de las Nieves means ‘peak of the snows’ in Spanish.  Several covered pits for holding snow were built directly into the mountainsides here. The first of the pits was constructed in 1694 by order of the Church. Laborers collected snow and placed it into the pits, packed in rectangular boxes of wood or cork separated by layers of straw. The snow was used for alleviating disease, to lower the temperature in the epidemics of yellow fever and cholera, as well as anti-inflammatory and analgesic. It was also used to cool water or other beverages that were offered to the authorities or upper class individuals.

La Gomera

This island is home to 22,000 people and also Garajonay National Park, a lush, subtropical forest. This is a place where the clouds hang low over the ground, providing an atmosphere of constant humidity, which encourages growth of this lush and leafy forest.

La Gomera - Garajonay

Lanzarote

This is the easternmost island in the archipelago. One of the main attractions on this island is Mirador del Rio, which is a scenic overlook which allows visitors to gaze out upon the turquoise waters and other islands in the distance.

Canary Islands Mirador del Rio Lanzarote

Also on this island is the Timanfaya National Park, where the main attraction is the volcano. The surface temperature in the core ranges from 100 to 600 °C at the depth of 43 feet.  Park employees impress tourists by pouring water into the ground, resulting in a near-immediate geyser of steam.  LagOmar, a museum/bar/restaurant described as New Mexico-meets-Morocco is another popular attraction on Lanzarote.  Great fun for art and architecture enthusiasts.

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La Palma

The island of La Palma is a fantastic place for star gazing and astronomy.  The clear and protected night skies of La Palma are among the world’s best for looking at the stars. Take advantage with a guided night tour or a star gazing session at a viewpoint. To get as close as you can to the cosmos, head to the Roque de los Muchachos observatories at nearly 8000 feet above sea level.

La Palma Stargazing

Tenerife

This island has an area of 785 square miles and a population of over 900,000.  On this island is the Teide volcano, which at nearly 12,200 feet is the highest mountain, not just in the Canary Islands, but in all of Spain. The volcano and its surroundings make up Teide National Park, which is the most visited national park in Europe.

The park is home to 14 species of plants found nowhere else, including this striking plant:

tenerife summit rose bush

Geologically, it is also pretty unique.  Visitors can see eighty percent of the different types of volcanic formations here.  (My favorite is the pahoehoe, which looks like it’s still molten and flowing even when it isn’t.)

Tenerife Pahoehoe

And while on Tenerife, be sure to visit the amazing Auditorio, which I think is every bit as stunning as the Sydney Opera House, inside and out.

Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Iles Canaries, Espagne

Tenerife Auditorio Interior

Think mummies are just Egyptian?  Think again.  At the Museo de la Naturaleza y el Hombre (which translated means Museum of Nature and Man), you will see mummies and so much more.  This museum will give you a great picture of what the islands were like before Spanish colonization took place.  Another museum, Casa de los Balcones (House of the Balconies), will give you some insight into the local craftsmanship in embroidery.

Tenerife is probably more well known as a destination than some of the other islands.  As a result, it is also more built up with tourist hotels and restaurants.  If you’re looking for more of a wine & dine, nightlife kind of getaway, this would be the place to stay.

The next time you’re planning a dream vacation, why not consider the Canary Islands as your destination.  With such a variety of things to see and do, and near-perfect weather, it’s an ideal location!

 

Bucket List: Skellig Michael, Ireland

Bucket List: Skellig Michael, Ireland

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…

Every now and then, I will see a picture of a place and wonder how it’s possible that I haven’t seen it before.  I had one of those moments at the end of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, when Rey climbed up that mountain to give Luke his lightsaber.  It was such a cool looking place – why had I never seen it before?

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Thanks to the internet, it didn’t take long to discover that the location for that scene was Skellig Michael, an island off the coast of Ireland. A Christian monastery was founded there some time between the 6th and 8th century. People lived on the island until the late 12th/early 13th century. The remains of the monastery, and most of the island, are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

A small, secluded community in the sea

The monastic site at Skellig Michael contains six beehive cells, two oratories and a number of stone crosses and slabs. It also contains a later medieval church and a hermitage. Historians have estimated that no more than twelve monks and an abbot lived there at any one time.  Those monks would have to descend nearly 700 steps to go fishing for their food each morning.  The remainder of their day would be spent in prayer, tending their gardens, and/or studying.

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The stone, beehive-shaped huts were constructed in such a way that rain would never enter them.  They are circular on the outside, but rectangular on the inside.

Finally, I will leave you with these words from author George Bernard Shaw, who visited Skellig Michael in 1910:

The most fantastic and impossible rock in the world: Skellig Michael…where in south west gales the spray knocks stones out of the lighthouse keeper’s house…the Skelligs are pinnacled, crocketed, spired, arched, caverned, minaretted; and these gothic extravagances are not curiosities of the islands: they are the islands: there is nothing else. The rest of the cathedral may be under the sea for all I know…An incredible, impossible, mad place…I tell you the thing does not belong to any world that you and I have lived and worked in: it is part of our dream world.

The site will no doubt be featured as a Star Wars: The Last Jedi filming location when the movie premieres in December 2017. I, for one, can’t wait to see more of it!

Before you go:

A limited number of tour operators run trips to Skellig Michael during the summer season (May to October, inclusive), weather permitting. For safety reasons, because the steps up to the monastery are rocky, steep, and old, climbs are not permitted during very wet or windy weather.  Reservations are recommended and should be made far in advance of any planned trip to the island.