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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.

Embassy Tours – A Cultural Tourism Annual Event

Embassy Tours – A Cultural Tourism Annual Event

Foreign Embassy Tours

Every year at the beginning of May, Cultural Tourism DC hosts an event called “The Around the World Embassy Tour.”  I have been lucky enough to go in the past, and I went again this year.  I think it is probably one of the coolest free events I’ve ever been to, with the possible exception of the Ceremony of the Keys in London.

On May 6 of this year, 43 embassies representing countries in Africa, Asia, and South America opened their doors and invited the general public in to learn more about their culture and heritage.  The European Union embassies will follow suit and host an open house on May 13.

To give you a better idea of what it’s like, I took a lot of pictures.  Our first stop was the Embassy of Peru.

Peru

Inside, we got to see beautiful Peruvian hand crafted items, sample some Peruvian chocolate, and we got to see the ambassador’s office and conference room.  Peruvian food was available for purchase both inside and outside the embassy, including Pisco sours, empanadas, and Alfajores cookies.

embassy tours peru
Some of the handicrafts in the Peruvian embassy.

Then, outside the embassy, we experienced music and Latin dancing.

embassy tours peru dancers
The dancers outside the Peruvian embassy.

From there we walked up Massachusetts Avenue, aka Embassy Row, and marveled at the beautiful buildings now serving as embassies. The Colombian embassy was ROCKING. Loud party music and bright colorfully-clad dancers attracted everyone’s attention. It also had a line of people that went down the street and around the corner. Having already gotten a late start, we decided to visit the embassies that seemed to have little to no wait to enter. Otherwise, we would have probably only seen two!

The first one we happened upon was Indonesia.

Indonesia

I am not exaggerating when I say it’s the most beautiful house I have seen on this side of the Atlantic. When we walked in, the first thing we saw was the grand entrance.

embassy tours indonesia
The foyer of the Indonesian embassy

(I don’t know about you, but every time I see a place like this, I imagine myself in an evening gown and lots of diamonds, slowly gliding down the stairs to the tune of dramatic-yet-elegant music.  No?  I’m the only one?)

As it turns out, the building is also known as the Walsh Mansion, and it Dates to 1903. At that time, it was the most expensive residence in the city, with a construction cost of $835,000.  The original owner, a Thomas J Walsh, came to this county from Ireland without a penny to his name in 1869. Over the next 25 years, he built up a small fortune through his business pursuits, then lost nearly everything in the Panic of 1893.  In 1896, he took his family to Colorado, and purchased a mine that most thought was of no value. However, it wasn’t long before mine workers struck a massive vein of gold and silver, making Walsh a multi-millionaire.

Walsh’s daughter Evalyn married into the McLean family, which owned The Washington Post.  In 1910, her husband bought the Hope Diamond for her at a cost of $180,000 (that’s $4.6 million in today’s economy).  Over time, rumors developed that the Hope Diamond had a curse on it.  Evalyn Walsh McLean’s first son died in a car accident. Her husband ran off with another woman and eventually died in a sanitarium. The Washington Post went bankrupt, and eventually her daughter died of an overdose, and one of her grandsons died in the Vietnam war. Evalyn never believed the curse had anything to do with her misfortunes.

In 1952 the government of Indonesia purchased the mansion for use as an embassy. Thankfully, they have preserved the beauty of the historic home, including this very large and ornate organ:

embassy tours indonesia
Upper part of the massive pipe organ in the Indonesian embassy.

The pipe organ’s wind system and some of its pipes were located in the basement, making this a two-story pipe organ.  I don’t know what it sounds like, but based solely on its appearance, it is impressive!

The painted ceilings and crystal chandeliers are probably very much like they were before it became the Indonesian embassy.

Embassy tours Indonesia
A doll on the mantle in the Indonesian embassy

A small glassed in walkway connected the residence portion of the house with the offices, which were more modern.  As you enter the office area, you pass by a huge gold bird, the heraldic symbol of Indonesia.

embassy tours indonesia

Our next stop was going to be the Chilean embassy, but the line was incredibly long, so we wandered up the street a little farther and found a performer outside the Korean embassy.

Korea

Just above the heads of the people gathered around to watch, we could see a man walking a tightrope while making jokes via an interpreter. There was also this little statue:

embassy tours korea

This is a Dol Hareubang, which means Stone Grandfather.  They are from Jeju, a small volcanic island off the southern coast of Korea.  Dol Hareubang is a guardian deity, and the people of Jeju erect these statues to ward off danger and harm.

Right next door to Korea was the Kyrgyz Republic, or Kyrgyzstan.

Kyrgyzstan

I’ll be honest.  I don’t know much about Kyrgyzstan, other than that it’s a relatively new country.  It was a very enlightening visit.  First, I learned that Kyrgyzstan shares a border with China. As we made our way through the embassy and looked at the displays, I learned that many people of Kyrgyzstan live in yurts.  We saw scarves and slippers and multiple other woolen items, beautifully made. But their talents do not end there. I thought this painting was just adorable:

Embassy tours Kyrgyzstan

They were also offering shots of a cognac from their country. Nearby, these lovely ladies in traditional native costumes greeted and posed for everyone.

Embassy tours Kyrgyzstan

Haiti

The Haitian embassy was all about art.  Every room we entered had beautiful, brightly colored paintings done by Haitian artists. The one hanging over the fireplace was especially striking.

Embassy tours haiti

And in the back of the house, just before we stepped outside, we saw a beautiful collection of bottles covered in sequins.  Then we exited the house and stepped out onto a gorgeous patio. The biggest wall had an arrangement of metal decorations that was pretty incredible.

Embassy tours Haiti patio

There were tin lanterns hanging all over the place, with designs of dragonflies, and other small animals.

By this time the event was coming to a close, so we started walking back toward the Metro station.  On the way, we passed a stunning display outside the Guatemalan embassy.

Embassy tours Guatemala

 

The white parts were rice, and we guessed that the colored bits were dyed sawdust.  From a distance, it looked like a rug.

After that, we followed the sound of music until we happened upon the embassy of the Dominican Republic.  There were people everywhere – some were in line for food but quite a few were dancing.  It was such an awesome display of living in the moment, anyone watching couldn’t help but smile.

I cannot recommend the Around the World Embassy Tour enough. It’s a great opportunity to learn more about other cultures and see some magnificent art and architecture.  If you’re ever in D.C. on a Saturday in early May, check it out!

60+ Washington DC Free Attractions

60+ Washington DC Free Attractions

Anyone who has been to Washington DC knows that it can be a pretty expensive city to visit.  Most studies rank it somewhere in the top ten list of the most expensive American cities. For someone who is making a non-DC salary and visiting the nation’s capital, the expense of everything can be daunting.

Fortunately, Washington DC free attractions are plentiful.  Here are over 60 places you can explore without paying for admission, listed by neighborhood:

The National Mall Area

Washington DC Free Attractions

  1. Abraham Lincoln Memorial
  2. World War II Memorial
  3. National Museum of American History
  4. National Air & Space Museum
  5. Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden – modern art
  6. National Museum of African Art
  7. National Museum of Natural History
  8. Smithsonian Castle
  9. Washington Monument – currently closed for elevator upgrade – check before you go
  10. National Archives
  11. National Gallery of Art
  12. Multiverse Light Sculpture between National Gallery East & West Buildings
  13. Freer Gallery – Asian art (closed until October 14, 2017)
  14. Sackler Gallery – Asian art
  15. Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial
  16. Korean War Veterans Memorial
  17. Vietnam War Veterans Memorial
  18. Thomas Jefferson Memorial
  19. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial
  20. American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial
  21. US Holocaust Memorial Museum – free but requires timed tickets March through August
  22. National Museum of the American Indian
  23. National Museum of African American History & Culture
  24. Albert Einstein Memorial
  25. Bureau of Engraving & Printing (free, but reservations required through September 1)
  26. National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Garden

 

Brookland Area

Washington DC free attractions in Brookland area

  1. Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
  2. Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America

 

Capitol Hill

Washington Dc free attractions capitol hill

  1. National Postal Museum
  2. Library of Congress
  3. US Capitol
  4. US Botanic Garden
  5. Folger Shakespeare Library
  6. Historic Congressional Cemetery

 

Capitol Riverfront

Washington DC Free attractions capitol riverfront

  1. Frederick Douglass National Historic Site
  2. National Museum of the US Navy
  3. Yards Park

 

Anacostia

Washington DC Free Attractions Anacostia

  1. Kenilworth Park & Aquatic Gardens
  2. Anacostia Community Museum

 

Upper Northwest

Washington DC Free Attractions Upper Northwest

  1. National Cathedral

 

Georgetown

Washington DC Free ATtractions Georgetown

  1. C&O Canal Paths
  2. Old Stone House (the oldest home in DC)
  3. Theodore Roosevelt Island
  4. Rock Creek Park

 

Penn Quarter/Chinatown

Washington DC Free Attractions Penn Quarter Chinatown

  1. National Portrait Gallery
  2. Smithsonian American Art Museum
  3. Lunder Conservation Center
  4. Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site
  5. Archives of American Art Gallery

 

Dupont Circle

Washington DC Free Attractions Dupont Circle

  1. Anderson House

 

Woodley Park

Washington DC Free Attractions Woodley Park

  1. National Zoo

 

Foggy Bottom

Washington DC free attractions Foggy Bottom

  1. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts (free tour)
  2. Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center (free performances)

 

Downtown

Washington DC Free Attractions Donwtown

  1. White House Visitor Center
  2. White House tour (request through Congressional representative at least 3 months in advance)
  3. Renwick Gallery – American contemporary art

 

Shaw

Washington DC Free Attractions Shaw

  1. African American Civil War Memorial
  2. African American Civil War Museum

 

H Street NE

Washington DC Free Attractions H Street NE

  1. US National Arboretum
  2. National Bonsai & Penjing Museum – inside National Arboretum

 

Arlington, Virginia (technically not DC, but just across the river)

 

  1. US Air Force Memorial
  2. US Marine Corps Memorial (aka Statue of Iwo Jima)
  3. Arlington House, former home of Robert E Lee
  4. Arlington National Cemetery
  5. National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial

 

As you can see, there are plenty of Washington DC free must-see attractions… and a few that are a little off the beaten path.  With so many choices for things to see and do at no expense, Washington DC can be an affordable vacation destination after all.

 

National Park Service Free Admission Days for 2017

National Park Service Free Admission Days for 2017

US National Parks Free Admission Days 2017

Every year, there are specific days designated for national parks free admission. (However, it is worth noting that the admission charges are not exorbitant to begin with. Typically, national park admission runs $25-ish per car at most, and it’s good for seven days.) So, if you’re traveling near a national park in 2017, these are the days you can visit them for free:

  • January 16th: Martin Luther King Jr. Day
  • February 20th: Presidents’ Day
  • April 15th-16th & April 22nd-23rd: National Park Week weekends
  • August 25th: National Park Service birthday
  • September 30th: National Public Lands Day
  • November 11th-12th: Veterans Day weekend

Also, other properties in the National Park system observe the free admission days, including my personal favorite, Assateague Island National Seashore.  The National Park system totals 417 properties, at least one in every state and territory.

Because most of these days fall on a Monday or Friday, it’s the perfect opportunity for an extended weekend trip.  So what are you waiting for?  Be sure to check out a national park this year!

 

 

Hunting for Sea Glass in the UK

Hunting for Sea Glass in the UK

When I wrote a post about the Best Sea Glass Beaches in the United States, it got me thinking about my upcoming trip to the UK. We were staying in two coastal towns (South Shields and Staithes). Perhaps there would be some sea glass hunting opportunities for us while we were there.

I started plugging inquiries into Google, which led me to the site of Australian jewelry designer, Kriket Broadhurst. She had lived in the UK for a time and had found the best sea glass beach at Seaham in County Durham.  She even called it the “holy grail of sea glass beaches.” Needless to say, I was intrigued!  So, I looked up Seaham and was thrilled to discover that it was only 1/2 hour away from South Shields.

I emailed Kriket for more info, and she was kind enough to send me a guide for collecting sea glass there. It was very thorough, including where to park, the best times to go, and even which direction to start looking after descending the long staircase to the beach. Thank you, Kriket!

The beach itself has some great views out to sea. If you look far off to the right, you can spot a lighthouse (unfortunately, it’s not in this picture, though). The water, of course, is just beautiful. And we were lucky enough to be there in the hours preceding sunset, when the sky was starting to get a little pink.

Seaham harbor beach best sea glass uk

The beach itself is littered with stones – not very practical for walking barefoot.

stones on seaham harbor beach best sea glass in uk

The stones were gorgeous in their own right, just as smooth and rounded as the bits of glass we found.  Some had stripes, some speckles. I believe others were not rock, but rather bits of pottery or porcelain that were broken and tossed by the waves. The white piece that’s third from the bottom on the right side, for instance, almost certainly looks like a piece of a bowl or other dish. The red and white one above it and to the left is, I think, terra cotta. And I’m fairly certain that rocks don’t come in mint green or pale blue like the ones in the center.

stones found on seaham harbor beach best sea glass in uk

There are also quite a few caves beneath the cliff on Seaham Beach. Here’s a picture of my daughter in front of one of them.

seaham harbor beach caves best sea glass in uk

There are a couple of reasons why people looking for sea glass might consider Seaham the holy grail. First of all, there is a lot of sea glass there. I wasn’t able to go in the morning like Kriket recommended, but rather ended up there late in the day. Nearly everyone on the beach was also walking along, head down, looking for treasures. I thought I would be too late to find any, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Due to the abundance of sea glass there, we ended up collecting about 100 pieces in 60-90 minutes.

best sea glass found at seaham harbor beach county durham

But even more exciting than the abundance of sea glass was the possibility of finding a piece that had more than one color. As I understand it, there was a glass factory in the area about 100 years ago. At the end of the day they would throw their leftover bits over the cliff into the North Sea. As a result, some of the leftovers fused together and formed these unusual eyes.  We were lucky enough to find four small ones.

multicolored best sea glass seaham harbor beach uk county durham

Looking back on our vacation, this was one of my favorite parts. Not sightseeing, not picture-taking, just enjoying the scenery and searching for small treasures along the beach with my family. It taught me a valuable lesson about how the best memories aren’t always the ones you engineer through a lot of planning. Sometimes they are the ones that you just allow to happen on their own.

Seaham is in County Durham, UK, near Sunderland. It’s definitely worth the trip if you’re looking for the best sea glass beach!

best sea glass beach in the uk

For help in planning your sea glass scavenger hunt, I recommend:

The Royal Armouries Museum – Leeds

The Royal Armouries Museum – Leeds

True confession: my husband and I met through participation in a medieval reenactment group.  He even has his own suit of armor! So when I was planning our vacation in the Yorkshire area of England, the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds was a must-see.

Royal Armouries Museum Leeds Entry
It is an impressive building – five floors in all. The museum has two sides: tournament (armor and weapons for sport) and war (armor and weapons on the battlefield).

The symbol for the museum, which you will see on many signs and banners as you approach the building, appears to be a ram. But once inside, you learn that it is actually a remarkably odd 16th century piece known as “The Horned Helmet.”

Horned helmet at Royal Armouries Museum Leeds
Emperor Maximilian I’s armorer made the helmet in the 16th century. The Emperor presented it as a gift to King Henry VIII. Apparently there was a suit of armor that went with it. It the helmet is all that remains. I can only imagine what the suit must have looked like!

Horned Helmet at Royal Armouries Museum Leeds
Yikes.

One of the most striking displays that I saw when we first arrived was a diorama of the Battle of Pavia (1525).  The historical significance of this battle escaped me – either I had never heard of it, or I had long since forgotten. Regardless, I found it fascinating that one side was mounted on horseback, fighting with swords, whereas the other side was on foot and armed with guns. Guess which side won!

royal armouries museum leeds battle of pavia diorama

It may seem strange to say it, but there were some really beautiful arms and armor there. I thought the black armor was especially striking (and intimidating).

Black Armor Royal Armouries Museum Leeds
Some armor was handsomely engraved with beautiful, intricate designs.

Engraved Breastplate armor at Royal Armouries Museum Leeds
It was sobering to see these two suits of armor, made for boys aged 8 and 10.

Armor for two boys at Royal Armouries Museum Leeds
There was also “The Lion Armour,” from the mid-16th century. It is damascene armor, with inlays of gold and a dozen embossed lion’s heads.

Lion Armor Damascene Royal Armouries Museum Leeds

lion armor damascene royal armouries museum leeds
Unfortunately, the helmet was not there when we visited.  From what I saw of it on the brief film they were showing, though, it is a beauty! It looks as though a lion is roaring at its wearer’s foe.

We also saw a special exhibit on gold items from a Staffordshire hoard. Saxon men decorated their weapons with gold, and often garnet stones as well.

Staffordshire hoard garnet gold royal armouries museum leeds
The collection is so vast, the stairwells even displayed weapons and armor:

stairwell royal armouries museum leeds
The museum covers a time period from the early Middle Ages up through the present. Several areas were temporarily closed when we were there; we did not get to tour the Asian section or the modern warfare section, nor did we get to try the Crossbow Firing Range.  However, there was still a lot to see and enjoy.  I highly recommend this as a stop for history buffs and, in particular, military history enthusiasts.

The Royal Armouries Museum is at Armouries Drive, Leeds, LS10 1LT. Open daily 10:00 am to 5:00 pm.   Admission is free.

Intrigued?  Here are some books I recommend to learn more:

2017: The Year to See Canada

2017: The Year to See Canada

What a Deal!

Hard to believe, but our friends to the north have announced that admission to all of their national parks, national historic sites, and national marine conservation areas will be free for the entire year in 2017.  It’s part of a celebration because of the 150th anniversary of the Canadian Confederation.

Here are just a few of the places it will be free to visit, culled from my Bucket List for Canada:

First, the Grotto at Bruce Peninsula National Park in Ontario:

bruce_peninsula_national_parks_canada grotto ontario

Or how about checking out the turquoise waters of Lake Morraine in Banff National Park, Alberta:

banff-lake-morraine national parks canada alberta

Established in 1885, Banff National Park was the very first national park in Canada.

Another park offering wonderful views of the water is Cape Breton Highlands National Park in Nova Scotia:

Cape Breton Highlands National parks canada nova scotia

Forillon National Park was established in 1970 and it was the first national park in the province of Quebec. It also offers great views of the water.

forillon_national_parks_canada quebec

On the west coast, there is Kootenay National Park, in British Columbia.

kootenay_national_parks canada british columbia

If you dare to venture way up north to Nunavut, you can visit the Ukkusiksalik National Park, which is rather unique. Most noteworthy are a reversing waterfall and 500 archaeological sites.  It is also home to such species as polar bears, grizzly bears, Arctic wolf, caribou, seals and peregrine falcons.

ukkusiksalik_national_parks_canada nunavut

If you’re interested in seeing the polar bears at Churchill, Manitoba, you can drive just a little ways south and visit Wapusk National Park.  Cape Churchill, widely regarded as the best location for viewing and photographing polar bears, is in the park.  Alternatively, perhaps you’ll see an arctic fox.

wapusk-national-parks canada manitoba

While you’re checking out these amazing parks, be sure to look for the red chairs.  Parks Canada strategically placed pairs of red Adirondack chairs throughout Canada’s beautiful parks, highlighting some of the most stunning views in the country.

So what are you waiting for?  Start planning your Canadian adventure today!  (I know I am!)  You can get more information and apply for your free pass here.

And to help you plan for your trip, check out these guides:

Ten Libraries That Should Be on Every Bibliophile’s Bucket List

Ten Libraries That Should Be on Every Bibliophile’s Bucket List

I love books.  I mean, I pink-puffy-heart love books.  Always have.  I could easily spend hours in a library or book store, even without taking any books home.  Just looking at them, holding them, and thumbing through them is, in my mind, an excellent way to pass the time.

So I was thinking about some of the nicer book stores and libraries I’ve visited, and I thought it would be a great thing to create a travel bucket list for bibliophiles like me.  So here are what I think are ten of the loveliest libraries you could ever hope to step foot in.

1. The Strahov Monastery Library

The Strahov Library in Prague, Czech Republic contains over 200,000 volumes, including over 3,000 manuscripts and 1,500 first prints stored in a special depository. Admission will cost you a little over $4.

strahov-monastery-library-czech-republic

2. The Kelmentinum

Also in Prague, the Klementinum’s Baroque Library Hall is the stunning home of the Czech National Library, housing 20,000 books from the early 17th century onwards. The hall is decorated with magnificent ceiling frescoes, and remains unaltered since the 18th century.  Admission is less than $10 and includes a guided tour of the entire complex, not just the library.

klementinum-czech-national-library

3.  The George Peabody Library

Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland houses the George Peabody Library. It is stunning.  The library’s 300,000 volume collection is particularly strong in religion, British art, architecture, topography and history; American history, biography, and literature; Romance languages and literature; history of science; and geography, exploration and travel.  Admission is free, but if you want to have your wedding there (be still my heart – wouldn’t that be amazing?!?!) you will have to rent the facility.

rsz_george_peabody_library_baltimore_md

4.  The Austrian National Library

Located in Vienna, the Austrian National Library is another beauty. It is the largest library in Austria, with 7.4 million items in its various collections. The library is located in the Hofburg Palace in Vienna. Admission is free.

austrian-national-library-vienna

5.  The Morrin Cultural Center

Located in Quebec, Canada, the Morrin Cultural Center is designed to educate the public about the historic contribution and present-day culture of local English-speakers. The library provides access to English-language books in a largely French-speaking city. Admission is free.

morrin-cultural-center-library-in-quebec

6.  Trinity College Library

The library at the very top of my bucket list is the one at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. The ancient Book of Kells is located at this library.  But perhaps even more famous is its Long Room:

trinity-college-library-dublin-ireland

7.  Stuttgart City Library

I am very partial, as you can see, to libraries with multiple levels of shelving, dark-ish interiors, and  art.  It almost feels like a home, inviting you to come inside, relax, and get lost in the pages of a volume.  However, the much more modern Stuttgart City Library also appeals to me for the exact opposite reason… here the books are definitely the stars of the show, and little can distract you from them.  Admission is free.

Stuttgart City Library Germany.jpg

8.  Royal Portuguese Library

Okay, back to dark and cozy.  The Royal Portuguese Library in Rio de Janeiro Brazil is just that.  It is the largest library in Latin America and the 7th largest in the world.  Its collections include about 9 million items. Admission is free.

rsz_royal_portuguese_reading_room_brazil

9.  The Mortlock Wing State Library

Located in South Australia, the Mortlock Wing State Library is housed in a stunning Victorian era building built in the French Renaissance style.  It has two galleries and a glass domed roof.  Admission is free.

rsz_mortlock_wing_state_library_australia

10.  The King’s Library

Finally, the King’s Library (part of the British Library, and also called the King George III Collection) in London is not to be missed.  When King George III came to the throne in the mid-eighteenth century, England did not have a proper library.  He set about the business of acquiring book collections and setting up a royal library.  Today, many of the books from his collection are on view to visitors behind UV-filter glass.  Admission is free.

king-george-iii-library-london

So, there you have it.  Ten amazing, beautiful libraries that you can visit in your travels around the world.  Have you been to any of them?  Let me know in the comments if you have, or if you think I overlooked an amazing library that should have made the list.

 

Sea Glass Scavenging in the US

Sea Glass Scavenging in the US

From May through September, tourists crowd the mid-Atlantic beaches near my home. As a result, looking for sea glass is generally not a fruitful endeavor. In fact, I have only found one piece in 15 years at my local beach.

However, when I went to Port Isaac, Cornwall, I happened to glance down and notice a piece of sea glass when walking through the harbor at low tide. Then another. And another. Within a half an hour, I had two pockets full of sea glass – not to mention a new obsession, fueled by Pinterest. Since I’m not likely to return to Port Isaac any time soon (alas!), I started looking for sea glass destinations on this side of the Atlantic. And I’m happy to report that scavengers can find sea glass in abundance at many locations in the US. Here are what I consider to be the top five.

Eastport Maine

The deepest port on the East Coast, Eastport is located between Cobscook Bay and Passamaquoddy Bay.  The area is notorious for its ripping tides and powerful currents. Plus, if you find you need a change of scenery on your quest, there are two other great sea glass beaches are nearby – Cobscook bay (about 30 minutes drive) and Lubec (about 60 minutes drive).

Glass Beach at Fort Bragg, California

This cove – a former dump site – is completely covered in sea glass, but you must not remove any glass from the northern section of the beach, as it is state park land. However, if you head south at the edge of the bluff, you’ll find a path that leads to another unprotected beach where you may take glass; it’s not as plentiful as on Glass Beach, but it’s legal. When you’re done beach combing, you can visit the International Sea Glass Museum, which is nearby.

looking for sea glass fort bragg california glass beach

Glass Beach on the Hawaiian island of Kauai

This glass beach is where you’ll find millions of smooth glass pebbles in blue, aqua, brown, green and occasionally a rare red. It is located near Poipu on Kauai’s southern end, and not the easiest to get to, but for avid collectors, it’s worth the effort.

Spectacle Island, Massachusetts

Spectacle Island is just a ferry ride away from Boston. One of the island’s beaches is loaded with sea glass and pottery from up to 100 years ago. The island’s sea glass may not be as smooth as shards found on an ocean coastline since the currents and surf within Boston Harbor are not as active. The upside is that many pieces of glass, while having smooth edges, will have a lot of their original shape and surface texture. This ini turn leads to easier identification of the sea glass’ origins. It is not uncommon to find decorative, depression-era sea glass here. Unfortunately, removing any of the glass or pottery from this beach is illegal.

Homer, Alaska

Homer is a popular site with sea glass hunters. Be sure to look among the rocks for the sea glass, however, as most people find them there rather than on/in the sand. There are tales of people finding glass floats from Japanese fishing boats on Homer beaches. The floats are absolutely stunning.

looking for sea glass floats alaska beaches

Do you know of any good beaches for finding sea glass not listed here? Comment below and share your discovery!

A Must See Painting at London’s National Gallery

A Must See Painting at London’s National Gallery

A Sixteenth Century Masterpiece

If you visit the National Gallery in London, there is a remarkable painting that you must see.  It is The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger, dated 1533.

London's National Gallery must see painting - The Ambassadors by Holbein
Photo via Flickr by Tayete

At first glance, it seems to be a fairly typical painting of two Tudor-era men.  The man on the left wears secular clothing. The man on the right is dressed in clerical garb.

In between them are an assortment of objects, including two globes (one of earth, the other a celestial globe), a quadrant, a portable sundial, an astronomical instrument called a torquetum, open books, a lute with a broken string, and a hymn book.  Hidden behind the folds of the drapes is a crucifix.

Over the centuries, some scholars have stated that the items represent a unification of the Church and capitalism. Others think they could represent conflicts between secular and religious authorities.

But that’s not all.

Perhaps even more interesting than the objects and their potential symbolism, however, is the object on the floor at the bottom of the table.  It doesn’t look like much straight on, but when you move to the right of the painting, you can see that it is a skull. This is an excellent example of anamorphosis – a distorted projection or perspective requiring the viewer to use special devices or occupy a specific vantage point (or both) to reconstitute the image.  Watch the skull come into focus here:

The anamorphic perspective was an invention of the early Renaissance.  Perhaps Holbein was showing off his talent at this then-new technique.  Perhaps he wanted to startle people who walked up the stairs past the painting.  Or perhaps he wanted to encourage contemplation of life and inevitable death, for the inclusion of a skull is a memento mori, literally a reminder that we all must die.

Whatever the artist’s intentions, the painting is exceptionally well done and full of fascinating details.  If you’re in London, do be sure to check it out.  It’s located in Room 4.

If you’re not likely to get to London any time soon, click here for an interactive image that allows you to get a close up look at different parts of the painting… just click on the area you would like to see in greater detail.

The National Gallery is located in Trafalgar Square, London WC2N 5DN, United Kingdom. Telephone +44 (0)20 7747 2885. Admission is free. The museum is open daily from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm (10-9 on Fridays).  Closed December 24-26 and January 1.

Pinterest and header photo of National Gallery via Flickr by Jim Bowen.

National Gallery Must See Painting by Holbein the Younger.