Tag: The Great Outdoors

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.

Tips for Seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland

Tips for Seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland

Aurora Borealis – An Elusive Beauty.

When we went to Iceland last month, I had only one goal: seeing the northern lights. It was my bucket list item, practically my whole reason for taking the trip! A friend of mine had been to Iceland twice and did not get to see them either time. That made me nervous. So I read up on how to see the Northern Lights in Iceland and decided to stack the odds in my favor. Here’s how I did it:

1. Go in the winter.

In the winter months, the northern half of the Earth is tilted slightly away from the sun, which is why you have shorter periods of daylight. In order to maximize your chance of seeing the northern lights in Iceland, you should plan your trip between October and March.

2. Go when there is a new moon.

Moonlight can be very bright, and the brighter the sky, the harder it will be to see the northern lights. Therefore, pick a travel date around the new moon, which is when the moon is not at all visible. Just Google “moon phases” and find a calendar that shows when the new moon will be.

3. Check the forecast. Then check again. And again.

Once you arrive in Iceland, keep an eye on the Aurora forecasts at the Icelandic Meteorology Office web site. You’ll be looking at two things.  First, the amount of cloud cover that will be over the part of Iceland you’re in – skies need to be somewhat clear in order to see the aurora. Second, the amount of solar activity, which is rated on a scale of 0 to 9.

If you hit anything above a 4 and you follow the other tips here, you’re golden. When we went it was a 2-3 and we still saw them, although they were faint:

how to see the northern lights in Iceland.
My picture of the northern lights. I didn’t quite get the camera settings correct, but it’s still proof that I saw them, so I’m happy.

You will want to check the forecast repeatedly throughout the day, as weather conditions in Iceland are apt to change drastically from hour to hour.

4.  Get your camera settings right before you head out.

Don’t even bother trying to photograph the northern lights with your smart phone. You will definitely need a camera, and you will definitely need to adjust the settings to get a good shot.  Read up on how to set your camera before you go, and set your camera accordingly. You do not want to be standing in the middle of a field at night, in the winter, fiddling with your camera. It’s just not a good use of your time.

5. Find a dark place.

Try to get as far away as you can from city lights, also called “light pollution.”  Many people say that Thingvellir National Park is a good place to look for the lights. We were in Eastern Iceland when our opportunity arose, so we went to the local airport in Egilsstadir. The airport was closed and the parking lot was empty, so it was pretty dark.

6. Remember, you’re looking for the northern lights.

There is no point facing south when you’re looking for the northern lights. Directionally challenged? No problem!  Most smart phones have a compass app that will let you figure out which way is north.

 

7. Be patient.

The Northern lights may not be immediately visible, and your eyes may need a few moments to adjust to the darkness. They may not be as vividly colored as you see in photographs, and therefore not as noticeable.  But take heart, if there is no cloud cover and solar activity is present, you will see them.

xoxoxo

Header and Pinterest images created with photo via Flickr by Giuseppe Milo.

How to NOT be a bad tourist in Iceland… or anywhere else

How to NOT be a bad tourist in Iceland… or anywhere else

The Ugly Americans… and Italians… and Chinese…

Recently, I had the immense privilege of spending a week in Iceland. It was an amazing adventure, and I am so glad I went. There are probably very few places on earth as beautiful and geologically diverse as Iceland.

Unfortunately, because Iceland has so much to offer, it has been overrun with tourists in recent years. Not just in the summer months, when the island is lush and green and blissfully mosquito free, but even in the winter months. The nation has a population of just over 332,000, but has an influx of around 2 million tourists each year.

Now, while anyone can see that tourism will bring a great amount of money into the local economy, it also brings its share of troubles. Here’s my simple guide on how to not be a bad tourist in Iceland, or any other place you travel.

1. How to not be a bad tourist in Iceland: Stay on the designated walkways.

As I mentioned above, a large part of Iceland is beautifully lush and green in the spring and summer months. This is due in large part to the leafy Icelandic moss that grows here. Icelandic moss is incredibly fragile and, once damaged, does not grow back easily or quickly.

Justin Bieber caused an uproar when he filmed the video for “I’ll Show You” in Iceland because (a) he rolled all over the moss and went for a swim in the glacier lagoon, and (b) he shared those images via his social media accounts. Over 70 million Bieber followers are now under the impression that it is perfectly acceptable to do those things.

It is not.

Still worse is the tale of the campers who ripped up large patches of the moss in Thingvellir National Park to insulate their tents. In the words of the Gateway to Iceland web site, the land now has “many open scars.”

Most of the sites we visited have short rope barriers and a sign with a pair of shoes and the red circle/slash symbol of “don’t do this.” Yet at every single place, we consistently saw people stepping over the barrier and walking past the sign. And I don’t mean one or two. I mean 12-15 at any given moment.

how to not be a bad tourist in iceland

Not only was their behavior disrespectful to the host country who asked for visitors to not do that, it was disrespectful to the other visitors, who wanted to take a picture of the beautiful setting without having to crop or photoshop the rude tourists out of their photos.

I was particularly frustrated and shocked by the behavior of this group of tourists. They had the nerve to set up folding chairs in front of the waterfall!


how to not be a bad tourist in iceland

Others spent about ten minutes taking photos of each other throwing a frisbee around and taking pictures with the waterfall as a backdrop. I have no idea what the logic was behind that. The irony is that the tourists who disobeyed the rules in order to get 6-10 feet closer could have gotten just as good a selfie from behind the rope barrier.

2. How to not be a bad tourist in Iceland: Keep your drones in the car.

Most of the natural beauty sites and national parks in Iceland have signs clearly prohibiting the use of drones. But naturally, that didn’t stop anyone from disregarding those signs. So while we were out enjoying the beautiful snowy landscapes and cascading waterfalls, we had to listen to the high pitched wheeeeeeee of a drone flying overhead. It sounded like giant mutant mosquitos were coming after us. Very annoying, very distracting. Especially at a place like Namafjall Fumaroles and Mud Pots, where the scenery can best be appreciated not just by looking, but also listening:

 

3. How to not be a bad tourist in Iceland: Be safe.

If you don’t value your own life, at least consider the trauma and expense your plunging to your death would cause. There are very real dangers in Iceland. There are cliffs that drop off into frigid water or rocky outcrops. And then there’s the scary phenomenon known as a “sneaker wave.”

The sneaker wave is a mutation in the crashing surf that causes a wave to literally sneak up on you. You could potentially be in danger even if you’re just standing on the beach.  These waves have pulled unsuspecting tourists out to sea, where they drown. Signs all over the beach tell visitors to never turn their backs to the water.

Another astounding moment from our trip was when I spotted this tourist walking in the Kerid crater.

how to NOT be a bad tourist in iceland

In short, respect the nature in Iceland or it will knock the crap out of you. It might even kill you. No selfie is worth your life.

how to not be a bad tourist in iceland

How to not be a bad tourist in Iceland: The Bottom Line

Basically, it all boils down to (a) following the rules and (b) being respectful – of the host country and your fellow travelers. Please think before you act when you’re traveling.

how to not be a bad tourist in Iceland
Follow these three simple rules to stay in the good graces of the people who live and work in your travel destination.
Infographic: A Weekend in Canterbury, Kent

Infographic: A Weekend in Canterbury, Kent

A Weekend in Canterbury

Made famous by Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales over 600 years ago, this Kentish town is still thriving and has plenty to offer weekend visitors. Just two hours away from London, it makes the perfect destination for a weekend getaway. From UNESCO World Heritage sites to a Bollywood style dance class, a weekend in Canterbury has something for everyone to enjoy.

How to spend a weekend in Canterbury Kent, England.

The Ultimate US Road Trip: Blue Ridge Parkway

The Ultimate US Road Trip: Blue Ridge Parkway

A Tale of Two Travelers…

For Thanksgiving this year, we decided to head out of town for a break. Our destination was Pigeon Forge/Gatlinburg, Tennessee. If we had ridden solely on interstate highways, we could have arrived there in ten hours. That’s my preferred way to drive. The quicker you can reach your destination, the better – that way you have more time to go places and see things and do stuff.

Road trip Blue Ridge Parkway so you have a better view than this.
My usual view as we travel along the Interstate.

Hubs, however, is my polar opposite when it comes to driving. He can’t stand driving on big highways and prefers long, circuitous, and scenic drives instead. He had been on the Blue Ridge Parkway earlier this year with his motorcycling friends and insisted that we drive at least part of the way to Tennessee on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

We knocked out about four hours of the drive the very first night and got a hotel room in Charlottesville, Virginia. As we were discussing what time we wanted to get up in the morning, my husband said to me, “Well, we need to get up early. We have 12 hours of driving to do tomorrow.”

I just about had to pick my jaw up off the floor. I was thinking that with six hours left to travel via interstates, his route would take us eight or nine hours at most. But twelve?!?!? I was so flabbergasted I could not even speak. When I recovered my ability to form sentences again, I calmly informed him that being in the car for 12 hours was neither practical nor desirable.

Fortunately, he revised his plans and pared down our road trip on the Blue Ridge Parkway to a 50 mile stretch. I was quite relieved.

But First, History!

I am nothing if not a history geek. Please bear with me…

The Blue Ridge Parkway is 469 miles long, running through the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia and North Carolina. (If you’ve never heard of the Blue Ridge Mountains, it’s helpful to know that they are a section of the Appalachian Mountains.) The parkway runs from Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina to the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. The parkway actually continues on through Shenandoah for an additional 105 miles, but the name becomes Skyline Drive.

The original name for the route was the Appalachian Scenic Highway, and it was begun as a project in Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal. During World War II, conscientious objectors serving in the Civilian Service Program worked on the project.

Over 50 years passed before the construction of the parkway came to an end. The route has:

  • 26 tunnels constructed through the rock (1 in Virginia, 25 in North Carolina)
  • Six viaducts
  • 168 bridges
  • Elevation of 6,053 feet at its highest point (Richland Balsam – Mile Post 431)
  • No tolls/fees for usage

Our Drive

Even though I was reluctant to go from 70 mph on the interstate to 45 mph on the parkway, once we got on the parkway and started driving, I kinda fell in love with the scenery.  The roads were a bit twisty and 45 was probably the safest speed at which to travel. Some of the trees still had leaves, but most were bare.  I couldn’t help but imagine how gorgeous it must be in peak autumn foliage season (mid to late October, depending on the elevation).

Our first stop to pull over and admire the scenery was a rocky overlook with a couple of big boulders and a view of the valley below.

Road Trip on the Blue Ridge Parkway - there are many opportunities to stop and admire the scenery.

As I looked out at the patches of green fields and the blue-purple mountains, I realized this was waaayyy better than anything I could have seen on the interstate.

If you look at this shot, you might notice a spot of blue just below and to the right of the center.  That’s a river running through the valley.

Beautiful scenery abounds on a road trip through the Blue Ridge Parkway

We drove along through the Peaks of Otter, where my husband stopped on his previous trip through the area.  (Fun fact: you can get one of those oval shaped abbreviation stickers here. It says POO for Peaks of Otter.  He totally got one the last time he was there.) We didn’t stop at Peaks of Otter, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that there is a lodge right there, with mountains behind it and a lake in front of it.  What a gorgeous setting!

We stopped a little farther along at another overlook. This one reminded me of Yorkshire, with the patchwork of fields decorating the valley.

Stopping at scenic overlooks while on a road trip through the Blue Ridge Parkway will provide you with many beautiful vistas.

We even got to see a dam!

Taking a road trip on the Blue Ridge Parkway will provide you with many interesting sights, like this dam.

If you’re traveling north or south between Virginia and North Carolina and/or visiting either the Great Smoky Mountain National Park or Shenandoah National Park, I highly recommend taking the Blue Ridge Parkway, even if only part of the way. The views were breathtaking, the weather was gorgeous, and it was a much nicer drive than I-81!

 

Traveling through Virginia and/or North Carolina? Visiting the Great Smoky Mountains and/or Shenandoah national parks? The Blue Ridge parkway is a great road trip, showing off some of the Appalachian Mountains' most beautiful scenery.
Virginia’s Eastern Shore, Part III – Paddle & Pour

Virginia’s Eastern Shore, Part III – Paddle & Pour

Paddle Your Glass Off

I’ve been to wine tastings before. I’ve been kayaking before. But I have never kayaked to a wine tasting. I never even knew you could do such a thing. But you can, and I did!

The Eastern Shore of Virginia Tourism office arranged for me to go on Southeast Expeditions‘ Paddle Your Glass Off tour. We drove the short distance from Cape Charles to a tiny village on the bay appropriately named Bayford. It was a beautiful day for November – nearly 70 degrees, and the water of the Nassawadox Creek was calm and still. Perfect kayaking conditions!

The waterman's wharf at Bayford, on Virginia's Eastern Shore

Dave from Southeast Expeditions was there when we arrived. He has over 15 years of experience as a  professional guide and expedition leader. But more than that, he’s knowledgeable about the area and very easy to have a conversation with. We chatted with Dave for a little bit, and once everyone had arrived, we set about starting our expedition.

Dave offered us a brief “paddling clinic” to teach us how to hold the paddles, how to steer the kayak, and so on. This was incredibly helpful for someone like me, who has only kayaked once before and needed some pointers.

We paddled for about 45 minutes south toward Church Creek. The Southeast Expeditions web site says that they always see wildlife on this expedition, and they were right – a beautiful blue heron took off from the marshes and flew right past us. (Sadly, no photo as it caught me by surprise and my camera was stowed. I had already learned that sudden movements tend to make the kayak wobble a lot and feel like it’s about to tip over. I’m not a fan.)

We chatted with the other kayakers and with Dave as we paddled and the 45 minutes passed quickly. Before I knew it, we were pulling our kayaks up onto the shores of Chatham Vineyards, which is the only winery on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.

Kayaking on Virginia's Eastern Shore will give you many opportunities to see wildlife and explore waterways.

As we walked up from the creek and our landing site, we saw a gorgeous Federalist style house in the distance. Dave told us that we were looking at the main entrance/front of the home because when it was built, visitors would come via the water. The rear of the house faced what is now the road. Now, however, the front and the back of the house look pretty much the same, with a symmetric design and columns gracing the main door.  Here’s the view from the road.

The Chatham estate, a working farm for four centuries and now a vineyard & winery. Just one of the many places you can discover when you go kayaking on Virginia's Eastern Shore

The land at Chatham was patented in 1640, and the house dates to 1818. Major Scarborough Pitts built the house and named it for William Pitt, the Earl of Chatham, who was a friend of the American Revolution. Chatham Farm has been a working farm for four centuries!

There are 20 acres of grapevines at Chatham vineyards. We were there so late in the season that no grapes remained on the vines, but we did at least get to see the plants.

Only vines, no grapes. Kayaking on Virginia's Eastern Shore to Chatham Vineyard & Winery.

As we walked from the vineyard to the winery, Dave told us about the owner, John, and how he had studied wine-making techniques and the science behind the production. He’s a second generation winegrower, and he has also made numerous trips to Europe to continue learning about his craft.

Just before we reached the winery, we met Chester, a happy-go-lucky Labrador retriever who greeted us with a great deal of enthusiasm and let us shower him with affection for a few minutes. Then it was time to get down to business, sampling the wine made on this very property.

We entered the winery and saw lots of oak barrels, some wine-related merchandise, and a lovely woman behind a bar area who was eager to talk about the wines and answer our questions. It was interesting to learn that the grapes are grown in soil with a high mineral content. The mineral content came from a meteor strike at the southern tip of Virginia’s Eastern Shore some 35 million years ago.

I know almost nothing about wine. I just feel the need to say that upfront. If you are a wine aficionado, please keep that in mind when I express my opinions below. Descriptions are straight from the Chatham website because to me, wine tastes like wine.

The first sample was of the Church Creek steel-fermented Chardonnay. As the name implies, the wine undergoes its fermentation  in steel tanks. This wine has won several awards (including being in the top 100 out of something like 12,000), but I preferred the oak Chardonnay, which was the second one we tasted. Again, as the name implies, the oak chardonnay is fermented in oak barrels.

Kayaking on Virginia's Eastern Shore can take you to a myriad of places, including the Chatham Vineyards & Winery.

The steel has notes of honeysuckle, pineapple, and mineral elements on the nose. Its palette is pristine, with ripe, sweet stone fruit tangerine acidity, and just a hint of grapefruit. The oak, on the other hand, has a round mouth feel with a creamy texture. The result is a pleasing combination of ripe pear and apple, notes of clove and lemon zest with fresh acidity.

Then we moved on to the Rosé, which was a 50-50 blend of Merlot and Cabernet Franc. It was a dry Rosé, with notes of raspberry and white peach.

The Merlot, which takes over 18 months to age, is a well-balanced wine full of cherry and black currant, with a soft tannic structure. Hints of brown spice linger on the palate.

The Cabernet Franc is a blend that is 82% Cabernet Franc, 12% Merlot, and 6% Petit Verdot. This wine is lush and ripe with prominent berry flavors of raspberry, cherry and a touch of cranberry.

The Vintner’s Blend is hand-selected by the owner, and differs every year. The blend we tried, from 2016, consisted of 30% Petit Verdot, 25% Merlot, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 20% Cabernet Franc. Blend offers fresh acidity and bright fruit flavors of cherry and black current. Coffee bean, chocolate and spice, too, make-up the flavor profile of this blend. I quite liked this one and it was probably my favorite of them all.

Kayaking on Virginia's Eastern Shore can lead to many fun adventures - including a wine tasting at Chatham Winery

The final sample was a Red Dessert Wine.  It had 3% residual sugar as a result of leaving the fruit on the vine to dehydrate slightly. With hazelnut, spice, tobacco and notes of dried fruit, this wine lingers on the palette. It was Hubs’ favorite.

After the tasting, we sat at some tables overlooking the vineyard and enjoyed a cheese and bread platter. I was kind of hungry and ate a slice of the olive bread before I thought to take a picture… sorry!

Virginia's Eastern Shore - Kayaking to Chatham Winery

It was delicious! And just the right thing to enjoy after wine.

We had a bit of a snafu with the timing on this trip. We had all forgotten that we “fell back” for the end of daylight savings time the previous night. So even though our clocks said that it was nearly 5:00, the sun was setting fast and it was as dark as it would have been at 6:00 the night before. The prospect of kayaking back in the dark didn’t sounds like much fun. But before we could fret about it, John, the owner of the winery, loaded everyone up in his van and took us back to our vehicles. That was so nice of him!

The price for the Paddle Your Glass Off expedition includes a free bottle of wine for every two kayakers.  Hubs picked the dessert wine, which we hope to enjoy at home soon.

This was an excellent end to a wonderful day of adventure. I cannot say enough nice things about Southeast Expeditions and Chatham Vineyards. Everyone was so welcoming and hospitable! The scenery was lovely and the wine was first class. If you’re in the area and you want to experience kayaking on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, I highly recommend taking the Paddle Your Glass Off tour from Southeast Expeditions!

The Eastern Shore of Virginia Tourism bureau provided me with tickets for Paddle Your Glass off. However, all opinions expressed here are my own. 

Kayaking on Virginia's Eastern Shore - Travelasmuch.com
Where the Heck is Guam, Anyway?

Where the Heck is Guam, Anyway?









In the News

Lately, there’s been a lot of talk about Guam. North Korea has been eyeing the small island in the western Pacific for target practice. I have no desire to talk about politics or Kim Jong-un. However, this is a great opportunity to learn about a place that is relatively unknown.

guam tourism flag

Who (Lives There)?

There are almost 163,000 people who reside on Guam; they are called Guamanians. Because Guam is a US territory, anyone born on the island is an American citizen.

The indigenous people, who settled there roughly 4000 years ago, are called Chamorro. The ancient Chamorro society had four classes: chamorri (chiefs), matua (upper class), achaot (middle class), and mana’chang (lower class). The upper class were located in the coastal villages, which meant they had the best access to fishing grounds, whereas the lower class were located in the interior of the island. These two groups rarely communicated with each other, and often used the middle class as intermediaries.

guam tourism indigenous people natives chamorro
Chamorro performers (source)

To greet someone in Guam, say “Håfa Adai,” which sounds very similar to “half a day.” This greeting is widely used on the island, even by those who do not speak Chamorro.

The population of Guam includes a large segment of US military members, as there are several bases. The US military bases on Guam cover nearly 30% of its total land! But as you will see in the “When?” section below, the island was of great military importance during and after World War II.

What (is it Like)?

Guam is the largest and southernmost of the Mariana Islands and the largest island in Micronesia. It is considered part of the continent of Oceania. The surface of the island is approximately 210 square miles, and most of it is surrounded by a reef.

The weather there does not fluctuate much.  The average high is 86 and the average low is 76. The highest temperature ever recorded on Guam was 96 degrees, and the lowest ever recorded was 65. The rainy season runs from July to November. August-October are the most likely months for a typhoon.

When (Did Guam Make History)?

Famed explorer Ferdinand Magellan was the first European to visit the island on March 6, 1521. He was sailing for the King of Spain, so his “discovery” of Guam led to Spanish colonization in the years that followed.

Centuries later, during the Spanish–American War, the United States captured Guam on June 21, 1898. Under the Treaty of Paris (December 10, 1898), Spain ceded Guam to the United States. It has been a US territory ever since then.

On December 7, 1941, just hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese captured the isand of Guam. During their two and a half year occupation, Guamanians were subjected to beheadings, forced labor, rape, and torture. American forces recaptured the island on July 21, 1944; Liberation Day is celebrated every July 21 to commemorate the victory.

Where (Should You Visit)?

Two Lovers Point

Once, long ago, during a time when Spain claimed the Mariana Islands, there was a family who lived in the capital city. The father was a wealthy Spanish businessman and the mother, a daughter of a great Chamorro chief.

Their oldest daughter was a beautiful young woman, admired by all for her honesty, modesty, and natural charm. One day, against her will, the girl’s father arranged for her to take a powerful Spanish captain as her husband. But the girl met and fell in love with a common Chamorro man, and they promised each other their love.

When the girl’s father learned of the couple, he grew angry and demanded that she marry the Spanish captain at once – but she found her lover and escaped. Her father, the captain and all the Spanish soldiers pursued the lovers up to the high cliff above Tumon Bay. The lovers found themselves trapped between the edge of the cliff and the approaching soldiers.

The daughter and her lover tied their long black hair together and kissed for the last time before leaping to their deaths. No one saw or heard from them again.

guam tourism - two lovers point - scenic overlook

Today the place where they jumped is known as Puntan dos Amåntes or Two Lover’s Point. Visit there to learn about the two lovers, and enjoy one of the most breathtaking views of Guam’s coastline.

Asan Bay Overlook

Aside from stunning views of the water, there is also a memorial wall. Often monuments and memorials contain the names of the leaders of nations or high ranking military officials and rightfully so. This memorial wall of honor, sacrifice, and remembrance, however, includes the etched names of ordinary men who fought with extraordinary bravery on the front lines and the names of the civilians; the men, women and children, who as neighbors, friends, and families, suffered the consequences of nations at war, many paying the ultimate sacrifice.

guam tourism asan bay overlook

The Asan Bay Overlook Memorial Wall contains the names of 1,880 U.S. servicemen who died in the 1941 defense of Guam against the attacking Japanese armed forces and those who died retaking the island from Japan in 1944. It also lists the names of the 1,170 people of Guam who died and 14,721 who suffered atrocities of war from 1941-1944.

Latte Stone Park

A latte is a stone that the Chamorro used as foundations for their homes. It consists of a pillar with a half-sphere cap (flat side facing up).

guam tourism latte stone park

Latte stones were first used around 800 AD, but fell out of use in the 17th century due to Spanish colonization. They vary in size from 18 inches to 15 feet. Some historians theorize that the taller the latte stones, the more important the person who lived in the house it supported.

Gadao’s Cave

To see excellent examples of ancient Chamorro art, head to Inarajan and Gadao’s Cave. Inside, there is a group of about 50 pictographs. The drawings range in size from one inch in height to almost eight inches. The designs vary from geometric shapes to representational figures depicting human-like or animal-like forms.  The most well known drawings in Gadao’s Cave are located on the east wall.  There, you can clearly see two human figures side by side, one of which appears to be holding something under his arm.

guam tourism gadaos cave art

Some have suggested that these figures represent the legendary Chief Gadao who challenged and outsmarted the northern chief Malaguana in a test of strength.

Namo Falls Park

Not only does Namo Falls Park in Santa Rita have some breathtaking waterfalls, it also has a stunning variety of plants in the botanical garden there.

guam tourism name falls waterfalls park

A guided tour takes visitors through the botanical garden, which is a showcase for various species of ginger and heliconius. The bright flowers bloom in an assortment of colors. Hibiscus, bougainvillea, orchids, bamboo and coconut trees among other various plants saturate the surroundings.

The park features two waterfalls. The Grandmother Falls can be viewed from this footpath. To reach the larger terraced Grandfather Falls, walk down a set of stairs.

After taking in the beautiful park grounds and flora, visitors can watch a cultural demonstration. Activities include basket weaving and rope making. The show concludes with making and sampling coconut candy.

Inajaran Natural Pools

A coral reef in this area of Guam prevents large, powerful ocean waves from reaching the shore.  The reef turns those big waves into mere ripples in a series of natural saltwater pools.

guam tourism inajaran - natural pools - great for snorkeling
See the difference between the waves in the background and the still pond in the foreground?

The stillness of the water makes it a great spot for snorkeling.  However, don’t be fooled into thinking it’s all shallow.  Some of the pools are still deep enough to dive into, and a concrete tower provides you with the means to do just that.

Why (Go There)?

Why consider Guam as a travel destination? Well, in addition to all the cool places I’ve already described above, there are a couple of great reasons:

  • You don’t need a passport to go there
  • You can call home without having to pay international phone rates
  • The weather will be neither too hot nor too cold
  • It has the world’s largest K Mart (not really a draw, but a fascinating piece of trivia)
  • It’s the perfect place to scuba dive or snorkel (or learn to snorkel)

How (Do I Get There)?

There is an international airport on Guam, and it serves as a hub for United Airlines. Or, if you would prefer to travel by sea, the Princess Cruise line does have ships that go to Guam. (But fair warning – they last for 32 or 60 nights!)

I hope you’ve enjoyed learning more about Guam as much as I have! Would you like to go there some day?
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Guam
21 New UNESCO World Heritage Sites – Part 2

21 New UNESCO World Heritage Sites – Part 2

For my post on the first ten new UNESCO World Heritage sites, click here.

11. Taputapuātea, center of the “Polynesian Triangle”, French Polynesia

The Marae, or burial site of Taputapuatea in French Polynesia - one of the new UNESCO World Heritage sites.
The marae of Taputapuātea.

Taputapuātea on Ra’iatea Island is part of the Polynesian Triangle – the last part of the globe to be settled by humans. The property includes two forested valleys, a portion of lagoon and coral reef and a strip of open ocean. At the heart of the property is the Taputapuātea marae complex – a political, ceremonial and funerary center. The site has a paved courtyard with a large standing stone at its center. Widespread in Polynesia, the marae were places of learning where priests and navigators from all over the Pacific would gather to offer sacrifices to the gods and share their knowledge of the genealogical origins of the universe, and of deep-ocean navigation. Taputapuātea is an exceptional testimony to 1,000 years of mā’ohi civilization.

12. Tarnowskie Góry, lead-silver-zinc mine, Poland

The mines of Tarnowskie Góry and the underground water system there - are one of the new UNESCO World a Heritage sites.
Today, you can tour the mines of Tarnowskie Góry.

Southern Poland contains one of the main mining areas of central Europe.  The site at
Tarnowskie Góry includes the entire underground mine with adits, shafts, galleries and even a water management system. According to UNESCO, Tarnowskie Góry represents a significant contribution to the global production of lead and zinc.

According to legend, in 1490 a local peasant-farmer named Rybka found a strange, heavy, metallic stone while plowing the field near village of Tarnowice. He presented his find to a local priest; within three decades the town became the largest silver mining center in the area. Its population rivaled in size some of the major cities of the Renaissance world. Prospectors were coming from all corners of the continent, some as far as Spain. They were spurred on by the massive amount and quality of ore, so high that on many occasions it was said to be practically pure, metallic silver. Silver, lead and zinc were bountiful in these grounds and the evidence of an early metal production dates back to at least 3rd century AD. Sadly, in the beginning of the 20th century, the source of the silver ore dried out and the mining stopped completely.

13. Sambor Prei Kuk temple zone, Cambodia

The temples of Sambor Prei Kurt, Cambodia are one of the 21 new UNESCO World Heritage sites.
A temple in Sambor Prei Kuk

Sambor Prei Kuk is a Khmer name meaning “the temple in the richness of the forest.” The archaeological site has been identified as Ishanapura, capital of the Chenla Empire that flourished there in the late 6th/early 7th centuries. The vestiges of the city cover an area of over 15 square miles and include a walled city center as well as numerous temples. Ten of the temples are octagonal, unique specimens of their kind in southeast Asia. Decorated sandstone elements in the site include lintels, pediments and colonnades – they are true masterpieces. The art and architecture developed here became models for other parts of the region and lay the ground for the unique Khmer style of the Angkor period.

 

14. English Lake District, United Kingdom

The Lake District in England is one of 21 new UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Located in northwest England, the English Lake District is a mountainous area whose valleys have been modeled by glaciers in the Ice Age. From the 18th century onwards, the Picturesque and Romantic movements celebrated this area in paintings, drawings and words. It also inspired an awareness of the importance of beautiful landscapes and triggered early efforts to preserve them. Interestingly, only one of the lakes in the Lake District is called by that name, Bassenthwaite Lake. All the others – such as Windermere, Coniston Water, Ullswater and Buttermere – are meres, tarns and waters.

15. Valongo Wharf, archeological site, Brazil

The Valongo Wharf in Rio de Janeiro is one of 21 new UNESCORTED World Heritage sites.
The Valongo Wharf, now surrounded by the city of Rio de Janeiro.

Valongo Wharf Archaeological Site encompasses the entirety of Jornal do Comércio Square in the center of Rio. It was the landing site and center of trading of African slaves from 1811 until the banning of the transatlantic slave trade in 1831. An estimated 900,000 Africans arrived in South America via Valongo.

16. Venetian Works of Defense, Croatia, Italy, Montenegro

The Venetian defense work of the 15th-17th centuries are one of 21 new UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Aerial view of the Venetian defense system in Palmanova, Italy.

This property consists of 15 components of defense works in Italy, Croatia and Montenegro, spanning more than 600 miles between the Lombard region of Italy and the eastern Adriatic Coast. The fortifications throughout Venice and its mainland territories protected the Republic of Venice from other European powers to the northwest. Those of Venice’s overseas territories protected the sea routes and ports in the Adriatic Sea to the Levant. They were necessary to support the expansion and authority of Venice. The introduction of gunpowder led to significant shifts in military techniques and architecture. These changes are reflected in the design of alla moderna bastioned fortifications, which spread throughout Europe.

17. ǂKhomani Cultural Landscape, South Africa

The Khomari Cultural Landscape of Botswana and South Africa is one of 21 new UNESCORTED World Heritage site.
Bushmen in the ǂKhomani Cultural Landscape

The ǂKhomani Cultural Landscape is located at the border between Botswana and Namibia. The area contains evidence of human occupation from the Stone Age to the present. They developed specific knowledge, cultural practices and worldview related to the geographical features of their environment. The ǂKhomani Cultural Landscape bears testimony to the way of life that prevailed in the region over thousands of years. In fact, a set of tools almost identical to that used by the present-day inhabitants of the area was discovered at Border Cave in 2012. Those tools dated to 44,000 BC!

18. Landscapes of Dauria, Mongolia, Russia

Dauria Landscape, an area in Russia and Mongolia, is one of 21 new UNESCO World Heritage sites.
A Daurian hedgehog.

Shared between Mongolia and the Russian Federation, Dauria is a sea of grass that forms the best and most intact example of an undisturbed steppe ecosystem. Because of the climate’s distinct wet and dry periods, Dauria contains a wide diversity of species. The steppes serve as habitats for rare species of animals, such as the White-Naped crane and the Great bustard, as well as millions of vulnerable, endangered or threatened migratory birds. It is also a critical site on the migration path for the Mongolian gazelle.

The region has given its name to various animal species including Daurian hedgehog, and the following birds: Asian brown flycatcher (Muscicapa daurica), Daurian jackdaw, Daurian partridge, Daurian redstart, Daurian starling, Daurian shrike and the red-rumped swallow (Hirundo daurica).

19. Los Alerces National Park, Argentina

Los Alerces National Park in Argentina is one of 21 new UNESCORTED World Heritage sites.

Los Alerces National Park is located in the Andes Mountains of northern Patagonia. The park is vital for the protection of some of the last portions of continuous Patagonian Forest. A number of endemic and threatened species of flora and fauna make the park their home. The park was created in 1937 in order to protect the alerce forest, and other plants of the Patagonian Andes. The National Park has the largest alerce forest of Argentina. The slow growing alerce is one of the longest-living trees in the world; some in the park are around 3,000 years old, with many of them over 1,000 years.

20. Qinghai Hoh Xil, China

Qinghai Hoh Xil in China is one of 21 new UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Qinghai Hoh Xil is the largest and highest plateau in the world. This extensive area of alpine mountains and steppe systems is situated more than 4,500 m above sea level, where sub-zero average temperatures prevail all year round. Despite the harsh climate, Hoh Xil is home to more than 230 species of wild animals, 20 of which are under Chinese state protection.  Protected species include the wild yak, wild donkey, white-lip deer, brown bear and the endangered Tibetan antelope, or chiru. The abundant plateau pika, a small burrowing rodent, is the main food of the region’s brown bears; the bears also feed on the yak and antelope.

21. Historic city of Ahmedabad, India

The historic walled city of India is one of 21 new UNESCO World Heritage site.
Entrance to Bhadra Fort in Ahmedabad

The walled city of Ahmedabad, founded in 1411 by Sultan Ahmad Shah presents a rich architectural heritage from the sultanate period. This is nowhere more evident than in the Bhadra citadel, the walls and gates of the city, and numerous mosques and tombs. The city consists of densely-packed traditional houses in gated streets with features such as bird feeders, public wells and religious institutions. The city continued to flourish as the capital of the State of Gujarat for six centuries, up to the present.

new UNESCO World Heritage Sites
Looking for Diamonds at an Arkansas State Park

Looking for Diamonds at an Arkansas State Park

How cool is this?

Not only is there a state park in Arkansas that lets the public go looking for diamonds, they also let visitors keep any diamonds they find!

looking for diamonds arkansas

Crater of Diamonds State Park near Murfreesboro, Arkansas contains over 37 acres of plowed field in which diamonds are found daily. For an admission fee of $10 per adult, you can search through the soil, looking for diamonds to take home.

And yes, you can take them home, because the state park has a “finders, keepers” policy. Whatever you find is yours to keep.

The History

For years, locals wondered about the unusual green dirt two miles south of the small farming community of Murfreesboro, Arkansas. Geologists examined the soil in the late 1800s and found it to be similar to diamond-bearing volcanic material elsewhere in the world.

A local farmer named John Wesley Huddleston purchased land near Murfreesboro which included part of this volcanic material. In August 1906, he discovered the first diamonds on his property. Known as Arkansas’s “Diamond King,” Huddleston soon sold his land to a commercial mining company for $36,000. A diamond rush developed as soon as word of the finds got out. The Conway Hotel in Murfreesboro is said to have turned away more than 10,000 people in just one year who could not be accommodated.

The property changed hands many times after that, ultimately being sold to the state in 1972.  It was developed into the state park at that time.

What should I bring?

Where can diamonds be found within the park? Visitors have found plenty of gems both on top of and in the soil. Tools are not necessary for diamond seeking, and a good way to search is to walk up and down the rows looking for diamonds lying on top of the ground. However, most diamond hunters like to dig in the soil. Therefore, you have the options of bringing your own tools from home, or you may purchase or rent tools here at the park.

How can I tell if it’s really a diamond?

Diamonds found at the Crater are typically smooth and rounded. Their shape resembles a polished stone with smooth sides and rounded edges. The average size of a diamond is about the size of a paper match head, approximately 20-25 points weight. (Points are a measurement of diamond weight. There are 100 points in a carat.) Look for something small. A 1-carat diamond is about the size of a green pea, based on its crystal shape.

Diamonds may feel like they have an oily film on them, and because of this characteristic, they tend to not be very dirty. Diamonds also have a metallic luster like new steel or lead. They will not be clear like glass, but translucent. You can typically see into them but not through them.  The colors of diamonds found at the park are white, brown, and yellow.

looking for diamonds color variations
Diamonds found at the park range in color from white to dark brown.

The park offers free rock and mineral identification at the Diamond Discovery Center. Diamonds are weighed and certified free of charge for the finder.

Has anyone actually found a diamond here?

On average, two diamonds are found at the park every day. Most are small but an 8.66 carat white diamond was found at the park in 2011… not that long ago!  The biggest diamond found to date was 16.37 carats, found in 1975.

Looking for diamonds crater of diamonds state park arkansas
The 8.66 carat “Illusion Diamond” found at the park in 2011

From 1972 to 2016,over 32,000 diamonds have been found in the Crater of Diamonds State Park, and 963 of those have weighed more than one carat.

What else can I do there?

If looking for diamonds doesn’t yield any results, there are other things to do and see in the park. There is a wildlife observation blind that offers great opportunities for photographing wildlife.  In addition, visitors can go fishing for large mouthed bass and/or catfish.  And there are three hiking trails in the park to explore.

The Crater of Diamonds State Park is located at 209 State Park Rd, Murfreesboro, AR 71958. Telephone: 870-285-3113. The park is open daily throughout the year with the exceptions of Thanksgiving Day, last half of the day on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day. Hours vary by season.

Why You Should Go to Finland

Why You Should Go to Finland

Finland? Really?

Is Finland travel something you’ve never considered?  Well, perhaps it’s time you should.  Here’s why:

For starters, Finland will celebrate the 100th anniversary of its independence from Russia this year on December 6.  There will be a year-long celebration full of special events and exhibitions that you might not be able to experience at any other time.

Also, consider the romance! Nick Viall spent a couple of weeks showcasing how romantic Finland could be on The Bachelor. Wouldn’t you love to re-create one of those romantic fantasy dates with your sweetie?

And, if you’re a statistics person, you can also consider the following:

  • Clean air.  According to the World Health Organization, Finland has the third cleanest air in the world.
  • Safety. The World Economic Forum recently published its 2017 Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Report and Finland was once again ranked as the safest country to visit worldwide.  It also achieved the highest ranking for environmental sustainability.
  • Lonely Planet chose Finland as one of its top three destinations for 2017.
  • Finland is the most heavily forested country in Europe; forests cover more than 70% of its land.

Finland = Funland

Okay, so you’re thinking maybe Finland travel could be cool after all. But what would you do there? The answer is plenty!  Here are a few of my suggestions.

Northern Lights

In the Finnish Lapland (the northern section of the country), the aurora borealis appear about 200 nights out of the year. The best months to see them are September through March.  If you are in the southern part of the country, your chances of seeing them go down drastically:  there the frequency drops to 10-20 times per year.

While on the hunt for the Northern Lights, you can stay at the Arctic Treehouse Hotel in Rovaniemi, which has suites that offer views over the treetops through the glass wall. Or, if glamping is more your thing, you can stay in an Aurora Dome – luxurious (heated!) tents with a transparent side.  A third option are the glass villas of Kemi which have 2 glass walls and a glass ceiling. What could be more romantic than lying in bed with your love, gazing up at Mother Nature’s light show?

finland travel aurora borealis northern lights muonio
A view of the Northern Lights through one of the Aurora Domes in Muonio Finland.

Saunas

I don’t think it’s even possible to overestimate how much the Finnish love saunas. In fact, many Finns think you cannot grasp Finland or its culture without bathing in a sauna. Getting invited to a sauna in Finland is an honor, it is not a sexual proposition.  The Finns view the sauna as a place for physical and mental cleansing, and many suggest one should behave in a sauna as they would in church. Likewise, do not expect a spa-like experience with relaxing music, colorful lights, and fragrances.  Real Finnish saunas are dimly lit, and there’s no music or smells except for fresh birch and natural tar.

Finns go to sauna in the nude, even with strangers. If you the thought of stripping completely makes you uncomfortable, Finns will understand if you want to wear a swimsuit or a towel. In groups, women and men go to sauna separately, but families go together. When in a mixed group that is about to go to sauna, it is perfectly fine to ask people and discuss who should go with whom.

In sauna, you may seem people smacking themselves with a bundle of leafy twigs. That is called a vasta or vihta, and it is made of fresh birch twigs.  The Finns swear that whipping yourself with the vasta is very good for your skin, leaving it soft and smooth.

finland travel finnish sauna
A typical Finnish sauna with vastas

Be sure to drink plenty while you partake in the sauna experience.  You’ll be sweating a lot, and it will be important to stay hydrated.

A New National Park

Finland will be opening a new national park in June of this year as part of its centennial observances. The new park will be in Hossa, an area along the Eastern border of Finland.

There are about 130 lakes and ponds in Hossa, most with clear water. It is a popular destination for hiking, with 55 miles of marked trails. In addition to hiking, the area supports fishing, hunting, camping, canoeing, and cross-country skiing and snowmobiling in winter.  A favorite spot for canoeing is the Julma-Ölky canyon lake, which is not quite 2 miles long.

Another popular attraction is the Värikallio rock paintings. Discovered in 1977 by two skiers, it is one of the two northernmost sites of rock art in Finland, as well as one of the largest collections with over 60 figures discerned. The human images at Värikallio are notable for exhibiting triangular heads (seen at only two other sites), and for a human figure with horns. As at other sites, the most numerous images are of animals, including one that may be the only bear depicted in Finnish rock art. Hand print and paw print pictographs are also represented. Another unusual aspect of the Värikallio paintings is the lack of boat images, which are common at other Finnish sites.

Värikallio rock paintings finland travel hossa national park
Värikallio rock paintings

A New Place to Explore

The island of Vallisaari in Helsinki was recently opened to the public for the first time. In the Middle Ages, Vallisaari was known by the name of Lampisaari (“Pond Island”), because seafarers replenished their drinking water supplies from the ponds on this island.  Later (mid-nineteenth century), the island was the site of military fortifications. It maintained its status as a military site during and after the Russian Revolution and Finnish independence. In fact, it was used by the military until 2008, and for the following eight years it was off-limits to the public.  So the island is a beautiful nature reserve, offering a rich range of species in the metropolitan area, including bats, badgers, and lush vegetation teeming with birdlife.

finland travel vallisaari island helsinki
Vallisaari Island

Santa Claus and Reindeer – All Year!

Open each day of the year in the city of Rovaniemi, children and adults can visit Santa’s office, enjoy a private chat with him and revel in the enchanted atmosphere. As we all know, Santa’s annual mission is to deliver happiness around the world with the help of his team of furry reindeer friends.

Santa may only visit your home once a year, but he welcomes everybody to visit him during the rest of the year. Don’t pass up the invitation!

 

santa claus reindeer finland travel
Santa and his reindeer, ready to welcome visitors

So, what are you waiting for? Visit Finland – it’s got something for everyone!