(with minimal contribution from Saqib Siddik, who was asleep on the plane ride home while I was writing most of this blog post 🙂 )

my husband, Saqib, on ice

my husband, Saqib, on ice

Iceland. Land of Fire and Ice. Nature in the colors black and white: black sand, soil, and dried lava; white snow-capped mountains. A place of stunning contrasts. This trip was something we have thought about doing for years, and our schedules finally lined up for us to make the journey. We knew from our research that Iceland has epic, otherworldly landscapes. And seeing the majestic mountains, ominous glaciers, steamy sulphur springs and geysers, bubbling mud pits, lava flows, volcanic ash, and dangerously beautiful terrain in person was breathtaking. We lost count of the number of times we would crest a hill and be blown away by the scene in front of us. Iceland is an island of extremes, few trees, shortage of farmable land, and wildlife specially equipped to handle the harsh cold — an isolated island where locals and tourists alike must be resourceful, if we are to travel around the entire country. We did. And we would change hotels and cities and log several hours on the road every day for an entire week on our own Viking saga.

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Day 1

  • Reykjavík: We began our journey in Iceland’s capital in the southwestern part of the island country. We flew in via Icelandair, which teased us with “Northern Lights” along the tops of the overhead compartments. The weather was still cold in late March — near-freezing temperatures but with very gusty winds that made it feel much colder. We shopped and dined on Laugavegur Street in the afternoon, after checking in at Fosshotel Reykjavík, the hotel chain’s flagship location. The hotels chosen for this trip all turned out to be quite nice and cozy.

    Saqib & me in The Blue Lagoon

    Saqib & me in The Blue Lagoon

  • The Blue Lagoon: We enjoyed a couple of hours relaxing, swimming, and applying a silica mask to our faces in this mineral-rich, geothermal pool in the middle of a lava field, where it was freezing above water but toasty and comfortable below. Locker rooms include showers and other bathroom facilities. Dinner was at LAVA Restaurant, with rock formations right outside the windows providing a natural setting. The Torched Arctic Char starter with fennel, pearl onion, cucumber, toasted bread, and aioli was exquisite. We ate much more fresh fish (every day) in every city we dined in, including salmon, tuna, haddock, cod, and more. Saqib also had lobster and shrimp. Lamb is also an Icelandic specialty, so we had that too.

Day 2

  • snorkeling in Silfra

    snorkeling in Silfra

    Silfra: After departing Reykjavík to head southeast, we spent the afternoon in Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park, where we suited up in a warm suit and dry suit with thermals underneath to go snorkeling in the fissure between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. The water was crystal clear, giving us a pristine view of the underwater moss and rocks. Shallower parts required us to meander through without hitting the rocks, or else we risked putting little tears in our dry suit, which would get us completely soaked. Porous gloves on our hands let water in but warmed the water as it passed through. The mask left our lower cheeks and lips exposed, so at the end of the roughly 45-minute swim from one end to the other, our lips were so swollen, we looked like we had gotten lip injections.

  • Geysir Hot Springs: active geysers shooting into the air.

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    steam from underground

  • Gullfoss: Stunning waterfalls plunged into the deep canyon of the Hvita River.
  • Icelandic horses: We saw many (super cute) Icelandic horses standing out in fields along our route throughout the entire country. Icelandic horses are an extra-furry, small breed the size of a pony. We approached a group of them. They were very friendly, letting us pet them. We interacted with a few more groups of horses in later days in other parts of the country.
  • Minilik Ethiopian Restaurant: We had a delicious dinner at a very well-rated, rare find in Iceland. Service was slow, but the ambience was cozy and warm. An unexpected charm in the middle of Iceland.

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    Icelandic horses

  • Northern Lights – 1st encounter: After nightfall, on our way to our next city, Vík, we kept an eye out for the #1 item on our bucket list: the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis). We were traveling on Ring Road, which goes around the country, more or less along the coast. The stars were out on this clear night, and I (Julie) was checking the Northern Lights forecast. All of a sudden, Saqib (who was driving) spotted a white streak across the sky to his left and alerted me to it. We didn’t know if it was a cloud or what we hoped it was. We then spotted a couple of cars ahead that had pulled over to the side of the dark road, so we optimistically followed suit. I quickly grabbed Saqib’s camera from the back seat, and in the next several minutes, he captured our first sighting of the magnificent Northern Lights — faint but clearly green and dancing gently in the night sky. We were giddy but still hoped to see better aurora in the days to come. We also saw the Seljalandsfoss waterfall lit up at night, which was powerfully eery.
  • Icelandair Hotel: This was the first of two Icelandair Hotels we stayed in, and both had humorous no-smoking notices in the rooms, complete with ridiculous folktales.
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Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach

Day 3

  • Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach: We started the morning on one of my favorite excursions of the trip: running around on exotic black sand as roaring waves crashed onto the beach in Southeast Iceland. Impressive rock formations jutted out of the Atlantic Ocean and towered over us on land. One inspired the architectural design of a church in Reykjavík which we would visit on our last day. Black sand and soil can be seen over much of Iceland.

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    Skaftafell National Park: Vatnajökull glacier

  • Skaftafell National Park: We strapped crampons over our winter boots (spikes to walk on ice) and hiked up onto the Vatnajökull National Park glacier. I thought we were going on an easy stroll on flat ice, but it turned out to be a somewhat strenuous 2-hour trek across very uneven, unstable ice and densely compacted snow with large cracks and steep drop-offs to avoid. But the scenery was awe inspiring and in fact, the filming location for the movie Interstellar’s ice planet scene.
  • Hotel Skaftafell: Not the most luxurious of accommodations but more than decent and a welcome respite from the active afternoon we had just had, this hotel was set against beautiful, snow-capped mountains.
Glacier Lagoon

Glacier Lagoon

Day 4

  • Glacier Lagoon & Ice Cave Tour: We saw a seal swimming in the Jökulsárlón Lagoon, surrounded by large pieces of glaciers that had broken off from the much larger sheets lodged between mountains. Another round of strapping on crampons. On this morning the bottom of Saqib’s shoe had fallen off, so the staff at the glacier park taped it together with electrical tape until we were able to buy him a new pair later that day. An off-roading vehicle took us on a very bumpy roller coaster ride with small drops and steep inclines to get to another glacier and an ice cave. We walked onto the glacier and explored the ice cave.

    Saqib in an ice cave

    Saqib in an ice cave

  • Höfn: We had lunch at Restaurant Z Bistro in a city called Höfn in South Iceland, where we experienced small-town charm at its finest. We asked our server where we could find new winter hiking boots for Saqib, and she directed us to a camping operation with a store, Pjónustumidstöd SKG, run by a relative. They weren’t open for business at that time, but our lady server called her relative, who met us there right away. No luck in finding the right shoes in the right size, though they had a nice selection. Still, the owner was most helpful and circled on a map a few other stores we should check out. A convenience store and a hardware store both sold shoes! But we ended up buying from the apparel store she told us about.
  • Herad: We took a most scenic drive to our next city of Herad, with looming mountains on one side and steep cliffs into the ocean on the other, going through long mountain tunnels, and watching the sun set against a haunting, deep blue sky. We stayed at another Icelandair Hotel that night.
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coastal drive to Herad

Day 5

  • Café Nielsen: a restaurant in an old house with a small lunch buffet and shop.

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    Dettifoss

  • Dettifoss: Getting to this misty waterfall required a good, long hike across icy, hilly terrain.
  • Lake Mývatn: Boiling mud pits, twisted lava formations, extinct cinder cones cover the area surrounding this lake and serve as a reminder of the active volcanoes dotting the nation that can erupt at any time.
  • Húsavík: This northern Iceland town is known as the whale capital because of its frequent whale sightings and associated tours. The nice lady at the front desk of Fosshotel Húsavík informed us that the Northern Lights were active and that we could observe them from a dark lookout at the top of a hill, just a few minutes north of town. We spent an hour and a half up there in the car, but no luck seeing any aurora. Still, it was part of the experience of seeking the aurora, and we were glad to have done it.

Day 6

  • Akureyri: This is the second largest city in Iceland, also dubbed the capital of the
    Rub 23, Akureyri

    Rub 23, Akureyri

    North. We had sushi at the well-reviewed Rub 23 restaurant (it was good but not sublime), then spent some time photographing Akureyri Church, which sits on a hill overlooking the seaside city and its sloped streets.

  • Húsafell & Northern Lights – 2nd encounter: A long, scenic drive brought us to Hotel Húsafell, a picturesque destination two hours north of Reykjavík. The helpful staff added our names to the Northern Lights wakeup call list, and we headed to an elegant dinner at the hotel restaurant. As it turned out, we didn’t need the wakeup call because as we finished dinner, we were told that the Northern Lights were already out. We and the other dinner guests headed out to the center courtyard, where staff had already turned off the building lights to help us better see the elusive Northern Lights. There we were dazzled by a light show of green, purple, and white that felt unreal, something that seemed too spectacular to exist in nature. Atmospheric conditions were perfect, and we also managed to see several satellites orbiting overhead against a backdrop of millions of shimmering stars. Later that night we continued gazing out our hotel room window, which had the perfect view of the aurora.
Northern Lights above Husafell: against the backdrop of snow-capped mountains surrounding our hotel

Northern Lights above Husafell: against the backdrop of snow-capped mountains surrounding our hotel

Day 7

  • Lava Cave: Our final excursion was a trip to The Cave (Víðgelmir), which is a lava tube 30 minutes north of Husafell. We donned helmets and headlamps and descended deep into the earth to observe the remains of lava flow from a thousand years ago.

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    icy stalagmites inside a lava cave

  • We concluded our road trip with a final scenic drive back to Reykjavík. Rather than pay a toll to go through a long tunnel, we took the long way around and were treated to some wonderful curving roads nestled between the mountains on one side and the sea on the other. The Westfjords were spectacular. After checking in at Fosshotel Baron, where we had a harbor-view room, we walked a few minutes to revisit Laugavegur Street, had dinner at Nepalese Kitchen Restaurant, and enjoyed ice cream at Eldur and Is — both food establishments have earned top nods in online reviews.

Day 8

  • We took one last stroll along the harbor in Reykjavík and a drive by the Hallgrímskirkja Church inspired by the large rock formation at Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach. Then we headed back to Keflavík International Airport to fly WOW Air back to the U.S.

    Hallgrímskirkja

    Hallgrímskirkja

Soundtrack

(music we played on our road trip around Iceland)
  • Enya: various albums
  • Sarah Brightman’s Dreamchaser
  • The Lord of the Rings: soundtracks of all 3 films
  • Paul Schwartz’s Aria 3: Metamorphosis

Extra Tidbits

  • Many hotel bathrooms have warm floor tiles, which is good in the cold weather.

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    in an icy crevice off of a glacier

  • Roundabouts, one-lane bridges, and random sections of gravel are common on streets and highways.
  • The Icelandic language uses a lot of really long words that sometimes incorporate all vowels and seemingly as many consonants as possible.
  • Some street signs bear the last name of the owner of the home they point to.
  • Appelsín is an Icelandic soda favorite — it tastes like the typical orange soda and is refreshing after a salty meal.
  • Icelandic food is similar to American/New American — not spicy or particularly flavorful.
  • Tipping isn’t commonplace at restaurants.

    climbing ice along a glacier

    climbing ice along a glacier

  • Some gas stations have attendants who pump your gas at no additional charge.
  • Everything else is expensive, from food to clothing to souvenirs — at a casual restaurant, we paid $60 for the two of us for lunch. Dinner at a nicer restaurant easily can cost you $150 for just 2 entrees and an appetizer (no drinks).
  • Discover card is accepted almost everywhere, which is great for earning rewards while you spend a fortune.
  • Stores close earlier than in the U.S., with some grocery stores closing as early as 7pm and restaurants halting lunch service at 1:30pm. There are few gas stations and bathroom facilities along long stretches of road, so prepare accordingly. Snacks are a good idea.
  • We ran into Chinese tourists from China, Taiwan, or Hong Kong at every stop. There were a good number of American and European tourists too. Not so much from other places. (I’m Chinese-American.) There are few people on the roads, so we ran into the same people at various attractions, lookout points, and random stops — funny and nice to see familiar faces at the same time.
  • We also saw several sheep and a couple of elusive reindeer.
me on a glacier above an ice cave

me on a glacier above an ice cave

Iceland is a peaceful, low-crime nation, where most of the population lives in one city, its capital. Every direction you look, there is a view that evokes a childlike wonder and amazement. Around every corner is an adventure. It’s definitely a place we want to return to, and next time, we will find time for a ride on horseback and in a helicopter.

We spent a couple of weeks up north with several of our family members and friends in late September/early October last year. We stayed a couple of days in Boston visiting friends before embarking on a week-long Holland America cruise along the Canadian coast with chilly fall weather. After disembarking, we spent a few days in Montreal before flying back home. [Type “Montreal,” “Quebec,” and “Boston” in the search field of this blog to read more about these cities I visited in the past that we revisited on this trip.]

Boston Harbor

Boston Harbor

Here are some attractions from our trip worth seeing:

Bar Harbor, Maine

Bar Harbor, ME

Bar Harbor, ME

Our first port of call: Just as one would imagine a New England coastal town to be, Bar Harbor had charming seaside shops and restaurants lining the sloped roads of this artists’ enclave that was once an exclusive summer getaway for America’s wealthy. We browsed for a few hours and enjoyed homemade ice cream in the blustery cold weather – couldn’t resist. I picked up one of my now-favorite additions to tea: small-batch organic lavender sugar from Lily Belle Farm.  For those who like lobster – I don’t – lobster boat tours and bakes are popular. We didn’t have time to visit the famed Acadia National Park but walked along the beautiful coastline before taking a tender (boat) back to our cruise ship.

Halifax, Mahone Bay, and Historical Lunenburg – A Unesco World Heritage Site, Nova Scotia

Mahone Bay

Mahone Bay

This was the first of three Holland America excursions we took. As its brochure describes, “The craggy shores of the Lighthouse Route are dotted with picture perfect seaside villages, old captains’ mansions and working waterfronts.” A bus took us on a scenic drive through Nova Scotia from Halifax to Mahone Bay, flanked by waterfront churches and full of coastal charm like a postcard. It so happened that we were there during the Mahone Bay Scarecrow Festival, so residents and business owners had put up numerous scarecrows up and down the streets, representing various themes from the British royal family to more common people. From there, we continued on to Lunenburg, a town with a bustling fishing industry and known historically for its shipbuilding.  Our tour guide was the most eloquent and engaging we’ve ever had, and we’ve been on many tours around the world. Other sites worth visiting include Peggy’s Cove, Citadel Hill National Historic Site, and Maritime Museum of the Atlantic (where you can discover Halifax’s connection to the ill-fated voyage of Titanic).

Sydney, Nova Scotia: Baddeck

Baddeck

Baddeck

At the next port in Sydney, we took a panoramic drive through the historic North End. We enjoyed views of Boulanderie Island, Seal Island Bridge, Bras d’Or Channel, Kelly’s Mountain, and St. Ann’s Bay. The Trans-Canada Highway took us to the picturesque resort village of Baddeck on the shores of the Bras d’Or Lakes in the heart of Cape Breton Island, where puffins greeted us. Other attractions worthy of a visit in this Gaelic area famous for its fiddlers include Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site & Museum, Wentworth Park, Whitney Pier Museum, and Fortress of Louisbourg.

Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island: Anne of Green Gables

Green Gables

Green Gables

Canada’s smallest province, Prince Edward Island is the perfect setting for an island drive or horse-drawn trolley ride to see its red earth, white-sand beaches, PEI National Park, and lighthouses. We took a tour of Green Gables, the farmstead with wooded trails like Lovers Lane and scenery as idyllic as described in the classic books of Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery. Some of the colors and landscape were so pristine, they looked artificial in a beautiful way. Nearby waves were crashing onto Cavendish Beach.

Quebec: Quebec City on Foot

Quebec City

Quebec City

My husband and I had visited Quebec City in the frigid winter, so it was nice to see it with fall colors. A French-inspired coastal city with both historic charm and modern elements, you’ll find cobblestone streets, a funicular taking you up and down the steep terrain lined with restaurants, outdoor cafes, shops, churches (including the breathtakingly gorgeous Cathedral-Basilica of Notre Dame), and more. We spent the day with my cousin’s family in this city along the St. Lawrence River.

Exploring Montreal

My husband and I had spent a day in Montreal a few years ago – enough time to browse shops, dine at a cafe, and get a feel for this French-style city. This time, we had a few more days to immerse ourselves, dine at restaurants like the classy and highly-rated Suite 701 in Old Montreal, and see more areas, including:

  • Biodome: Transformed from the former Olympic Park, where my parents attended the 1976 Olympics, this is now a huge complex of exhibits related to nature and science. We explored an indoor facility full of animals and plants divided into their own ecosystems, from tropical forest to polar climate.
  • Mount Royal Park: Overlooking the city, we walked several miles along the trails of Mt. Royal.
  • Voiles en Voiles: At the Old Port of Montreal, my little niece frolicked in a giant pirate ship obstacle course while we watched in amazement at how elaborate the theme park setup was.
view of Montreal from Mt. Royal

view of Montreal from Mt. Royal

Sorry for being MIA for so long! I’ve been slacking on updating this travel blog. For a few months, we didn’t leave town, as I was recovering from hip surgery from ballet injuries. Since then, I’ve been traveling but too busy to sit down and write. And some were repeat destinations, albeit visiting different attractions and restaurants — but I didn’t think there was enough new material worth blogging about. I’m back into it now.

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Truckee River, downtown Reno

Last July, my husband and I lucked out and got to be plus-ones on two different people’s tickets to the much-buzzed-about Tesla Gigafactory grand opening & tour in the Reno, NV area: headlined by CEO Elon Musk at a private party for Tesla owners, board members, and big wigs from around the world. I own and drive the all-electric Tesla Model X with 2nd-row falcon-wing doors, the biggest touch-screen in a vehicle, a front & back trunk, zero emissions — the world’s most futuristic, fastest, safest, and coolest (only this one of the four superlatives is subjective but almost fact) SUV.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk & CTO JB Straubel speaking at Gigafactory grand opening party

Tesla CEO Elon Musk & CTO JB Straubel speaking at Gigafactory grand opening party

We were disappointed that this once-in-a-lifetime trip would cost us more than $600/person in roundtrip airfares (seriously, to Reno?) — much pricier than tickets to relatively nearby Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and San Francisco Bay Area. Nevertheless, we booked the most last-minute plane trip we’ve ever taken. Plus side: free upgrade to first class on the way from Houston to Reno. We arrived in the middle of the night and checked into the Grand Sierra Resort and Casino and caught just a few hours of sleep before an early morning start.

Day 1

We spent the day attending the Tesla Motors Club (TMC) Connect annual conference for the first time. It was an incredibly enlightening day of workshops about electric vehicles, autonomous driving, and Tesla’s groundbreaking marketing strategies — led by visionary speakers and attended by fellow EV (mostly Tesla) owners. We listened to and met some of the most innovative thinkers of our time who have made the “impossible” possible, including Sirius satellite radio creator/United Therapeutics CEO Martine Rothblatt (formerly Martin before her transgender transformation), who owned 7 Teslas at the time and has been developing a battery-powered helicopter, and George Blankenship, who was the architect of Apple’s brand-building retail method and as former VP, made Tesla the Apple of car companies.

Tesla Gigafactory

Tesla Gigafactory

In the early evening, we carpooled with a fellow Tesla owner to Sparks, NV to attend the Tesla Gigafactory unveiling by CEO Elon Musk and meet other owners. We witnessed a dust storm on the backdrop of the Nevada hills and mountains, while other attendees were test-riding Teslas. My husband and I scored a front-row spot by the stage to witness history! VIP treatment, a hip party with unlimited drinks. Only the food was a little lacking — good but not quite enough substance for such a long event. We toured the enormous, very high-tech Gigafactory, which will produce all the lithium ion batteries for Tesla cars and chargers — more than the entire world’s current production. Talking and fast-moving robots were at work alongside people. Buses took us up the hill to see a Tesla sign like the “Hollywood” letters in the Hollywood Hills. We also saw up close Tesla’s new small sedan Model 3, Tesla’s first mass-market vehicle which will be priced reasonably at about $35,000 vs. the current models priced from about the $70,000s-150,000s. The party was an unforgettable experience that lasted late into the night.

Day 2

National Automobile Museum

National Automobile Museum

After a full day of back-to-back, high-energy events, it was time for sightseeing and relaxing at a slower pace. We visited one of North America’s top-5 auto museums, National Automobile Museum. Organized by decade, it took us on a journey through the history and evolution of automobiles. It was a step back in time from the futuristic EVs we had spent the past day getting to know intimately.

We walked through downtown Reno and enjoyed watching people swimming and tubing in Truckee Riverwalk, something you don’t see in most cities. We also explored the Midtown district and saw the famed “Reno: The Biggest Little City in the World” sign.

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my husband and me, Lake Tahoe

We spent the late afternoon taking a scenic drive up to Lake Tahoe. We climbed around on the cliffs and rocks, and walked trails overlooking the beautiful, popular lake.

In the evening, we finally had time back at our hotel to start browsing the shops, try the restaurants, and check out the numerous amenities. This is definitely a resort for everyone — billiards room and golf for the guys (and gals), arcade for teens, play areas for kids, spa for ladies (and men), beach volleyball, bowling alley, movie theater, pool, and more.

Day 3

panoramic view from Animal Ark

panoramic view from Animal Ark

Before departing Reno, we took a drive out to the country to visit Animal Ark, a scenic wildlife sanctuary in the mountains for injured or otherwise endangered animals. It was so quiet outside, you could hear what someone else was saying in a normal voice hundreds of feet away. We saw a variety of animals, including a bobcat, jaguar, lynx, badger, bears, wolves, predatory and non-predatory birds, and more. What a unique, peaceful setting to appreciate majestic animals. We weren’t there on the right day to witness the cheetah run, but that sounds like an amazing experience that we’d want to see in the future — cheetahs running full speed right in front of you!

As we left this city that is known for its casinos, we remembered the area for its natural beauty — lakes, mountains, and crisp air.

jellyfish, beach outside our hotel, Atlantic Ocean

jellyfish, beach outside our hotel, Atlantic Ocean

My husband and I were looking for a quick, (more or less) mindless beach vacation. We had barely three full days to get away, so we needed a place where there weren’t too many famous, must-see attractions, as we didn’t want to “pack it in.” Hilton Head Island, South Carolina seemed like just the destination — famous for its top golf courses. Unfortunately, it was too cool to swim in the Atlantic Ocean, but the weather was the right temperature for a nice walk on the beach and splashing among the waves outside our hotel.

Where to Stay
Westin Hilton Head Island Resort & Spa – For about $360/night (taxes & fees included), we relaxed in a well-appointed, oceanfront room on the top floor — the best view in the beachfront hotel. We saw a large amount of jellyfish washed up onto the shore and more floating in shallow waters. We enjoyed meals at all the restaurants: Oceans (indoor, oceanfront dining), View 32 (outdoor, poolside dining with fire pits and views of the ocean), The Carolina Room (indoor, fine dining with a lowcountry twist), and Ingredients (the indoor, fast cafe). And we finished our stay with a Couples Massage at Heavenly Spa.

view from our hotel: 1 of 10 oceanfront rooms on top floor

view from our hotel: 1 of 10 oceanfront rooms on top floor

alligator & turtles, Sea Pines

alligator & turtles, Sea Pines

What to See & Do
Sea Pines – idyllic, master-planned resort community that balances lush greenery with peaceful lakes. $6 gate fee. Coastal-style houses line golf courses, and we even saw an alligator lying on the banks of a lagoon next to a couple of small turtles. We drove through most of the streets to admire the scenery, dined at the harborfront Quarterdeck, strolled through The Shops at Sea Pines Center, and savored a double-scoop at Salty Dog Ice Cream at South Beach. We spent two hours walking through the 605-acre Sea Pines Forest Preserve, mostly via unpaved areas covered with leaves, mud from the rain, and thick brush. It’s home to Lakes Mary, Thomas, and Joe, as well as marshes, bridges, Wildflower Field, Fish Island, and the legendary Indian Shell Ring dating back some 3,800 years. Lawton Stables (home to beautiful horses) and Harbour Town Lighthouse are worth a visit. For $4/person, we took the stairs through a museum inside the lighthouse to the observation deck at the top. The most memorable highlight was our 90-minute, sunset Vagabond Cruise from the Harbour Town Yacht Basin through Calibogue Sound, where we saw graceful bottlenose dolphins jumping into the air and diving back into the water, and glanced across to the secluded Daufuskie Island (which has no bridge for access).

Coligny Plaza – more than 60 shops and restaurants, including Frozen Moo (ice cream shop) and Coligny Theatre.

Walking trails along Hwy 278 – winding paths and bridges along this main highway through the island.

Hilton Head was definitely developed strategically and done well. A classy, clean-cut town with barely any trash on the beach, it’s a place that’s absolutely earned a soft spot in our hearts.

Vagabond Cruise, Calibogue Sound: many dolphin sightings

Vagabond Cruise, Calibogue Sound: many dolphin sightings

Times Square, New York, NY

Times Square, New York, NY

Life has gotten even busier for me these days, with my hands in all sorts of work and personal projects, but I still make time to travel. However, I have less time and energy to write this travel blog. Thus, here’s a quick rundown of my recent trip to New England: one week mainly in New York City (with stays in New Jersey and brief stops in Connecticut) with my husband, plus a few days in Rhode Island with two girl friends from college. You can follow this itinerary to maximize your time sightseeing and to spend enough time relaxing.

Newark, NJ Riverwalk outside our hotel

Newark, NJ Riverwalk outside our hotel

A few words about the different places: Newark, NJ is rough at night, as we were told by the hotel front desk. New York City is one of the dirtiest, roughest big cities I’ve visited — anticlimactic, if you’ve been to some of the cleanest big cities in the world, like Hong Kong (equally crowded), Tokyo, Seoul, and Taipei. Those East Asian cities are very modern too. Connecticut is beautiful, and we’d like to spend more time there in the future. Rhode Island is such a small state, you can get through much of the highlights in a few days, as we did, and you even drive through Massachusetts while going from Providence to Newport on the route we took to avoid tolls. We ran out of time for Rough Point, Bowen’s Wharf, Rose Island Lighthouse, Castle Hill Lighthouse, Gooseberry Beach and Ocean Drive, and plan to visit those on a future trip. Because of our limited time and itinerary, we weren’t always able to dine at the best restaurants but had to opt for the best among the most convenient location-wise. We did a lot of walking, which helped to burn the calories we consumed. We went in late-August/early-September, during the hottest days of the year, and those old Northeast cities don’t run their A/C as cool as we do in Texas!

Empire State Building from Top of the Rockefeller Center, Manhattan

Empire State Building from Top of the Rockefeller Center, Manhattan

Day 1

  • Friend’s wedding in Livingston, NJ (our original purpose for the trip)
  • Check into hotel on Newark, NJ Riverwalk and stroll along river
  • Walk to dinner at Chinatown (closest decent restaurant but not entirely authentic)
Day 2
  • Ride NJ Transit train to New York Penn Station (at 34th street)
  • Walk north on 7th Avenue, seeing Empire State Building, Good Morning America (ABC) studios, and other landmarks
  • See Times Square by day
  • Lunch at Nippori across from Gershwin Theatre (another Japanese restaurant Ippudo down the street had an hour-plus wait, which we didn’t have time for)
  • Watch Wicked on Broadway at Gershwin Theatre
  • Chelsea Market (basil honey ice cream at Ronnybrook Farm Dairy was divine; so many other quaint shops and cafes with interesting finds, like an all-Italian grocery store)
  • Dinner: homemade pasta at Giovanni Rana Pastifico & Cucina in Chelsea Market
  • See Late Show with David Letterman studios, among other attractions
  • Walk south on 7th avenue to see Times Square at night and stop into random stores
new World Trade Center tower, Lower Manhattan

new World Trade Center tower, Lower Manhattan

Day 3

  • Ride PATH train to World Trade Center complex including new tower, 9/11 Memorial
  • Walk along Wall Street (stopped into Tiffany & Co. store)
  • Lunch at Fresh Salt on Fulton Street at South Street Seaport
  • Ride Staten Island Ferry (free) to see Statue of Liberty; return trip from Staten Island terminal
  • SOHO shopping and afternoon coffee/tea
  • Little Italy
  • Chinatown: dinner at Great NY Noodletown (crowded, typical Hong Kong casual style)
Day 4
  • Carnegie Hall
  • Plaza Hotel (heavenly food court on bottom level, with classy food and drink establishments and beautiful bakeries)
  • Central Park pedicab tour (I bargained the driver and hawker down from $75 to $50/ride)
  • Tiffany & Co. flagship store on 5th Ave., Apple store, huge FAO Schwarz flagship store
  • Walk Upper East Side, Park Avenue, Madison Avenue
  • Dinner at Wu Liang Ye (very expensive Chinese restaurant but convenient to where we needed to go)
  • Watch live show of America’s Got Talent at Radio City Music Hall (super-exciting because we’ve been following this show this season) with Nick Cannon, Howard Stern, Howie Mandel, Mel B, and Heidi Klum
Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island

Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island

Day 5

  • Top of the Rock (spectacular views of New York skyline, including the iconic Empire State), Rockefeller Plaza
  • Lunch at famed The Halal Guys food truck
  • Shops at Rockefeller Center
  • Watch The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon (NBC) monologue rehearsal (He’s very funny and spontaneous in his impromptu moments. This was a nice, intimate treat with an approximately 50-member audience — smaller than the 250-member audience at his full show taping.)
  • Dinner at Pearl & Ash (top-10 New York City restaurant, as rated by a New York Times article)
  • Walk to West Village
  • Gelato at Grom (insanely expensive gelato but good)
  • Watch our friend Miguel Ali’s (we’ve always known him as Muhammad Ali Hasan) movie Confessions of a Womanizer at Courthouse Theater at Anthology Film Archives
  • Late-night snack at a diner with Ali and a friend of his

“America’s Got Talent” at Radio City Music Hall

Day 6

  • Check out of hotel
  • Drive by United Nations Building (braved crazy Manhattan vehicle and pedestrian traffic)
  • Drive through Brooklyn, NY
  • Coney Island Boardwalk (and ice cream, of course)
  • Drive through Queens, NY
  • Dinner at The Restaurant at Rowayton Seafood in Rowayton, CT (dreamy coastal, waterfront restaurant in one of America’s 10 happiest coastal towns, as rated by Coastal Living magazine — I made it a point to visit the upper-crust town when I read the article)
  • Drive through New Haven, CT and see Yale University
  • Spend the night in Providence, RI
marina in Rowayton, CT

marina in Rowayton, CT

Day 7

  • See my husband off at airport, meet up with my two long-time girl friends in Providence
  • Lunch at Sandwich Junction
  • Explore downtown and surrounding areas, including Capitol building and complex, Westminster Street (eclectic shopping), Prospect Terrace Park including statue of Providence founder Roger Williams
  • Walk through Federal Hill and dinner at historic Angelo’s, dessert from Scialo Bros. Bakery

Day 8

  • Waterplace Park (where Waterfire happens) and Riverwalk
  • College Hill including Thayer Street (funky vintage shops and cafes), Brown University, Rhode Island School of Design
  • Lunch at Kabob and Curry (not spicy at all, so not truly authentic)
  • Benefit Street
  • Independence Trail, including First Baptist Church (literally, the first Baptist church in America)
  • Fox Point, India Point Park
Prospect Terrace Park in Providence, RI

Prospect Terrace Park in Providence, RI

Day 9

  • Drive to Newport, RI
  • Breathtakingly scenic Cliff Walk, with views of ocean and sprawling mansions including The Breakers (Vanderbilt mansion), Chateau-sur-Mer, The Elms, and more
  • Lunch at Easton’s on the beach (we got covered in red algae from the severe blooms in the water and on the beach)
  • Bellevue Avenue (shops, mansions)
  • Historic waterfront Thames Street (shops, restaurants) in downtown Newport
  • Dinner at Broadway Bistro back in Providence

Day 10

  • Shop at Providence Place Mall
  • Fly back home
Cliff Walk, Newport, RI

Cliff Walk, Newport, RI

snow caves at Lake Erie

ice caves at Lake Erie, Ontario, Canada

I’ve traveled enough to Canada over the last few decades that I’ve seen various parts of it — mainly, the provinces of Ontario and British Columbia — in different seasons, mostly in summer and spring. This year in February, I finally experienced Canada during its historically coldest month — with my husband and our relatives. I had sworn I’d do it only once and was dreading the frigid temperatures before I even departed my much warmer hometown of Houston. (Highs were in the teens, and lows were just as far below 0 degrees Fahrenheit.) But because we were so very prepared with several layers of clothing from head to toe, plus hand warmers placed in strategic locations in our clothes, we fared much better than we had expected and are looking forward to more winter travel around the world to take advantage of the recreational activities and scenery only this season can offer.

Recreate our experience for an active, yet relaxing trip. (For a true vacation, don’t bring your work with you like I did.)

Ottawa

On our first full day in Canada’s capital, we watched some local figure skating champions skate on the Rink of Dreams in front of City Hall, then laced up our own ice skates on the crowded Rideau Canal Skateway in the middle of downtown. Ice skating was free, as it has been everywhere we’ve gone. Where they get you is the skate rental: $17 at Rideau Canal. Fortunately, I have my own skates; unfortunately, my husband doesn’t.

me skating Rideau Canal, Ottawa round-trip & more

me skating Rideau Canal, Ottawa round-trip & more

I skated back and forth on the canal, all the way to the dead end near downtown, while waiting for my husband to rent his skates. His two cousins were also with us. Then the four of us took off down the frozen canal — the world’s largest ice rink — heading toward the other end. A short distance later, the other three decided I should go on ahead because they were too slow. So I did. Skating the iced-over canal was the main reason I wanted to visit Ottawa in February. But I hadn’t planned to skate the entire canal, much less round trip! Before I knew it, I was so far along, I decided to tackle the 7.8-km route. Along the way, I saw kids being pulled on sleds, some people walking in regular shoes, and most people skating with proficiency. The route took me all the way around Dows Lake, then to the dead end at Carleton University, and back to the other end, for a 15.6-km round trip. Add to that the lengths I had skated at the beginning, and I skated a total of more than 18 km, or 12 miles in one afternoon. Long before the end, I was very hungry and without a dime to buy a snack at any of the booths along the way because I had left all my money with my husband. Breakfast was several hours earlier. By the end of my skate, I was exhausted and recharged with maple candy dipped in snow, then some poutine at Smoke’s Poutinerie.

We capped off the evening by viewing elaborate, award-winning ice sculptures after dark at Winterlude. Sitting around an outdoor fire pit, we had a dessert called beavertails — shaped like their namesake but made with flour and sprinkled with cinnamon. Several people brought their dogs out with them — the canines were cutely covered in their own winter jackets and boots.

We spent the next afternoon recovering in Monopolatte, a cafe in Chinatown that offers unlimited board game play all day long until an hour past midnight for a $5 cover charge. Food and drinks are sold separately.

We also bought a new pair of hockey skates for my husband at Canadian Tire — his first pair of ice skates and very affordable compared to U.S. prices.

Quebec City funicular

Quebec City funicular & shops

Monday morning, while adults were at work and kids were in school, my husband and I had two outdoor, natural ice rinks at Whalen Park all to ourselves. The previous night’s snowfall had left a layer of powder on the ice’s surface, making it rough. And trudging through slippery ice and snow surrounding the rinks was challenging. But skating in private was liberating and allowed me to try moves I had been hesitant to in public.

We ended the evening with sleigh rides (three of us taking turns pushing the others) between Dows Lake and Bronson on Rideau Canal. The heated chalet gave us a much-needed warm break with hot chocolate and another beavertail, this time covered with a chocolate-hazelnut spread.

Quebec City

We took the train VIA Rail Canada through Montreal to Quebec City. We had a room booked at the Hilton Quebec on the hill across from Parliament. Priceline.com gave us the ultra-cheap rate of $88/night — almost half price. For a Hilton! A beautiful, full-fledged, convention hotel. The third floor had an outdoor, heated pool, which was connected to the indoors, so people could swim in without getting out of the pool in the cold.

We headed out on foot to an arctic blast of air, as the temperature fell rapidly below 0 degrees Fahrenheit. There are only a few gates through which one can pass between the old city and new city, and we walked through one of them. Dinner was exquisite at Le Grand Cafe on Grande Alleé Est, where we had French onion soup, salmon tartar, and French-inspired entrees like roasted duck penne pasta. The street was decked out in Christmas lights and outdoor bars made of ice. We ended the night exploring the underground tunnels that led to other buildings around our hotel.

snow sculptures, Carnaval Quebec

snow sculptures, Carnaval Quebec

We spent the first half of the next day exploring the old town, stopping to gaze at the statue of the city’s founder, Samuel de Champlain. We had brunch at Cafe Buade, Quebec City’s oldest restaurant, then shopped the boutiques along that street, rue De Buade. We admired the elegant architecture of the buildings and the charming planters hanging from window sills that were covered in snow. We found ourselves on rue Sainte-Anne, a picturesque, cobblestone street with colorful bistros and shops. Every turn led us to another gorgeous view of the city. One of the more spectacular scenes was ice floating down the partially frozen St. Lawrence River. We skipped the funicular and instead took the Breakneck Staircase from the Chateau Frontenac to rue de Petit-Champlain, the oldest merchant street in North America. The cutest shops sold handcrafted wares, big-name bath & body brands like Cucina, and souvenirs with a heavy emphasis on all things Bonhomme, the clown-like snowman mascot of Carnaval Quebec. We stopped for afternoon dessert, tea, and coffee at La Maison Smith Boutique Gourmande in quartier Petit-Champlain.

We spent the late afternoon and evening at Carnaval Quebec, the annual winter carnival on the Plains of Abraham, across from our hotel. For $15/adult, you get admission to the carnival as many times as you want throughout the season — pretty good deal. Most of the rides and attractions are included: snow tubing, ice slide, tour of the ice palace, snow sculpture show, and beanbag toss game were all activities we participated in. We watched part of a youth ice hockey game and also took advantage of the refreshments tent and free chicken soup inside “Space D,” sponsored by the bank Desjardins to warm up. We had to pay an extra $10 for my husband to drive a dog sled of huskies once around the track, which took less than a couple of minutes.

my husband & me on ice slide, Carnaval Quebec

my husband & me on ice slide, Carnaval Quebec

We needed to defrost after about eight hours in the arctic air, so we opted for dinner at the hotel at Allegro, which served some local cuisine. We ordered two thin-crust pizzas: one with rose`e sauce, smoked salmon from Fumoir Grizzly in Saint-Augustin-De-Desmaures, and cream cheese; the other with creamy Paillot de che`vre goat cheese, prosciutto, rosemary, maple syrup, and pear.

Our final morning in Quebec City, we took a tour of Hotel de Glace (Ice Hotel) — a small hotel made entirely (literally, entirely) of ice and snow, newly constructed every year for the 3-month winter season, then torn down. Intricate sculptures and furniture made of ice can be found throughout the hotel, from the chandelier in the lobby to the telephone at the front desk. Each of the few dozen rooms has its own unique ice and snow art on the walls, carved into the ice furniture, and freestanding. An ice bar serves drinks in ice glasses. We slid down the 2-story ice slide. Guests staying overnight are encouraged to dance at the discotheque and take a hot bath in the outdoor spa before wrapping themselves in the cocoon-like bedding to sleep in their frozen rooms on a bed of ice. The only comfort is a mattress and pillows not made of ice. But night stands and sofas are solid ice. About 25 weddings are held each year in the ice chapel, with only a thin blanket laid across each ice pew. About 100,000 people, like us, pay to tour the facilities each season; a few thousand of them are brave enough to stay the night, which requires a safety briefing and training session.

Toronto

frozen harbor, Toronto

frozen harbor, Toronto

We’ve been to Toronto many times. This time we again focused on spending time with family, dining at the numerous restaurants offering a diverse mix of global cuisines, and seeing some of the attractions we hadn’t before, specifically the winter ones. We helped my niece pick out her first pair of ice skates and broke them in that evening at the outdoor rink at Nathan Phillips Square outside City Hall. Another afternoon was spent ice skating outdoors at Natrel Rink at Harbourfront Centre, near CN Tower.

Niagara Falls

We’ve seen Niagara Falls many times too, but never in the dead of winter. It was a spectacular sight to see the falls frozen over in large, cascading sheets of ice. We took the Behind the Falls tour, which offered views from behind the falls — some completely iced over, some boasting large icicles. A stroll along the rim of the falls gave us frozen hair, frozen clothing, and frozen handbags, as the mist from the falls formed ice droplets all over us. We revisited The Keg Steakhouse + Bar for dinner overlooking Niagara Falls.

Ridgeway

Our final day in Canada was spent trying out my uncle’s snow blower to plow through the excessive amounts of snow in front of his house on expansive acreage. And for a finale of a Canadian adventure, my uncle sent us into a mini blizzard of blowing snow at the ice caves along Lake Erie!

A fun, memorable vacation that whetted our appetite for Antarctica…

frozen Niagara Falls, Canadian side

frozen Niagara Falls, Canadian side

Hotel de Glace (Ice Hotel), Quebec City

Hotel de Glace (Ice Hotel), Quebec City

 

Amsterdam

Amsterdam

In June, my husband and I took another epic world trip with my mom and a long-time lady friend whose younger son I grew up with. Different combinations of the four of us have traveled all over the globe together. We love to see, hear, eat, shop, experience, and learn in places far away. This time we decided to do it in The Netherlands, formerly known as Holland, then take a Holland America cruise up the coast of Norway on a “Viking saga.” Both countries, with chilly weather even in summer, proved to be beautiful and friendly, leaving us with fond memories of the kind people and the spectacular sights.

The Netherlands

found at the Flower Market

found at the Flower Market

We spent a few days in The Netherlands, both before and after our Norwegian cruise. We stayed in Amsterdam in a cute hotel along one of the many canals that define the city’s spider-web-like map. When you say you’re going to “Amsterdam,” you’re bound to hear a joke about smoking pot. But as I read before my trip and soon discovered for myself, there’s much more to Amsterdam than marijuana, though the drug and other controlled substances are quite prevalent wherever you go — you can buy hemp brownies, hashish, energy drinks, magic mushrooms, and all sorts of associated accessories and trinkets in shops on just about every street and open to anyone. We saw people smoking marijuana in a “coffee shop” but didn’t spot anyone out in public who was obviously stoned. Even the beautiful row of outdoor, covered flower stands set up like a farmers market but called Flower Market sold cannabis seeds for your home-growing pleasure!

leaning buildings along canal

leaning buildings along canal

But as I said, I fondly remember Amsterdam for being fun, alive, and so full of variety. Historic buildings hundreds of years old — some of them leaning because of the shifting marsh underneath — sit along lovely canals that are popular for short cruises and ducks. Sadly, some of the canals are littered with trash, including a number of plastic water bottles. But flowers (as Holland is famous for tulips) line those same canals. We saw the oldest house in Amsterdam and countless other unique buildings, every one with a different, interesting front door and intricate architectural details. There’s no shortage of cute cafes, enticing bakeries with an abundance of attractively displayed chocolate broodjes and Poffertjes (mini pancakes), and coffee shops with hot, fresh-mint tea. Dam Straat (“Dam Street”) is lined with several Argentinian steakhouses that are so similar, we had to peruse the menus on display in the windows before figuring out which one to dine at — Mas Y Mas Cocina Argentina.

Amsterdam Flower Market

Amsterdam Flower Market

For what we were told by our hotel front desk was authentic Dutch food, we went to Pantry Restaurant; order the Bitterballen and Boerenkoolstamppot. And for Indonesian cuisine, which Amsterdam is also famous for, Sama Sebo is a good choice, serving more than a dozen small dishes so we could sample a bit of everything in one meal. Oriental City Restaurant is great (and very busy) for dim sum or other Cantonese food, which we enjoyed on a Saturday for lunch. While most things are quite expensive in Amsterdam, thanks in part to the weaker U.S. dollar as compared to the Euro, we found some incredible deals and sales in department stores and other retailers.

PUT THESE ON YOUR ITINERARY

nightlife in Amsterdam

nightlife in Amsterdam

1. National Monument — In the middle of Dam Square, this structure is a hodgepodge of art that locals have found humorous and disappointing.

2. Dutch East Indies — The origin of the multinational corporation and the board of directors structure. You read about this trading company in history books in school, so to see where it all began is quite something.

3. Red Light District — Prostitution is legal but regulated. No photos allowed, but we saw pretty ladies standing in windows and doorways trying to entice customers, even early in the morning when we took a walking tour. We also saw a retirement-aged man get rejected by a prostitute. The prostitutes are choosy.

4. Anne Frank Huis (House) & Museum — An eery walk through the building and secret annex hidden behind a bookcase, where the Jewish family hid from Nazis during World War II and where a teenage girl wrote her later-famous diary which her father helped get published, The Diary of Anne Frank. The line to get in consistently wraps around the building and past the next street corner, so buy your tickets in advance online to reserve an entrance time, like we did, and you can walk straight in without waiting.

outside Van Gogh Museum

outside Van Gogh Museum

5. Van Gogh Museum & Rijks Museum — We made it to the joint gift shop and the “i amsterdam” sign outside, not the museums themselves. I can only take so many museums in one vacation, but plenty of other people enjoyed these famed attractions.

6. Vondelpark — The largest and most popular park in The Netherlands. It’s conveniently located in a busy part of town on the way from our hotel to many attractions.

7. History Museum — Among the interesting displays is a David and Goliath former (and rather ancient) amusement park attraction, in which a child could stand inside the Goliath statue and use puppet strings to make it move like a human and which is now operated by a remote control by the security guard.

8. Churches Old and New — Creatively (sarcasm), people gave these churches the names of Old Church, New Church, North Church, South Church, East Church, and West Church. The design and architecture of the historic churches are to be admired, even if you’re not religious.

9. Magna Plaza — Location of a former post office, now a shopping mall. Another building with gorgeously ornate architecture. As in most other public places (other than restaurants), prepare to pay (sometimes as much as the equivalent of $1.50) to use the restroom.

Rotterdam Centraal

Rotterdam Centraal

Amsterdam is, in at least the following ways, like the Hong Kong of Europe: It doesn’t sleep, is very crowded, and is easy to get around on various modes of transportation — by bus, bike, tram, train, car, or on foot. Many restaurants and bakeries stay open until 3 a.m. It’s not so strange when we could dine outdoors and enjoy the setting sun at 10 p.m. Coming from the U.S., it’s easy to navigate because English is widely spoken and people drive on the same side of the road as in the U.S. A couple of things that are not easy are trying to scale the steep, narrow indoor and outdoor staircases, and to cross the street. It can be very confusing because there are lanes shared by cars and trams, and separate bicycle lanes. But for a newcomer, it can be very confusing and dangerous because some bicycle lanes are in the street and others are on the sidewalk. So we noticed tourists (included those in our group) almost getting hit by fast-approaching bicyclists, some of whom don’t stop, even when pedestrians have the “walk” signal from the digital sign. Since we walked a lot — for hours on end — we had to look both ways with every step we took to cross a street or even a sidewalk. Also, cars could drive right onto sidewalks at intersections to continue down a nearby street — very deceiving if you think you’re safe on a sidewalk and something I haven’t seen in any other place which I’ve been. Bicycles are an extremely popular mode of transportation. In fact, the car traffic isn’t bad in a city so populous.

The Dutch people, for the most part, are very kind and helpful. When you start discussing with your family which train stop is the right one, they jump in to inform you when they notice you’re about to get off at the wrong one. And when you finally get off the train at the correct stop, they jump in to grab your luggage for you when they see you struggle to carry it onto the platform. Great ambassadors for their hometown.

We took a train from Amsterdam Centraal (central station) to Rotterdam Centraal — a scenic ride through the suburbs and smaller cities in between. We didn’t get to spend much time in the city of Rotterdam, except just a drive through the city. It’s where we boarded the ms Rotterdam with more than 1,000 other people ready for a Nordic adventure.

boulder field, Stavanger

boulder field, Stavanger, Norway

Norway

Like my fashion statement found at Saga Souvenirs in Flam?

Like my fashion statement found at Saga Souvenirs in Flam… and my Holland America tour sticker?

From childhood books to film portrayals, Norway has always seemed to me like a magical place with treacherous seas and extremely large (Vikings) and small (trolls) creatures. There are definitely elements of all of those, but the country turns out to be more peaceful and pretty these days. Just about everything is very expensive. A $30 (about 150 Krone) individual bowl of soup at a casual cafe is commonplace. A double shot glass souvenir you’d find for $4-6 in other countries costs $9-15 in Norway.

Having cruised with Holland America before, I sort of knew what to expect. Of course, 11 years later, the ships are more updated. The things that remain the same, which are why I’m loyal to this cruise line: The passengers tend to be older (retirees), tamer, and classier. The activities are fun, the food fine and elegant, the entertainment tasteful, and the accommodations clean and comfortable. We’re not into the party ships. On this particular summer cruise, because we were so far north, we found ourselves playing tennis on deck while the sun was still out at almost midnight and enjoying the sun rise just a few hours later from our deck-side stateroom with a sliding glass door and an incredible view of the changing landscape as we cruised along over seven days.

Lysefjord, Norway

Lysefjord, Norway

We stopped at four ports of call as we sailed along the coast of Norway through the often choppy and cold waters of the North Sea, accompanied by the excitement of howling winds that threatened to pull you overboard. The shore excursions we selected took us to six distinct cities and through beautiful fjords such as Sognefjord (the world’s 2nd longest fjord), Aurlandsfjord (a 17-km arm of Sognefjord), and Lysefjord (with steep, rocky walls more than 3,000 feet high).

Oslo

scenic Oslo

scenic Oslo

A charming blend of old and new, the capital of Norway boasts an ultra-modern Opera House built in 2008 to resemble a glacier on the fjord, Barcode buildings named because the series of adjacent buildings have windows in patterns similar to barcodes. We passed by the building where the Nobel Peace Prize laureates are selected, the hotel where the winners stay, and where the award is presented. Cafe Skansen in Oslo serves excellent Norwegian salmon and dill potatoes. For a look at hundreds of thought-provoking sculptures, mostly of parents with children and different representations of life’s struggles, stroll through the 80-acre Vigeland Sculpture Park, named after Norway’s famous sculptor who had a strained relationship with his children. Unlike parks I’m used to, Vigeland surprised me with no insects of the crawling or flying variety. I should have expected it, as Norway is so cold. Be sure to see the Viking Ships Museum, Kon-Tiki Museum, and the Open-Air (Folk) Museum.

Drobak

charming Drobak

charming Drobak

A quaint, lush town on a harbor, Drobak is home to the “Christmas House” — a 2-story store full of (expensive) Christmas ornaments and other secular Yuletide decorations themed around the Norwegian Santa Claus “Nisse” and other characters. You can get mail stamped with the official Christmas stamp.

Kristiansand
We took an almost 2-hour boat ride on M/S Maarten among the surrounding skerries and islets to see lighthouses as well as hills and valleys dotted with traditional, small Norwegian homes, including the summer residence of the prince. This port city also has a relatively new performing arts center on the edge of the water, juxtaposed with an older cathedral and other buildings in the city center. We passed by Fiskebrygga, a quaint fresh seafood market with restaurants along the wharf, and Kristiansand Cathedral, the third largest in Norway.

Lillesand

shops in Lillesand

shops in Lillesand

This idyllic vacation spot is known as the “jewel of Sorlandet” and the most beautiful town in Norway. Seagulls fly over the boat dock, as people visit the eateries, shops, and outdoor food stands in Lillesand. The shore is lined with 18th- and 19th-century white, timber houses.

Stavanger
Talk about scenery with a wow factor. We took a drive to Dirdal Valley. Boulders, some as big as houses, cover much of the landscape, and streams run along the valleys of steep embankments. We visited the largest field of boulders, Gloppendalsuren. We had pancakes with sour cream and jam in a mountain tunnel/cave Gloppehallen and saw Byrkjedalstunet, a historical building that was a cheese factory in the 1920s and is now a candle maker’s shop and restaurant. And we ended the afternoon with a stroll through Old Stavanger, passing rows and rows of charming white houses.

Flam

waterfall singer, Flam

waterfall singer, Flam

Flam is marked by extremes — lush mountains with melting snowcaps and bubbling brooks over rocks. We took a lifeboat (tender) from our cruise ship to shore because of the narrow fjord, then boarded Flamsbana, or the Flam Railway. Looking out the window, every moment was picture perfect, as we winded through the mountains and gazed at the many waterfalls. A surreal sight — a woman dressed as a Norse goddess sang from atop the rocky slopes next to the biggest waterfall of them all — Kjosfossen. We stopped for hot tea and waffles with sour cream and jam (sense a theme here?) at the Vatnahalsen Hotel, which offered more picturesque views.

We’ve already put down our deposit for a future Holland America cruise. Stay tuned to see where we go next…

NOTE ABOUT AIRLINES: Three of us flew United Airlines round-trip and direct, this trip. As I experienced several years ago when flying United Airlines overseas, the service is sorely lacking and flat-out rude from some flight attendants. The airfares were cheaper, which is the main reason (and only good reason) we flew a U.S.-based airline. United could really learn a thing or two from its foreign competitors, especially the Asian airlines which consistently win service awards for flight attendants who are so friendly, polite, and respectful to all passengers. It’s a totally different experience. It’s no wonder that many U.S.-based flight attendants are often described by the public as grouchy and a few other adjectives which I’ll reserve here. I will say, however, that one very nice United flight attendant tried to smooth things over after her colleague repeatedly displayed utter unprofessionalism and rudeness. She deserves praise or a raise, and I’ve written the airline.

riding the Flam Railway

riding the Flam Railway