A fun camping weekend and an easy relaxing day hike on the Sunrise side of Mt Rainier National Park. A perfect day hike if you are out of shape or short on time and want some great views of Mt Rainier.
Paddy and I have been to Mt Rainier National Park a few times, but only to the Sunrise Side once and that time we didn’t actually go to the visitor’s center. Every time we go to Mt Rainier National Park we are blown away by how beautiful it is. On this trip we camped outside of the park at Silver Springs Campground, and did a quick and easy trek on the Silver Forest hike from the Sunrise Visitor Center in the park.
The Sunrise side of Mt Rainier National Park is the northern side of the mountain, and is a little less visited then the popular Paradise visitor center. At 6,400 ft above sea level, it is the highest elevation point in the park to visit by vehicle. There are several great hiking trails that start at the Sunrise visitor center parking lot.
*Camping tip: Even though spring seems way too early to make summer camping plans, the recreation.gov website allows you to make camping reservations up to six months in advance, starting in January. Weekends in July and August fill up fast, so I like to get a reservation in for a good site (you get to pick your site out) around March. If your plans change and you have to cancel, you get a full refund minus the $10 reservation fee as long as you cancel at least two days before your arrival date.
The campground hosts have firewood for sale (cash only) or you can purchase it at the Greenwater General Store about 15 minutes away. This is the closest store with provisions, so if you find that you have forgotten something, stock up here.
We set up camp, sprayed ourselves with bug spray, and cooked hot dogs, beans, and corn for dinner with the campfire.
I set the alarm for 7:00, as it is best to get an early start when hiking at Mt Rainier on a summer weekend. We made coffee with our camp stove and french press, ate hard boiled eggs and granola for breakfast, and set out up the mountain.
Not far down on the 410 highway heading south from the campground is the Sunrise Park Road. The White River ranger station will collect your national park entrance fee of $25.00, good for one week. After passing the fee station, the visitor center is another 40 minutes up the mountain. It is a beautiful drive.
We arrived at the Sunrise Visitor Center at around 9:00 AM. There were lots of cars in the parking lot already, but still a lot of spaces left. The Visitor Center building wasn’t open yet, but a park ranger was standing outside and answering questions from the hikers. He provided lots of helpful info on trail conditions. Even though it was July, some of the higher elevation trails had too much snow still and weren’t suitable for hiking in certain areas.
Everyone there was gung-ho about going up the high elevation trails, but we opted for the easy-breezy Silver Forest hike. The Sunrise elevation is pretty high for us sea-level dwellers with desk jobs, and we prefer to do uphill hiking at lower elevations. The Silver Forest hike is fairly even the whole way. The trail starts from the left side of the parking lot facing the visitor center building. The trail is an out-and-back hike, so you have to hike to the end and then turn around and return back to where you started.
For such an easy trail, the Silver Forest hike offered amazing views of Mt. Rainier. If you’re not very in shape or are short on time, this hike offers big bang for your hiking buck (so to speak).
After a (too) short amount of time, we reached the end of the maintained trail (about a mile in). We weren’t ready to go back so we continued for a little ways on the not-so-maintained part of the trail, which was really more or less a ditch someone dug. It kept going, but was a bit difficult to walk in as it was deep and narrow. We stopped when we ran into some snow. We could have gone around, but decided to head back.
The way back had the best views, as you are facing Mt Rainier the entire time.
Overall, the trail was shorter than I would have preferred, but the views were excellent. If you are visiting Seattle and want to do a day trip to Rainier and don’t have time for a big hike, the Silver Forest hike is perfect for a quick dose of “Mt. Rainier-lite.” Your photos will look like you did some major hiking, and all your friends will be jealous.
When we arrived back at the parking lot we checked out the information displays at the visitor center, and then began our descent down the mountain. We left at a little before 11:00 AM, and rangers were already directing traffic into the overflow parking on the side of the road.
*Tip: If going to Mt Rainier on a Saturday or Sunday in July or August, GET THERE EARLY. If you are doing a day trip from Seattle, I’d recommend getting on the road around 7:00 AM at the latest to make sure you get a decent parking spot and get on your hike before the trails get crowded.
We stopped at a lookout a short ways down the mountain that provided views of some alpine lakes and Mt Adams in the distance.
At the bottom of Sunrise Park Rd, we passed a very long line of cars waiting at the entrance fee station. It looked like about a half hour wait just to enter the park. Again, GET THERE EARLY.
We spent the rest of the afternoon reading and relaxing at the camp site, and listening to the White River. Living in the city near the airport makes us really appreciate the sounds of nature whenever we are able to get away.
The Silver Forest hike wasn’t my favorite hike in Mt Rainier National Park, but it was a nice and easy scenic jaunt. If you are able to do a longer hike that is slightly more challenging at a lower elevation, I’d recommend the Naches Peak loop hike. It is also on the Sunrise side of the park and one of our favorites.
Stockholm, Sweden 2017: Exploring the old world charm of Gamla Stan and up-and-coming Södermalm, dinner at a viking restaurant, and the ABBA Museum
Paddy and I were heading to Denmark in 2017, my first time visiting the country since spending a year as a high school exchange student back in 1997-98. During my exchange year I visited Norway twice with my host family, but never made it to Sweden. (Okay technically we drove through Sweden once in the middle of the night, but that doesn’t count). Since it was easy to book our flight into Stockholm and out of Copenhagen, we spent the first four days of our Scandinavian adventure in Stockholm.
First, a note about Stockholm: Like the rest of Scandinavia, it’s EXPENSIVE. After a bit of research while planning this trip, I came to the conclusion that renting an Airbnb is hands-down the best way to go for lodging. I had a difficult time finding a hotel room in a good location with a private bathroom for under $200 USD per night. I was able to find us a one bedroom apartment in Södermalm (the southern, “hipster” neighborhood) in a great location near public transit for $150 a night. Not only did we get a full one-bedroom apartment all to ourselves, we had a full kitchen and were able to save a lot of money on breakfast and lunch through self-catering. If you are looking to do Stockholm on a budget, Airbnb is definitely the way to go.
We arrived in Stockholm in early evening after approximately 15 hours of travel from Seattle (10 hour Delta flight from Seattle to Amsterdam, and a two hour KLM flight from Amsterdam to Stockholm). We collected our luggage and after a fair amount of walking through the airport located the airport train station.
*Side note about Delta’s long-haul international flights: I haven’t always had the best experiences with Delta’s domestic flights within the US, but we were surprisingly pleased with the international flight. The flight attendants were friendly, we were fed a hot meal and two snacks, had a wide array of free movies to choose from on individual seat-back screens, and we were provided with alcoholic beverages free of charge. We were even given hot towels at the beginning and end of the flight.
The Stockholm Arlanda Airport train station (look for the Arlanda C signs in the airport) has three train options to choose from. There is the Arlanda Express, the high speed train between the airport and Stockholm Central Station downtown, the SJ train for long distance commutes outside of Stockholm, and the Pendeltåg commuter train which makes more stops throughout the city and south of the city.
Since we were going past the city center to the southern Södermalm neighborhood, the Pendeltåg commuter train was the one we wanted, according to Google Maps. (The Google Maps app has become my most valuable app while traveling, it is great at figuring out public transportation almost anywhere). There were automated machines for tickets on the Arlanda Express and the SJ trains, but we didn’t see one for the Pendeltåg. We were able to buy our tickets directly from a ticket seller in the train station and pay with our credit card. It was roughly $17 per person for the train tickets, including the airport transportation fee (120 SEK per person).
The Pendeltåg took 40 minutes to get to Stockholm Södra station (twice the time of the Arlanda Express to Stockholm Central) but it was an easy ride.
From Stockholm Södra station we used Google Maps to navigate to our Airbnb apartment on Högbergsgatan. It was a bit more of a walk than we anticipated, mostly because Google Maps took us through some sort of “short cut” through a couple parks and we got a bit confused. When we arrived at the apartment, our Airbnb host Marco was waiting for us with the key and made sure we were able to find everything we might need in the apartment.
After unpacking and washing up, we were starving. We headed out in search of sustenance.
We walked over to the main arterial street Gotgatan and found ourselves eventually in Medborgarplatsen, or “citizen square.” It was about 8:00 PM on a Saturday night, and there were several outdoor eateries and beer gardens full of people getting their evening started. We looked at several menus and decided on fish and chips from Bodanra By Melander.
Two relatively small portions of fish and chips and two beers ran us about $47.00 USD. More than we wanted to spend, but those are typical Swedish prices for you. The fish and chips were delicious, though, and came with a side of Danish curry remoulade.
It was a nice evening, but not super warm. There were carts of complimentary blankets out for diners to keep warm. Nice touch.
**Money saving tip: If you like to drink, bring booze with you.
One of the most expensive things that you will encounter in Sweden is alcohol. A beer at a bar will run you between $7-$10 each, a glass of wine $10-$12, and a cocktail $15-$20. Sweden imposes a high tax on alcohol, with the highest alcohol content incurring the highest tax (cocktails and hard liquor). Beers sold in the grocery stores are only allowed to be 3.5% alcohol. Beer with higher alcohol percentages and all other wines and spirits are sold only at Systembolaget state-run liquor stores. These stores are closed on Sundays and in the evenings.
Having read this before traveling, we brought box wine with us from home. According to the Swedish customs website, you are allowed to bring one liter of spirits or four liters of wine per person into the country. Box wine packs well in a suitcase and fits four bottles of wine per box. We like the Bota Box brand. It’s cheap, but decent quality.
After our $47 fish and chips and beer, we headed back to the apartment to have a couple glasses of our box wine before bed. We stopped at the grocery store near our apartment building and picked up some bread, cheese, and other items for breakfast in the morning. We found the Swedish grocery prices to be very reasonable, and not much different from in the US.
**Regarding tipping at bars and restaurants: It isn’t customary to tip in Stockholm, which helps ease the pain of the high prices a bit. It isn’t uncommon however to tip for exceptional service. If you do tip your server, the standard tip is 10%. We tipped our server 10% at the two nicer dinners we had at this trip, as the service was very good.
After making our own coffee and breakfast at the apartment, we were ready to go explore Gamla Stan.
Gamla Stan is the original old town of Stockholm, dating back to 1252. The old buildings are well-preserved and it is one of the biggest tourist attractions in the city. If you are looking for quaint little shops and restaurants and souvenirs, this is the place to find them.
Gamla Stan was only a half mile north of our apartment in Södermalm, so we were easily able to walk there. If you aren’t someone who is able to walk a lot, the T-Bana (Tunnelbana) subway train is a good option from most parts of the city. It can get pricey for single-use tickets, however at $5.00 USD per person per ride. The train is very easy to use, and you can buy tickets with your credit card from any of the electronic kiosks available when you enter the underground stations.
We wandered through the narrow medieval cobble-stone streets until we ended up on the north end of Gamla Stan in front of the Royal Palace.
The Royal Palace wasn’t too crowded, so we decided to check it out. If you are someone who is interested in European monarchies and history, this would probably be a good attraction for you. It was interesting, but not the highlight of our trip. There are several sections of the museum to explore, but we just toured the Royal Treasury and the Royal Apartments.
We started with the Royal Treasury as that is where you purchase tickets. It was interesting to see all the royal crowns, sceptres, and orbs of past royal family members.
We moved on to the Royal Chapel and Royal Apartments.
It was all very regal and somewhat interesting and worth a stop. However, if you are trying to fit a lot into a short amount of time in Stockholm and don’t have time for everything, I think this is one attraction that you can skip if you aren’t really interested in Royal family history.
When we had enough of the Royal Palace, we found an exit and ended up walking out into a front row view of the changing of the guards, which a large crowd of people had obviously been waiting a while to see. I’ve seen a few changing of guards in my day, and it’s not THAT exciting. It’s cool to see if you happen upon it, but it’s not something I would wait around for in a crowd.
We wandered around Gamla Stan a little more, stopping by the infamous Stortorget (big square) in the middle of Gamla Stan. It is the oldest town square in the city, and host to colorful and picturesque buildings. I read that in December Stortorget is host to a big Christmas market, which sounds like it would be fun to see if you are visiting at that time.
By this time it was late afternoon and our feet were getting a bit tired, so we walked back to our apartment in Södermalm for a rest.
That evening we had a dinner reservation at Aifur Krog and Bar Viking Restaurant in Gamla Stan. Aifur Krog and Bar ended up being one of the highlights of our trip. Aifur was a surprising example of touristy done right.
**Tip–definitely make a reservation here, it’s a popular place. I easily made a reservation through their website a week prior to our trip.
Aifur is set up to look like the inside of an old medieval viking tavern or ship. The tables are communal and the light is from candles. Sheep skins are draped across the benches at the tables and the silverware is modeled after old viking utensils. The staff dress in old viking attire and appeared to enjoy their jobs. The attention to detail throughout the restaurant was very impressive.
When you arrive, the host asks your names and where you are from, and then blows on a sheep horn and loudly announces you to the entire restaurant. Everyone claps.
We were seated next to a couple who didn’t seem to want to be social, but they left shortly after we arrived. Our next dining companions were a woman from California and her Mom (announced to the restaurant by our host as “Lydia and her Mom”). They were much friendlier.
We ordered mead, as it seemed like the right thing to do. The mead menu was extensive. I had a berry mead and Paddy had a spicy chili mead. The waitress let us sample the meads before we committed to a full glass, which was nice. The chili mead was really good. Not sure if they had chili peppers back in the viking days, but it was damn good.
Aifur’s menu was full of historical detail about each dish. I went with Varangian’s Roasted Dwarf Chicken, and Paddy had the Indulgence of the Raven Lord. Paddy chose his mostly on title alone, because he couldn’t not try something called “The Indulgence of the Raven Lord.” The Indulgence was a marinated flap steak, with juniper roasted pork belly, parsnip cake, sprouts, baby onions, and a red wine sauce.
The dishes were plenty hearty by themselves, we were glad that we hadn’t ordered appetizers.
Towards the end of our meal, the restaurant was looking more and more empty. We wondered for a moment if reservations had been necessary, but were assured that they were when our host blew the sheep horn and announced the arrival of “a bunch of Austrian bankers.” The restaurant was soon filled with Austrian bankers, ready to eat, drink, and make merry. We asked for our bill, as the waitstaff was quickly becoming overwhelmed with the new guests.
Aifur viking restaurant was a bigger highlight of our trip to Stockholm than we expected it to be. The attention to detail in everything from the decor to the well-researched menu to the attire of the waitstaff was phenomenal. If you’re going to Stockholm, try not to miss this place. Be sure to make an advance online reservation.
After dinner, we thought maybe we’d continue with the theme and duck into the bar at nearby Sjätte Tunnen medieval restaurant for a drink.
Sjätte Tunnen was a little campier than Aifur, but still looked like it might be fun. I ordered their rose hip mead special, which was good but a very tiny pour, not sure it was $8.00 USD worth. The bar portion of the restaurant was rather empty and isolated, good for a date or intimate conversation if that’s what you are looking for.
We would have loved to have some more drinks and explore more bars in the Gamla Stan area, but it was just too expensive. We brought box wine for this reason, so we went back to our apartment to relax.
**Money-saving tip: If you do bring your own booze but don’t want to drink in your room/apartment, bring a water bottle or thermos and take it to the park. It is not illegal to drink in parks in Sweden. Even cheaper–get some food at the grocery store and have a picnic for dinner.
Our second full day in Stockholm was my birthday, and the thing I wanted to do most was go to the ABBA Museum. I’m not a huge fan of ABBA, but I am all about unusual museums. I am also not at all opposed to getting on the dance floor when “Dancing Queen” comes on at a wedding reception. ABBA did write some catchy tunes.
Just about all the museums in Stockholm are conveniently located in one island location in the city called Djurgården. You can easily get to Djurgården by passenger ferry from the Slussen/Gamla Stan ferry terminal, tickets are just like the T-bana and are $5.00 USD per person each way. You may purchase tickets at the ticket window at the ferry terminal.
I had read that the ABBA Museum get’s pretty busy, and they only allow a certain amount of visitors into the museum at a time to make the experience enjoyable and not over-crowded. You can also buy your tickets in advance online for a slight discount.
We didn’t want to have a set schedule, so we just got up early and arrived shortly after the museum opened. The ABBA Museum was a short walk from the Djurgården ferry.
On the way to the museum, we witnessed a procession of policemen on horses. Not sure what this was about.
When we arrived, the ABBA Museum was pretty empty, and no one was in line. Tickets were a bit more than I expected at $30 USD per adult, but se la vie.
We walked down a spiral staircase into a brightly colored disco-tastic experience, but this was only the pre-ABBA museum area. The museum combines the main ABBA attraction with a Swedish music and pop exhibit, which you can view before and at the end of the ABBA experience.
We left the rainbow disco room through a black curtained door, and were immediately assaulted by a larger-than-life movie screen montage of ABBA music and performances. After that, we entered the main portion of the ABBA museum. There were very detailed exhibits on each performer’s history and background, what their recording studio and dressing rooms would have looked like, and all of their glorious (or horrendous?) costumes.
There were interactive exhibits as well where you could sing (and record and purchase) your karaoke ABBA track, or have a photo of your face imposed on each ABBA member’s face and dance around, your moves reflected back on a video screen (this part was a bit creepy). You could also go onstage and karaoke your favorite ABBA song with projections of ABBA dancing and performing on a stage along side you. If you are someone who is really into ABBA, you will probably have a great time.
The museum ended with more of the Swedish music exhibit, complete with videos of famous bands from the US, UK, and other countries performing at the amusement park next to the ABBA Museum (Tivoli Grönalund).
There are all sorts of fun, over-priced things to tempt you in the gift shop on your way out, we left with a Christmas ornament, magnet, and some ABBA Museum chapstick. We passed on the $25 coffee mugs and the “knit-your-own Agnetha hat” kit.
When we left, there was a line at the ABBA Museum that we were glad we avoided by getting there early.
There are a number of museums in Djurgården, all within walking distance from each other. There is only so much museum we can handle in one day, so we thought we’d check out the most popular of all the museums, the Vasa Museum and then call it good for the day. The Vasa Museum is an exhibit of the infamous Vasa ship that sank in Stockholm Harbor in 1628, and was dredged up and made into a museum 333 years later.
To our disappointment, we didn’t get to the Vasa Museum early enough. The tour buses had all arrived, and the line to get into the museum was almost a half mile long. We decided it wasn’t worth it.
In retrospect, it might have been a better idea to visit the Vasa Museum first right when it opened, and then the ABBA Museum afterward as the Vasa Museum was clearly the most popular attraction.
We made our way back to the ferry, fighting through the massive ticket crowds outside the Tivoli amusement park, and enjoyed a nearly-empty boat ride back to Gamla Stan while incoming ferries arrived overflowing with tourists. We were happy to escape.
We were pretty hungry when we arrived back, so we stopped at the nearby fried-herring food truck called Nystekt Strömming just a short walk from the ferry towards Södermalm in Slussen. For a very reasonable price, we enjoyed delicious fried herring burgers and sparkling waters. Also offered were fried or grilled herring plate lunches with mashed potatoes and pickles. This was probably the most affordable authentic Swedish food we encountered on our trip.
We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring some of the shops on Götgatan Street in Södermalm. My favorite was a shop called Flying Tiger that had a bunch of really random (but fun) inexpensive stuff.
For dinner that evening, we decided to splurge as it was my birthday and all. We had made a reservation at Pelikan, an upscale traditional Swedish restaurant in Södermalm that was featured on Anthony Bourdain’s show No Reservations.
Pelikan has been a restaurant in Stockholm since 1664, has moved twice and has been in it’s current location since 1931.
The service was excellent, as was the food. We started with the charcuterie plate and the Gubbröra, a sort of salad with eggs, fresh anchovies, parsley and dill served on sweet brown bread with an egg yolk to put on top. The charcuterie plate included prosciutto, reindeer salami, pickles, and two types of Swedish cheeses. The reindeer salami was our favorite thing on the charcuterie plate, hands down.
The Swedish aquavit menu was quite extensive. I’ve never tried aquavit before, so I asked the waitress what she would recommend. She brought us two different kinds, mine had “floral” flavors. It was served on ice and definitely tasted like flowers. Paddy had only tried an anise-based aquavit before, and he found it refreshing to taste a more herbaceous variety. We had no idea there were so many different kinds. From what I understand, aquavit is essentially a vodka distilled with herbs and other flavors. It is something you sip slowly and is often served at celebratory dinners or gatherings.
For our entrees Paddy tried the roasted reindeer with root vegetable terrine and lingonberry sauce, and I had the fish special with fresh herbs, bleak roe, and mushrooms with a light sauce (I am not sure exactly what fish it was, but it tasted a bit like trout). It was light and fragrant and delicious. Paddy really enjoyed his reindeer, which he said had a strong, rich flavor.
For dessert we shared the chocolate terrine, which was delicious. It wasn’t super sweet–almost kind of like a chocolate cheese. It’s hard to describe but was very good. The waitress even added a candle for my birthday.
Pelikan was the biggest meal splurge on our trip to Stockholm and Denmark, and it didn’t disappoint. If you are looking for upscale traditional Swedish cuisine in an historic beer hall location, this is your place.
Having spent a pretty penny on dinner, we opted not to go out for some drinks afterward, but to relax back at the apartment with our box wine.
Our last full day in Stockholm had the best weather. There were a number of things we could have done with our day: day trips to either Drottningholm Palace or the historic viking village of Sigtuna, a ferry ride in the Stockholm archipelago, or another attempt at the Vasa Museum. But we didn’t really feel like having a plan, or dealing with buses or ferries or trains. So we opted just to walk around and see a bit more of Gamla Stan and Södermalm.
We walked around Stockholm harbor in the sunshine, and then back through Gamla Stan for a little bit of final souvenir shopping.
After much walking in the sun, we decided to take a “fika” (Swedish coffee break) at Wayne’s Coffee in Södermalm. Paddy had a coffee and I had a mojito lemonade (lemonade with mint leaves) and a kanelbullar, which is pretty much the national pastry of Sweden. It is essentially a yeast-bread cinnamon bun, but without all the nasty frosting and extra sugar the American cinnamon buns come with. Instead, it is light and airy, and has a sprinkling of pearl sugar on top with a light egg wash glaze. It was a perfect little afternoon snack.
We spent some more time walking around Södermalm. Most of the interesting shops were on Götgatan.
For dinner that evening we decided that we couldn’t leave Sweden without trying a tunnbrödsrulle.
A tunnbrödsrulle (“thin bread roll” in Swedish) is a hot dog rolled up in thin flat bread with mashed potatoes, lettuce, onions, ketchup, mustard, and shrimp salad. It is typically something Swedes get at a kiosk on the way home from the bar in the wee hours of the morning. However, since we did a mega-splurge for dinner the night before, we thought this would be an inexpensive dinner option.
We ordered from the Maxi Grillen on Gotgatan near the Medborgarplatsen. Service was less than friendly, but food was served fast. The tunnbrödsrulle came with a fork.
Our verdict: Definitely order sans ketchup. The ketchup was a bit overly sweet. Also, I think it might be better with a higher quality shrimp salad. This just tasted like bay shrimp drowned in mayo and thousand island dressing. I didn’t make it all the way through mine, it was really rich and gave me a bit of a stomach ache. In any event, it was uniquely Swedish and we were glad to have tried it.
If you go to Stockholm and want to try a tunnbrödsrulle sober, I would recommend trying chef Magnus Nilsson’s tunnbrödsrulle at Teatern in Södermalm. Otherwise, the junky kiosk dogs might be tasty after many, many beers. If you do try Magnus Nilsson’s tunnbrödsrulle, please let us know how it was–we wanted to go there but didn’t have time.
After our tunnbrödsrulle adventure, we got on the T-Bana subway and headed north to the Tiki Room bar in the Vasastan neighborhood.
If you’ve read much of our blog, you may have noticed that we have a tiki bar fascination.
It was very early in the evening, and most of the bar patrons were upstairs enjoying the outdoor patio. The patio was nice, but we came for the tiki bar. We ordered some drinks downstairs in the tiki lounge area and chatted with the bartender.
Since we were in Stockholm, the drinks were pretty ridiculously expensive. At $15-$20 a drink, we could really only afford to try one each. The drinks were very good, however. Tiki drinks are often made a bit too sweet, but these were perfect. I had the Red Tide, which I really enjoyed (and wished I could have tried another one).
The bartender was super friendly, and after talking to us for awhile, he ended up only charging us for one drink (sweet!).
The Tiki Room was a pretty classic-style tiki bar, very nicely done with a lot of attention to detail. There was a private back room area that I assume you can reserve for parties.
We would have loved to explore some more bars in Stockholm, but the cocktails were just too pricey. The Vasastan neighborhood was lively with people enjoying dinner and drinks at various restaurants, but most of the shops had closed by 6:00 PM. We walked around a little before heading back to the T-Bana train.
Overall, we had a great four days in Stockholm. Gamla Stan was definitely a highlight, with it’s old buildings, cobbled streets and cute little alleyways. Stockholm isn’t the best place to visit on a budget, so if you don’t have a lot of money to spend you won’t be going out much. Nice dinners and nightlife are not something that should be on your agenda if you need to be frugal. There are many things to do and see during the day, however. If you visit during the summer, there are lots of parks and places to enjoy a picnic in the evenings and the sun doesn’t go down until after 10:00 PM.
If we were to return to Stockholm again, I would like to explore the Stockholm Archipelago and take a day trip to the ancient viking town of Sigtuna to look at the ancient viking rune stones.
Stay tuned for the rest of our Scandinavian adventure in Denmark…
We left Fort Collins, Colorado at 7:00 AM to begin our trip to Pagosa Springs, our first stop on a week-long road trip around Colorado and Utah. Pagosa Springs is located in the southern part of Colorado, which was about a 5 hour drive from Denver.
It was a long drive from Fort Collins, but it was a beautiful drive. As soon as we passed Denver, we began an ascent into the Rocky Mountains, heading south.
The 4th Street Diner and Bakery was a great place to stop for lunch. Tiny and eclectic, with mis-matched tables and chairs and a wood stove for cold winter days, it was homey and welcoming. Paddy had a burger with organic beef and I had a chicken quesadilla. There were a lot of tempting pies in the case at the counter, but we decided to pass and get back on the road.
We made a final stop at Wolf Creek Pass to get a photo at the view point there. The elevation was 10,856 ft, and it made me so light-headed that I stumbled a bit getting out of the car. It was a gorgeous view.
We made it to Pagosa Springs around 3:00 PM and checked into the Healing Waters Resort and Spa. It wasn’t really a resort, more of a budget hotel with a hot springs pool, steam room and sauna. It was clean and comfortable, and while I’m sure their pool was nice we were actually staying there because it was an affordable option next to the main hot springs.
The small town of Pagosa Springs is centered around the developed hot springs resort on the river, with several hot springs pools at various temperatures. They are open until 11:00 PM daily, so we planned on spending the evening soaking our troubles away.
We walked through the town and poked about in a few shops. We eventually made it up the main street to Riff Raff Brewing, and decided to relax and sample the local beer.
The beer at Riff Raff was tasty and diverse. I did a sampler with the English Pale, the El Duende Green Chili Ale, the Stepchild American Red, and the Plebian Porter. The El Duende was tasty but I expected a bit more green chili flavor. The Skallywag English Pale and the Plebian Porter were my two favorites. The Stepchild Red was a bit too hoppy for me, I’m not a huge fan of hoppy beers.
Pagosa Springs is at a fairly high elevation at just over 7,000 ft (pretty high-especially for us sea-level dwellers). Alcohol effects everyone a bit more at high elevations, and after the beer sampler I was quite buzzed. We stayed for dinner, and the food was excellent. Paddy tried the yak burger, which he really enjoyed. Riff Raff makes their own pickles, which were delicious.
After dinner, we were ready for the hot springs. It was $30 per person for admittance, which was a little expensive but included a towel and a locker. They have an adults-only terrace with drink service which was very tempting but would have been $23 extra dollars each just to be able to use it. We couldn’t justify that kind of price. I tried to bargain with the guy at the counter, it being a Tuesday evening and all, but no dice.
The hot springs had a large pool (mostly used by children and families), and a series of small pools at a range of different temperatures from 92 to 111 degrees Fahrenheit. We found that we were most comfortable between 90 to 100 degrees. I tried to go in the Paradise pool at 109 degrees, but it was so painfully hot that I didn’t get past ankle deep.
Our favorite pools were Boulder, Aspen, and Serendipity. Serendipity had a waterfall and a good overlook for the river and the rest of the resort. The waterfall was a good shoulder massage. The adults only terrace didn’t seem like such a big deal, as all the kids seemed to be in the big pool and not the regular hot spring tubs. We were glad we hadn’t shelled out an extra $46.00.
There was a Canteen in the center of the pool complex where you could buy drinks and snacks, including beer and wine. We only got one drink each, we figured that high elevation and hot springs and alcohol probably weren’t a great combo. Drinks weren’t too overpriced.
We stayed and soaked our sore muscles until the stars came out. We were able to find a quiet pool that wasn’t too hot with just a couple other people in it. Most of the kids were up at the big pool so we were able to enjoy the stars and the moon without much disruption.
We would recommend Pagosa Springs as an overnight stop on a road trip. I’m sure it is great in the winter as well. There isn’t a whole lot to do in the town itself, but Mesa Verde National Park (our next destination) is pretty close by. This would be a great town to use as a base for exploring Mesa Verde, which would take two days to fully explore if you want to hike to multiple cliff dwellings. When you come back in the evening, you can soak your sore hiking muscles in the hot springs.
Tulum, Mexico: Three days on the most beautiful stretch of beach we’ve seen in all our world travels.
This was our second trip to Tulum. Our first trip was back in 2009. We stayed in a little bungalow a the end of the Boca Paila beach road next to the Sian Ka’an Biosphere. There was only electricity from a generator after 5:00 PM, and our Argentinian host cooked delicious yet simple BBQ dinners in the evenings. The powdered-sugar beach was amazing, and we often had it all to ourselves. Far (but not too far) from the maddening tourist crowds and all-inclusive resorts of Cancun and Playa Del Carmen, Tulum felt like an undiscovered, sleepy paradise.
Needless to say, we’d been longing to go back. The two drawbacks to our first trip to Tulum were the time of year (September was WAY too hot for our taste, although we did enjoy the lack of crowds), and our bungalow at the end of the Boca Paila road was nice and remote, but if we needed to go to town we had to hire a taxi to take us the seven miles into town, which was expensive if we wanted to go to town frequently.
This trip, we went with a couple friends of ours during peak season in March, and stayed on the north end of the Boca Paila road closer to town. I had done a little research on the hotels along the beach road, and there were sections in the middle that were fairly rocky without a really nice sandy beach. It looked like the best beach stretches were on the north and south ends. (Tip–to see what kind of beach a hotel has, use the Google Maps satellite feature to see the coast from above).
We opted to stay at La Vita e Bella, which was a bit more money than we wanted to spend but looked like it had a great beach.
When we arrived at Hotel La Vita e Bella in Tulum at 12:30, we were told that our room wouldn’t be ready until 3:00 but that we could leave our bags at the front desk luggage storage until then. Our friends Heather and Stephen had arrived a couple days prior and Heather met us in the beach bar and we took a taxi into town (Tulum Pueblo) for lunch. Unfortunately, Stephen had made the mistake of drinking some tamarind water from a taco truck on Isla Holbox, and had been pretty sick for their first two days.
**Pro tip: stick to bottled drinks only.
The Tulum Pueblo is a few miles from the hotels along the Boca Paila beach road, and a taxi or car is necessary to get to and from. The hotels and restaurants in the pueblo are much less expensive than the ones on the beach. That being said, the beach is the best beach we’ve ever been to in all our travels, and the extra money to stay on the beach is worth it. The sand is a soft, powdered sugar texture with no rocks or coral in the water in many places, and the water is electric blue.
In the Tulum Pueblo, we had lunch at La Barracuda, a great little local seafood restaurant on the far end of the main drag. Lunch came with complimentary chips and a tiny cup of a brothy crab soup. We had fish, shrimp, and octopus tacos and they were all outstanding. Prices were excellent—if you are in town looking for food, this place is worth the trek down to the end of the main street.
When we arrived back to check into our room at La Vita e Bella, the girl working at the desk showed us to a very tiny bungalow near the public bathrooms with a view of the bushes in front of the restaurant, just steps from the front desk. Pretty much the shittiest mid-range bungalow they had.
We had booked a “junior suite,” which was described as being large with a large private deck. I went back and asked the front desk girl and she told me that the tiny bungalow was the same price as the junior suite (not sure what that was supposed to mean). She then said that she might have another room available if we would like to look at it. I said that we would.
We were then shown to a room that was exactly the description of what we booked, on the top floor of a four unit building. It had an ocean view, a large balcony with a hammock, and was very private. We opted to move.
We were a bit annoyed that we weren’t put in this room to begin with. Heather had been taking care of Stephen while he was sick the last two days, and wasn’t so impressed with the front desk service. The front desk staff seemed unwelcoming and indifferent, more content to play around on Facebook on the computer than assist guests. Heather did say that the restaurant staff was very helpful and accommodating, however.
We spent the afternoon relaxing at the beach and in the hammock on our deck. It was pretty windy and the snorkel tour we had booked at Akumal the next day was cancelled. I was still recovering from my cold and we were sort of relieved to spend the rest of our last two days relaxing before flying home.
For dinner, Heather, Paddy, and I went down the road a short ways and across the street to Kitchen Table, a restaurant that pops up every night with a wood fired stove, coolers, and a grill to serve fresh food for dinner. The only light is from candles and a few solar powered lights in the kitchen and bar. We had some appetizers and cocktails, and they were outstanding. We knew Stephen would want to come here (he was back at the room trying to keep down some rice and beans) so we made a reservation for dinner on our last night. Note: Kitchen Table is cash only.
**Tip: When eating at restaurants on the jungle side of the beach road, wear LOTS of bug spray with DEET. The mosquitos are particularly bad after dusk.
Since our snorkel tour was canceled due to strong winds, we decided to have a lazy day. Heather and Stephen (who was finally feeling better after his bout with tamarind tap water) had gone to Chichen Itza for the day with Eduardo from MyCancunTransportation.com. We had been to Chichen Itza on our previous visit, and we highly recommend it. We do recommend getting there right when they open in the morning, however as all the tour buses start showing up at about 10:30-11:00 AM. They said that Eduarado charged them about $200 USD for being their personal driver/tour guide for the day, and he was great. The drive to Chichen Itza from Tulum is about 2.5 hours each way, and they went at their own pace and made stops in Valladolid and at the Gran Cenote as well. Considering that a ticket on a tour bus is about $80-$115 per person, it was a great deal for them. They enthusiastically recommend Eduardo and said that he was a great guide.
Breakfast is complimentary at La Vita e Bella, and has a choice of a Mexican style breakfast, an American style breakfast, a “natural” style breakfast with yogurt, fruit, and granola, or a continental breakfast with fruit and croissants. We opted for the Mexican style breakfast, which was scrambled eggs with salsa, beans, tortillas, and rice.
We spent the day reading, relaxing, and walking on the beach.
That afternoon we went to the beach bar in front of the restaurant and sat down in some beach chairs. A staff member came by and asked us what our room number was. We told him 23, and were told that our beach chairs and palapa umbrella were further down away from the restaurant. (It would have been nice to be told that we had our own beach chairs, or anything about the way the beach restaurant/bar operated when we checked in…but that is the fabulous front desk service for you). We asked if we could sit in front of the restaurant as we wanted to order food and drinks and the waiter decided that it was okay that we sat there. I read the sign in front of the restaurant a little later and saw that they charge people 150 pesos to sit at the beach chair, intended for people who are visiting Tulum for the day and want a beach club to hang out at. There were a lot of beach chairs open, and for what they charge for the rooms there, we should be able to sit wherever the hell we want. But I digress…
We ordered some beers and pizzas for lunch, but we weren’t allowed to eat the pizza on the beach, and the restaurant service was separate from the beach service, so there was some confusion at the end when we asked for our bill for the two 7-Ups we drank on the beach and the two beers and two pizzas we ate in the restaurant. It was a little annoying.
That evening we met back up with Heather and Stephen and decided to check out the bars and restaurants further down the beach road. We were easily able to get a taxi upon walking out to the road, and found a little hub of restaurants, shops and bars about two miles down. We were a bit blown away by how developed the beach road had gotten. We remember it being just a gravel road with barely anything on it besides palm-shaded little driveways to little beach hotels back in 2009. Now it was paved for quite a ways and pretty built up. Paddy and I took a walk down the road a little ways while Heather and Stephen went to Mateo’s Mexican Grill for a drink.
We walked down to a rocky section of coast where some locals were fishing in the water. There was a group of seagulls and pelicans following them everywhere begging for fish.
One thing we noticed in this section of the Boca Paila road was an abundance of stand-alone ATMs, all dispensing US dollars. It was pretty perplexing—why not pesos? Are the shops and restaurants trying to cater to the average American tourists who find it too difficult to deal with pesos? Or is it because the peso has fallen recently and they want to accept the stronger dollar as currency to exchange for a better rate later? I tend to suspect the latter, since most of the shops and restaurants offer a poor exchange rate of 14 pesos to the dollar (vs the current rate of 18 pesos to the dollar if you withdraw pesos from a regular ATM).
When we arrived back to Mateo’s Mexican Grill, Heather and Stephen were just then getting the beers they ordered 15 minutes ago. The bar wasn’t that busy yet, so the slow service was a little odd. We ordered beers and were considering ordering food for dinner, but after our beers took 20 minutes and we began to get eaten alive by mosquitos, we decided just to ask for the check. It was a shame, because the ambiance at Mateo’s is pretty nice, despite the mosquitos.
Across the street and a bit north of Mateo’s is a little tapas restaurant called Mi Vida Tapas. Paddy and I love Spanish tapas, and it was on the beach side of the road so no mosquitos. We were seated in a little greenhouse type structure on the beach, which was very nicely decorated and lit by candlelight. The glass windows blocked the beach wind. We were the only people eating there and had the place to ourselves.
The food and service were phenomenal. I had the Pulpo y Garbanzos (octopus with mashed chickpeas, garlic, and olive oil), and the Atun Sashimi (seared ahi tuna with tamarind sauce and mashed potatoes). Everyone else had the Mini Brochetas (filet mignon bites), and the Tagliata Pequeña de Res (small beef tenderloin with polenta, parmesean, arugula, and truffle oil), and a few others I can’t remember. Everyone was very happy with what they ordered. For dessert I tried the Chocolate Salami, because I can’t see something called “chocolate salami” on a menu without finding out what the hell that is. It turned out to be a roll of chocolate ganache with little rice crispies in it, sliced to look like slices of salami. A bit comical, but delicious.
After dinner we flagged down a taxi back to our hotel and had a few drinks at the hotel bar before going to bed.
We wanted to spend our last day enjoying the gorgeous Tulum beach, and that we did. We woke early enough to catch the sunrise at 7:00 on the beach, then went back to bed for a while, and then had a lazy morning reading and relaxing.
In late morning, we spent about an hour and a half in Tulum Pueblo (the main part of town) shopping for souvenirs. There are lots of great shops to explore. Be sure to negotiate, the vendors will always give you a really high price at first. It helps to bargain the price down if you are buying several things from one store, and it also helps if you speak a little Spanish.
In the afternoon the wind died down considerably and we enjoyed a great time at the beach. The waves were still pretty big and a lot of fun to body surf in. Mostly, we just spent time getting knocked around by the waves, which is actually a pretty good workout. It was a good last day in Mexico.
We had our last dinner at Kitchen Table, and I think it was the best dinner we had on our whole trip. If you make it to Tulum, don’t miss Kitchen Table. I had the Deviled Avocado and the Pan Roasted Octopus with sweet potatoes and caramelized onions, which was the best octopus I’ve ever had. It even trumped the octopus I had the first night in Cancun, which was hard to top. Everything was outstanding and you can tell that the chefs at Kitchen Table really love what they do.
Our first trip to Tulum was a bit more rustic, romantic and remote. This time around we enjoyed spending a little more time checking out Tulum Pueblo and some of the restaurants on the Boca Paila beach road.
Tulum is a great home base for seeing Mayan ruins, snorkeling in the Cenotes (fresh water underground caves and rivers), and shopping for souvenirs. Our last trip we were a bit more active, seeing the Mayan ruins in Tulum and a day trip to Chichen Itza. This time around, we ended our Yucatan trip in Tulum and were happy to just relax and enjoy the beach before heading home.
We will definitely be back to Tulum again. We have yet to find a better beach with soft sand and electric blue water in all our world travels. Our next trip I think we may try to stay down at the end of the Boca Paila beach road again near the Sian Ka’an Biosphere. We liked the remoteness of it, and the rustic jungle/beach atmosphere. We weren’t super impressed with La Vita e Bella.
We would also like to explore the Cenotes in the area, and take a day tour in the Biosphere. But above all, we would come back to Tulum to relax and enjoy that magnificent beach.
Las Vegas 2017: Getting off The Strip–downtown Las Vegas and the Arts District. Checking out local spots and culture in Las Vegas’ historical downtown and the up-and-coming arts scene.
The last time we were in Las Vegas, when we left we decided we’d had enough of Las Vegas and probably wouldn’t be back any time soon. But…..Las Vegas always has a way of seducing you back. The inexpensive and easy 2.5 hour flight from Seattle, the escape from the Seattle rain, the abundance of cheap, nice hotel rooms, the ability to walk around the street with a drink in your hand, and the great restaurants are ever enticing. We needed a quick winter getaway to lift our spirits (January through April in Seattle is a miserable, rainy, cold, awful time) and decided that Las Vegas would be quick and affordable. We had also never made it to downtown Las Vegas during our first two trips, and decided that this time we would stay in downtown Las Vegas and avoid The Strip altogether.
It was a wonderful plan. We had a fabulous time exploring historical downtown Las Vegas, the Arts District, and a few other local spots. Not once did we go to The Strip, and we left Las Vegas with a new appreciation for Sin City. Our trip was made even better by reuniting with an old middle school friend of mine who was living in Las Vegas and producing a local burlesque show through the winter.
Our flight landed at 7:00 PM, but sat on the runway for 25 minutes because our gate was occupied by a delayed flight. Fortunately we had not checked baggage, so when we finally got off the plane we were able to dash down to ground transportation to catch our shuttle.
We had reserved a round trip shuttle through the aptly named shuttle service Airline Shuttle. It was very inexpensive at $18.00 per person round trip with direct hotel pick up and drop off. Online booking was easy. Be sure to print off your confirmation, however. They do not accept phone screen confirmations, you must print a copy with the bar codes. Their website made this pretty clear, so I printed two copies, just in case.
There are other transportation alternatives such as buses and taxis. A taxi to downtown Las Vegas will run around $40-$50 from the airport one way, and a bus will take a long time. The shuttle was definitely the easy and affordable option.
Finally , we arrived at our hotel, The Golden Nugget. After a bit of confused wandering around in the huge casino we made it from the back entrance where the shuttle dropped us to the front desk to check in. We had reserved the most inexpensive room through Booking.com –a Carson Tower King, non-smoking. We were informed that the only non-smoking rooms available had two double beds. Upon presenting the front desk lady with our printed confirmation for a king room, and informing her that I am allergic to cigarette smoke so a smoking room was not an option, she upgraded us to a Rush Tower king room at no extra charge. (This is why I’m old-school and print my confirmations, it’s easy to whip out and show at check in if something doesn’t match what you were promised.)
The Rush Tower rooms were NICE. The Rush Tower was clearly the newer, upgraded side of the hotel. Our trip was off to a great start.
After a speedy luggage drop and clothes change, we were dying for a drink and a snack. It was already 8:30. We headed down to the casino and into the Cadillac Tequila Bar.
The drinks and food at Cadillac Tequila Bar are a bit upscale Mexican, not outrageously expensive but not cheap. I ordered the Elote (Mexican street corn) and the Ahi Tuna Tacos appetizer and a guava margarita. Paddy ordered the Queso and chips, a beer, and a shot of tequila. The tequila menu was extensive, but the cheapest shot was $9.00. Whatever, we needed to get our night going. The tequila was high quality.
The food was great. Paddy was particularly impressed with the queso dip–real cheese (no Velveeta) and great flavor. The ahi tuna tacos were also very tasty. There was an Asian ponzu-style sauce to pour on them, and the shells were made from wonton wrappers. My guava margarita was delicious, but didn’t seem to have much booze. I ended up ordering another $9.00 shot of tequila to add to it.
After snacks and a couple first drinks, we were ready to check out Fremont Street.
Fremont Street is the heart of downtown Las Vegas, and the original thoroughfare through the city. Many of the casinos on Fremont Street including the Golden Nugget are still there, but with a modern makeover. The west portion of Fremont Street is the renowned Fremont Street Experience.
The Fremont Street Experience is a covered pedestrian-only section of the street. At night, a light and music show happens on the ceiling every hour. Cover bands play at two different stages on opposite ends of the covered street, tourists zip line over the crowds and under the covered light show, and various street performers and people in costume are stationed around the street providing photo opportunities for tips. There are flashing neon lights and alcohol for sale from street side bars everywhere you turn. I was able to procure a keg cup of cheap white wine for $6.00 (don’t judge).
The Fremont Street Experience was fun for approximately 15 minutes. After that, we were ready to get out of neon tourist fun-land. We kept walking down to the east part of Fremont Street, which was a much mellower and quieter experience. The covered pedestrian street turns into a regular downtown street with fewer large casinos and more small bars and restaurants.
Fremont Street East was recently re-vamped in 2002 and new, hip bars and restaurants have been popping up to revitalize the local downtown Las Vegas scene.
We wandered into Commonwealth, a hipster speak-easy style bar with dim lighting and 1920’s decor. The music was modern and the cocktail menu was fancy. We ordered drinks at the bar and walked around. It was about 10:00 PM, so the night was just getting started for the 20-something crowd that was beginning to trickle in.
We wandered upstairs to the rooftop patio, which had a DJ and another outdoor bar. A server came around with free shots of knock-off Fireball whiskey and tiny complimentary cupcakes. Who doesn’t like free shots and cupcakes?
I had read that there is a speakeasy within Commonwealth called The Laundry Room. The only way to get into the Laundry Room is to send a polite reservation request via text to (702) 701-1466. We sent a text to see if we could get in while we were there, and waited a little bit. We finished our drinks and about 10 minutes later received a response with an offer of a 12:15 AM reservation. It was 11:00 PM, and we were tired from working earlier that morning and then traveling, so we thanked them and declined the offer. We’d been to “speakeasies” in Seattle and New York and weren’t feeling like getting into the Laundry Room was that important to us. Maybe next time.
We wandered around Fremont Street a little bit more before calling it a night.
Friday morning we were greeted by 58 degree drizzle, very reminiscent of the Seattle weather we were trying to escape. Se la vie. We took that as a sign that we should go ahead and sleep in a bit longer.
Eventually, we were hungry. I had read that the buffet at the Main Street Station casino around the corner was supposed to be one of the best cheap buffets in town, a local gem. We put on our raincoats, walked to Main Street and got in the buffet line.
We waited in line for about 10 minutes, only to be told when we got to the front of the line that they would be closing at 10:30 (it was 10:15) for half an hour to switch over to lunch, at which point everyone in the dining area will be forced to leave. We decided that 15 minutes was not the time frame that we wanted for breakfast, so we opted out.
*Note–we learned that this is Main Street Station buffet’s weekday schedule. Saturday and Sunday have a champagne brunch buffet from 7:00 AM to 3:00 PM for $11.99. We didn’t make it back to try this, but will definitely consider it for our next trip.
We were starving, so we wandered into the Plaza Hotel and casino next door on Main Street to see what they had going on. We found Hash House a Go Go inside the casino, which had a 15 minute wait but looked really good. We gave the host my cell number and walked around the casino until we got a text that our table was ready.
At first look, the prices at Hash House a Go Go seemed a bit high–most plates in the $16.99 range. But then we saw the food coming out of the kitchen—it was HUGE. We were hungry, but the portions this place was serving wouldn’t be something either one of us could finish individually. So we found a dish we both wanted to try and split it. We were really glad that we did.
We ordered the Andy’s Sage Fried Chicken Benedict, which the menu bragged to have been featured on Man Vs Food.
Andy’s Sage Fried Chicken Benedict is a split biscuit with two fried chicken breasts, bacon, mozzarella cheese, tomato, tomato, spinach, scrambled eggs and chipotle cream sauce, served on a bed of mashed potatoes. It was delicious, but massive. Eat this one with a buddy. I couldn’t even make it all the way through my half.
All things considered, the prices are pretty reasonable after all at Hash House a Go-Go, considering the portions. I think we’ll have to come back again on our next downtown Las Vegas trip and try the crab cake benedict.
After breakfast, we called a Lyft and took a short ride over to the downtown Las Vegas arts district.
The downtown Las Vegas arts district is a rapidly up-and-coming neighborhood comprised of several bars, restaurants, art collectives and galleries, and vintage shops. It is also the new home of the Burlesque Hall of Fame, which was our first stop.
We caught the Burlesque Hall of Fame during a transition period. It had previously been located on Fremont Street, but had recently moved to the arts district and was in temporary art gallery space while their new location was being renovated across the street.
The gallery was a small space, but had a few costume pieces on display from burlesque legends, and a well-constructed timeline of the history of burlesque with many photos and other memorabilia. The man at the front desk was more than happy to answer our questions.
You would think that a town like Las Vegas, with all it’s glitz and glam would have a great modern burlesque scene. Sadly, we were informed that has not been the case. In Las Vegas there are showgirls, and there are strippers. The art of the rhinestone-encrusted shimmy and a wink with costumes and dancing has been a little lost on sin city. It’s not large-production enough to compete with the big-time casino shows, and it’s too classy to be a raunchy modern striptease.
There are local burlesque performers who are trying to change this, however. Small-venue burlesque shows are becoming more frequent and the local arts scene is growing. The gentleman at the Burlesque Hall of Fame informed us that there were big plans in the works for their new space. He said they have tons of costumes, vintage marquees, and lots of other items in their collection that they are excited to exhibit. Check http://www.burlesquehall.com/ for updates.
Here are some burlesque show posters from current local burlesque troops. Look them up if you’re planning a trip!
We moved on from the Burlesque Hall of Fame to S Main Street to explore the vintage and antique shops.
If you are looking for vintage furniture, clothing, or random kitschy knick-knacks, S Main Street in the Arts District is the place to be. The only thing stopping us from blowing our tax return on a lime green 60’s sectional sofa at Retro Vegas was that we couldn’t take it on the plane home. And maybe a little common sense.
We had a lot of fun looking at all the shops on S Main Street. There was so much to explore. I really wanted to go to the Rockin’ Bettie store, a boutique with retro-style dresses and clothing, but sadly they were closed because they were at a rockabilly convention. Next time.
Later that afternoon we went and got foot massages at the Happy Feet massage place in the El Dorado casino on Fremont Street. $15 for 30 minutes. It was money well spent, we felt revitalized and ready to take on the evening.
After our foot massages were over, we got take out from the Cousins Maine Lobster food truck on Fremont Street. Their menu looked amazing (lobster tots!) I got a lobster roll, Paddy got the lobster grilled cheese, and we got some smothered tots to share–tots smothered in a creamy salsa sauce.
Overall everything was tasty and the lobster was great, but we both felt like our sandwiches were a little small for the price.
After dinner we got dressed up and headed to Atomic Liquors on Fremont Street to meet up with Leah, a long lost middle school friend of mine and her husband Sam. Leah had been living in Las Vegas since the fall, producing and performing in the Leather & Feathers Burlesque Cabaret show at the Erotic Heritage Museum. I grew up with her, but hadn’t seen her since middle school.
Atomic Liquors is the oldest free-standing bar in Las Vegas. It was formerly a cafe, originally built in 1945. The cafe customers used to watch atomic blasts at the nearby atomic test site from the roof of the cafe . In 1952 the cafe owners Joe and Stella Stobchik turned it into a bar. Rumor has it that the Rat Pack and the Smothers Brothers used to drink there after their nightly shows.
Slightly divey, but with a classy signature cocktail menu and a bartender who looks like she stepped out of a 1940’s pin-up magazine, Atomic Liquors was a great place to start the evening.
It was fun reuniting with Leah, who gave us the scoop on what it was like to live in Las Vegas. She said that everyone she’s met in Vegas has been surprisingly friendly. She thinks that it is because everyone she meets isn’t from Las Vegas. Most people are transplants from elsewhere, and know what it’s like to move to a new city and have to find new friends. She is also a huge fan of the plentiful cheap Sunday champagne brunch deals.
After a couple drinks at Atomic, we headed over to the Beauty Bar on Fremont Street to see a local band, Franks and Deans. There were many interesting photo ops along the way. And we found Vegas Santa! In February! He was urinating on the motel sign that advertised that llamas stay free.
We eventually made it to the Beauty Bar. The Beauty Bar is a chain bar, the original Beauty Bar is in New York. The bar offers booze and manicures during the day, and booze and live music at night. The walls were covered in pink and red glitter, and the bar and furniture are all vintage 1960’s beauty salon style.
The bands and atmosphere were great, the drinks were not. Weak, overpriced cocktails were served in crappy plastic cups and they didn’t serve wine. (Um, if I owned a bar plastered in pink glitter, there would definitely be wine on the menu. Possibly even mini bottles of Cooks served in a paper bag with a straw. Just sayin’.)
The bands made up for the lame drinks. The opening band was The Swamp Gospel, and they were great. Gritty, Southern-style blues-rock, complete with rubber snakes thrown into the audience.
Franks and Deans went on last, and they were fantastic. It doesn’t get much more modern, local Vegas than Franks and Deans. They do punk rock style covers of old crooner songs (their name is a play on Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin if you hadn’t put that together already). They put on a great show, complete with a go-go dancer.
We ended the night by soaking up the booze with pizza from Evel Pie across the street. The name is an homage to stunt performer Evel Knievel, and they always offer a $5.00 pint of PBR and a slice special. Open until 4:00 AM on weekends, it’s a good place for late night munchies.
Saturday started pretty late, on account of the alcohol-soaked late night before. The weather was also even worse than Friday’s, cold and pretty rainy. We took our time getting out of bed. Eventually, we got pretty hungry so we grabbed some coffee at the Starbucks downstairs and then headed down Fremont Street to the Container Park Mall.
The Container Park Mall is on the East portion of Fremont Street, and is built entirely out of recycled shipping containers. There are lots of little shops, a couple restaurants, a coffee shop, and even a little wedding chapel on the third floor. There is an outdoor stage in the center of the mall, and lots of tables and places to view live music should a show be going on.
We found sustenance at Cheffinis Hot Dogs on the ground level. Their hot dogs are some of the best we’ve had, with lots of options and toppings. I loved that they offered a turkey dog option in addition to beef and veggie dogs, since I don’t eat beef.
I had the Moshi Moshi dog with a turkey frank, which had caramelized onions, seaweed, jalapeño, wine sauce, and spicy mayo. Paddy had The Grandfather with a beef frank, piled with chopped pork belly, red bell peppers, caramelized onions, crushed potato chips, spicy mayo, basil aioli, pickled mango, and topped with a fried quail egg. They were delicious.
We then explored some of the container shops and admired the murals on Fremont Street.
On the way back to our hotel, we stopped off at The D Casino and went up to the second floor to check out their collection of vintage slot machines. We played a couple for fun, no wins. They are the classic kind with the pull lever on the side and the cherries, numbers, and other little pictures that spin and you try to get a match.
Later that afternoon, we headed to Chinatown for food and drinks. A lot of people (including us before doing research for this trip) don’t know that Las Vegas has a Chinatown, but it does. It isn’t the type of Chinatown you see in other cities, however. You won’t find a cute downtown area with hanging lanterns, Chinese archways and funky little side streets to explore. Las Vegas’ Chinatown is essentially one big long strip mall extending for miles west of The Strip on W Spring Mountain Road.
Don’t be put off by the strip mall appearance. If you like Asian food, there are many great restaurants here to explore. And one really great tiki bar.
If you’ve read much of our blog you probably have figured out that I have a tiki bar fascination. There are two great old-style tiki bars in Las Vegas, one of which is The Golden Tiki.
The Golden Tiki’s strip mall location gives a deceiving outward appearance, but once you step inside the large double doors, you enter another world. Clamshell fountains, dark, intimate booths and tables, a large wrap-around bar, and a ceiling covered in tiny LED star lights that flicker all create an exotic tropical wonderland. Tiki kitsch and tropical memorabilia abound, with the 1960’s exotica sounds of Martin Denny playing on the bar surround sound system.
We cozied up in a little side table and got out our cell phone flashlights to read the menu. Don’t expect food here. Their kitchen offers only 15 pupu (appetizer) platters each Friday and Saturday night that serve four people each, sold until they are gone. There are many other great food options in the area, so eat first and come here for drinks.
Since I’m a bigger fan of tequila than rum, I ordered the Coconut Sunrise, with coconut and aloe liqueurs, tequila, lime, orange juice, honey mango syrup, and grenadine. It was sweet but fruity and delicious.
You can also order a drink in a souvenir tiki mug, which was tempting but we didn’t want to carry it around for the rest of the evening. We had some time to kill, so I tried the Dole Whip, a soft serve pineapple sorbet. The Dole Whip was delicious, albeit a HUGE serving. I could only eat a portion of it.
Eventually, we were getting hungry, so we settled up and headed out to dinner. I couldn’t resist the photo in the giant clam shell before leaving, however.
Prior to our trip to Vegas, I had been browsing through restaurants on Yelp and Tripadvisor, and came across District One Kitchen on the outskirts of Chinatown on S Jones Blvd. We love Vietnamese food, and their menu looked enticing. The menu is more Vietnamese-fusion than straight Vietnamese, combining flavors of Japan, China, Thailand, and a little French.
We started with the oysters, which came with a light soy-ponzu sauce and caviar. They were delicious. The sauce wasn’t too much to overpower the flavor of the oyster, and the caviar was a nice touch, adding texture and a little boost of flavor.
Paddy tried the beef carpaccio, which he said was amazing (I don’t eat beef so I’ll take his word for it). We also shared the whole grilled squid with a spicy aioli, the Vietnamese-style green papaya salad with prawns and pork, and the “Belly Buns,” (pork belly pinch buns). We are suckers for pork belly pinch buns. Everything was outstanding. We would highly recommend the trek out to District One, it is worth it. The prices were reasonable for what we got.
We had tickets that evening to see my friend Leah perform as a guest in the Artifice Bar’s “Nerdlesque” show in the Arts District, so after dinner we caught a Lyft over to The Velveteen Rabbit on S Main Street to have some drinks before the show.
The Velveteen Rabbit is so hipster that if I didn’t know where I was, I would guess that I was in Portland.
There were antique velvet couches and chairs, chandeliers made from old bottles and canning jars, and a craft cocktail menu made zine-style in a booklet including poetry. You can cake the zine/menu home as a souvenir for $1.00.
I ordered the “Fireside” cocktail from their seasonal winter menu, which consisted of roasted marshmallow bourbon, salted hazelnut peppermint orgeat syrup, lemon heavy cream, and aztec chocolate bitters. It came in a teacup with a roasted mini marshmallow on a cocktail pic. It was impressive. Paddy tried the “Smoke & Cinder,” with rye whiskey, averna, cherry heering, black walnut bitters, ginger, and laphroaig mist. Don’t ask me to explain any of those ingredients to you, because I have no idea what they are. Paddy gave a rave review of the Smoke & Cinder. It seemed like the right thing to drink while wearing a red velvet blazer.
The Velveteen Rabbit makes a lot of their cocktail ingredients in house (I’m pretty sure it’s impossible to find salted hazelnut peppermint orgeat syrup in the store), and they do an excellent job. Their website even advertises cocktail making classes every other Saturday afternoon, if you’re interested in taking your cocktail skills to the next level.
It was early, so there weren’t many people in the bar yet. There was a small DJ booth in the corner and a small dance floor area, along with a projection light show on the brick wall near the dance floor. I did not see an event calendar on their website, but it looks like The Velveteen Rabbit is set up for some late night fun.
When it was time, we settled up with the bartender at the Velveteen Rabbit and walked up the street to the Artifice Bar for the Nerdlesque Show.
The Nerdlesque Show happens every third Saturday at the Artifice Bar in the downtown Las Vegas Arts District, and has a different, unique, and “nerdy” theme for every show. I was told that last month’s theme was Alice in Wonderland, while this show’s theme was DC Comics.
My friend Leah was a guest performer in this show and got special permission for me to photograph her act, which was a burlesque Joker theme. Other acts were based on Cat Woman, Poison Ivy, Raven, Harley Quinn, Superman (a fantastic male burlesque act), and a couple of characters that I wasn’t quite nerdy enough to know.
When we got to the Artifice Bar we met Leah, who introduced us to a friend of hers and we found seats along the side wall of the room. I sat down next to a petite older lady with big, beautiful copper red hair. After seeing a couple people talk to her and call her “Tempest,” I turned to Leah’s friend and asked if she was Tempest Storm. She was.
Tempest Storm is one of the greatest classic burlesque legends of all time, her exotic dancing and burlesque career spanning decades. She is still active in the Las Vegas community at 89 years old. I introduced myself to her and told her it was an honor to meet her. After the show, my friend Leah asked if we could have our photo taken with her, but she declined. It was a little disappointing, but I’m sure she is tired of having her photo taken all the time.
Tempest was soon moved by the show producer from the chair next to me to a nicer table location with a better view, but it was exciting to meet her.
The DC Comics Nerdlesque show was great. Each performer put a lot of effort into their costume and routine, and many included props. My friend Leah (stage name Katerina HoneyBunny) did a great Joker Routine to “Psycho Killer” by the Talking Heads, complete with a straight jacket. It was a fun show.
Sunday was a no-plans day. We had a dinner reservation later that evening, but other than that the day was scheduled to be a do-whatever-we-feel-like day. I’m a planner, but I always like to plan for no-plans days on trips.
We slept in again, and then made our way down to the Container Park Mall to have brunch at The Perch restaurant inside the park. A no-plans day seemed like a good time to take advantage of their unlimited bloody Marys, bellinis, and mimosas for $15.00.
Apparently, everyone else had the same plan so we had to get on a list for a table. It was a 30 minute wait, but it was worth it.
Paddy had the Short Rib Hash, and I had the Smothered Egg Biscuits, which was basically biscuits and gravy with scrambled eggs and cheese on top. Good dishes for a hangover.
The bartender was our server, and he was great. He kept our bloody Marys and bellinis full. We even got a couple bellinis for the road–although we learned that we weren’t allowed to take them out of the Container Park. It didn’t really make sense, considering that Las Vegas has allows open containers, and there were people walking around with drinks on Fremont Street right outside the Container Park entrance. But the security lady wouldn’t let us leave until we finished our drinks.
We considered going to the Mob Museum, which sounded interesting, but the ticket price of $23.95 per person seemed a little steep. That, and we had a pretty good bloody Mary/bellini buzz going and weren’t really in a museum mood.
So we walked back to the Golden Nugget and poked around. We looked at the pool and the big fish tank (formerly a shark tank with a water slide that goes through the tank in a clear tube, but there were no sharks and the slide was closed for repair). I’m not sure if they plan on replacing the huge tunas in the tank with sharks again, or if they learned that reef sharks shouldn’t be kept in small tanks. I hope it is the latter.
It wasn’t really warm enough to swim, but the pool was heated and a few people were swimming anyway. Up the stairs from the pool to where the top of the water slide was, were a bunch of fancy pool cabanas for rent (all empty) and a smaller adult pool with a bar where a bunch of drunk adults were partying.
Back in the casino we played a couple slot machines for a minute, but only because they had Gremlins on them. $2.00 down the drain. I’ve never been very lucky with slot machines, but I’m also not really a big gambler.
Finally, we decided to sit at the fancy fish tank bar near the Rush Tower elevator and have a drink and watch the fish.
As always happens with day drinking, we eventually needed a nap time.
That evening, we had made a reservation at Las Vegas’ most famous Thai restaurant, Lotus of Siam. I highly recommend making an online reservation a week or more in advance, this place is POPULAR. It’s been around for over 20 years, and has been given even more notoriety in recent years by being featured on Anthony Bourdain’s show Parts Unknown.
Housed in an unassuming strip mall location east of The Strip on East Sahara Avenue, Lotus of Siam specializes in serving Northern Thai cuisine.
We had read reviews and seen Parts Unknown, and knew two of the dishes we wanted. The menu was a bit overwhelming, however. Everything in the front of the menu is your standard Thai restaurant fare, while the Northern Thai dishes and house specialties are all towards the back. It was a huge menu. I think that a menu makeover might be a good idea–feature their house specialties right up front, and the Pad Thai and other standard Thai dishes that are not northern towards the back. Kind of like the hamburger at the back of the Chinese restaurant menu…”Yes, we have it. But it’s not what you should be ordering here.”
The server helped us locate the two dishes we were after–the Garlic Prawns and the Crispy Duck Khao Soi. We also ordered the Nam Prik Hed, described as a spicy mushroom dip with fresh vegetables. We were looking for a veggie dish to add and it was something we’d never had before, so we gave it a go.
The Garlic Prawns came out first. Deep-fried in the shell with garlic and black pepper. They lived up to the hype. We couldn’t stop fishing out forkfuls of the fried bits of garlic and cabbage at the bottom of the dish, it was delicious.
The Crispy Duck Khao Soi and the Nam Prik Hed arrived next. The Khao Soi came with an assortment of lime wedges, red onions, and pickled veggies on the side to add to our taste. We added it all. The noodles were flat egg noodles and the broth was a curry base. The duck was cooked perfectly with delicious crispy skin.
The Nam Prik Hed was a dip made from green chilis and pickled mushrooms. It wasn’t a very exciting dish, but it provided the perfect fresh vegetable component necessary to balance out the heavy fried prawns and crispy duck.
We were painfully stuffed when we left. Don’t miss this place if you like Thai food–it is worth the Lyft ride. Also, don’t forget to make a reservation. When we left the doorway was full of hopeful, hungry, reservation-less people, waiting for a chance at a table. If you do make a reservation, know that they will only hold the table for five minutes past your reservation time. Then it becomes available for someone else. And it appeared that there is always someone else.
After dinner, we called another Lyft to cap off the night at the other classic tiki bar in Las Vegas, Frankie’s Tiki Room.
Franki’s Tiki Room is on the outskirts of the Arts District in downtown Las Vegas, on W Charleston Blvd. It’s dark, open 24 hours, and serves only drinks (no food).
Tiki drinks are $10.00 each, or $25.00 if you want it in a souvenir tiki mug to take home. They had a lot of souvenir tiki mugs, all with the Frankie’s Tiki logo engraved into them on the back. We met a couple in the booth next to us who come to Las Vegas from LA a couple times a year and had collected almost all of them.
I ordered the Nakalele Knockout, which was said to be a tangy, refreshing blend of rum, hibiscus, and lime. All I tasted was rum–it was strong. Paddy had the Green Gasser, a mix of citrus rum, Red Bull, melon liqueur, and Bacardi 151 that was also really strong. The bartender wasn’t the friendliest, but he made some stiff drinks.
Leah and Sam joined us at Frankie’s. Sam liked the Frankenstein, and I had the Kapu I’a which was the one tequila cocktail on the menu. I liked it a lot better than the Nakalele Knockout, but I am partial to tequila. My third and last drink was the Scurvy, which was a pineapple and coconut sugar-bomb that I couldn’t finish (and was glad I didn’t). We all ended up with a bit more of a buzz than we intended.
The next morning, all the rum and sugar from the night before was making us a little green around the gills. It didn’t help that we had a 9:30 AM flight to get up early for.
Our shuttle arrived at airport terminal 1, which was a complete madhouse. Everyone in Las Vegas seemed to be taking a Southwest Air flight out that morning. Our driver told us that our terminal was the next one, terminal three. Everyone else in the shuttle got off at terminal 1 to battle the long security lines.
Terminal three was the complete opposite. We flew Alaska Air, and terminal three was quiet and mellow. We barely had any lines at security, and it was fabulous. The other domestic airlines at terminal three were JetBlue, and Virgin. Our shuttle driver said that terminal three is usually not as busy as terminal 1.
Moral of the story: If you are going to Las Vegas, try not to fly Southwest–try to get a flight with Alaska, JetBlue, or Virgin. Everyone seems to fly Southwest and terminal 1 is very busy.
We had the perfect ending to our trip at terminal three. Before we left for Vegas, my friend Keith told me that if I saw a Dolly Parton slot machine, I had to play it. I promised I would. I didn’t really expect to see a Dolly Parton slot machine… but low and behold, this is what was next to our airport departure gate:
I had spent almost all of my cash, but had one last dollar in my wallet. Dolly Parton took my last dollar like a cold-hearted temptress.
We didn’t win big in Las Vegas, but we didn’t really try. Gambling has never been our thing. There are many other fun reasons to go to Las Vegas, and we really enjoyed getting off of the strip and seeing downtown Las Vegas. We didn’t leave feeling like we were “over it” this time. We want to come back. On our next trip, we’d like to make it to some of the other local places that we missed, and maybe see a show. We still have yet to see an Elvis impersonator (although I think they are ore scarce these days). Coming back in warmer weather and spending more time at the pool sounds nice too. Not to mention all the unexplored restaurants in Chinatown. Las Vegas is a great, quick and easy and a relatively inexpensive grown-up trip. We will definitely be staying in downtown Las Vegas again on our next trip.
The Blue Lagoon is the number one tourist attraction in Iceland, and I have to say, it was also one of the things that I was looking forward to the most. The Blue Lagoon formed from the mineral and water runoff of the nearby geothermal power plant that harvests geothermal energy from the lava field near the town of Grindavik. The pale blue color of the lagoon is a result of the white silica mud at the bottom, giving it a milky blue color. In the 1980’s, locals discovered the lagoon and began sneaking in for a swim.
Eventually, it was developed into the giant hot spring swimming lagoon that it is today, and The Blue Lagoon Clinic Hotel was built nearby. The silica mud is supposed to be good for your skin, and particularly good for people with skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis. The Blue Lagoon Clinic Hotel is also a clinic for people with doctor referrals for skin treatments, but for the most part it is a nice hotel with a spa-like atmosphere and it’s own smaller private lagoon for guests only. It is small, although it has plans to expand by next year. It is recommended that you make your reservations far in advance.
We arrived The Blue Lagoon Clinic Hotel at 2:00 PM, which was check in time. The lady at the front desk told us our room was not ready and to come back at 2:00. When we informed her it was 2:00 she apologized, it had been a crazy day for the housekeeping staff and she asked us if we wouldn’t mind waiting about 30 more minutes. They had a nice guest lounge area, so we didn’t mind. We sat and read for a little bit. When she came back and told us our room was ready, she gave us a gift pack of Blue Lagoon lotion products as a thank you for waiting. We learned later how expensive those lotions were–about a $40 value. It was very nice of her.
Our room was very nice, with a really comfortable bed and a view of the moss and snow covered lava fields. It included a mini fridge, fluffy bathrobes, and even had a towel warmer in the bathroom that ended up being perfect for drying our bathing suits.
The price per night was about $250.00, which is the off-season rate. It is pretty expensive, but worth it. The price includes a breakfast buffet, use of the private blue lagoon for guests only, and one daily admission per person for each day to the main Blue Lagoon, which is about a 10 minute walk through a path in the lava field. The regular admission price at the Blue Lagoon is about $50.00 per person, which doesn’t include a towel or robe. The hotel guest vouchers include towels and robes, and no advance reservation or ticket purchase is needed.
**Note: If you are visiting the Blue Lagoon without a tour group or staying at the hotel, you will need to make advance reservations. This is a new rule as of 2015, due to increased tourism maxing out the lagoon’s capacity.
After getting settled, we were ready to check out the lagoon. We put our bathing suits in a plastic shopping bag, collected our voucher from the hotel, and walked across the slushy, icy path to the lagoon through the lava field.
Checking in was easy, there was a separate line for people with vouchers and we breezed right in. We were given electronic bracelets that lock and unlock your chosen locker, and are used as a running tab for any purchases from the little cafe or the swim up bar in the lagoon. When you leave, you give your bracelet to the cashier to pay for anything you purchased while in the lagoon. It was a pretty awesome system.
In the locker room, you are expected to take a shower with soap before putting your bathing suit on and going out to the lagoon. There are even attendants in the locker room to help people find the next open shower stall (and tell you that you need to shower). There are even diagrams in the shower showing you what areas to wash–armpits, feet, crotch. It was very specific.
I had a hard time figuring out how to lock the locker with my bracelet at first, but figured it out after a few tries. You have to close your locker door, and then scan your bracelet on the main scanner on the locker block, which locks it and confirms your locker number.
Paddy didn’t have the best experience at first–in the locker room he set his robe and towel down for a second on the bench and turned around and his towel was gone. Super lame. Watch your towel….maybe more so in the men’s room than the women’s.
Once out of the locker rooms, you walk out the door onto the deck and it is a mad dash in the bitter cold to hang up your robe on the outdoor hook and get in the lagoon.
The water is really nice, and the bottom of the lagoon ranges from sandy and a little rough to soft squishy silica mud. There are geothermal heat regulators in various areas, and the water gets a lot hotter near them. We got beers and little packets of algae face mask from the swim-up bar.
There is a wood box on the far edge of the lagoon full of the white silica mud to use on your face as well. The lagoon also has a steam room, dry sauna, and a steamy cave that looks like a hobbit house, all located off the deck on the right side of the lagoon facing the main building. On the way out, you can get a good view of the lagoon from the observation deck at the top of the building–accessible by stairs in Lava Restaurant.
**Note: The silica and sulphur in the water really dry out your hair. My hair felt like it does after swimming in the ocean but amplified. It took two deep condition washings to finally get it back to normal, so some heavy-duty conditioner is advised for longer hair. They do provide conditioner at the lagoon in the showers, but it wasn’t very good. Wearing your hair up can help, but it gets so steamy that it’s difficult to keep it from getting wet.
After a good soak, we went back to the room to change and head into Grindavik for dinner.
Grindavik is a very tiny coastal fishing town. There isn’t a lot to see, aside from the Saltfish Museum. There are a few small restaurants, and after reviewing the options on tripadvisor, we decided to eat at Salthusid. We drove into town thinking there would be a main strip with restaurants or something by the waterfront, but there wasn’t. It was actually a little hard to find. Saldhusid is located just off the main road behind the grocery store Netto.
Salthusid was cozy and inviting, very Scandinavian. The name means “The Salt House” in Icelandic.
The waitress was very friendly, and it ended up being one of the best meals of our whole trip, second to Dill. We shared the lobster soup to start, and it was amazing. If Stokkseyri has the best lobster soup in Iceland, I would be very interested to compare their soup to Salthusid’s. It was so flavorful without being too heavy on the cream, with big fresh hunks of lobster in the bottom.
Paddy had a lamb tenderloin and I had cod with ratatouille. Both were outstanding. We had read that they make very good chocolate cake at Salthusid, but we were too stuffed to eat another bite. If we ever come back to Grindavik, we will be making this restaurant our number one dinner stop.
On the way back to the hotel we could see the geothermal power plant all lit up and hard at work:
Friday was our last day in Iceland, and while the snow was melting now, it was WINDY. When we had left the Blue Lagoon the day before we had been leaving right as a huge tour group was coming in, and we were wondering if we could have the same luck of timing on our second trip. We went to the front desk to retrieve our daily voucher and to see if the tour groups come at certain times (they don’t), and they told us the weather was only going to get worse this afternoon, so it was best we go as soon as we can.
We seemed to luck out and get in between big tour groups again, fortunately. It was busy, but not crazy busy. Paddy slipped on the ice on the trail from the hotel to the Blue Lagoon and cracked his elbow. If you are walking on a snowy or icy day, be extra careful.
It was much windier than the day before. While the water was still really warm, the cold wind was uncomfortable on our heads. We went between the dry sauna and the lagoon, sitting under the walking bridges to shield ourselves from the wind. We finally found the best spot for a sheltered soak under the bridge and around the corner from the bar, up against some lava rocks. The water is hotter over there and the rock behind us blocked the wind a bit.
We didn’t stay as long this time, we figured we had a good time the day before and the wind was getting to be a little much.
When we left, there was another HUGE tour group line waiting to get in. We were so glad we left when we did. At the end of the line near the parking lot we could hear some Germans shouting obnoxiously. We made it a little ways down the path to the hotel when I realized that I left my bathing suit bag in the gift shop at the front counter. I ran back to get it, and the whole time, the Germans never stopped shouting. It sounded like they were drunk….or angry? I don’t know. It was unbelievably obnoxious.
One of the biggest reasons we would recommend staying at the Blue Lagoon Clinic Hotel is that it has it’s own private lagoon for hotel guests only. That way, you can enjoy soaking in the lagoon again after you get back from the main one, and it is quiet and much more relaxing. They also have an indoor lagoon area for when the weather is bad.
The indoor lagoon has a door in the corner for you to go out to the outdoor lagoon from the water, which was nice. I braved the wind for a little while that afternoon, but it was too much. It was a little disappointing, because I was hoping to get some relaxing time in at the private lagoon as well before we left.
One thing the hotel doesn’t have is a sauna or steam room, which I think would be a great addition.
We relaxed the rest of the afternoon and read books. Some people may find the Grindavik area a little boring, but we were really enjoying the relaxation time before heading home and back to our jobs.
For dinner, we had made prior reservations at Lava Restaurant at the main Blue Lagoon, our last and final splurge dinner. Head chef Viktor Örn Andrésson specializes in modern Icelandic cuisine and won Iceland’s Chef of the Year award in 2013 and Nordic Chef of the Year in 2014.
The restaurant is huge, and a more traditional style than the infamous Dill restaurant in Reykjavik. The menu was an a la carte menu featuring starters, entrees, and desserts.
The wine list was pricey, and their selection of US wines were a bit questionable (Barefoot Merlot? Turning Leaf Zinfandel? Those are cheap $6.99 bottom shelf grocery store wines…on the wine list for $40 each). Not that we wanted American wine, but their American selection made us question the value of the rest of the high-priced wines. We stuck with less expensive house wine by the glass.
For starters we had the slow cooked arctic char with fennel, pear, and char roe, and the smoked haddock with apple and sun chokes. Both were outstanding, but the arctic char was the clear favorite for both of us. The char roe exploded in your mouth and added an unexpected complimentary complexity to the pear and char.
For our entrees, Paddy had Viktor Örn Andrésson’s winning dish from the Nordic Chef of the Year competition, which was fried rack of beef and beef cheek with carrot, potato, morel and port wine glaze. I had the pan fried cod with roasted langoustines, cauliflower, fennel, pear, and dill. My cod was good, cooked perfectly and the flavor was great–however it was a little overly salty. Paddy practically licked his plate clean, he said the beef dish was truly award-winning.
For dessert I tried the “award-winning” Nordic Chef of the Year dessert: Cranberries and organic dark chocolate with marzipan, lemon, hazelnuts, and meringue. Paddy had the apple and brown butter dish with brown butter ice cream, apple and celeriac foam, apple, caramel, brioche. Both were fantastic.
Overall, we spent about the same amount of money at Lava as we did at Dill in Reykjavik. They were both great meals, but if you only have room in your budget for one big splurge in Iceland, I’d go with Dill. They are two completely different restaurants, however. If you’re not into 7 small tasting courses and would rather have a starter, larger entree, and dessert, Lava might be the one for you. We liked the tasting courses and variety at Dill, along with the very Icelandic and less-touristy atmosphere.
Overall, I feel the Blue Lagoon lived up to the hype. We would absolutely do it again, but to be honest we’d probably spend the majority of our time at the private lagoon at the Blue Lagoon hotel. The only thing we disliked about the Blue Lagoon was the hoards of tour bus tourists. Unfortunately, that is par for the course at a number one tourist attraction. The Blue Lagoon’s proximity to the airport makes it an easy and relaxing end to any trip to Iceland.
Valladolid, Mexico: Two nights in a charming Spanish colonial city in the jungle of the Yucatan Peninsula in 2016. An artsy eco-hotel, lots of history, and a day trip to Rio Lagartos and Ek Balam
Valladolid is an often overlooked Spanish Colonial town in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. Most tourists spend their time in the beach towns of Cancun, Playa Del Carmen, and Tulum. While Valladolid isn’t on the beach, it has a lot to offer. In addition to it’s Spanish colonial history and architecture, it is a prime location for touring Mayan ruins in the area. If Mayan Ruins and history are of interest to you, you might consider a few nights in Valladolid. Tours to the ruins from the coast involve hours on a bus with lots of other tourists. Chichen Itza, Ek Balam, and Coba are all very close to Valladolid and make for easy day trips. In addition to ruins, the flamingos and wildlife of Rio Lagartos are also an easy day tour away.
When we reflected on our last trip to the Yucatan, we wished that we had made more time for Valladolid. We will absolutely be back again.
We left Isla Holbox in the early morning and had pre-arranged a private taxi from the Isla Holbox ferry to Valladolid through our hotel on Isla Holbox. Buses are possible, but would take the whole day. (It is easy to get a bus from Cancun to Valladolid, however if that is where you are coming from). The drive to Valladolid with our driver Pedro was smooth. He spoke about as much English as I spoke Spanish (un poco), but we were able to make small talk during the 2.5 hour drive. We drove through his hometown and by his family farm on the way, and he told us about the crocodiles and jaguars in the area. It sounds like farmers may not want to leave livestock out at night.
Finally, we arrived in Valladolid, which is a tangled mess of streets all with numbers as names. Our hotel was on Calle 30, of which there were two on the map. With the help of Google Maps and my map from the hotel, Pedro and I navigated us through the busy Spanish colonial town to Hotel Zentik Project.
Hotel Zentik Project isn’t the cheapest place to stay in Valladolid (rooms are about $110/night USD), but from what I saw in my research, it is one of the most unique.
We were greeted by Guillermo, a young hipster wearing a stylish scarf in the 85 degree heat. Guillermo provided outstanding hospitality during our stay. We were told to sit and offered a complimentary beverage (we opted for coffee and water, but tequila was also offered). Guillermo showed us around the property, which is only 8 months old. The hotel is designed to be an on-going art project, with murals going up by artists from all over the world at any given time.
There was a very inviting outdoor pool, but the prize gem of the Hotel is their underground heated saltwater cave pool.
Guillermo showed us two rooms, an upstairs one with a gorgeous bed with mosquito netting that was suspended from the ceiling by four ropes, making the bed into a swing. The other room looked similar, but with a traditional platform bed on the ground floor. While the swing bed was very pretty and unique, we weren’t so into the idea of the bed moving around, so we opted for the ground floor room.
The room was large with a separate sitting area and a large, firm bed. I had come down with a mild cold the night before, and wanted to crawl right in.
We were pretty hungry and I was feeling a bit drained from my cold, so we decided to head into town for lunch and then come back and get some massages and relax. Guillermo was happy to book some massages for us at 4:00 PM at very reasonable prices–$30 USD for an hour massage and $25 USD for an hour foot massage.
We walked the mile into town and checked in with MexiGo Tours for our tour that we had booked for the next day, and then went in search of lunch and an ATM. We located a bank right in the central square, and then decided to check out Guillermo’s recommendation of the Meson del Marques hotel restaurant in the square. When we arrived at the front entrance Meson del Marques was full of tour groups and not looking very enticing. We walked back across the square and went to the El Atrio del Mayab. Guillermo said he did not recommend this restaurant but Tripadvisor’s reviews were good, so we went for it.
We were seated in a nice shady courtyard, and service was very attentive. We ordered some “Mayan margaritas” which had cucumber and chili and were very refreshing. I was in the mood for a clear brothy soup because of my cold, and the sopa de lima (lime soup–a very typical Yucatecan dish) really hit the spot. Paddy’s pork dish ended up being one of his favorite meals on our entire trip.
After lunch we admired the old Spanish colonial era cathedral in the town square, and I was able to buy some vitamin C tablets and Halls cough drops from the little farmacia in the square before heading back to the hotel. The town is very interesting and I had really wanted to spend more time exploring it and all its history, but I just wasn’t feeling so great. We had an 11 hour tour booked for the next day and I wanted to rest up. A taxi back to the hotel from town was 30 pesos, just under $2.00 USD.
When we got back to the hotel, we took a dip in the pool and then in the cave before our massages. Both our massages were over an hour long, and were in the spa palapa hut above the pool.
For dinner, we didn’t feel like going anywhere, and the hotel restaurant (Naino) had good reviews, so we ate there. We were told there was a band that evening as well. The menu was international, Paddy had a steak and I had the octopus fried rice. We shared the ceviche verde for an appetizer, which was very good. It was a unique take on ceviche, with tomatillos, jalepenos, and olive oil. The octopus in my fried rice was cooked nicely, but the dish was too salty. Paddy really enjoyed his steak, but said the salt was a little heavy-handed as well.
The “band” that was playing turned out to be a lone gentleman with a keyboard playing lounge hits. We enjoyed a couple glasses of wine, but didn’t really feel like we were missing out on much when we turned in early for the night.
MexiGo Tours picked us up for our full-day “Go Flamingos” tour at 6:30 AM. After gathering the other members of our tour group, we made a quick stop at the MexiGo tours office for coffee and pastries. We then drove an hour and a half to the tiny town of Rio Lagartos on the northern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula.
If you want to see flamingos in the Yucatan, Rio Lagartos is the best place to do it. The flamingos are there year round, eating and nesting. They are often seen during a part of the year in Celestun, where they go to mate. Large tour groups go to see the Celestun flamingos from Merida, as it is closer than Rio Lagartos. Not only do you avoid the big tour groups at Rio Lagartos, but the flamingos are there year round, mostly in the mornings.
Our guide Hilberto was very friendly and extremely knowledgeable. Upon arrival in Rio Lagartos we got into a small wooden boat and embarked out on the lagoon.
We saw flamingos almost immediately. They were a group of pink specks on the water not far from the harbor, and our driver maneuvered the boat as slowly as possible towards them so as not to disturb them. They were truly magnificent. Hilberto told us the older ones have the brightest color, and that babies are completely white when they hatch. They gain their pink color from the beta carotene in the brine shrimp that they eat.
The flamingos were truly amazing and the highlight of the tour, but we continued on in search of other wildlife. Rio Lagartos means “Alligator River,” but there are actually no alligators. There are however a lot of crocodiles. Crocodiles are usually active at night, but we were hoping to find one hiding in the mangroves.
After touring peacefully through the mangroves, we finally spotted a crocodile lazily sunning himself upon a log.
He didn’t pay us much mind, and after admiring him for a few minutes our guide tried to toss him a fish. It smacked him right in the eyes, making him blink and then open his mouth. It was hard to tell if he was inviting another fish toss, or showing us his teeth as a warning. Hilberto handed another fish to one of our fellow tour mates, and unfortunately the second fish missed his mouth and hit him smack in the eyes again. He blinked the fish scales out of his eyes and opened his mouth a little wider. He made no attempt to get the fish floating in front of him, and it seemed that he was making it pretty clear that we were a nuisance and should leave him be.
We left the poor crocodile be, and continued our tour spotting various birds such as herons and black hawks and pelicans. The pelicans took quick notice of the small bucket of fish our guide had in the boat for the crocodiles, and eagerly followed us along until our guide began tossing the fish to them. They would fly alongside the boat until they were almost ahead of us, then sit in the water and open their mouths hoping for fish, and then repeat. They were pretty entertaining. Their diligence paid off, and a fish lunch was had.
We came to a land bank of white clay, where we were invited to take a “Mayan bath,” rubbing the clay on our skin. The clay reportedly absorbs out impurities and leaves you looking younger. The young Scottish couple decided to partake, but all I could think of was how much sunscreen I would have to reapply afterwards, and we opted out. If this was the last stop of the day, we may have went for it, but the day was only part way over.
After our Scottish friends finished their Mayan bath, we bid the flamingos, pelicans, and crocodiles adieu and went back to the harbor to have lunch before heading on to the second half of our tour, the Mayan ruins of Ek Balam.
Ek Balam means “Black Jaguar” in Mayan, and the ancient Mayan city is one of the more recent excavations in the area by archeologists. It is also one of the lesser visited ruins, but I would recommend not missing Ek Balam. There are more excavations in the works, and there is a lot of the city that has not yet been uncovered. Of what has been uncovered, the most stunning attraction here are the intricate carvings on the main pyramid that are still mostly intact. It is mind blowing how intact they are after thousands of years.
Our guide Hilberto was very knowledgeable about the ruins, and gave us a rough tour of the site and the main pyramid before setting us free to explore on our own. I wanted to climb to the top of the main pyramid, but it was hot and windy, there are no hand rails and the steps are narrow. Both of us were a bit too freaked out just going halfway up to look at the carvings and statues, and we decided to play it safe and descend back to the ground. I just had too many visions of a gust of wind knocking my hot, lightheaded self backwards down the pyramid. I’m sure it’s a great view though.
Hilberto told us a lot about what is known about ancient Mayan society: The hierarchy of the royals, how they learned to predict weather and their obsession with time (hence the infamous Mayan calendar), their worship of numerous gods and the sporting games where the winners are sacrificed to the gods in hopes of bountiful crops. Every Mayan city did things a little differently, and it was all extremely fascinating.
It was really hot and Paddy and I were losing steam. We walked around some of the structures we hadn’t seen yet and then went back to the main entrance to get some bottled water and wait for the rest of the group.
The last stop on our tour was the Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery outside Valladolid on the way back. For a small fee, we were able to go in and see the production area where they smoke and juice the blue agave “pineapples” (the heart and root of the blue agave plant with the leaves hacked off—it looks like a giant pineapple) to make the tequila. We were given a taste of the various types of tequila: Blanco (or silver—not aged), reposado (“rested” tequila, aged in oak barrels two months to a year, giving it a more complex flavor and a darker color from the oak), Añejo (aged 1-3 years), and extra añejo (aged over three years).
Of the Mayapan tequila, we liked the reposado the best. I didn’t really like the extra añejo, it was really oaky. The blanco tequila is the cheapest, and the kind you use for margaritas, while the older ones are more for sipping. We like the extra flavor or the reposados in margaritas, but it’s a matter of personal taste.
We concluded our long day and thanked Hilberto for a great tour. I would highly recommend MexiGo Tours in Valladolid. Their small group tours are a great way of seeing the sites if you don’t have a car, and the guides are very knowledgeable.
When we got back to the hotel, I was so hot from walking around the ruins that I jumped right into the pool. It was so refreshing.
For dinner we wanted to go to a restaurant we read about on Tripadvisor called Canato, which Guillermo also recommended but when we told him where we were going he told us that Tuesdays are the days they are closed. Bummer. We asked for his recommendation for good local place with typical Mexican food from the region. He said that most Mexicans get tortas, tacos, etc from loncherias and trucks during the day for lunch, but at night they cook at home. If they do decide to go out, they want something different like pasta (which explains the plethora of Italian restaurants we saw in Mexico). He recommended a touristy place with good traditional dishes called La Taberna de Los Frailes.
La Taberna de los Frailes (the tavern of the friars) is a touristy restaurant near the Convento de San Bernardino de Siena, an old Spanish colonial monastery and convent built in 1560. The prices were reasonable and the food was very regional. We started with some empanadas, and then I had the Pavo en Relleno Negro, which was turkey breast stuffed with a hard-boiled egg in a spicy black sauce. Paddy had the Longaniza Sisal, which was local sausage and beans with a tomato sauce. For dessert we had the flan. Everything was great, and a style of Mexican food we hadn’t had before.
There was a light show going on at the old Convent at 8:00, but we missed it. It was still pretty all illuminated for the evening.
We were pretty exhausted from our long day at Rio Lagartos and Ek Balam, so we grabbed a taxi back to the hotel and called it a night. I took a relaxing dip in the cave pool before bed.
In the morning we were able to enjoy the complimentary breakfast at Hotel Zentik Project, which included a variety of made-to-order options such as enchiladas, chilaquiles, and huevos rancheros. The Mexican coffee with a cinnamon infusion was delicious.
Valladolid was one of the highlights of our trip to Mexico, and in retrospect we wished we would have done one more night in Valladolid and one less night in Tulum to give us more time to explore the city. If you are interested in Mayan history and a more authentic Yucatecan experience, don’t miss Valladolid.