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Paris in November

Our week-long trip to Paris in November 2018: The Catacombs and their fascinating history, Père Lachaise Cemetery, Sacre Coeur and Montmartre, and exploring the delectable food of the Marais and Bastille neigborhoods.

 

We had never been to Paris, but always figured we would make it there someday. The food, the architecture, the history, the wine, THE CHEESE–there are so many reasons to visit. We found a good deal on a direct flight to Paris from Seattle over Thanksgiving week, and pulled the trigger.

Everyone has a different opinion on what you HAVE to see in Paris. We decided to follow the advice of the late Anthony Bourdain, who lamented that the worst mistake people make when traveling to Paris is to try to do too much. His advice? Just walk around and eat stuff.

We had six days, and there really is an infinite number of things to do, see, and eat in Paris. I made a list, and then whittled that list down, and then whittled it down some more. The Louvre Museum didn’t even make it onto our list, as it is way too big to see in a week and hoards of tourists pushing and shoving around the Mona Lisa with selfie sticks didn’t appeal to us much. The Palace of Versailles was the first thing I eliminated from my initial itinerary–as much as I wanted to see it, it was an entire day trip and I thought it would be too much for the limited time we had. The Catacombs were number one on my list (and did not disappoint).

Everyone has a different priority of what they really want to do and see, and to each their own. The best advice I can give when planning a trip to Paris, is to ask yourself “Is this attraction something I really want to see, or feel like I should see because it’s famous?” If it falls into the “should see” category, put it on a list of things to see if you end up having time. Be sure to leave some free afternoons for rest or spontaneity, and above all, PACK COMFORTABLE WALKING SHOES. Paris is a very walkable city, and you will be doing a lot of it. The best way to see Paris is on foot.

 

Day 1:

We arrived in Paris in the afternoon on an overnight flight from Seattle, and located the kiosks for the RER B train into Paris from the airport. Our apartment was located in the Marais neighborhood, which we chose for the cafes, restaurants, and nightlife.

Our route to our apartment required a transfer from the train to the Metro, but because we were exhausted and had luggage we exited the train station at Gare du Nord and called an Uber to transport us the rest of the way.

The owner of the apartment met us in front of the building and got us checked in. We had a reasonably priced studio in walking distance to lots of bars, shops, and restaurants with a cute courtyard view.

marais apartment paris
Courtyard view from our apartment in the Marais, Paris
Our apartment in the Marais, Paris
Our apartment in the Marais, Paris

We unpacked, rested for a few, and then headed out to find dinner.

I had done quite a bit of research on restaurants in the area before we arrived, and chose Cafe De L’Industrie for it’s good reviews and reasonably priced French fare. The cafe was warm, cute, and busy. They had an English menu upon request, and even though not all the servers understood English and our French was very limited, we had no problem communicating. We had escargot as an appetizer, I had a duck leg confit dish with spiced honey, and Paddy had a hanger steak with au gratin potatoes. Everything was delicious. If you like clams you’ll like escargot. Just forget that it is snails and dive in.

Escargot at Cafe De L'Industrie, Paris
Escargot at Cafe De L’Industrie, Paris

We didn’t know much about French wine, so we asked the server to recommend one of their selections served by the glass. It was fabulous and very affordable. Wine is generally cheaper in France than in the US. You will often pay more for a beer at a bar than for a glass of wine.

Having gotten minimal sleep on the plane, we were pretty tired and didn’t make it past 8:30 PM. We woke up once during the night at 2:00 AM, took some melatonin and went back to sleep.

**Tip: bring melatonin to combat jet lag–the part where you are awake when you don’t want to be.

 

Day 2:

We had thought ahead and picked up a baguette, butter, ham, cheese, and coffee at the store the night before, so we had a delicious and economical breakfast in the apartment. I don’t know what the French do to their butter that makes it better than every other butter in the world (sorry, even you Ireland). Don’t leave France without slathering their butter on a fresh baguette.

My friend Jenny was traveling around Europe on a photography grant, and decided to meet up with us in Paris for the week. She met up with us at our apartment and we spent the day sightseeing together.

Paris Metro
My friend Jenny and her dog Luna waiting for the Metro in Paris

The Metro was very easy to navigate, and is pretty much just like New York or any other major city’s subway system. I was able to get Metro directions on my phone through Google Maps whenever I needed them. Tickets are sold individually for €1.90 each or in packs of 10 for €14.90. Note that you cannot use a metro ticket on the RER trains, but you can transfer from an RER train to the Metro on the same ticket as long as you don’t leave the station.

**Note: Keep your used Metro or RER ticket until you have excited the station. There are periodic ticket checks and you may be asked to show your stamped ticket to verify that you paid. If you do not have your ticket, you will have to pay a €35.00 fine. With RER tickets, you will need to put your ticket through the turnstile again when you leave to exit the station.

We figured we should see the Eiffel Tower first thing, and then spend the rest of the afternoon exploring Saint Germain and the Latin Quarter.

Eiffel Tower Paris
Eiffel Tower Paris

We didn’t feel the need to go up in the Eiffel Tower. It was pretty enough from the ground. There is a park behind it that is probably great for picnics in warmer weather.

We walked along the Seine from the Eiffel Tower towards Saint Germain. It was a bit windy, so we left the riverside and walked in between the buildings for wind blockage. We logged a lot of steps on my fitness watch (23,000 by the end of the day!). We could have taken the Metro, but felt like walking. Saint Germain is a bit more of an upscale neighborhood, and economic cafes and food options seemed a bit more limited. It is a beautiful neighborhood to walk through, however.

Seine River Paris
Seine River Paris
Saint Germain, Paris
Saint Germain, Paris
Saint Germain, Paris
Saint Germain, Paris

We eventually made it to the Latin Quarter, and were ready for a break. I thought maybe we could eat at the famous Les Deux Magots cafe, where Picasso, Rimbaud, Hemingway, and other famous artists and writers used to hang out. However, the casual cafe I was expecting turned out to be a fancy affair with waiters in tuxedos and high prices.

Les Deux Magots, Paris
Les Deux Magots, Paris

We eventually decided on Relais Odeon cafe, and they were more than happy to welcome Jenny’s dog Luna inside to sit under our table (Paris is a pretty dog-friendly city). The prices were reasonable for a nice lunch with table service. Paddy and Jenny had salads, both said they were really good. Paddy also ordered a pate, and I had the Croque Monsieur sandwich, which came with a small salad and fries.

Lunch

We wandered around the Latin Quarter a bit more after lunch until our legs and feet began to complain.

Pantheon, Paris
Pantheon, Paris
Bakery, Paris
Bakery, Paris
Paris
Paris
Latin Quarter, Paris
Latin Quarter, Paris

When our feet had had enough, we parted ways with Jenny and took the Metro back to our apartment to rest up a bit before dinner.

That evening, I had made a reservation at Restaurant L’ Alivi, an adorable Corsican restaurant in the Marais. Our reservation was for 7:00 PM, which was right when they opened. We were the first and only people in the restaurant and for a short period of time wondered if a reservation had been necessary, until it began to fill up and people were being turned away at the door.

Restaurant L' Alivi Paris
Restaurant L’ Alivi Paris

Once the food arrived, we knew why it was so popular. The shining stars for us were the appetizers. Paddy had a creamy bacon soup dish with poached egg and gingerbread croutons (Oeuf Mollet), and I had the chestnut soup with fresh sheep’s cheese (Velouté de chataigne). For the main dish, Paddy had veal with eggplant parmesan (Quasi de Veau rôti) and I had a chicken dish that was part of the day’s special. The main dishes were good, but I’m still thinking about that chestnut soup with the big, melty glob of fresh sheep’s cheese in the middle.

Restaurant L' Alivi Paris
Oeuf Mollet at Restaurant L’ Alivi Paris
Restaurant L' Alivi Paris
Velouté de chataigne (chestnut soup) at Restaurant L’ Alivi Paris
Restaurant L' Alivi Paris
Restaurant L’ Alivi Paris

The only thing that made the meal less than amazing was the fact that the heat was turned up to about 90 degrees Fahrenheit, and with every table packed it easily reached 100 degrees. I was thoroughly enjoying my meal but could not stop sweating. The atmosphere was very romantic, but it is hard to feel romantic with beads of sweat forming on your face. Overall, we would absolutely recommend. Hopefully they can get their thermostat sorted out.

We were pretty tired and a bit jet-lagged, so after dinner we picked up a bottle of wine at the grocery store and relaxed in our apartment.

 

Day 3:

On our second full day in Paris, I had scheduled a guided, skip-the-line special access Catacombs tour. If you would like to visit the Catacombs of Paris, you have three options:

  1. Show up at your leisure, and wait in line (€13)
  2. Pre-purchase a ticket for a specific date and time on their website for quick-access  (€29)
  3.  Book a guided skip-the-line tour ($91.50)

After reading a lot of reviews, we opted for the guided tour. The tour was for 12:00 PM and included a two hour tour with a knowledgeable tour guide, including parts of the Catacombs that regular visitors do not have access to. This was by and far the best option, albeit more expensive. We booked through Tripadvisor.

We arrived a bit early and walked around the area for about 15 minutes, but it was raining so we eventually went to the Cafe Rendezvous tour meeting point and ordered a cup of coffee while we waited. The line for the standard self-tour of the Catacombs across the street was very long and we were glad we had not opted to wait in line in the rain. The line moves slowly, as only a certain amount of people are allowed in the Catacombs at a time.

**Note: The Catacombs requires descending 131 steps down and 112 steps on the way back up, so it is not recommended for people with limited mobility

Our tour guide was on time, and we walked right in past the long line of waiting people. There were some rules to follow: No selfie sticks or photos with flash, no touching the bones, no large bags, and if you have a small backpack you will need to carry it in front of you in the section containing bones. We had to go through security on the way out and in.

Paris Catacombs rules
Don’t touch the dead people

We descended the long spiral staircase and into the tunnels, with our guide stopping to explain the history of the tunnels along the way. The labyrinth of tunnels under the city dates back to medieval times, originally used for limestone quarries. In the late 1700’s, parts of the expanding city began collapsing. The tunnels were then reinforced. The working conditions for reinforcing the tunnels were dangerous, and most of the workers died by age 28 or went blind from working in continuous darkness.

Catacombs of Paris
Catacombs of Paris

Our guide led us to large areas of the Catacombs that required a guard to unlock gates to let us in and out. One of the unexpected and interesting exhibits were the sculptures done by a man named Décure. Décure created elaborate carvings in secret, and was sadly killed by a tunnel collapse while working.

Carvings of Décure, Catacombs of Paris
Carvings of Décure, Catacombs of Paris
Carvings of Décure, Catacombs of Paris
Carvings of Décure, Catacombs of Paris
Carvings of Décure, Catacombs of Paris
Carvings of Décure, Catacombs of Paris
Catacombs of Paris
Catacombs of Paris

In 1785, the city’s graveyards were overflowing, and something needed to be done to make room for new burials. Bones were dug up and transported to the Catacombs, creating sectioned “piles” for each graveyard. The femurs and skulls were arranged in front, sometimes artfully, and the rest of the bones were piled behind. Most have a limestone plaque stating what cemetery the bones are from and the dates.

Catacombs of Paris
“Stop: You are entering the empire of the dead”
Catacombs of Paris
Catacombs of Paris
Catacombs of Paris
Catacombs of Paris

It was eerie and surreal to be among so many bones. We only got to see a portion of them–there are a total of approximately six million corpses in the Paris Catacombs.

Catacombs of Paris
Catacombs of Paris
Catacombs of Paris
Catacombs of Paris
Catacombs of Paris
Catacombs of Paris

There is only a small section of the Catacombs open to the public, and exploring other sections is illegal and dangerous. It is easy to get lost and unable to find a way out. And if your flashlight dies, good luck. That doesn’t stop people, of course. There are “cataphiles” out there, who know secret entrances and exits, have large dance raves and dinner parties in secret rooms, and even built a fully functioning movie theater.

I won’t share all the secrets and history our tour guide gave us, you’ll have to take the tour for yourself. It is a very interesting place with fascinating history, and the tour was 100% worth the price of admission. Book this tour at least a couple weeks in advance, however. It sells out, especially during the busy season.

When the tour was finished, we were pretty hungry. We ended up having lunch at the Fourteen Cafe near the Catacombs exit. We each had a different salad, which weren’t amazing by French standards, but pretty good. I enjoyed the fresh anchovies on my Nicoise salad.

I was excited to try Parisian hot mulled wine as it was cold and we were going into the holiday season. This cafe was my first experience with French vin chaud (hot wine), and it left something to be desired. Instead of hot mulled wine, I got a cup of plain hot wine with a sugar packet and shaker of cinnamon on the side. It was still a nice winter warmer on a cold rainy day, however.

Nicoise salad at the Fourteen Cafe, Paris
Nicoise salad at the Fourteen Cafe, Paris

We were pretty tired after lunch and the weather was pretty crappy, so we headed back to the apartment to rest and read for a while.

For dinner, I had made a reservation at Au Passage, a little restaurant right around the corner from our apartment that was featured on the Paris episode of Anthony Bourdain’s The Layover.

Au Passage is a bit of a splurge, and is all small plates to share. The service was excellent, and all the waitstaff spoke English and were more than happy to help translate and describe the menu. We ordered five dishes and a dessert, all were works of art. Our favorite dishes of the evening were the scallop tartare and the veal sweetbreads. Neither of us had eaten sweetbreads before, but when in Paris! The sweetbreads are typically organ meat from the thymus gland and pancreas. These were lightly breaded and sauteed. The texture was a bit like tofu, and they tasted a lot like pork.

Scallop tartare dish at Au Passage
Scallop tartare dish at Au Passage
Broccoli dish at Au Passage, Paris
Broccoli dish at Au Passage, Paris
Abalone dish at Au Passage, Paris
Abalone dish at Au Passage, Paris
Sweetbreads dish at Au Passage, Paris
Sweetbreads dish at Au Passage, Paris

After dinner we met up with my friend Jenny again and went to La Fee Verte, an absinthe bar in the 11th arrondissement of Paris. If you’ve never tried absinthe, this is a great place to go. The absinthe menu at La Fee Verte is extensive, and they will bring an old fashioned water fountain over to your table with multiple spouts. You position your glass of absinthe under the spout with an absinthe spoon across the top and a sugar cube on top of the spoon. You turn on the spout so that the water drips slowly onto the sugar and dissolves it, draining through the grate in the absinthe spoon. This creates a “louche” effect turning the absinthe cloudy.

La Fee Verte absinthe bar, Paris
La Fee Verte absinthe bar, Paris
La Fee Verte absinthe bar, Paris
La Fee Verte absinthe bar, Paris
Absinthe louche fountain at La Fee Verte, Paris
Absinthe louche fountain at La Fee Verte, Paris

Most absinthe has a strong anise or herbaceous flavor. I can’t drink a lot of it as the anise is a little much for me. If absinthe isn’t your thing, La Fee Verte has plenty of other beverages on their menu as well as food. We didn’t see the green fairy, but we had a good time.

Our final stop of the evening was Le Tiki Lounge, also in the 11th arrondissement, because if there is a Tiki bar, we have to go there.

Le Tiki Lounge, Paris
Le Tiki Lounge, Paris
Le Tiki Lounge, Paris
Le Tiki Lounge, Paris
Le Tiki Lounge, Paris
Le Tiki Lounge, Paris

Le Tiki Lounge was fairly empty, but had a few loyal patrons. Paddy and I both had the La Machete cocktail with tequila and hibiscus. It was pretty tasty. They also carry Hinano beer here, which is very rare in Europe. Obviously, this is because Hinano is from French Polynesia.

La Machete cocktail, Le Tiki Lounge, Paris
La Machete cocktail, Le Tiki Lounge, Paris

The downstairs has a secluded little hangout room which was empty but pretty fun. Overall, it wasn’t my favorite Tiki bar that I’d been to, but it had heart. We were a bit sad that they had sold out of their souvenir Tiki mugs. Maybe next time.

Downstairs room at Le Tiki Lounge, Paris
Downstairs room at Le Tiki Lounge, Paris

 

Day 4:

On Wednesday, we thought we’d start the day by exploring the nearby exploring Père Lachaise Cemetery. We knew Père Lachaise was a big cemetery, but we weren’t quite prepared for how big. It is also not flat, and even on the flatter parts the uneven cobblestones are hard on your ankles.

Père Lachaise Cemetery Paris
Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris
Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris
Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris
Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris
Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris

Père Lachaise Cemetery is a beautiful cemetery, however and definitely worth visiting. Everyone goes there to see the final resting place of American poet and musician Jim Morrison, but his grave is one of the least remarkable in the whole place.

It was a bit confusing to navigate, and we ended up using Google Maps a bit. We located Oscar Wilde’s tomb and the family tomb of famous French singer Edith Piaf.

Edith Piaf's family tomb at Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris
Edith Piaf’s family tomb at Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris

We ended up stumbling onto a row of Holocaust concentration camp memorials that were very moving. Dachau, Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Oranienburg and Sachsenhausen each have a specific monument, and the statues on most of them are very sad, a realistic monument to the horrors of the WWII Nazi genocide.

Holocaust concentration camp memorial at Père Lachaise Cemetery Paris
Holocaust concentration camp memorial at Père Lachaise Cemetery Paris
Holocaust concentration camp memorial at Père Lachaise Cemetery Paris
Holocaust concentration camp memorial at Père Lachaise Cemetery Paris
Holocaust concentration camp memorial at Père Lachaise Cemetery Paris
Holocaust concentration camp memorial at Père Lachaise Cemetery Paris

We finally located Jim Morrison’s grave after a hike to the other side of the cemetery.

Jim Morrison's tomb at Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris
Jim Morrison’s tomb at Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris

We were getting hungry and tired of walking around cobblestones, so we ended our tour there. There was a lot more to see, but we had seen all we wanted to.

It did take us a while to find our way out of the walled-in cemetery, and when we did make it out we didn’t know where we were in relation to the Metro. We were tired so we just called an Uber back to Oberkampf Street near our apartment to look for a takeout lunch.

One thing we heard that we should eat in Paris is a roast chicken. We had passed Boucherie Oberkampf on the way to the Metro earlier, and returned as we decided that today was chicken lunch day.

Boucherie Oberkampf Paris
Boucherie Oberkampf Paris

Chickens were twirling around in a giant rotisserie behind the counter, their drippings pooling on the bottom on a pile of small potatoes. We each got a whole chicken leg and a large side of the roasted potatoes for about €6 total. We also picked up a delightful thing with lemon curd and raspberries at a bakery for €3.50. Everything was delicious and it was a very economical lunch.

Boucherie Oberkampf Paris
Boucherie Oberkampf Paris

 

Later that afternoon, we got on the Metro and headed to the Montmartre neighborhood. We walked up a hill to the Sacre Coeur Basilica.

Paris is mostly flat, but this is an area that requires some climbing. Once we approached Sacre Coeur, we realized (thankfully) that the Metro had let us off halfway up the hill to the Basilica. We kept climbing, taking breaks along the way to rest and enjoy the view. It was close to sunset, and the afternoon sun lit up the Basilica beautifully. If you visit Sacre Coeur, try to visit on a sunny day around sunset. There are lots of places to sit and enjoy the view.

View from Sacre Coeur Basilica, Paris
View from Sacre Coeur Basilica, Paris

Eventually we made it to the Basilica, which was an impressive site inside and out. There were many signs inside the Basilica that said that photos inside were prohibited, but I noticed a lot of rude tourists clicking away on their phones anyway. There was a service going on, so we stayed on the perimeter so as not to disturb.

Sacre Coeur Basilica, Paris
Sacre Coeur Basilica, Paris

After touring the church, we continued past into the Montmartre neighborhood. We were expecting it to be a little touristy, but it was a lot more touristy than I thought it would be. Many tourist shops selling the same things and touts trying to get you to hire them for a portrait drawing on the street. Loud, embarrassing American tourists drinking wine on the cafe terraces.

It was unfortunate, because Montmartre is a very cute neighborhood. I’m sure there is more to see beyond the main tourist area, but we didn’t venture far.

Montmartre, Paris
Montmartre, Paris
Montmartre, Paris
Montmartre, Paris

We ducked into a cafe called Aux Petit Creux to have some beer and vin chaud and wait to meet up with Jenny. The vin chaud here was delicious. Very spicy and a little sweet and with an orange slice floating in it. My mulled wine in Paris dreams were fulfilled.

Jenny met us and we had another round of drinks and then headed down the big hill in front of Sacre Coeur towards the Pigalle neighborhood. Sacre Coeur was gloriously illuminated at night as well.

Sacre Coeur, Paris
Sacre Coeur, Paris

Pigalle is the red light district, but also home to the infamous Moulin Rouge and Paris’ other Tiki bar, Dirty Dick.

We walked down Boulevard de Clichy past tourist shops, adult shops and strip clubs. If you are looking for tits and a souvenir shot glass, this is a one stop shop.

Pigalle Paris
Jenny’s dog Luna makes friends wherever she goes. Boulevard de Clichy, Pigalle, Paris
Pigalle Paris
“Unique” souvenir on Boulevard de Clichy, Pigalle, Paris
Pigalle Paris
Boulevard de Clichy, Pigalle, Paris

We made it to the Moulin Rouge for a photo op. I had waffled about booking tickets for their show, trying to determine if the price was worth it or if it was too touristy. Ultimately, we decided not to drop the dough. I have had a few friends say they really enjoyed the show, so maybe we’ll check it out next time.

Moulin Rouge, Boulevard de Clichy, Pigalle, Paris
Moulin Rouge, Boulevard de Clichy, Pigalle, Paris

If you are looking for a cabaret show in Paris, Moulin Rouge isn’t the only option. Lido and the Crazy Horse are two other large production cabarets and there are other, smaller productions as well.

We’d had our fill of the sights of Boulevard de Clichy, so we made our pilgrimage to the last stop on our Montmartre/Pigalle neighborhood tour: Dirty Dick Tiki bar.

Dirty Dick Tiki Bar, Paris
Dirty Dick Tiki Bar, Paris
Dirty Dick Tiki Bar, Paris
Dirty Dick Tiki Bar, Paris

Dirty Dick was a bit more classic. It was dark and loungey, with a drink menu that was a bit more extensive. The bartenders were friendly and welcoming. Jenny and I shared a volcano bowl, because drinks that are on fire are exciting. When it arrived, the bartender poured cinnamon on the flame to make it flare up dramatically. A+ for presentation!

Volcano bowl, Dirty Dick Tiki Bar, Paris
Volcano bowl, Dirty Dick Tiki Bar, Paris
Volcano bowl, Dirty Dick Tiki Bar, Paris
Jenny and I sharing the volcano bowl, Dirty Dick Tiki Bar, Paris

The volcano bowl was boozy and delicious, with real fruit juices. We were also very excited that they had one last souvenir Tiki mug available, which we purchased. We were there early in the evening, but around 6:30 it started to get very busy with the after-work crowd. Overall, we enjoyed Dirty Dick more than Le Tiki Lounge, but both were really fun. I forgot to ask the bartender at Dirty Dick about the origin of the bar name.

We were tipsy and hungry, and after dropping some dough on a Tiki mug and a volcano bowl we wanted something inexpensive for dinner. We had seen Phil Rosenthal rave about L’ As Du Fallafel on I’ll Have What Phil’s Having, and multiple people had told us to go eat there as well. In fact, on my last day of work before our Paris trip, my boss wished me well and left for the day. He then called me from the parking lot to tell me to make sure to go to the fallafel place.

We took the Metro back to the Marais neighborhood and located L’ As Du Fallafel. The dine-in part of the restaurant was full, but the line was not so long. Unfortunately, they didn’t allow dogs and Jenny had Luna with her. They did however have a take out window, so we ordered to go.

L' As Du Fallafel, Paris
L’ As Du Fallafel, Paris
L' As Du Fallafel, Paris
L’ As Du Fallafel, Paris
L' As Du Fallafel, Paris
L’ As Du Fallafel, Paris

Jenny and Paddy had the fallafel sandwich, and I had the Schawarma sandwich. It was packed full of veggies, sauces, and roasted eggplant. The eggplant was a delicious addition. The only bummer was that there was no where outside to sit. We ended up walking all the way back to our apartment to finish eating, about a 15 minute walk. It wasn’t ideal. The sandwiches were amazing though. Go to the fallafel place.

L' As Du Fallafel, Paris
L’ As Du Fallafel, Paris

 

 

Day 5:

Our original plan for the day was to get up early, get in line to climb the 387 steps to the top of Notre Dame Cathedral, and then on to more sightseeing. However, after the crazy amount of walking we had done in the last three days, we were tired. Sometimes, you need to get over your FOMO (fear of missing out) on major tourist attractions and realize that all that matters on a trip is that you had a great day. We scratched all of our touristy day plans, and ended up having the best day of our whole trip.

We slept in, and then walked down to the Bastille neighborhood, stopping at a bakery along the way for a snack. We went to Foot Massage by Bansabai and treated ourselves to a 30 minute foot massage to restore our worn-out feet.

Feeling refreshed, we wandered around Bastille. We poked around in shops and markets and tasted cheese.

Macarons, Paris
Macarons, Paris
Beautiful chanterelle mushrooms at a market in Bastille, Paris
Beautiful chanterelle mushrooms at a market in Bastille, Paris

Oh yes, THE CHEESE. We ducked into the Fromagerie Laurent Dubois on Rue Saint-Antoine and tasted some of their amazing cheeses. We purchased a creamy one to eat with breakfast the next morning, and were tempted by a firmer cheese infused with black truffle. We weren’t sure if we could bring it back through customs. I read the customs guidelines online and it seems that firmer cheeses that are sealed well can usually be brought back to the US. The friendly shop staff vacuum-sealed it for us and we did manage to get it back home.

Cheeses at Fromagerie Laurent Dubois in Bastille, Paris
Cheeses at Fromagerie Laurent Dubois in Bastille, Paris
Cheeses at Fromagerie Laurent Dubois in Bastille, Paris
Cheeses at Fromagerie Laurent Dubois in Bastille, Paris
Cheeses at Fromagerie Laurent Dubois in Bastille, Paris
Cheeses at Fromagerie Laurent Dubois in Bastille, Paris
Cheeses at Fromagerie Laurent Dubois in Bastille, Paris
Cheeses at Fromagerie Laurent Dubois in Bastille, Paris

**Note on US customs: Soft cheeses are not allowed through customs. Fruit, vegetable and meat products are not allowed into the US unless they are canned, and no beef products from Europe are allowed in at all. If you are bringing something back, ALWAYS declare it. The worst that can happen is that you get it taken away. If you don’t declare and they find it, you will face a $10,000 fine. More info here.

We ate lunch at a restaurant called Au Bouquet Saint Paul, mostly because they had a cheese and charcuterie plate on the menu and we wanted to keep sampling cheese. I had a shrimp and avocado appetizer as well, which was sort of like guacamole with mayo and shrimp with a side salad.

Lunch at Au Bouquet Saint Paul in Bastille, Paris
Lunch at Au Bouquet Saint Paul in Bastille, Paris
Lunch at Au Bouquet Saint Paul in Bastille, Paris
Lunch at Au Bouquet Saint Paul in Bastille, Paris

After a nice lunch with wine we did a little more shopping and poked into a little bakery to get some pastries to go. I wish we had had more time to sample more of all the gorgeous French pastries that were on display in all the bakeries, but there are really only so many pastries one can consume in a week. We got a chocolate eclair, a chocolate ganache thing with a chocolate flower on top, and a pistachio “escargot” pastry. The eclairs in France are a fraction of the size of the eclairs in the US, and with much more flavor.

Gorgeous pastries at Miss Manon Bakery, Paris
Gorgeous pastries at Miss Manon Bakery, Paris
Gorgeous eclairs and pastries at Miss Manon Bakery, Paris
Gorgeous eclairs and pastries at Miss Manon Bakery, Paris

Later that evening, we did have one touristy item on our agenda: a champagne tasting boat tour on the Seine. Tourism that involves sitting and drinking champagne while sightseeing was exactly the kind of tourism that we were in the mood for that day.

I had booked the tour through Viator. It was a one hour river cruise on one of the tour boats open to everyone. However, if you booked the champagne tasting cruise you got priority boarding, a private area at the front of the boat, and a sommelier pouring you glasses of three different champagnes while pointing out the various buildings and historical sights along the way.

The tour departed from the front of the Eiffel Tower at 6:00 PM, which we had not yet seen lit up at night yet so that was an added bonus. We arrived a bit early, so we sat and had a drink in a heated tent near the boat dock.

Eiffel Tower from the front side
Eiffel Tower from the front side

The champagne tour was nice, and the sommelier was liberal with his champagne pours. I think that for sightseeing you would see more of Paris from the Seine in the daytime, but whatever. We were mostly there for the champagne.

On the champagne tour boat in Paris
On the champagne tour boat in Paris

When the tour ended at 7:00 PM, we rushed off the boat to catch the hourly Eiffel Tower light show that happens on the hour after dark. It was impressive–both with the light show and with just the regular nighttime illumination. Seeing the Eiffel Tower at night was the highlight of the sightseeing tour, even though it wasn’t actually part of the tour.

Eiffel Tower at night with light show
Eiffel Tower at night with light show
Eiffel Tower at night with regular illumination
Eiffel Tower at night with regular illumination

After the tour we were hungry (and a little buzzed). I had researched Spanish restaurants in Paris for a little change up from French food, and we took an Uber back to the Marais for dinner at Le Jamoncito.

Le Jamoncito, Paris
Le Jamoncito, Paris

Le Jamoncito is a small, adorable little Spanish tapas restaurant tucked in a small side street in the heart of the Marais nightlife. The restaurant owner was welcoming, and more than happy to recommend his favorite dishes when we asked. Before we knew it we had a slew of dishes being brought to our table, all of them were amazing.

Tapas at Le Jamoncito Spanish restaurant, Paris
Tapas at Le Jamoncito Spanish restaurant, Paris
Whitefish salad at Le Jamoncito Spanish restaurant, Paris
Whitefish salad at Le Jamoncito Spanish restaurant, Paris
Octopus and cured ham plate at Le Jamoncito Spanish restaurant, Paris
Octopus and cured ham plate at Le Jamoncito Spanish restaurant, Paris

At the recommendation of the restaurant owner who was serving us, we ordered a selection of cured Spanish ham, a dish with octopus and potatoes (pulpo a la gallega), a white fish and roasted red pepper salad, fresh anchovy toasts, and another cured ham toast with tomatoes and olive oil. We LOVED all the French food we had in Paris, but the Spanish tapas at Le Jamoncito ended up being our favorite meal of the trip. The food was delicious, the atmosphere was adorable and romantic, and the owner was very friendly and obviously proud of the food he served.

After dinner, we walked around the Marais a bit. Some of the streets had Christmas lights up, which was fun to see. Overall, it was a great day.

Christmas lights in the Marais neighborhood, Paris
Christmas lights in the Marais neighborhood, Paris
The Marais neighborhood, Paris
The Marais neighborhood, Paris
Christmas macarons in a store window, Paris
Christmas macarons in a store window, Paris

 

Day 6:

On our last day, we figured we should do some last minute touristy stuff. Our first stop was the Notre Dame Cathedral. It was extremely foggy, so we didn’t bother trying to get to the top to see the gargoyles and the view. I can’t say I’m super sorry about not climbing all those steps, but I have heard the view is great.

Notre Dame Paris
Notre Dame Paris
Notre Dame Paris
Notre Dame Paris
Notre Dame Paris
Notre Dame Paris
Notre Dame Paris
Notre Dame Paris
Notre Dame Paris
Notre Dame Paris

Both the interior and exterior of the cathedral are very impressive and intricate. It is free to go inside the cathedral (you only have to pay if you want to climb to the top). Signs showed photography allowed without a flash, at least that I saw. There was a choir singing when we entered, so we sat for a few minutes and marveled at the acoustics. It was really beautiful.

Notre Dame Paris
Notre Dame Paris

After Notre Dame, we walked a block over to visit the Conciergerie. The Conciergerie building dates back to medieval times when it was built as a palace. It was later converted into a prison, and was the primary prison during the French Revolution. It’s most famous prisoner was Marie Antoinette, who was held in the Conciergerie for several months prior to her execution in 1793. Admission is 15.00

Conciergerie, Paris
Conciergerie, Paris
Conciergerie, Paris
Conciergerie, Paris

The Conciergerie was pretty interesting, but of all the things we saw and did in Paris, it was probably the least exciting for me. If you are short on time and trying to whittle down your sightseeing list, you might consider cutting this one out. I would recommend the Conciergerie to someone who is very interested in the history of the French Revolution and medieval architecture. If that’s not your thing, consider skipping it.

Later in the afternoon, we ventured out again to the La Defense Christmas market. I really wanted to see a European Christmas market, and La Defense was the only one open, having just opened the day before. (Most of the Christmas markets in Paris don’t open until after December 1st). I read that it was the largest and best Christmas market, albeit a bit far from the city center.

On the way we got off the Metro and stopped at the Arc de Triomphe for a quick photo. The Arc de Triomphe is one of the largest tourist attractions in Paris, and you can climb to the top if you like. We just opted for a quick photo op from the street.

Arc de Triomphe, Paris
Arc de Triomphe, Paris

La Defense is the modern business district of Paris, with modern skyscrapers. It is a bit of a metro ride away from the main tourist areas of Paris, but not too far. There is also a huge shopping mall there. If you are looking for history and culture in Paris, La Defense is the opposite experience. La Defense is a very modern and commercial part of the city.

La Defense Christmas Market Paris
La Defense Christmas Market Paris

The Christmas market was in full swing on it’s second night. After passing through security at one of the multiple entrances, you can wander around rows of huts selling various gifts and foods. There were quite a few food stands as well selling soups, sandwiches, Mexican cuisine, churros, crepes, vin chaud (hot spiced wine), and other items. We shared a foie gras sandwich and then got some vin chaud and walked around.

La Defense Christmas Market Paris
La Defense Christmas Market Paris
La Defense Christmas Market Paris
La Defense Christmas Market Paris
La Defense Christmas Market Paris
Nougat stand, La Defense Christmas Market Paris
La Defense Christmas Market Paris
Cheese stand, La Defense Christmas Market Paris

We ended up purchasing some truffle oil products. Many vendors had tasting samples to try. Overall, I think I enjoyed myself more than Paddy did. Christmas markets aren’t really his thing.

There were some Christmas light displays to wander around in as well.

La Defense Christmas Market Paris
La Defense Christmas Market Paris
La Defense Christmas Market Paris
La Defense Christmas Market Paris

By the time we made it back to the Metro, we were tired and ready to sit down and have a drink. The Metro was a bit crazy as it was rush hour, which made the ride back a little claustrophobic.

We ended the evening with beers at Le Black Dog, a heavy metal bar in the Marais that was on Paddy’s list of bars he wanted to visit. It was small and crowded, but the bartenders were friendly and we managed to snag the last table.

We were to fly out the next day, and I received an email that evening notifying us that our direct flight back to Seattle was cancelled and we were on a later flight with a layover in Los Angeles. We didn’t get our reserved two-seat row selection that we had paid extra for, and got home at 3:00 AM Sunday morning instead of 11:00 AM Saturday morning. We weren’t pleased, to say the least. I contacted Air France to get a refund of our reserved seat fee, and to our surprise we got our reserved seat fee back plus €600.00 each! Apparently, there is a law within the European Union that passengers are due compensation if a flight is cancelled or delayed for reasons other than weather. 

*Pro tip: If your flight is cancelled or delayed in Europe, always check to see if you are due compensation. A friend of mine said he has received €200.00 before for a flight that was delayed over two hours in Europe. 

 

We absolutely loved Paris. There were a lot of things we wanted to see and do that we didn’t have time (or make time) for, but I have a feeling that we will be back someday. We would love to see France’s wine country as well, and explore more of French cuisine. There is also so much history and beautiful architecture to explore in Paris. Having spent a week there, I would absolutely agree with Anthony Bourdain’s advice. Don’t try to pack too much in. Pick one or two things to see/do for each day, and fill the rest in with spontaneity and wandering. Walk around and eat stuff. You won’t be disappointed.

Barbados 2018: Sea Turtles, Shipwrecks, & the History of Rum

One week in Barbados 2018: Gorgeous beaches, delicious Caribbean food, and snorkeling over shipwrecks with sea turtles

 

Barbados is the most southeastern island in the Caribbean island chain, not very far off the coast of Venezuela. When we told our friends in the US that we were going to Barbados, the reaction was usually excitement, followed by “where is that again?”

Barbados was colonized by the British, and remained a British colony until 1966, when it became a sovereign nation. The original Arawak and Carib native population was sadly decimated by colonization, and sugarcane and slavery were introduced to the island in the 1640’s. The majority of slaves were imported from West Africa until slavery was finally abolished in the 1800’s. The resulting culture in Barbados today is a mix of British, Caribbean, and African cultures that is uniquely Bajan.

Barbados
Image from https://www.worldatlas.com/webimage/countrys/namerica/caribb/bb.htm

There are a couple things about Barbados that make visiting this beautiful country easy for American travelers. The first is that the national language is English, so there is no language barrier for English-speaking travelers. The second is that the Barbados dollar is tied to the US dollar, at a rate of $2.00 BBD to $1.00 USD. This makes converting prices super easy–just cut all the prices in half to convert the rate to USD. No need to exchange currency, just withdraw cash from a bank ATM with your debit card on arrival (be sure to give your bank a travel notification before you leave the country). Many stores and restaurants and all taxi drivers take cash only, so be sure to have some cash on you while you are there. There is an ATM at the airport that you can use. US dollars are also widely accepted.

In addition, the water is clean and safe to drink, the crime rate is one of the lowest of all the Caribbean islands, and the beaches are some of the best in the world.

When I was a high school exchange student in Denmark in the 90’s, two of my fellow exchange student friends were students from Barbados, and this trip was our first time reuniting in 20 years. In addition, another of our mutual exchange student friends from Turkey came to join the reunion with her boyfriend as well. It was a fantastic week and an awesome experience to have our local friends show us around and share their island and culture with us.

 

Day 1:

We took JetBlue overnight with an early morning layover in New York. When we arrived, the line through passport control was long but it was a quick 15 minute taxi ride to our hotel from the airport once we got through.

We stayed at the Butterfly Beach  Hotel on the south coast. Our room was a reasonable price and included a small balcony with a partial ocean view and a mini fridge and hot water kettle. Butterfly Beach hotel also offers more expensive rooms with full ocean views, and rooms with kitchenettes for self-catering.

Butterfly Beach Hotel Barbados
Butterfly Beach Hotel Barbados
Butterfly Beach Hotel Barbados
Butterfly Beach Hotel Barbados
Butterfly Beach Hotel Barbados
Butterfly Beach Hotel Barbados

Butterfly Beach Hotel is on the beach, but the waves were pretty rough so we didn’t go swimming here. They do have a nice pool and plenty of lounge chairs with ocean views.

We were starving when we checked in at 3:30, so we unpacked our stuff and headed down to the hotel bar for a little snack and a beer. We had Banks Beer (local beer in Barbados), Bajan fish cakes (deep fried balls of salt fish mixed with dough), and chicken wings. We loved the fish cakes.

banks beer barbados
Paddy enjoying his first Banks beer in Barbados
Bajan fish cakes
Bajan fish cakes

We had thought we were going to dinner at 7:00 and would have some time to rest a bit, but my friend Damien messaged me and told me the only reservation he could get was at 6:00 and he would pick us up at 5:45. It was 4:45, so we rushed back to the room to shower and get ready to go. No nap time for us.

Dinner was at Shakers Bar & Grill in Brown’s Gap. According to Damien, this is one of the favorite local restaurants on the island.

Shakers Barbados
Shakers Bar & Grill

We met with Damien’s wife Kyesha and his son Dimitri, and my other Bajan friend from my AFS Denmark exchange year, Monique.

I had blackened lionfish with grilled potato and salad, and Paddy had BBQ chicken. It was delicious and reasonably priced. I tried the rum punch, which is the national cocktail. It was strong! Rum punch does not mess around.

I had never had lionfish before. Damien and Kyesha told us that lionfish are an invasive species and are devastating the fish population and coral reefs in the area. Fisherman have been fishing them and encouraging people to eat them as an effort to control their populations. I had only known of lionfish as a fish to stay far away from when snorkeling, due to their venomous stinging spines. But apparently, once you take the spines out, the fish are safe to eat (and delicious).

lionfish
Lionfish. Image from http://oceana.org/blog/invasive-lionfish-are-delicious-%E2%80%94-it-safe-eat-them-6
Blackened lionfish at Shakers, Barbados
Blackened lionfish at Shakers, Barbados
Shakers Barbados
First night dinner at Shakers

If you want a truly local experience and great local food, Shakers should be on your restaurant list for your trip to Barbados.

After dinner, Damien’s wife and son headed home and Damien and Monique took us out for drinks in St Lawrence Gap.

St Lawrence Gap is where the party is at. Tourists and locals mix in the bars and restaurants along this little strip on the south coast. It is the most touristy area, but also the number one spot for nightlife. We went to Damien’s favorite spot, Hal’s Bar–a low-key open air sports bar with strong drinks and continued to catch up on the last 20 years.

We had to call it a night around 11:00 , we were tired from traveling. Before we went back to the hotel, Monique insisted that we had to try the BBQ pig tails from the street vendor outside Hal’s.

At first, I was picturing the long, curly part of the pig tail and wasn’t sure what eating that would be like. But BBQ pig tails are actually the tail bone of the pig with the little nub of a tail at the end. The long curly part is cut off and not used. They are slow cooked and tender, and were kind of like a pork rib. They were delicious! Don’t be afraid to try the pig tails, or you will miss out. Be sure to grab extra napkins.

BBQ pig tails in St Lawrence Gap
Street vendor selling BBQ pig tails and macaroni pie in St Lawrence Gap

 

Day 2:

Our first full day in Barbados was Sunday, and Monique and Damien had plans with their families, so we took the day to relax and recover from traveling.

We started our day with breakfast at the Surfer’s Cafe, a 10 minute walk down the road from our hotel. We snagged a two person table overlooking the gorgeous beach.

The prices weren’t super cheap, but not crazy expensive. The view was worth it. We each had the Barrel, a breakfast sandwich with egg, cheese, bacon, lettuce, tomato, and cucumber. It was the perfect amount of food. Coffee was great.

The service was on island time (a bit slow), but we weren’t in a hurry. Be sure to come here if you have time to relax, if you have limited time it is not the best choice.

Breakfast at the Surfer's Cafe, Barbados
Breakfast at the Surfer’s Cafe, Barbados
Surfers Cafe Barbados
Surfers Cafe Barbados
Surfers Cafe Barbados
View from our table at Surfers Cafe Barbados

*Tipping in Barbados: 

According to our local friends, tipping isn’t expected in Barbados. It is nice to leave 10% for really good service, but not expected as in the US. Often there will be a 10% service charge already added to the bill.

After breakfast we walked across the street to Massy grocery store to stock up on water, bug spray, and beer. I bought a loaf of whole wheat coconut bread in the bakery section which was pretty good– a bit sweet. We always love going to grocery stores in other countries to see what people eat.

We spent the rest of the day relaxing by the pool at the hotel.

Pool at Butterfly Beach Hotel

That evening we wanted to eat at Brown Sugar, a restaurant serving upscale Bajan fare. Looking at the map, it appeared to be next to Brownes Beach, and we figured there were probably some beach bars nearby that we could have a drink at beforehand.

We hired a taxi to take us within the vicinity of Brown Sugar. He was surprised that we didn’t want to go to one of the fancy tourist restaurants on the beach. He wanted to make sure we knew that it was more of a “jungle” setting and not on the beach. We were fine with that. Having reviewed a lot of the popular upscale restaurant menus online, they all seemed like a lot of money for food we could probably get at home. We wanted to try local flavors, and a beach view wasn’t a priority.

We were dropped off on Brownes Beach, the sun was starting to set. We walked up the main road towards Bridgetown, searching for a beach bar or anything interesting. Unfortunately, there was nothing along this stretch of road. There were a few small restaurants that were closed, but not much to see or do. We walked about a mile, thinking there had to be something around the corner, but there wasn’t. We turned back and went to the restaurant.

Our taxi driver said that Brown Sugar was popular for their Caribbean lunch buffet with cruise ship tourists and locals. Dinner is more relaxed. We had no problem getting a nice table without a reservation.

Brown Sugar, Barbados
Brown Sugar, Barbados

Brown Sugar isn’t really in the jungle, but once inside the restaurant you wouldn’t know that. Lush tropical plants surround the restaurant and frogs and crickets chirp, giving the open-air restaurant a tropical ambiance.

Brown Sugar, Barbados
Paddy at Brown Sugar, enjoying the jungle ambiance

We both ordered the Stuffed Roast Pork Caribe, which was pork stuffed with bacon and plantain stuffing and Bajan gravy. It came with potatoes and vegetables and was delicious!

Stuffed roast pork Caribe at Brown Sugar
Stuffed roast pork Caribe at Brown Sugar

They had tempting starters as well, but we weren’t starving and the entree alone was the perfect amount of food. Prices here are a little spendy, but not nearly as expensive as the tourist restaurants on the beach. We couldn’t pass on the dessert menu. I had the orange coconut cheesecake, and Paddy had the Caribbean coffee, which had brandy and Bajan falernum (sweet syrup with lime and spices), topped with whipped cream.

Orange coconut cheesecake at Brown Sugar
Orange coconut cheesecake at Brown Sugar
Paddy with his Caribbean coffee at Brown Sugar
Paddy with his Caribbean coffee at Brown Sugar

Dinner at Brown Sugar was one of the highlights of our trip. We were worried it would be touristy, but it was romantic and the food was outstanding. We would definitely recommend this place.

 

Day 3: 

After a day of relaxing, we were ready for a day of adventure. I had booked a snorkel tour with Stiletto Catamaran Cruises. I get seasick, so I opted for the three hour tour instead of the full five hour tour with lunch, hoping for minimum time on the catamaran. It was still a roll of the dice, but I wanted to see turtles and shipwrecks!

We were picked up at the hotel  in a shuttle bus and dropped off at the canal in the capital city of Bridgetown. I had sunscreen, acupressure bracelets for motion sickness, and had taken two Bonine tablets. I was doing well and hoping for the best. It was hot, but there was a nice breeze.

Bridgetown Canal
Bridgetown Canal
Bridgetown Canal
Bridgetown Canal

The canal was calm, and it didn’t take us long to sail to Carlisle Bay to snorkel with some sea turtles. Carlisle Bay is very sandy, so don’t expect beautiful coral gardens teeming with fish. However, we saw turtles and sting rays and that was plenty exciting. Paddy had never seen a sea turtle before and he was pretty stoked.

Snorkeling in Carlisle Bay, Barbados
Snorkeling in Carlisle Bay, Barbados
Snorkeling in Carlisle Bay, Barbados
Snorkeling in Carlisle Bay, Barbados
Snorkeling in Carlisle Bay, Barbados
Snorkeling in Carlisle Bay, Barbados
Snorkeling in Carlisle Bay, Barbados
Snorkeling in Carlisle Bay, Barbados
Snorkeling in Carlisle Bay, Barbados
Snorkeling in Carlisle Bay, Barbados
Snorkeling in Carlisle Bay, Barbados
Snorkeling in Carlisle Bay, Barbados–sting ray

The sting rays we saw appeared to be a mother and a baby. They were swimming around on the sandy ocean floor looking for food. Paddy said they are kind of like the “roombas of the sea.” The baby sting ray was bright green and zipped around much faster than it’s mother.

After we had enjoyed the turtles and sting rays, we got back on the catamaran and sailed a very short ways across the bay to a shipwreck. From the boat, it just looked like a big dark shape under the water. But as soon as we got in, it was right there, very close and a full marine ecosystem with lots of fish. Damien and his wife told me later that they have purposefully sunk some ships recently to try and create a faux coral reef to promote new coral growth and help sustain the local marine life.

Snorkeling in Carlisle Bay, Barbados
Snorkeling in Carlisle Bay, Barbados
Snorkeling in Carlisle Bay, Barbados
Snorkeling in Carlisle Bay, Barbados
Snorkeling in Carlisle Bay, Barbados
Snorkeling in Carlisle Bay, Barbados
Snorkeling in Carlisle Bay, Barbados
Snorkeling in Carlisle Bay, Barbados
Snorkeling in Carlisle Bay, Barbados
Snorkeling in Carlisle Bay, Barbados
Snorkeling in Carlisle Bay, Barbados
Snorkeling in Carlisle Bay, Barbados
Snorkeling in Carlisle Bay, Barbados
Snorkeling in Carlisle Bay, Barbados

This was our first time snorkeling over shipwrecks, and it was pretty interesting. There were quite a few fish. We saw two wrecks that were right next to each other.

After we finished snorkeling, we got back on the boat and I started to feel woozy. I would have liked to get off at Carlisle Bay and head back to the hotel at that point, but the rest of the tour was an hour long sail up the west coast of the island, where we would be dropped off and the rest of the group who was on the five hour tour would continue sailing and have lunch. I ended up throwing up twice off the back of the catamaran while we sailed up the coast. It was not a fun way to end our adventure, but still worth it in my opinion. I did have a great time snorkeling and  I’m glad we did it.

**Tip for people who get seasick and still want to snorkel:

The Boatyard at Brownes Beach offers quick snorkel trips from the shore, included in the beach club price. We didn’t find this out until later in our trip–see details below on day 6.

Back at the hotel later that afternoon, I spent the rest of the afternoon recovering from seasickness and resting.

My friend Sinem from Turkey and her boyfriend Hakan had arrived early that morning, had spent the day resting, and were ready to meet us downstairs at the hotel bar for a beer before we were all picked up for dinner by Damien. It was my first time seeing her in 20 years since our exchange year in Denmark, and it was a happy reunion.

Damien took us to his favorite Italian restaurant on the island, Buzo. We met Monique and had a nice dinner catching up on the last 20 years and reminiscing about our high school year abroad in Denmark.

Dinner at Buzo,Barbados
Dinner at Buzo,Barbados

Buzo was pretty fancy and the food was great. It is easy to rack up a large bill here, we ended up spending more here than we did at Brown Sugar. It was very nice Italian cuisine though, and the cocktails were outstanding.

After dinner we ended the night with a couple drinks at Sharkey’s, a very touristy bar in St Lawrence Gap. It was pretty quiet for a Monday night, and a fun place for a nightcap.

Drinks at Sharkey's in Saint Lawrence Gap
Drinks at Sharkey’s in Saint Lawrence Gap

 

Day 4: 

 

On Tuesday, Damien took part of the day off to show us some of the island. We started the day off with a rum tasting and history lesson at Mount Gay Rum. I had recently learned prior to our trip that rum originated in Barbados, and Mount Gay Rum is the oldest rum distillery still in operation, since 1703.

Mount Gay Rum, Barbados
Mount Gay Rum, Barbados

Rum is a lot more complex than I realized. In the Pacific Northwest, rum is something you put in a mixed drink such as a mojito  or rum and coke, and we don’t think much about the type of rum or where it comes from.

In Barbados, rum is extremely complex. There are rums made from molasses or different ranges of sugar that produce very different flavor profiles. Barbados is proud of their Mount Gay Rum (as they should be), and they consume quite a bit of it–most commonly in rum punch.

The tour was $20 per person, and included tasting three rums.

Mount Gay Rum, Barbados
Old rum still, Mount Gay Rum, Barbados

The tour doesn’t actually happen at the distillery, which is located on the North end of the island, due to safety and sanitary concerns. Instead we were given a short overview of rum production and a rum punch to enjoy in an air-conditioned room, and then went to a different building to watch a short film about the history of Mount Gay Rum.

At the end, we were given three rums to taste in the tasting room: The Eclipse, the Black Barrel, and the XO (extra old). Our favorite was the Black Barrel, which was spicy and full bodied, able to be sipped or mixed. XO is aged longer and meant to be a sipping rum.

Mount Gay Rum, Barbados
Mount Gay Rum, Barbados

We weren’t able to taste the 1703 rum, which is the oldest and rarest variety and double-distilled and aged 10-30 years. However, for $15 we could pay for it in the bar downstairs. Paddy’s curiosity was peaked, and he went for it. It was very smooth.

Mount Gay Rum, Barbados
Paddy and Damien at the bar, Paddy tasting the 1703. Mount Gay Rum, Barbados
Mount Gay Rum, Barbados
Mount Gay Rum, Barbados

You can buy some delicious cocktails at the bar there, as well as bottles to take home. The prices of the bottles are a bit high though, and we found Mount Gay rum for a lot less at the local grocery store. They also sell it at many liquor stores in the US, including BevMo.

After all that rum tasting we were ready for lunch. Damien took us to one of his favorite lunch spots, Rolli’s Bar and Grill in Pelican Village, where we met up with his wife and son for lunch.

Rolli's restaurant, Barbados
Rolli’s restaurant, Barbados
Rolli's restaurant, Barbados
Rolli’s restaurant, Barbados

Rolli’s has an affordable menu of classic Bajan and Caribbean fare, and it was delicious. I had flying fish with potato and salad, and Paddy had pulled Caribbean jerk pork with salad and fries. Paddy’s pork dish was really tender and flavorful.

Jerk pork dish with fries at Rolli's
Jerk pork dish with fries at Rolli’s
Flying fish with salad and potato at Rolli's
Flying fish with salad and potato at Rolli’s

Be sure to try the Bajan pepper sauce —it is a yellowish color and on every table just about everywhere. It has mustard and turmeric and a fantastic unique flavor. We stocked up on this sauce at the grocery store before we flew home. It is delicious on fried flying fish. You can get different varieties but the standard yellow one is fairly mild.

After lunch it was beach time. The best beaches in Barbados for swimming are on the West Coast. The sea is calmer and the sand is powdery white.

Damien took us to Sandy Lane Beach, where we parked across the street from Rihanna’s house (!!) and used the beach access next to her property.

Rihanna's house, Sandy Lane Barbados
Rihanna’s house, Sandy Lane Barbados

Technically, this giant mansion isn’t all Rihanna’s house. It is comprised of six apartments, the other five of which are owned by other rich and/or famous people as well.

Sandy Lane Beach is where the fancy people swim. Lots of private houses and B&Bs and fancy hotels. It isn’t a huge beach but looks kind of exclusive. We tried to set up our towels in one spot only to have the owner come out and tell us we had to move. We found a spot nearby—but be prepared for snobbery to the general public if you visit this beach.

Sandy Lane Beach, Barbados
Sandy Lane Beach, Barbados
Sandy Lane Beach, Barbados
Sandy Lane Beach, Barbados
Sandy Lane Beach, Barbados
Sandy Lane Beach, Barbados
Sandy Lane Beach, Barbados
Damien and Dimitri swimming, Sandy Lane Beach, Barbados

The shore is a tiny bit rocky at first, but drops off pretty quickly to soft sand. It wasn’t the best beach for kids because it gets shoulder to neck deep on adults very close off the shore. The water felt really good.

By the time we got back to our hotel on the South Shore that evening, it was about 7:00 and we were salty, sandy, and hungry. We quickly showered and changed and went with Sinem and Hakan in search of sustenance nearby.

Just a block or two up the road we found Breezer’s Bar & Grill, a local spot serving British pub food and blaring hits of the 80’s.

We sat outside and had some Banks beers and pub food, as well as a shared appetizer of Bajan fish cakes. It was casual and the food was great. Paddy had a curry dish that he really enjoyed, I tried a chicken mushroom pot pie with mashed potatoes and veggies. The prices were very reasonable.

Mushroom pot pie at Breezers Bar & Grill Barbados
Mushroom pot pie at Breezers Bar & Grill Barbados

 

Day 5: 

 

Wednesday was Safari Tour day. Both Damien and Monique said we absolutely HAD to do an island safari tour while we were here, and they came along on the tour for the day as well. Damien made a group reservation for us with Island Safari Barbados, and they picked us up at the hotel in the morning. We did the Adventure Safari, which was $98.00 USD per person, and includes a five hour tour of the island, hotel pick up and drop off, and a buffet lunch with alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages.

Island Safari Barbados
Island Safari Barbados
Island Safari Barbados
Island Safari Barbados
Island Safari Barbados
Typical Barbados chattel house. Island Safari Barbados

There aren’t many countries that you can see all in one day, but Barbados is one of them. We drove all around the island and saw many sights and viewpoints, with stops for photo ops and rum punch.

Island Safari Barbados
Island Safari Barbados
Island Safari Barbados
Sugar mill, Island Safari Barbados
Island Safari Barbados
Island Safari Barbados
Island Safari Barbados
Bathsheba beach–full of seaweed. Island Safari Barbados
Island Safari Barbados
Island Safari Barbados

The safari tour ended with a Bajan buffet lunch, including chicken, flying fish, macaroni pie, peas and rice, salad, and desserts. Wine and beer are included as well.

 

That evening Sinem and Hakan were too tired and jet lagged to go out, so we decided to see what Oistin’s was all about down the road.

Oistin's Barbados
Oistin’s Barbados

Oistin’s is a small south shore town where the fishermen bring in and clean their fish, known most notoriously for their Fish Fry every Friday night. All the vendors are open on Fridays and it turns into a big street party with locals and tourists alike.

On a Wednesday, it was pretty quiet. A lot of food stalls were closed but quite a few were open, serving different varieties of grilled and  fried fish and Bajan dishes. We were hustled into Pat’s Place by a woman with menus pulling people in off the sidewalk. We took a look around at the other stalls, and then decided Pat’s Place looked just as good as any other, and there was plenty of open seating.

Pat's Place, Oistins Barbados
Pat’s Place, Oistins Barbados
Pat's Place, Oistins Barbados
Pat’s Place, Oistins Barbados
Pat's Place, Oistins Barbados
Pat’s Place, Oistins Barbados: Fried chicken, breadfruit, macaroni pie, and peas and rice
Pat's Place, Oistins Barbados
Pat’s Place, Oistins Barbados: Kingfish, coleslaw, grilled potato, and macaroni pie.

There was table service, and our agressive but friendly street hustler/server brought us some Banks beers and took our order. For $15 USD  we could order a meat or fish and three sides. We decided to order some different things and share. I ordered fried chicken with peas and rice, macaroni pie, and breadfruit, and Paddy ordered kingfish with grilled potato, coleslaw, and macaroni pie.

Holy huge portions, Batman! We easily could have shared one dinner between the two of us. Fortunately our hotel room came with a fridge, so I ended up eating the leftovers for breakfast for the next two mornings.

The kingfish was grilled in a flavorful sauce, and the macaroni pie was delicious. Macaroni pie is pretty much like macaroni and cheese in casserole-form, with a bit more tomato flavor and spices mixed in than just cheese. Everything was fantastic. It was some of the best food we had our whole trip.

If you want real local Bajan food, go to Oistins. If you’re on a budget, two people can easily share one $15 dinner.

 

Day 6:

Thursday was Sinem and Hakan’s last day, and both Sinem and I wanted some more relaxing beach time before heading home. Damien suggested The Boatyard, a beach club on Brownes Beach, which is the best beach on the island. Extremely touristy, but $25.00 USD per person includes a beach chair and umbrella for the day, bathrooms and showers, and $20 credit towards food and drinks at the bar. A sun umbrella is essential for Paddy and I with our fair skin, and I wanted to relax somewhere with amenities like food and drinks and changing rooms.

Also, the Boatyard offers free snorkel trips out to the bay a few times during the day. Just sign up for a time after you pay your entrance fee. These are quick trips right to the shipwrecks and sea turtles in Carlisle Bay from  the dock at the boatyard, so there is very little time spent on the boat. Had I known this before, this definitely would have been the best option for me with my seasickness issues.

We took the local van shuttles, which is the best way to get around if you don’t have a car. They come down the road about every 2 minutes, and you can just wave at one to flag it down. You pay $2.00 BBD when you exit, just tell the driver where you are going and he or she will stop at the closest place on their route.

The Boatyard beach club, Brownes Beach
The Boatyard beach club, Brownes Beach
The Boatyard beach club, Brownes Beach
The Boatyard beach club, Brownes Beach
The Boatyard beach club, Brownes Beach
The Boatyard beach club, Brownes Beach
The Boatyard beach club, Brownes Beach
The Boatyard beach club, Brownes Beach

The Boatyard is very close to downtown Bridgetown, and Paddy wanted to check out the city. While we set up to relax on the beach, he went for a walk around town. He came back after a couple hours saying he saw a lot of tourist shops, and when he tried to get off the main drag people thought he was lost or trying to buy weed.

Brownes Beach Barbados
Brownes Beach Barbados

According to our local friends, Brownes Beach is the best beach on the island, and I would have to say that it must be. The powdered sugar sand was so soft and there was hardly any coral or rocks in the water. The only other beaches I’ve been to so far that compare are the ones on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico: Tulum and Isla Mujeres. The beach is very long, with the north end being more for tourists as it is closest to the cruise ship pier, and the south end being a bit more of a locals beach.

I think we were the only people at the Boatyard who weren’t off a cruise ship. It was REALLY touristy, and the party music (UB40 anyone?) was a little obnoxious, but the beach was so beautiful I was able to tune it out. Paddy had a more difficult time with it.

Brownes Beach Barbados
Brownes Beach Barbados

For lunch I had a fish sandwich (or “cutter” as they are called in Barbados). It was good, and reasonably priced. There were two for one cocktail specials going on so we ended up getting a few drinks and lunch for me (Paddy wasn’t hungry) and didn’t end up using more than the total $40 USD worth of food and drink included in our entrance fee.

There were one or two times where “free shots” were offered to whoever wanted them, during which a really obnoxious song about shots was blared and the bartenders got up on the bar and poured bright colored liquids into people’s mouths. Sinem and Hakan went for it just for fun. I don’t know what was in those bottles, but I didn’t think that neon high-fructose corn syrup with a tiny bit of alcohol needed to be in my body, so I opted out.

Brownes Beach Barbados
Brownes Beach Barbados
Brownes Beach Barbados
Brownes Beach Barbados
Brownes Beach Barbados
Brownes Beach Barbados

Damien and his son Dimitri joined us for a bit in the afternoon, and we stayed until closing around 5:00 PM. It was a good day and I would definitely make Brownes Beach a top priority when visiting Barbados. If  beach chairs and amenities aren’t a priority and you can’t handle cruise ship tourist free-shot UB40 time, head further south down the beach for a more local experience.

Brownes Beach Barbados
Brownes Beach Barbados

That evening, we went back to Shaker’s for dinner again, as Sinem and Hakan hadn’t been there yet and it was their last night before heading back to Turkey. Damien’s wife and son met up with us for dinner and we had a nice evening. This time Paddy tried the steak and I dried the grilled shrimp. The shrimp were good, but I liked the blackened lionfish I had the first night better.

Brownes Beach Barbados
Steak at Shakers, Barbados
Brownes Beach Barbados
Grilled shrimp at Shakers, Barbados

After dinner we went out for a few drinks in St Lawrence Gap, where Monique joined us. We started off with some upscale cocktails at Cocktail Kitchen.  The cocktails were a bit pricey, but delicious. I felt like I needed a little kick along with my drink, so I had the Espresso Martini. The espresso shot and the vodka made the drink just the after dinner pick me up that I was looking for, and tasted like dessert. Damien had the classic Zombie tiki drink, made with Mount Gay black barrel and silver rums. He said it was good.

Cocktails at Cocktail Kitchen in St. Lawrence Gap, Barbados
Cocktails at Cocktail Kitchen in St. Lawrence Gap, Barbados: Zombie and Espresso Martini

After starting with a few nice cocktails, we stopped back off at Damien’s favorite bar (Hal’s Bar) again for some beers. It was busy with locals getting their Thursday night on. We had a few drinks and celebrated Sinem and Hakan’s last night.

Drinks at Hal's Bar in St Lawrence Gap, Barbados
Drinks at Hal’s Bar in St Lawrence Gap, Barbados

 

Day 7:

 

Our last day in Barbados, we took it easy. We had a mediocre breakfast at the hotel (the breakfast buffet isn’t that great at Butterfly, but we didn’t feel like going anywhere else). We walked down to the Massy grocery store to pick up some rum, jerk seasonings, and Bajan pepper sauce to take home. We then packed, read books, and lounged by the pool.

That evening, Damien picked us up and took us to the Oistin’s Fish Fry, a Friday night tradition in Barbados. If you are in Barbados on a Friday, you MUST go to the Fish Fry. It’s a great way to get a full dose of Bajan food and culture all in one.

The Fish Fry was BUSY. Traffic on the main road was bad so Damien took a back hills secret-squirrel route. Parking wasn’t too hard to find in the lot across the street, but it was filling up fast.

We weaved through the food stalls and stands selling souvenirs and crafts until we got to Damien’s favorite fish stand, Uncle George’s Fish Net Grill, where there was a line. The line didn’t seem that long, but it wasn’t moving very fast. Damien got us some beers from a rum shop next door to drink while we waited.

Of course, it started pouring rain while we were in line. We ducked under the overhang of the rum shop for a bit, but had to jump back in to claim our spots once the rain got back down to a drizzle.

Oistins Barbados
Waiting in the rain for Uncle George’s fish stall at Oistins

Uncle George’s was selling all kinds of fish. You chose your fish and it comes with a couple sides: macaroni salad, peas and rice, coleslaw, fries, or potato. The line took about an hour (good food takes time I suppose) but it was worth it.

Uncle George's Fish Net Grill, Oistins Barbados
Uncle George’s Fish Net Grill, Oistins Barbados
Uncle George's Fish Net Grill, Oistins Barbados
Uncle George’s Fish Net Grill, Oistins Barbados

Once we had placed our orders, we realized we had a conundrum–where to sit. The place was packed. We finally saw some people getting up to leave so we gave Damien our money and went with his son Dimitri to hold the table while Damien waited for the food. Paddy got another beer and a rum punch from the rum shop –the rum punch was STRONG. Delicious, but I couldn’t finish it as I didn’t want to be hungover for our 6:00 AM flight the next morning.

Dimitri and Paddy holding the table at Oistins Fish Fry, Barbados
Dimitri and Paddy holding the table at Oistins Fish Fry, Barbados
Oistins Fish Fry, Barbados
Whole red snapper, Oistins Fish Fry, Barbados
Oistins Fish Fry, Barbados
Swordfish, Oistins Fish Fry, Barbados

Monique joined us and after we ate we watched some of the dancers on the stage for a bit. The first three weren’t that great, but then a Michael Jackson duo started up and they were fabulous. One was doing an 80’s Michael impersonation and the other was 90’s Michael. Their dance moves and facial expressions were spot on. 80’s Michael was my favorite.

Michael Jackson dancers at Oistins Fish Fry, Barbados
Michael Jackson dancers at Oistins Fish Fry, Barbados

We wanted to stay late but we had an early flight the next morning. If you go to Barbados, try to make a point to arrange for a Friday night at Oistins. It was pretty fun.

 

 

Barbados is a beautiful country. A lot of people only see it for a day on a cruise ship stop, or spend most of their time at a mega resort. There is a lot more to see away from the tourist trail, but some of the touristy things are still pretty fun. We would definitely recommend the island safari as a great way to see the country, Oistins Fish Fry, and snorkeling with turtles and shipwrecks. The best beaches are on the west coast, but staying there can be pretty pricey. We liked staying near Oistins and being able to walk to a grocery store and good local food.

It was great to see my long lost exchange student friends again, and we felt fortunate to have local guides to show us what they love about their country. Damien and Monique showed us a great time and we are thankful for their hospitality on this trip.

 

 

Denmark 2017: Copenhagen, Fanø Island, and Esbjerg

When I was sixteen, I got on a plane and flew halfway across the country to live with a family I didn’t know in a country I’d never been to, and learn a language I’d never even heard spoken before. It was the most important thing I’ve ever done, and I don’t know who I would be if I had not done it.

It was hard. It was amazing. It was frustrating. It was an educational experience that surpassed anything I could ever learn in a classroom. I made life-long friendships with other kids from all around the world, and I gained a second family. I learned about the world. I learned how to be independent.

Fanø, Denmark
Me on the first of many ferry rides to Fanø island, July 1997
Denmark
Me (standing, second from left) with exchange student friends in Skagen, Denmark 1998

Nineteen years later, I was boarding a plane again with Paddy back to Denmark. We’ve embarked on many international adventures together, but this one was different. I wasn’t going away this time. I was coming home.

I was nervous. The last time I saw my host family and classmates was when I was 17. Would they even want to see me after nineteen years? Did they even remember me that well? When I left Denmark in 1998, email was a new phenomenon. I had managed to find almost all of them on Facebook around 2006 or so, and I’d maintained some contact with everyone on social media since then. My classmate Ann visited me in Seattle in 2011, and urged me to come back to visit. I wanted to, but building up vacation time is a bit more of a challenge for Americans, and there were so many places in the world that I hadn’t seen yet.

Finally, I decided I had to go. I made plans with my host family and friends, brushed up on my Danish with the Duolingo App (wish I had that when I was an exchange student!), and bought our plane tickets.

We began our trip with four days in Stockholm, Sweden as I didn’t get a chance to see Sweden during my exchange year. We got over our jet lag and had a little tourist time before boarding the train to Copenhagen. Read about our adventures in Stockholm here.

Copenhagen:

Day 1:

I had booked tickets in advance through the Scandinavian Rail website. With train tickets, the earlier you book, the better rate you get. I think the earliest you can book in advance is three months. You do need to print your ticket. I had forgotten to print my ticket, and had only printed the confirmation. The info desk at the Stockholm Central station directed us to the auto kiosks where we were able to print our tickets using our reservation number.

Train to Copenhagen
Train to Copenhagen

We weren’t sure which train car we were supposed to be in, and we ended up in the right seats in the wrong car. We found this out when someone else showed up with a reservation for our seats. We located the correct seats, but they were unfortunately facing backwards. I get extremely motion sick if I don’t face forward in a vehicle. Fortunately the train employee was able to find us two seats facing forward that didn’t have a reservation.

When we arrived at Copenhagen Central Station, my friend Pan was waiting for us. Pan was a fellow exchange student from Thailand during my year in Denmark, and liked Denmark so much she ended up moving there and working for MAERSK. She had invited us to stay with her and her boyfriend Sebastian from Germany in their apartment near the Copenhagen airport.

Denmark
Me and Pan with two other exchange student friends, 1998
Sebastian and Pan

If you’ve read about our travels in Thailand, the lake safari tour that we took on the floating lake house in Thailand is run by my friend Pan and her family. She runs the website from Denmark. Her family’s lake safari tour is one of our most memorable travel experiences and we highly recommend it.

It was strawberry season in Denmark, and Pan welcomed us with a traditional danish tart with strawberries and marzipan and tea. Danes have a tradition of having cake after work on Wednesdays.

For dinner, Pan showed Paddy how to cook several home-style Thai dishes that she grew up with. We were impressed with the variety of Asian produce available in Copenhagen.

Pan showing Paddy how to cook Thai food
Pan showing Paddy how to cook Thai food
Pan showing Paddy how to cook Thai food
Pan showing Paddy how to cook Thai food
Pan showing Paddy how to cook Thai food

Our first meal in Denmark consisted of Thai home cooking and German beer. It was delicious.

 

Day 2:

Pan and Sebastian had to work, so Paddy and I set out to be tourists in Copenhagen for the day. We got some breakfast sandwiches and coffee at a little cafe in the mall across the street, and then caught the Metro into the city center.

The Copenhagen Metro is very easy to use. If you don’t have a multi-use pass, you can purchase single use tickets from the electronic kiosks. There is often a metro employee on site to answer questions or help if needed.

Copenhagen Denmark Metro map
Copenhagen Metro map

No one takes your ticket when you get on the train, and there are no turnstiles to scan your ticket through to get to the train platform. If you are tempted not to pay and take a free ride, don’t. Metro employees randomly (and semi-frequently) do ticket checks on the trains and the fine for not having a ticket is pretty steep.

There was no metro in Copenhagen back in the late nineties, so it was nice to be able to easily and quickly get around the city.

We got off the train at Kongens Nytorv, which is the stop fairly close to the city center (Indre by). We used Google maps on our phones to navigate to Strøget, the pedestrian shopping street.

Strøget, copenhagen denmark
Strøget, the famous pedestrian shopping street in Copenhagen

I remembered always wanting to go to Strøget as a teenage exchange student when I visited Copenhagen, but we walked around for approximately 5-10 minutes before we decided that there wasn’t really anything we wanted to shop for. There are some interesting shops and cafes, but clothing and other merchandise in Denmark is very expensive. It’s a nice area to see for a short amount of time, however.

Strøget Copenhagen Denmark
Strøget, the famous pedestrian shopping street in Copenhagen

We walked over to Christiansborg Palace and admired it from the perimeter. Christiansborg is the Danish parliamentary building, housing the offices of the Prime Minister and the Danish supreme court. The Danish Royal Family uses portions of the castle for receptions and events.

Christiansborg Palace, Copenhagen Denmark
Christiansborg Palace, Copenhagen
Christiansborg Palace, Copenhagen Denmark
Christiansborg Palace, Copenhagen Denmark
Christiansborg Palace, Copenhagen Denmark
Christiansborg Palace, Copenhagen Denmark
Christiansborg Palace, Copenhagen Denmark
Christiansborg Palace, Copenhagen Denmark

Several royal castles had been built and re-built at Christiansborg’s location since 1167. Christiansborg was first built in 1733 but burnt down and was rebuilt twice, with the third and current version standing since the early 1900’s.

You can tour many parts of the palace including the royal reception rooms and chapel, and some ruins of the very first castle that were excavated in the palace basement. Paddy wasn’t feeling too up to touring fancy palace rooms and I’d seen it once before, so we moved on.

We walked across the canal to the Christianshavn neighborhood. Christianshavn is a man-made island surrounded by canals. It is also home to the infamous Christiania neighborhood.

Christianshavn
Boats in the canal at Christianshavn

Christiania is a “free town, ” (AKA hippie commune) that began when some hippies took over some abandoned military barracks back in 1971 and set up camp. In addition to the military barracks that were there, people built their own houses with whatever free materials they could find, making for some pretty artsy and funky little abodes.

Christiania neighborhood, Copenhagen Denmark
Christiania neighborhood, Copenhagen
Christiania neighborhood, Copenhagen
Christiania neighborhood, Copenhagen

The original settlers of Christiania wanted to be able to make their own laws and government, including making marijuana legal. As you can imagine, controversy ensued and the area has had off and on battles with the police. In the 1970’s hard drugs were also part of Christiania’s culture, but after several overdoses and problems, the people of Christiania have outlawed all drugs other than marijuana. Unfortunately, this hasn’t been a completely successful campaign and problems with drug dealers and criminal gangs has been an intermittent issue.

If there is a “sketchy” neighborhood in Copenhagen, I suppose this would be it. I don’t feel threatened there but police raids are still known to happen and there have been violent incidents here in the last 10 years. Use caution, but don’t be afraid to check it out in the daytime.

If there has not been a police raid lately, you will probably see pot dealers on Pusher Street selling their wares. Note that cameras are not allowed in this area by the residents, and if you take a photo of a pot dealer he/she will not be happy with you. Leave the camera/phone in your bag.

Christiania, Copenhagen Denmark
“Pusher Street” from a distance. Christiania, Copenhagen
Christiania, Copenhagen Denmark
Christiania, Copenhagen

Christiania has a number of cafes and music venues, as well as art galleries and a few shops and souvenir stands. We stopped into a bar and had a beer outside in the sun. Bring cash if you want to buy something, I’m not sure if credit cards are accepted.

On the way out we tried to stop into an art gallery but it was closed for another hour or so. I wouldn’t plan on visiting Christiania in the morning, things seem to open a little later around here. Early evening or late afternoon would probably be the best time to go. Do your Copenhagen sightseeing earlier in the day, and then come to Christiania to have a beer and check out the scene.

Christiania, Copenhagen Denmark
Christiania, Copenhagen
Christiania, Copenhagen Denmark
Christiania, Copenhagen
Christiania, Copenhagen Denmark
Christiania, Copenhagen
Christiania, Copenhagen Denmark
Christiania, Copenhagen
Christiania, Copenhagen Denmark
Christiania, Copenhagen
Christiania, Copenhagen Denmark
Christiania, Copenhagen

We hung out for a little while until it was time to meet my friend Jakob for a late lunch.

Jakob had been one of my AFS exchange program orientation leaders when I was an exchange student. He was only three years older than me and one of three young Danish volunteers that our orientation group had a lot of fun with. He had also been on exchange in South America in the mid nineties.

Jakob and I reuniting at Ravelinen restaurant

We had originally planned on meeting Jakob for coffee, but we hadn’t had lunch yet and were hungry. Jakob suggested Ravelinen restaurant nearby, which served upscale traditional Danish smørrebrød in a nice quiet location on the water.

Ravelinen restaurant Copenhagen Denmark
Ravelinen restaurant Copenhagen
Ravelinen restaurant Copenhagen Denmark
Ravelinen restaurant Copenhagen

Danish smørrebrød is probably the cuisine that Denmark is known the most for. It literally means “butter and bread” and consists of an open-faced sandwich on rugbrød (hearty pumpernickel bread). Rugbrød is an acquired taste for many people (myself included), but it is very hearty and healthy. You don’t need to eat very much of it to be full and you stay full for hours.

Rugbrød is just a vehicle for other delicious foods, however so if you don’t like the taste just pile on the toppings.

Jakob and I each had a dish with herring, and Paddy had a pork dish. My herring came with apples and curry and dill, and was delicious. The dishes look small, but when you put them on rugbrød and create multiple open-faced sandwiches, you soon become very full.

Smørrebrød lunch at Ravelinen restaurant, Copenhagen
Smørrebrød lunch at Ravelinen restaurant, Copenhagen
Smørrebrød lunch at Ravelinen restaurant, Copenhagen
Smørrebrød lunch at Ravelinen restaurant, Copenhagen
Smørrebrød lunch at Ravelinen restaurant, Copenhagen
Smørrebrød lunch at Ravelinen restaurant, Copenhagen

I can count on my hand the number of times I remember eating out at a restaurant during my year in Denmark, and I don’t even think it totals more than five. So needless to say, this was the fanciest smørrebrød I’d ever had. It was also priced accordingly.

Danes don’t go out to eat very often. Going out to eat is very expensive in Denmark, so when Danes do go out to eat it is usually a special occasion or while on vacation. You won’t find a lot of mid-range restaurants in Denmark (or Scandinavia). You will either find cheap casual eateries or fancier pricey places.

If you want to experience some traditional Danish food done very upscale, Ravelinen is a great place to go and in the summer has a nice open air view of the water.

After lunch we said goodbye to Jakob and headed back towards the metro. Paddy’s allergies were really acting up as the grass pollen was really high, so we went back to Pan and Sebastian’s apartment to rest for a while before meeting up with them for dinner.

*Note: If you have allergies or think you could possibly need any kind of over-the-counter American medicines while in Denmark, bring them with you. Most medicines in Denmark are available by prescription only, and even cold medicines aren’t available.

That evening Pan and Sebastian took us to their favorite Szechuan restaurant near the Copenhagen Central Station called Magasasa.

Magasasa Szechuan restaurant, Copenhagen Denmark
Magasasa Szechuan restaurant, Copenhagen

We didn’t expect the best Szechuan food we’d ever had to be in Copenhagen, Denmark, but it was. If you are in Copenhagen and need a break from Scandinavian cuisine, definitely check this place out.

We told Pan and Sebastian just to order their favorites and we would share. We had the crispy duck, string bean pork, beef with black pepper sauce, tofu with mixed seafood, and chow mein.

Magasasa Szechuan restaurant, Copenhagen Denmark
Magasasa Szechuan restaurant, Copenhagen

The string bean pork and the crispy fried duck were absolutely the best we’d ever had. Everything was amazing. The prices were pretty reasonable too (for Denmark anyway).

Pan and Sebastian had annual passes to Tivoli Gardens amusement park that included two guests free of charge. Tivoli Gardens is one of the biggest tourist attractions in Copenhagen, for Danes and international tourists. It is nothing like an American amusement park–you won’t find deep fried butter or toothless carnies manning sketchy rides with half of the light bulbs working.

Tivoli is meticulously maintained down to the most finite details. Beautiful manicured gardens, stages for musical acts and other performances, bars, restaurants, shops, and a variety of fun rides. Peacocks and other exotic birds freely roam the grounds.

Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen Denmark
Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen
Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen Denmark
Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen

It was raining and after 9:00 PM, so there were very few other people in the park. All the lights were coming on, and it was actually really nice to stroll around in rain coats. Downright “hyggelig,” as the Danes would say.

You may have read about the Danish word/concept of “hyggelig.” It doesn’t translate entirely to English, the closest word we have in English is “cozy.” But hyggelig is more than just warming up by a fireplace in a sweater with a hot mug of cocoa. It is about nice atmosphere, and spending time with friends and family. Inviting your friends over to drink wine and play board games on a stormy winter night with candles is hyggelig. Having a picnic dinner in a nearby park is hyggelig. Walking through Tivoli Gardens in the rain with friends and lots of colorful lights is hyggelig.

Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen Denmark
Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen
Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen Denmark
Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen
Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen Denmark
Fun mirrors at Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen
Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen Denmark
Fun mirrors at Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen
Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen Denmark
Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen

We got some beers (Carlsberg and Tuborg, of course) from an outdoor beer stand and sat and talked under a covered patio for awhile, and then walked around some more. I was glad we didn’t pay full price for the short time that we were there, but we had a really nice time exploring the park and catching up with our friends. It was really beautiful at night with all the lights, and the rain didn’t bother us. We’re from the Pacific Northwest, we are used to outdoor activities in the rain.

Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen Denmark
Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen Denmark
Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen Denmark
Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen Denmark
Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen Denmark
Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen Denmark
Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen Denmark
Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen Denmark
Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen Denmark
Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen Denmark
Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen Denmark
Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen Denmark

We stayed at Tivoli until closing time at 11:00, and decided that a few more beers might be in order before we went home. Sebastian took us to Vesterbro Bryghus (Vesterbro brewery) right around the corner from Tivoli Gardens. It was a cozy little spot with live music and good craft beer. Craft beer wasn’t really a thing in Denmark back in the 90’s, but has since become extremely popular (much like it has in many parts of the US).

Vesterbro Bryghus Copenhagen Denmark
Vesterbro Bryghus Copenhagen
Vesterbro Bryghus Copenhagen Denmark
Paddy and Sebastian with beer samplers at Vesterbro Bryghus Copenhagen

 

Day 3:

Not wanting to overstay our welcome with Pan and Sebastian, and needing a couple days of alone time, we had arranged to check into an Airbnb in downtown Copenhagen for the next two nights.

Note: Airbnb is the best way to go for lodging in Denmark. Hotels are extremely expensive and tiny. With Airbnb you can find a one bedroom or studio apartment with a kitchen for less than the cost of a hotel room. We ended up staying in a hotel the last three nights of this trip, and what you get for your money in a budget hotel is pretty disappointing.

We met our Airbnb host at 11:00 AM for an early check in, which we appreciated. The apartment was located in some historic military barracks in the northern part of downtown Copenhagen, and had everything we needed including a fully stocked kitchen.

Airbnb in Copenhagen
Airbnb in Copenhagen
Airbnb in Copenhagen
denmark
Our airbnb in Copenhagen

To get across town, we had to take the train to the Osterport station, and then walk about 10 minutes with all our luggage. An easy walk if you aren’t carrying a bunch of stuff. Not so much if you are. (*Tip: pack light. You will be doing a lot of walking).

After a short rest, we walked down to Nyhavn, Copenhagen’s famous picturesque harbor. If you see any tourist brochure or guidebook for Copenhagen, Nyhavn will probably be the picture on the cover. It really is colorful and lovely.

Nyhavn, Copenhagen Denmark
Nyhavn, Copenhagen Denmark
Nyhavn, Copenhagen Denmark
Nyhavn, Copenhagen Denmark
Nyhavn, Copenhagen Denmark
Nyhavn, Copenhagen Denmark
Nyhavn, Copenhagen Denmark
Nyhavn, Copenhagen Denmark

Pan had suggested that we take a canal tour of the city from Nyhavn. While super touristy, this ended up being a fabulous idea. It was a nice day, and we were a little tired from lugging our stuff around and walking around the city a bit that morning.

The canal tour was 80 Kr (about $13 US) each, and leaves Nyhavn once every hour. We showed up right as one was about too leave–perfect timing.

Canal tour of Copenhagen from Nyhavn
Canal tour of Copenhagen from Nyhavn
Canal tour of Copenhagen from Nyhavn
Canal tour of Copenhagen from Nyhavn
Canal tour of Copenhagen from Nyhavn
Canal tour of Copenhagen from Nyhavn
Canal tour of Copenhagen from Nyhavn
Canal tour of Copenhagen from Nyhavn
Canal tour of Copenhagen from Nyhavn
Canal tour of Copenhagen from Nyhavn

The tour takes you through all the canals around the city: Christianshavn, the canal around Christiansborg palace, and out to the Little Mermaid statue. Don’t expect a good view of the Little Mermaid (Lille Havfrue) from the canal tour, you only see her backside from far away. Mostly you get a view of all the tourists taking photos of her.

In fact, you don’t really get a good tour of anything in particular, but you get a nice relaxing, restful boat ride with a guide telling you about parts of the city in English, Danish, and German. If you’re tired of walking and need a break, the canal tour is a good way to rest and keep sightseeing at the same time.

After the tour we stopped at the little hotdog kiosk next to the harbor. I had the frikadeller sandwich, and Paddy had a red hot dog.

Danes love their hotdogs (pølser.) The “red hotdog” (røde pølser) is just that–a bright red hot dog. It is dyed with a red dye, which can’t be good for you. I have no idea why it’s red (maybe to match the Danish flag??). In any event, it is a very Danish fast food item. Not all the pølser at the kiosks are red, however– in case you want to try the Danish hot dogs without day-glo artificial dyes.

røde pølser
Danish red hot dogs (røde pølser). Image from Wikipedia.

Paddy’s allergies were acting up again, so we decided to go back to the apartment to relax for a few before heading back out again. On the way back, we stopped in a few shops and visited Amalienborg Palace, the home of the Danish queen and royal family.

Amalienborg Palace, Copenhagen Denmark
Amalienborg Palace, Copenhagen Denmark
Amalienborg Palace, Copenhagen Denmark
Amalienborg Palace, Copenhagen Denmark
Amalienborg Palace, Copenhagen Denmark
Amalienborg Palace, Copenhagen Denmark
The Marble Church at Amalienborg Palace, Copenhagen Denmark
The Marble Church at Amalienborg Palace, Copenhagen Denmark

Flashback! Me at Amalienborg Palace in 1997:

Me (age 16) at Amalienborg Palace in October 1997

Later in the afternoon we decided to walk to see the Little Mermaid statue, the proverbial Eiffel Tower of Denmark and an ode to Danish author Hans Christian Andersen. I suppose everyone has to see it, it is the number one tourist landmark in the country, but it really is rather disappointing. I’d seen it before during my exchange year but felt like I should go back and see it again with Paddy. It was early evening and the weather was nice. We had a lovely stroll through the park on the way there.

Garden in Langelinie Park on the way to the Little Mermaid, Copenhagen
Garden in Langelinie Park on the way to the Little Mermaid, Copenhagen
Church in Langelinie Park on the way to the Little Mermaid, Copenhagen
Church in Langelinie Park on the way to the Little Mermaid, Copenhagen
The Little Mermaid, Copenhagen Denmark
The Little Mermaid, Copenhagen Denmark
The Little Mermaid, Copenhagen Denmark
The Little Mermaid, Copenhagen Denmark
The Little Mermaid, Copenhagen Denmark

The Little Mermaid has been a victim of vandalism by teens and political activists over the years. She has had her head and arm taken off (I think more than once?), and has been painted different colors. The week before we arrived, she had been painted red as a protest against the pilot whale slaughter in the Faroe Islands.

It turned out early evening was a good time to visit Den Lille Havfrue, most of the tourist crowds visit during the day. There were a few tourists but not too many. As we were walking away I heard a man say to his friend, “She really is unremarkable, isn’t she?”

If you are a fan of Hans Christian Andersen and the Little Mermaid story, I’d suggest visiting his house and museum in the town of Odense on the island of Fyn. Odense is an easy two hour train ride from Copenhagen and the museum is just a short walk from the train station. The museum has the original hand-written stories including Den Lille Havfrue from 1837. I find his house and the museum to be much more interesting than the statue.

On the way back to the apartment we grabbed some pizza from a nearby fast food pizza restaurant for dinner. Pizza in Denmark is everywhere and cheap. It is often the preferred snack of drunk young Danes at 4:00 AM outside the bars.

Copenhagen
Evening stroll in Copenhagen
Copenhagen
Copenhagen

At 8:00 PM we met up with a former classmate of mine, Ann and her husband Martin at a restaurant called Cofoco. Cofoco is located in the Vesterbro neighborhood not far from Copenhagen Central Station. Ann had been one of my closest classmates during my year in Denmark, and had visited us in Seattle back in 2011. It was really great to see her again and meet her husband.

Cofoco is a fancier restaurant with small plates, and we just wanted to have a few small things and some drinks. I had the ceviche dish, and the kaffir lime ice cream for dessert. Both were delicious, the ceviche was a unique preparation with green tomatoes and herbs. The kaffir lime ice cream came with white chocolate cream, crisp honey cakes, and fresh strawberries.

Ceviche at Cofoco restaurant, Copenhagen
Ceviche at Cofoco restaurant, Copenhagen
Kaffir lime ice cream at Cofoco restaurant, Copenhagen
Kaffir lime ice cream at Cofoco restaurant, Copenhagen

We finished our evening at Copenhagen’s tiki bar Brass Monkey. Because you know we just had to go to the tiki bar in Denmark.

We had originally tried to get a group of classmates together for the evening, and Ann had booked a table for us. However, it ended up just being us as one classmate came down with the flu, another had a sick child, and another was having a difficult pregnancy and ordered to be on bed rest from her doctor. It was disappointing not to see them, but I assured them I’d be back in town again in a few years. I suppose I timed my visit to be at a time when many of my classmates are at the age where they have small children to tend to. I’ll try my next visit in 5 or so years when their kids are a bit older.

Brass Monkey Tiki Bar, Copenhagen Denmark
Ann holding my “welcome back” sign

Brass Monkey was a great tiki bar. The DJ played a lot of great American garage and surf hits from the 60’s, and the decor was on point. The drinks were delicious, albeit expensive (it’s Denmark after all). Ann and I shared a Volcano Bowl and then I tried a classic daiquiri. The drinks tasted like they used real fruit juice and were not overly sweet.

Brass Monkey Tiki Bar, Copenhagen Denmark
Ann and Martin, Brass Monkey Tiki Bar, Copenhagen Denmark
Brass Monkey Tiki Bar, Copenhagen Denmark
Volcano bowl cocktail, Brass Monkey Tiki Bar, Copenhagen Denmark
Brass Monkey Tiki Bar, Copenhagen Denmark
Brass Monkey Tiki Bar, Copenhagen Denmark
Brass Monkey Tiki Bar, Copenhagen Denmark
Menu, Brass Monkey Tiki Bar, Copenhagen Denmark
Brass Monkey Tiki Bar, Copenhagen Denmark
Brass Monkey Tiki Bar, Copenhagen Denmark

It was a fun evening, and we made plans to do something the next day as Ann and Martin had the day off.

 

Day 4:

We slept in and had breakfast at the apartment, and then met up with a friend and her husband for coffee at The Corner coffee bar at Restaurant 108. The coffee and pastries were great, the barista was extremely pretentious. He was annoyed when Paddy ordered a drip coffee and said that they were out and he didn’t want to make any more, so Paddy got an Americano instead. I was snapped at when I ordered a pastry off the menu that he was out of as well. Despite snobby man bun barista with the attitude, the coffee was good and we had a nice visit.

Ann and Martin had originally planned on going sight seeing outside the city with us, but I got a message from Ann that she was very hungover from the night before and would need to rest, leaving us with a free day.

We spent the afternoon walking around the neighborhood near Copenhagen University. We found some fun shops on

In the Gameltorv (Old Square) we found a festival of Thai food and culture going on. There were many Thai street food booths and some Thai dancers performing.

We took a rest in the late afternoon back at the apartment and then headed out for dinner and a couple of drinks.

We had dinner at one of the many casual Middle Eastern “kabab” restaurants on the pedestrian shopping street. It was good and affordable. Not as cheap as in the US, but much less expensive than if we went out to a nicer restaurant.

kabab dinner Copenhagen Denmark
Kabab dinner

After dinner we went to a bar called the Voodoo Lounge, which seemed like a funky little dive bar that  Paddy would like.

Voodoo Lounge Copenhagen
Voodoo Lounge Copenhagen

There was some metal playing on the juke box, and lots of novelty shot specials on the drink menu. I took this opportunity to make sure that Paddy didn’t leave Denmark without trying a shot of the Hot N’ Sweet salt licorice vodka for only 20 kr (about $3).

Paddy trying Hot N’ Sweet salt licorice vodka for the first time.
Paddy trying Hot N’ Sweet salt licorice vodka for the first time.
Paddy trying Hot N’ Sweet salt licorice vodka for the first time.
Paddy trying Hot N’ Sweet salt licorice vodka for the first time.

It wasn’t his favorite. However, you shouldn’t go to Denmark without trying it once. It is very Danish.

It was early was early and we were the only patrons at the Voodoo Lounge aside from a group of 18 year old kids a couple booths down who were getting their Saturday night started early.

Young people in Denmark usually don’t go out until about 11:00 or so in the evening, after having several drinks at home with friends first to save money. Many bars don’t close until 6:00 or 7:00 in the morning, so a night out for the youth crowd pretty much means all night.

Good news for the older folks: You can usually go out and have some drinks earlier in the evening and head home around 11:00 PM,  avoiding the weekend warrior brigade of drunk youngsters.

We called it a night pretty early, as we had a train to catch at 9:00 AM the next morning and we didn’t have much money to drink out at bars with (Denmark is expensive!).

Tip: Beer, wine, and booze are easily purchased at local grocery stores and bodegas, so it is easy to have a few cheap drinks in your room to save money. This isn’t the case in other Scandinavian countries like Sweden, Norway, and Iceland where you have to buy all alcohol in a government liquor store. Denmark is much more liberal with their alcohol laws and alcohol is cheaper in Denmark than elsewhere in Scandinavia.

Fanø Island

 

Day 5:

Today was the day that I would travel to Fanø Island to visit my host family for the first time in 19 years. I was excited and nervous.

Fanø is a popular summer tourist destination for Danes and Germans who visit Fanø for its big, sandy beaches. To get to Fanø Island, you have to catch the ferry from the west coast city of Esbjerg.

The train from Copenhagen to Esbjerg takes about three hours with no transfers. The further in advance you book your train tickets, the cheaper they are. I booked the orange non-refundable tickets on the Danish DSB train website for about $15 per person a month in advance, which was a really good deal.

We managed to find our correct train car this time, and the train ride was pretty smooth.

Train from Copenhagen to Esbjerg Denmark
Train from Copenhagen to Esbjerg

We arrived in Esbjerg about noon, and proceeded to walk through town to the Fanø ferry. (We later learned that we could have caught the bus from the train station to the ferry, the bus is usually timed with the train and ferry arrivals). It is about a 15 minute walk.

Esbjerg was where I went to school when I lived in Denmark and where I spent a lot of time with my friends. It was a quiet Sunday, and most of the shops weren’t open quite yet despite it being past noon.

I’ve had so many dreams about going back over the past 19 years. Walking through Esbjerg, catching the ferry, walking up my host parents’ driveway. It was surreal to finally do it.

The Fanø ferry terminal had been expanded since I lived there in the 90’s, and the ferries were different. No more smoking section!

Fanø ferry departing Esbjerg Denmark
Fanø ferry departing Esbjerg Denmark
Fanø ferry
Fanø ferry
Fanø ferry
Fanø ferry

The ferry takes about 12 minutes and leaves every 30 minutes in the summer (every hour in late evening and certain times in the winter). The cost for a an adult walk on passenger is 45 Kr (about $7.25) round trip.

After another 10 minute walk through town, we arrived at my host parents’ house. My host parents (Mogens and Tove) were working in the garden. It was so great to see them after all this time.

My host parents’ house on Fanø.
My host parents’ house on Fanø.
My host parents' beautiful garden on Fanø.
My host parents’ beautiful garden on Fanø.
My host parents' beautiful garden on Fanø.
My host parents’ beautiful garden on Fanø.
My host parents' beautiful garden on Fanø.
My host parents’ beautiful garden on Fanø.

Mogens and Tove welcomed us and prepared a traditional Danish smørrebrød (open-faced sandwich) lunch in their little garden house. We had pickled herring, ham and deli pork with a mayonnaise-vegetable salad, and hard boiled eggs with tomatoes, all served with Danish rugbrød (dense pumpernickel bread).

Mogens and Tove’s garden house
Traditional Danish smørrebrød (open faced sandwich) lunch
Traditional Danish smørrebrød (open faced sandwich) lunch
My host parents, Mogens and Tove–love this photo of them!

Shortly after lunch my host brother Jeppe and his family came over for cake and coffee, along with my host sister Sofie and and her husband. It was so great to see them, and quite a warm welcome.

Paddy and I stayed in my old room, which was just what I had hoped we would do. Mogens and Tove’s lovely house looked pretty much the same as it did in 1998, save a few updates and improvements in the kitchen and upstairs bathroom. They run a bed and breakfast during the busy summer season on Fanø called Engbo Bed & Breakfast. If you visit Fanø in the summer, you can stay with them too–and I highly recommend you do. They are wonderful people and their house is central to everything in the main town of Norby.

Engbo Bed and Breakfast Fanø Denmark
My old room–also a room for rent at Mogens and Tove’s bed and breakfast
Upstairs living area at Mogens and Tove’s house

Tove wouldn’t let me help her with dinner that evening, so I took a short walk around town.

Fanø has many traditional grass-roof houses that date back to the 1700’s and 1800’s. They are very cute and well-maintained to this day.

Grass-roof house on Fanø
Grass-roof house on Fanø
Grass-roof house on Fanø
Grass-roof house on Fanø

Fanø
Hovedgaden, the main street through Norby town on house on Fanø

Flashback! Here I am riding a bike on Hovedgaden back in 1997:

Fanø
Me on a bicycle riding through Fanø town in July 1997.

We had a really nice home-cooked dinner that evening with Mogens and Tove, drinking wine and catching up on the past 19 years.

 

Day 6:

We had breakfast in the garden in the morning–bread rolls with cheese and jam and yogurt with muesli. I love the Danish muesli-it isn’t so sweet like American granola and is much healthier for you. Yogurt in Denmark comes in milk cartons and you pour it into a bowl and put muesli on top.

After breakfast, Mogens took us on a little adventure down to Sønderho, the town on the south end of the island.

We stopped by the beach on the south end in attempt to see the seals that are often laying around on the sand bars there, but the seals were pretty far out and you needed waterproof rain boots to walk to them. It was pretty windy as well, so we skipped the seals and headed into Sønderho town for some coffee.

Funny thing about the seals–they weren’t there in the 90’s when I was living on Fanø. They showed up some time later and are now a large tourist attraction.

Sønderho beach, Fanø
Sønderho beach, Fanø
Having coffee with Mogens and listening to stories about the history of Fanø

The restaurant Mogens took us to wasn’t open yet, but the owner let us in and served us some coffee anyway. Mogens told us all about the history of Fanø.

After coffee, we stopped by Hanne’s Hus (Hanne’s house), a historical house made into a museum to show a typical home during Fanø’s “golden age” of ship-building back in the late 1700’s. It wasn’t open as it was a Monday, but we peeked inside anyway.

Hanne's Hus Fanø Denmark
Hanne’s House, Sønderho, Fanø
Fanø
Mogens telling Paddy the stories of Fanø
Traditional grass-roof house in Sønderho, Fanø Denmark
Traditional grass-roof house in Sønderho, Fanø
Traditional grass-roof house in Sønderho, Fanø Denmark
Traditional grass-roof house in Sønderho, Fanø
Fanø, Denmark
Traditional grass-roof houses on Fanø
Fanø
Fanø
Fanø
Fanø

Before heading back, Mogens took us on a walk to see an old duck trap on the island. It’s use for hunting was prohibited in 1931, but was used after that for many years to put tracking tags on the ducks for the purpose of scientific study. There is a large outdoor informational display at the duck decoy/trap about birds and wildlife on Fanø and the history of the duck trap.

Duck decoy/trap on Fanø (no longer in use)
Duck decoy/trap on Fanø (no longer in use)

On the way back to the car, Mogens suddenly darted off the path and out into the field, and came back with a plant that is a relative of the venus fly trap. It looked like a venus fly trap, but very tiny. A little online research upon returning home revealed it to be a relative of the venus fly trap, but a smaller carnivorous species called drosera intermedia or a “”sundew.”I’d never seen one in the wild before. Mogens took it home to try and pot it.

Venus fly trap type plant
A “Sundew,” relative of the Venus Fly Trap  Drosera intermedia

When we arrived back in Norby, Mogens and Tove had some things they had to do, so we took a walk through town and poked around in some of the shops. It was mostly standard butik shops and tourist fare.

On the way back we stopped at Fanø Vaffel og Bolsjehus for some soft ice cream. Before you leave Denmark,  be sure to try the ice cream. The soft ice cream (soft is) is very sweet and creamy and different than the soft ice cream in the US.  It is often served with sprinkles or chocolate dust on top.

Danish soft ice cream
Danish soft ice cream

Hard ice cream is also delicious in Denmark, and is served with real whip cream and a sweet cream on top. It’s hard to describe–just try it. As a matter of fact, don’t leave Denmark without trying some sort of local dairy product. Cheese, ice cream, butter–try it all. Dairy is something that Danes do very well.

Fanø Vaffel og Bolsjehus is also a great place to buy candy to take home to share with family and co-workers. Danes love hard candy and gummy candies, especially black licorice. Try the salt licorice–it’s an acquired taste but very Scandinavian.

Later that evening I helped Tove harvest some new potatoes from her garden for dinner. When I lived in Denmark, we didn’t always have fresh garden potatoes for dinner, but we always had potatoes. Every night. I didn’t know how to cook when I was an exchange student, but I could peel potatoes and wash dishes. So that’s what I did every night. Every night. Fortunately, I love potatoes.

Tove harvesting delicious new potatoes from her garden for dinner

For dinner Tove and Mogens made the quintessential Danish dinner, Frikadeller. Frikadeller are fried meatballs made with pork or a combo of beef and pork, and usually served with boiled potatoes and some sort of gravy sauce. Mogens and Tove argued about how they should be cooked, Mogens thought they should be crispy on the outside and Tove was worried that he would burn them. They turned out delicious, whatever the cooking consensus.

Mogens cooking traditional Danish frikadeller
Mogens cooking traditional Danish frikadeller
Danish frikadeller
Danish frikadeller

We had a traditional Danish appetizer while cooking of some laks (smoked salmon lox) on French bread with butter and fresh dill from the garden. I remember my host parents serving this at Christmas and whenever we had company over for dinner. It’s delicious with white wine.

Laks (salmon lox) appetizer
Laks (salmon lox) appetizer
Danish frikadeller dinner with boiled cauliflower and salad
Danish frikadeller dinner with boiled cauliflower, carrots, and salad

Dinner was just how I remembered many dinners as an exchange student, and it was really nice to share the experience with Paddy.

After dinner we sat at the table and had coffee, wine, and snaps, talking until late in the evening.

Danish snaps (schnapps) is not like what we consider schnapps in the US. It is more of a vodka/potato based aquavit type of liquor, not a sweet syrupy flavoring liqueur.

Mogens had a couple kinds of snaps he flavored with berries and herbs from his garden. Danes drink snaps at celebrations, when company comes to dinner–or any time at all, really. It is a drink meant to be sipped.

 

Day 7:

After another lovely breakfast of bread, cheese, and yogurt with museli, Paddy and I ventured out into town in search of the infamous Fanø seals. Mogens and Tove told us that they often like to lay on the sand bar near the Norby ferry.

Sure enough, there were many fat, lazy, happy seals sunning themselves on the sand bar by the ferry. They were in many different colors, and all seemed to be smiling and quite pleased with themselves.

Fanø seals
Fanø seals
Fanø seals
Fanø seals
Fanø seals
Fanø seals
Fanø seals
Fanø seals

After enjoying the seals, we continued down to the ferry dock and strolled along the beach near the ferry in search of more seals, and amber. We found a few amber-colored rocks, but no amber.

Amber (fossilized tree sap) washes up on the beaches of Fanø during storms, and can be polished up to make jewelry. You can find amber jewelry in the little shops in Norby to buy as a souvenir. The best place to look for Amber is on the southern beaches of the island.

Fanø ferry beach
Fanø ferry beach
Fanø ferry beach
Fanø ferry beach with Esbjerg in the distance

We happened to be on Fanø during the Fanø International Kite Festival, which happens every June. I remembered the festival from my exchange year, and was excited to see it again. People come from all over the world to fly unique and interesting kites on Fanø’s immense sandy beaches.

Fanø Kite Festival, June 1998
Me at the Fanø Kite Festival, June 1998

Tove and Mogens let us borrow their bikes, so we rode to the beach to check it out.

Bikes are a main mode of transportation for many people in Denmark, and was my only mode of transportation around the city and island when I was an exchange student. My host family didn’t even own a car back then. I hadn’t been on a bike since I was about 18 years old, but turns out–you really don’t forget how to do it.

Riding a bike on the Fanø Strand
Riding a bike on the Fanø Strand
Riding a bike on the Fanø Strand
Riding a bike on the Fanø Strand
Riding a bike on the Fanø Strand
Riding bikes on the Fanø Strand

It was a little less windy than the day before (there is such a thing as too windy for kites), and closer to the weekend so there were many kites out on the beach.

Fanø International Kite Festival
Fanø International Kite Festival
Fanø International Kite Festival
Fanø International Kite Festival
Fanø International Kite Festival
Fanø International Kite Festival
Fanø International Kite Festival
Fanø International Kite Festival
Fanø International Kite Festival
Fanø International Kite Festival

We could have ridden for miles and looked at all the kites, but the wind was a bit difficult to ride a bike in, so we just went a little ways.

On the way home, we stopped at the Mission Afrika Genbrug thrift store. If you see a shop in Denmark that has “genbrug” in it’s name, it means thrift store (literal translation: recycle/reuse). I love thrift stores in foreign countries, you can often find a very inexpensive and unique souvenir.

I hit the jackpot on this thrift store visit– I found a Norwegian wool sweater for only 40 kr –a little over $6.00 USD. Norwegian sweaters are upwards of $200-$300 USD new, and this one fit me and was in great condition. Score!

Norwegian sweater score at the Mission Afrika Genbrug thrift store on Fanø
Norwegian sweater score at the Mission Afrika Genbrug thrift store on Fanø

We ended the afternoon with a beer at the new Fanø Bryghhus across the street. Inside the brewery was pretty production oriented, but you could ring a bell and buy a glass of beer on tap from one of the workers inside. I tried the special kite beer they had for the festival weekend. It was really good. There was outdoor seating available.

Fanø Bryghus (brewery)
Fanø Bryghus (brewery)
Fanø Bryghus (brewery)
Fanø Bryghus (brewery)
Fanø Bryghus (brewery)
Fanø Bryghus (brewery)

That evening Mogens and Tove had invited my host Aunt and Uncle and my AFS liason from my exchange year and her husband over for dinner. My AFS liason Marianne had also been the host mother of one of my closest exchange student friends. Paddy is a great cook, and we wanted to cook an American dinner for everyone. We decided prior to traveling that we would do this, and brought along  a recipe for Louisiana style shrimp and grits with collard greens and cornbread.

Grits, collard greens, and cornbread are all things that you won’t find in Denmark (at least they would be very difficult to come by). Anticipating this, I had been lugging a box of grits, cornbread mix, Cajun seasoning, and smoked paprika around in my suitcase since we landed in Stockholm.

Having purchased our shrimp earlier that day at Fanø Fisk in Norby, we walked next door to the shiny new Super Brugsen in search of the rest of our ingredients.

We managed to find a type of green leafy cabbage that was similar to collard greens, and we found everything else we needed including a spicy sausage that ended up tasting just like Cajun andouille sausage. We even found cheddar cheese for the grits–which I’ve never seen in any household in Denmark, but someone must eat it if they sell it at the grocery store.

It was successful! I think our dining companions found the food to be tasty but a bit rich to eat very often. We chose southern American food because Pacific Northwest food would be a delicious salmon dinner–and salmon is already common meal in Denmark as well. We wanted to go with something different and possibly something new that my Danish family hadn’t had before.

Shrimp and grits with collard greens and cornbread

Shrimp and grits with collard greens and cornbread

It was so nice to catch up with everyone and I felt very welcomed “home.” After dinner the conversation turned into mostly Danish and I felt a bit bad for Paddy as I could follow most of it but not all…but then again that was what the first three months of being an exchange student was like:  a lot of participation in family activities and not understanding anything. Paddy was a good sport.

 

Esbjerg:

Day 8:

The next day, it was time to say goodbye and head back to Esbjerg. We took some photos in the garden and then Mogens drove us to the ferry. They said they would like to come visit us in Seattle next summer and I hope they do.

Saying goodbye to my host parents Tove and Mogens

Mogens stood on the pier and waved at us until the ferry was out of sight. I teared up a little.

Saying goodbye to Fanø
Saying goodbye to Fanø

At the Esbjerg ferry terminal we were able to catch the bus to the train station. The driver was even able to provide change.

From the train station we walked a short block over to the Cabinn Hotel on Skolegade. Our room was ready. This was our first taste of a budget hotel in Denmark–the Cabinn was like getting the shittiest room on a cruise ship. The bathroom had a very airplane bathroom-like quality to it. The shower was pretty much on top of the toilet. This is what you get for $135/night in Denmark. I think I booked the second from the lowest rate room as well. The “economy” room advertised a very skinny twin bed with an equally skinny pull-out trundle bed underneath. The rate did include a more than adequate continental breakfast, however.

Cabinn Hotel Esbjerg
Cabinn Hotel Esbjerg
Cabinn Hotel Esbjerg
Cabinn Hotel Esbjerg
Cabinn Hotel Esbjerg
Cabinn Hotel Esbjerg

Esbjerg was the city I went to school in during my exchange year, and the city where most of my classmates lived. I spent a lot of time in Esbjerg, and it was a trip to be back after so long.

We freshened up at the hotel and then walked around the pedestrian shopping street (Kongensgade) and main square a bit. We wanted to get something inexpensive for lunch, but there weren’t a lot of casual, affordable lunch options. We settled on dönerkebab sandwiches at Babylon Pizza on Skolegade. Skolegade street is where all the bars and nightlife are, and I remember going to Babylon Pizza for a late night slice or two back during my exchange year. I’d never been there in the light of day. The chicken dönerkebab I had was really good. It was huge, a bit too big for me to finish. Good value for an inexpensive lunch.

Pizza, Esbjerg
Dönerkebab at Babylon Pizza, Esbjerg

After lunch we walked around Esbjerg some more. The town square looked just as I remembered it.

Esbjerg town square, Denmark
Esbjerg town square

We also walked up to my old school, which was a different school now. There wasn’t anyone there, exams were over and the school was empty. The door was unlocked though, so we walked in and peeked inside. It looked exactly the same.

Me in front of my old school in Esbjerg

Later that evening, we met up with some of my old classmates at the restaurant Dronning Louise in the town square. Dronning means queen in Danish, and Dronning Louise restaurant and bar has been around since before I was an exchange student. I remember many nights dancing until the wee hours in the upstairs bar with my classmates. I’d never eaten at the restaurant though–eating out in Denmark was too expensive for me back then.

It was really great to see some of my classmates again. We had a really nice time catching up. I wished I had more time in Esbjerg to spend with them other than just the one evening.

Dronning Louise in Esbjerg
Dinner with old classmates at Dronning Louise in Esbjerg

The menu was good, mostly upscale pub grub. Expensive, but not too outrageous. Paddy and I both ordered burgers. I had the grilled halloumi burger with portobello mushrooms, avocado, red onion, and pepper chutney. It was delicious, but HUGE. I only made it through half of my burger–I definitely wasn’t expecting the biggest burger ever to be served to me in Denmark.

burger at Dronning Louise in Esbjerg
Halloumi burger at Dronning Louise in Esbjerg
With my old classmates at Dronning Louise in Esbjerg

It was a Wednesday night, so we didn’t make it a late one. Paddy and I had an early train to catch the next morning anyway. It was a really nice evening, the best weather we’d had so far during our trip.

Esbjerg town square in the evening
Esbjerg town square in the evening

 

Back to Copenhagen

Day 9:

The Cabinn had a nice continental breakfast, despite the small, cramped rooms. It was typical Scandinavian breakfast fare– breads, meats, cheeses, cucumbers, hard boiled eggs, yogurt, museli, etc.

The Cabinn location next to the Esbjerg train station was also a big bonus.

Once again, we ended up in the right seats in the wrong train car. The train cars were not labeled with the same car numbers as on the tickets when we boarded, and the digital car numbers weren’t changed until after we had settled in. So we had to get all our bags and move once again, which was super annoying. Be sure to double check your train car number.

View from train window on the way from Esbjerg to Copenhagen

We had booked two last nights in Copenhagen before flying home at the First Hotel Twentyseven near the Copenhagen Central Station. I realized as we walked the half mile to the hotel that “near” is a relative term when carrying luggage.

Our room wasn’t ready, but they were happy to store our luggage while we walked around. We were hungry, so we began a hunt for an affordable lunch in the area. This once again proved difficult. If you don’t want pizza, kebab, or McDonalds, you are pretty much going to pay high prices.

We circled around a few times, realizing that we were in the touristy area of Copenhagen. We finally settled on a place called Rio Bravo, which had a comical American “wild west” theme but served Danish food. Mostly, we just wanted to sit down and kill time and have a beer and some lunch. It was close to the hotel. Not cheap, but we were there, so we went in.

Rio Bravo restaurant, Copenhagen
Paddy at Rio Bravo restaurant, Copenhagen

Paddy had a Caesar salad with chicken and I had a Danish fried fish dish with pumpernickel bread, and we each had a beer. I think we spent around $50. The food was alright. Not $50 alright, but alright.

Back at First Hotel Twentyseven, we waited until check in time exactly before our room was ready. The hotel definitely has a hipster theme going on.

First Hotel Twentyseven Copenhagen
First Hotel Twentyseven Copenhagen
First Hotel Twentyseven Copenhagen
First Hotel Twentyseven Copenhagen
First Hotel Twentyseven Copenhagen
First Hotel Twentyseven Copenhagen
First Hotel Twentyseven Copenhagen
First Hotel Twentyseven Copenhagen

Our room was small, but not too cramped with a nice bathroom. It included complimentary instant coffee, tea, and a few snacks. I think we spent about $175 a night, breakfast not included. The bed had an older, saggy mattress which was disappointing. Overall, we can’t recommend Airbnb enough. Hotels in Scandinavia are expensive and just not worth the price.

First Hotel Twentyseven Copenhagen
First Hotel Twentyseven Copenhagen
First Hotel Twentyseven Copenhagen
First Hotel Twentyseven Copenhagen

We spent a little while relaxing and then walked to the metro station to take the metro to visit my host sister Ny and her family for dinner at her house. It was great to meet her husband and beautiful daughters, and there was even a surprise visit from my host cousin Johan.

Me with my host cousin Johan and host sister Ny at her house in Copenhagen

On the way back to the hotel from the metro station we walked by Mojo Blues Club and went in. A Danish woman and her band were performing classic American blues songs. It wasn’t what we were expecting to find in Copenhagen, but the band was really good. We wanted to stay longer but the cigarette smoke was too much. We found it odd that it is illegal to smoke in all bars in Denmark except this one (??). It’s too bad, it’s a great music spot.

Mojo Blues Club Copenhagen
Mojo Blues Club Copenhagen

 

Day 10:

On our last day in Denmark, I had grandiose plans of getting up early and taking the train to Kronborg Castle (AKA “Hamlet’s Castle) in Helsingør, as it was my favorite castle that I saw during my exchange year. I had also wanted to try and tour Rosenborg Castle as well in Copenhagen.

However, after non-stop going from place to place and visiting people, we really just needed a lazy day. We had a great time visiting everyone, but we kind of felt like we needed a vacation from our vacation. So we slept in late, and then went and had coffee and sandwiches at Kontra Coffee around the corner from our hotel. Their coffee was delicious and came with a little piece of chocolate to dip in. The sandwiches were also great and the price was reasonable.

Kontra Coffee Copenhagen
Kontra Coffee Copenhagen
Delicious coffee and sandwiches at Kontra Coffee Copenhagen
Delicious coffee and sandwiches at Kontra Coffee Copenhagen

We spent the rest of the afternoon resting and reading books and doing a lot of nothing.

That evening we had dinner plans with my friend Ann and her husband again at their house in the town of Ganløse, about an hour’s train ride northwest of Copenhagen.

We met Ann at the train station in Hillerød and she drove us by Fredericksborg Castle on the way home. The castle was closing and it began pouring rain, so we didn’t get a great look at it but it was really awesome. Fredericksborg Castle is a good day trip idea from Copenhagen if you have a few days in the city.

Fredericksborg Castle in Hillerød
Fredericksborg Castle in Hillerød
Fredericksborg Castle in Hillerød
Fredericksborg Castle in Hillerød

Ann introduced us to her kids and she and her husband Martin made a delicious home-cooked Danish dinner. We wished we could have stayed later to continue catching up with them, but we had a 6:00 AM flight back home the next morning so we couldn’t stay that late. It was a nice evening.

My friend Ann and her beautiful family

We had originally chosen First Hotel Twentyseven because it was close to the Copenhagen Central Station so that we could easily get to the airport when we left. After considering the half mile walk with luggage, the pouring rain, and leaving for the airport at 3:00 AM, we opted just to take a taxi to the airport from the hotel. It was expensive–about $50 USD but worth it to avoid the hassle of carrying luggage in the rain and trying to catch a train at 3:00 AM. Sometimes your convenience is worth it, and this was definitely one of those times.

 

My return to Denmark was the trip I had hoped it would be. I didn’t get to see everyone I wanted to see, and I had wanted to do a few more tourist things with Paddy, but overall it was a fantastic trip back.

If you are visiting Denmark for the first time, my biggest piece of advice for you is to get out of Copenhagen. Most tourists just stop off in Copenhagen and call it good. There is much more to Denmark than Copenhagen. It may be a tiny country, but it has some interesting things to offer.

Here is a list of suggested places to visit in Denmark outside of Copenhagen:
  1. Kronborg Castle in Helsingør

2. Fredericksborg Castle in Hillerød

The city of Odense, including Hans Christian Anderson’s house

3. The city of Århus (Aarhus). A fun college town with an old town museum where you can see traditional Danish culture and buildings on display. 

4. The town of Ribe, Denmark’s oldest town. The Ribe Cathedral dates back to the 1100s. There is a viking museum with ancient artifacts and many other historical attractions.

5. The town of Skagen–the northernmost tip of Denmark. A quaint artsy beach town with miles of beautiful sandy beaches

6. Legoland in the town of Billund. Did you know Legos are from Denmark? Now you do.

7. Fanø island (highly recommended!).

 

And finally, if my host family or Danish classmates are reading this, I want to say thank you. Thank you to my host family for taking a strange American girl into their home for a year and making her part of your family. Thank you for such a warm welcome “home.” And thank you to my classmates for accepting me for who I was, helping me learn Danish, and helping me navigate teenage Danish culture. Being an exchange student in your country grew my soul and helped define the person I wanted to be more than any other experience in my life. I went home humbled, empowered, confident, and hungry to see the world. I promise it won’t take another 20 years for me to make it back to Denmark again. Thank you.

Me with my host sisters and host cousins, June 1998

Mexico 2016: Isla Holbox, Valladolid, and Tulum

Mexico 2016: Isla Holbox, Valladolid, and Tulum. A quiet laid-back island, the Mayan Ruins of Ek Balam, Flamingos and wildlife at Rio Lagartos, and the beautiful beaches of Tulum

 

This trip was our second trip to the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico. Our first trip was in the low season in September, and while it was one of the best trips Paddy and I have taken, it was also a bit too hot for our comfort. This time we went in the high season in March, and it was a much more comfortable temperature.

This trip we opted to visit the laid-back and a bit off the beaten path Isla Holbox in the north, the Spanish colonial city of Valladolid, a day trip to Rio Lagartos and the Ek Balam Mayan ruins, and finally south to Tulum for our last few days. Our friends Heather and Stephen joined us for most of the trip, they have also traveled with us to Thailand and Las Vegas.

The Yucatan peninsula in Mexico remains one of our favorite vacation spots, and there is still so much left to see.

If you’ve never been to Mexico before, here are a few basic travel tips:

 

  1. Don’t ever drink the tap water. Don’t even brush your teeth with it. Don’t open your mouth in the shower, don’t get it in your mouth at all. Stick to bottled water (with an intact seal) and bottled beverages. Make sure cocktails are made with purified ice (hielo purificado).
  1. Eat cooked food only, raw veggies and fruits that don’t have an outer peel may not always be washed with purified water, so eating raw veggies can be a gamble. It’s a gamble we’ve taken, and not had a problem. The more upscale or touristy a restaurant, the better chance the veggies have been sanitized. If you are at a little local joint, stick to cooked hot veggies only.
  1. Don’t flush your toilet paper. This is hard for Westerners to get used to, but Mexican plumbing is not equipped to handle TP. Throw it in the trash.
  1. Credit card theft is common, don’t allow your card to disappear from your site when paying. We typically use a credit card to pay for our hotels, and use our debit cards only to withdraw cash from ATMs to pay for everything else that way. Cards aren’t accepted everywhere, especially small shops and restaurants so paying with cash is the safest bet.
  1. To get the best exchange rate, pay directly with your card or withdraw cash from an ATM. Paying in dollars or exchanging dollars when you get there will get you a lower exchange rate. Try to only get cash from ATMs at banks, not stand-alones. If possible, use ATMs when bank hours are open, so if the machine eats your card, they can assist you.
  1. Don’t forget to call your bank and credit card companies before you leave the country! If you don’t let them know you will be using your cards internationally, they will most likely block your transactions.
  1. Ask taxi drivers for a rate and agree on a price before getting in. If it’s too high, negotiate or ask another driver. It helps if you speak some Spanish with drivers.
  1. If you don’t speak Spanish, get a travel dictionary and learn some basic phrases and numbers.
  1. Don’t be afraid. Mexico is a friendly country and the Yucatan is one of the safest places in Mexico right now. The drug cartels don’t target tourists and the drug violence is not going on in the touristy areas. Just be smart, don’t flash your money around, be wary of scammers, and you’ll be fine.

 

 

Day 1:

We arrived in Cancun at 4:40 PM (Alaska Air offers a direct flight from Seattle to Cancun now, which is awesome). We had booked a shuttle for the four of us to our hotel in Cancun Centro (downtown) with Eduardo at MyCancunTransportation.com. After a little miscommunication with the pick up spot in the ground transportation area, we met up with our driver and arrived at our hotel El Rey Del Caribe. The cost of the shuttle for four adults was $40.00 total.

We would have opted to bypass staying in Cancun altogether if our flight hadn’t had a late afternoon arrival. We were not interested in the all-inclusive resort culture in Cancun, which is mainly out on the hotel zone peninsula a ways from downtown.

After some research, we opted for the eco hotel El Rey Del Caribe based on it’s stellar reviews and ecological conservation practices. The cost was about $100.00 a night US, and it was a very nice little hotel. We would absolutely stay here again.

Eco Hotel El Rey Del Caribe Cancun Mexico
Eco Hotel El Rey Del Caribe Cancun
Eco Hotel El Rey Del Caribe Cancun Mexico
Eco Hotel El Rey Del Caribe Cancun
Eco Hotel El Rey Del Caribe Cancun Mexico
Eco Hotel El Rey Del Caribe Cancun
Eco Hotel El Rey Del Caribe Cancun Mexico
Eco Hotel El Rey Del Caribe Cancun
Eco Hotel El Rey Del Caribe Cancun Mexico
Eco Hotel El Rey Del Caribe Cancun Mexico

The rooms were very clean and comfortable, and the main courtyard of the property was like a mini jungle. A beautiful pool, lush vegetation, and hammocks in various nooks and corners to relax in. All of the staff were very friendly and helpful.

The hotel is in walking distance of the heart of downtown Cancun, and I had all these grand notions of walking around the downtown area and parks, having dinner here, drinks there, etc. However, after getting settled in, finding a nearby convenience store for water and an ATM, we were all starving and tired.

We walked a short ways down Av Carlos Nader and stumbled upon Restaurante El Pescado Ciego. It was empty, which isn’t usually a good sign, but it was early and a quick consult with Tripadvisor on our phones confirmed good reviews.

El Pescado Ciego restaurant Cancun
El Pescado Ciego restaurant Cancun

There are few things better than stumbling upon a hidden gem of a restaurant that your guidebook didn’t tell you about, and that is exactly what happened. The food and service here were excellent. We were brought some fried bread crackers and a dip, and an amuse bouche of a crab soup. We ordered beers and top shelf tequila shots.

Paddy and I had the tuna appetizer, and it was delicious. Our friend Stephen had the octopus tostada, which was phenomenal. Paddy and I also had the Octopus Flanders entree, of which we weren’t exactly sure what to expect but it was outstanding. The octopus was flash fried and crispy on the outside but just the right texture on the inside, and came with a tasty adobo-like sauce on top. It was some of the best octopus we’d ever had.

Tuna appetizer at El Pescado Ciego Cancun
Tuna appetizer at El Pescado Ciego Cancun
Octopus Flanders at El Pescado Ciego, Cancun
Octopus Flanders at El Pescado Ciego, Cancun
El Pescado Ciego Cancun
El Pescado Ciego Cancun

The restaurant was filling up by the time we left (we were there early at 6:45) and it was one of the best meals of our entire trip. Dinner for four including tip with appetizers, and a few rounds of drinks ended up being about $120 USD. If you are in Cancun for a night or two, we definitely recommend dinner at Pescado Ciego.

After dinner, we were too tired to go out and had to be up early the next morning, so we got some beers at the 24 hour convenience store and hung out back at the hotel.

**Tip: Bug spray with DEET recommended in the evenings/night at El Rey Del Caribe. The lush garden vegetation is a haven for mosquitos.

 

Day 2:

Breakfast and coffee/juice were included with our room, a choice of four different egg dishes made to order. We had arranged a taxi pick up at 9:00 AM with our hotel at our next destination, Isla Holbox. We sat and waited until 9:30 with no driver, after which I was able to have the front desk lady call our Isla Holbox hotel to contact the driver for 20 pesos. After a few minutes, the front desk lady received a phone call back and we were told that the driver was stuck in rush hour traffic and expected to arrive at 10:00 AM. One thing to keep in mind in Mexico–you are often on Mexican time. Just relax.

Huevos Rancheros at El Rey Del Caribe Hotel Cancun Mexico
Huevos Rancheros at El Rey Del Caribe Hotel Cancun

I had done some extensive research on how to get from Cancun to the Chiquila ferry terminal with service to Isla Holbox, and the bus options were all at odd times and took a while to get there. Had we had a lot more time in Mexico, we may have figured out the bus, but since we only had a little over a week for our whole trip, we opted for a taxi. The taxi our hotel on Isla Holbox arranged for us was much cheaper than the shuttles that I quoted out. Total price was $110 USD, payable to the hotel in cash at check in.

At 10:00, our driver Pedro showed up, and we all crammed into his sedan. He didn’t speak a lot of English, but we were able to make small talk with our limited Spanish. He was very friendly.

**Note: It is very helpful to know some basic Spanish when taking taxis, most taxi drivers don’t speak a lot of English in our experience.

Two hours later, we arrived in Chiquila, right when the 12:00 ferry was departing, which we missed. We thanked Pedro and walked across the street from the ferry to find a little restaurant called La Sardina Enamorada (The sardine in love?).

La Sardina Enamorada restaurant, Chiquila, Mexico
La Sardina Enamorada restaurant, Chiquila, Mexico

Ferries depart once every hour, and often you can get a shuttle to the island from some independent boat drivers at the ferry dock. We weren’t in a huge hurry, and we were hungry. So we relaxed at La Sardina Enamorada and had some beers and delicious and very inexpensive food.

Ferry tickets are 120 pesos each way per person, which is about $7.00 USD. The ride was very smooth and only 30 minutes.

isla holbox ferry mexico
Isla Holbox ferry terminal in Chiquila

isla holbox ferry mexico

Upon arrival on Isla Holbox, the golf cart taxis line up at the dock to take you to your hotel. There is a large sign at the terminal near the taxi pick up that says what the price should be from the ferry to each hotel, which was helpful. The taxi was only 30 pesos (less than $2 USD) to take us the half mile to our Hotel La Palapa on the beach. It was totally walkable, but our bags were heavy so we opted to take the taxi.

Isla Holbox ferry
Isla Holbox ferry

Isla Holbox, Mexico

**Note: Bring cash with you to Isla Holbox. There is an ATM in town, but I have read that it is sometimes out of cash. Very few restaurants take credit cards.

Hotel La Palapa is right in town, but also right on the beach. It was probably one of the most convenient locations of all the hotels that we saw. We paid cash at check in (as requested in our confirmation, I think they do take cards but said that sometimes their machine wifi isn’t working so well) and were shown around the hotel and to our room. We had booked a balcony room which was small but very clean, had a balcony on the second floor and air conditioning.

Isla Holbox Mexico
“street” leading to Hotel La Palapa
Hotel-la-palapa-isla-holbox (2)
Hotel La Palapa, Isla Holbox
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Hotel La Palapa, Isla Holbox
Hotel-la-palapa-isla-holbox (6)
Hotel La Palapa, Isla Holbox
Hotel-la-palapa-isla-holbox (7)
Hotel La Palapa, Isla Holbox
Hotel-la-palapa-isla-holbox (8)
Hotel La Palapa, Isla Holbox

The hotel had a nice beach with a bar and restaurant, and a very nice roof top deck with hammocks, lounge chairs, and a great view. The bed in the room was comfortable, the only issue we had was with the toilet not flushing very well. They sent maintenance up to fix it when we talked to the front desk. Overall we would totally stay here again.

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Roof top deck, Hotel La Palapa, Isla Holbox

Heather and Stephen were staying down the road at Hotel Takywara, which they were very pleased with as well. Their hotel was slightly more expensive than ours, but included a mini fridge and kitchenette and a breakfast basket delivered with fresh baked bread daily. The beach on their end of the island is very quiet and the hotel had a very relaxing vibe, including nice beach loungers and a meditation area. It was not a far walk from town at all.

Hotel Takywara, Isla Holbox
Hotel Takywara, Isla Holbox
Hotel Takywara, Isla Holbox
Hotel Takywara, Isla Holbox

Once we settled in and rested for a bit, Paddy and I took a walk around town. We pretty much saw it all in an hour. There was a lot of really awesome graffiti art on the buildings, and the streets are not paved, only sand. There were lots of little shops and restaurants.

Isla Holbox, Mexico
Isla Holbox, Mexico
Isla Holbox, Mexico
Isla Holbox, Mexico
Isla Holbox graffiti art Mexico
Isla Holbox

We met up with Heather and Stephen around 4:30 and ended up at Restaurante Bar Villa Mar for drinks. There was no one there but us, and the town was pretty quiet. I think 3-5 PM is siesta time. The bar had swings for seats and there were panties hung sporadically around the bar, alluding to a raucous late night party atomsphere.

We ordered a snack of guacamole, chips, and ceviche that the bartender said was small, but it was huge. It was fantastic mixed seafood ceviche, but pretty much ruined our appetite for dinner. If you come here, get the small ceviche. The large feeds a family of four.

I also tried the Rojo Ojo, which is a beer with clamato and spices. Kind of like a bloody beer with Caesar mix. It was pretty good.

Bar Villa Mar Holbox Mexico
coconut fence at Bar Villa Mar
Bar Villa Mar Holbox Mexico
Bar Villa Mar

The town was slowly waking up as the sun was setting, so after we finished as much ceviche as we could, we walked around a bit and poked around in the little shops on the sandy streets. In the center of town one block from the beach was the “Hot Corner” bar, which was advertising their “soft opening” that night at 8:00 PM with live music. Paddy wanted to check it out, but we had about two hours to kill. So we had a beer at another little bar and then picked up some tequila, beers, and a citronella candle at a convenience store and headed to our hotel rooftop. No one was up there, and it was nice with the light from the candle we bought.

Eventually we made it down to the Hot Corner, which had its soft opening now in full swing. There was a band and drinks were 50% off, and they were handing out free samples of some tuna tartare appetizers with chopsticks. I bought a round of four beers for 50 pesos, which is less than $3.00 USD.

The Hot Corner Bar, Isla Holbox. Image from https://www.facebook.com/The-Hot-Corner-772690436196916/
The Hot Corner Bar, Isla Holbox. Image from https://www.facebook.com/The-Hot-Corner-772690436196916/

Around 10:00 Stephen had hit the tequila a little hard, so Heather and I decided it was time for some tacos and tortas at Taco Queto kitty corner across the street. After that we found Paddy, who was nodding off at the Hot Corner, kept awake by a conscientious German woman. Perhaps we started drinking a bit too early.

 

Day 3:

In the morning we had a fantastic breakfast of empanadas at Las Planchas next door to our hotel, three for 30 pesos (just under $2 USD). We over-ordered a bit due to the low price, we thought the portions would be a bit smaller. They were delicious.

Empanadas at Las Panchas Isla Holbox
Empanadas at Las Panchas Isla Holbox

The weather was overcast, so we decided to rent a golf cart and tour the island. There are no cars on Isla Holbox, just golf cart vehicles. The island is actually quite large, but much of it is undeveloped. There is only so much you can see in a golf cart, but we thought we’d check it out.

Isla Holbox Map Mexico
image from http://www.beyondtheseastudio.com/isla-holbox-map.html

We walked down the main street between the beach and ferry and walked into the first golf cart rental place we saw, which advertised a four hour rental for 500 pesos (about $30 USD). It was probably the easiest vehicle rental I’ve ever done–just pay cash up front, sign a piece of paper saying that you will bring it back in good condition by the four hour point, and that was it. No deposit, no ID, no hassle.

Four of us fit on one cart with two in front and two in the back. We first drove toward the east of the island, past many beach hotels. It seemed that the beach east of town was the most popular and had the most hotels, but all the beach loungers at those hotels were not actually on the beach–they were in front of the hotels behind the road the golf carts travel on, and you have to cross the road to get to the water. In addition, you have people driving by you on golf carts all day. I was glad we stayed at Hotel La Palapa and would recommend the west end of the beach from town for peace and quiet.

Isla Holbox road heading east
Isla Holbox road heading east

We finally reached the end of the road, where we saw a sign telling us not to drive on the beach and to respect the wildlife. We parked and walked down to the sandy beach. It was a shallow sand bar that went on for miles, up to Punta Mosquito on the eastern tip of the island. You could walk for a long ways in the water without going much above your knees.

Isla Holbox Beach Mexico
Isla Holbox Beach
Shallow sand bar near Punta Mosquito Isla Holbox
Shallow sand bar near Punta Mosquito
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Shallow sand bar near Punta Mosquito
Shallow sand bar near Punta Mosquito Isla Holbox
Shallow sand bar near Punta Mosquito
punta mosquito isla holbox mexico
Baby sea star in the sand bar
dead puffer fish on the beach isla holbox mexico
Dead puffer fish on the beach

The overcast sky made the shallow sea blend right in with the sky. I’m sure it looks beautiful when the sun is out and the clouds reflect on the water.

After our stroll on the beach, we headed west to see what was on the other end of the island. We drove inland a bit on the main road past the airport (a landing strip in a loosely fenced pasture) and ended up at a very pretty cemetery.

Isla Holbox Cemetery
Isla Holbox Cemetery
Isla Holbox Cemetery
Isla Holbox Cemetery
Isla Holbox Cemetery
Isla Holbox Cemetery
Isla Holbox Cemetery
Isla Holbox Cemetery
Isla Holbox Cemetery
Isla Holbox Cemetery
iguana Isla Holbox Mexico
Iguana
iguanaiguana Isla Holbox Mexico Isla Holbox Mexico
Iguana

There wasn’t much past the cemetery besides what looked like a dump. Looking at the map again now it looks like if we back-tracked and took a left and then another left, we might have found the road leading out to the west tip of the island, looking out at Isla de la Passion. We’ll save that exploration for the next trip.

We did back track and turned north back onto the northern beach road. The west end of the norther beach is very quiet and peaceful, there was barely anyone around.

It wasn’t long before we were back in town, and only ended up using two of the four hours of time we booked. We considered driving around a bit more but Paddy and Heather were getting a little motion sick from sitting backwards on the back end of the cart. We dropped it back off and walked around town a bit more, then went back to our hotels to relax a bit.

Hotel La Palapa beach Isla Holbox Mexico
Hotel La Palapa beach
Hotel La Palapa beach Isla Holbox Mexico
Hotel La Palapa beach

Paddy and I went back to the beach at our hotel and ordered some very delicious blended margaritas from the bar. We also ordered lunch there, which ended up being the only bad meal of our trip. The restaurant is Italian, with some beach bar items like burgers, sandwiches, etc. He ordered a quesadilla which was very oily and had no cheese on it that he could see. My club sandwich with avocado came on wonder bread with no avocado. It wasn’t bad, but didn’t come as promised. If you want to eat lunch on the beach and are feeling lazy, I’d recommend seeing if you can get some food to go from Las Panchas next door and stick to just ordering drinks from the Hotel La Palapa bar.

We read books and relaxed until evening.

Hotel La Palapa beach Isla Holbox Mexico

That night we went to Viva Zapata for dinner. A touristy, albeit fun restaurant themed around Emiliano Zapata and the Mexican Revolution. It is a fun, ambient place with murals of scenes from the revolution on the walls, and swings as bar stools.

Viva Zapata, Isla Holbox
Viva Zapata, Isla Holbox
Viva Zapata margarita, Isla Holbox
Viva Zapata margarita, Isla Holbox

The Zapata margarita was outstanding, with pepper, cilantro, and cucumber. For dinner we ordered the grilled seafood platter for two, and Heather and Stephen ordered the grilled seafood and meat mix platter for two. Paddy ordered an additional steak skewer which he thought was just a skewer, but came with rice and was actually quite large. It was a lot of food, but so delicious.  If you come to Holbox, don’t miss this place.

viva zapata isla holbox
Seafood and meat grill platter for two at Viva Zapata
viva zapata isla holbox
Steak skewer at Viva Zapata
Seafood grill platter for two at Viva Zapata isla holbox Mexico
Seafood grill platter for two at Viva Zapata

After dinner Stephen was feeling a little tired and called it a night, and Paddy, Heather, and I decided to walk around and have a couple more drinks. We opted for the roof top bar at The Arena Lounge Bar in the center of town.

Arena Lounge Bar Isla Holbox Mexico
Arena Lounge Bar Isla Holbox
Arena Lounge Bar Isla Holbox Mexico
Arena Lounge Bar Isla Holbox Mexico

There was a great view of the town at the open air bar (it is also part of a hotel) and the drinks were very good.

Arena Lounge Bar Isla Holbox Mexico
View from The Arena Lounge Bar Isla Holbox

After that we stopped for another drink at a little reggae bar down the street, but our night out ended when everything shut down at 11:00 PM. It was fine, we weren’t out for a crazy night. Isla Holbox isn’t a place for raucous nightlife, there are bars but everything is very laid back and quiet.

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isla-holbox-bar-mexico (2)

 

Day 4:

Paddy and I had breakfast at La Isla del Colibri, a Pepto-pink little restaurant in the center of town. It was a very cute little spot, with bright colors and art everywhere. Service was great and the food was good as well. I had the chilaquiles verde, and Paddy had Mexican style scrambled eggs with rice and beans. The orange juice was fresh squeezed.

La Isla del Colibri restaurant Isla Holbox
La Isla del Colibri restaurant Isla Holbox
La Isla del Colibri restaurant Isla Holbox
La Isla del Colibri restaurant Isla Holbox
La Isla del Colibri restaurant Isla Holbox
La Isla del Colibri restaurant Isla Holbox
Chilaquiles at La Isla del Colibri restaurant Isla Holbox
Chilaquiles at La Isla del Colibri restaurant Isla Holbox

It had been steadily overcast since we arrived, and we were hoping for sun breaks that afternoon so that we could enjoy time at the beach. We spent the warm, gray morning souvenir shopping and reading in the room and on the rooftop deck of the hotel.

We finally got some sun breaks and I took a walk down the beach before catching a little bit of sun in a beach lounger at the hotel. Heather and Stephen joined us for some margaritas on the beach for a bit. Next door to us on the beach was a little palapa where fishermen were bringing in their daily catch. There was a lot of conch and a small tiger shark hanging from the palapa roof.

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Isla Holbox Beach
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Pelican
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Isla Holbox Beach

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Fisherman with a tiger shark, Isla Holbox
Fisherman with a tiger shark, Isla Holbox
Conch shells for sale
Conch shells for sale
Tiger shark caught for food, Isla Holbox
Tiger shark caught for food, Isla Holbox

The clouds finally began to disappear as the sun sank lower in the sky, and we decided to head further west down the beach to watch the sunset in front of Heather and Stephen’s hotel. There were only a couple other lone individuals on the beach, and the sunset was spectacular.

Watching the sunset from Hotel Takywara
Watching the sunset from Hotel Takywara
Watching the sunset from Hotel Takywara
Watching the sunset from Hotel Takywara
Isla Holbox Sunset
Isla Holbox Sunset
Isla Holbox Sunset
Isla Holbox Sunset
Isla Holbox Sunset
Isla Holbox Sunset
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Isla Holbox Sunset
Isla Holbox Sunset
Isla Holbox Sunset

For dinner that night we went to Los Peleones, a Mexican wrestling (Lucha Libre) themed restaurant in the town. The food is Italian/Mediterranean/Mexican fusion, and it is a fun little spot.

Los Peleones Isla Holbox
Los Peleones Isla Holbox
Los Peleones Isla Holbox
Los Peleones Isla Holbox
Los Peleones Isla Holbox
“wrestling ring” lamp and comic strip place mat at Los Peleones Isla Holbox

The place mats included a little comic strip about Luchadores rescuing a sea turtle and the importance of caring for the environment.

The food was great. I had the lobster chalupitas, (which were outstanding) and house-made spaghetti with anchovy, chili flakes, and garlic. Paddy had a mole dish that was a bit sweet for my taste but he really enjoyed it.

Lobster chalupitas at Los Peleones
Lobster chalupitas at Los Peleones–highly recommended!

After dinner I was feeling a bit under the weather and Heather and Stephen were tired so we called it a night. Paddy stayed out for another Zapata Margarita at Viva Zapata, he wasn’t quite ready for bed yet and the Zapata Margaritas are just so damn delicious.

Viva Zapata
Viva Zapata

 

Day 5:

I went to bed with a sore throat the night before, and woke up with a mild cold. I had brought all kinds of remedies for gastro-intestinal distress with us, but no cold remedies.

We had to catch the 9:00 ferry back to Chiquila to meet our taxi driver to Valladolid, arranged by our hotel on Holbox for $110.00. Not many breakfast places are open early on Holbox, so we had breakfast at the Hotel Palapa restaurant on the beach which opened at 7:30. Breakfast was good, and the beach view is always pleasant.

Upon arrival at Chiquila, we saw a few taxi drivers with signs for people, but not ours. We walked to the parking lot and waited about 20 minutes. Finally I walked to the store across the parking lot and the young girl at the counter graciously let me use her cell phone to call the hotel. While the hotel had me on hold calling our taxi driver, Pedro (our previous driver from Cancun to Chiquila) came dashing down the parking lot to locate us. I’m not sure if he fell asleep in his car, or was late, but either way it was fine and we headed toward Valladolid. Mexican time.

We had split up from Heather and Stephen for two days while we visited Valladolid, and they headed on to Tulum. The drive to Valladolid with 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, 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.

Valladolid street, Mexico
Narrow, colorful streets of Valladolid

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.

Art at Hotel Zentik Project, Valladolid
Art at Hotel Zentik Project, Valladolid
Art at Hotel Zentik Project, Valladolid
Art at Hotel Zentik Project, Valladolid
Art at Hotel Zentik Project, Valladolid
Art at Hotel Zentik Project, Valladolid
Art at Hotel Zentik Project, Valladolid
Art at Hotel Zentik Project, Valladolid

There was a very inviting outdoor pool, but the prize gem of the Hotel is their underground heated saltwater cave pool.

Hotel Zentik Project outdoor pool, Valladolid
Hotel Zentik Project outdoor pool, Valladolid
Hotel-zentik-cave-valladolid-mexico
Hotel Zentik Project cave pool, Valladolid

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.

hotel-zentik-project-valladolid-mexico (12)

Hotel Zentik Project Valladolid
Hotel Zentik Project Valladolid
Hotel Zentik Project Valladolid
Hotel Zentik Project Valladolid
Hotel Zentik Project Valladolid
Hotel Zentik Project Valladolid
Hotel Zentik Project Valladolid
Hotel Zentik Project Valladolid
Hotel Zentik Project Valladolid
Hotel Zentik Project Valladolid

The room was large with a separate sitting area and a large, firm bed. I 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 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, but when we arrived at the front entrance it was full of tour groups. 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.

El Atrio del Mayab restaurant Valladolid
El Atrio del Mayab restaurant Valladolid
El Atrio del Mayab restaurant Valladolid
El Atrio del Mayab restaurant Valladolid

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.

El Atrio del Mayab restaurant Valladolid
El Atrio del Mayab restaurant Valladolid
El Atrio del Mayab restaurant Valladolid
El Atrio del Mayab restaurant Valladolid
El Atrio del Mayab restaurant Valladolid
El Atrio del Mayab restaurant Valladolid
Sopa de lima, El Atrio del Mayab restaurant Valladolid
Sopa de lima, El Atrio del Mayab restaurant Valladolid

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.

Valladolid
Valladolid — old Spanish colonial church
Valladolid
Valladolid –old church
Valladolid
Valladolid
Valladolid
Valladolid

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.

Naino Restaurant, Hotel Zentik Valladolid
Naino Restaurant, Hotel Zentik Valladolid
Naino Restaurant, Hotel Zentik Valladolid
Ceviche verde, Naino Restaurant, Hotel Zentik Valladolid
Naino Restaurant, Hotel Zentik Valladolid
Steak, Naino Restaurant, Hotel Zentik Valladolid
Naino Restaurant, Hotel Zentik Valladolid
Octopus fried rice, Naino Restaurant, Hotel Zentik Valladolid

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.

 

Day 6:

 

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.

Rio Lagartos
Rio Lagartos
Rio Lagartos
Rio Lagartos
Rio Lagartos
Rio Lagartos

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.

Flamingos, Rio Lagartos
Flamingos, Rio Lagartos
Flamingos, Rio Lagartos
Flamingos, Rio Lagartos
Flamingos, Rio Lagartos
Flamingos, Rio Lagartos
Flamingos, Rio Lagartos
Flamingos, Rio Lagartos
Flamingos, Rio Lagartos
Flamingos, Rio Lagartos
Flamingos, Rio Lagartos
Flamingos, Rio Lagartos
Flamingos, Rio Lagartos
Flamingos, Rio Lagartos
Flamingos, Rio Lagartos
Flamingos, Rio Lagartos

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.

rio lagartos mexico
Rio Lagartos

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.

Crocodile at Rio Lagartos
Crocodile at Rio Lagartos
Crocodile at Rio Lagartos
Crocodile at Rio Lagartos
Crocodile at Rio Lagartos
Crocodile at Rio Lagartos
Crocodile at Rio Lagartos
Crocodile at Rio Lagartos
Crocodile at Rio Lagartos
Crocodile at Rio Lagartos

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.

black hawk Rio Lagartos
black hawk Rio Lagartos
Pelicans, Rio Lagartos
Pelicans, Rio Lagartos
Pelicans, Rio Lagartos
Pelicans, Rio Lagartos
Pelicans, Rio Lagartos
Pelicans, Rio Lagartos
Pelicans, Rio Lagartos
Pelicans, Rio Lagartos
Pelicans, Rio Lagartos
Pelicans, Rio Lagartos

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.

mayan bath rio lagartos
“Mayan bath”
mayan bath rio lagartos
“Mayan bath”

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.

Ek Balam Mayan ruins--main pyramid
Ek Balam Mayan ruins–main pyramid
Ek Balam Mayan ruins--main pyramid
Ek Balam Mayan ruins–main pyramid,
Ek Balam Mayan ruins--main pyramid
Ek Balam Mayan ruins–main pyramid
Ek Balam Mayan ruins--main pyramid
Ek Balam Mayan ruins–main pyramid
Ek Balam Mayan ruins--main pyramid
Ek Balam Mayan ruins–main pyramid

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.

Descending the pyramid steps at Ek Balam
Descending the pyramid steps at Ek Balam

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.

Ek Balam Mayan ruins
Ek Balam Mayan ruins
Ek Balam Mayan ruins
Ek Balam Mayan ruins
Ek Balam Mayan ruins
Ek Balam Mayan ruins
Ek Balam Mayan ruins
Ek Balam Mayan ruins
Ek Balam Mayan ruins
Ek Balam Mayan ruins
Ek Balam Mayan ruins
Ek Balam Mayan ruins
Ek Balam Mayan ruins
Ek Balam Mayan ruins

 

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.

Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Agave fields at Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Agave fields at Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Harvested blue agave “pineapples” at Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid

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.

La Taberna del los Frailes
La Taberna del los Frailes
La Taberna del los Frailes
Pavo en relleno negro, La Taberna del los Frailes
La Taberna del los Frailes
Longaniza Sisal, La Taberna del los Frailes
La Taberna del los Frailes
Flan, La Taberna del los Frailes

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.

Convento de San Bernardino de Siena, Valladolid
Convento de San Bernardino de Siena, Valladolid

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.

 

Day 7:

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.

After breakfast we explored the nearby market and then checked out and had the front desk call us a taxi to our next destination, Tulum. The taxi was $50, which was much more than the local ADO bus would have cost, but we only had three nights left in Mexico and we wanted to get to Tulum quickly, without a long bus ride and hauling our bags around in the hot sun.

I really wished we had another day to explore Valladolid, the city has so much more to offer. I would recommend staying here at least three nights if you plan on doing some tours to allow enough time to spend in the city itself.

The drive to Tulum from Valladolid is about an hour. On the way we texted with Heather and Stephen and learned that Stephen had gotten Montezuma’s Revenge and had been violently ill the last two days. He thinks it may have been a glass of tamarind water he had at a taco stand on Isla Holbox before heading to Tulum.

**Tip: It’s best to stick to bottled beverages and sealed bottled waters.

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. Heather met us in the beach bar and we took a taxi into town for lunch.

This was our second time in Tulum. 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. There are parts of the Tulum beach that are rocky, however. Last time we were in Tulum we stayed at the end of the Boca Paila beach road by the entrance to the Sian Ka’an Biosphere. The beach down there was outstanding, but it was a bit far from the town and other restaurants on the beach road, so we decided we wanted to try the other end of the beach this time. I chose La Vita e Bella after looking at Google Maps satellite view of the beach, and deciding that it was on one of the best sandy beach areas in the northern part of the beach road. It was.

Tulum Beach in front of Hotel La Vita e Bella
Tulum Beach in front of Hotel La Vita e Bella
Tulum Beach in front of Hotel La Vita e Bella
Tulum Beach in front of Hotel La Vita e Bella–view from the beach bar

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.

Seafood tacos at La Barracuda in Tulum pueblo
Seafood tacos at La Barracuda in Tulum pueblo: shrimp, octopus, and fish
Seafood tacos at La Barracuda in Tulum pueblo
Seafood tacos at La Barracuda in Tulum pueblo

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.

Junior Suite at La Vita e Bella, Tulum
Junior Suite at La Vita e Bella, Tulum
Junior Suite at La Vita e Bella, Tulum
Junior Suite at La Vita e Bella, Tulum
Junior Suite at La Vita e Bella, Tulum
Junior Suite at La Vita e Bella, Tulum
Junior Suite at La Vita e Bella, Tulum
Junior Suite at La Vita e Bella, Tulum

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.

La Vita e Bella Tulum
La Vita e Bella Tulum
Tulum
Tulum

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.

kitchen-table-restaurant-tulum-mexico (25)

Kitchen Table, Tulum
Kitchen Table, Tulum

 

Day 8:

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 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 good deal for them.

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.

La Vita e Bella breakfast Tulum
La Vita e Bella breakfast Tulum

 

We spent the day reading, relaxing, and walking on the beach.

Tulum Beach
Tulum Beach
Tulum Beach
Tulum 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 couldn’t 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.

Tulum fisherman being harassed by pelicans
Tulum fisherman being harassed by pelicans
Tulum fisherman being harassed by pelicans
Tulum fisherman being harassed by pelicans

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 bit 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.

Mateo's Mexican Grill Tulum
Mateo’s Mexican Grill Tulum

Across the street and a bit north of Mateo’s is a little tapas restaurant called Mi Vida Tapas. Paddy and I love 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.

Mi Vida Tapas restaurant Tulum
Mi Vida Tapas restaurant Tulum
Mi Vida Tapas restaurant Tulum
Mi Vida Tapas restaurant Tulum

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.

Pulpo y garbanzo at La Vida Tapas, Tulum
Pulpo y garbanzo at La Vida Tapas, Tulum
Mini brochetas, Mi Vida Tapas, Tulum
Mini brochetas, Mi Vida Tapas, Tulum
"Chocolate Salami" at Mi Vida Tapas, Tulum
“Chocolate Salami” at Mi Vida Tapas, Tulum

After dinner we flagged down a taxi back to our hotel and had a few drinks at the hotel bar before going to bed.

 

Day 9:

 

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.

Tulum sunrise
Tulum sunrise

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.

Tulum Beach

Tulum Beach

Tulum Beach

tulum-beach-mexico (24)

Tulum Beach

Tulum Beach

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 carmelized 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.

Kitchen Table, Tulum
Kitchen Table, Tulum
Kitchen Table, Tulum
Kitchen Table, Tulum
Deviled avocado, Kitchen Table Tulum
Deviled avocado, Kitchen Table Tulum
Arugula salad, Kitchen Table, Tulum
Arugula salad, Kitchen Table, Tulum
Pan roasted octopus, Kitchen Table, Tulum
Pan roasted octopus, Kitchen Table, Tulum
Kitchen Table, Tulum
Kitchen Table, Tulum
Seared ahi tuna steak, Kitchen Table Tulum
Seared ahi tuna steak, Kitchen Table Tulum
Kitchen Table, Tulum
Kitchen Table, Tulum

Overall, it was another great trip to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. I wish we’d had a bit more time in Valladolid. I don’t think we’d recommend La Vita e Bella in Tulum, the service was bad and the mattresses were old and uncomfortable. I think our next trip to Tulum, we’ll stay back down on the quieter end of the beach road again like we did the first time (near the Biosphere). If something a bit more rustic still exists on that part of the beach, we’d love to find it.

On a future trip to the Yucatan Peninsula, we’d like to snorkel the underwater sculpture garden at Isla Mujeres, and go back to Isla Holbox in the summer for a whale shark tour. We loved Isla Holbox’s laid back vibe and that it was a bit more off the beaten path than Isla Mujeres. If we go back to Isla Holbox, we would definitely stay at Hotel La Palapa or Hotel Takywara again.

We’d also like to see some of the west side of the Peninsula, particularly Celestun and Merida. The Yucatan is one of our favorite places we’ve been in this world, and I’m sure we’ll be visiting many more times in the future.

Iceland 2015: Reykjavik & the South Coast

childfreelifeadventures.com

Our trip to Iceland in March 2015: Reykjavik, Vik, The Blue Lagoon, Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon, and the south coast

We’ve always been a little curious about Iceland. My friend Daniel has been obsessed with the country for years and has been there three times, bringing back stories about gorgeous waterfalls, giant glaciers, copious amounts of hot springs, locals who believe in elves, and the crazy Reykjavik nightlife. When I discovered that we could get there on a direct flight from Seattle with Icelandair that was only 7.5 hours long, we decided it would be a great option for a quick one week trip in March 2015.

Iceland is often referred to as “the land of the midnight sun.” Much like parts of Alaska, the sun only goes down for about an hour or two around June, and only comes up for an hour or two in December. Summer is the peak tourist season in Iceland, as that is when the weather is best and the days are long. It never really gets that warm in Iceland (summers around 50-60 degrees farhenheit), but the landscape is beautiful and the hot springs are plentiful. Iceland is also referred to as “the land of fire and ice,” due to the on-going volcanic activity over the whole island, in addition to massive glaciers. Erupting volcanoes, geysers, hot springs, lava fields, and black sand beaches can be found right along side snow and ice.

Iceland is an expensive country. In summer time (June through September 15), the prices on hotels, airfare, and rental cars double throughout the country. We opted to go in March, when daylight is good (sun rise around 8:00 AM and sunset around 7:00 PM), prices are lower, and the weather is still wintry. We got plane tickets for $622.00 per person round trip, which is super low for an international vacation.

We expected a little snow, lots of rain, and wind. What we didn’t expect was a LOT of snow, and a LOT of wind. Reading the weather reports and news in Iceland in the four weeks prior to our trip, we began to get really nervous about the weather and road conditions. The winter of 2014-2015 was one of the worst winters Iceland has had in years, with stories of cars being blown off the road by wind, wind blowing snow and rocks through the windshields of 10 separate tourists driving near Skaftafell National Park, and all kinds of search-and-rescue stories of tourists getting stuck somewhere in blizzard conditions.

Unfortunately, a lot of tourists get stuck places in Iceland in the winter while underestimating mother nature–much to the chagrin of the locals. Search and rescue teams are comprised of volunteers, and they risk their lives to help stranded tourists. If you decide to go to Iceland in the winter, pay close attention to the weather report and the road conditions before venturing out. The weather can change on a dime. Ask locals if your travel plans are a good idea that day before venturing out, and heed their advice. Try and keep your plans flexible, as you may end up stuck somewhere. Plan your last couple nights close to the airport or in Reykjavik so that  you have a little cushion of time in case you get stuck somewhere.

A note about clothing:

Most of Iceland’s attractions are outdoors, and no matter what time of year you go, waterproof is key. Sideways rain can happen at any moment. Make sure to bring rain pants, waterproof hiking boots, a rain coat, and lots of layers. In the winter, a down coat with a warm hood and snow pants are a good idea. We wore down coats and waterproof pants with long johns most of the time on this trip, and wore nice sweaters when we went out to eat in nicer restaurants.

Reykjavik:

Day 1:

We arrived in Iceland at 6:45 in the morning in a windstorm that made the plane swerve back and forth when landing on the runway. I had pre-arranged a Grayline bus to Reykjavik through Kex Hostel, which was very easy– they just told us they would add it to our room bill when we arrived, and emailed me a voucher for the bus. It was $15 per person one way, and took us right to the front door of the hostel.

After a 45 minute drive, fighting sleep while watching the sky lighten over the lava fields and listening to a group of American college frat boys talk about all the “clubbing” they were going to do in Reykjavik, we arrived at Kex Hostel.

Stepping out of the bus onto compact snow that was now essentially a big wavy sheet of ice, we collected our bags, “skated” carefully across the slippery sidewalk, and hauled them up the two flights of stairs to reception.

Kex Hostel
Kex Hostel
Kex Hostel front desk
Kex Hostel front desk

Kex Hostel is the quintessential hipster hostel of Reykjavik. It is probably the nicest hostel I’ve ever been to, however I can’t vouch for the dorm rooms–we reserved a private room. Because of our early morning arrival, I had booked the previous night as well so that we could check in right when we arrived (unlike the frat boys, who were trying to figure out how to keep their energy up until 2:00 PM when they could check in to their dorm). It was well worth it, we were dog tired and got no sleep on the plane.

Check in was easy, we pre-paid at the front desk and were given a key to our room on the third floor. It was a corner room at the end of the hall, and after seeing the photos of tiny private rooms on tripadvisor, I’m pretty sure we got the best one. It was huge, with an ocean view, large private bathroom with a tub, and a sitting area with antique furniture.

Kex Hostel Reykjavik
Our private room at Kex Hostel
Kex Hostel Reykjavik Iceland 033
Our private room at Kex Hostel
Kex Hostel Reykjavik Iceland
Our private room at Kex Hostel
Kex Hostel Reykjavik Iceland
Our private room at Kex Hostel
Our private room at Kex Hostel Reykjavik Iceland
Our private room at Kex Hostel
view from Kex Hostel Reykjavik Iceland
View from our room
Kex Hostel Reykjavik Iceland
view from our room

Don’t let the word “hostel” fool you, private rooms at Kex are not cheap like most hostels. Our room was about $150.00/night, just like a mid-range hotel room. In the summertime, the rate sky-rockets up to $350.00/night along with most hotels in Iceland. This is one of the biggest reasons we chose to travel in the winter.

**Money-saving tip: If you want to see Iceland in the summertime and are on a tight budget, consider bringing camping gear for the many campgrounds throughout the country, or at least a sleeping bag and a towel–many hostel or cabin accommodations charge less if you have your own sleeping bag vs them providing bedding and towels.

Our room included breakfast, and since we paid for the previous night we were welcome to eat at the breakfast when we checked in. The breakfast spread was typical of Icelandic hotels/hostels, but was probably the highest quality that we encountered. Included were several types of fresh baked bread, crackers, skyr (Icelandic yogurt, which is super creamy like Greek yogurt), muesli, tuna salad, deli meats, cheese, liver pate, tomatoes, cucumbers, little jars of fresh fruit, hard boiled eggs, juice, tea, and coffee.

Breakfast buffet at Kex Hostel
Breakfast buffet at Kex Hostel
Breakfast buffet at Kex Hostel
Breakfast buffet at Kex Hostel
Kex Hostel Reykjavik Iceland
Outdoor patio at Kex Hostel–I’m sure this is very nice in the summer

**Money-saving tip: We found the Icelandic breakfast buffets to be so hearty that we were able to eat enough to last us all the way until dinner. We didn’t really eat lunch the whole trip.

After breakfast, we headed up to the room and crashed for most of the day. We finally got up around 3:30 to head out and explore. Normally we wouldn’t sleep so long in an effort to regulate our schedules and combat jet lag, but we had heard that Icelandic weekend nightlife doesn’t get good until around midnight, so we figured we might as well be up late that night.

First we explored the rest of Kex Hostel and had lunch at the bar downstairs.

Kex Hostel Reykjavik Iceland
Our room number–best room!
Kex Hostel Reykjavik Iceland
Hallway with lighted pinball machine style room numbers

Kex Hostel Reykjavik Iceland

Kex Hostel Reykjavik Iceland
Third floor lounge area
Kex Hostel Reykjavik Iceland
“Classroom” on the third floor near the private rooms.
Kex Hostel Reykjavik Iceland
“Classroom” on the third floor near the private rooms.
Kex Hostel Reykjavik Iceland
“Classroom” on the third floor near the private rooms.
Kex Hostel Reykjavik Iceland
Community kitchen on third floor for self-catering
Kex Hostel Reykjavik Iceland
Random old-timey barber chair near reception
Kex Hostel Reykjavik Iceland
Reception/bar area with a giant magnetic poetry wall
Kex Hostel Reykjavik Iceland
Part of the bar/ guest lounge area.

We were hungry, and I’d read great reviews on the Kex Hostel restaurant, so we decided to check it out. We found a table by the window (made from an old sewing machine table). It didn’t look like there was table service, so we ordered at the bar. I had the baked goat cheese and pickled onions on grilled bread with a side of the sweet carrots, and Paddy had the grilled chorizo. Both were about $18 each, which is actually a pretty good price for Iceland.

Kex Hostel Restaurant Reykjavik Iceland
Matsebill (menu) at Kex Hostel bar
Kex Hostel Restaurant Reykjavik Iceland
Kex Hostel Bar
Kex Hostel Restaurant Reykjavik Iceland
Kex Hostel kitchen

 

Grilled chorizo and mashed potatoes at Kex Hostel
Grilled chorizo and mashed potatoes at Kex Hostel
Baked goat cheese on grilled bread at Kex Hostel with a side of sweet carrots
Baked goat cheese on grilled bread at Kex Hostel with a side of sweet carrots

We were impressed with the quality of the food. There seemed to be quite a few locals at the bar as well, and I had read that the good food and good prices bring a lot of locals to the hostel. Several tables in the bar area had reserved signs on them. Overall, the prices are good (compared to other restaurants in Reykjavik) and I would recommend coming here for a meal even if you aren’t planning on staying here.

**Money saving tip: Tipping isn’t part of the culture in Iceland, so while the restaurant prices are expensive, you don’t have to factor in a gratuity at the end. Restaurant servers are paid a decent living wage, but if the service was really excellent, it isn’t rude to leave something if you feel like it.

After we ate, it was around 4:00 PM, and we had about three more hours of daylight left. We ventured out to walk around the city and take stock of our surroundings. We headed a couple blocks up to Laugavegur Street, the main shopping street in Reykjavik.

We found the “Bad Taste Record Store:”

Bad Taste Record Store Reykjavik
Bad Taste Record Store Reykjavik

The Chuck Norris Grill:

Chuck Norris Grill Reykjavik
Chuck Norris Grill

Instructions on how to tie a tie:

Reykjavik Iceland 046

And some interesting grafitti:

Reykjavik Iceland 047

Reykjavik Iceland 048

After exploring some of the little shops (most of the ones that stay open later are souvenir stores), we reached the city center and were getting a bit cold and ready for a break. We stopped into the Laundromat Cafe for some hot tea and beer. It was a funky little spot with a laundromat in the basement, lots of book shelves around the bar, maps on the walls, and a good looking menu. We weren’t hungry yet but we enjoyed the atmosphere and friendly service.

Laundromat Cafe Reykjavik Iceland (6)
Laundromat Cafe

We continued walking around a bit more and eventually got hungry for dinner. It was around 9:00 PM and most restaurants seemed to be either packed or touristy. We were also making a solid attempt to avoid tourist restaurants with whale and puffin on the menu, two animals that are close to being on the endangered species list. While whale was a traditional food in old Icelandic times, it is no longer sustainable or necessary to eat. The really sad thing is that most Icelanders don’t eat whale, a good 60% of the whale eaten in Iceland is consumed by tourists. With tourism exploding in Iceland in the past few years and only continuing to grow, it is worrysome to think of what this could mean for whales.

Fortunately there is a growing local movement against whaling in Iceland, IceWhale.is which discourages consumption of whale meat in Iceland and promotes environmentally friendly ways of enjoying the whales of Iceland with their slogan “Meet us don’t eat us!”. Their website also provides a list of whale-friendly restaurants.

http://icewhale.is
http://icewhale.is

We eventually stumbled into a Scandinavian restaurant (Called “Scandinavian,” fittingly enough) that had been packed all evening and was now starting to thin out. We were in the mood for local food, so we ordered some Icelandic beers and the marinated salmon with mustard sauce appetizer. We weren’t super hungry, so we had soup for our entrees, which was delicious. Paddy had the Icelandic lamb soup special of the day, and I had the lobster soup. The lobster soup was very tasty, although very rich. I couldn’t quite finish all of it and I’m probably better off not knowing exactly how much butter and heavy cream I consumed.

Scandinavian restaurant Reykjavik
Scandinavian restaurant Reykjavik
Lamb soup Scandinavian restaurant Reykjavik
Icelandic lamb soup
Lobster soup Scandinavian restaurant Reykjavik Iceland
Lobster soup
Freya beer Iceland
Freya beer

 

**Money saving tip: Icelanders make great soup, and just about every sit-down style restaurant has it. It usually comes with fresh bread and makes a great inexpensive meal.

After dinner we were ready to check out the nightlife. I’d read up on a few places and received a few suggestions from my friend Daniel, who has been to Iceland three times. Our first stop was a new bar I’d read about, Bar Ananas. I’m a sucker for theme bars, and this one had a tropical theme (ananas means pineapple in Icelandic). We walked in to what appeared to be someone’s birthday or bachelorette party, as it was filled with women and balloons. It didn’t appear to have any cocktail menus with specialty tropical cocktails, and the bar was completely blocked by gabbing ladies. We moved on.

Our second stop was the Lebowski Bar, which is a bar with a theme dedicated entirely to the movie The Big Lebowski. It was packed, but we found a couple of bar stools at the end next to a local guy at the bar by himself. On the cocktail menu were 13 different kinds of white Russians, but after all the cream I had just eaten in the lobster soup, I opted for a cosmo. It was weak and expensive.

http://lebowski.is/En/white-russian-menu.html
http://lebowski.is/En/white-russian-menu.html

We made conversation with the local guy who was kind enough to move over for us to sit together for a little while, until two staff members showed up and told us they had to take away our bar stools because it was “turning into a pub.” Deciding that it wasn’t really our scene, we finished our drinks and moved on. We thought we might try coming back the next day before it got busy.

Paddy wanted to go to a rock bar, so we walked up to the next block and went to Dillon Whiskey Bar, which I’d read is a good place to see live bands. There was a live local rock band playing in the upstairs bar, and it being around midnight I figured we were arriving right when things were getting going. Unfortunately, the show ended shortly after we arrived and no one came on after that. The songs we did see were good, and the bar cleared out a bit afterward and we were able to have a table. The atmosphere was nice and much more our style, and the bartenders filled my wine glass almost to the brim each time.

Dillon Whiskey Bar Reykjavik Iceland
Live music at Dillon
Dillon Whiskey Bar Reykjavik Iceland
Dillon

Dillon Whiskey Bar Reykjavik Iceland

We stayed out until around 1:30 AM, and then figured we should probably get to bed so that we could start getting on some sort of a more normal schedule. We thought that Kex Hostel bar would be busy at that hour, but there was just a couple people at the bar talking to the bartender by candlelight. I think the “party gets going at midnight” rule applies mostly to dance clubs and bars like the Lebowski.

 

Day 2:

 

The next morning we ate breakfast at the Hostel and headed out to the Icelandic Phallological Museum. Yes, it’s a penis museum.

Penis Museum Reykjavik Iceland

The penis museum was founded by local historian and teacher Sigurður Hjartarson. His fellow teachers who worked summers in the whaling industry used to bring him whale penises as a joke. Eventually he began preserving and collecting penises of other mammalian species, and in 2011 he opened the museum. His collection includes 282 penises from 93 different species of mammals, including a human donation. Sigurður Hjartarson maintains that no animals are killed for the sole purpose of collecting a penis.

Penis Museum Reykjavik Iceland
Icelandic Phallological Museum
Penis Museum Reykjavik Iceland
Sperm whale penis

While we were looking at the exhibit, I overheard a little British boy ask his mother, “Mummy, why are we at a pee-pee museum?” I didn’t hear her answer.

There is a recent documentary called “The Final Member”  that came out about Sigurður Hjartarson’s quest to obtain a human speciman for the museum, that waffles between hilarious and a little disturbing. We would highly recommend it. Trailer below:

**Note: Just about everywhere in Iceland takes credit cards, except this museum. Be sure to stop by the cash machine to withdraw some kroner before visiting. Admission is 1250 kr, or around $9.50.

After the penis museum we continued down towards Reykjavik’s main harbor to the Kolaportið Flea Market. I’d read that this market is a great place to look for an authentic used or new Icelandic sweater (lopapeysa). The flea market had all kinds of booths selling everything from antiques and trinkets to rock t-shirts and funky sunglasses. There was also a large grocery section of Asian food imports, and a little cafe area selling open-faced sandwiches and other snacks.

Kolaportid Flea Market Reykjavik Iceland
Kolaportið Flea Market

There were many booths selling sweaters, and some were used. I didn’t find any that I thought I would really wear that much though to justify the $80-$200 price tag. The wool is thick, and I think that it would be too hot for Seattle weather except for the one or two weeks every December where we have a big freeze and the weather drops into the 20’s. If you are looking for a good price on a lopapeysa, however, this is the best place to look. The market is only open on weekends.

Another great place to shop for an authentic hand-knit lopapeysa is the Hand Knitting Association of Iceland, which also has a shop in Reykjavik.

We wandered around the city a bit more, finding lots more interesting and detailed graffiti:

Reykjavik Iceland graffiti

Reykjavik Iceland graffiti

Reykjavik Iceland graffiti

Iceland 077

Reykjavik Iceland graffiti

Reykjavik Iceland graffiti

Reykjavik Iceland graffiti

Reykjavik Iceland graffiti

Reykjavik harbor Iceland
Reykjavik harbor

We were starting to get a little cold and tired so we stopped into Te og Kaffi for some tea and coffee, just off the main square.

After warming up, we headed back up Laugavegur street to do some souvenir shopping, with a quick side detour to take a quick peak at Reykjavik’s iconic church, Hallgrimskirkja. The winds were picking up, and it was getting pretty cold.

Hallgrimskirkja Reykjavik Iceland
Paddy freezing in front of Hallgrimskirkja
Hallgrimskirkja Reykjavik Iceland
Hallgrimskirkja

Reykjavik Iceland

Reykjavik Iceland

Reykjavik Iceland

Laugavegur street Reykjavik Iceland
Laugavegur street

We finished our souvenir shopping and went back to the room for a nap.

For dinner that evening, we had made reservations far in advance for Dill, which is arguably the best upscale dining restaurant in Iceland. Chef Gunnar Karl Gíslason takes Nordic cuisine to new and innovative levels, using local ingredients–much along the lines of the world-renowned restaurant Noma in Denmark.

Dill Restaurant Reykjavik Iceland

Dill Restaurant Reykjavik Iceland

Dill Restaurant Reykjavik Iceland

We may not ever be able to afford Noma ($300 per person for a seven course meal), but we were able to make room in our budget for Dill (much more reasonable at just under $100 per person for a seven course meal). Don’t get me wrong, it was really expensive, but worth it. In this culinary realm, food begins to cross from sustenance to art, bringing new flavors and textures and ideas to the dining experience that have not been done before.

Wine pairings with all seven courses were also offered at an additional $100 per person, but we stuck with one glass of champagne and one glass of red wine each. Our bill at the end was $250, which was slightly less than we had budgeted.

The meal came with four small amuse bouche starters and house-made sourdough rolls. I don’t eat lamb, so I was going to do a 5 course meal instead but the server said that the chef could make something different for me instead of the lamb tartare course, so I went ahead and did the 7 course meal as well. The chef did a scallop tartare dish for me which was very good and extremely nice of the chef to make a subsitution.

Dill Menu
Dill Menu
Dill Restaurant Reykjavik Iceland
Pork belly course with kale and black garlic
Dill Restaurant Reykjavik Iceland
Rutabaga course with cream cheese, sweet and sour dill oil, and toasted millet
Dill Restaurant Reykjavik Iceland
Icelandic Skyr with celery sorbet and roasted oats

Each course was small and complex,  and dinner took two hours total. We left full and happy, and the experience was worth every penny.

Afterwards we walked up to the Lebowski Bar to try one of their White Russians and get a look at the place before it got crowded. It wasn’t that crowded yet, but when we approached the empty tables, there were reserved signs on all of them. As much as I love the theme bar idea, it wasn’t really our crowd so we decided to move on to Dillon. That night they had a local Icelandic folk singer singing traditional Irish and Gaelic songs. The singer was pretty good, and the whole upstairs bar was singing along after awhile.

The downstairs bar was full of rowdy drunk Brits with neon glow stick raver glasses singing along to Oasis songs on the jukebox. We stayed upstairs.

My friend Daniel had suggested his favorite club Dolly (named after Dolly Parton–Dolly also has a sister bar in Copenhagen called Jolene), which we were curious about but it was in the opposite direction of our hostel, and we were enjoying the live music at Dillon. Maybe another time.

It started snowing quite a bit, and we walked back to the hostel around 1:00 AM in the falling snow, stopping for a couple quick tipsy photo-ops

Reykjavik Iceland

Reykjavik Iceland 114

Reykjavik Iceland graffiti

 

Snowed-in in Hveragerði

 

Day 3:

The next morning we checked out of Kex, and went outside to meet Blue Car Rental, which we had arrange to pick us up at the hostel. We thought they would be picking us up and taking us to their downtown location where we would go over a whole bunch of forms, have copies made of our passports and drivers licenses, given directions and be on our way in the Kia Ceed that we reserved online. Instead, we were met by a man with our car, who had me sign one form in the entryway of Kex, asked to take a look at my driver’s license, gave us a couple pointers about the car (don’t use the parking break at night because it could freeze and snap off and hold onto the doors so the wind doesn’t blow the doors off), and sent us on our way.

Things to know about renting a car in Iceland:

There are tons of threads on Tripadvisor about renting a car in Iceland, many of them filled with horror stories of being charged hundreds or even over a thousand dollars for dings, dents, etc. After reading through many of them, I determined that the big name car rental companies had the most horror stories, and Blue Car Rental had the least horror stories, so we went with them. In general, here is what you need to know:

1. The insurance barely covers anything.

If you damage the car in any way, there is a high deductible that you have to pay. This includes small dents. Blue Car Rental’s deductible was $1,100.00. If the windshield is cracked and needs to be replaced, you pay $100.00. If the chassis/underside of the car is damaged due to off-roading or driving too fast on rough bumpy roads, you are responsible for the whole amount of the damage. If the strong winds blow the doors off the car (it happens), you will be responsible for the damage as well.

2. You must pre-pay with most companies.

Reserving a car online was very easy, and I asked a couple questions via email to Blue Car before reserving, and they were very responsive and helpful. However–you have to pre-pay, and if you cancel your trip last minute, you might not get all your money back. (Your might consider travel insurance for emergency cancellations on your trip).

3. Rental rates double in the summer.

Consider going in the spring, or after September 15th to get the best rates. Like hotel rates, everything is double the price in the peak summer season.

4. Get the sand and ash protection.

Winds in Iceland can be insanely strong. Right before we went we read news stories of cars being blown off the road by the wind and rocks being blown off cliffs into people’s car windows. These are extreme examples, but the winds are strong at times and will blow sand and volcanic ash at your car, causing damage to the paint. The sand and ash protection doesn’t cost that much extra, and could save you some money in the event that you run into these conditions.

5. In the winter, pay close attention to the road conditions and weather reports.

The most invaluable website during our trip was http://www.vegagerdin.is/english/road-conditions-and-weather/, which we were checking several times a day. They keep the road conditions up to date and you must check to make sure your route is clear before venturing out, especially in the winter. You don’t want to end up a search-and-rescue tourist trapped in a snow storm. For an up to date weather report for the day, http://en.vedur.is/weather/forecasts/areas/ is the Icelandic weather site. If a storm is predicted in the area you are planning on driving to, check with locals to see if they think going there is a good idea. If not, you may need to change your plans.

6. American credit cards and debit cards don’t work on Icelandic gas pumps.

Hopefully this will change in 2015, but as of now the American banks and credit unions have not gone to the “chip and PIN” card model that has been used in Europe for years. Most bars, restaurants, and shops have card machines that can process the old-style magnetic strip that American credit cards have, but gas pumps don’t. We were able to get around this by pre-paying the gas station attendant, either by having them open the pump or put a pre-paid amount on the pump, or the N1 stations could provide a pre-paid gas card that could be used at the pump. If you are going out into no-man’s land, make sure you fill up your tank first. You may also want to buy a pre-paid gas card at the N1 to use at any N1 stations that might not have an attendant. Worst case scenario, have some cash on hand for emergencies–you might have to wait for someone with a card to come along that you could ask to buy the gas for you in exchange for cash.

Here is a video about driving in Iceland that I found on Icelandair’s video selection on the plane. It was corny, but pretty helpful.

With all the snow and quickly changing road conditions, you can imagine that we were nervous. Our car was equipped with snow tires, and I’d had a small amount of experience driving in snow before. The weather was pretty clear when we left Reykjavik, and we took it slow. Hveragerdi is about 40 minutes from Reykjavik on the main highway 1 (Ring Road) and it didn’t take us that long to get there. Our original plan was to drive the Golden Circle, and then head to Hveragerdi for the evening, but with all the snow we were just concerned with getting there in one piece.

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Highway 1 to Hveragerdi

There is a small mountain pass that you go through just before Hveragerdi, and then descend down into the town on a windy road. It wasn’t so bad, but we were glad to make it through without high winds and blowing snow.

I’d reserved our cabin through Icelandic Farm Holidays, and it was relatively easy to find, just outside of town. The icy winds were picking up when we arrived, and our cabin wasn’t quite ready yet. We drove into town and had some coffee and pastries at the little bakery, and checked out the grocery store and souvenir stores in the town’s main shopping center.

The main attraction in Hveragerdi is the natural volcanic hot springs in the area. Many of Iceland’s fruits and vegetables are grown geothermal greenhouses in the town. Our original plan was to hike to the hot river in Reykjadalur valley just outside of town, but the snow put the kabash on that plan.

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Nupar farm, Hveragerdi

Finally, we were able to check into our cabin. It was adorable, and reminded me a little of my Danish host family’s ski cabin in Norway.

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Paddy outside our little cabin in the snow
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Cabin interior

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We got settled in as the winds were starting to pick up. We relaxed for awhile, and then when the wind and snow died down a bit, we took stock of the kitchen equipment and went back into town for groceries for the next couple of days.

The grocery store prices were surprisingly good, pretty much like the prices at any US grocery store. My Danish language knowledge helped me decipher some of the Icelandic items in the store, I was surprised at how many food words were very close to Danish. We were unable to find any fish that was not frozen, and the vegetable selection was small. We did find some very tasty salmon and tuna salads, and some really good cheese. We bought a fresh loaf of bread from the little bakery where we had coffee earlier, and it was delicious.

We had a cozy afternoon and evening reading books. Unable to thaw our fish until the next day, we had salad and a mediocre frozen pizza for dinner. We found the cabin to be stocked with tea lights, which made it very cozy.

**Money saving tip: If you like to drink wine or hard alcohol, bring it with you in your checked baggage. Wine and booze in Iceland are very expensive, and have a high tax. Icelandair allows each person two free checked bags, and you can bring four litres of wine or two litres of wine and one litre of spirits per person into the country. We packed box wine and it lasted us the week and saved us a ton of money.

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Day 4: 

We were really hoping the weather would get better the next day, so we could go back and do the Golden Circle drive to see Gullfoss, Geysir, and Thingvellir National Park. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t stop snowing. We didn’t want to risk getting stuck in a blizzard, and the road conditions weren’t looking very good. While it was disappointing to not be able to see the Golden Circle, we made the best of it with a relaxing snow day reading books and soaking in the hot tub.

We were glad we played it safe, because when we got home I saw this article about 500 tourists getting stuck on the Golden Circle road, which happened the next day.

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The hot tub was heated by a natural hot spring. The wind wasn’t too bad so we enjoyed relaxing with some drinks and watching the snow fall.

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That night Paddy cooked a yummy Scandinavian-style salmon dinner with hollandaise sauce, potatoes, and sauteed leeks, zucchini, and mushrooms.

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Heading east to Vik

 

Day 5:

The weather report told us that the morning would be pretty clear and mild, but that a storm was moving in that afternoon. We got on the road as early as we could, headed east on Highway 1 to the coastal town of Vik. The drive wasn’t too bad in the beginning, and we stopped at two of Iceland’s iconic waterfalls.

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Seljalandsfoss: 

Seljandsfoss waterfall is just a very short drive off the main highway 1, and there are signs for it. In warmer weather, you can actually walk behind it which is pretty awesome. It was icy and cold when we visited, so we didn’t attempt the walk behind it. There was also a fair amount of icy spray from the falls so we didn’t get super close. This waterfall is definitely worth a stop.

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Seljalandsfoss

 

Skógafoss:

Just a short ways down the road from Seljandsfoss is Skogafoss, which you can actually see from the highway. This 200 foot, 25 meter-wide waterfall is one of Iceland’s biggest and most impressive. There are bathrooms at the falls, as well as a little restaurant if you’re hungry. We had packed sandwiches and ate them in the car to save money and use up our groceries.

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Skogafoss

 

We didn’t have far to go to Vik, but the black storm clouds on the horizon warned us that we had better hurry it up. It started getting a little dicey right before we descended into the town, but we made it. The winds were picking up and the powdery snow was blowing across the road, making it difficult to see.

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Menacing black storm clouds closing in
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Farmer herding his horses in as the storm approaches

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Snow blowing in the wind
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Snow blowing on the road

We finally reached Vik, very relieved to have made it just as the storm began raging.

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Little church in Vik

We were staying at the brand new Icelandair Hotel in Vik, which had just opened in June 2014. At $175 a night, it was one of our most expensive accommodations on the trip, but very comfortable and modern. In the summer, forget it–the rates shoot up to $300/night. Way out of our budget.

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Icelandair Hotel Vik
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Icelandair Hotel lobby
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Icelandair Hotel lobby bar
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Ocean view room, Icelandair Hotel Vik
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View from the huge windows in our room

We checked into our room, happy to be out of the weather. I had woken up with a sore throat that morning and it became apparent by afternoon that I was coming down with a mild cold. We decided to relax in the room the rest of the afternoon and watch the stormy sea from our huge floor-to-ceiling glass windows in the room. I was glad that I had packed some cold medicine and vitamins just in case.

For dinner that evening, we asked the receptionist what our restaurant options were in town. The town is tiny and there aren’t a lot of choices. She talked up the Icelandair Hotel restaurant on site, and then mumbled disdainfully about “the grill across the street,” and “another place up the road and to the left.” I suppose it’s her job to steer us to the hotel restaurant.

Berg Restaurant at the hotel was very expensive, and looked a little overpriced. The grill across the street was a very affordable option, attached to the gas station, but we also weren’t in the mood for fried food. I consulted Tripadvisor and  decided to check out Halldorskaffi up the street.

The main street in Vik is Vikurbraut, which has a small grocery store, post office and liquor store (you do need to buy beer and wine at the liquor store, which closes at 6:00 PM), and two restaurants–HalldorsKaffi and the Lundi Restaurant in the Puffin Hostel.

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Vikurbraut St. in Vik
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View of church in Vik from Vikurbraut St
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Halldorskaffi Restaurant

Halldorskaffi Restaurant Doesn’t have a sign, we recognized it from the photo someone posted on Tripadvisor. After looking at all the options, I will say that it is the best restaurant option in Vik.

Service was very friendly. The best deal they have is their daily soup special, which is a self-serve all-you-can eat soup station with homemade bread. I had the soup of the day (cauliflower) and it was delicious. I also ordered the smoked salmon appetizer and it was also very good. Paddy had a burger and fries. They serve full entree dinners (mostly fish and lamb), pizzas, burgers, salads, and sandwiches. The prices were very reasonable.

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All you can eat soup at Halldorskaffi
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Lox (smoked salmon) appetizer and burger at Halldorskaffi
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Delicious homemade cakes and pies at Halldorskaffi

There isn’t any nightlife in Vik, and I wasn’t feeling so hot because of my cold so we spent the rest of the evening in the hotel room reading and listening to the storm.

We were super excited to find out from the front desk lady that the storm was supposed to pass overnight, and that we could actually expect some sun the next day.

 

Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon and the Southern Ring Road

 

Day 6:

Much of the snow had melted off the road overnight, and the weather forecast was actually good for the day. We got up early, ate some yogurt, bread, and leftover tuna salad for breakfast (we just used the car as our refrigerator for the night), and set out to do a marathon sight-seeing trip on our one unicorn-day of good weather.

An hour past Vik, there is another small town called Kirkjubæjarklaustur, but not much else for miles. (Be sure to have a full gas tank). Just a short ways past Vik is an area where part of Game of Thrones was filmed, and we could definitely see why. We realized that we were really out in the “wilds of Iceland,” with nothing but snow, ice, and glaciers. It was beautiful and humbling at the same time.

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After two and a half hours or so, pretty much driving on a solid sheet of ice in some parts of the road, we reached our main destination:  Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon. It is one of the big attractions in Iceland, and in the summer I’ve read that it is a conveyor belt churning out loads of tourists through boat tours. It was busy, but not too busy when we were there.

The sun was starting to peek out, but the wind was brutal. We walked towards the lagoon and climbed up on top of the grassy hills to get a good view, and were almost blown away.

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Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon
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Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon
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Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon

We descended to the beach, which was better but the wind was still icy cold. It was a beautiful site to see, but we didn’t stay as long as we wanted, the wind was just too much. No boat tours were being offered either, which was fine. The view from the beach was pretty good by itself.

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Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon
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Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon
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Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon
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Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon
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Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon
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Freezing!
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Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon

Fortunately, there is a small cafe and gift shop selling seafood soup, pastries, and hot drinks. We had some seafood soup for lunch, which was mediocre but hot and warmed us right up. We used the restroom, picked up a couple souvenirs and turned around to head back.

On the way back we stopped at Skaftafell National Park. Visiting Skaftafell and hiking to glaciers and waterfalls in the park had originally been part of the plan, but we realized that this was a much better destination in the summer or early fall. We didn’t have a lot of time, but thought we’d pull in and see if there was anything to be seen within a short walk of the visitor’s center. There wasn’t. Even nearby Svartifoss required crampons to even attempt the trail. We checked out the visitor’s center and then moved on.

The sun was out full force while we drove back, and we were just happy that we got to see the Glacier Lagoon and the rugged, wild winter terrain of the southern Ring Road. It was even more beautiful on the drive back, as the blue sky and bright sun added some more contrast to the landscape.

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Icy wild arctic tundra without a soul around for miles

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Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach

 

Arriving back at the hotel in Vik, we stopped by the room to freshen up and then got back on the road a short drive west of Vik to Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach. We were hoping to catch a sunset but snow clouds were rolling in, and it began to snow a little bit. It was still a nice stroll on the beach, with the snow coming down.

Reynisfjara Beach is a must-see stop just off the Ring Road in south Iceland. The beach is covered in black sand and lava rock, with towering jagged sea stacks that look like monster teeth jutting out of the raging ocean. To the west is a rock arch going into the ocean.

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Reynisfjara Beach
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Reynisfjara Beach

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Rock arch, Reynisfjara Beach
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Big lava rocks on Reynisfjara Beach
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Reynisfjara Beach

Hálsanefshellir sea cave is to your right (as you face the ocean), made up of hexagonal basalt columns much like the ones we saw at the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland. The columns are a natural geological wonder formed from lava pouring out of the land and cooling slowly over time. They are very rare but found randomly all over the world, and also make up the waterfall cliff at Svartifoss in Skaftafell National Park. The columns at Reynisfjara are also called the “organ pipes.”

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“Organ Pipes” at Reynisfjara Beach
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“Organ Pipes” at Reynisfjara Beach
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“Organ Pipes” at Reynisfjara Beach
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“Organ Pipes” at Reynisfjara Beach

**Note: The waves and current at Reynisfjara are very dangerous. Do not wade in the ocean or get close to the edge of the shore, waves have been known to come out onto the beach further than expected and the current can pull you in, even from knee-deep water.

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Raging sea at Reynisfjara

 

After the beach, we went back into town and had dinner at Halldorskaffi again. Paddy had the lamb burger and I had a chicken sandwich with fries. Both were delicious, but we were starving and it didn’t quite fill us up. We picked up some snacks at the convenience store across the street from our hotel on the way back.

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Evening sun in Vik

Back at the hotel, we went down to have a drink at the swanky hotel bar with (yak??) fur barstools. There were a few other tourists down in the lounge area, but it was otherwise pretty quiet. There were a few people eating in the restaurant.

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Before coming to Iceland, we watched a few travel documentaries which all featured the infamous Icelandic liquor Brennivin, otherwise known as “The Black Death.” Brennivin literally translates to “burning wine” and is a type of schnapps made from potato mash and flavored with caraway. It has a very herbal flavor to it, and after doing a shot of that, my cold went away. No joke. It was a pretty mild cold, but I’d like to believe that the “Black Death” brought me back to life.

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We had a couple beers and enjoyed the ambiance for a bit, but the drinks were expensive so we didn’t stay long.

Regarding Icelandic beer–beer was actually banned in Iceland from 1915 to 1989. The most popular and widely available beers are Gull, and Viking, which we found to taste like cheap, watery Budweiser or some other comparable American beer. Paddy did find a couple Icelandic beers that he liked, and said the Viking Classic wasn’t too bad. My favorite was the line of beers from the Einstök microbrewery. I didn’t get to try all of the Einstock beers, but the white ale and the toasted porter were delicious. Give Iceland a few more years, I think more craft beer may be on the way.

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The Blue Lagoon

 

Day 7:

We decided on our second morning to go ahead and pay the $18 per person for the breakfast buffet at the Icelandair Hotel in Vik. It was a good buffet, but not that much different than most other Iceland hotel breakfast buffets. We did enjoy the smoked salmon and the pickled herring. We really think that for what they charge at that hotel, breakfast should be included. That was our only beef with the place, otherwise it was a very nice stay.

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Icelandair Hotel breakfast buffet

We got on the Ring Road road headed back to Reykjavik, but took a quick detour to the coastal town of Stokkseyri. I’d read of a restaurant called Fjorubordid that specializes in lobster and supposedly has the best lobster soup in Iceland. We thought we might check out the town and have some lobster soup for lunch.

Unfortunately, it seems the whole town is really only open in the summer season. Fjorubordid was open for dinner only that night. If you are traveling in the summer, Stokkseyri looks like it would be worth a stop, and has an elf museum (also only open in the summer).

We weren’t super hungry anyway, we had filled up on the overpriced hotel breakfast buffet to get our money’s worth. We headed back to highway 1 through the pass to Reykjavik, and then west towards The Blue Lagoon in Grindavik.

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The pass from Hveragerdi to Reykjavik is supposed to be a pretty drive. We wouldn’t know–all we could see was white.

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We only had a couple days left in Iceland, and we still had not tried the Icelandic hot dogs that everyone raves about. The hot dog (pylsur in Icelandic) is very popular in Iceland, and probably the cheapest meal you can get. You will see pylsur stands all over the place. We pulled into the Reykjavik suburb town of Hafnarfjörður and found a pylsur stand. Everything was in Icelandic, which I could decipher a little bit with my Danish, but there were so many options to choose from it was a bit overwhelming. We just decided to ask the English-speaking employee to give us the best typical Icelandic pylsur with everything. It came with remolade, a sweet spicy mustard, and raw onions. They were delicious and cheap, we’d recommend them.

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Paddy enjoying an Icelandic pylsur

 

We got back on the road and within a short time arrived at The Blue Lagoon Clinic Hotel.

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.

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The Blue Lagoon
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The Blue Lagoon
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The Blue Lagoon–lava rock covered with white silica mud and algae makes up the bottom of the lagoon

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 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 pretty nice of her.

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Blue Lagoon Clinic Hotel guest lounge

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.

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View from the deck of our hotel room at the Blue Lagoon Clinic
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The moss is flammable…
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The private blue lagoon for hotel guests only

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Blue Lagoon Bar
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Algae mask
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algae mask

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.

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Salthusid Restaurant

Salthusid was cozy and inviting, very Scandinavian. The name means “The Salt House” in Icelandic.

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Salthusid Restaurant

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.

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The best lobster soup ever at Salthusid

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.

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Lamb tenderloin at Salthusid
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Cod with ratatouille at Salthusid

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On the way back to the hotel we could see the geothermal power plant all lit up and hard at work:

Geothermal power plant that accidentally created the Blue Lagoon
Geothermal power plant that accidentally created the Blue Lagoon

 

Day 8:

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.

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The Blue Lagoon

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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.

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The area in the lower left corner of this photo is be best spot to soak when it’s windy–the rock shelters you a bit and the water is extra hot.

 

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.

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Blue Lagoon Clinic Hotel Private indoor/outdoor lagoon
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Blue Lagoon Clinic Hotel Private indoor/outdoor lagoon

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.

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Lava Restaurant at The Blue Lagoon
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Lava Restaurant at The Blue Lagoon
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Lava Restaurant at The Blue Lagoon
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View from our table, Lava Restaurant at The Blue Lagoon

The restaurant is huge, and a more traditional style than Dill with 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). Not that we wanted American wine, but their American selection made us question the value of the rest of the 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.

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Smoked haddock starter at Lava Restaurant
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Slow cooked arctic char starter at Lava Restaurant

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.

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Pan fried cod and roasted langoustines at Lava Restaurant
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“Award-winning” beef rack and beef cheek dish at Lava Restaurant
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At Lava Restaurant

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.

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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.

 

Day 9:

The next morning, on the day we were scheduled to fly home, we woke to hurricane-force winds shaking the windows. Our flight wasn’t until 5:45 PM, so we waited until 11:30 to check out. Our flight status still said on-time, so we just decided to head to the airport and wait.

Keflavik Airport is only about a 15 minute drive from the Blue Lagoon, which is very convenient if you make the Blue Lagoon your last stop on your trip. We had to fill up the gas tank before we dropped the car back off, so we pulled off at a gas station in Keflavik town off the highway. There were signs everywhere in English stating to pay at the pump. Unable to pay with our cards, I went inside and was ignored for a few minutes by the attendant, who finally came over to the counter and told me to pay at the pump. I explained that American cards don’t work at the pump and that we could pay cash if he could open the pump with a pre-paid amount. He said the machine also took cash, but when he went out to show us he discovered that the cash pump was not working. He wasn’t able to sell us any gas.

We drove further into Keflavik town until we found the N1 station, and we were able to pre-pay cash at the counter to fill up there. Hopefully by the next time we make it to Europe, our stupid American credit cards will have that damn chip.

We arrived to the airport a few minutes later and dropped the car off at Blue Car rental. Our car was found to be damage-free (whew!) and the employee drove us and our stuff across the parking lot to the airport entrance. We then waited another hour for the check in counters to open, and finally made it through security to the terminal to wait for our plane.

Image from www.kefairport.is
Image from www.kefairport.is

There is no shortage of duty free and last-minute souvenir buying opportunities at the airport. In fact, as soon as you get through security you have to walk through a duty free shop to get to the terminal. If you plan on purchasing some Brennivin to take home, be sure to do it at the airport duty free. It will save you a lot of money without the hefty tax.

We were able to fly out pretty much on time, thankfully. The winds died down enough for us to take off. We did end up hitting some bad turbulence over Calgary during the last hour or so of the flight back to Seattle though, which caused me to make use of three airsick bags. Good times.

 

Overall we had a great trip. The weather kept us from driving to as many sights as we wanted to see, but it was one of the most relaxing vacations we’ve ever had. Sometimes it’s easy to cram too much in and come back feeling like you need a vacation from your vacation. If we go back to Iceland, I think we’d go in late September or early October, or in May when the weather is better. I’ve heard great things about the remote and beautiful west fjords and I’d love to see more of the North. I feel like we had a pretty unique experience, it seems like all the travel photos I see of Iceland are green and mossy from the summertime. We really saw the definition of Iceland–wild, icy, arctic winter beauty. It isn’t all green moss and puffins, although that is nice too.

Thailand 2014: Phi Phi Islands, Bangkok, Chanthaburi, and Kao Laem National Park

Our trip to Thailand 2014: The Phi Phi Islands, Bangkok, Chanthaburi, and a floating lake house safari in Kao Laem National Park

Thailand was the first country in Asia that we visited, and we loved it. Getting there from the United States is a pretty expensive and brutal affair (23 hours of travelling minimum each way for most Americans), but definitely worth it. However, once you get there, everything is very inexpensive for American standards (if you stay away from the mega resorts).

If you’re planning on traveling to Thailand, here are a few things to know:

1. Keep up to date on the current political situation. We went during a lot of protests and were able to stay away from them and have a great trip, but as I write this Thailand is in a military coup, with enforced curfews and travel alerts.

2. Either have your carrier unlock your phone and get a Thai SIM card at the airport when you arrive, or put your phone in airplane mode and use free wifi signals at your hotel and the airport to access the internet. You don’t want to come home to crazy international phone bills. Some cell phone carriers offer international plans now, check with your carrier to see what they offer.

3. Things we’d strongly recommend carrying around with you in a small daypack: Toilet paper, tissues, or wet wipes, hand sanitizer, bottled water, extra sunscreen, and a map. Many public restrooms don’t have toilet paper or soap.

4. Thai plumbing isn’t set up for you to flush your toilet paper. This is really common in many countries. Yes, this means throwing poopy toilet paper in the trash can. The alternative is to get good at using the butt-washing hose attached to most toilets.

5. Don’t look at a map on a street corner. We totally did this (it’s hard not to) and were immediately approached by touts looking to “help.” This is the best way to attract unwanted attention and scam artists. A good alternative is a phone app called City Maps 2 Go that lets you download a city map and pin your destinations. It’s downloaded in your phone, so you don’t need a wifi signal. If you have a good international plan or a Thai SIM card in your phone, Google maps is even better because it tells you where you are.

6. Don’t get mad or show anger or frustration in public. In Thai culture, getting angry is “losing face” and a good way to really embarrass yourself.

7. Don’t touch anyone’s head, as the head is the highest part of the body. If you’re a woman, don’t touch or sit next to a monk. If you’re a woman and need to give something to a monk, set it on the ground in front of him or have a man hand it to him. Don’t point your feet at any Buddha figure and always remove your shoes before entering a temple or someone’s home.

8. Use your debit card at banks to get cash, and pay cash everywhere you go. Don’t use a stand alone ATM or pay with your debit card in shops and restaurants. Credit card number theft is very common. Don’t worry, bank ATMs or at least ATMs built into walls are everywhere. We used our credit card to pay at hotels. Remember to tell your bank of your travel plans so they don’t block your transactions!

9. Drink bottled water only, and brush your teeth with it as well. Don’t open your mouth in the shower. On that note, be prepared for traveler’s intestinal distress. This may be diarrhea or constipation. Or both.

 

We found the most direct flight to Bangkok from Seattle to be with EVA Air, which offers service direct from Seattle to Taipei, then Taipei to Bangkok. They also offer a “premium economy” class for about double what economy costs (and significantly lower than first class) with larger seats that recline farther with footrest. For 13.5 hours, we splurged on the premium economy. It was definitely a big splurge, but we ended up spending less than we thought we would while in Thailand, and overall it was worth it. As for first class with the full flat bed seating at $6K-$10K a seat, I don’t know who can afford that. Nobody I know, that’s for sure.

We packed light with just hiking backpacks and one small carry-on each, and I still think I packed too much. I probably didn’t need that extra pair of sandals or a third bathing suit. Pack light and bring Tide packs travel detergent for laundry in the hotel sink–you’ll thank yourself, trust us.

Day 1:

Our friends Heather and Stephen came along on this trip with us, which made it much more fun. Our flight left Seattle at 1:00 AM Thursday morning, with a 3 hour layover in Taipei, and then a 3.5 hour flight fromTaipei to Bangkok, arriving Friday at 11:00 AM. We basically didn’t get a Thursday that week. Thursday just disappeared. Eva Air served us dinner and breakfast (alcohol is also free of charge). The food wasn’t bad for the most part. The breakfast had an option of American style or Chinese style. I opted for Chinese style and it was good. It was a savory breakfast porridge with scallops, and it came with fruit, a pork appetizer, and….fish floss.

Fish Floss
Fish Floss

Fish floss is something that must have been lost in translation. it was a powder that was about the same smell and consistency of fish food, but it wasn’t bad sprinkled as flavoring on the porridge. I’m not exactly sure how they got floss as the translated English word.

The Taipei airport is relatively entertaining. There are a lot of shops and displays to look at, as well as different themed gates. They have an entire gate dedicated to Hello Kitty. They even have Hello Kitty planes, although we didn’t see any.

There are no ATMs inside the terminal, and no bars (unless you qualify for the fancy Airline lounges, which we didn’t qualify for). If you need a drink, they do sell beer at most of counter-service cafes.

Bangkok:

Finally, we arrived in Bangkok tired but wired, sweaty, sticky, and ready to get to our hotel. We got a taxi at the public taxi stand at the airport (ignore all the other people offering you a taxi, just go to the public metered taxi. The person at the taxi stand will write your hotel address in Thai for the driver, and tell you how much the ride will cost).

After about 40 minutes squished in the taxi through Bangkok traffic, I was entering “If I don’t get a shower soon I’m going to strangle someone with my backpack strap” mode.  I think we were all about at our travel threshold.

Fortunately, we arrived at the Navalai River Resort, and were greeted with cold juice and cold wet washcloths to cool down with. It was a very nice way to check in.

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Navalai River Resort

The rooms were very nice, with balconies overlooking the river. There was a window to the bathroom from the bedroom, so that you could view whatever was going on in the bathroom from the bedroom, or vice versa. Kind of weird. The person in the bedroom has control of the blinds, so I guess they get to decide whether or not what is going on in the bathroom is worth viewing or not.

We chose the Navalai River Resort due to it’s location on the river directly in front of the river taxi stop, and it’s walking proximity to the popular Khao San Road backpacker area. We only had two nights in Bangkok before our next destination, so we figured this was a good location to see the Grand Palace, Khao San Road, and other nearby attractions.

We weren’t hungry but were anxious to get out and see something. After showers, sunscreen, and a little rest in the air contitioning, Paddy and I went down to the river front restaurant to have some Thai iced coffee. It was really good.

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Above: Paddy at the Navalai restaurant

Below: Koi fish and a Buddhist shrine at the Navalai entrance area

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Navalai River Resort
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Navalai River Resort
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Navalai River Resort

Heather and Stephen met up with us, and we walked over to the Khao San Road area. It was full of European hippies and backpackers, lots of food stalls, restaurants, souvenir and clothing stands, and massage parlors. The streets seem like they should be pedestrian only, but taxis, cars, and tuk tuks were contantly going down the tiny streets forcing people to move out of the way for them.

Bangkok can be really overwhelming for many westerners at first, and Stephen quickly reached his fill of crowds, touts, and having to yield to taxis on the narrowest streets ever. We walked him back to the hotel and then decided it best to go sit somewhere and have a beer for a few. We found an ambiant little spot with ice cold Chang beer and parked it for awhile, taking it in. We could tell this would be a lively area when the sun went down.

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Bar on Khao San Road

We were pretty tired, so we eventually made it back to the hotel and decided just to have a drink on the river front and order some food to share. The food was all very good. I ordered a drink that was very pretty, but tasted like a bottle of Banana Boat sunscreen. It sounded like a good idea when I ordered it. We called it a night pretty early.

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Navalai River Resort

 

Day 2:

The next day was our only full day in Bangkok, so we opted to get up early (this wasn’t a problem, jet lag had us up at 5:00 AM) and get to the Grand Palace when it opened to avoid the crowds and heat. Breakfast was included in our room rate, and the buffet offered a variety of western and Thai options.

When we were ready to go, we waited at the Chao Phraya river ferry stop for the next boat. Our guidebook did a pretty good job of mapping out the different ferry lines and stops, and it’s pretty easy to figure out where to go. Fare was about 20 Baht, which is about $0.63 USD.

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River taxi
River taxi Bangkok Thailand
River taxi–photo by Heather Smith

We got off at the N9 stop for the Grand Palace and walked a short ways through souvenir stalls and food stalls to the palace entrance. It was surrounded by a large group of tourists waiting to enter. So much for beating the crowds.

**Note: There is a strict dress code at the Grand Palace and temples. No shorts or tank tops are allowed, women must have their shoulders covered. Closed toed shoes are also required. Heather and I wore some long flowy skirts (we wore sandals but our long skirts covered them, and no one said anything) and lightweight t-shirt tops. Paddy wore linen pants and closed toed fisherman sandals, which he said were perfect for the weather).

We paid our $15/person entry fee and began our tour. We were able to lose the crowds for a short period of time. The Palace is a sight to behold. Gold and glittering mirrors everywhere, the detail and design is extremely impressive.

**Note: There is a common scam where touts will stand outside the Grand Palace and other attractions and tell you that it is closed for the day but that they can take you on a tour. He will take you to a jewelry store or tailor shop, where there is usually another scam. The Grand Palace is always open, every day. Don’t buy it.

Our feet were already getting sore, and the heat was intense. We persisted on to neighboring Wat Po. Paddy purchased a $3.00 pair of sunglasses along the way at a sidewalk stall, only to have them disintigrate apart 30 minutes later. Live and learn.

Wat Po is a traditional Thai Massage school and buddhist temple. It is also an impressive temple to tour. Cost is 100 Baht per person (about $3.00 USD), cash/exact change only.

The biggest attraction here is the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, a massively large gold statue of a reclining Buddha that is 43 meters long.

Temple of the Reclining Buddha Wat Po Thailand
Temple of the Reclining Buddha
Temple of the Reclining Buddha Wat Po Thailand
Temple of the Reclining Buddha
Temple of the Reclining Buddha Wat Po Thailand
Temple of the Reclining Buddha

 

Temple of the Reclining Buddha Wat Po Thailand
Temple of the Reclining Buddha

The plan after this had been to catch the ferry across the Chao Phraya River to Wat Arun (The Temple of Dawn), the most picturesque temple in Bangkok, but we were pretty exhausted, hot, and thirsty at this point. The midday heat in Thailand can be pretty brutal if you’re not used to it. Instead we walked across the street to the N8 ferry stop and hopped on the ferry back to our hotel. We did get a photo from the ferry dock, though.

Below: pungent dried fish and chilis for sale by the ferry dock

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Dried fish at the market

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Below: Wat Arun

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Wat Arun

Back at the hotel, we returned to the air conditioned oasis of our rooms for a little while to cool down. We were a little hungry, so we headed up to the rooftop pool which also has a bar that serves food. There was barely anyone there. After some ice cold Singha beers, shrimp cake, fried rice, and a spicy yum woon sen seafood and glass noodle salad, we were feeling much better.

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woonsen seafood noodle salad, rice, and fish cake Thailand 009

The pool was almost empty when we arrived, but quickly filled up with Germans by the time we were ready to take a dip. All the shaded lounge chairs were taken, so Paddy headed back to the room to read while I took a quick dip.

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Navalai River Resort pool

Once the sun was on it’s way down, we were ready to go back out to Khao San Road for the evening.

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Above: Brightly  colored taxi cabs in Bangkok

Below: Khao San Road

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We ran into a lady selling fried scorpions on a stick to tourists. Eating fried insects on a stick was on our checklist for this adventure, so Paddy and Stephen paid her the $1.60 each and went for it. I wasn’t quite so brave.

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Fried scorpions

 

fried scorpions Khao San Road Bangkok Thailand
Photo by Heather Smith

They said it was crunchy and didn’t taste like much. When they got to the body, it got chewy and not so pleasant. The pincher cut Stephen’s lip. But they lived to tell the tale.

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Fried scorpions

We continued on and decided we were ready for some food and beers. We found a huge open air bar and restaurant with funky lanterns and couches and a giant stone statue in the back courtyard. It was funky and a good place to people watch.

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Khao San Road
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Khao San Road
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Khao San Road
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Khao San Road
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Khao San Road

After dinner, we moved on. The street was getting pretty busy now, full of food vendors and European tourists.

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Khao San Road
Khao San Road Bangkok Thailand
Lantern stand on Khao San Road–photo by Heather Smith

And we ran into the fried bugs again. This time, I knew I couldn’t chicken out.

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I knew I needed something smaller and mostly crunchy. The crickets were the smallest, but I’d had those before. The giant cockroaches were by far the worst. I opted for a grasshopper (large pile).

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Me with a fried grasshopper
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Fried grasshopper on Khao San Road

The lady put some sort of soy sauce dressing on it, but it really didn’t taste much like anything. It was the consistency of a fried shrimp tail. Crunchy, but not much else going on.

Paddy and Stephen decided to take the plunge and try grubs. They thought the experience would be horrendous, but they said it was more flavorful than the scorpion. More chewy like meat, not squishy. You never know until you try it.

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Eating a grub
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Eating grubs

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The guys went to the same bar we were at the night before to get some beers, and Heather and I decided to try one of the foot massage stalls on the street. We had a choice of a regular foot massage, or a “fish spa” where you put your feet in a tank of fish and they eat the dead skin off. We went with the regular foot massages. They were $4.00 for 30 minutes. I told Paddy that we need to go more places with cheap foot massages.

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Fish spa