Saturday, July 29, 2017

London

Parliament & Big Ben


Alison is a big city girl. On the way home from our mother-daughter trip to New York last year she asked, “Mom, can we move to New York City?” (To which I answered, “Absolutely not!”) She’s the one who was most excited about seeing London, but it was a lot of fun for all of us -- completely different from Iceland and a little more luxurious.

We arrived in the evening of July 3rd and stayed just across the bridge from Parliament and Big Ben. Despite London having a reputation for being very expensive, it’s all relative. £12 for a meal (roughly $15.50) seemed downright cheap after Iceland! We ate dinner around the corner from our hotel, the weather was perfect, and we were incredibly happy to see darkness again.

Playing on the sculpture outside the hotel, with Big Ben in the background


Day 1: Independence Day in the Country We Gained Independence From

For some reason, I really wanted to see the Changing of the Guard, so we built our first day around that. We slept in, then took a leisurely walk across the Westminster Bridge, past Parliament and Westminster Abbey, took the Birdcage Walk along St James’ Park and ended up stuck in the crowd along the fence at Buckingham Palace. The guard changing was OK. There was a band that played both classic numbers and also things like Life is a Highway. It lasted forever. It was really hot. We couldn’t see much. In short, this turned out to be my least favorite thing in London. The Changing of the Guard at Arlington Cemetery is much better. It’s silent, you can see what’s going on, and it’s short and sweet. I was jokingly comparing the U.S. to England the whole day since we were spending our Independence Day in the country we gained independence from. The U.S. won this one.


Buckingham Palace from Green Park 

Photo Credit: Nathan King

video
Changing of the Guards


I was happy to get away from the crowd and walk down the Mall towards Trafalgar Square. The kids acquired a cute, but annoying habit of chasing pigeons. I was sure I would have to clean poop off of one of them before the trip was over.


Hanging Out in Trafalgar Square


We were starving and so, without looking at reviews or guidebooks, we found a restaurant in Trafalgar Square called The Admiralty where we got meat pies. They had a pretty good local cider too. We lucked out.


I couldn't help but think about Sweeney Todd :/


The National Gallery is across the square. It wasn’t on our list, but we popped in and MAN do they have a lot of famous things! They’ve got a pair of paintings by Leonardo Da Vinci.




They have gobs of famous impressionist paintings (I’ve never seen so many Monets). But the thing that made me so, so happy was the entire wall of Diego Velazquez paintings, including the La Venus del espejo (The Toilet of Venus). Pretty neat and totally beats the other sunflower painting they have.


 Velazquez

I saw this too.


It was late afternoon by the time we left and walked toward Westminster Abbey. We were disappointed not to be able to see the Prime Minister’s door -- you can’t even get close. (Another thing we do better in the U.S.) It was too late to tour Westminster Abbey, so after a break at the hotel, we decided to do what the kids were most excited to do: ride the London Eye. We knew it would be a colossal waste of money ($123 to be exact), but we’re glad we did it once.


Photo Credit: Nathan King



About to Board 


 View from Above

We finished the night at a nearby Italian restaurant called Locale. The conclusion we drew that day was that England, the country we’d gained Independence from, wasn’t so bad, but it wasn’t better either.

The Thames


Day 2: Museums & Trains

We began Day 2 early with a ride on the London Underground and a visit to the Tower of London.


Tower of London


Tower Bridge from the Tower of London 

Me!


Watergate (the prisoner entrance) with the Real World Behind It

I love the Underground and I love, love, love the Tower of London (my 3rd favorite thing in London as it turns out). It’s hard to imagine that by the time the U.S. was founded, the Tower of London was already well over 700 years old. We took a tour with a jaunty Yeoman Warder who was hilarious. He liked to make anti-American jokes and tell historic tower stories in the most gruesome way possible. (Luckily, the kids weren’t paying attention most of the time.)

 Yeoman Warder

We saw the Crown Jewels. No pictures allowed, but not as extravagant as I expected. I guess I was expecting something more like this:



We learned about the exotic animals that used to live in the Tower.


Scarier than Lions & Tigers & Bears


We saw the armor that various kings used hundreds of years ago.


 The White Castle

Best Use of Old Armor

View from the White Castle


It was all very, very cool -- everything except the temperature. We had to stop at an ice cream stand afterwards to cool off. Halfway through her cone, Maddie said, “Mom, the ice cream is so low, I can’t bite it!” She didn’t know you could eat the cone...and that’s how we discovered that Maddie had made it four entire years without eating an ice cream cone. Parenting win or fail?!


Maddie's 1st Cone


From there, we took the Tube again to the British Museum. It pays to have taken over large swaths of the globe at a time when randomly stealing things from other cultures was not very difficult. They have the ROSETTA STONE!


Rosetta Stone


And an Easter Island statue.


Easter Island Statue


And they have chunks of the Parthenon from Athens. (How?!)


Some Famous Horse Head


Luckily, it didn’t take all that long to see everything we wanted to at the museum and we got out of there before it closed at 5:30pm. For dinner, we walked down the street to Rock and Sole Plaice to get fish & chips. Nathan claims the fish & chips he had at the restaurant right by the hotel was better. I thought it was pretty good...for fish.


Then, we did my second favorite thing in all of London. We visited Platform 9 ¾! We waited in a photo line long enough to make anyone that isn’t a diehard Harry Potter fan angry. Luckily, three of us are pretty big fans. One of us was angry.


Off to Hogwarts!


This could not have made me happier. :)


Day 3: Westminster & Tea

We thought we’d spend the final day eating like a Brit. So, we ordered a traditional Full English Breakfast. Each one was big enough for about six people to eat and for the most part, everything was good. I disliked the “black pudding” which was like a stale, burnt hockey puck and I also disliked the fact that there was no way I was finishing everything.


Full English Breakfast


Then, since time was running out on our vacation, we decided to split up. Alison and I went on a tour of Westminster Abbey and Nathan and Maddie went to the Imperial War Museum.


I went to Westminster Abbey primarily because most people say it’s really neat. I thought it would be just another impressive gothic cathedral like the one I used to pass everyday on my way to school the semester I studied in Spain. What I didn’t know is that it’s basically a cemetery for a lot of really famous people (AND impressive gothic cathedral)!


Alison @ Westminster Abbey 

Waiting to Get Inside


Darwin, a bunch of Kings and Queens, Isaac Newton, Chaucer, and Dickens -- the list goes on and on. I don’t know what it is about stumbling upon old cemeteries with famous people in them, but I just love it (Boston’s got some good ones too)! That made Westminster Abbey my favorite spot in London. The best area was Poet’s Corner, where many of Britain’s most famous authors are buried or have memorials (like Shakespeare and Jane Austen). Anyway, the audio guide is pretty great and even a six-year-old understood how important this place was.


Westminster Abbey Courtyard 

Alison & I in the College Gardens


We had reservations for high tea at the Kensington Palace Orangery at 2:30pm. It is inside Hyde Park, so we had a lovely walk from the Underground through the park to tea. I hate cities. I really hate them, but I appreciate touring them and seeing all the famous things. However, I never tend to realize how stressed out they make me until I find a quiet spot in the middle of, say Central Park, or in this case, Hyde Park. It’s a literal breath of fresh air in the middle of all the hustle and bustle. I’m really glad both New York and London thought far enough ahead to add a bit of nature to their monstrous cities.


Ready for Tea! 

We got there a little early... 

...and explored the palace gardens. 

Kensington Palace Gardens 

Maddie

Tea was unbelievably good. (Shout out to Sarah, Marie, and Amanda who have made it a tradition to do high tea at every girls’ weekend we have. This was probably the best one I’ve been to yet!) We ate on palace china. There were finger sandwiches (the egg salad and curry chicken were the best), scones with clotted cream, and pastries. The kids found a sweet, berry tea they enjoyed and didn’t break any dishes (my expectations for their manners were easily exceeded).


Choosing Tea 

Maddie Shows Off the Palace China 

Tea (and Lemonade and Mom's Champagne)! 

 The Kids Probably Ate More Sugar Cubes Than Finger Sandwiches

All of Us


We didn’t have anything left on our agenda for the day and so we rode the carousel and played at the Princess Diana Memorial Playground. This is such a gem. There are several small areas with play equipment separated by forest, but the main section is a giant ship surrounded by sand and water. It’s a kid’s dream and I was so glad we had all the time in the world for the girls to enjoy the place. We stayed for at least an hour and a half. They got their dresses soaked and dirty and I didn’t even care. There were kids everywhere and they were all having a blast. What a cool way to memorialize someone -- by making a ton of kids so, so happy.


Best. Playground. Ever. 

Carousel 

A storm began to come in, so we finally had to leave. No one was super-hungry, but we needed to eat a little something, so we went back to the same restaurant we visited on our first night. We ate appetizers tapas-style and drank our favorite beers and ciders from the visit. It was a perfect ending to a really nice three days.


Madeline Fell Asleep During Our Two-Minute Train Ride


Side note: There is only one thing this entire trip that the kids made truly impossible to do. Wimbledon was going on and I could have easily spent an entire day watching tennis. Unfortunately, kids under 5 aren’t allowed on the show courts (smart!). Next time!


Day 4: Back Home

Good-bye Europe!


I told the kids that our trip home would be, literally, the longest day of their lives. We left London at 8am (3am EST) and flew back through Iceland, arriving in Baltimore at 7pm EST. We got home after 9pm. 18 hours of travel.


Despite all of the amazing things we did and saw on this trip, the very best thing about it was realizing that everything we’ve done to raise the girls for the last seven years is finally paying off. It’s been really hard. I’ve put off a lot of my own goals to do it. But now, they are excellent travelers. They are excellent and fun humans. We share actual adult interests (like Harry Potter and playing board games :P). That realization was priceless. I look forward to many more adventures with these two!



It's hard to explain what these were used for to a kid these days...


Saturday, July 22, 2017

Iceland: Around the Ring

Seyðisfjörður

Driving Iceland’s Ring Road is one of the best trips I’ve ever taken. The first three days of the trip is covered here. Now we’re rounding the corner on the Eastern coast and heading up towards Iceland’s Capital of the North: Akureyri.

Day 4: Eastern Fjords

This morning started with a long drive to the town of Egilsstaðir in the East. At this point, the Ring Road starts to follow the coast and the coast turns into one fjord after another. Meandering along the coast is not the quickest way to get somewhere, but it’s hard to complain when you get views like this:

Iceland's East Coast

Once you get past Selfoss, the towns in Iceland are tiny. Each one is announced with a city sign, and then you pass a couple of buildings and suddenly there’s a sign announcing that the city is over. I got used to small towns and seeing houses scattered in precarious places on the hillsides. We stopped at the town of Djúpivogur simply because it was the only town on the East coast for miles and miles. We ate at a cafe there where the local townspeople had been having coffee with delicious Icelandic meringue since the 1800s. We explored the town and surprisingly found out that we were NOT the only ones here.


Nat Geo is Everywhere! 

Playing Behind Djúpivogur's Cafe

After Djúpivogur, we continued into a valley that reminded me of my favorite place on the planet: Glacier National Park. Except, this was way better (the former Park Ranger from Glacier and I both agreed).

Just another beautiful valley we had to drive through. This road sucks.

Although the Ring Road is the main road around the island, it’s not even paved the entire way. Signs like this would sneak up on us consistently.

Photo Credit: sciamanna.com

Once we reached Egilsstaðir, we broke away from the main road and took Route 93 to an amazingly picturesque town called Seyðisfjörður. It is nestled into a lovely fjord and the drive toward the water is riddled with beautiful views and waterfalls. We ate reindeer pizza at a small cafe that had board games and crayons. I even figured out where the Dread Pirate Roberts is currently stationed - he was our waiter!

Westley!

We saw some art based on sheep parts (weird!) and walked up to a beautiful waterfall cascading over the town. Then we admired the fjord from a small harbor in town.

Seyðisfjörður 


Icelandic waterfalls are EVERYWHERE. There have to be so many the entire 325,000-person population can have its own personal waterfall, probably right in their backyard. It’s just stunning!

We returned to Egilsstaðir, visited the Nettó grocery store and made our own meal that night. The food in Iceland is very expensive! A typical meal out for us, a family of four, was usually around $100. We bought soup and some apples at a tourist road stop once: $68. We took advantage of grocery stores whenever we could, but it’s hard to cook when you don’t have a cooler. This trip, I discovered that Cheerios just doesn’t cut it for breakfast, not even when they come in a familiar box with cryptic words.

Honestly not sure if this is Icelandic or Danish

Day 5: Whales & Water

Day 5 was epic. We drove two hours to see Dettifoss, Europe’s largest waterfall (by volume).

 Dettifoss

Then we found Hverir, a large geothermal area with steam vents and mud pots. This is one thing that the US has over Iceland. Yellowstone’s geysers and thermal features are far better, but it’s still amazing to see the Icelandic ones.

Thermal Vent 

Sulfur Smells Great

One of the best experiences of the whole trip was eating lunch at a cowshed right on the banks of Lake Mývatn, Vogafjós. The food was all from the farm itself (burgers, lamb soup, ice cream) -- so good. I had the best glass of milk of my life and all with a beautiful view of an amazing lake. The girls even got to pet a cow!

After lunch we snaked our way to Húsavík, the whale-watching capital of Iceland. In the summer they have a 99% whale-spotting success rate on their ships (we went through North Sailing) and an insane number of species you might be able to see (orcas, blue whales, humpback whales, etc). I had been nervous that the girls wouldn’t be able to be on a boat for three hours without going crazy, but they loved it!

Iceland gets creative with its street signs 

Hello from the top deck!

They gave us warm pullovers (which were necessary) and we set off into the bay with the most glorious views of snow-covered peaks. It didn’t take long before we spotted two humpback whales. By the time we were done, we’d seen at least four and a group of white-beaked dolphins. This was a highlight for most of us. The girls liked it not just because they got to see some whales, but because they fed us cinnamon rolls and hot chocolate on the way back!


Setting Sail 

My Best Photo of a Humpback Whale 

Whale with a Rainbow | Photo Credit: Nathan King 

Whale Tail | Photo Credit: Nathan King

They're on a Boat (and Are Giant Goofballs)

The day was fading fast, but in a world where the sun never sets, you’ve got a lot of time to fit extra activities into your days. Since the first thermal bath was such a hit, we decided to visit Mývatn Nature Baths before going to bed. The Nature Bath was a huge, warm, rocky pool with milky water and a wonderful view of Lake Mývatn. I enjoyed jumping from the pool to a small hot tub to the steam room again and again, but we didn't stay long. The photo below was taken when we left at around 10pm.

Mývatn Nature Baths

Day 6: Driving

A relaxing Ring Road trip is really a 10-day affair and we were doing it in 8 days with one of them spent on the Golden Circle (not technically part of the Ring Road), so we had to play catch-up somewhere! We slept in and started the long drive around Lake Mývatn toward the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, but didn’t get far.

We HAD to stop at Grjótagjá, which, in and of itself is a really cool cave. It also happens to be the place where Jon Snow and Ygritte...do some stuff...in Game of Thrones.

Grjótagjá 

Grjótagjá from Above

Nathan found a birding museum and we stopped for an hour to look at dead birds and learn that more species of duck nest on this lake than anywhere else in the world.

Birdman

Then we stopped at my favorite waterfall of the trip: Goðafoss. To get to a good viewpoint, we followed the throngs of tourists across precariously slippery stones over waterfall runoff. People had to randomly help the kids across, but it was completely worth the danger of falling in to see this.

Goðafoss

On the way back, a German guy took a huge spill off one of the rocks and knocked Alison over. She took it like a champ.

We hit Akureyri, Iceland’s Capital of the North around lunchtime. We needed something fast because we had six more hours to drive that day. The guidebook called Hamborgarafabrikkan (Hamburger Factory) the closest thing to fast food that the country had (it also said it was WAY better than our fast food chains), so we tried it. First off, their version of “fast food” is a full service restaurant (probably the closest thing in reality are their hot dog stands). They had 15 different kinds of specialty burgers, a delightful kids’ menu that included Octopus Hot Dogs, and a cupcake that looked like a burger.

Dessert Burgers

It was surprisingly good! They have the best milkshakes ever (so good that we went back to another Hamburger Factory in Reykjavik only a day later because Nathan wanted to try it).

After that, we drove and drove on roads that were sometimes paved, sometimes not until we got to Stykkishólmur, a beautiful town on the North side of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. It is surrounded by islands of every size and shape dotting the ocean as far as the eye could see. We trekked up to the top of a viewpoint overlooking the bay to see this:

Stykkishólmur


Our Airbnb for the night was nearby in Grundarfjörður, right at the base of perhaps the second-most-photographed mountain in Iceland: Kirkjufell. There was a hot tub with an amazing view. It was just perfect.

View from the Hot Tub

Day 7: Maddie’s Birthday

Madeline turned four today! She was such a great traveler the entire trip -- so laid-back, so funny, such an all-around wonderful kid. I’d mentioned her birthday to our Airbnb host months ago, but they remembered and had cake, cold milk, a card, and homemade necklaces for both girls waiting when we got there. This was the best place we’d stayed in the whole country (stay there)!


After a short celebration, we hit the road again. At this point, we’d felt like we’d seen the country. The everlasting sun and constant driving were wearing on most of us. If I had to plan the trip again, I’d skip this final day and just go straight to Reykjavik, but the Snæfellsnes Peninsula is many people’s favorite place on the island, so I didn’t want to miss it. It turned out to be a recap of almost every feature we’d seen on the Ring Road.

There were amazing waterfalls and mountains.


The famous photo everyone gets | Photo Credit: Nathan King

Rocky coastlines with views of amazing Glaciers.

Skarðsvík Beach | Photo Credit: Nathan King

Sand Castle! 

Snæfellsjökull Glacier (and the entrance to the center of the Earth)

We traveled through Snæfellsjökull National Park, where Jules Vernes’ Into the Center of the Earth is set. We saw black sand beaches with spires and a shipwreck.

Djúpalónssandur

We stopped to admire bird cliffs and amazing views. We tried to eat at a cute seaside fishing shack, but they’d just lost power.

Bird Cliffs in Hellnar 


We even stopped at a horse farm and the girls got to sit on a horse.

Maddie on her first horse | Photo Credit: Nathan King

But we were beat, so we trudged on toward Reykjavik to find some food and souvenirs. I took the family to a place I’d eaten with a new friend last trip: Svarta Kaffið. It’s a small cafe that serves two types of soup a day in a bread bowl and beer/cider. I can’t imagine a better mix of foods for a country whose summer temperatures hover in the 50s.

Svarta Kaffið

Maddie had a good birthday. There was only one last thing we needed to do before leaving Iceland.

Day 8: The Blue Lagoon

There’s an iconic place in Iceland that most people doing stopovers see because it’s right by the airport. The Blue Lagoon is the “Disneyland of Thermal Spas”. It is a gigantic complex with a huge, warm pool with blue-green water filled with silica, which gives it a milky look and makes your skin feel silky soft, but your hair feel like a witch’s fingernails for a week. There is a facial bar, a drink bar, an hydraulic waterfall, steam room, sauna, a couple of restaurants, a massage area, and a hotel. This place is HUGE and all set in the middle of a lava rock-filled landscape that could be from another planet. You can walk around in the pool and relax for hours.

Entering the Lagoon 





The thing I LOVE to do in the thermal spas in Iceland (why don’t we have these in the US?!) is that you can sit by a wall, submerged in the warm, wonderful water, but have your arms out, resting on the edge with the refreshing Icelandic breeze running constantly over them. It is the most relaxing experience. I want to go back so, so much. Best of all, this is what families in Iceland do for fun. So, while our hot tubs in the US are adorned with warnings against kids under 14 using them, all kids above 2 are welcome at The Blue Lagoon. We stayed for two hours and then it was time to catch our flight to London.

Iceland is a dream. It reminds me of what this planet could be if we hadn’t already overpopulated most of it. It has miles of dramatic and ever-changing landscape, and is one of the most unspoiled places that we have left on Earth. I am torn between my desire to go back again and again and the need to keep it pristine for others to see. You should go. And when you do, take me!