Tag Archives: tourism

12 Thoughts on Travel to Australia

1. It is not as daunting as many people make it out to be

Australia is kind of the other end of the world. So, it is easy for people in North America (Europe as well) to think of Australia as nearly out of reach due to constraints related to time and money. Flights from Los Angeles to Sydney take 14-15 hours. Sitting in an airplane for that long, especially in coach, is quite uncomfortable.

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However, once it’s done, it’s done. Traveling to Australia for the first time felt reminiscent of the first time I spent a weekend away from my family, while I was in high school. Despite the trip being only four hours, the lead up made me nervous and took me out of my comfort zone. I came back with a fantastic experience and a comfort zone expanded. Dealing with jet lag and the change in seasons can be rough, but many regular travelers have come up with some good techniques to manage it.

2. The best time of year to visit is somewhat ambiguous

The northern part of Australia is tropical. Since summer is their wet season, winter is likely the better time of year to visit.

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As for the Southern part of the country, the weather would most likely be more pleasant in the summer (December- February). However, that is the busy tourist season. The Great Ocean Road in June was pleasantly empty. Plenty of locals indicated this to be the better time of year to be here due to the lack of crowds.

If I could chose any time of year to visit Australia again, I would like to try Springtime (Fall in North America). When considering the ideal time to travel, many fail to consider what they are missing back home. Colorado is amazing in winter and summer. Spring and fall can be beautiful as well, but I feel like I am missing less when I travel in these in-between seasons.

3. For Americans, it is one of the easiest places to engage in another culture

Travel can often be far more rewarding when tourists engage in the culture of the place they are visiting, rather than just visit sites. The combination of friendly people and a similar culture makes Australia an easy place for Americans to do this.

4. It is neither expensive or cheap

If someone tells you Australia is cheap, they likely live in New York and typically visit places like London, Paris, or Oslo. If someone tells you Australia is expensive, they likely live somewhere like Indianapolis and vacation in places like Mexico and El Salvador. In reality, prices for things like food, hotels and transit is right in the middle of the pack.

For food and drink, it is important to remember the tipping is not required here and the Australian dollar is worth about 77 cents.

5. Forget the Commercials

I did not hear anyone say ….

  • “Throw another shrimp on the barbie”
  • “Oh Crocies”
  • “Fosters, Australian for beer”

6. Expect a lot of Asian tourists

Half of the world’s population lives in China, Southeast Asia, India and Japan. Australia has only 26 million people. The makeup of the tourists will most certainly be dominated by people from the highly populated and relatively nearby part of the world. Many of the signs along the road contained text in Chinese as well as English, in the same manner that signs in Colorado are written in English and Spanish.

7. There are three different kinds of rugby

And apparently each one has different rules and is associated with a different class of people.

8. Australians have a nuanced view of weather and climate

A bartender in Melbourne told me that “real Australians love the heat”, when referring to temperatures in excess of 45°C (113°F). Yet, there seemed to be a genuine concern about climate change.

In America, especially in the Midwest, it appears that concern for climate change has some connection with weather preferences, particularly frustration with wintertime cold.

9. It is a big country

By area, it is only slightly smaller than the United States, and that is primarily because of Alaska. Trying to see the whole country in two weeks is pretty much like someone saying they’ll see the entire continental United States in two weeks. It is nonsense (or, “rubbish” as they would say). Two weeks is almost the minimum amount of time one would want to allocate to a trip to Australia to make the long flight worth it. One couple I met set out to see the entire country in a recreational vehicle. They plan to do so over two three-month trips.

10. They have some surprising travel preferences

Skiers seem to prefer to travel to Japan over New Zealand.

It is actually cheaper to fly to Hawaii from Australia than from the United States. Most Australians I met have been there at least once. I even heard of people flying to Hawaii for Black Friday Shopping

11. Koalas can be somewhat hard to spot

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12. They are having many of the same discussions we are having

In addition to having the same political divide as the United States, there seems to be similar discussions about a lot of other issues. This book, Australia Reimagined, could have easily been written about America.

One Cloudy Day in Sydney

The day started with fog. It wasn’t thick enough to cause major travel hazards. But, it was thick enough to obstruct views of the Sydney Harbor Bridge from the Central Quay train station platform, as well as the 25th floor of a nearby hotel. The hotel concierge would not recommend activities like ferry rides and bridge tours so long as the visibility was as low as it was.

Luckily, that fog would gradually lift over the course of the day.

This would give way to an afternoon that was just cloudy, with five afternoon hours to explore Sydney, as early June has some of Sydney’s earliest sunsets.

It ended up still being a pretty good day to walk through The Royal Botanical Gardens.

The low-level cloudiness of the day, if anything, provided a unique experience. The thick layer of cloudiness felt like it added an element of mystery to the trek through the gardens, with its variable, but often dense vegetation.

Embedded in the trees are plants from many parts of the world, some unexpected.

At the far Northeast end of the garden is Ms. Macquaries Point. There are several paths to get there, each with different vegetation. It is a large garden visitors could easily spend multiple hours at. The view of downtown, from across the bay, is perhaps the best one in the city.

The Sydney Harbor Bridge Tour is supposed to be an epic experience. However, it is expensive (~ AU$ 300), and probably would not have been cost effective on a day like this. Ferry rides to Sydney’s North Beaches, however, cost only AU$15 round trip.

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These ferries track right next to Sydeny’s defining skyline features as it connects downtown with communities like Manly Wharf.

Manly Wharf feels similar to many coastal communities in America, particularly in California. Despite less than ideal weather conditions, surfers ventured in and out of the waves of the Pacific Ocean all afternoon while coastal birds wandered among the humans looking for food scraps.

Over time, their presence becomes something everyone is just accustomed to, part of the background like the sound of the ocean waves or the humming of one’s kitchen appliances.

The great thing about venturing to places like this is the ability to imagine the day to day lives of people who live here. Central Quay is, of course, the most “touristy” part of Sydney. There is nothing wrong with being a tourist. Attractions are attractions for a reason; they are great places to visit. However, most of the other people walking around places like this are also tourists, not living their typical day-to-day lives.

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Here it is different. At the bars, people were cheering on their local team in Australia’s favorite sport- rugby. The shops along the wharf provide not only the kinds of services tourists need, such as restaurants and ice cream shops, but also grocery stores and gyms. Patrons at the bar would encounter others they are already familiar with. Living near this beech and taking a 30-minute ferry ride to work every day feels like an amazing life!

There were also plenty of families in the area, many enjoying the beech, and preparing to take the ferry downtown for the Vivid Light Festival. This festival runs for something close to a month at Sydney’s darkest period, with various light displays illuminating Sydney’s downtown buildings.

It was also quite well attended. It makes perfect sense for an event like this to occur this time of year in Sydney. Sydney’s winters are not that cold. Saturday was a chilly day with temperatures in the 10-15°C (50-59°F) range. This, although not cold from the standpoint of anyone that has lived in cold cities in the Northern United States, felt cold enough to encourage many locals to wear wintry clothing, including coats and hats. For the entire day, most people appeared dressed the way New Yorkers would dress for an evening in December with temperatures just below freezing.

One day stops are never a guarantee. This is especially true in places with variable weather conditions; mid-latitude destinations in wintertime. Travel is often a delicate balance, between planning and spontaneity, between maximizing time and finding time to relax, and between the desire to take part in everything and the limitations of the human body. It is possible to use perhaps the scarcest human resource, time, to its fullest while traveling by doing things like visiting popular destinations in wintertime for one day. However, it requires the understanding that not everything will always go exactly according to plan. Being aware of what is going on, weather and other considerations, while noticing events like like Vivid Light Festival and being open to trying them out will usually lead to a great experience regardless of circumstance. Sometimes, when circumstances require adjustments to be made, the experience can even end up better than the one originally planned.

The Denver Travel and Adventure Show

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It says something about our culture, in its current state, that we now have a series of exhibitions like this, throughout the country, dedicated to travel.  After all, it was only about a century ago that the idea of going on vacation, let alone regular travel as a way of life, became an option for those that would be considered “middle class”.  Now, we have a Travelers Century Club, with multiple chapters around the world, for people who have visited over 100 countries, and wanderlusters encouraging others to make travel a way of life.

Due to a variety of factors, I am in the midst of what I am referring to as a “low energy month”.  I am guessing this is more common than I realize.  I really cannot remember the last time I had one.  It’s likely that I needed a calmer, quieter period, although, I cannot say I welcomed it.  What I ended up with was a feeling eerily similar to how I would feel toward the later part of most winters when I lived in the Midwest.  I got kind of stir crazy (still am at the time of writing this).

The Travel and Adventure Show represents a whole new way for people to feed their stir-craziness.  This year, the Travel and Adventure Show came to Denver for the first time ever, at the Colorado Convention Center downtown .  The Colorado Convention Center features the Big Blue Bear sculpture, one of Denver’s architectural attractions.  I love it!  So creative.  So unique.  Whoever designed this was not thinking along conventional lines!

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At first glance, the idea of attending this show could seem absurd.  Pay $12 (or $20 to go both days) to have people advertise to me?  It reminded me of those catalogs people would get in the mail.  They would be thick, at least 150 pages, of nothing but ads.  And people would actually pay to have them delivered?  I never wrapped my mind around that (and now I don’t have to).  I’m used to getting something like free entertainment (TV), or free information (web content) in exchange for being subjected to advertisements.

But, the Travel and Adventure Show is actually about more than just the exhibits.  The show had a series of presentations, from various people in the travel industry, with topics ranging from advice about journeys to specific destinations, travel tips, food, and so much more.

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Maybe this is more about who I am and what I care about, but the talk I got the most out of was definitely The Travel Channel’s Samantha Brown.  Her presentation focused on why we travel, how to get the most out of travel, and why experiencing other places and cultures is beneficial to us.

What I really liked about her presentation is that she presented clear and positive cases for what she believes are the best practices while traveling.  From personal experiences, she described why she does certain things on trips, including visiting some of the less publicized destinations, interacting with the locals, going on walks without maps, and being open to life-changing experiences.  However, she avoided doing so in a manner that demeans those who do things differently.

People often make the distinction between travelers and tourists.  I find it to be you classic “my way is better than their way, and now I feel better about myself” type of distinction.  People who describe themselves as “travelers” depict tourists as those who visit common destinations, play it safe, overpack, over-plan, and do nearly everything else that annoys locals.  Samantha flat out dismissed this distinction, encouraging people, well, just to travel.

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I also did not feel pressured by any of the exhibitors, which was the very thing I was afraid of.  I largely haven’t figured out what places I will visit in 2017, which makes me both nervous and excited at the same time.  I went around from booth to booth, talking to a good number of the exhibitors.  Whenever I did not think of anything specific to say to anyone, I would simply tell the exhibitors “I’m wanderlusting”.  At the time I thought it was an easy way to say that I was just browsing, but later realized that this sentence could have given people more reason to be pushy.  But, it did not happen.  I felt less like I was being advertised to, and more like I was just meeting people and hearing about places.

This distribution of exhibits were about a third from places within a day’s drive of Denver.  This included Colorado hot-spots such as Breckenridge, as well as some places a bit farther, including Utah and Montana.  The Great Plains actually had a significant presence.  Another third came from more distant international destinations.  Every region of the world was represented.  I particularly noticed a signifiant presence from Nepal, Australia, and Denver International Airport’s newest direct flight: Belize.  The remaining exhibits were a combination of people representing other parts of North America, such as Louisiana, and California, some travel related products, and even some interesting types of companies.

One was a company that offered active travel, which is the only place in the entire show I saw bike travel represented.  This exhibit, along with the 1000 Places to See Before You Die presentation reignited my desire to one day cycle the Pacific Coast Highway.  Unfortunately, this will not be possible in 2017 due to the California Floods.

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The main surprise, I would say, are the number of exhibits that were actually staffed by some sort of combination of a county or regional tourism board and one or several private tourism company.  I did not expect this.  I actually wondered if there were some tourism companies, not part of the exhibit, that would be upset by seeing their county’s tourism office team up with a rival company at an exhibition.

In the end, I would say my only disappointments were not seeing a big presence from some places I find interesting (Norway, etc.), and not seeing too much about bike travel (just the one exhibit).  I was lucky in that this show ended up feeling nothing like those gigantic catalog books I never understood, and that nobody pushed me to sign up for anything.  It ended up being just a place to explore, and, well, feed my “wanderlust”.  I thought back to those winters in the Midwest, when I would go online and start looking at trail maps, start talking to people about Springtime adventures, and thought to myself: Did I just help myself get through this stir-crazy period, or did I just make it worse?

 

Niagara Falls: Where My Journey Begins

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For most visitors to this iconic location, Niagara Falls is the ultimate destination.  It is the place one travels to, spends some time at, and then subsequently travels home from.  When I think of Niagara’s typical visitors, I think of a family from a place like New York, that made the grueling six hour drive to get there, and will make the grueling six hour drive home.

I guess my sometimes fanatical quest to not be like “normal people”, whatever that means, is working.  I certainly do not feel normal.  My day, which began with an 1:15 A.M. flight out of Denver, involved traveling from airport to airport carrying not luggage or a back pack of sorts, but two panniers, one in each hand.

In a way my journey actually began at a tiny bike shop in Niagara, NY called Beeton’s Cyclery.

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I need to give this place a serious shout out.  I shipped my bike here.  It arrived on Friday, June 24th.  I told them I needed it by Monday, and they were able to get the bike assembled (to package a bike for shipping, the pedals, handlebars, seat, and front tire must be removed) and apply new handlebar stripping in time for me to arrive late morning Monday and start my voyage.

I brought my passport, knowing that I wanted to visit the Canadian side of the falls.  Anyone who has been to Niagara told me that the Canadian side was “better”.  I wasn’t sure what that meant.  The contrast between the two sides is quite stark.  Niagara, NY is sort of depressing.  I had trouble finding a place to grab a snack, while I gazed ahead at tall buildings and casinos on the other side.

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Still, I wanted to see the falls from the U.S. side first.  The plan was to meet up with my friends on the other side and spend the evening there.

On the American side, the view of the falls is somewhat awkward.

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Well, it is from he riverfront. There is this overlook, where theoretically the view is spectacular, but it costs like $18 to go on it, so I didn’t.

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Getting to the falls on the Canadian side involved going over the same bridge that cars travel over.  The toll for bikes is only $.50 (I believe cars is $3.50), but I still had to wait in the same traffic cars wait in to cross into Canada.

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Once I crossed the border, I realized why most of the tourist attractions, hotels, and buildings and such were on he Canadian side of the border.  By happenstance of geography, the views from this side of the river are better.

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This includes both falls that make up what is called “Niagara Falls”, the American Falls, which are on the U.S. side of the river, which splits around an island, and Horseshoe Falls, which are on the Canadian side.  Both falls are magnificent.  Horseshoe Falls is more powerful, but I actually prefer American Falls, particularly the way the water hits he rocks and sort of foams up.  Both falls are best viewed from Canada.

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I’ve always loved waterfalls for some reason.  Much like one’s taste in music or art, it is not something that can be explained.  Waterfalls just feel natural to me, they feel peaceful and even sometimes graceful.

In the world of waterfalls though, Niagara Falls is pretty much the opposite of any of the waterfalls I typically view out West.  Waterfalls in the west, such as the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone, tend to be tall and skinny, falling a much greater vertical distance, but carrying much less water.  Niagara is high volume but the vertical drop is actually less than 200 feet.

I also could never imagine waterfalls in the west being as commercialized as these.  In addition to the $18 charge for getting on the overlook in the New York side, the town of Niagara Falls, Ontario is filled with every establishment one would expect to find in a tourist trap packed together at a density I have only seen in one place before; Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

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Gatlinburg, like Estes Park, is outside a popular National Park.  The hotels, mini golf, and Ripley’s Believe it or Not, are miles away from the iconic natural beauty that made those places worth preserving through the National Park system.  All of these places in Niagara Falls are within a mile or so of the falls.  In fact, one can get another perspective of the falls by riding a ferris wheel next to the mini golf course across from the laser tag.

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Tomorrow a long journey by bicycle begins.  Tonight, I get to continue to savor these falls, as they are lit up at dusk as part of a nightly illumination. This, like the rest of town, adds a man made touch to a natural phenomenon.  Some love it, some hate it, most find a way to enjoy it regardless of the opinion they expose.  As for me, my focus turns to the days ahead, for unlike most of the others watching the illumination, my journey is only beginning.

An Old World Town in a New World Region

In the U.S.A., we are quite accustomed to the seeing certain kinds of towns in certain parts of the country.  Since cities were built earlier on the East Coast, we expect to see towns laid out like Boston, Annapolis, or Charleston.  These cities tend to be a bit more challenging to navigate, as is particularly the case with Boston.

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By contrast, in the Western part of the country, we expect to see towns built more around automobile (or the automobile’s predecessor in the late 19th Century, the horse drawn carriage).  Cities like Phoenix, designed with driving in mind, have mostly straight-line roads, with suburban areas having windy subdivisions.

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This is what we have come to expect from towns in this part of the country.  So, when I first looked at Santa Fe’s road network, I was quite surprised to see a city full of windy roads that resembled something I would expect to see along the East Coast, or in Europe.

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Oddly enough, New Mexico is one of the oldest regions in the U.S., at least when it comes to architecture.  The historical lineage is just different.  New Mexico is home to over a hundred Native American Pueblos that date back to long before anyone associated with the United States of America would arrive.  Many of them are still inhabited, with some having been inhabited for over 1000 years!  This is quite a long time for this part of the world.

Santa Fe, New Mexico’s capitol city was founded originally as a Spanish colony in 1610, ten years before the Mayflower would come ashore in Massachusetts, and still retains much of its original Spanish style.  In some ways, driving into New Mexico feels like entering a whole different region, fairly instantaneously.  I first noticed this storm chasing in college. It was my first time in New Mexico, or Arizona.  I was previously unaware of the prevalence of adobe style buildings in these two states, and was somewhat surprised to see how abruptly the styles of the building around me changed once I crossed the border from Texas into New Mexico.

Santa Fe appears to have retained much of its cultural heritage.  Aware that New Mexico has a substantial Spanish history, I decided that it might be a good idea to check out a Spanish restaurant downtown.

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Taberna came highly recommended by the staff at the hotel, and certainly did not disappoint.  The food was excellent, and, on this particular evening, a performer named Jesus Bas performed for the customers.  I sincerely, if only for a moment while sipping a glass of wine, tasting enchiladas, and hearing Spanish music, felt like I was in Spain.  Well, at the very least, it made me want to go to Spain.

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I decided to somewhat follow in the footsteps of one of the people who inspired me to start writing about my travels, Anthony Bourdaine.  For those not familiar, he is a chef who eventually became the host of a series of food related travel shows.  I watched a lot of his previous Travel Channel show No Reservations, where he did not just simply describe the food he was eating, he would also reflect upon the experience, what certain places made him feel like, and what historical context they can be placed in and such.  His current show, which is actually a bit less food focused and more focused on the travel is called Parts Unknown.  So, I was actually quite excited to see a souvenir shop actually called Parts Unknown.  Additionally, the shop is located only a few doors down from one of the places Anthony Bourdaine visited on the Season 2 episode where he travels around New Mexico; the Five and Dime, a shop where he gets a Frito Chili Pie, a commonly served dish in New Mexico.

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I did not end up getting the Frito Chili Pie, as there were a limited number of meals I could have here in Santa Fe.  I mostly just looked around at the souvenirs available in this shop, which featured Santa Fe’s connection to one of my favorite aspects of American History, route 66 (although the route bypassed Santa Fe starting in 1937).

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I ended up going to a place called Horesman’s Haven, a small restaurant on the edge of Santa Fe famous for authentic New Mexican style food where Anthony Bourdaine was caught off guard by the level of spice in their green chili.

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My chili was not quite as spicy, but still packed quite a punch.  I am glad it did!  Many people try to avoid spicy food while on vacation, to avoid experiencing an upset stomach while far from home.  In this case, the level of spice was an important part of the experience.  Life is meant to be experienced.  Some people spend their entire lives trying to avoid bad outcomes.  In my view this is a sure fire way to miss out on countless rewarding experiences.  Bad outcomes are going to happen.  We just need to manage them in our own way.  Missing out on a whole bunch of experiences, and I am talking about things much more significant than one high quality meal, bears a much greater cost than the occasional unfavorable outcome.

I am guessing this is the attitude taken by the unexpectedly high number of people who make a living as an artist in this town.  In the downtown part of Santa Fe, it seemed like half of all buildings house art galleries.  Santa Fe is known for art galleries, but there seemed to be way more than is necessary to support a town of roughly 70,000 people, even if all of those people are wealthy and have dozens and dozens of pieces of artwork hanging from all of their walls.

Like New Mexico as a whole, Santa Fe appears to have an interesting set of values that does not fit neatly into one of the categories we have become familiar with.  It is western, but also European.  It is cowboy, but also quite diverse.

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It is a state capital, but has a state capital building that looks nothing like any of the other ones I have seen across the country.

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It is the kind of place that erects historical markers dedicated to fiscal responsibility, an important, even if not flashy, achievement, and one that reflects the western values of personal responsibility.

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It is also a place that erects building dedicated to the memory horrible death marches in Europe.

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It is both “old world”, and “new world”.  It does what we all need to do, both in our own cities, and more importantly, individually.  It combines old ideas with new ideas in a way that uniquely represents its individual identity.

Iceland Air’s Glacier Hike and Northern Lights Tour

As part of their push to encourage tourism in Iceland, Iceland Air now offers a variety of one-day excursions that travelers can embark on whether they are visiting Iceland specifically, or taking a stopover on their way between Europe and North America.  These one-day tours offer a variety of options for experiences, including which places to visit and what types of activities to take part in.  For all of them, the general idea is the same; a bus picks tourists up at various hotels in Reykjavik, and gives visitors what basically amounts to a one-day “Taste of Iceland”.

My tour of choice was the Glacier Hike and Northern Lights tour, which offers a lot of what I was looking for out of my time in Iceland.  The Northern Lights is something I had never seen before.  In America, we hear about such phenomenon occasionally. Roughly once a year, we will hear in the news about a particularly strong solar event occurring, and the potential for the Northern Lights to be visible much farther from the North Pole than is typical.  Sometimes that zone would even reach the Northern parts of the United States, and news outlets would provide maps of where the lights could potentially be visible.

For years, living in Chicago, such stories would provide a particular brand of torment for someone that is curious about seeing the Northern Lights.  It is not possible to see the Northern Lights from such a large, lit up city.  One would need to travel somewhere less populated. To get outside the populated metropolitan area, I theoretically would be able to travel in any direction, but it makes little sense not to go North, as the lights get better the farther north one travels. However, North of Chicago is Milwaukee, and the area in between the two cities is populated enough to make it less than ideal for viewing the phenomenon.  So, the prospect of getting in a car and driving out to see the Northern Lights was always a multi-hour trip.  Some combination of time constraints, or frequent wintertime cloudiness in the Midwest always stopped me from driving up to Central Wisconsin (or Central Michigan) to try to see the Northern Lights.

The tour started like every one of the Iceland Air excursions, with a mid-sized bus going from hotel to hotel picking people up.  The bus went to about six different hotels to make pick-ups, finally leaving Reykjavik around noon.  The tour group was quite mixed.  There were a couple of other Americans, a few Canadians, and even two people from France on our tour, but the majority of the group was from Great Britain.  I have relatively little experience traveling to Europe (this trip, and a trip to Italy, Austria, and Germany in 2012), but on both occasions I ended up hanging out with tourists from the UK, specifically England.  I don’t know what that says about America, or who I am as a person, or if it is just due to a common language, but I am curious to see if that happens again next time I go to Europe.

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Driving East out of Reykjavik, towards Iceland’s South Coast area, the first thing I notice, which is common throughout Iceland are lava fields.  Across much of Iceland, the land is covered with ashes from previous volcanic activity.

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The previous day, I had learned at the Volcano House in Reykjavik that Iceland is one of the most volcanically active places in the world, as it sits on the ridge between the North American and Eurasian plates, which are drifting apart from one another.  In geologic terms, this is actually happening quite quickly.  On average, a volcano occurs somewhere on the Island once every 5 years, and as the plates pull apart, the Island is literally growing at a rate of 2 cm per year. 50 years from now, Iceland will be 1m wider than it is now!

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About 30 minutes into the trip, the bus passed by the hotel where one of the scenes in the 2013 film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty took place.  In the movie the volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupts, and Walter is lucky enough to have been picked up by a friendly local to escape before being covered in ashes. In real life, this gigantic volcano erupted quite explosively in 2010.  In the most unfortunate of circumstances, the wind happened to be coming from the Northwest that day, and the ashes covered the sky over Great Britain and much of mainland Europe halting air traffic for several days.

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The next stop on this tour was Skógafoss, one of Iceland’s largest waterfalls. Iceland is not only a hot spot for volcanoes, but it is also a hot spot for waterfalls. This is due to the glaciers, which cover 15% of the land area of the island, the terrain and relatively moderate maritime climate. Waterfalls like this can be found all over Iceland, and they probably look even more amazing in summer, when the ground appears lush and green!

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The main event of this tour, the Glacier hike, worked for me on multiple levels.  I love being outside, hiking and getting some exercise.  There are many times, when on vacation, I purposely try to find the most strenuous activities possible.  I especially do this when I am on a cruise or in some other kind of vacation package, where I know an activity does not need to be super challenging, or even that physically exhausting for them to be labelled as such.  I also got to try something new, hiking with crampons.  Now, I am not sure they were absolutely necessary for this particular hike, as back in Colorado I had hiked in areas that were steeper and more slippery and gotten by without them.  But, I did learn how to use them, how to attach them to my hiking boots, and how to walk with them on, a good thing to know for future activities down the road.

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In addition, the glacier, and what our tour guides told us about it was quite fascinating from a scientific perspective.  Apparently, this particular glacier is receding at a fairly rapid pace.  Along our hike, the tour guides pointed out where the glacier used to end in past years compared to where it ends now.  As recently as 2010, the glacier covered nearly all of the area near the entrance of the park that we traversed before getting onto the current glacier.  When this portion of the glacier melted, a gigantic lake was left behind in the lower lying area.

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The tour guides then informed us that we are actually witnessing a the formation of a fjord.  Roughly an hour into the hike, we had climbed to roughly 100m above sea level. However, the ice was thicker, somewhere between 150m and 200m.  Over time, the ice had pushed the land beneath it below sea level. Once these glaciers melt, the area will be under water, creating a fjord in this very spot.  This is one of many spots where this process is happening as we speak.

As a weather enthusiast, who had studied meteorology, I asked the tour guides what the primary mechanism was for the melting glacier.  Specifically, I asked if it was reduced winter snowfall or warmer summer temperatures.  They indicated that both were contributing factors, but also mentioned that, since temperatures in Iceland are commonly quite close to freezing, the area was starting to see precipitation fall in the form of rain (as opposed to snow) more frequently.  I could sense that, as even on this February day, the snow I stood upon was quite wet.

But that was not even the most fascinating scientific aspect of this tour.  Almost everyone is familiar with climate change, and it’s become the subject of sometimes-ridiculous debate.  The most fascinating thing I learned about this glacier is that fact that, due to the presence of volcanic ash, the glacier is creating terrain that is constantly changing.  Here, volcanic eruptions spill out on top of the ice, causing ice to melt faster in some areas.  The ice then flows in a manner that brings more ice into areas that are currently in “valleys”.  Even when there is no new volcanic activity, the cycle of ice flow and differential melting can happen rapidly enough that each year the terrain of any given section of ice is significantly different from the previous year.  Literally, if I were to return to Iceland at the same time next year, and come to this very glacier, the hike would be significantly different, as the terrain would have been significantly modified.  Amazing!

The glacier hike concluded a little after sun down, which was right around 6:00 P.M. After the hike, the tour bus took us to a hotel restaurant in the area for a traditional Icelandic meal.  To my surprise, the meal did not involve fish.  For some reason, I had this impression that since Iceland is an island in the North Atlantic, it would be a place where almost every meal consisted of fish.  Instead, the traditional Icelandic meal was a hearty meat soup.

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On the tour bus, I learned that the Icelandic cow, which is a special breed of cow that is smaller than the ones most of the world is familiar with is quite popular on Icelandic farms (they actually once voted in favor of keeping the cow over switching to a more efficient Norwegian cow).  In addition to these cows, many farms also keep lamb and sheep.

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After dinner we drove in search of an ideal place to view the Northern Lights.  This involved driving around and looking at weather conditions in a manner that actually seems reminiscent of storm chasing.  We drove around for hours, and every time it felt like we had found the right conditions (i.e. clear skies), something would change.  At one point, sometime between 9 and 10 P.M., as drove through an area where it suddenly started to snow!  At 11:30 I was in despair.  We were clearly headed back into Reykjavik, and I thought we were just going back to the hotel.  After all, the tour does not guarantee that the Northern Lights will be seen.  It can’t be guaranteed.  The weather is always changing, and the solar activity, which leads to the Aurora phenomenon, is also quite variable.

Oddly enough, though, just after midnight, we pulled into a pier on the far West end of town, along the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, on a peninsula.  Our tour guide informed us that we would now be able to view the lights, and, sure enough, they appeared. I was unable to capture them on camera in a manner that would do this amazing natural phenomenon any justice.  I mostly just sat there, in awe, watching the lights glow and move from side to side along the horizon.  I thought about how amazing this phenomenon was.  I wondered if people who lived here took it for granted, noticed it less, the same way many people become less appreciative of what is in their own back yards.  At the end, I just thought about what an amazing day it was, from when the tour began, over twelve hours ago, until now, ending with this amazing light display.

Life in a Northern Town

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It’s 8 AM on a Thursday morning in Reykjavik, Iceland’s Capitol and largest City.  The sun has yet to come up, as this far north (64 degrees latitude) days are still quite short in the middle part of February.  A quiet dawn persists over the town for nearly two hours, from 8 to about 10.  A couple of local teenagers are hanging outside the grocery store.  A group of tourists can be seen hanging outside one of the few restaurants that are open.  Otherwise, the streets are quite empty, and the shops are mostly closed.

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It’s odd because, in many most major cities, 8:00 is the peak of what is often referred to as “rush hour”.  It is a time of people hurrying to and from train stations, and crowding highways trying to get to work.  Even in the more touristy sections of cities, which this most certainly is, a lot of motion can still be found at this hour.  At places like Chicago’s Michigan Avenue, and New York’s Time Square, which are utterly packed with tourists nearly every day, there are still plenty of people to be found at 8:00 on a weekday morning, mostly people headed into work.  Here, that culture just does not seem to exist.  Are all the office jobs elsewhere?  Do people have office jobs?  Do they work different hours?  Or is the economy so heavy on tourism and fishing that there is just no point in being awake at an hour when all the tourists are likely still asleep and the sun is not out?

By noon, things start to pick up.  On some days, the sun comes out and hits the harbor.  At this latitude, when it hits the harbor, it hits it in a way that seems to highlight every single feature, from the boats in the harbor to the snowy mountains on the other side.  From the perspective of someone that has always lived in the mid-latitudes, is feels neither like mid-day nor twilight.  It is a different feeling altogether, and those who take a pause from their tourist itinerary and truly soak up the moment are reminded as to why it is worthwhile to visit different places in the first place; to see something, experience something, do something that cannot be done at home.

The day progresses.  Tourists fill streets whose names are too intimidating to even try to pronounce, make their way into the bars, the restaurants, and the dozens of souvenir stores that feature a gigantic stuffed puffin in the window.

The weather inevitably changes- but, well it doesn’t.

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There is this saying, “if you don’t like the weather, wait 5 minutes, it will change.”  Anyone that travels on a regular basis to places outside the tropics has most likely heard the phrase too many times to count.  It is used here.  At souvenir shops, mugs and shirts about Iceland sport the phrase.  And, it is true to some extent.  At any moment, it can turn from sunny to cloudy, or suddenly get windy.  But, the temperature does not vary too much.  On a four day trip to Iceland, the temperature, including daytime and nighttime, seemed to only vary between a few degrees below freezing and a few degrees above freezing.

Regardless of these changes, winter in Iceland is consistently cold and damp.  For this reason, one of the most popular items made in all of Iceland are wool sweaters.  While any visitor to Reykjavik can find these sweaters for sale all over town, the best deals on them are found at the Kolaportid Flea Market.  Even at the Flea Market, though, they can be quite expensive, the equivalent of roughly $100.  Money talks, and it is easy to figure out what a certain culture values by seeing what they are willing to spend money on.  Coloradans are willing to spend thousands of dollars annually on ski equipment.  Icelanders are willing to spend money on a warm wool sweater.

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Reykjavik’s population is only just over 200,000 people.  In fact, the population of all of Iceland is 330,000- significantly less than every borough of New York City, even Staten Island.  Yet, it is a place that knows how to party!  The nightlife is surprisingly good- probably better than many towns 2-3 times its size!

Making up for the lack of action at 9 in the morning, festivals, shows, and clubs give locals and tourists alike plenty to do in the nighttime hours.  Iceland has been promoting tourism quite hard since the economic collapse of 2008, which hit Iceland particularly hard.  Iceland Air has been particularly active in promoting tourism, by adding direct flights to more places in both Europe and North America, possibly with the goal of becoming a preferred airport for making connections while traveling between Europe and North America.

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Looking at this map, it is hard not to imagine an executive with Iceland Air looking at at map, possibly even Risk the board game, and thinking of this grand plan to become a connecting point between the continents.

Well, it’s working.  Recently, more people talk about Reykjavik being their favorite place to make flight connections, and more and more people seem to have visited Iceland.  At this point, in Reykjavik, it is probably impossible for locals and tourists not to interact with one another in some way, especially at clubs and shows.

After hours of partying, all of a sudden it is 4 AM.  Many clubs still have lines to get in!

At 5 AM, on the streets, music can still be heard coming from multiple directions.  In fact, by this hour, it almost becomes easier to find a place to eat than it was at 9 AM on Thursday morning.

Sometime in the next few hours, the blurry memory of a fun filled night fades into the next morning, likely to be delayed through at least part of that lengthy twilight period.  In my particular case, it faded into the realization that it is now noon, and Millions of New Yorkers (where the local time is 7 A.M.), despite the time difference, have woken up before me on the other side of the Atlantic!

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I only spent four days in Iceland.  I do not know the full extent of life in this nearly arctic city of Reykjavik.  I only know what I experience in this short period of time, where I did the best I could to experience the local culture.  Regardless, it does appear quite different from any place I have ever been.