Sunday, January 26, 2014

Sign says "Impassable"? We'll take that as a challenge.

It turns out that if you take the effects of a long afternoon nap and combine it with being 8 hours ahead of your normal time and an outdoor hot tub, you have the perfect recipe for staying up super late waiting for the northern lights. It also ends up being the perfect recipe for a very hard morning the next day. But alas, we managed trek back to the main house for breakfast the next morning. The walk alternated between leisurely walk in the countryside and unexpected ice skating.

We had booked a "Super Jeep Tour" to see some of the natural sights out in the southern part of Iceland, but we weren't really sure what made a jeep "super", or what you would use it for. The streets seemed to be pretty paved and well maintained. We hadn't really even seen a car that would qualify as a truck so far. But it sounded like a good time, right?

Our driver picked us up and we went out to the....crazy big? let's call it "out of a jeep commercial, very large" jeep. To be fair, our driver Steinir was also crazy big... living proof that Icelanders are direct descendants from Vikings and Celts. With our authentic guide and our giant steed, we were ready for whatever the day had in mind.
On our way out to Thorsmork we took a little detour out to the beach. It was about this time that we started to recognize some of the differences between driving in the states and Iceland. In the states, you drive to the beach, find a parking spot, climb out of the car and walk along the beach. Oh, and there are probably a least a few other people around. Here, you drive to the beach, then you just keep driving, right onto the beach. It was surprising to me how forbidden it felt. I guess it wouldn't really have mattered if it was against the rules, there was no one, absolutely no one to see us.
The beach sand is black volcanic sand and offshore in the distance we could see the Westman Islands.
A shipwreck from the 1950s
Our own personal Jeep commercial
The Westman Islands are famous because in 1963 the fisherman that work out there noticed a volcanic eruption starting under the ocean surface, south from the islands. It lasted for a couple years and made a completely new island. People aren't allowed on the island because scientists are using it to study ecology and evolution. On the main island (the only one inhabited) here was also a huge eruption in the 1970s which caused the whole island to be evacuated by fishing boats in a matter of hours. So you know, just your usual quiet island life out there.

Our next stop was the caldera of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano. Can't pronounce that name? Welcome to the Icelandic lauguage. My best description of the language is someone doing an imitation of the Swedish Chef with a scottish accent. It's entertaining to listen to, but filled with a lot of sounds that english doesn't use. For example the double l at the end of that name doesn't sound like an l at all.. it's pronounced like something between a k and a th sound. So good luck trying to pronounce it, you know you're just going to sit here for like 5 minutes trying to get it. Go ahead.
Anyways, on the way to the volcano we should have known something was up when we had to stop to let most of the air out of the tires before attempting to drive up. And I literally mean driving up the giant ice covered mountain without any roads. The volcano is 5500ft high, and I definitely didn't think we were going to make it over parts of the climb. We made it about 2/3 before the weather came in and we had to turn around. But the view was great!

Another jeep commercial?
That pic kinda makes it look like the climb was pretty flat and just snow. This was a small flat plane that we stopped on, but the rest was more like stacking 3 ft lava rocks on top of each other and then covering them in ice and a dusting of snow. Let's just say that Steinor is a very, very good driver and was able to make it more fun and less white knuckle than it could have been.

The weather interuppting trips up the volcano is a pretty common thing, so Steinir had a "plan B", which was going to the glacier on the other side of the volcano. We would have cross an ice plane, which was way less flat and way more exciting than it sounds.
First circled back to see a couple of waterfalls that we had passed before.

Now, you might be thinking "That doesn't look very cold, there is barely any snow". You would be right about there not always being snow. But a closer look at the ground is telling.

Yep, all that stuff that looks like brown grass is brown grass encased in ice.
Some farm buildings near the waterfalls
Our guide Steinor walking through the passageway to the waterfall
We made it to!
The waterfall right next door!

Dad and I had different responses to having a little walking time to ourselves.
Me: Enjoying the quiet
Dad: Probably pretending that
he is Conan.

While we were checking out the waterfalls, Steinir called one of the other guides who came and switched us Jeeps. We got a bigger one. I wish I had taken pics of it, it was sooo big. Every time we got in I would have to climb up on my hands and knees, then stand on the ledge, then open the door and get in. The wheels were 48" wide...
Which brings me to crossing the ice the entrance to the this valley we passed a sign. Steinir told us that the sign said that the valley was impassable, as he proceeded to drive right past it. He told us that when Icelanders see signs like that they pretty much just take it as a challenge.
It's hard to capture in pictures, but the height difference between the top of the ice bumps and the water flowing between them is about four feet. That is why you need a "Super Jeep".

Crossing some small streams.
While driving across the valley, we actually had to rescue another vehicle! A van carrying some Australians had tried to get over one of the ice banks we were so easily (and slowly!) climbing over, and had fallen back in. Good thing Steinir had packed that 2 inch thick rope for pulling other cars out.

This is the only pic I have that shows how big our jeep was.
That is my 6' dad with his hand on the wheel well of the jeep.
This was after we pulled the van out, but before it fell in the second stream minutes later. 

We finally made it to the glacier and where (surprisingly to me..) totally alone again. It's weird to me to be at a well known landmark in the middle of a pleasant day and still be alone. Like standing in front of Half Dome with no one in sight.
Driving up to the glacier
The wall to the right of the glacier
We ate our lunch and coffee in the car. Steinir shared some "twisted doughnuts" - a coffee cake flavored twisted piece of sweet bread that is an icelandic staple. With the food and the view it reminded me lot of a drive in movie.... a drive in glacier? Eventually we got the nerve to get out and walk around. We didn't last long, it was very windy and pretty cold.

On the way back we had to cross a river. I took a video....

We also got to stop at one more waterfall, the one Steinir said was his favorite. It's called the "Window Waterfall"

We didn't arrive home until well after dark. We had such a great time and we gave Steinir one of the bottles of wine we had brought with us to say thanks. He seemed genuinely excited about it. It's easy to forget how coveted California wines are everywhere else!
After a long day seeing the natural beauty we ate dinner and then settled down into the hot tub. We learned our lesson the night before though. This time we brought the slippers, pot of hot tea, cookies, and bottle of wine out with us the first time. There is nothing quite as mood breaking as having to step out of the hot tub and into snow to get yourself more wine. Geez! First world problems - even if the first world is Iceland.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

So cold we went to Iceland to get warm

Having had it with the Cold (yes, I'm capitalizing it now), we got on our plane to Iceland. The flight landed almost an hour early and we were lucky that our driver was waiting for us. It was pitch black and cold, but not New York Cold, so we were moving up in the world.
We were told that the drive west was a beautiful one but we only caught a glimpse as the sun started to come up around 8am. The sun coming up was like a normal sunrise, all pink and orange, but at a tenth the rate.

We were driving along the southern countryside, to a small hotel built on the outskirts of the Thingvellir National Park. The hotel,  Grimsbogir, is basically a grouping of villas and hotel rooms built on a circular road with a main house used as a restaurant. We were shown to a couple of rooms in a row style building next to the main house. We had booked a room to share, but our host told us that all the holiday travelers had checked out the day before so the hotel had plenty of room and we could each have a room. Yay for us! When he came back from getting the keys, he had changed his mind. He told us that there was a suite that was bigger and maybe we would prefer to share that instead. 
`Why not?
Who are we to turn down a suite at no extra charge? 
So we packed the bags up again and drove over to the "suite", one more building over. 
Now here is where the language barrier comes into play.
By "suite" he meant one of the hotel's "villas", and by "villa" they mean house. 
Like a house bigger than either of our houses back home. 
Four bedrooms, living room, family room, kitchen....for us two. 
Us two who were expecting to share a single room. 
Oh... did I mention the hot tub? Yeah. 
We have one of those to ourselves too.
And you can get wifi out at the tub, you know, for hot tub internet emergencies*. 
(*the only hot tub related emergency we had was looking up pictures of monkeys in the hot springs in Japan)
So, we found ourselves in our "villa" with heated floors, having to yell at each other because the place was so big. 
Of course we broke out the wine and took a bunch of pics.
Living room
From one end of the house

From the other end

My of four, all with views.
This is pic of our villa in the summertime. It's the one used in the brochure for Grimsborgir.
Our villa in the winter!
After picture taking we settled down for a nap in the sun, saving up our energy for the adventure we planned the next day! (hint: it involves a "Super Jeep" and a glacier)

Let me describe -21oF for you

Our last day in NYC was cold. Like really cold. Then we went to the top of the Empire State Building. Let's just say it was colder up there. It was -11 F, -21 F with the windchill. I think this pretty much sums it up:

But the view from the top was pretty great!

I took a little video of going most of the way around the top. Not that interesting, but you can see the view pretty well and hear the wind whipping.

And get a good whipping by the wind we did. NYC was so cold that when we got to Reykjavik early the next morning, it seemed warm at 32oC! Little did we know that Iceland also has wind.... and snow....
...Until tomorrow, when we find our weary travelers in the southern Icelandic countryside!

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Good thing we have back up booze.

Today we decided to take it pretty easy and bum around the Met, maybe run a few errands before we head off for Iceland tomorrow. It was overcast and threatened to rain a bit, but much warmer so we took advantage and walked through central park up to see the Guggenheim.

Then a few blocks down to the Met to see the JAR exhibit.
Our walk along the park.
The exhibit was incredible. It was hard to believe the pieces were made of stone and metal, some looked so soft to the touch.
A Camellia Brooch, Click to see more of the collection.
We took a little break from the oohhing and ahhing for some lunch on Madison Ave. Dad says there is nothing like a New York patty melt and egg cream.
Then we were back at it, this time just to drop in on the Monet and Van Gogh collections. Next to famous paintings that we've seen pictures of a million times were a couple that I don't think I've ever seen. I think I like them more than some of the most famous.
Van Gogh - Vase with Roses
Seurat -The Forest at Paumbert
To put everything in perspective for ourselves, we left the Met and walked along Park Ave. to the subway, which we took directly to... KMart. Yes, it seemed to be the best option for what we needed (forgotten sunglasses, flip flops, etc). It didn't disappoint.

We had planned our evening, a trip to the West Side with three stops all wrapped up in a little bow. First a light dinner (that egg cream did us in at lunch), a drink at the top of the Empire Hotel, then a stop at Trader Joe's to stock up on wine.
The place we ended up choosing for our "light dinner" was Ed's Chowder House at the base of the Empire Hotel. After going inside it became obvious that it wasn't a typical chowder house and that it was good that we had dressed for dinner. We learned later that it is a popular stop for dinner before the opera or ballet. We found some suitable items on the menu and the food was very, very good, just not exactly what we had intended. Next on the list was a drink at the top of the Empire Hotel, but as we waited for the elevator to take us up we found out that the bar is closed for the next two months....
So onto Trader Joe's it was. We found it pretty easily, went inside, and found out that they don't sell wine at that location. To quote New York's own Liz Lemon : "WHAT the WHAT?!"
I know, right? A TJ's without wine? Can you even call it a TJ's at that point? Evidently you can in New York.
So with two of our three plans for the night dashed, I guess it's good that we still have our back up booze at the hotel room. New York City is turning out to be a dry town tonight.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Perfectly Drizzly

Well, the weather cooperated... as far as the temperature was concerned. Not so much with the rain though.....
I spent the morning  sleeping in... er, I mean sight seeing. Yes... it wasn't like I slept in while Dad padded around the block reading the paper and then brought me coffee in bed or anything. What is this, vacation?!
So... yeah. We started the day with a hard earned understanding of the subway system and made it down to the Empire State Building. The visibility was zero thanks to the drizzly weather, so we declined to go to the top.

We might try another day. Next stop was Rockefeller Plaza. It wasn't so much the Plaza, which was nice and all, but there was a raman house that I really wanted to try. A perfect meal for a wet day!

In the afternoon we went down to Times Square again (tickets in hand this time!) and saw A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder. A great show, very clever and fun. As an adult on vacation I must admit that I take (probably too much) pleasure in the fact that at the theater you can buy not only peanut M&Ms, but also alcohol. And the alcohol comes in adult sippy cups. It makes me smile to sit in the dark watching a play like a real grown up, but I'm actually drinking and eating candy.
My Adult Sippy Cup
We ate dinner at a french bistro, Pigalle, that was right around the corner. So good that I'm gonna have to walk more if I want to fit into any of the clothes that I brought. I thought it was the holiday food that was going to do me in, but no.. 3 days in New York is going to be the final nail!

Well, I'm off for now. I'm trouncing Dad in a game of Scrabble, and I'm gonna wring it for everything it's worth!

Sunday, January 5, 2014

New Year, New York.

I am trying to start the new year off right and actually posting, you know, once in a while…

It's true, I never got around to posting about the Great Porter Migration of 2010, but it was pretty awesome. 3 generations of Porters (my grandfather, father and I) flew across the country, saw New York City and then Niagra Falls and then took the train back west across Canada. We were having so much fun that as we looked out over the map of the railway system, we vowed to plan another trip. It all started with “where else could we take this train?”. The most exotic place was Churchill Canada. I only call it exotic because it is the farthest the railway goes and the most north –actually just inside of the arctic circle.
Now we’re all for travel for travel sake and stuff, but we figured that there had to be a reason the railroad would go all the way up there to the seeming middle of nowhere. So of course we googled that.
It turns out that up that far north there are a) polar bears and  b) a chance to see the aurora borealis. Let me do that math for you a + b = we were sold.
At that point the issue became when and how and then Grandpa decided that 92 was too old for that kind of cold, then dad got a hold of google again and it morphed into a whole different animal.
Which is how I find myself in New York City again knocking around for a few days with Dad until we get on the plane to Iceland.
We arrived on the red eye this morning, properly red eyed but hungry for some city sights and well, just plain hungry. Also Cold. So Cold. Stepping into the air was like being slapped in the face with a cold, mean, mean hand. I can only discribe the windy New York cold as stinging. 
After some frustrating attempts at the subway we finally made some progress and visited the Waldorf Astoria. It seemed like a good place to look around while drinking some tea.
A beautiful building with a nice history exhibit so you can see the Waldorf Astoria of the past.

After a bit more wrestling with the subway and street maps we made it (just in time!) uptown to grab our timed tickets to see the Girl with a Pearl Earring which is showing at the Frick Collection. The Frick was pretty crowded, but worth it. There were a few Rembrants, Monet and other Vermeers. 
By that time we were hungry again and on the look out for some broadway tickets, so we headed to Times Square and ate at Tout Va Bien. So good. Before befriending the waitress:

After befriending the waitress (now with wine!):

(I love being a Porter!)

Times Square
On the way home we scored some great matinee tickets for the Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder and were ready for bed. 

A great first day, it's going to rain tomorrow so hopefully it will be a bit warmer. We can wish, can't we?