Iceland

When we told people we were going to Iceland for eight nights, the common response I got was, ‘Wow, that’s a long time.’  The hope was, that with twenty hours of daylight per day at this time of year, it would be ample, but in reality, we could easily have spent more than double that amount of time, and still not had time to see some of the amazing wonders we only learnt about once we got there.
We actually travelled in May, but I have struggle to find the words to do this experience justice, and now on the eve of my second foreign trip since returning to the UK, I now cannot allow myself to be overwhelmed any longer.

I planned a route for us to drive anti-clockwise round the island, so that we could see as many of the main attractions as we possibly could.  For this holiday, I had carried out some fairly extensive research prior to our departure, and also learnt a great deal from the experience itself.  I will be sharing all of this practical information in another area of the Nisaroundtheworld site in the near future, but for now, my aim is to describe my highlights, and try and give a sense what the overall journey felt like for us. 

As we drove from one difficult to pronounce town to the next, our journey took us through incredible landscapes, and was punctuated by magnificent waterfalls and geological marvels.  I have called it a journey, because although it is only a short three hour flight from London, and less than half the size of the UK, we covered over 2,200km by car, and hiked several more.

Tip: Driving in Iceland can be challenging, especially on narrow gravel roads, and adverse weather conditions. We found watching the video on the enjoyiceland.is site helpful. There are others available.

Our first stop was the fault-line of Mid-Atlantic Ridge, where the North American and Eurasian Continental Plates come apart at a rate of 2-3cm per year.  Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park is one of the only places in the world where you can see the edge of two tectonic plates meeting above the ground.  We only realised this fact, after we’d left, and somehow, this has added a new dimension to my memory of the place.  From here we drove to Iceland’s most famous hot spring, Geysir (from which all geysers around the world derive their name).  Geysir itself is rarely active now, but Strokkur erupts every 5-10 minutes, shooting vast jets of boiling hot water up to 40m in the air.  The first of many spectacular waterfalls along our route, Gullfoss, completes the world renowned Golden Circle sightseeing route.

The other beautiful waterfalls we visited over the eight days were: Seljalandsfoss, (the hidden) GljúfrabúiSkogáfoss, Svartifoss, Dettifoss, Selfoss, Goðafoss, and Kirkjufellsfoss.  There are a number of others we simply didn’t have time to go to, but if we had, I certainly would have.  My husband is most drawn by mountain ranges, but for me, waterfalls have always held a powerful appeal, that I cannot explain.  I have been to many great cascades around the world, but each of the ones I have listed here was uniquely special, and I have been captivated by every one of them.

As we continued our drive round the island, the further we moved away from Reykjavik, the population became more and more sparse, and the places we stopped at started to feel increasingly remote.  The sealed roads too, occasionally gave way to gravel, requiring us to utilise the four wheel drive mode on our rental car, adding to the sensation that we were on an adventure.  Many of you will know that numerous scenes and backdrops from the hit tv series Game of Thrones were filmed in Iceland, and knowing that the title of the original books is called, ‘A Song of Ice and Fire,’ it’s easy to understand why.  However, you don’t have to be a fan of this epic fantasy, to be awestruck by all that has been put here purely by the forces of nature. 

In my photo gallery, I have tried to encapsulate the sheer variety of what we saw in Iceland: there were the Dyrhólaey and Reynisdrangar rock formations, Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach, Jökursálón Glacial Lagoon and Breiðamerkursandur Diamond Beach in the South; Fjords in the East;  Hverir Geothermal Mud Pools and Fumaroles and the hot water Grjótagjá Cave in the North; and in the West, the ‘dragon’ at Hvitserkur and the Snæfellsjökull National Park (Skarðsvík Beach, Saxhóll Crater, Djúpalónssandur Beach, Lóndrangar, Arnarstapi)

Along the way, we stayed in some pretty interesting accommodation.  I will be sharing a detailed list in the Country Information section of this site once I have developed it. However, one place that stood out, was the Fossar Cabin, in Kirkjubæjarklaustur, roughly half way between the major attractions in the South of the Island. Our superhost David Andri, was very easy to communicate with, and made sure we had everything we needed in the cabin we stayed in on his family’s farm.

An unexpected bonus for me was the food.  Not knowing much about Icelandic cuisine, I was expecting the meals to be no more than functional.  However, my family and I were very pleasantly surprised.  From the trendy Reykjavik Kitchen, to Mia’s Country Fish & Chips Van near Skogáfoss, the quality of the food we enjoyed, was exceptional.

Our self made tour ended with two nights in the capital city,  Reykjavik.  Having come all this way, we felt obliged to visit with Blue Lagoon.  Personally, I found it very commercialised, expensive, not the relaxing spa experience it is meant to be, but my husband, brother in law, and children, all really loved it, so I guess we all have our preferences.  The following day, we discovered a hidden gem, that we only found out about, a few days after arriving in Iceland.  This was much more up my street.  About 45km out from Reykjavik, is the geothermal town of Hveragerði, from there, a 4km hike up into the hills will bring you to the Reykjadalur Hot Spring.  At this point, the river running through becomes hot from the Earth’s heat, and you have to pick your spot to bathe in it’s soothing waters without getting scalded.

I had been wanting to go to Iceland for several years, and there is always a danger that when you combine expectation with desire, the outcome inevitably is disappointment.  Yet, thanks to the lovely people, delicious food, and the unrivalled power of Mother Nature, this vacation delivered far more than I could have hoped for.  That my children could see what I saw, and thrived in the magnificence of it, made it all the more special.

Mexico

If I was superstitious (my husband thinks I am), I would say that the omens at the start of this holiday were worrying.  First, we couldn’t check in on-line, whereas the friends we were travelling with had no such problem.  American Airlines put it down to a technical glitch in the end, but unconvincingly took a while to reach that conclusion.  They then couldn’t confirm our seats on the connecting flight, which they said was overbooked, and when we arrived in Dallas, we were directed by Ground Staff to gate D22 instead the correct gate A33.  Thankfully, from all our travelling experience, we’ve learnt to verify any information we’re told for ourselves before accepting and acting on it, so we made it on the plane.  Sadly our luggage didn’t.  They had to be sent on the next flight to Cancun, and we received them at the hotel the following morning, so were only inconvenienced for one night.  None of this was a huge problem in the grand scheme of things, but it’s far more complication that we experienced in the ten months we spent backpacking in 2010/2011.

Tip: To save time on arrival in Mexico, we found it helpful to complete the mandatory immigration form prior to departure on National Institute of Migration website

The next day was beautiful.  We stayed at the Hard Rock Hotel Riviera Maya, about an hour south of Cancun, on an all inclusive package.  Still on London time, we all woke up before the sunrise and had a full buffet breakfast, then spent most the day eating and drinking by the wading pool on the Hacienda (family) side of the resort, where the kids could play freely.  In the afternoon, we took the children down to the man-made lagoon, where we were able to take some reef floats into the water to see some fish, and made sand castles on the beach.  That set the tone for the majority of the trip.

The resort has been designed effectively as two connecting hotels.  To the North is Heaven, the adult only section, colour coded with it’s blue buildings.  Heaven has it’s own pool, section of beach, a yoga temple, restaurants, bars and a night club.  As a family group, we stayed in the red Hacienda.  This side is more tailored for children, from the design of the pool, to the age specific kids’ clubs.  As we were visiting in their peak season, half way through our stay, Heaven opened up to families, allowing us to dine in the normally adult only restaurants too.

The first night we ate dinner in Frida, one of the hotel’s Mexican restaurants which felt appropriate.  During the course of our stay, we also ate at Zen (Japanese), Toro (steak), Ciao! (Italian), Le Petit Cochin (French), Ipanema (Brazilian), and when we needed to, opted for the Market Grill Buffet.

Over the ten days, we made full use of the facilities, which also included kayaking, an obstacle course, access to the water park and live evening entertainment shows.  Aside from these free activities, our booking included US$4000 worth of resort credit per family of four.  We used ours on a dolphin swim, spa treatments and massages, and a round of golf.  The resort credit subsidised the costs of these, leaving us to pay only 20%.

This was my second time swimming with dolphins, but on this occasion I shared the experience with my eldest daughter, and chose a package which included a ‘boogie surf dolphin ride’.  I was a little worried she might have been scared, but she exceeded my expectations, and absolutely loved it. Although participation in this activity involves interacting with dolphins outside their natural habitat, I did get a sense that  the company have a strong focus on conservation, and it gave me a chance to to teach my daughter to respect, care for and be inspired by wild animals.

We certainly maximised the value we got out of coming on a resort based holiday such as this, but the real reason for choosing this destination, was a chance to see a bit of México itself.  We knew, that unlike our last visit to Latin America, we weren’t going to be able to travel extensively round the country, so hoped that what we did see, really counted as something special.  The Mayans, did not disappoint.

We planned it on such a way that we had two days fully out of the hotel.  For the first, we independently used a private tour company, Entertainment Plus.

Leaving at 7am, we made a three and half hour journey with stops to Chichen Itza.  With one of the seven wonders of the world, Kukalcán’s pyramid, at it’s centre, this collection of Mayan ruins was as awe inspiring as anything I’ve seen in the world.  Being present here revived a bit of the sense of adventure that I love most about travelling.  Seeing our children equally curious about these magnificent structures, despite the intense heat, made it all the more worthwhile.  (It was incidentally also drawn to our attention that I have now seen all the official New Seven Wonders of the World, although I’m not sure I agree with the list).

After Chichen Itza, we stopped at Cenote Ik Kil (pronounced se-not-ai), for a dip in the 150ft deep natural fresh water well, and a much needed buffet lunch.  From there we made our way to more ruins at Coba, but the difference here being that we were able to climb on them, giving us an entirely different type of experience.

 

The second time we left the hotel, we took a private taxi to Tulum.  Some of the tour companies we’d made enquires with prior to this holiday, had suggested we could miss out this site if we wanted.  We’re glad we didn’t.  Although some may view them simply more archeological ruins, what makes them special for me, is their location on the coast. There are Iguanas and Coatis roaming freely, and going early meant the crowds were minimal.  From the ruins, we drove 5 minutes into Tulum town, to stop for some tacos at the local street food restaurant, Taqueria Honorio.  It was highly recommended by a friend, and it did not disappoint.  Between us, we ate 18 tacos, with soft drinks, for less than £20.  They only have a limited amount of meat per day, and once it runs out, that’s it!

Despite 11 nights on this holiday, I can now still only claim to have seen a tiny sliver of this country.  What we did see and do was fantastic, but I know there is a lot more, and so… we’ll be back.

Edinburgh, Scotland

This was my first trip without my family this year; a getaway with the girls for a little party and some R&R.  No husbands to nag and an uninterrupted meal without the kids!

An early morning flight from London Stansted, and a late return flight from Edinburgh, meant we had three full days, which were mainly spent shopping, relaxing, eating and drinking.

Tip: From Edinburgh Airport, a tram to the town centre, cost £8.50 per person return.

We stayed in an apartment in Princes Street Suites, which was conveniently located on Waterloo Place.  After checking in, we went shopping on Princes Street, and then came back to the apartment to relax, eat and drink. The first night we dined at Chaophraya Thai Restaurant, which has an amazing view of Edinburgh Castle.

After a late start to day two, we went for a lovely and much needed brunch at The Urban Angels.  Next stop was the Edinburgh Christmas Market. For dinner, we booked a table at Whiski Rooms.  the food was really good, I would highly recommend this restaurant to whisky drinkers, and non-whisky drinkers alike.

We spent our last day was spent at the The Macdonald Holyrood Hotel Spa, where I indulged myself to a three treatment combination package, before heading home refreshed.

Lucerne & Mount Rigi

We were told that it has only rained around Lucerne on one weekend this Summer.  As it turned out, these were the four days we picked to visit!  This turned our mountain retreat into a slightly wetter experience than we were hoping for.

We had arranged to meet two other families for a short break in a remote part of the Swiss Alps.  The aim was to spend a bit of quality time together, away from the usual hustle and bustle of London.  Our group was made up of seven adults and seven children.

Our journey to the Airbnb involved a plane, a train, a ferry, and a cogwheel railway, via an extortionate lunch in Lucerne, and a bank breaking grocery shop in Vitznau (elevation 435m), at the base of Mount Rigi.  The accommodation itself was a property comprised of three separate houses in Mittlerschwanden, with a small outdoor pool and an outdoor wood fired whirlpool.  With time on our side that night, we took the opportunity to cook, eat, drink and plan our activities for the next couple of days.

Tip: The Swiss Railway (SBB CFF FFS)  have a useful smart phone app that can potentially make journey planning a lot easier.

Then the rain started!

With little other choice, we made the decision to not be defeated by the weather.  The group split up, with most of the women and children taking the cog railway up to Rigi Kaltbad (1433m).  I opted to attempt the hike, with my three year old, but she fell asleep along the way, and so after about two hours of trekking, I got on the cogwheel train at Freibergen.  We all reunited for an unexpectedly fair priced lunch at Rigi Kaltbad Swiss Quality Hotel,  and the children were happy to be allowed to spend some time in the playroom.  I would have loved to have used this time to visit the spa there, but instead, I completed the hike up to the summit at Rigi Klum (1748m), while my husband stayed back to watch the children.  This final climb to the summit took us about an hour, along a paved path.  On a clear day, you can enjoy a view of 13 lakes and numerous mountain peaks, but… nevertheless, the walk itself was rewarding and blissful.

By the third day, we had fully accepted that it was going to rain.  With the children happily playing together indoors, we fired up the hot tub, instead of dragging them out.  That turned out to be a good move.  The guys had fun burning the wood, the children enjoyed the warm bubbles below and the cool drizzle above, and as the fog started clearing, we all appreciated the beautiful setting.  After lunch, we were determined to explore a bit more, so this time, all 14 of us took a short hike up the mountain again to Höhle Gruebisbalm, a natural 100,000 year old cave behind a waterfall.  To be honest, at this stage of the trip, we weren’t expecting much, but, the rain stopped for just long enough to gift us some pretty stunning views of Lake Lucerne.  The kids actually relished the outdoors, and the recent precipitation meant the force of the cascade was palpable.  We came home rejuvenated, and treated ourselves to one final evening in the whirpool.

Our flight home was scheduled for 21:15hrs on Sunday, and thankfully, the skies remained dry.  This gave us roughly five hours to look around Lucerne.  We deposited our luggage in the lockers at the railway station, where we also grabbed a quick lunch, and then set out on foot.  Having already spent a small fortune on basically just transport and food,  we felt that the best use of our limited time, would be to visit free attractions only.  We walked in a circular loop, taking in the Löwendenkmal, (Lion Monument) together with it’s space age public toilet, then up the panoramic elevator in the Lucerne Löwencenter to Fluhmattstrasse.  From there, we went onto the towers of Museggmauer, the medieval city wall, before crossing over the wooden Spreuerbrücke (The Spreuer Bridge), and past  Kapellbrücke (Chapel Bridge),  back to the station.

In the end the rain may have restricted our views, but it didn’t stop us from benefitting from the peace, tranquility, and natural splendour of the Swiss mountains.