Saturday, April 28, 2012

Eating & Drinking in Iceland

Surprisingly to most, Iceland can be a real culinary destination. Reykjavik in particular has more well reviewed restaurants than even a week of eating would allow for and we only had 3 days. Thanks to friends and Twitter we had lots of recommendations and I don't think we really could have gone wrong with any of them.

We started our first day off with a cup of lobster soup from the tiny harbor shack that is The Sea Baron or Saegreifinn. This is definitely a working persons cantina with kabobs of whale and halibut ready to be grilled, bowls of the delicious lobster soup served with hearty bread on built in wood tables with stools that looked to be crafted out of buoys.
We were told this is the menu :)

Icelandic lobsters are actually langoustines, delicate in flavor with a wonderful texture. One day we made a special detour on our Golden Circle drive to head to the seaside town of Stokkseyri for dinner at Fjorubordid known for their "Magical" lobster soup and peel and eat langoustines in garlic butter. Let me just say that this meal was worth the drive, only an hour outside of Reykjavik. The soup came first accompanied by a wonderful light rye bread with 3 spreads, a dill skyr, a tomato tapenade and an amazing brown sugar with garlic. We ordered our 300 grams of langoustines "with the trimmings" which included cous cous, pickled cucumbers and carrots, green salad and tomato wedges with a touch of vinegar and oil (tomatoes are grown all over Iceland in greenhouses heated by geothermal heat).

Then of course there is the infamous Reykjavik hot dog stand Baejarins beztu pylsur, self named the best hotdog in the world. This little stand, also on the harbor, continually has a line of locals and tourists alike. We got our dog (made with lamb) with the works- dark sweet mustard, crunchy fried onions, minced raw onion and remoulade. The dog was good and had a nice snap but there was a lot of creamy sauces on it, something we'd ask for on the lighter side next time around.

Of course you've heard of the unusual Icelandic delicacies like minke whale, puffin, fermented shark, sheep's head, etc. These are all easy to find, on most menus in some form or another.

Our first night we had dinner at Vox in the Hilton. It's quite a nice restaurant which prides itself on using only Icelandic ingredients. They offer a 4 course set menu which we both had.

The starter of minke whale was awesome. Just barely seared and sliced thinly I thought the flavor was very very good. The second course is their well known charred seafood soup. Delicious with bits of lobster, cod and halibut. Steak on a bed of sunchokes and asparagus with a creamy mustard sauce was good for the main if a bit underwhelming. The dessert made with skyr & lingon berries more than made up for it.

We also ate at Tapas Barinn which serves traditional Icelandic food in a tapas style. Here we had a 7 small plate meal which included or first taste of puffin served with a blueberry sauce. Yum.

For breakfast we ate the delicious buffet at the Hilton and also had some hearty eggs and bacon from the Grey Cat.

Of course with all this eating you need some drinking! We enjoyed beers and the Iceland equivalent to aquavit, Brennevin, shots at Kaffibarinn (co owned by Damon Albarn), Prikid, The Laundromat, The English Pub and The Icelandic Bar ( I really want to back here for a meal!). Keep an eye open for the Icelandic Gin- seems to be new and not every place had it but it was good and made for a delicious martini!

Folks in Iceland take their weekend pub crawls so seriously they have their own name for it- runtur. We only did one stop but certainly saw the damage if you know what I mean!
Thanks again to everyone for their suggestions, can't wait to head back and explore the rest of the list!

While waiting for our flight home we perused the airport eateries. After being warned away from the hot dogs there we settled on this gorgeous plate of smoked salmon and steamed shrimp complete with two glasses of wine, dark bread and assorted condiments. Classy Iceland, very classy.

p.s. forgot to mention that if you are looking for a bag of chips in Iceland look no further than...

Iceland photos

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Long Weekend, Iceland!

For our spring trip Dayne and I watched many deals via Groupon, Travel Zoo and various airline offerings before deciding to go to, long on our list of places to travel, Iceland. Offered by Iceland Air we thought the package sounded 1) awesome and 2) very affordable.

First glimpses of Iceland from the FlyBus

We would fly non stop from Seattle on a Thursday afternoon arriving in Reykjavik about 7 hours later (Friday morning) with 3.5 days to eat, drink & explore to country of fire & ice. 3 nights at the Hilton Nordica. 1 day on a private 4x4 jeep tour to explore glaciers, waterfalls and ice caves. All this for about $800 per person. We added on airport transfers, a 1/2 day to lounge at the famed Blue Lagoon hot springs and spa and also a day of car rental to explore part of the country on our own.

I flew Iceland Air's Sega Class last year to Paris but this time we were in coach. And me in the middle! But still I find the seats comfortable and a bit more room than on the normal long haul flights. And there were pillows and blankets. But you do have to purchase your own food and drink. We decided to use our liquid bag allowance to pack a mini bar of gin and premixed vermouth and bitters. Martini anyone?

Upon arriving at Keflavik airport we took the FlyBus into Reykjavik, a 40 minute drive. Note to others who may be flying in, you are permitted to purchase at Duty Free upon arrival (open even at 7am) so if you want to save some money on snacks, drinks, etc to keep in your room plan on doing so.

The moon like landscape fought our jet lag for attention as we drove along the nearly empty highway to the city. At the Hilton we found our room not quite ready but the complimentary buffet breakfast, complete with shot of cod liver oil, was delicious and by the time we were done it was a quick hand off of keys and on to a much needed nap.

This is my plate, I'm sure you can imagine Dayne's.

A few hours later, unpacked, rested and armed with friend's recommendations, we began our Iceland adventure!  Stay tuned!

Have you been to Iceland? I'd highly recommend checking into this (or similar) deals from Iceland Air if you are thinking about it.

Iceland photos

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Monkeying Around

As I mentioned, Quepos is well know for their park- Manuel Antonio. It's a beautiful nature reserve with an easy trail through the jungle that heads to the pristine beaches. On our last day Dayne and I took a cab to the entrance of the park and hired a private guide for a 3 hour walk. Without these guides that we hired we would have never seen even half of the wildlife we had throughout the country. It's really my number one piece of advice when traveling in Costa Rica, hire a wildlife guide!

The guides that work for the park wait until they have about 8 to 12 people total, I'm sure you could hire a private guide, and it costs about $30 cash only. Note that there is no ATM in the area around Manuel Antonio. Besides spotting and informing, the guides also carry a scope and set it up each time they spot things, giving everyone a chance to see their finds.
Banana flowers

We had seen a lot of wildlife on this trip so this day we were really hoping to glimpse more monkeys and a sloth or two. We entered the park with our guide and pretty much immediately saw a group of white faced monkeys swinging from tree to tree across the path! Success!

Sometimes we followed the main trail alongside families on their way to the beach, towing children and floaties. Other times our guide took us off on little used side paths, warning us to watch for snakes camouflaged by the underbrush. All in all it was a leisurely walk towards the beach past interesting flora and fauna.

Along the way we spotted some species we had seen before like helmut iguanas, hummingbirds, bats and even a random deer.

But we also saw a different species of toucan, which are generally not found here so the guide was very excited!  Mangrove crabs with bright blue bodies and red claws hanging out on the forest floor seemed weird and out of place.
In the area known as Sloth Ally we did finally catch a glimpse of a few shy sloths but unfortunately they were fast asleep way up in the shade of the tree leaves, making it very hard to see even with the scope.

As we ended our walk on the beautiful beaches we were rewarded with more white faced monkeys. Quite a few of them in fact. They are very interested in the picnic'ers lunches and sadly some people feed them. They were putting on a show, just as interested in us as we were in them, and swinging around having a good time. Adorable!

As Dayne and I made our way back to the main area of town on our own, there was one point where the beach we were on ended and you had to try to time the sea in order to make it to the other side. Dayne got wet, I however allowed this gentleman to transport me via his boat.

A casual lunch at Marlin's and some time hanging out on the beach rounded out a fantastic afternoon.

That evening when we got back to Quepos we found a farmer's market going on near the waterfront. Vendors had all sorts of beautiful tropical fruits on display. We bought a coconut water which in this case is a fresh coconut kept in ice water until you buy it and then a straw punched through its eye giving you access to the delicious liquid. Yum.

We also spotted a vendor with a big cauldron of chicarrone frying up. Perfect to go with our evening cocktails!
We finished up our day and our trip with a really delicious dinner at Kapi Kapi. A pretty, open air restaurant, by far the fanciest of the places we had been. The food and service were very good and it was a nice romantic way to end our travels.

We had time in the morning for a lounge by the pool before grabbing lunch, again at El Grand Escape. Then the van transfer that we hired picked us up for the 3 hour drive to the airport. Costa Rica may be small but with only one major airport, you have to plan your timing pretty well.

We flew home via Miami where we had to spend the night. We chose the close to the airport Regent which I would not recommend nor would I stay there again.

We loved Costa Rica and totally see why so many people have been traveling here over the last few years. A great first trip to Central America, but not the last!

All photos from the Quepos area are here.

Next up, Iceland!

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Last Stop, Quepos!

Our last Costa Rica destination was in the quaint little town of Quepos, just an hour drive south of Jaco. Another 5 street town sitting right on the Pacific Ocean and known for it's pristine National Park- Manuel Antonio.

We thought we'd get to the hotel, return the car, have some lunch and hang by the pool for the day but upon arriving at the Hotel Sirena we found the pool not to have much lounging area and the two chairs it did have were already in use. Additionally the advertised tiki bar was not a bar at all without even a bottle of the national spirit Guaro behind it. 

So we killed some time until we could get into our rooms to unpack, by having lunch at the popular restaurant El Gran Escape. The food and drinks were good but the vibe is "big US theme restaurant" attracting lots of game fisherman, another thing Quepos is known for. After lunch we walked over to Cafe Milagro where delicious coffee is roasted and picked up as many bags as I thought my luggage would hold.

We finally got checked in and were able to spend some time in the refreshing pool. Although the hotel was not bad it was a bit more "budget" than other places we had stayed. It wouldn't be until we drove up the hill towards the park that we realized very few people stay in Quepos proper, most of the hotels are on the road between the town and the park. For this we would have needed to keep our car or rely on cabs as it isn't safe to walk along the busy road- an FYI for others traveling to this area.

That evening Dayne made us aperos, finally giving the bar a chance to really be a bar! And then we went walked all of 1 block and had a very good dinner at a little spot called Monchado's, under the mural of two Latin soap opera stars who resembled Donny and Marie. This place had some of the best Guaro sours of the trip! And then because we arrived back at the hotel to find it completely closed up at 10pm, we made nightcaps in the girl's room. Tiki bar... hardly!
We were all really excited for the next day's adventure- we were going horseback riding for the morning. In this area the jungle meets the ocean and the landscape is very different than the other regions we had been in (so much diversity for such a little country!) and we were looking forward to seeing it by horse. After a little morning mix up regarding reservations we were picked up by one of the partners of Valmy Tours, Valentin. We saddled up and away we went.

The horses were fantastic! Well trained but not following each other blindly, they were strong and well taken care of. The was the first time I've ever rode a horse without a bit in it's mouth, not that I ride that much (or well for that matter). We followed a river through lush forests, most of the land belonging to the family, and after about an hour got off to hike to the first of 2 waterfalls.
At the second waterfall Dayne and I went for a quick dip in the refreshing pool. The water was clear and pure. This country is all about the waterfalls!

On our way back to the farm our small group split up so those of us who wanted to trot, cantor and gallop our horses could. We were back in the river and the horses were giddy to be trotting and splashing water all over everyone. Then we came to this big hill with mud as deep as the horse's knees. Have I mentioned how big and strong these animals were? Our guide told us to just follow him and give a little kick. Holy hell!!! These horses shot up that hill and sliced through that mud with a passion! I held on for dear life while whispering in my horse's ear that we could slow down a bit if she liked. Dayne's stallion carried him up the hill like a child. And I heard a lot of "whoa, whoa, whoa" from Forest! We were covered in red mud from hooves to helmets. At the top of the hill we slowed to a cantor and finished up back at the farm. It was a really great ride!
A small but tasty lunch was provided back at Valentin's casa where we got to taste a local liqueur and gaze at the gorgeous countryside.
That evening we set out to celebrate Forest & Kate's birthdays, we started at El Avion for cocktails inside the big old C-123 cargo plane that was originally purchased during the Reagan Administration's covert Contra aid. The plane was abandoned in the Costa Rica jungle and now is a popular restaurant and bar overlooking the sea.
After a few drinks we grabbed a cab and headed way out on a dirt road, through the hills and towards the ocean for dinner at Ronnie's Place , I don't know quite how we heard about this but it was great! They have a large open air dining room, (I'm sure) fantastic views at sunset, and really nice service.

The food, like whole fried bass, was all delicious and upon hearing it was the girls' birthdays they served dessert with flaming sauce! It was Kate and Forest's last night in Costa Rica and a great way to wrap it up for them. Dayne and I had one more adventure packed day, stay tuned!

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