Thursday, May 31, 2012

Crane Island, San Juan Islands

For someone who lives in Seattle, or Western Washington for that matter, heading out to one of the San Juan Islands for a weekend is a little slice of heaven. Each island is so different, offering an array of experiences, but all are beautiful, tranquil and scenic. And although not technically correct, I call most of the islands in the Puget Sound, the San Juans, so get over it. Thanks!

We've spent a lot of time on Camano Island where Dayne's parents live, have had the opportunity to do some camping on Lopez Island, experienced a world- class chef on Lummi Island, had a dinner experience from someone who cooks like a world-class chef on San Juan Island, and celebrated a friend's mile-stone birthday on Whidbey Island. All fantastic places you can get to by car or ferry, with charming parks and towns, restaurants and hotels. But last weekend we were invited to join a group of friends on Crane Island, a private island where one of the friend's parents live. Crane Island has just 5 year round residents. There is no Pagliacci Pizza delivery or corner grocery store. If you buy furniture or the like you must hire a barge to bring it over. Off the grid, if you will.

Six of us and a cat took the ferry to Orcas Island where we met Jen's dad, who came to pick us up in his boat. After a short shopping excursion at the grocery store we made the quick sail to Crane, off the southwest shore of Orcas, and tied up on the private dock. Jen's mom was there to meet us with a marina cart to make hauling our bags and groceries to the house easier. Luckily their home is just through a meadow and not far from the boat.

After a tour of their beautiful home and views from the deck we put the kayaks in and went to see the island from the sea. At just a couple of hundred acres in size it was an easy paddle around, through Wasp Passage on the west and Pole Pass on the east. We didn't spot any whales but we did see some eagles in the sky and some starfish on the exposed rocks.

The next day Jen's dad took us over to the private dock on Orcas where they also have a private parking lot. We took the cars and headed to the base of Orcas Nob, where we climbed the 1,014' peak and enjoyed a picnic at the top. The views are spectacular and a good payoff for the very steep climb up. Another large eagle circled above us, riding the air streams.
We drove into Deer Harbor for a beer and to grab more groceries for the night's dinner before meeting back at the dock for our shuttle home.

A relaxing evening was spent grilling, hot tubbing and looking at the stars. With only two or three houses lit up on the island that night the sky was packed with twinkling lights.

Before leaving the next day we took a walk around the interior road, Circle Road. This divides the very center of the island, which is a nature reserve, from the homes which are mostly along the shore. We saw a few of the resident deers as well as more eagles overhead but none of the mink or otters the island is also home to.
An interesting old farm and barn, a handful of houses, deer trails crossing the island and a grass air field at the top of a small hill are all that make up this pretty little rock.
Crane Island photos

*4/23/13 UPDATE- Our friends are selling their beautiful property! If you buy it, please invite me back out. I'll even help you to unpack! Crane Island home for sale.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Tiny Country, Big Toys

A year ago we were in Monaco during the Grand Prix. It's a city (country) of riches with it's lily gilded even more during this time. Yachts and oil barons, trophy wives and private helicopters.

We were there as the last port of call for the cruise we were on, no I haven't posted about that yet. I'm going for my personal best of posting 13 months past a trip. But we were on the Windstar Windsurf, cruising up the Italian coast and into the south of France, with DeLille Cellars on board, pouring wine from 10am till you went to bed. Not a bad way to get around I'll say.

The ship had anchored in Monaco's harbor overnight, allowing us to enjoy two days in this beautiful city (country). As per usual we had pulled into port while we slept, awaking to the stunning coastline littered with expensive power boats and bathed in warm Mediterranean sun.

Our friends Lauren & Paul met us that first morning and we all took the tender to the main land. It was incredibly choppy with so much boat traffic, the driver had to dodge motor craft left and right.

We spent the day walking around Monaco, marveling at the cars, boats, people, etc. We could hear the Grand Prix's time trials in progress, the cars zipping around and their engines screaming, but the city had built walls around the entire course making it impossible for non tickets holders to grab more than a passing glance.

We made our way up to the palace, perched at the very top of the rock hill. The self guided Palace museum tour gave us a look at the rooms, art and furnishings of the royals. It's really interesting and it's all gorgeous inside but they don't allow photos so you'll just have to believe me.

Continuing around the old town we found a nice little spot for lunch just near the Cathedral. Is there anything better than enjoying a meal, outside in a pretty courtyard, in France? Non.

The cathedral is gorgeous and looks out to the sea. It's best known as both the wedding location and final resting spot of Grace Kelly, aka Princess Grace.

Continuing from there we walked past the famed aquarium, the Oceanographic Museum, directed by Cousteau for many years. We didn't have enough time to go thru it this time but it's on my list for next!

We finally made it down near the casino, with the race going on many normal roads were detoured, only to find it closed until after the race. We hadn't packed our formal attire so we wouldn't be visiting it that evening, as many on-board were planning to do. We had to cross a bridge made of scaffolding that was right over the race track to get back to where the buses were and as the cars flew by underneath you could literally feel the power and the speed. And it was loud, the kind of loud that throws your equilibrium off!
The Windsurf anchored off Monaco

Back on board we had a wonderful BBQ on the pool deck, complete with grilled lobsters, a stunning sunset and a little dance routine performed by the staff.

While many of the passengers had bought tickets to the time trials and the race itself, we had decided not to and with the sea traffic being even more insane the next day we all decided to spend the day in the sun, lounging and gazing out at the city and the parade of wealth. Complimentary wine in hand of course.

It was just the perfect way to spend our last day at sea. And we even saw a Jetlev!

Happy Memorial Day!
Monaco photos here

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Sunday, May 20, 2012

Stroll Around Reykjavik

Obviously we packed quite a bit into our Iceland long weekend, including two different day trips. But we also had a fair amount of time to stroll around the capital city of Reykjavik. It's small enough to cover in a day but there is more we'd like to get to next time.

Our first stop was at the Hallgrims Church, or Hallgrímskirkja, for gorgeous panoramic views of the city, harbor and mountains.
I loved the blue and red houses! They are so cheery and really reminded me of Norway. I didn't expect to get so much of the Scandinavian vibe here but that is absolutely what it is.

We had a nice walk around town, stopping for lunch and then making our way on a little self guided tour. We kept seeing small groups of teenagers dressed in crazy animal costumes. And then we saw a whole park filled with them. Was this a country obsessed with Furries? I finally asked someone what was going on and he explained that it was traditional for graduating seniors, a sort of "skip day", Icelandic style. Uh, ok then.
Right in the center of town is House No 10, said to be the oldest wooden house in the city, and inside is a nice selection of shops with local crafts and delicious chocolate. We briefly stopped into the Settlement Exhibit, which looked really interesting but as they were closing we mainly glimpsed at the excavation of one of the first houses in Iceland. I'd like to go back and take more time there.

We walked along Tjornin lake, teeming with swans and ducks, and did a bit of shopping on famed Laugavegur street. Believe me when I tell you that clothes are crazy expensive! We went into the local 66 North store where I saw this really cute jacket only to do the conversion and realize it was $500!!

Next time we're in town I'd like to go to the National Museum and National Gallery. But these are just two of countless reasons to go back to Iceland!
Iceland photos

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Golden Circle

Perhaps the most popular excursion in Iceland is the Golden Circle. It's easy to hire a tour operator, they are offered daily, but for us it was more interesting to rent a car and do it on our own. The Golden Circle consists of the sites of Geysir, Gullfoss and Þingvellir. Since we had already visited Þingvellir we decided to do more of a half Golden Circle and add in a little side trip to the nearby coast.

Being that we had taken part (a very small part) in the Saturday night runtur, we slept in and asked the nice folks at Budget Rent a Car to pick us up from the hotel at about 12:30. They took us to the rental office, which is at the bus station making it very easy to get a cab after drop off, and after a hearty brunch of eggs and bacon at The Grey Cat we were on the road around 2pm. Since sunset wasn't until almost 10pm this gave us plenty of time to do our drive.  

Although there are networks of small roads throughout Iceland there is really just one main ring road around the country. The car rental agent even advised us against spending money on a GPS and just use the free map. It couldn't have been easier.

Our first stop was the Kerid Crater. This small volcanic crater is sitting just off the main road without any fencing to keep unsuspecting but curious tourists from sliding into it. Quite a site with the bright red dirt, green moss and dark blue water.
The landscape was dotted with small houses or clusters of houses but no real towns to speak of. We were driving along the back side of the mountains we had been on the day before and they were gorgeous. We are practically the only car on the road, very relaxing!

Next up we came to Geysir which is an area with an abundance of geothermal activity. There are small bubbling hot springs all over and some now spent, including the namesake Geysir, which are still very interesting to check out. Looking into this large one felt like you were looking down into the center of the earth!

But the show here is all about Strokkur which erupts about every 8 to 10 minutes, wowing the waiting crowds. We first glimpsed it from the parking area, it having just gone off. The second time we saw it the breeze pushed the mist towards us and we were rained on by the warm water. The third time we saw it we took this:
Check out that crazy water bubble at the very beginning and the exposed pit where the water is sucked in at the end! What you don't see is that right after Dayne turned off the camera Stokkur did a second smaller eruption. All very cool and not as stinky as you might expect.

After a bit of shopping at the Geysir Shop right across the road we were off again, next stop Gullfoss. These double falls are truly impressive and the largest falls in Europe. The rainbow just an added bonus.

It's hard to get a full prospective shot but this is taken quite close (again no barriers stopping anyone from going over!) and is of the first level. From here the water continues on to a steep ledge where it disappears to the river below.
After leaving the Gullfoss area we headed back the way we had come, instead of continuing on to Þingvellir, but turned off the main road onto a dirt road, heading towards the coast. Even though we had read that even major roads in Iceland were dirt we were still a bit surprised by it, visions of driving in Costa Rica entered our minds. We stopped to pet some of the Icelandic horses, known for their unique gait called tolt. At one point on our drive we passed 3 riders, one doing tolt! It is so interesting looking (and supposedly if you carry a champagne glass while at a tolt not a drop will spill, cheers!)
We finally made it to the town of Stokkseyri where the largest lava flow in Iceland reaches the sea. It's a tiny little town best known for the restaurant Fjöruborðið and the delicious bisque and peal and eat lobsters they serve. It was the perfect stop for dinner.

As we drove home we were rewarded with this stunning sunset. Golden Circle indeed.

Iceland photos

Monday, May 14, 2012

Essential Iceland Tour Part 2

Throughout the morning Steinar kept pointing out the massive ice cap in the distance, our afternoon destination of Langjökull, and now we were on our way. As we left the solid fields of lava, the ground turned to dark rock and dirt. The landscape becoming more and more baron, a strange beauty.
Steinar explained to us that the normal tour drives to the glacier but because of deep snow in the winter and total ice in the summer they stay next to it.  There is only a 2 to 3 week period each year when their trucks can actually drive up it and guess what kids? Today was one of those days!

There's really no road, as you can see, and as soon as we hit the snow at the base of the glacier the guides raced each other, driving madly all over and up to about the midway point. We got out and were all just stunned at the beauty. 

We loaded back in the Rover and continued to the absolute top. We couldn't believe it! The sky was blue and almost cloudless, the views went on forever and being on top of the glacier was a total "king of the world" experience. Even the guides were taking pictures!

After some glacial snow eating and snow angel making each of the drivers let a good amount of air out of the over-sized tires allowing them to have better traction for the next part of our journey. We'd be driving off the glacier and up to the top of a near by shield volcano. This should give you a small taste of how surreal the drive was!

Again the drivers all raced each other off the glacier and had a ball climbing up steep sides of snow and ice, scaring the hell out of most of us! I don't think anyone really thought we were going to the top of the volcano, I think we thought Steinar meant we were heading in that direction. But soon we found ourselves parked along side the other trucks on top of the crater, watching snowmobiles zip around the inside, reminding me of a motorcycle cage of death show.
We were given more time to enjoy the never-ending, stunning views from the top of the volcano while the drivers used portable generators to re-inflate their tires. Then we descended into Cold Valley pass, traveling again not on a road but just finding our way thru the now slushy snow pack.

 We found an actual rode a bit further off, although it was gravel, and continued on to Þingvellir (pronounced "thing vellir") the site of the birth of Iceland's parliament, the site of the largest lake in Iceland and the site of the Rift Valley where the tectonic plates are moving apart at a rate of about 3cm per year.

Our incredible day came to end as we were dropped back off at the hotel. The Washington Six ordered drinks in the Hilton's bar and rehashed the day, truly marveling at our experience.

Hot springs, waterfalls, lava cave, glacier, volcano, tectonic plates. Highly recommended.

Iceland photos

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Essential Iceland Tour Part 1

On our second day in Reykjavik we were picked up in the lobby of our hotel by Iceland Rovers for a full day excursion which was included in our package. As we climbed into the Land Rover, outfitted with oversized tires, we met the other 2 couples who would be riding with us for the day, one from our own backyard of Woodinville and the other from DC. The Washington Six I'll call us. Our driver Steinar was really excited about the weather conditions and told us more than once that it was going to be a great day and we were going to see some amazing things. None of us seemed to really know what all was included in this day trip but everyone was excited (and really nice thankfully!)
This was everyone's first glimpse of Iceland outside of the city and we were all impressed with the strange landscape. We had lots of questions for Steinar, who seemed happy to share his incredible knowledge of his country (Steinar can trace his roots back to the first Vikings who settled there). After driving under the fjord Hvalfjörður, one of the longest underwater road tunnels in the world, at a depth of over 500 feet, we came to Deildartunguhver which is the highest flow hot spring in the world at a rate of 180 liters per second. This water is sent through pipes to neighboring towns and was quite a first wonder for us all.

From here we drove further out to the middle of no-where until we came to the waterfalls of Hraunfossar and Barnafoss. At these falls, in the middle of a huge lava flow, you can really see how the water is forced to exit under the lava as it can't travel on top of it.
We were able to hike around the two sets of falls, with rope warning us only not to step on the moss growing on the lava. Unsuspecting tourists could easily fall in just like the children that the falls are named after. The water here was so blue it was almost surreal, it was a gorgeous area to explore.
A short drive from the falls, we turned onto a dirt unmarked road and parked in the middle of the Hallmundarhraun lava flow. Here we donned helmets and headlamps and made our way to one of the largest lava caves in the country. Steinar explained to us that to find these caves they fly over the lava fields in the winter looking for holes in the snow where parts of the roof of the caves have collapsed. Then in the spring they go to check and see if it's an actual lava tube/cave.
 We first climbed down a ladder into the opening of the cave. Then we carefully descended the snow, ice and rock into the cave itself. Once inside it wasn't all that deep, well it is but they have it blocked off for only official spelunkers which we are not. We clambered around the rocks and frozen ice while Steinar gave us more geology lessons.

Back to the Rover we headed farther into the interior of the country and towards our lunch stop. There were four other trucks doing the same excursion but up until now we had only seen them arriving as we were departing the various sites. The drivers had been speaking to each other via CB radio with us being able to hear their conversations but not understanding Icelandic it didn't affect us much. As we traveled along a river toward a bridge their conversation turned to English with comments about the bridge not being safe, not worth much, etc etc.  All of a sudden Steingar turns off the road and into the river! Everyone was laughing and whooping it up as we crossed the (not very shallow) river with the other trucks in tow.
It was quite exciting really, and the guides were just having a blast! After a stop for some traditional lamb soup with fresh baked bread and Viking beers we would continued on our exploration.

Iceland photos

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Thursday, May 3, 2012

Hot Pot, Icelandic Style

For my foodie friends, this post is not about eating delicious Chinese hot pot, apologies if you are now hungry. This post is about Iceland's famed hot springs commonly referred to as hot pots. In Iceland, swimming and bathing are very much a socializing activity. Think of it as us meeting for coffee or the Irish meeting for a beer. There are 3 styles of hot pots around the country.

The first are the naturally occurring springs, pools and streams which dot the landscape. These don't have fancy hotels built around them like the ones we visited in Costa Rica. Generally spotted by steam randomly emitting from the earth, some are literally ponds of boiling water while others are gently heated and perfect for a dip. You can enjoy streams and larger pools with a group of friends while others are tiny, with just enough room for your feet to soak in. We didn't get a chance to experience this "in the wilderness" style, maybe next time!

The second are the man made pools. These are similar to the public pools in your town only the pool itself is heated year around using geothermal power. The largest facility in Reyjkavik is the Laugardalslaug complex. It boasts an Olympic size outdoor swimming pool with 10 lanes heated to 82F, another warm outdoor pool with a waterslide for the kiddies, an indoor 8 lane pool heated to about 90F and hot pots of varying temperatures around the outdoor pools.

At Laugardalslaug pool, which was just a 10 minute walk from our hotel, we paid about $5 entrance fee. We spent about the same to rent a towel (next time I'd just take one from the hotel!). You can also rent a bathing suit, restaurant sports coat loans have nothing on this! From here you make your way to the locker rooms. Before entering everyone removes their shoes and leaves them on shelves. Once inside you pick a locker, undress and shower without your suit on.

The gentleman who we purchased entrance from made sure we understood this- damn dirty tourists! Luckily we have a bit of hot spring etiquette under our belts. So you wash up thoroughly in the communal showers, (I heard that some places even have a shower attendant to make sure everyone soaps up!) and then put your suit on and head outside. The shower and locker room facilities here were incredibly clean. Someone was working non stop mopping and hosing down the floors so that I didn't feel so freaked out by not wearing flip flops. 
Photo courtesy of

Dayne did a few laps in the 50 meter pool and then joined me in one of the hot pots. The locals were chilling out after their day at work (we went at about 8pm) catching up with their friends while kids zoomed down the slide into the other pool. Sun wasn't setting until about 10pm and with the clear blue sky you forgot how chilly the air was until you got out of the hot water. Brrr!

The third is the luxury or spa style of hot pot, as in The Blue Lagoon.  The lagoon was accidentally created in 1973 after water from the nearby power station had no place to go and formed a lake on top of the area lava flows.  Back then Icelanders came and soaked for free, noticing the healing properties of the water. In 1999 a proper lagoon was built complete with facilities including a restaurant, clinic, lounge area, etc.

We added our Blue Lagoon trip as a stop on the way to the airport on our day of departure. We boarded the bus at our hotel in the morning, were driven to the lagoon (which is seriously in the middle of no where), had our luggage stored and spent about 3 hours soaking in the famed warm spring waters.

On top of our bus/entrance fee we rented towels and robes. They outfit you with a bracelet which they scan whenever you make a purchase and you just pay at the end. The locker rooms here were similar to the public pool but it looked more like a spa with dark wood and frosted glass. There are both common showers and some private, both outfitted with Blue Lagoon products and even dressing tables complete with hairdryers.

It's a lovely way to spend the morning before a long flight home. We explored the lagoon, with its range of depths and water temperatures. Used the complimentary silica mud on our faces. Drank chilled white wine from the floating bar and chatted with new friends. And even had a little sushi lunch. The time went by very quickly and we didn't get to many of the things that are offered.

We boarded the bus 2 1/2 hours before our flight and were dropped off at the front door to the airport. Best airport shuttle ever :)

I highly recommend experiencing the hot pot culture while in Iceland!

Iceland photos

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

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