Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Icelandic Adventures Continued - Aurora Borealis Hunting

Bloody hell it’s hard to find the time to get around to posting further on my trip to Iceland. It feels like a dim and distant memory now. I seriously feel in need of another vacation, work is just brutal right now; we are drowning in 2010 planning work. One of our clients felt so bad at the late nights the team was putting in (2am anyone!! Who says that we’re work shy in advertising?) that he sent us a box of fancy cookies from the Famous 4th Street Cookie Company. I’m not a big cookie lover, but I have to say these things were pretty damn amazing and you should pay a visit to this place if ever you are in Philadelphia. They even surpassed McVities Chocolate Hobnobs, especially the chocolate chip ones. It was a really nice gesture by our client, however even cookies as gobsmackingly good as these were don't make up for the fact that we no longer have lives outside of the office. It is also quite worrying that members of my team have started to say "I need a drink" with alarming frequency. Last year it was just me the clients were driving to the bottle, but now it's my team too. I feel like a bad mother!!

Anyway, Iceland....well on the way back from our Golden Circle Tour the guide happened to mention in response to a question from a fellow tourist that it was likely to be a good night for the Northern lights tour!!


We had about 3hours to kill before being picked up so we hotfooted it over to Fjalakotturinn Restaurant - it just trips off the tongue doesn't it - one of the best deals in town according to our guidebooks. I can't say I'd disagree, from the food to the service everything was 5 star quality at 3 star prices.

Melissa choose the 2 course fish fantasy of lobster bisque followed by roast salmon for 3900kr and I went with the 3 course gourmet menu of scallops, lamb and caramel cake for 4900kr, on the condition that Melissa share the cake with me, along with a glass each of house wine (1100kr a glass that's less than $10), a delicious 2005 Bon Courage Chardonnay from South Africa and later a Chilean San Rapel Sauvignan Blanc. "Very nice, but a little effervescent on the finish" mused Melissa, graduate of the International Wine Center.

It certainly didn't taste of vinegar I can tell you that much, but on the whole I would have preferred a second glass of the South African Chardonnay however the restaurant did have a Wine Spectator award of excellence, which were good enough credentials for me so I happily put myself in the hands of our very gracious host.

Here comes the foodiot bit....

The salmon tartare amuse bouche. I must say, I do likethe Uri Geller style serving spoons.

Erm...sorry the scallop appetizer looked so, well appetizing, that I scoffed it before I remembered to take a photo - foodiot shame - but look how lovely the lamb looks. It tasted amazing too.

And the caramel cake dessert. Mmmmmmmmmmm!!! I know that looks like a carrot in the back of the plate, but it's a cheeky wee kumquat!!

The total meal came to 13,200kr, about $106 US which was pretty damn good for the quality
of food and attentive service. It would have easily cost at least one and a half times that at a similar restaurant in New York.

At 10pm three coach loads of tourists left on Northern Lights tour, which consisted of Reykjavik Excursions driving us 30minutes north of Reykjavik to stand in a field of crispy frozen snow field and stare at the sky.

"Do you see there over the ridge it's kind of a light green color??? That's something" said our guide as we assembled.

I squinted hard in the direction she pointed. Erm.......Nope, sorry, not seeing it, it just looked like regular old sky to me.

After about 30minutes of freezing my arse off in a frigid field I gave in and joined about the sensible third of my fellow aurora borealis hunters and went to sit back in the darkened bus to stare at the sky in the relative warmth. After about 10minutes I got fed up and dug out my iPod desperately trying to stay awake after my two glasses of wine just in case green ribbons of light should start to swirl across the Icelandic sky.

About about half an hour our guide apologetically joined us on the bus. "Sorry it was not so easy for you to see anything," she sympathized. "There was definitely something there, I saw it and our driver Pally saw it, and maybe a few of the Icelanders who know what to look for saw it."

"Ohhhh Icelanders and their special x-ray vision", sniggered the Dutch guy across from us to the older American couple behind him.

"The lights may reappear in a few more hours, sometimes you can see them over Reykjavik, so keep looking at the sky, look for a thin green light like an alien finger"

Alien finger...hmmm right, perhaps after about 5 shots of potent Icelandic vodka I might see alien
fingers and dancing lights, but I'm withholding judgment.

Behold, the aurora borealis...

Monday, 19 October 2009

Psychedelic Empire State Building

Tonight the Empire State Building is lit in psychedelic tie-dye colors for the New York Historical Society's Benefit for Grateful Dead Exhibition.

This I have to see.

Hopefully a photo to come!!

Oooh here you go, courtesy of Ccho on Flickr. I was hoping to post my own photo, but it's 8.30pm and I am still in work so chances are slim I'll remember. Pretty cool anyway!!

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Musical Interlude - Codeine Velvet Club

No time to update you further on my Icelandic travels, I'm working, having conference calls with my client on a Sunday afternoon no less. I think I need to find my client a boyfriend and then maybe he'll be less inclined to bother me on a weekend....maybe!! Oh who am I kidding the man is a workaholic, which is fine if that's what he wants, I just wish he would stop trying to take us along with him, since I'd really like to have a life outside of the office. When he told me today how impressed by the work that my team has produced and that he'd like to have us work for him 100% next year I was both gratified and horrified.

He has some changes to the work we've been doing for him over the past week and gave us a deadline of Monday at midnight to get the revisions to him. Midnight!!!! Two of my team members already worked beyond midnight two days last week and we were in until almost 9.30pm on Friday!! "I need a very large drink," sighed one as we slumped our way out of the building ignoring one last email with some minor changes that could easily be done on Monday - seriously who sends an email with a request for changes at 9.15pm on a Friday!!!!! I headed straight to Melissa's to help celebrate her fiance's 50th and arrived just as they were all doing whiskey shots, which I wisely avoided given I hadn't eaten anything since my lunchtime salad, although after 1 large glass of wine I was swept along with the carousing. Let's just say my head was quite sore on Saturday morning!!

The end is in sight for this project, but tomorrow is looking like it could be another long day. Not that I want to ease the path to alcoholism for my team, but I think I'll stop by the off license on the way home and buy some wine and beer for our inevitable late night working session tomorrow, so that they can at least get some fun out of it.

Anyway here's a little Codeine Velvet Club for your entertainment. I'll try and continue my Icelandic posts soon.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Iceland Day 2: Prayers Answered - Golden Circle Day Tour

Saturday in Iceland was an absolutely beautiful day, there wasn't a cloud in the sky, it was perfect for our 9-5pm Golden Circle day tour. All the prayers we said for better weather at Reykjavik cathedral and Hallsgrimskirkja the day before must have been heard after all ;-)

The alarm went off at 6.30am after a false alarm at 1:30am when the noise of a smattering of Runtur revellers leaving the hotel restaurant woke me and I was disoriented enough to think it was morning already. Reykjavik Excursions picked us up at 8:25am for the bus to the bus and at 9:10am we were off on our way with Dora the singing tour guide as our host. "Yah, for you" she would say to applause after every traditional Icelandic tune she sang to us in her mellifluous voice and it became something of a catchphrase for our vacation.

After travelling for about 45minutes on Iceland's wonderfully smooth and well maintained roads - New York City please pay attention to Iceland's roads. Interestingly there are no trains in Iceland, nope not a single one, but their roads are bloody marvellous - and through magnificant moss and snow covered fields of volcanic lava rocks - it's been said many times, but its true that there are areas of Iceland where you definitely feel as if you could be on the moon - we arrived at our first stop, Hellisheidi geothermal power plant - one of 6 such facilities in Iceland - where we learned a little something about geothermal energy, but not enough that I could repeat it here. There was something about high temperature areas where the water comes out of the ground at 250C per 1000 metres and then something else about low temperature areas like Reykjavik where the water temperature is less than 200C per 1000 metres and how pre-1930 coal was used for heating and hot water in Reykjavik, but after 1930 Reykjavik embraced geothermal power becoming one of - if not the - cleanest cities in the world. Got that? Marvellous!! According to the nice man at Hellisheidi the average water temperature in Reykjavik is 170C. Yowser!!

After about 45minutes we continued on our way toward Gullfoss Waterfall passing through scenic fields where holiday cabins dotted the landscape, chunky Icelandic horses grazed and pixie houses were painted on rocks.

Rumour has it that Icelanders are big believers in the "hidden people" (pixies, trolls, elves etc) and according to this entertaining Vanity Fair article by Michael Lewis - which is a good read even if he does rather spitefully, and inaccurately in my book, describe the Icelandic people as "mousy-haired and lumpy." I found many Icelanders to be very attractive, especially the bespectacled cutie with the stylish hair who worked on reception at our hotel during the day - Alcoa had to “defer to a government expert to scour the enclosed plant site and certify that no elves were on or under it” when trying to develop an aluminium-smelting plant.


It was incredibly cold out by Gullfoss and icy enough underfoot to make me more than a little concerned about my lack of travel insurance nevertheless this didn't stop me from trying to walk out to the furthest part of the rocks overlooking the waterfall where hardy souls stood admiring the view. Never one to miss a photo opportunity I made it about half way out, however ice made it extremely slippery underfoot and even in sturdy hiking shoes I had visions of myself going arse over tit into the waterfall. Much better better to turn back I decided, although getting down presented it's own problem since it didn't look quite so straightforward now I knew how perilous the icy rocks really were and I sat down to take stock getting my bum wet in the process, put my camera in my inner coat pocket and drum up a bit of courage before elegantly shuffling my way back down to the relative safety of the path. I didn't hold out much hope for the foolhardy British guy who passed by me stumbling up the icy rocks in his Adidas Gazelles while his girlfriend looked on in her high heeled boots. Definitely not appropriate footwear for visiting freezing waterfalls and as I walked up the path to the viewing deck and the warmth of the cafe and souvenir store (fridge magnets!! Yay!!) I half expected to hear an "aaaaaiiiiiieeeeeeeee" as he tumbled into Gullfoss. Usually I am one for the cute high heels - I need all the height I can get at 5ft 1 - but I've never been so thankful for sensible shoes in my life.

Do you see those insane people on the circular rocky outcrop on the middle left of the photo at the end of the path? Yes, those tiny dots!!! I have no idea how they made it up there, since it was like walking on polished glass in slippers over those rocks.

Next stop the geysers.

The Strokkur Geyser goes off on one every 3-4minutes reaching heights of 25-35m. It erupted just as we were walking up to it and I was able to whip out my camera lickety split and capture the resulting steam cloud in the photo above. Apparently American tourists have a tendency to be less than impressed at the Icelandic geysers since Old Faithful reaches heights of 50m and the Steamboat geyser in Yellowstone National Park is the world's tallest currently active geyser with eruptions reaching a whopping 90-120m, although it's behaviour much less predictable.

Still the tourists on our day tour clustered vigilantly around the edge of Strokkur cameras at the ready. I mocked them, but moments later I went to join them ;-)

Waiting patiently....


After a $10ish fish burger lunch - oodles better than a MaccyD's filet-o-fish - at the snack bar and stopping to take a photo of the troll....

...the tour continued on to Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park former home of the Alþing (assembly), Iceland's supreme legislative and judicial authority, which was held there from 930 until 1271, and a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Scenery en route...

There are no buildings at Þingvellir and Alþing attendees would live in temporary tent-like accommodations while attending the assembly. Major events in Iceland's history took place at Þingvellir and it's held in very high esteem by the Icelanders.

That little white house you see is the Icelandic President's summer home.

The flag shows where the
assembly was held.

Walking in the rift valley at Þingvellir where the North America and Eurasian continents meet.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Iceland Day 1: The Church Tour

Since I'm on the topic of Iceland may I take a moment to wish you a happy Leif Erikson Day. Icelander Leif brought the first Europeans known to have set foot in North America, about 500 years earlier than that ol' whippersnapper Columbus who's day we are celebrating on Monday, a holiday for the company where I work, so technically I should be basking in the glow of a 3day weekend, but I am not, because it's not a holiday for my client, so I have to work. Poor me!! It's a sore point, so the less said about that the better.

Anyway Iceland..."why on Earth would you want to go there?" had to be the most common thing I heard when I mentioned that was where I was going for a 5 day vacation and as usual I fell into the trap of defending my choice of holiday destination when I instead I should have asked these numpties what they'd heard about Iceland that made them question it as a vacation choice. I'm pretty much certain the response would have been along the lines of "oh nothing, I don't really know anything about Iceland," because that's the impression I got from most people I spoke to. "It sounds cold" they would say. Is that because the country has the word 'ice' in the name I asked. "Um..well...yes" they tended to respond sheepishly.


Actually Iceland is cold, well it is in October, although I'm told it can hit 24C - double it and add 30 and that's roughly in the region of 78F - in Summer, which sounds just about perfect to me, but regardless of the temperature Iceland is a wonderful country to visit. The people are lovely and highly educated, it's a piffling 4hrs 48mins flying tim from NYC and the scenery is nothing short of spectacular, I highly recommend it.

We landed at Keflavik airport last Friday, October 2nd, at the ungodly hour of 5.30a.m., and after having to take off our shoes and belts and even our watches to go through security for a second time - according to the signage the security checks in the US just aren't rigorous enough for the EU, although only parts of the EU apparently since I've never had to go through security again on arrival in the UK - followed by immigration where 'all citizens' line up together, Icelandic citizens and otherwise, we were off to Reykjavik via the Flybus (2200ISK - approx. $17.50 US each) by 6.30a.m. enjoying a refreshing blast of arctic air as we dashed from the terminal to the coach. Apparently there are amazing views of volcanic lava fields en route from the airport to Reykjavik but it was still dark when we arrived, the Icelandic sun rising around 7:30am in October and setting around 7pm, so we never saw the scenery until the trip back, however I was relieved to hear there was still a good 11hours plus of daylight to enjoy in Iceland in October. I'd been slightly concerned about that aspect of Iceland in October.
Happily on arrival at the Hotel Odinsve we were able to check into our first floor room immediately, #117, a good size room, with a shared outdoor patio, decorated in a pleasant rustic style that belied the contemporary room decor shown on the hotel website. Bags dumped on the floor, we shrugged off our coats and immediately headed for the kettle to rustle up a strong cup of sweet sweet nescafe since having not slept a wink on the overnight flight- instead I made the mistake of watching Wolverine. Ugh, what a terrible movie. Even having the triple eye candy threat of Hugh Jackman, Liev Schreiber AND Ryan Reynolds could not help this film - I needed caffeine in my body stat!!!
The first inkling that all was not well with our hotel room came as I opened the wardrobe doors intending to unpack and was almost flattened by the door being off the top two of it's 3 hinges. Ah well I'd leave the unpacking until later. My second inkling came as I relaxed on my bed, my new waterproof sneakers kicked off to the floor, feet on the bed pondering a second cup of coffee when I noticed a huge wasp - seriously huge, like the size of my thumb - ambling sluggishly across the hem of the bed spread. Bravely I leapt 6-feet across the room and out of the door into the hallway. Seriously when there are wasps in the vicinity I could teach an Olympic athlete a thing or two, in fact between you and I, Usain Bolt occasionally calls me for tips. In my 38-years I've never yet been stung and I have a tendency to over react at the prospect.

Melissa, who has been stung and didn't relish the thought of a repeat experience, was much braver than I, remaining inside the bounds of the hotel room although at a safe distance. "I wish it would crawl down onto the floor so I could drop this on it and kill it" she said waving the heavy hard backed hotel welcome guide threateningly while I hovered bravely in the hallway in my stockinged feet, worrying that waspy would crawl inside my sneakers, and ready to run in case it decided to take flight. The wasp resolutely refused to co-operate in it's own execution and remained on the bedspread. "It would be wrong to try and kill it on the bedspread right? It would make a big mess," asked Melissa.

Not to sound ungrateful or anything, since she was putting herself on the frontline on my behalf, but that was MY bedspread, so YES, it would be wrong. "I'm a bit worried there might also be a nest outside on the patio. Shall we go downstairs and ask if we can change rooms?" suggested Melissa.

Good idea!!

I hot footed it downstairs in my stockinged feet - clad in marvellously comfy Fox River Mills socks that I highly recommend if you are of the hiking persuasion - and was grateful to find the male receptionist who checked us in was off doing something else and had been replaced by an empathetic female who widened her eyes appropriately alarmed when told of the wasp - and of the braining threat from the wardrobe door being off it's hinges - and immediately found us an alternate room, the smaller, contemporarily decorated room #210 that was blissfully free of insects.

Drama over we wrapped up in a mere 5 layers of clothing - thermals, t-shirt, cardigan, second cardigan and coat - and ventured out to explore Reykjavik.
Aaaaiiiiiieeeeee!!! Good God that arctic wind, I still felt the cold even though my layers despite the temperature being above freezing, in the high 30s. I felt the cold especially around my legs which were clad in a mere double layer of tights and trousers. Reykjavik is surrounded by water on 3 sides which means the climate is on the damp side, a lot like England or the Pacific North West, so the cold cuts through your layers and goes straight for your bones, we braved it for a few hours though.

One of the first things you notice about Reykjavik is how clean it is, the colourfully painted homes are pristine, having rebuffed coal in the 1930s in favour of harnessing the power of the country's natural geothermal heat - which comes from the earth's core through various fissures, cracks and permeable rock - to supply the city with heating and hot water. Apparently Iceland has the world's largest and most sophisticated geothermal heating system. This also means you have to take a shower cautiously in Iceland since the default setting of the naturally hot water is scalding, we were told on a tour of a power station that it comes out of the ground at temperatures greater than 200°C. Ouch!! It also smells quite strongly of sulphur, which - if you're anything like me - means showers in Iceland tend to be on the efficient side so as to more rapidly escape the smell of bad eggs.

The second thing we noticed about Reykjavik was how quiet it was at 9am on a Friday morning. We saw very few people on the streets heading to work. There was barely a soul along the main shopping street, Laugavegur, and the only other people we did see tended to be other tourists. It's quite surreal compared to the constant crowds of New York. Mind you the population of Reykjavik is something like 120,000 (Iceland itself is about 310,000) which is mind blowingly small when you consider that an estimated one million people flood into Times Square every New Year's Eve.

The rather modest Reykjavik Cathedral - built according to the architectural plans of A. Winstrup, a royal master builder from Copenhagen and consecrated in 1848 - where we stopped to shelter from the wind and pray for better weather. Unfortunately God clearly knew he was dealing with a couple of lapsed Catholics as the weather took a severe turn after a pit stop for coffee and a danish at the lovely and cosy Cafe Paris (loved loved loved the cafe culture in Reykjavik) and we were so severely lashed by strong winds and rain that we had to dash into a nearby bookstore to shelter from the storm. The weather not being the best and having been up for almost 26-hours we decided a nap might be a good idea.

We popped into the scaffolding clad Hallsgrimskirkja on the way back to the hotel for our nap to say a few more good weather prayers good measure.

That's Melissa who popped up from her seat in the pews just as I snapped this photo of the startlingly plain interior. Tsk!! Honestly!!

The organ at Hallsgrimskirkja looks like heavy artillery!!

After a 3-hour nap we headed out for an early dinner at Icelandic Fish and Chips, a recommended 'cheap eat' at least by Icelandic standards, down by the harbor. We were a little on the early side so we decided for dinner so we killed some time by touring the area around the Tjörnin, or the pond as it translates to in English. It sounds more impressive in Icelandic doesn't it? Here's
Reykjavik City Hall on the edge of the Tjörnin.

A couple of ducks from the Tjörnin turning their heads 180 degrees to tuck into their backs - presumably for warmth since it was that cold by the water. I was unaware ducks had that much mobility in their necks!!

Um...a statue. I forgot to write down who or what this statue was of, but I liked it.

We arrived at Icelandic fish and chips just after it opened at 6pm where we both ordered the recommended dish of fried wolf fish - more of a tempura style of fried than the full on English style fried - with crispy potatoes. I've only ever had wolf fish once before at some swanky restaurant in TriBeCa - now closed - where I once celebrated my birthday, my 35th I think. As swanky as it was in TriBeCa the wolf fish in Iceland tasted better due to the freshness of the fish. It was melt in the mouth delicious.

I enjoyed my wolf fish with a bottle of Kaldi dark beer, which was extremely delicious if you like that sort of thing. Melissa had a pilsner and we shared a bowl of traditional Icelandic skyr for dessert (heavenly, low fat and I was so happy to discover they sell it in Whole Foods in NYC) the total for both of us came to about $47. Not so outrageous considering the quality of the food. We'd been led to expect that eating out would cost us much more and that alcohol was prohibitively expensive - "I've heard it's $20 for a beer" said a shocked Debs before I left - but I think a combination of the recession hitting Iceland hard and the fact that we were coming from New York where prices are already on the high side meant we didn't feel the expense as much as we could have, although don't get me wrong, Iceland is by no means a bargain, but with a little research you can keep the costs to a reasonable level.

Yes, I'll admit it, I'm one of those foodiots!!! :-)

After post dinner drinks at the Salt Lounge Bar in the Radisson SAS 1919 Hotel - where a glass of wine and 2 Drambuies on ice cost 2500ISK, about $20 so not as prohibitively expensive as our 2007 published guide books had us believe - we headed back to the hotel to hit the sack, admittedly feeling like a couple of old ladies after a day of touring churches followed by an afternoon nap, an early evening dinner at 6pm and drinks at 8pm, deciding to blow off the traditional Icelandic Friday night pub crawl - The Runtur - described as unmissable in my guidebook, but I just didn't have it in me. I was exhausted having got up for work in New York at 5.30am on Thursday and come 9.30pm in Iceland (5.30pm Friday in NYC) I'd managed a mere 3hours sleep in 36hours. Besides when you start you drinking life at 15 on the Westgate Run in Wakefield the Runtur seems somewhat tame and besides I'm too old for all that crap now. I was happier to be tucked up in bed by 9pm ;-)
The very purple and black Salt Lounge Bar at the Radisson SAS 1919 Hotel.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Apparently it's snowing in Reykjavik...

Whose idea was it to go to Iceland in frigging October?? I shall be having a word with that Melissa!! Actually I much prefer it to be cold than hot, although packing light was a challenge what with all the jumpers and thermals I had to cram in and it was weird having to wear my winter coat to work when we’re enjoying 60degree temperatures in NYC right now, although when I took a cab into the office at 6.30am it was admittedly only 49F according to NY1, so not too hot to be in 4 layers of clothing. Pretty soon that's what I'll be wearing in NYC anyway.

Usually I’m quite organised when I travel, but getting ready for this trip has been a last minute rush and I packed in something of a frenzy last night. I keep looking at my tiny suitcase and wondering if I’ve packed enough clothing. Oh well, it’s too late now. Melissa emailed me on Monday to tell me that the weather wasn't looking so good and as a result I had to make a hurried purchase of a pair of waterproof sneakers and have them delivered to the office. Gotta love that I’m quite thrilled with my Salomon XT Wings GTX in Asphalt/Black/Autobahn (what were they smoking when they named the colours of the shoe style? Autobahn???), a brand of shoes I can highly recommend after they saw me through my trip to Patagonia a couple of years ago. The waterproof ones are especially amazing - gotta love a bit of Gore-Tex - although of course I haven’t had time to break them in beyond walking around the office in them today, so they shall probably give me blisters and of course I forgot to pack plasters. I'm sure they sell them in Iceland.

I’m crazy excited about my trip though, hence the reason I'm talking gibberish about the wonders of Gore-Tex. Well, that and the fact that I'm operating on minimal sleep after continuous days of getting up at 5.30am and then going home to have 9pm calls with Asia. I’m so looking forward to not having to do that for a few days at least, but to go see geysers, waterfalls instead and feel the waters of the Blue Lagoon lap gently over my toes!! Bliss ;-)

Photos to come!!