Friday, December 09, 2016

Iceland - A land of Fire and Ice. A Magical Journey

Iceland - that small (well not small) island just off Europe, that seems to survive on its own away from all the hustle and bustle of the world, away from the ugly human attacks that has shrouded the world in terror and uncertainties. Iceland has always been full of beautiful scenery, nature and wonders, but it's always been an unknown to a lot of people, until that big financial crisis. That unfortunate incident however brought Iceland to the attention of the world. Suddenly, Iceland became the "IN" county to visit (yes, it was super cheap then). Then the infamous volcanic eruption that stopped flights. Suddenly everyone was talking about the waterfalls, the absolute beauty of the landscape, the mountains. It is always an expensive destination and it will remain so because of the isolation. I've always wanted to visit Iceland after seeing pictures after pictures of its beauty posted on every social media. Finally I decided to buy an air ticket and go on my way.

Iceland is best visited on a self drive itinerary. For people who can't drive or who don't want to drive there, the best you can do is hook up with someone who can, or go in summer where the buses run more frequently. Or just take on day trips out of the capital to visit the tourist places. You at least get to see the must-see places, but you don't get the real feel of exploring the land and seeing more obscure places.
 

Our Cosy campervan - sleeps 2

Camping is a good option for people who want to save on money and also for the freedom - because there are plenty of campsites around the island and you don't have to book! Saves you the pressure of having to "make it" to a location because of your reservation. Especially in the peak season of the summer when rooms are just fully booked. Campsite information can be found on the Internet, but also there are a lot more campsites than what is on the Internet. Also note that after summer, most campsites are closed. Not to worry, as we found out during our trip that you'll find a campsite almost anywhere - most of where we stayed were not even on our campsite list!

Here goes my 9 days adventure round Iceland!

I hooked up with a fellow traveler Angela from Florida through Lonely Planet forum. We decided to rent a campervan for the freedom it gives us and ride around the whole of Iceland! It's easy to drive around Iceland. The ring road 1 takes you around the whole country with various side roads to visit attractions. Traffic is smooth and sometimes lonely, making driving relatively easy. We were there end of September, but we were greeted with amazing weather! The sun was shining, the wind and rain gave us a break and in general we had dry and not too cold weather!

As an avid scuba diver, I had to do a dive in Silfra lake, where the tectonic plates of North America and Europe meet. In one short dive of 20 minutes, I touched both continent. I went with a small dive operator Dive Iceland, and I'm glad I went with them. The other operators came with huge school of snorkelers and divers but we only had 6! 2 dives with dry suit and equipment included was ISK40,000. There isn't anything to see underwater but the landscape and just be amazing by the super crystal clear water (visibility of >100m). And basically the experience of diving between tectonic plates! The dives were short (water is 2 degrees celsuis) but comfortable. The dry suit took like 5 minutes to get used to but after that I was diving like a pro!
Touching 2 continents at once!

We spent some time in Thingvillir National Park where the lake is located - it's a great national park to spend some time if you have the time. The topography and the landscape were just amazing! We had the fall colours of the leaves and the lava fields - creating a dreamy landscape. We saw our very first waterfall Oxararfoss! There's only 1 campsite available near the visitor information - ISK 1,350 per night including shower and use of toilet. Make sure you have supplies because the store closed at 18:00.
Oaxarfoss


The next day, we had a big itinerary and long drive. The Golden Circle was upon us - visiting the Geysir, Gullfoss and driving down to Seljalandsfoss and finally camping at Skogafoss.
Gullfoss

The active Geysir was a fun to watch and wait for. The power of it is not always constant and sometimes the spurt was not as big as what we expected. Still it was really nice to watch. Gullfoss was an awesome waterfall and walking along the pathway got you kind of close enough to get wet!

Gljufrabui


We then drove on down to Seljalandsfoss - where we experienced the walk behind the waterfall. That was pretty cool. Just a 5minute walk down from this waterfall, you'll find another hidden waterfall - Gljufrabui. This is my favourite waterfall because it is in a cave and hidden. We were lucky to get there before hoards of people came in. Do not miss this if you are there!!

Finally made our way to Skogafoss, by then the sun has set and it was pitch dark. We camped right beside the waterfall. In this facility, showers are not free. Use of toilet however is included in the campsite fees. Because we were feeling tired, we enjoyed a nice dinner in the café - Arctic char! Not cheap but once in a blue blue moon - it was worth it.
Skogafoss

Dipping in hot spring

The next morning, we decided to go for some hot spring. There's one near Seljalandsfoss that is not maintained and as such is free for people to go. Seljavallalaug is the name and it is very close to the waterfalls. You park your car at the end of the road and start a 10 minute walk into the hot pool. The walk is amazing and you pass through valleys and rivers. The changing facilities are very primitive so suggest you change into your bathing suits first before making the walk. The water itself is not extremely warm but in the cold weather it was a good dip. Swim to the other end where the pipe is for the warmest water! We spent quite some time in the water and it was very relaxing.

Another long day was ahead of us. We started driving along the South towards Vik and the black beach. We stopped by the airplane wreck - I wouldn't recommend this. It is a 4km walk one way and all you see is a broken down plane in the middle of nowhere. Only if you have nothing better to do.
Black beach

Frolicking in the sun and sea


The black beach was our next stop - this beach is amazing! It is really black smooth sand and the caves and rock formations were so massive! It was also a perfect beach day (Icelandic term) because the sun was up and it was pretty warm! I was in my flip flops even! A little R&R by the beach and we headed off further down the road.

Driving in Iceland is an amazing experience because you are always in awe of the surrounding. The geography changes every minute - from luscious green to volcanic ash and in the background you have the massive glacier. You have the urge to stop every few minutes to take pictures or enjoy the scenery! Take note of that so you leave enough time for the driving!
Random amazing sight

Glacier

We made a quick stop at the dwarf columns - Dverghamrar rocks. With the backdrop of yet another waterfall, this makes for a great photo stop! We also made a quick stop in Skaftfell National Park to visit one of the waterfalls - Svartifoss. Unfortunately due to time (sun was setting), we couldn't make it to the end to see the waterfall. But along the way, there were many other waterfalls to satisfy our needs.

When night fell, we drove towards the glacier lagoon and were greeted by massive ice block! Even at night, the sight was impressive! We thought of just camping by the lagoon (there's no campsite but many people were parked there waiting for the northern lights), but because there was no toilet, we drove on. Luckily for us, a campsite appeared 20 minutes east of the lagoon - a relatively new campsite that was not marked on the map or on the Internet. It's called Hrollaugsstadir campsite and it's the most expensive campsite we paid for (ISK1,900) but it has an awesome fully equipped kitchen and great showers for you to use! This site also has bunk beds for people who want to sleep in. We were 1 of 3 campervans there. It was so nice to have a big kitchen to do our cooking. This was also the night when we first saw Northern Lights! It was sooo amazing! Not anything we expected. From pictures you see those bright green lights, but in reality, the lights are rather faint in colour but obvious as you can see them moving. They were up there for almost the whole night!

First Northern Lights

Next morning, we dressed up warm for our trip to the glacier lagoon. Do dress up more as the cold air from the glacier does make it at least 3 degrees colder. The sight during the day is even more amazing. Walking along the edges of the lake, you'll be able to take in all the glacier sights. We didn't really see the need to take a boat ride as the lagoon is only this big and the boat ride basically just gets you close to the blocks of ice. I do recommend taking a walk to the coast (across the road) as you'll see all the washed up big block of ice and there you can get up close and personal with them ice! Touch them, kiss them, eat them - whatever! They were all scattered along the coast!


More norther lights
Onwards we drove. It may seem like a big country and a lot of KM to drive, but actually driving it is not that long! We drove between 4-6 hours a day. This day, we made our way up north. Enroute we stopped by a little quaint town Seydisfjordur. The drive is long and hilly and after a pretty long drive, we arrived in a totally different town! It has a very charming vibe to this harbor town - and the buildings were rather cute! There is only 1 way in and same way out, so another long hilly drive out. Our next destination - Dettifoss. There are 2 sides to view Dettifoss - East and West. East has a much better view of the whole waterfall but the road is not suitable for normal cars - full of pot holes and unpaved road. We tried with our campervan but took almost an hour to do the 20km road. By the time we got there, it was getting dark and so we didn't hike close to the waterfall. Another hour of gut wrenching drive out of the really terrible road, we found a campsite at the junction - Grimsstadir 1. It was only ISK 800 (without shower). Another quite night and another amazing display of the northern lights. It was also one of the coldest night ever - we were freezing in our campervan!


Dettifoss
Next morning, we tried again with Dettifoss from the West side. This is a paved road and suitable for all to drive to. Dettifoss is the biggest waterfall in Iceland and you will notice that just standing close to it. True, the west side does not afford you the best view of the waterfall but you can still feel the  majesty of the wonder. There's another waterfall close by which you can hike to and is worth a visit if you have time. Also, there is a pretty good hiking trail that will take you to Asbyrgi - to view the lava field and rock formations. You'll need good hiking shoes to attempt this hike and I think it would be an awesome hike. Unfortunately we didn't have time for it.

Godafoss - waterfalls of the gods
Our day's itinerary consists of visiting the Volcano crater lagoon and then soak our aching bodies in the Myvatn Bath! Driving towards the lagoon, we chanced upon the sulfuric thermal bubbles - Hverarond! It smelled amazing and the sight was even more amazing! We stopped by the Krafla - crater lake and it was so crystal blue that it reminded me of Kelimutu! You can walk around the whole lake if you have the time. It's quite amazing there.

And then it was time for some hot spring! Myvatn bath is less touristic than Blue Lagoon and also cheaper ISK 3,500 and you do not need to pre-book! Stay as long as you want, there are only 2 pools - a hot pool and a slightly cooler pool. Also sauna and an extremely hot (41 degree) bath. We were fully relaxed after 1 hour!
 
Our next stop for the next was another hour or 2 drive away at Blonduos. There we found a campsite right by the gas station - Gladheimar campsite for ISK1,000 shower included. It was a nice campsite near facilities and of course the shower was awesome. One thing you learn when on a road trip - shower whenever you can! Because you never know when the next one will be.

Glacier


Seal beach
The next day we drove west to Snaefellsjokull National Park. There is also a glacier in this park and if you have time, I think it would be an awesome park to explore and do some good hiking! You can even hike close to the glacier! There are so many things to see in this Park! Our day started with walking to Londrangar where a pair of basalt rock formations rose out of the water. We further drove down to another black beach - Dritvik where the beach is covered with small black pebbles. Along the drive, we discovered a troll cave! Ha, the funny thing about Iceland is their sense of humour. Along the way, we see signs erected at certain strategic locations, thinking they are signs to explain the attraction or the landscape, only to read about murderers, trolls and fairy tales! So you see, they may be icy but they're not lacking in humour. Of course, these stories are eventually linked to the place. For example the cave called Raudfeldar - legend has it that a half man half troll lived there. You get the gist. The canyon is awesome to explore. You can walk in until you get into a very narrow crevice. I suppose it's possible to continue climbing up the rocks but I didn't try as I was equipped with the right shoes and I'd better not let my companion wait.

Exploring the canyon
That night we camped at yet another nice campsite Kast for ISK 1,200. Showers are extra so we skipped it. We thought we would have a great chance of yet another northern lights experience but it didn't happen.
 
The next morning, we took it real slow as we were nearing the end of our adventure. We drove to see the awesome comical conical shaped mountain - Kirkjufell mountain. It was the only mountain shaped like a wizard's hat we've seen throughout the entire trip. And with the waterfall as a backdrop, it is a photographer's dream location! We also visited the shark museum where we tried fermented shark meat. Well, except for the smell, the taste was not as terrifying as I thought it would be. But I wouldn't eat it again. The entrance is ISK 1,000 where they gave you an educational tour of the museum and explain the history of fermented shark meat. Of course it is not complete without a free tasting of shark meat.

Kirkjufell

video

Driving back to capital, we stopped by another highlight of the trip - the amazing lava field waterfalls of Hraunfossar and Barnafossar. Barnafossar was really amazing with its crystal blue rush of water - a breathe of fresh air when it comes to waterfalls! Hraunfossar is a sight to behold - it was wide and comprises of series of waterfalls merging into the lake. Imagine the sight when spring just arrives and ice starts to melt - it would have been massive!

Barnafossar

Hraunfossar
That night in Reykjavik, we had a nice dinner at a local pub restaurant - Islenski Barinn where we had local food. Angela tried puffin - she said it tasted like beef while I had the Artic char again. The food was great (expensive yes) and we washed it down with Icelandic beer. That dinner cost me ISK 5,500 (47 EUR). The beer itself was already 8 EUR for a small - even more expensive than a Tiger!
 
We said goodbye to our Cozy Camper and spent the night in Bus Hostel (for EUR44 a night in a normal 6 bunk dorm).

Reykjavik

 
The next day starts my exploration of the capital. Obviously the Church is a must see and you can go up to the very top for a good view of the city. It was a lot of walking around the city, to the harbor, to the flea market (open on weekends), and the architecture. After 8 amazing days with the nature, it was kind of a let down in the city - personally I felt like the city didn't give me the energy I felt the last few days in nature. But the city is nonetheless quaint and nice! Everything was pretty expensive, the cheapest meal would be a 3EUR hotdog. I had a lentil soup that cost me 16 EUR (it wasn't even a big bowl of soup). I was told that Reykjavik has a pretty good night life and good partying but I was too tired (with an early morning flight to catch) and didn't feel like it. Also, with 8 EUR beer, it was not gonna be cheap.
 

Because I don't eat hot dog, I eat Fries
Getting to and from airport is easy with the airport transfer offered. They can be booked easily the night before and they are available whenever there is a flight so you can be assured you will get to airport or to town.
 
Iceland was really amazing and like no other places I've been. It would also have been fun to go in winter when all the winter activities are in full force (like ice caving etc). Though days will be much shorter, you can still enjoy a different season! I've also been told that the West Fjords are amazing - it is a little Iceland in itself. But you'll need at least a week to explore that region due to the winding roads and vast area!
 
Iceland again next time? Maybe. But the world is so big that there are so many more to explore!

Friday, September 09, 2016

Charming Old Tallinn and The Prodigy night out

Tallinn is to Finnish what JB is to Singaporean - a cheap fast weekend getaway. A 2.5h ferry ride away to cheap and good food and stuff (beauty treatment, wine etc). Cost of ferry ride varies according to season and demand/supply principle. I got mine at €23 per ride which is kind of the peak season price. Was told you could get a return at €16! The ferry is not just your normal Bintan/Batam ferry - it is a full size cruiseship! Complete with cabins and restaurants! Indoor seating is sparse and very difficult to find, except for those cabin style seat back near doors (4 per section). Otherwise it's brace the cold for outdoor seating or find a place in a restaurant (almost impossible).



Colours


I arrived in Tallinn to amazing 25 degrees of sunshine! The walk from ferry terminal to old town is pleasant and easy and even from afar you can already see the churches and the remaining walls. Checked into my hostel - Tabinoya (amazing hostel and if you like quiet and peace I highly recommend this!) They are located right in the middle of the action but still at a quiet corner. They have all the information you need for exploring Estonia/Tallinn. Met Katrina, an aussie who has been travelling around the world for a year, upon arrival and immediately we hooked up to spend our time in Tallinn! First stop the free walking tour offered by the Information Center. It starts at 12 noon and I highly recommend this! This tour is very informative, the guides are funny and they give you plenty of time to take pictures and even to enter the church! The tour was 2 hours in total and we got a lot of information. Then it's off to the pancake house! It's a popular pancake house Kompressor that serves really delicious pancakes (savoury and sweet) for €5 and under. Go there!!!
 
We also signed up for the prison tour (€10) and that is also a good one! You can of course go to the prison and explore yourself for much less but the tour gives very good insight and information about the history of the prison and Victor is a very good guide. We also get access to private part of the prison not open to public - like the execution chambers. The tour is about 1hour and is walking distance from the old town.

So old and charming

Not as easy as it looks
We got a good tip for a very medieval restaurant for authentic experience - III Draakon - walk into the tavern and you feel like you are in Game of Thrones! Everything is so old fashioned and authentic. There's no lights and you fish your own pickle the old fashioned way - with a spear out of a barrel. Their menu is limited - oxtail soup, ribs, 6 kinds of pies (delicious!), cider and beer. And they are cheap! The pies are only €1 each and really really good! Cider was €2. Really enjoyed it!
 
The next day we booked ourselves on a trip to visit the Lahemaa National Park. Initially was to go with another hostel-arranged tour at a cheaper rate (€40) but they canceled this trip so we went with the Information Center (€55). The great weather helped in us enjoying the tour. The tour runs in size of 8 people max in each car with own guide. So if the group is larger, they split up into separate groups that will run separately and then meeting for lunch. During our whole trip, we didn't see the other group except during lunch.
Largest waterfall in Estonia






The drive was not too long and we visited the famous waterfall (was too small as there was no rain) and also a small walk in the forest. We learnt that the Estonians invented the game of swinging - where you stand on the HUGE swing and start to go around. It can be pretty scary when you are directly above but upside down on the pole.
 

Lunch was not included in the price but it seems to be obligatory that you take the lunch (€15) Lunch is smoked salmon with potatoes and cheesecake. We only knew about this at the start of the tour so had no other option. If you are vegetarian, you pay the same price but you only get vegetables which were eventually shared with the others - doesn't seem fair though. If I had known, I'll choose NOT to have lunch and bring my own. €15 is not terribly expensive for salmon but I would have brought my own to save a little more money. Lunch was in the home of an old couple who bought the place and they have a museum of many old shipping artefacts. The good thing about this museum is you are really up close and personal and you can touch them!!

After lunch we went to an abandon secret Soviet site by the sea - the place was so secret that nobody really knows what the base was used for! Then we had a walk in the bog which was really nice and that ended our wonderful day out in nature!

The bog
The night was an impromptu decision by me - Katrina asked if I wanted to go to a Prodigy concert and I said YES! For €20 we got 90mins full on Prodigy concert even though I know nothing much about them. But the atmosphere and the live music was infectious that I just started dancing along! Everyone was crazy there. I had my first mosh pit experience - for whatever reason I will NEVER understand instead of standing and enjoying the performance which you paid for, these people prefer to bump into each other, totally oblivious about what's going on! Crazy!
The remaining walls

The next day it was a rainy day - not so nice but luckily we chose to activities that are indoors. We went to the Kiek in de Kok and Bastion tunnels. I recommend doing the Bastion tunnels tour - call ahead to ask about the tour timing. If you are not interested in the museum then just get the ticket for the tunnels (I think it is €9). We got a combo ticket and did both. The tunnels are a little chilly so bring a jacket. It was a very nice and informative tour where the guide will explain the history of the tunnels and the use over the years. Really enjoyed it. After we went into Kiek in de Kok museum - so called because you can see into people's kitchen from the tower. It is a 4 level museum so be prepared to climb! The only disappointment is that you don't really get a true panoramic view of the city at the top. All that climb for nothing! If you like to walk along the walls, that a separate fee and you can enter from the museum or the café on the wall.

There's also a old pharmacy right in the townhall area where they showcase some old remedies - not as extensive as we would like it to be but it is pretty cold and it's free! Oh, and if you like you can try the almond marzipan which is said to cure all heartaches (for €2 - an expensive remedy). I got one but forgot I hate the almond taste when it's cooked in other things.

Another thing from Tallinn you could buy is chocolate - you can get them in supermarket - try the white chocolate with  berries!

That was my last day in Tallinn and I took the evening ferry back to Helsinki. Of course not before I got a hair treatment! Almost missed my ferry cos the treatment took longer than promised.

All in all, really like Tallinn - for the colour, history and good food. I truly can understand why Finnish people like to go there - so convenient and everything is so much cheaper! If you have more time, I would also suggest taking the other tour to the west of Estonia - heard it is really nice there too! All these tours are easily arranged either via your hostels or the Information Center.

Finnish Surprise - Summer in Finland

Everyone in my department looked at me weird and laughed when I told them I'm going to spend my summer holiday in Finland - not a typical European summer vacation AT ALL! Just when people head to the south for warmth, I'm the rebel who heads to the North. Afterall, what better time to visit the North than in the warmer months of summer. Plus, my Finnish friends were enticing me with the summer lake cottage. Was really looking forward to this trip as the last time I met Mikko and Hanna they were newly weds travelling around S.E.A 3 years ago! Now they have a cute little girl.
Summer cottage by the lake
 
A good start to the wonderful week - landed in Helsinki with the sun shining bright and feeling overdressed in my jeans and sweater. Then it was off to the summer lake cottage where we spent the weekend with Mikko's mum and her husband. It was a lovely weekend we had - lovely weather, food and people. The kind of experience you don't get as a visiting tourist. I fished my first fish (a really small one), went for a spin in the lake and had my Finnish sauna experience! Which means sauna - then jump into the lake - back to sauna. Not forgetting the beer! I can't even remember how many different types of beers I've had in a week! Food was fantastic - home cooked and prepared in a very Finnish way.


Super small fish I caught


 

Hot tub in nature!

These people and the little one
A little background about Finnish/Finland - they invented the wife-carrying competition (no idea why), Nokia is Finnish and a really good phone (too bad they tanked now), sauna is an essential in almost everyone's apartment/home, Naked run also comes from Finland!!!

Aulanko viewpoint
After a great weekend, we head back towards the city. I spent a day in Hameenlinna basically just relaxing and visiting nature. The town is really really small with nothing much going on - not even a hostel there. I booked myself into the only affordable AirBnB (about €46/night) and rented a bicycle from one of the hotel (€10/day) to explore the really tiny town. The castle is one of the main highlights and they do offer an English guided tour which unfortunately I missed (think it starts at 1030am). It's also good to explore on your own as they provide a map and some written history. It's a small and quite rundown castle (€9 entrance). A quick ride through the town and I went on to Aulang National Park. This park is really beautiful. With the bike it's possible to follow the road into the park - there are some elevation in many parts so not entirely smooth sailing. The highlight is the viewpoint - where you see fantastic view of the whole park. I took my bike on a spin in the trail - not recommended if you have no experience and with that city bike really not the best idea. A couple hours later, I was done with the city and went back to rest. The next day back to Helsinki with the train. Do use this website (click HERE) to check for all kinds of trains and buses within Finland - they are great source of information and also has discounts for certain timings if you book early!




My trip to Helsinki began with a short ferry ride to Suomenlinna (€5 per ride) The ferry departs quite regularly so don't have to worry! The small island is amazing and really beautiful. Suggest to spend about 1.5-2h there. They have a guided tour at certain times (check the website costs €11 per pax) but I preferred to explore on my own. The most scenic area is at King's gate where you see the surrounding waters and the fortress. Try the beer at the local brewery right at the visitor center!

 
Back in Helsinki I spent some time taking in the sights of Helsinki - the market, the churches and walking along the streets. I recommend the rock church - it's an underground church that looks like a lump of rock from the outside. It's really beautiful inside and so does not look like a church from outside. This day was spent mainly just walking and walking - public transport though not overly expensive is not cheap either within Helsinki - a single tram ride costs about €2 and up.
 
More of my Finnish experience follows after I spent 3 days in Tallinn (up on another separate post). Took the bus (€5 discounted fare from the website link I shared above) to Porvoo in bad weather - raining whole morning when I was there. Didn't get to fully enjoy the experience due to weather but the town has a nice vibe - calm, charming and quiet. Once back in Helsinki, I took a walk to Kaivopuisto area to enjoy the nice sea breeze. Also took a walk to the newly opened public spa - you can see people half clothed coming out from the sauna and sitting outside cooling off. It was a lovely walk and great weather.
 
Mikko gave me a ride in his ultra cool motorbike to the city where I explored the hippy town of Kallio - surprisingly on a sat afternoon of great weather the place was pretty quiet.

Salmon fish soup

Fried fish - a finnish meal

My last night - BBQ
And herein ends my trip to Finland - good memories and good fun! Mikko and Hanna were great hosts and gave me lots of tips to exploring Helsinki and insights into Finnish life.
Cheers to a great week!