Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Puerto Rico

It was about time for a beach vacation! Had been almost two years since our last beach vacation, so we thought of picking a destination in the Caribbean. After doing a bit of research on the Caribbean islands, we narrowed down to Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. We ended up picking Puerto Rico because Dominican vacation meant we would've been mostly confined to the hotels/resorts where as Puerto Rico had more activities and places to offer.

One thing I learnt from this trip was that you gotta have your expectations right. I had heard extreme reviews from our friends visiting PR. Some of them had a whole lot of fun and others didn't know how to kill time on their vacation. For us, we knew we would have 5-6 days and we would have to plan our time well as both of us prefer vacations loaded with activities and things to do. So, we did some good research on what all we'd like to do and planned all our days so that we wouldn't get bored and we did not. We had a wonderful time, a good mix of activities and leisure and it was just as we expected and hoped for. Our brief itinerary:
Day 0: Arrive in San Juan. 
Day 1: Old San Juan, Ashford Avenue
Day 2: Culebra (Flamenco beach, Tamarino beach)
Day 3: Isla Verde beach, Sea Trek
Day 4: El Yunque rainforest, Luquillo beach
Day 5: Boqueron beach (Jet Ski, Kayak, ~~Paddle board)
Day 6: Old San Juan. Fly out.

Fly in:

SJU: San Juan Martinez International airport is well connected with many cities within the US, especially the ones on the east coast. We booked ours with American Airlines with a stop over at Charlotte. The airplanes are so darn old, with such less legroom and no entertainment units. Thankfully I slept through the entire flight.

Stay at:

View from our apartment - Condado beach
Initially we were looking at accommodations close to Isla Verde beach as we wanted to spend most of our time here, but we figured that we were already late looking for hotels and airbnbs even in mid-November. Most of the places were already booked. So, we moved to Ashford Avenue and finally found an 1bhk apartment in the heart of Ashford Avenue. I couldn't have asked for a better location. We had private balcony with a partial ocean view, walking distance from the Condado beach, next to 24 hour Walgreens and restaurants open till 3 am or so. I loved this street! It had some good restaurants and was always always lively. Would be a bad choice for a light sleeper though, but wasn't an issue for us at all. For some reason, we never considered staying in Old San Juan! I guess we were looking for parking options too as we had rented a car and driving and parking in Old San Juan would've been a nightmare.

Day 0:

Lively Avenida Ashford in the background
We arrived around 7 pm at the airport. And the moment I stepped out of the airport, I was in love with the weather. Purrrfect! We took a cab to our airbnb accommodation at Ashford Avenue. YOu got to stand in the queue for the cab, where the person in charge would ask you for the address and let you know the fixed price to your destination and assign a cab. Once we reached our apartment, the hosts greeted us and gave us some good recos on where to eat and what to do in Puerto Rico. We felt really welcomed and comfortable :) Once that was done, we headed out to hunt for some veggie food. We found BUNS (burger shop) which had some grilled cheese potato buns to offer. We were both hungry and found the burgers pretty good. I'd say decent enough option for vegetarians. After our dinner, we strolled on the lively Ashford Avenue, explored some souvenir shops and then crashed for the night. After our jet lag woke us up at 3 am, we gave in to our Maggi cravings. (benefits of having a mini kitchenette and renting from Airbnb!) 

Day 1:

Castillo San Felipe del Morro
Paseo de la Princesa
Our first vacation day was here and I was all excited to explore San Juan. We had not planned much for this. And after catching up on our sleep, we headed out only around noon. First stop was Ben n Jerry Cafe. We tried Vegetarian pizza and burger and I loved the pizza, but hated the burger! And their lemonade was out of the world, just fyi! Good place to try. After we got some fuel in, we just spent some time admiring the Condado beach, right behind the cafe. Then we headed out on the Ashford Avenue to pick our car rental. Once we got our car, we drove to Old San Jaun and parked in the Dona Fela Parking. Now, we visited a few spots here. There isn't anything mind vlowing or out of the world here. But, I just loved the cozy feel of bright multi colored houses, on wither side of narrow inclined cobbled streets. Lot of tourists and everyone walking around. It was a good way to spend just half a day and trust me, you will get a lot of good photo ops! Here is our approximate walking map. We mostly walked up to the old fort(Castillo San Felipe del Morro), the San Juan Bautista, La Terraza, Paseo de la Princesa. Meanwhile, we took a break at Choco Bar for some snacks and then ate dinner at Istanbul Turkish restaurant. Chocolate lovers may want to go to Choco bar, I didn't find it all that unique though. Istanbul Turkish restaurant was good though. Since it was Christmas eve, we had a very few options to choose from as many places were already closed. Walking around PR 1 will also give you scenic views. After dinner, we just wandered around the streets and then shopped at a few local shops for souvenirs, snorkeling shoes, beachwear etc. Was a very relaxed day and I really did enjoy hanging out in the Old San Juan neighborhood. 

Day 2:

It was December 25th and we had saved it for our day trip to Culebra. This was one of the most fun days!
There are two ways to get to Culebra which lies on the west of the main island. One is by ferry, which is like 5-10 bucks per person, takes about an hour and a half one way. Here is a ferry schedule I found. Now, this being the peak touristy season, and we being super late in our bookings, ran in to trouble while trying to book ferry tickets online. They were all sold out! Some of our friends told us that you do end up getting tickets on the day of, but we didn't want to take a chance, so we booked air tickets(the other way to get to Culebra), which are usually 50$ one way, but being the holiday season were ~75$ each way. There are many local airlines that fly between islands. Here is a list I found. Another thing to remember is that, you have the option of booking these tickets from a number of airports, San Juan International airport, Cieba and Isla Grande airport. We were lucky to find tickets from Isla Grande airport which is five minutes away from the downtown.

Flamenco beach - The best beach in PR
So, we booked 7:30 am flight from Isla Grande to Culebra. And we being excited, jet lagged tourists, reached the airport at 5:55 am, only to
find the gates closed! Apparently, the airport opened at 6 am! So, we waited for a few minutes and then someone walked up to the gate and opened it for us. We drove and parked in the open area outside the small building for some 10$ a day. There is not hurry to get here 90 minutes before your scheduled departure. No one cared to check us in till about 30-40 minutes before the flight. So, we could've very well caught up on sleep. Anyway, it was a ten seater plane and they are strict about seating their passengers in a particular order because of weight balancing. It was smooth 30 minute ride though.

The airport at Culebra was similar to one in Isla Grande. The car rentals were right in the airport lounge. However, the golf carts and scooters were all booked and we could only rent a jeep, which wasn't a bad option either. They gave us a map of the island a list of things to do. We got in the jeep and headed straight to some bakery, which was suggested by the lady at the car rental and was the only place open at 8 am. Just got some coffee and packed chips as I wasn't too impressed with flies all around. Then we headed straight to Flamenco beach. We were here by 9 am and had the beach almost to ourselves. Found a nice shaded spot. This was my favorite beach in the entire trip! White sand, turquoise water and pleasant breeze. The sea was a little rough though. But not bad at all. We spent about an hour or two here. Initially I had planned to camp here, which I think was easily do-able, but then, just didn't fit our plan, so we skipped it. There were some shacks at the beach where we ate some fries and burger. 
Our next stop was Tamarindo beach. There is no paved way to get here. It a dirt road, so you better ask your way around. A perfect place to snorkel. This was a pebble beach. So water was clear and our snorkel booties came in handy. We hung around this place for about an hour. I just absolutely loved snorkeling here. I didn't go in the deep as I am scared of deep water, but there were people who were swimming a little farther away and spotting turtles and such. We spotted some translucent fish, some multi colored striped ones and I spotted a baby fish which had a long nose, I have no idea what is it called! Plus some corals too. There were some day tours leaving from this place, but didn't fit our schedule as we had to head back by 3:30 pm flight. Weather was pleasant and it even started drizzling. It was just a perfect day!

Tayzan Sushi
Then we headed to the town, got some really pizza for lunch and drove around the island for whatever time we had left. We were suggested to go to Zoni beach as well, but we just didn't fit it in our schedule. This is our route. We didn't go to Zoni beach, but I just added it to the map, for reference. We got on to our 3:30 pm flight back to San Juan.

We grabbed some sushi at the Tayzan Sushi, close to our apartment before going home and taking rest. Once we got home, we took rest and then met our friends in Old San Juan who had flown in that day and were going to keep us company for the next few days. We had dinner at this Spanish place, Triana with Flamenco dancing. We didn't get to see any dancing, because we were sitting upstairs, but the food was cold and service was bad. So, this place wasn't really fun, but all in all it was a great day given Culebra was magnificent. For late night snack, I had nutella crepe at Crepe Maker and others had Praline gelato at Le Macaron. Crepes were average and gelato was average too. 

Day 3:

We were scheduled for a Sea Trek at 10 30 am in the morning. But, we got a call around 9 30 am that it was high tide and we need to move it later in the afternoon. So, we settled fro 3:30 pm, but this meant our plan for going to Camuy Caves after Sea Trek wouldn't work out. So, we headed out to Isla Verde beach instead. But before that, we stopped at Tomate restaurant for lunch. Excellent mexican food and great service. Highly recommend it. After lunch, we headed to Isla Verde beach. Nice, calm beach with a great view of the city and lovely warm water.
We headed out to Caribe Hilton for our Sea Trek tour at 3 30 pm. We had booked our tour with Aqua Adventures. I was initially very scared, but this was so simple and easy. We took some great videos with go pro. The entire activity took almost an hour. One thing we discovered was that this bay at Caribe Hilton was a good place to swim and snorkel even on your own and it was open for public. So, if you want to snorkel and head out in calm waters close to Old San Juan, this would be a good choice!
In the evening, we chose to dine at Budatai as recommended but our host. Excellent place. Fusion asian restaurant and they had great vegetarian options too. We made reservations as most of the popular places have a long wait time. 

Day 4:

Trail head map
Our plan for the day was to go to El Yunque rain forest and Luquillo beach. We planned on having a sumptuous breakfast to begin the day (benefits of a kitchen!) But, in the process, we got pretty late, to my utter dislike, because this just meant we would have to do only one hike instead of the planned two. One thing to keep in mind is to go to the Palo Colorado Visitor Centre and not any other information center as the trail heads for the two most popular hikes (La Mina trail and the El Yunque trail) are here. Here is the exact location on the map. The El Yunque trail leads you to the peak with some great views, but we had to ditch because of less time. But we did the La Mina hike to the La Mina waterfalls which was a lot of fun. Completely shaded and pretty easy hike I'd say. Involves some steps, but totally do-able! Waterfall was good, and don't forget to take your swimwear if you want to take dip. It was just utterly crowded and we din't stop here for long. We headed back to the trail head and our parked car. I suggest getting here early and starting your hike early on before the crowds get here. Useful Maps.
Plan was to hang out at the Luquillo beach after the hike. We had the option of eating lunch at the shacks at the beach, but didn't feel they maintained good hygiene, so headed out to a nearby subway. Luquillo is one of the better beaches around. Not very crowded. Calm and warm waters. very neat and clean shower and locker rooms at the beach. We spent an hour or so here. I guess this beach offers some activities like jet skiing and parasailing too. 
Once we got home, we headed out for dinner to Alibaba Mediterranean restaurant. Good food. Lavash was very fresh and delicious. For dessert, it was Gelato and Co right outside Marriot. They were out of chocolate gelato, but had a good hazelnut chocolate (Bachio or something). If you like gelato, this is the place for it. 

Day 5:

Boqueron beach
This day was set aside for Boqueron and beach activities. We drove for about a couple of hours to Boqueron beach. A nice quiet beach, very less crowded and pretty clean. But we couldn't find any restaurants for change of clothes. But, we managed. We first rented a jet ski. It wasn't our first time, but it is always fun! Then, after lunch at Subway, we headed out for kayaking at the beach. There are two little shacks at the beach itself for rentals. After kayaking, we tried our hand at paddle boarding for about 5-10 minutes. It is talent to balance yourself on that thing. I mean, you gotta try and see it for yourself. Then we spent time at the beach watching the sunset and it was beautiful. A lot of sail ships at the beach so, it makes for a good photo op for anyone who is looking for a good sunset picture. 
For dinner we tried Italian food at Di Parma Trattoria. Ravioli and pizza were excellent. I have to give it to Puerto Rico for really really good food. 

Day 6:

We could have either left really really early and gone to Camuy caves. But we ditched it for a few extra hours of sleep. This has been indeed the laziest vacation for us. So, we decided to spend rest of our day before our flight in Old town. Loved walking around in the colorful streets one last time. Taking pictures. The museum had high ratings, but was closed until early January. So, we had to skip it. We then bought some souvenirs and cigars! After one final meal, we headed out to the airport for flying out. It was a fun trip and we had a really good time. Thank you Puerto Rico.

More fun stuff to do:

  • Bio luminescence bay: Three places to do it in order of brightness and popularity: Vieques, Fajardo and La Parguera. We didn't do it because it was full moon night and the tour operators told us that the visibility will be close to zero.
  • Do the triangle: A lot of people go to Vieques by ferry for bio luminescence tour at night. Then go to Culebra in the morning and spend the day there and then fly/ferry back to San Juan.
  • Camuy Caves: You need to leave early as they take tours on first come first served basis and the tours are for about ~2 hours. You could end the day with a sunset near Rincon where you could also watch surfers.
  • Camping at Flamenco beach: If you are up for it, here is a website that'll be helpful. 
  • Old San Juan itinerary: I collapsed most of it in to one day. Plus, don't forget to take pictures of the fort in the evening. We missed it, but it will be well worth the trip, I am sure.
  • Pina Colada was invented here in Puerto Rico, so do try one!
  • Boqueron: You could do jet ski tours or head out of mangroves in La Parguera. We just weren't too enthusiastic about it, but they have good reviews online.

Remember to:

  • Make reservations well in advance especially if you are heading to PR in holiday season. We had a tough time looking for accommodation and making reservation for Culebra. Thnakfully we had reserved our car well in advance.
  • Eat at a different restaurant each time. Some really good places to eat, you may need to make reservations. We missed eating at Verde Mesa and Pani Agua because we didn't make any and these places had really good ratings and good vegetarian options.
  • We used Google Maps. The names of the roads and exists are all messed up. So, you need someone to navigate and tell the driver to take next left or next right else you won't be able to use maps.
  • For local airlines, don't forget to print your boarding passes. We had to walk in to Marriott and pretend to be their guests and ask them to print our boarding passes.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Icleand (Ring Road)

The idea of a road trip was always fascinating. So, when I started exploring the options of a road trip, a few ideas that popped were that of cross country, a national park loop in Utah-Arizona or Iceland. Now Iceland was very enticing given that it would be the best way to see the country and also we'll not run in to too many tourists! So, we came up with a 7 day road trip for Iceland and it was fantabulous. It is an absolutely gorgeous and stunning country with such a variety of serene landscapes to offer and 24 hour daylight made it even more enjoyable.

Our route over 7 days
Here is our brief itinerary with Google maps route:
Day 0: Arrive in Reykjavik.
Day 1: Reykjavik -> Vik.
Day 2: Vik -> Hofn
Day 3: Hofn -> Seydisfjordur -> Lake Myvatn
Day 4: Lake Myvatn -> Husavik -> Selfoss/Detifoss -> Akureyri
Day 5: Akureyri -> Reykjavik
Day 6: Snaefellsness peninsula
Day 7: Golden Circle & Blue Lagoon
Day 8: Fly out

Pointers for planning:

  • Visa: Like any other Schengen visa, you have to take a set of documents and a schengen visa application form to the nearest embassy. For us, it was the Norwegian embassy in San Francisco and they sent us our passports in two business days!
  • Make reservations for your stay as soon as you can. They fill up very fast, especially in summer. Unless you plan to go camping, which a fantastic idea!
  • We stayed at guesthouses and they were all pretty good. Mostly shared bathrooms, but it wasn't much of a trouble
  • Just in case you love waterfall, like me, this is a super resource.
  • If you are looking for hostels and a 7/10 day itinerary, this is extremely useful.

When in Iceland:

  • Sunset was around midnight and sunrise was at 2 am. But it was always twilight, never completely dark which gave us plenty of time to drive around
  • Stock up your car with food, water supplies. You will be on road for hours before you see a store or a food joint. Fill gas when you get a chance.
  • We rented a 4 wheel drive. Though most of the roads are paved, we thought it was always better to have an all wheel drive.
  • An old saying in Iceland is, "If you don't like the weather, wait for 20 minutes" and it is true! Weather here has terrible mood swings :)
  • Vegetarian food is not a problem. Everywhere, they had an option for a veggies burger or a veggie sandwich! Food hunting wasn't an issue at all.

Day 0:

We arrived at the Keflavik airport (KEF) around 10 pm or so. It was twilight and a little rainy. We got our car and drove straight to the 24 hour subway and then to our hotel close to the airport, The Airport Inn. Nice small rooms. For after hours check in, they send you their entry codes and you can pick your key from the envelopes lying on the shelf once you are inside. Pretty smooth and after a good night's rest we were all charged up the next day to start our road trip!

Day 1:

We drove from Keflavik to Reykjavik. About 20 minute drive. On our way we stopped at "Bonus", their supermarket chain and got some basic snacks, water and stuff. It was rainy and cloudy. After we reached Reykjavik, we found an Indian/pakistani restaurant, Shalimar for lunch. But parking here is a nightmare, like in any other city. After we found a parking garage, we walked to the main square and ate a filling and sumptuous meal. 
And then we started our Ring Road Tour. Got on to Hwy 1 and as soon as we crossed the city of Selfoss, it was just a visual treat for next 7 days. Our first stop was Seljalandsfoss. Set in a pristine landscape, you could take a short walk to this small cave like lookout behind the falls. This got us our best shots. We got fully soaked in all the mist flying around, but it was totally worth the effort and our water proof jackets were now a justified expense ;)  We continued on Hwy1 and the landscapes were so beautiful that we wanted to stop everywhere and take pictures, but camera can never do justice to such views. Our next stop was Skogafoss. Another beautiful waterfall. We hiked to the top for even better views of the lush green hill tops and the meandering river.
Views by the roadside
Next stop was Dyrholaey Arch. It was a little steep uphill drive and very foggy. A couple driving downhill recommended that we head back. However, we decided to drive and see where we get to. Once we reached the top, the clouds were swept away by the winds in a couple of minutes and it looked bright and sunny and clear. Beautiful views of the arch. On our drive back to join the Hwy 1, we stopped by to pet some Icelandic horses grazing on a farm by the roadside. They look like they walked right out of Vidal Sasson. Such beautiful tresses!
Basalt columns by Reynisdrangar beach
View from our restaurant
Next stop was to see the famous basalt columns. And they were magnificent. We drove up to the Reynisdrangar beach which is a black sand beach and has towering basalt columns. Hiked up a few of those to take some great pictures. After some pictures, we decided to drive to Vik for some dinner. We hadn't realised, but it was already 8 pm, but the sun was up in the sky and shining bright. Had pizza at Strondin. Then walked up to the coast to get some pictures of the tall rocks in the seas. Now was the time to drive back and sleep. We had booked Glacier View Guesthouse an hour south of the Skaftafell national park. But we drove up to the Kirkjugolf basalt columns via the vast lava fields (Eldhraun). Weather kept changing from foggy to clear. After spending some time here at the basalt columns, we drove back south to our guest house. It felt like it was in middle of nowhere but that was the fun part. And then we retired after a long day to get ready for another long day.
On our way, I missed visiting the plane crash site Solheimasandur. It is a little difficult to track it, but this is a good resource. It was a short detour and completely slipped my mind. The fuselage still lies here untouched even after so many years.
Our route for Day1

Day 2:

Ready to hike
Icefall - up,close and personal
We got up really early, around 7 am and were eagerly looking forward to our glacier hike. We packed our stuff and after a good sumptuous breakfast served by our very kind and polite hostess, we headed toward the visitor center of Skaftafell National Park, where our tour was supposed to start from. We took the full day glacier hike and lagoon tour (Glacier Grand Slam) through Glacier guides. We geared up with our helmets, our axe and most importantly our crampons. Since we were supposed to drive further up north, we chose to drive ourselves in stead of taking the tour bus. We just followed them to the base of the glacier where we were given some instructions on basic do's and don'ts and we were split in to smaller groups of 6 people.
Our guide was, well, I can't spell the name, but she was really sweet and so very fit! First was a 45 minute hike to the base of the glacier. It was mostly through the silt or the sand and was like any other hike. But from distance it wasn't impressive at all. Once we reached the base of the Falljokull glacier, its vastness just left us awestruck. It was amazing how little streams of melting glacier are forming rivers. Once we reached the base, we were reminded that walking on ice is no easy business and it wasn't. Time and again I felt, I will slip and I did slip once. Twisted my ankle at least 3 times and the fall left a black-blue bruised knee too. But, it doesn't mean it wasn't fun. It was an amazing experience. I would rate it as the best activity I did in Iceland. Surprisingly, it wasn't really cold up on the glacier and we were fine with one warm jacket. After we hiked for a little while climbing up the glacier, we drank water from the streams. Purest form of water, straight from glacier ice. We hiked all the way up to the base of the icefall. We had to be cautious of the treacherous crevices and weak spots. Once we reached the base of the icefall, we found a spot to have lunch. Some folk tales and local stories later, we headed back. Once we reached the base, we unloaded all the gear and felt so relieved.
Ready for our lagoon boat ride
 Once back to our car, we drove another 30 minutes to a glacier lagoon, Fjallsarlon. Just the drive on Hwy1 was so beautiful. There were so many glaciers on the left and the ocean to our right. It was bright and clear and the views were so different from the previous day. Once at the lagoon, we wore these red jumpsuits for our safety and got on a boat for a ride in this lagoon. When our guide lifted what looked like a tiny piece of iceberg, we understood what "tip of iceberg" really means. It is only 10% above the water surface. 30-40 minutes later, we were back to our car and ready to drive further north to our final destination for the day, Hofn.
We also stopped at Jokulsarlon, the bigger lagoon and definitely the more crowded one. Fjallsarlon was very tiny and nothing compared to Jokulsarlon. It is a huge lagoon, unbelievably huge. There are boat trip here too, but it way too crowded and there was a long queue. We stopped here, took some great pictures and just admired the beauty of this place. A hot chocolate later, we were back on Hwy1 heading to Hofn.
On our way, we took a couple of detours and just drove towards some glaciers and then got back to Hwy1. before we reached Hofn. Once we got here, we found a place to dine. Tired, we grabbed a bite and crashed in our guest house, Hafnarnes guest house. Shared bathroom again, but neat. clean and very comfortable. Plus, some pretty views in the backyard.
Our route for Day2.

Day 3:

Gufufoss enroute to Seydisfjordur
Good morning Iceland! We left our guest house in search of some breakfast and ended up doing some snack- shopping at a convenience store. The goal was to reach our airbnb guesthouse close to Lake Myvatn by the end of the day. And we were in no hurry! We decided to drive through the fjords and took the longer route Hwy 1- Hwy 96- Hwy 92 instead of Hwy 1. Although the fjords aren't very steep, it just lush green or snow covered mountains on one side and the sea on the other. After a while I just lost the count of waterfalls we came across. Was a very surreal landscape.
We drove to Eglisstadir town and from here, took Hwy 93 to get to Seydisfjordur. A beautiful drive which was 50% of the times in the clouds because of the elevation. It was a very different experience and once at Seydisfjordur, we decided to get some sushi. Good food. The town is however, mostly famous for lobsters and other seafood. A very pretty town and  after driving around for a few minutes we decided to drive back to Eglisstadir and continue on to Lake Myvatn as we still had a long way to go.

Hevrir mudpots
We got back on Hwy 1 and continued on to Lake Myvatn. This drive too was very foggy and had patches of clear weather. However, once we crossed the Jokuldarlur valley, it was very sunny and clear. On our route, we decided to take a detour, 8 kms south of Hwy 1 to a small town Modrudalur. Here we just drove around and took some pictures of Icelandic horses and sheep. A very small town with nothing much to offer, but the landscape was that of an alien land. Suddenly, all the memories of Star Trek (the original one!) were refreshed and I was certain that either they were shot here or inspired from this landscape. We got some beautiful shots of the sun in the clouds too!
Anyway, we continued on Hwy1 towards Lake Myvatn and> on our way were the geothermal mudpots - Hevrir. It was very small area with the pungent hydrogen sulphide odor and marked areas to walk. We walked around for 15 minutes, took some pictures and then headed straight to our airbnb guesthouse. We drove around the south border of the lake. Had some beautiful views of the sunset, as it was around 11 30 pm and the sunset was scheduled for 12:15 am. Well, it never really sets, but the views it offered were breathtaking.
Anyhow, we reached the guesthouse in Laugar and met another couple from USC! Chatted for a while and then retired for the night as it had been a long a beautiful day and we deserved some good rest :)
Our route for Day3.

Day 4:

Our agenda for the day was to explore the northern part of Iceland. So we drove from guesthouse to Husavik. Took minor detours as we felt like as everything around us looked right out of a textbook landscape description. After we reached Husavik, we parked our car and explored the town on foot. Not a big city, but a lot of activity around the harbor. We were in two minds about the whale watching tour and eventually ditched it. Instead, went to a nice restaurant and had a sumptuous filling meal. Then shopped for some souvenirs, went to 66 degree North showroom. Really liked some jackets, but decided to get them later. And from here we started driving to Asbyrgi Canyon. Just followed the directions on our phone. Some vista points were good photo ops on our way. Once we reached the park, we stopped at the visitor center and they advised us to drive to the base of the canyon and do a short 1-2 mile long hike there. And that is what we did. Not very exciting, now that we have some real jaw-dropping canyons in the US, this one didn't look as majestic. Once we got back on the road, we were wondering whether to take 864 or 862 to see Detifoss and Selfoss. The viewing area is the same I am glad we asked the visitor center guides and they pointed us to 862. It was 37 km dirt road to Detifoss and Selfoss.  There was quite a bit of elevation gain and we were back in the martian landscape. Once you reach the Detifoss area, you park your car and walk down to the view points for both the falls. I haven't seen a waterfall as majestic as this one. (Disclaimer: I haven't been to Niagra yet!) I just fell in love with this one and we just sat there for a while taking pictures. Lot of mist and slippery rocks here, so be careful.

Viti crater
Lake Myvatn
Then we got back on 862 and drove to Krafla volcano and Viti crater. Well, the crater was pretty and reminded me of crater lake (much smaller than crater lake actually), but nothing great about the volcano. From here, we headed to Dimmuborgir. Some interesting stone structures here and there is a hike at the base of these structures too, but we wanted to get some pictures of Lake Myvatn and spend some time here. So, we skipped the hike and headed to Hofdi. A small hike later, we were at a good spot to take pictures and admire the lake. It looks exactly like in pictures. A lot of people suggested we take thermal baths here, but we had already planned for Blue Lagoon. We stopped by at a few more spots around the lake before heading to Akureyri where we were planning to stay for the night.
On our way, we stopped at Godafoss and I really can't compare any of these waterfalls to each other. They are all just so beautiful and different, plus I love waterfalls, so I may be biased ;) After stopping here for a bit, we headed to Akureyri. It was around 12 midnight and as we got closer to the city, we were driving along the coast and the sun was setting. It was one of the most beautiful sunsets I've seen. Then we reached our hotel/hostel accommodation at Hotel Edda and crashed for the night. 
Here is our route for Day4.

Day 5:

This was the day of kirkjas or churches! We started our day by visiting the church in Akureyri, Akureyrakirkja. Good architecture, pretty modern, Then drove around the city a bit and got on to Hwy 1 to drive to Reykjavik. On our way we stopped at another church, claimed to be the oldest church in Iceland. It was a mile long detour to Videyjakirkja (I may have the name wrong). Old old church with a cemetery behind it. Then, we were back on Hwy 1, and just drove to Reykjavik. Stopped at some scenic location to eat our subways we had picked up in the morning. Not many pictures on this day. Once we reached Reykjavik, we headed to Hallgrimskirkja. What a pretty church! Looks bigger in the pictures though. Took some photos, went to the top and got some nice views of the city. Then our next stop was Gandhi, the Indian restaurant. Oh boy, what good food! One of the best Indian restaurants I have been to. Plus, it is located in a very lively central market place area of the city. We walked around a little bit after our dinner and explored the shops around. Then we headed to our guesthouse for next two days, Minna Mosfell guesthouse. The location and views were beautiful. Plus, the hostess helped us with our itinerary for the next two days. Highly highly recommended. She suggested we explore the Sanefelles peninsula the next day and told us exactly what to do! It was a relaxed day and another day well spent. 
Our route for Day5.

Day 6:

Just one of the many views
The aim of the day was to go around Snaefellsness peninsula. Before I forget to mention, the route we took was Hwy 1 -> Hwy 54 -> Hwy 574 -> Hwy 54 -> Hwy 56 -> Hwy 54 ->Hwy 1 -> Hwy 47 ->Hwy 1. Details in link below. We started our day early and drove straight to the famous church by the seaside which is now a popular destination for weddings. The Budir church. A very different landscape along the coast. We continued on Hwy 574 to get to the national park. We stopped at  a small village Arnarstapi and had some coffee and snacks. From here we hiked to Hellnar. A 3 mile hike or so, but along the coast and offered some very beautiful landscapes with puffins all around. One of the rocks almost looked entirely white because of the number of puffins occupying the rock. We went only about half way and returned as we had parked out car in Amarstapi and wanted to drive further. From here we drove to Hellnar, where the office for the national park was located. After talking to the ranger, she suggested we do the cave tour. So, we drove further and stopped at Vatnshellir Cave for their tour. We didn't book in advance and there wasn't any need to. The caves were dark and scary, but a different experience. We also stopped at a few other vista points and hiked around. 
And by now we were super hungry and our goal was to simply find some good food. So, we drove further and found a nice restaurant in the small town of Olafsvik. Gobbled up a lot of food and were ready for some more driving. We kept driving on Hwy 574 -> 54 towards Stykkisholmur and took some detours and got back on 54. We reached the town of Stykkisholmur. Hiked up one of the small mountains (Hellgafells) and got a beautiful view of the peninsula. Took some pictures and then got back on Hwy 54 and drove to Hwy 56 towards Reykjavik. From 56 we again joined 54 and finally we were back on Hwy 1. After driving for a while, we decided to drive around the fjord and took the detour on Hwy 47. Added about an extra hour to our drive but was very scenic, especially since it was twilight. And after some time we were back in our guest house, tired and sleepy.
Our route for Day6.

Day 7:

Thermal mudpots
Our last day in Iceland was kept for all things touristy. We had to visit the golden circle this day and then blue lagoon. So we started from our guest house towards the Pingvellir national park. The first stop was the first parliament of Iceland. Not very exciting. From here, we drove to the Strokkur Geyser. A collection of many geysers in this geothermal area. A good tourist place with restaurants and shops across the road and very crowded. The Strokkur geysir erupts frequently and reliably. A lot of people crowd this area and you have to be careful of the winds, as there were some accidents reported in the last few days. After spending some time watching a few eruptions, we headed to the restaurant for lunch. Good veggie burgers! :) Then we drove to Gullfoss. It was by far the most voluminous waterfall I had seen in Iceland. We took some pictures from the viewing trail. Now was the time to drive back to Reykjavik. I wanted to see the phallological museum, but it wasn't very exciting. So, we hunted for food and decided to have our final desi meal at Austur. Not that great and quite expensive. From here, we drove straight to the Blue Lagoon.
Once at Blue Lagoon, we had to get wrist bands which were color coded as per your package and also served as a tab for what ever services you entail at the bar or the spa. We got to the locker room and then as per the tips on many travel forums, applied conditioner in our hair as the water in the lagoon is very harsh for your hair. Then once outside at the lagoon, we totally missed each other and spent some good 15 minutes trying to find each other! But well, after the chaos was over, we spent a lot of time in the lagoon, applying mud masks, taking pictures and then just enjoying the warm water in the cold weather. Yes, it is expensive, but well, why not do it now that you are here. Once we were done, we changed, got out and drove straight to the airport inn, where we were staying for the night before flying out to New York in the morning. It was the same hotel we had stayed at on our first day. Very comfortable with all the basic amenities. 
Our route for Day7.

Day 8:

We packed our stuff and left for the airport. Once you return you car, you have a decent 10 minute walk to the terminal. There is no shuttle and you have to carry your own luggage, so just keep that in mind. Once at the airport, the check in was quick and the terminal was huge with lots of restaurants and shops. We shopped somewhat before we got on to our flight and bid adieu to this beautiful place. Iceland is indeed the most untouched natural beauty I have ever seen. Hopefully someday we'll be back for northern lights :)

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Taj Mahal, Agra, India (A day trip from Delhi)

I always regretted not having visited Taj Mahal while I lived in India for 21 years. And every time we went home, we never had time to add that to our already jam packed itinerary of lunches and dinners and social meetups. So, this time when we planned an impromptu week long trip to surprise our family, we figured it was a perfect opportunity to add a day trip to Agra on the pretext of our wedding anniversary! :)

Getting Here:

We wanted to take a day trip from Delhi. Hence we stumbled upon two options:
  • Drive (Yamuna Expwy): This is what we did. This newly built expressway is freaking awesome by Indian standards. And it is a smooth ride indeed. I would highly recommend this as there is no traffic, lanes are wide and it is every penny worth the toll. Plus, it is super quick. Since we were 6 adults, we hired a 7-seater cab and a driver and left around 8 in the morning. It took us around 3 hours one way.
  • Bhopal Shatabdi: This would be the next best option from what I discovered. Take the morning shatabdi to get here and take the evening shatabdi to get back to Delhi if your agenda includes visiting Taj Mahal only.

Visiting Taj:

Main entrance to the Taj
There are three entrances to the structure, East(reserved for VIPs), South (for locals and not very popular) and West(the one where most of the tourists enter from). There are assigned car parking areas close to these entrances. Once you park you car, you have to either ride a tonga, bus or small electric car to get to the entrance. None of the private vehicles are allowed closer to the monument.
We chose a small electric car(Golf car) to get to the entrance.
Being touristy
While you are parking, you'll see a lot of guides and it would be best to hire one. You can also listen to audio guides, which I think are great if you have time and would like to be sure about the authenticity of all the information. However, I absolutely enjoy the local guides who weave stories and help you take pictures! So, we hired a guide and he of course helped us to get tickets from the ticket counter. 
Being touristy - part deux
After we got our tickets, we had to go through a security check and then ended up at the main entrance. Needless to say, it is simply beautiful. And it is amazing how everything is so symmetric and well calculated by the architect. Once you step through the main entrance, you'll be simply mesmerized by the first view of the marble beauty. It was super crowded, most likely because it was a Saturday. But we managed to get some nice touristy pictures and then headed straight to the main tomb itself. The structure is huge, but it is just a tomb, so there wasn't much to see inside the main structure itself. We just walked around and were taken in by the beauty of all the intricate beautifully carved patterns. Verses from Quran and intertwined vines are carved with great detail.
There is a lot of detail about the architect, number of gardens, fountains, etc etc which I have happily forgotten. It took us about 2 hours to thoroughly walk through this place and then we had to take an electric car back to the parking lot.

Visiting Fatehpur Sikri:

Buland Darwaza - Fatehpur Sikri
After we stepped out, we thought we might as well visit either Agra Fort or Fatehpur Sikri. And Murphy would have laughed at us when we picked Fatehpur Sikri. We drove for about an hour and half to get here given the roads were narrow and there was so much traffic. Once here, it took us all about 30 minutes to see this place. But you have to park in designated areas and then take a bus to get to the visitor entrance. It is a courtyard with a famous dargah and the huge Buland Darwaza. Made entirely of red stone, it is beautiful but not worth the visit especially if you are short on time. Picking Agra Fort would've been a better choice as it was close to Taj Mahal and offered more to see, well after all it is a fort. 

Driving back:

This turned out to be a nightmare. First we decided to take a short cut, but there was an accident on the route and we had to come all the way back to Sikri and then go to Agra to get on the Yamuna Expressway. Plus the evening traffic made our lives miserable. But Google Maps were totally reliable! As always, they came to our rescue. Once we got on the Expressway after a lot of ordeal, we were all set to get back to Noida for our anniversary dinner with our extended family. We got late for sure, but didn't miss the fun :)

Useful Info:

  • Here is the official site. And here is the Wikipedia article.
  • Visiting during full moon at night offers great views of the Taj Mahal. Some stones shine bright and look like reflecting mirrors and the milky white Taj looks even more mesmerizing. 
  • Plan ahead if you want to visit Agra Fort or Fatehpur Sikri