What to see in Iceland (and doing my best not to go broke)

Ah, Scandinavia.

I’ve been dying to go and the only thing that was holding me back was the dollars. Oh, boy. I mean I’ve been to Switzerland, but I stayed with a friend and basically just chilled out the whole time.

If I was going to Iceland, I wanted to do everything. Eat well. See the sights. Chase the Northern Lights.

And I did all those things.

We booked most of the tours, as well as our accommodation (we stayed at Fron Hotel), via our agent at Flight Centre. Usually I book most of our things, but I thought it’d just be easier this way, what with the discounts, ease of mind. It included airport transfers also which helped. (Everything was with Garyline Iceland FYI.)

Iceland was also a lot colder than I expected. I mean I’d been to the Atacama Desert and that was cold. But this was another level. I had a beanie, scarf, two layers of gloves, thermals, a down jacket and a coat and it didn’t seem to help. I had to go and buy a fur-hooded coat and let me tell you, these things are not cheap. Thankfully I found a relatively cheap one (yep $250 is cheap at these shops). Another thing I recommend investing in is a balaclava because the wind is going to ruin your life – especially at night.

These are some of the activities we did while in Reykjavik:

Blue Lagoon

An absolute must! We went straight from the airport (they have luggage storage on site). Oh it is absolutely gorgeous and absolutely relaxing. We went in the evening as our flight didn’t land til about 3pm, but if you can, I recommend going earlier in the day so you can appreciate the spectacle. At night, it’s hard to see anything past all the steam.

There’s a bar with drinks and a bar with face masks for you to enjoy during the dip.

Free Walking Tour

I think walking tours are the best ways to explore a new city; to make an impression. Get all your tips on your first day – what to see, where to go, what to eat – whilst learning all about the history from the locals. We went with CityWalk, which is the highest rated one on TripAdvisor. I knew that Iceland was the most equal, most fair city in the world but there was so much I didn’t know – it was eye-opening. One of the tips given to us on the day was that the Hallgrimskirkja clock tower, besides being quite a vision itself, is a great vantage point. Just check it:

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Northern Lights

Duh.

The odds were in our favour but the tour guide did disclaim that the lights aren’t always prevalent and if so, we could try again another night free of charge.

But one hour into our six-hour tour … bam! There they are!

I think I was so excited that I totally forgot how cold it was and I dropped to the icy ground to stabalise my camera and did my best to capture the beauty. It was odd in that you couldn’t see the Northern Lights clearly unless you photograph it. It was sort of like a slight fog in the sky but once you snapped those frames, they’re green.

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South Coast & Jokulsarlon

This two-day tour consists of travelling “from Reykjavik along the south shore to the exceptional Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon at the edge of Vatnajokukll glacier”.

The tour consisted of my partner and I, as well as two other couples. Great that we didn’t spend too long at places and that there were other people to talk to (as well as take photos for us!).

Not since South America had I seen scenery so stunning.

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Justwhen we thought it couldn’t get any better, just as the sun was about to set, the sky turned into this gorgeous pastel pink hue. I think I must’ve taken about 2000 photos in those five minutes.

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Note, that even though the cost of accommodation (at Fosshotel Glacier Lagoon) is included, dinner is not (though the ridiculously good buffet breakfast the next morning is). Don’t skimp at the dinner – order three courses like we did because you’ve got to make the most of your time there, right?

The next day we saw a lot of seals(!) while exploring Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon, which was just so blue and icy. Check out those slabs of ice at Diamond Beach! (Real name: Jokulsarlon beach, and that’s washed-up icebergs.) There’s a lot of black sand – equally at Reynisdrangar also where we went afterwards.

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Golden Circle

Not as amazing as the previous tour, but that’s not to say it wasn’t enjoyable or any good (all relative, ya know?). I guess it was just more breezy and overcast this day. But in the end, it all adds to the mood.

“The Golden Circle Classic Tour takes you from Reykjavik city to Thingvellir National Park”, reads our itinerary. Þingvellir National Park is a UNESCO listed park and “home to Iceland’s largest natural lake and the place where the tectonic plates of North America and Eurasia split and drift apart”.

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Oh, right. How to save money. How misleading of me.

Look, to be honest, everything is quite expensive but it’s all about where you can sacrifice/skimp, amirite? Most of the time, while travelling, that’s breakfast for me. Just a yoghurt from the supermarket will do. So a lot of the mornings I ate the Icelandic yoghurt Skyr.

Another recommendation, and this is actually a well-known Reykjavik establishment, is to eat at Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur. It’s been called “the world’s most successful hotdog stand” by Forbes. It’s not exactly a mind-blowingly delicious hot dog, but it is good. And it’s cheap.

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Other food places I’d recommend while in Reykjavik:

Eldur og Ís, Skólavörðustígur 2

A great place to stop, catch your breath, and warm up. They have a variety of hot chocolates on offer, from Tolberone to Nutella. They also do crepes.

Noodle Station, Laugavegur 103

Another super cheap institution. Flavourful Asian soup that’s no-fuss. Just noodles and protein.

Ostabúðin, Skólavörðustígur 8

Of course, the city is by the water so its seafood is pristine. I had the whale steak and the seafood soup. Whale is kind of like chewy steak IMO. I’m one of those travellers that likes to sample local cuisine when in that country and as much as I’m against the practice, I wanted to try a teeny amount. And the soup was just ridiculously good. Perfect to warm up with; so hearty.

Sæta Svínið Gastropub, Hafnarstræti

A gastropub that actually serves strange dishes. Like avocado fries? I mean I was seriously a bit like “hmm” when I read it on the menu, but look, like all the things we ate at the restaurant and in Iceland in general, it was delicious. Other dishes we ordered: caramelised popcorn and lobster tail.

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Where to eat and where to find good coffee in London

You’re welcome.

This is the first trip since New York where I’ve actively sought out good food.

I’m kicking myself for gallivanting all over Europe, all over the “must-do cities” like Berlin, Amsterdam, Vienna, Rome, Venice and not exploring its culinary offerings properly.

But not this time.

I researched. I wrote myself a list. I starred so many places on Google Maps. I was ready.

So without further ado, here are some of my recommendations.

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Where to eat for breakfast

Dishoom, 5 Stable St

There’s a few of these around London so you’re in luck. Perfect for when it’s cold or when you’re just after a hearty meal. The house chai is to-die for.

Farm Girl, 59A Portobello Rd

For those after a health kick / a detox from all the yellow and brown-hued meals. This place serves smashed avo, smoothies, coloured lattes – all the superfoods. It’s also nested in the cute area of Notting Hill so go for a little peruse prior.

Granger and Co, Stanley Building, 7 Pancras Square

If you’re craving an Australian-style brunch and not this baked beans and eggs only business, eat here. There’s a few around London and they’re pretty fancy with their dishes – I had a soft shell crab and chorizo kim chi fried rice and an almond milk-spiced chai.

Where to eat for lunch

Borough Market, 8 Southwark St

Okay this is an obvious one. I went here the first time I was ever in London so this an exception to the “new me”. It’s great for sampling different dishes and there’s almost something for everybody. My personal favourite? The paella. That and the fresh fruit on offer (because we all know how hard that is to find in central London).

NOPI 21-22 Warwick St

Ottolenghi’s all-day brasserie with dishes designed to be shared.

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Where to eat for dinner

Strut & Cluck, 151 Commercial St

Modern Middle Eastern food – absolutely delicious. A cute little restaurant in Shoreditch with impeccable service, you need to order the labneh, smoked eggplant and lamb kofta.

Sketch, 9 Conduit St

Save your pennies because this place is expensiveeeeee. It does, however, also have the best interiors and bathroom/toilet (strange, I know, but true) of any restaurant I’ve been to. I hear they also do afternoon tea so that may be a more inexpensive way of checking the place out/ticking it off your list.

Breddos Tacos, 82 Goswell Rd, Islington

Great Mexican-style tacos and cocktails. You should try and get there early though because there is a bit of a wait – we were seated at the bench by the door. It was fine but I mean not ideal when you’ve ordered what feels like a zillion dishes.

Sheba, 136 Brick Ln

Okay I know there are a ton of Indian restaurants on Brick Lane and sometimes it can get quite daunting, what with everyone yelling their offers at you. I highly recommend this place. It was actually where we had our last dinner and boy was it memorable.

Quick Bites

Biscuiteers, 194 Kensington Park Rd

Stumbled upon this place because if it’s extremely cute exterior but BOY OH BOY we had the BEST carrot cake of our lives here! We still regularly recall the cake and would go back and order five more if possible. A definite must if you’re in the area and the service was just wonderful.

Debenhams, 334-348 Oxford St

Okay we went to use their toilet but stayed for scones and tea because honestly you just have to when in England. And it was delicious comfort food (as you’d expect).

Coffee

Trade, 47 Commercial Street

Kaffeine, 66 Great Titchfield St

Flat White, 17 Berwick St

What to pack: the travel essentials

After a few long haul flights, I think I’ve got it down pat.

Here are some things I think you’ll need when you go travelling (and to store in your carry-on if possible):

  • Passport (obviously). But I’ve been loving The Daily Edited’s travel wallet to carry it in – it has compartments for credit cards, boarding passes, as well as a detachable passport cover. Very handy.
  • Travel cards. And by that, I mean prepaid cards, transport cards (in my case I’m heading to London again so I’m bringing along the Oyster card I picked up back in 2013.) I’m going to be carrying all this in a card wallet.
  • Phone, because, duh.
  • A fragrance. Less than 100mL, obviously, and something seasonal.
  • A compact camera. I love the Sony RX100 III – I’ve had it since South America. It takes beautiful photos, has a great battery life and I particularly love the selfie mode when you can’t find anybody to take a picture of you.
  • Then some basic beauty essentials (there’s obviously a lot more where this came from but this is literally just the bare minimum): a lip colour, sunscreen and maybe something for the eyes.

Finally ticking Machu Picchu off my bucket list

Just. So. Damn. Bloody. Incredible.

I don’t want to be a cliché but it’s everything I expected, wanted, and more.

At this point we had already 1) cycled through the Atacama Desert 2) survived Death Road and 3) climbed Rainbow Mountain.

I mean, the trek up wasn’t ideal or exactly well-received, but I’m so glad I climbed my way to the top, instead of taking the bus there (which, to be 100% honest, I almost did – only because it had rained quite heavily the night earlier and I thought the stairs might be slippery; they were, but nothing ridiculous).

But first, let me tell you about the tour my friends and I went with to get there.

We did not do the Inca Trail (I really don’t expect much of myself/my fitness), so we went with the three-day Inca Jungle Tour which included downhill biking, rafting, some hiking and zip-lining. Still adventurous, but with less hiking. I highly, highly recommend it. It was so much fun.

Anyway, back to the Wonder of the World.

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We made it just in time for our 630am tour at Machu Picchu buuuuuut it was so goddamn foggy that you could not see a thing. I mean we were walking through the ruins, but I had no idea what the guide was referring to. I was just praying internally that the fog would clear and we’d be able to see something.

It took a while, and we missed our session to climb Machu Picchu Mountain (totally fine with me, I was still wrecked from the first climb at that point), but eventually, ta-da!

The road trip to Bolivia: an experience like no other

The three-day Jeep tour from San Pedro de Atacama, Chile to Uyuni, Bolivia was hands down one of the best experiences of my life. Ever.

The company; the surroundings; the locals; the adventure.

I’d highly, highly recommend if you need to get from Point A to Point B – don’t fly, don’t take the bus. Take a Jeep. But, of course, choose a reputable tour with a good safety record.  (I’ve actually forgotten what agency we went with but I’ll pop it in here if/when I remember.)

On the way we passed Laguna Colorada, Laguna Misteriosa, Laguna Verde … lagoons so clear, lagoons full of thousands of flamingos. I know I’ve said it before but I’d never experienced anything like this before. Forget the lack of wifi, plumbing (take two rolls of toilet paper everywhere). None of it matters when this is what you’re looking at.

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We got to dine with the locals, watch football with them (something they take very, very seriously). The experience was very humbling. Everybody welcomed us with open arms and did the best to make us feel comfortable, despite the language barrier.

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We stayed in this salt hotel on our last night, before seeing the salt flats. I can’t say whether I was any more relaxed because of the nature of the hotel (or if I was just really tired), but it was undoubtedly cool. I mean, look at those bricks of salt! The beds are also made of them – for real.

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And here’s something I’d been dreaming of experiencing for years: Salar de Uyuni. The world’s largest salt flats.

We woke up at the break of dawn to experience the sunrise and it was just incredible. There was nobody else in sight (which was slightly scary when our guide had to leave us for an hour or so). Just 10,000 square kilometres of salt. And no, I did not try any.

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And, one of the last stops: Isla Incahuasi. More hiking was involved (it’s actually easier to name activities that don’t involve this).

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What to do in the Atacama Desert

To start off, let me just say, you don’t have to pre-book any of this.

Most of the time your hostel or hotel will have deals with tour operators so you’ll save some dollars if you just buy your tickets when you get there. There are so many companies, they’re competitive, and very frequent.

The weather varies out here in San Pedro de Atacama, the driest desert in the world, so a few things I recommend if you’re thinking of heading out this way:

  • Sunscreen
  • Rain jacket
  • Insect repellent
  • Torch
  • A rich moisturiser
  • Hand sanitiser
  • Portable phone charger if you’re into your tech (it gets so cold at some of these places that devices will just switch off)

I’m not actually joking, you can go from wearing two layers, to eight, to six, within the span of a few hours. It’s ridiculous. So pack in layers. And pack multiple items because they’re bound to get wet/dirty pretty darn quickly. Or, bring a bar of soap and be ready to handwash everything.

Anywho, without further adieu, here are some of my recs:

Moon Valley

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It’s just absolutely stunning. The Valle de la Luna is out of this world – on this tour you’ll get to explore the landscape, explore caves and crevices. One second you’ll be walking along rocky terrain, the next you’re slugging it up sand dunes.

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Be prepared for it to go from hot to cold just like that *snaps fingers*. Also ready to take some stunning panoramic photographs.

The Lagunas

Lagunas Miscanti y Miniques are, again, absolutely breathtaking (apologies – I’m going to run out of these adjectives soon, but honestly, everything here is sublime). Just look at these photos! The water, so crisp, the sky, so clear.

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Piedras Rojas

Okay, I can’t say this was my favouriteeeee tour, mainly because our tour bus broke down in the middle of the road and we had to wait outside in the freezing, roaring, chilly wind until a replacement came. I’d never felt cold like that day. It was horrendous.

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But again, just look at Mother Nature. And the flamingos!

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Geyser del Tatio

Okay, it may stink a little, but the whole thing is pretty damn cool. Just tons and tons of geysers.

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Cycling and Hiking in the desert

I’m not sure if there’s a specific name for this tour, but it was organised by one of the guys at our hostel. And let me tell you it was arduous. It was tiring. But it was all so worth it.

It involved a 15km hike, which featured a little dip in a nearby waterfall – again with the layers thing (I wore a swimsuit underneath some thermals, along with activewear). Then, a 35km ride through the desert. Oh boy was it tough. There was so much cycling on this trip and, of course, to accompany that, a lot of hilly terrain. A must-do – it really makes you appreciate nature and I guess, at the same time, contemplate your mortality as you’re dying for breath.

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Help! I’m spending all my money at K-Mart

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I thought I struck gold (rose gold – ha!) when I bought this last year. Copper baskets, copper candle holders, marble door stops … and then, this. Not only is it stylish but it’s so bloody affordable. Three dollars! The same price as a sushi roll.

I’m really hoping they don’t start increasing their prices because of the inflation of #homeinspo posts on social media.