A Travellerspoint blog

Iceland

15-16 April

all seasons in one day 2 °C

OK, we admit defeat – we’ve decided to skip blogging on the USA for the moment. Basically it’s been too much like a holiday to give us the inspiration to write, so we’ve fast forwarded straight to Iceland…

Friday 15th
After virtually no sleep on a very crowded Icelandair 737, we ’re really not at our best. And our ticket was so cheap that you even had to pay for food and drink – not ideal on a trans-Atlantic flight! So at 6am we groggily made our way through customs and immigration (we won’t be sad that we don’t have to do any more of that) and collected our bags. It speaks volumes about how expensive Iceland is when they had the biggest duty free shop we’d ever seen (except Argentina of course…) in the arrivals lounge, and it was being treated like a Sainsbury’s local by all of the Icelanders who were arriving back in their homeland. So we followed their example and bought some wine and chocolate to sustain us – man cannot live on pickled herring alone…

We picked up the car, but we hadn’t even loaded it when the first blizzard hit us. Ten minutes later on the road into Reykjavik it was raining, and then ten minutes after that the sun came out. Reykjavik has some very varied weather patterns. About the only constant thing is the wind. It’s straight off of the Atlantic and it’s bitter cold.

We couldn’t check into our hotel until 2pm, and we were both so shattered after the flight that we ended up sleeping in the car, switching on the engine every hour or so just so that the heater would stop us from freezing – we probably looked like a couple of vagrants but we didn’t care much…
We did a little bit of exploring in Reykjavik in the afternoon but, to be honest, we weren’t particularly in the mood. We retired early to the room to crash out again.

Saturday dawned, just as cold (and generally uninviting) as the previous day, but we had slept ok so we were a bit more in the mood to explore. Reykjavik is the least capital city-like of any capital city that we’ve ever visited. In any other country it’d be a fishing village, albeit a very nice fishing village. We did a quick wander around, including the impressive Hallgrímskirkja, but didn’t stay long as we wanted to get out and explore the surrounding area.
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Iceland is incredibly geologically active and almost up into the Arctic Circle, yet has the gulf stream which provides a significant moderating influence on the climate. Put these together and you’ve a recipe for an environment that offers tourists some pretty unusual sights. Firstly, Iceland has virtually no trees – just lots of scrub and moss living in a thin layer of soil over volcanic rock. And then there’s the wind – have we mentioned the wind yet? It makes it an incredibly bleak, yet incredibly striking, environment. Secondly, you don’t have to go far to see some very active examples of Iceland’s volcanic past.

For example, the settlement of Geysir is famous for the jets of superheated steam that regularly spurt up from holes in the ground. We’d vote the geyser Strokkur as one of the most spectacular experiences of our entire travels so far.

Then, 30km further on, you come to the extinct volcano crater of Kerid, and somewhere between the two are the massive waterfalls at Gullfoss. In fact, of all of our travels, Iceland definitely has the greatest range of natural wonders packed into the smallest area.
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Then there’s skiing, snow-mobiling and off-roading, all of which we need to research for later on this week. If only it’d stop with the rain, snow and wind…

Posted by Ian_N 22:46 Archived in Iceland Comments (0)

Seattle to Ottawa, Ottawa to Atlantic City

27 March – 2 April

We’ve covered a lot of distance since the last blog. On the 27th, our last day on the west coast, we spent the day in Tiger Mountain national park –it was a fun day although, to be honest, it was more an opportunity to check out how well our waterproofs worked than anything else. It was grey, wet and overcast all day, so it pretty much summarised the weather throughout our time on the west coast. Would we come back? Definitely, but probably a bit closer to July next time.

March 28th was a day of travel. Cattle class all the way from Seattle to JFK in NewYork (5 hours on a budget airline – think London to Dubai on RyanAir). And then a couple of buses across town to Newark. And then another budget flight North to Ottawa – this aircraft didn’t even have jet engines. About 15 hours after we left Seattle we arrived in Ottawa.

We spent a really relaxed couple of days with Debbie and Bill, eating, drinking and chilling out. In fact it was probably only their four cats that were pleased when we had to leave – they’re used to having the guest room to themselves and, in as only cats can, were exceedingly unimpressed when we moved into their territory. In fact we lost one of my flip-flops when we were there – given the way that the cats were looking at us I’d not be surprised if they were holding it hostage to give them a bargaining chip against us.

Thursday 31st came around and we were heading back south again. The best thing about Newark airport is that it’s close to one of the US’s finest outlet malls, so that managed to take up most of our day. In fact, so much of our day that we decided to book ourselves accommodation that night in New Jersey, near Newark Airport. “How bad could it get?”, we thought…

Pretty bad actually – we should have known that staying in something called “America’s best value Inn” wasn’t a great sign. Neither was the fact that driving the last quarter mile we were both crossing our fingers that we wouldn’t have to stop at a red light and that, if we did, the locks on the car door would act as a deterrent. And then we got to the motel. Not only was it opposite a real “projects” tenement block but, and this is no word of a lie, the receptionist was behind a bullet-proof glass shield. OMG… In fairness, our room was actually quite nice (and it had a really heavy metal door and some serious deadlocks), but the neighbourhood, with emphasis on ‘hood, really wasn’t great. It turns out that Irvington, New Jersey, has an annual violent crime rate of almost 25 per 1000, which makes it one of the most dangerous neighbourhoods in the US. Grateful to be alive and well, we left the motel before the rest of the neighbourhood had woken up (although we still saw a couple of crack dealers doing the breakfast shift…). We won’t we going back.

To a Bruce Springsteen soundtrack we headed south past Asbury Park and into Atlantic City. Like a blue-collar Las Vegas, it attracts a decided low rolling type of tourist, but it’s still got a great atmosphere. We even blew some cash on the slots ourselves, although the highlight of our trip was definitely a visit to the Renault winery. The wines weren’t great, but its history was – according to our guide (who sounded just like Joan Rivers), it was founded in the 1860s, but survived the 1920s and the Prohibition era under the stewardship of an Italian business-man (four-finger Vinnie or Mickey blue-eyes or something) making a special “tonic wine” that cunningly avoided the laws of the time. Apparently, Al Capone was a regular visitor when Chicago got too hot for him. Like something out of Boardwalk Empire – superb. Anyway, not wanting to be sleepin’ wid da fishes, we thanked our guide profusely, bought a bottle of something cheap and not too offensive, and left.

So far the east coast has had a definite crime theme to it. Hopefully things will change tomorrow when we head out to Gettysburg…

Posted by Ian_N 21:39 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Washington State, Canada, and back to Washington

20-26 March

rain 14 °C

It’s March 26th now, and I’m feeling guilty for not having blogged for ages. It’s not so much that I’m getting bored with it, but more that the USA is so much more familiar to us than any of the trips that we’ve done so far, so there’s less of an urge to write everything down.

Needless to say, we made it successfully through the night in Forks, and not only that, but we also woke up to the first sunny blue sky that we’d seen since we arrived in the Pacific Northwest. We spent the day exploring the Hoh rainforest in the Olympic Peninsula national park. I used to think that one of the problems with US national parks when compared to places like Scotland is that, in the USA, trails are really well marked, possibly paved, and generally present no navigational difficulties at all. So we happily wandered along the path into the rain forest. It all went a bit pear-shaped when, about 4 miles in, we came to an area where a number of the trees had blown down in a recent storm and were completely blocking the trail. We were both keen to push on so we spent the next 25 minutes climbing over the trees and generally struggling through the foliage. However, the fallen trees continued into the distance in front of us so we eventually admitted defeat and attempted to retrace our footsteps. All went well until we realised that we couldn’t find the path at all. We ended up clambering over fallen trees and pushing through undergrowth for about 45 minutes whilst we attempted to get our bearings. Neither of us realised quite how tough the terrain was without the security of the path, and it was with more than a vague sense of impending panic that we finally came back across it, a lot muddier and grumpier than when we’d left it. Lesson learned…

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The following day we headed out of Forks and continued around the Olympic Peninsular to Port Angeles. Our intention was to take a trip up to Hurricane Ridge, one of the highest points in the mountains and supposedly somewhere that presents fantastic views over the whole peninsular. However, to drive the 17 mile road up to the ridge you need a set of tyre chains, even if you don’t have to use them. Resigned to buying some chains, we headed into the local equivalent of Kwik-Fit shop, where we asked about the price. They man running the shop, in a stunning display of US hospitality, agreed to sell us a set of chains on sale or return, promising to refund us in full if we didn’t use them. I can’t imagine what the people in Kwik-Fit in Raynes Park would say if I asked them for a similar sort of deal – it’s things like that that make you love the USA. In comparison with the chain-buying experience, the ridge was a bit of a let-down. Yes there was 140” of snow once you got off the road, but the road itself was gritted and completely clear, and the ridge was so much in cloud that visibility was less than 100m. Instead of a view we had to make do with a snowball fight…

That night we were due back in Seattle again, but before we got there we stopped off at Dungeness Spit, a 6 mile sand-bar into the Pacific and a well-known nature reserve, for a leg-stretch and a few photos. Then home via the Tacoma narrows bridge (famous for being the one that collapsed dramatically on camera in 1940 - Click here for YouTube link)

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March 22nd we headed up towards Canada – we drove up there in our trusty Kia Rio LX, across the remarkably laid-back border crossing (the Canadian border guard ensured our compliance with local laws by sternly asking us whether we were planning to do anything bad or illegal in Canada if he let us in – well, that told us…)

We were very lucky in Vancouver – we had three days of excellent weather which gave us a chance to explore one of the most beautiful cities that we have ever visited. Apparently the weather is generally on a par with Seattle so three consecutive days of sun is a real winner. Highlights included Granville Island and market, Stanley Park, the museum of Anthropology (surprisingly interesting) and downtown Vancouver in general.

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In fact conditions were so good that on the third day I got clearance from Kioni for a one-day pass to go skiing at Whistler. Probably the most amazing ski experience ever – it completely eclipses the European resorts in terms of both sheer scale and quality of snow options.

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Today we were in Everett, a small town about 25miles north of Seattle. No-one from outside the Pacific Northwest would have heard of Everett, but it’s the home of Boeing, and they do an excellent tour of their aircraft manufacturing facility, so we came here especially for that today. (We also had an excellent steak here last night, which was another bonus…)

Taking any electronics onto the tour is strictly forbidden, so no photos or anything, but the factory is the largest building by volume in the world, with a floor-space of the same area as 72 NFL football fields. Think like a Henry Ford production line, but with lines of 747s, 777s and the new 787 in various stages of construction. And if you want your own 747 it'll set you back a mere $315 million although, whilst that includes air conditioning and a pretty complex stereo system, you'll need to buy engines separately. Rolls Royce or Pratt and Whitney will, however, be happy to see you right at c.$15 million per engine. The production line to produce your own 747 takes a little over 3 days, although currently the waiting time is in the order of 12 months. Marvellous!

Tonight we’re back in Seattle, staying in the suburb of Bellevue – apparently it has the highest rate of millionaires per capita, thanks to both Microsoft and Boeing. Tomorrow is our last full day on the Pacific Northwest – then we are heading east to New York's JFK, and from there back into Canada for a couple of days in Ottawa.

Posted by Ian_N 19:52 Archived in USA Comments (1)

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