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South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana Trip Report Day One: Johannesburg
We left JFK on Sunday morning and flew with South African Airways. After a very long and very dreadful flight we arrived at OR Tambo in Johannesburg on Monday morning. We then went to our hotel where we were staying for one night. We didnít feel that we wanted to spend too much time in Johannesburg, but being that we were landing there anyways we spent one day there and toured a bit.
After washing up and resting a bit we went off for our tour of Soweto. We drove through Soweto and got a running commentary on everything we passed. It was very interesting to hear about the lifestyle there from our guide, who was a local. We saw Winnie Mandela and Bishop Tutuís homes, stopped at the Mandela Family Museum (but didnít pay for entry) and visited the Hector Pieterson Museum.
Hector Pieterson was killed at age 13 during the Soweto uprising and the museum is located two blocks away from where he was shot and killed. Hector's sister Antoinette, who is seen in the photo below, works at the museum as a tour guide, and we were able to meet her.
HectorPietersonMemorial by ponash, on Flickr

A standard township in South Africa:
Townships by ponash, on Flickr

After that we went out to eat at Metzuyan. The food was really good and the prices can't be beat! (The dollar gets you really far over there)

Day Two: Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe
Tuesday morning we went right back to OR Tambo to catch our flight to Zimbabwe. After sitting down and getting ready to take off, we were all told to get off the plane and identify our luggage. Apparently a family with 2 kids had 11 pieces of luggage that caused some confusion. After all getting back on the stewardess walked up and down the aisle and sprayed us with some sort of insecticide so we donít bring any diseases to the animals. Then, after hearing the landing gear go down and circling for a while, we were told that we couldnít land yet because there were animals on the runway. We finally did land a little while later but we were pretty pleased with this introduction to Zimbabwe  :).
We then landed in Victoria Falls Airport in Zimbabwe. I was handed my passport back after getting a visa and walked off without looking at it. Good thing the agent called me back because he had mistakenly handed me a 90 year old womanís passport.
VictoriaFallsAirport by ponash, on Flickr

Some dudes dancing outside the airport:
DancingDudes by ponash, on Flickr

We then went to our hotel which is right near the falls. Ilala Lodge is a really nice little place with amazing service. They were also extremely accommodating when it came to dealing with our kosher food. After checking in we went to Victoria Falls. The falls are magnificently beautiful and still manages to have that untouched nature feel that Niagara does not. We were planning on doing Devilís Pool and tried to arrange it. Unfortunately we didnít realize that you normally have to book 2 days in advance, and we werenít able to work it into our very packed schedule. I was disappointed about that but as we were walking along the falls we got just as close to the edge. But still, youíre not in the water. Oh wellÖ next time  :)

VicFalls3 by ponash, on Flickr

VicFalls by ponash, on Flickr


Here you can see some people in Devilís Pool:
DevilsPool by ponash, on Flickr

Note the baboons crossing the bridge from Zimbabwe to Zambia:
Bridge by ponash, on Flickr

Some warthogs in the backyard of our hotel (we were told at check in to keep the back doors closed at night so animals, mainly baboons, donít climb in):
Warthogs by ponash, on Flickr

After getting back to the hotel we walked to the market. As we were getting near the market we were approached by a Tourism Policeman who walked with us. Zimbabweís main source of income is their tourism so they are very protective of it. And with good reason! We entered a big open space and immediately started getting calls and shouts. We decided on a shop to enter, a big building with no electricity. We walked in were instantly surrounded by complete darkness and about 10 women, pushing onto us, harassing us to buy their wares. It was quite the experience!
Market by ponash, on Flickr

Apparently they donít listen to the rules:
MarketSign by ponash, on Flickr

Day Three: Botswana
Wednesday morning we crossed over the Botswana border, which was about an hour from our hotel, and went directly to Chobe National Park. We then took a game drive for a couple of hours. It was amazing and we were able to see 3 of the big 5 on our first day on safari. We were lucky enough to see a leopard, which are really elusive. We came across a dead elephant and the leopard was snacking on it:
Leopard by ponash, on Flickr

Elephants protecting the sleeping babies:
Elephants by ponash, on Flickr

After the game drive we drove to the Chobe lodge for lunch.
Giraffe crossing the road (a regular street outside the park):
Giraffe by ponash, on Flickr

After lunch we did a river safari cruise which was really nice. The weather was perfect and we sailed through the river and were able to see a whole host of animals including crocodiles, hippos and buffalo.
The Ďofficeí where were registered our boat:
BoatOffice by ponash, on Flickr

Crocs by ponash, on Flickr

ElephantPostcard by ponash, on Flickr

Family of elephants crossing the water and then rolling in the mud (the mud acts as sunscreen for them):
ElephantsCrossingWater by ponash, on Flickr
ElephantsMud by ponash, on Flickr

We then returned back to Zimbabwe and to our hotel.

To be continued...

September 02, 2015, 11:11:04 AM
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Re: SQL Query help GETDATE()
April 04, 2017, 11:52:37 AM
1
A Summer Trip to Morocco: Marrakech, Casablanca, Fes Morocco has been on my list for quite some time, and this summer, we finally made it happen!

We started planning this trip a few months ago, and chose this time of year to go, for various reasons.
We knew it would be extremely hot, and chose to go now anyways, adjusting our schedule accordingly.
It worked out great for us, and we managed in the heat, but it is QUITE hot, so Iíd suggest a different time of year if it works for you. October/November is a nice time to go, but prices are hiked up a bit since thatís busy season.
 
The currency is Moroccan Dirham Ė MAD. The rate last month was 9.3 MAD to the dollar, so you get a lot for your money.
Some hotels and vendors will charge in Euro, but the street shops are all in MAD.


Day One: NYC -> CMN -> RAK
 
We took off from JFK on a Royal Air Maroc flight to Casablanca. Our immediate destination was Marrakech, so we booked a connecting flight with a 4-hour stopover.
I didnít think weíd want to drive for 3 hours after sitting on a plane for 7, but that turned out to be the one thing Iíd change looking back.
CMN airport, isÖ lacking to say the least. There was no air conditioning, making it unbearably sticky and hot, and barely any sitting space in the domestic transfers area. We ended up exiting the airport and entering the arrivals area so we can convert money and find a place to sit.
We also dealt with getting sim cards in the airport, which was very simple. The most expensive plan was about 100 MAD and even though the service was occasionally spotty, it was good to have.

Our connecting flight was delayed, with no announcement so we sat there in the heat for about 5 hours until we were told to board a shuttle. We stood crammed on a shuttle for about half hour until we finally drove the tiny little plane and boarded.
After a short 20-minute flight, we landed in Marrakech. With Casablanca being the cosmopolitan industrial city, one would think that theyíd have the nice airport. But in fact, Marrakech, who gets all the tourists, has a big, beautiful (air conditioned!) airport.
We landed in Marrakech at about 1:00 AM and were picked up by a driver sent by our riad.

A riad is a traditional Moroccan house which always has an interior garden or courtyard.  Many old Moroccan mansions have been restored and repurposed as riads used as hotels. We chose to stay in a riad vs a hotel simply because itís authentically Moroccan, and the service is unparalleled.
Riads offer far more in the way of personal attention than any hotel can. Most of them are located in the Medina (old city) and have a home away from home feel.

Riad Kheirradine, the riad we opted for in Marrakech, was the best hotel stay Iíve ever experienced. It is beautiful and grand, with little alcoves all over, fountains, pools, terraces, and little winding staircases. The rooms were clean and nice and a bit on the small side. Most importantly Ė the AC in the rooms worked perfectly.
But what really stood out was the outstanding service. Every single staff member, from reception, to the waiters, to the cleaning staff were all gracious, helpful, and genuinely kind. We truly felt like we were the only guests there, with every single one of our needs taken care of instantly. The first day or two we were there, they said they were at maximum capacity (18 rooms) but we would never have known!

They were so gracious when dealing with our Kosher food, storing it in their freezer and heating it up whenever we asked. They served us individual meals in whichever location we desired, which included multiple terraces with amazing views of the rooftops of Marrakech. They had bowls of fresh fruit all over, as well as one in each room. They offered free laundry service as well, which really came in handy.
Every time we left the riad, they supplied us with cold water bottles (a precious commodity in 110-degree weather), and greeted us with water when we returned. They gave us a local cellphone to use whenever we left too, and we could call them with any questions we had.
They had someone walk us whenever we needed, especially in the beginning when itís hard to find your way around.
I seriously cannot recommend this place enough!
 
It is located deep in the medina and is, quite literally, a little hole in the wall youíd miss easily if you didnít know where to go.



View from our room to the courtyard below:


We were dropped at the closest place we could get by car and greeted by staff from the hotel. They had a wheelbarrow type cart which they loaded our luggage onto and walked us to the riad, which is about an 8-minute walk.



By the time we reached the riad, it was after 2 AM. We quickly checked in, stored our food in the freezer and were off to bed.

September 07, 2017, 12:25:01 PM
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Re: A Summer Trip to Morocco: Marrakech, Casablanca, Fes Day Two: Marrakech
We had an early start with breakfast on the terrace. We were then greeted by our guide and we started our morning tour of Marrakech.
Just walking through the streets of Morocco is an explosion of all 5 senses, at all times. 
Everywhere you look there is noise and color and smell. The traffic is insane and without any law, rhyme or reason. Even for the best drivers, this is new levels. Not that walking is without any danger. If you stand in one spot too long, you run the risk of getting plowed over by a mule, a scooter, or a car.
 

A kid bringing his family’s pitas to be baked in the communal oven for 10 MAD each:


We began by going to the Ben Youssef Madrasa, the largest university in Morocco, founded in the 14th century. This building is an architectural delight, and it’s absolutely amazing to see how the intricate design was all handmade by natural materials.
It’s really interesting to see how they used to learn, and to go into the students’ rooms, which looked like prison cells to me but were considered standard.

 



We then walked to an herbalist who gave us a presentation on all his products – different herbs, spices, and natural remedies.
 

We walked through the Artisans Market, which is fascinating.
In Morocco, things are still done the old way; by hand. The men and women working here have learned their trade from their parents and grandparents and keep them alive.
We never tired of walking through the souks and admiring the work, and it makes it so much more interesting when you see the behind the scenes.
It’s amazing to see the work that goes into each piece. There are leather workers, Zellige (tile work) fabric weaving, brass work etc.

Leather hides being laid out to dry:


Hides being prepared for the leather auction:




 



We then walked through the main souks to get a feel for it and familiarize ourselves before doing any actual shopping. Our guide gave us some tips and showed us around so we’d be more familiar when we came back later ourselves.
The souks are overwhelming, but in the best way possible. There is nothing that isn’t sold here and if you absorb the chaos, it’s a whole lot of fun. Haggling is a huge part of life there and it turns into a sport. You find yourself fighting vigorously over, what you realize later, is one or 2 bucks.  If the vendor didn’t agree to the requested price, after a bit of arguing, we just walked away. 99% of the time, they’ll come after you, eager to make the sale.

The ubiquitous babouches - traditional Moroccan slippers:


Standard alley in the souks:


We had scheduled our days to have a chunk of down time during the heat of the day. After a couple of hours of walking in the intense heat, we were ready for a break. We headed back to our riad, had lunch and relaxed by the pool for a few hours.
Since Marrakech has such a vibrant night life, we had our dinner early so we could head back out. We had brought Pomegranate meals, and were absolutely thrilled - they were all delicious!

After eating we headed back out to Jemaa El Fna. This is Marrakesh’s main square and its beating heart. It is a cultural mix of color, scents, sight, and sound and is one of the liveliest attractions in Morocco. During the day, the square has numerous stalls, most of which sell fresh fruit juice, water, fruit, and snacks. It is mostly empty, with people calmly milling about, and some vendors on the side selling their wares.
In the early evening, it comes alive and starts to bustle with storytellers, musicians, henna artists, peddlers, snake charmers and more. It gets jam packed, teeming with people, with vendor harassing and chasing everyone they see.

 

The comments, shouts, and remarks we received throughout our trip were constant, borderline harassment, and downright hilarious. That being said, if we were one or two women alone I doubt it would’ve been that funny. My friend was there the week before with her husband and had a very different experience in this aspect. They won’t bother a woman if she’s with a man. Either way, it was only slightly uncomfortable, and in general we found it quite entertaining. 
We got henna tattoos on our hands and walked around a bit. Held a snake, held a monkey, and held onto our purses to avoid getting pickpocketed and held onto each other. Look alive or get swallowed up by the crowds!
If you’re spotted taking a picture of anyone, be it a musician, snake charmer, or vendor, they will come running after you for money. It’s best to ask first and offer money upfront, rather than fight about it later.
We found our way to a cafť that had a rooftop terrace and got drinks. We were able to view Jemaa El Fna in a calmer fashion and watch the (alleged) eclipse as the sun set.

Jemaa El Fna night view:


After sitting for a bit, we headed to the souks where we stayed for a few hours shopping and then headed back to the riad for the night.

September 08, 2017, 10:12:25 AM
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Re: A Summer Trip to Morocco: Marrakech, Casablanca, Fes Day Three: Marrakech

Tuesday followed the same pattern as Monday, but we did the South of the Medina, as opposed to the North which we did the day before.
While walking, we passed through a different souk which was interesting. This guy was uber talented, making intricate woodwork with his toes!



We started off by going to El Bahia Palace. This palace was built in the late 1800s, and I believe it took 15 years to complete. Itís beautiful and interesting to see how they lived. Each of the kingís 4 wives had their own quarters, with the favorite one having an entire riad to herself (she became the favorite by having the first son).







Also interesting to note is the Star of David floorwork in one of the rooms. Apparently, they were eager to show the good relations with the Jews and used this pattern often.



After the palace, we walked through the Mellah Ė the Jewish Quarter. While once housing hundreds of Jews, it is now all but empty. There is a Jewish cemetary which we visited a few days later, so Iíll expound then.
We walked towards the Lazama Synagogue and found an Arab kid standing outside yelling Ė you Jewish? Shalom! Synagogue here. He learned some basic Hebrew and holds himself as the official Ďguardí of the shul. It would be difficult to find if you donít know your way around.
Lazama Synagogue is one of several remaining in the Mellah. To my knowledge, it is the main one and the only one that is still open daily to the public. Itís beautiful, with a nice courtyard (riad) and garden area inside.
I believe the original synagogue on this site was built in 1492, when the Jews fled Spain. The current building was built at the turn of the 20 th century.





We visited the Saadian Tombs, a burial ground constructed by the Sultan in 1578. The tombs are magnificent decorated with marble, which is the Saadianís signature look. Itís cool, but not a must-see.



We went back to the riad where we relaxed for a few hours and had dinner.

We headed back out to Jemaa El Fnaa where we hung out with some snakes, and the souks where we stayed for a bit and shopped.



We then went to Le Comptoir Darna, a popular restaurant in the New City. We couldn't eat, but got drinks and enjoyed the entertainment, which was lively Moroccan music, dancers, and entertainers. Itís nice to walk around the New City and get a totally different side of Marrakech. Itís quiet and clean, with beautiful hotels and nightclubs. The cars parked are all luxury cars and there are contemporary, western shops.
Interesting paradox to the grungy, loud, stuck-in-time medina.


Day Four: Atlas Mountains

The Atlas Mountains is a great day trip from Marrakech. It has beautiful scenery, slightly cooler weather, and is a general reprieve from the hustle and bustle.
We arranged with a company to do a full day trip, which includes the drive from Marrakech, which is about 2 hours.
We started off in Imlil Valley by having refreshments and mint tea at a local riad. Mint tea is a staple in Morocco and is how they welcome anyone. We were served mint tea at almost every location we went to.
The riad had a terrace where we enjoyed our tea and an incredible view.






We then set out on a hike through the mountains, stopping at a scenic waterfall to cool off. The hike was really intense, but it was magnificent and thankfully the weather was a bit cooler than the previous days. Itís interesting to see a different part of Morocco in the villages, with the simple, hardworking Berbers. They are visibly friendlier than the people of Marrakech, all smiles, saying hello, and just overall have a more easygoing nature.
At the waterfall, the locals were clambering over hard rocks barefoot, seemingly not bothered at all.
Another fascinating aspect was how the women were all swimming fully clad in their burkas, which knocked down our perpetual being-the- most-covered- females-around status. The water was FREEZING so maybe the burkas came in handy  :) .

We hiked for about 2.5 hours and then made our way back to the riad where we enjoyed a relaxing lunch.
On our way, we stopped at local Berber shop where we bought some items. When we discovered later that one of the scarves we bought was missing, the shop owner was super nice and told us to head to his brotherís shop where heíll give us a new one. We found, in general, that most shop owners, hotel staff etc. throughout Morocco, were all super nice, polite, and eager to help. It was a nice change from the New York mentality we are used to.







The simple Berber homes:



We then set out for a camel ride, which we did for about an hour.





On our way back to Marrakech, we stopped in an Argan Oil Ďfactoryí. This is made from the fruit of the Moroccan Argan tree, and is a lengthy process done mostly by Berber women. They do everything by hand and need numerous Argan nuts for a tiny bottle of oil. Argan Oil is used for culinary and cosmetic purposes.



We got back to Marrakech pretty late, so we had dinner and called it a night.


Day Five: Marrakech and Desert Agafay

We spent our morning in the medina and opted to view it from a different vantage point: a caleche. These are horse drawn carriages that are lined up in Jemaa El Fnaa and offer tours of the medina.



We drove around and were able to see the sights in a leisurely fashion. When driving through the mellah, we passed the Jewish cemetery, so we alit for a quick stop. Itís much larger than it looks from the outside and is well preserved. This is the largest Jewish cemetery in Morocco, and itís beautiful, with white washed tombs and sandy graves. Most of the graves donít have names of them, but they say that some of them date back to the 16th century. Thereís a large section for tinokos shel bais rabban, which is basically a mass grave of children that died in a plague, as well as numerous graves of great Rabbis. Itís very sad to see such a vast cemetery which hints to the great life that once was here.





We drove around some more and made a stop at La Mamounia Ė an exquisite, opulent hotel. If youíre willing to spend a bit more, and donít want the raid experience, this is the way to go! It was certainly worth a visit, just to look around at the grandeur and beauty of this hotel. Just the entranceway and garden is amazing, and it certainly gives a feel for the rich Moroccan lifestyle. The staff were really gracious even though they knew we were just taking a look around.







We were dropped back off at Jemaa El Fnaa where we had told the driver of our half-day trip to meet us. We then drove about 45 minutes from Marrakech for our Quad Biking trip.

Visiting the Desert Agafay is a good option if you would like to get the feel of the sand dunes and desert, but donít have the time to travel all the way south to the Sahara. Quad biking, or ATVing as we know it, was a really fun way to explore the foothills of the High Atlas Mountains, and the beautiful Desert Agafay. We also drove by the stunning Lake Takerkoust, and stopped there later for mint tea.








The desert was vast and silent, with just the sand blowing in our faces and the sound of the ATVs. I was unsure about adding this to the itinerary since I generally steer away from doing things I can do at home, but Iím really glad I left it in! Great fun and great views all around!
It was also really funny how, when getting to the desert, we drove on the main road and the cars actually yielded to us and took it all in stride. Only in Morocco do mules, scooters, cars, and ATVs all get equal treatment on the road.

We drove back to Marrakech, hung out in Jemaa El Fnaa and the souks for a bit before going back to Riad Kheirradine to pack up and get ready to leave for Casablanca early the next morning.

September 13, 2017, 06:52:19 PM
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Re: A Summer Trip to Morocco: Marrakech, Casablanca, Fes Day Eight: Fes

We left Casablanca early and drove the 3 hours to Fes.
The difference between Fes and Marrakech is hard to grasp when reading about, but once youíve been to both, itís pretty stark.
Marrakech is colorful, hectic, fascinating, and loud. Itís fairly simple to get around and navigate on your own. Most people there speak English (or some variation of it) and they are much more used to tourist. This lends itself to a slightly more commercialized, touristy feel.
The locals are also very wary of tourists and if they even spot a camera pointed in their direction, they go berserk (unless you offer them money first).
Fes, on the other side of the spectrum, is a cobblestoned, medieval labyrinth, which within youíll find souks, mosques, children running about, and lots of artisans. If you lost sight of your guide, chances are the 9th century maze of over 9,000 streets, alleyways, lanes, and derbs (dead-ends) would swallow you up instantly.
The locals are friendlier, gladly posing for us when spotting a camera, and welcoming us into their stores.
In general, Fes is much older, a bit more authentic, less crowded, less tourist-oriented, and locals were not as persistent in their harassment. 
Something to note Ė While in Marrakech we felt safe walking around at night, we did not do the same in Fes. There is very little nightlife in Fes and much less people out and about after sunset.
Both were amazing in their own way, and I wouldnít be able to choose between them.

Palais Faraj is a beautiful riad and looked like a palace. We met the owner who showed us pictures of what it looked like when bought it and how he renovated it.
While nothing can compare to the privacy and personal attention that Kheirradine gave, it was amazing in its own right and we thoroughly enjoyed our stay.
It is located right outside the medina and has the most magnificent view.


Being greeted at the riad with mint tea:




View from the rooftop terrace:


After settling in and eating lunch, we set out on foot for a short, guided tour.
We entered the medina through the iconic Bab Bou Jeloud Ė Blue Gate. Front and back:



Just walking through the medina is amazing. Everything is so old and so many things still done the old-fashioned way. Our guide told us that he teaches Arabic to lots of Jewish kids. Unfortunately, most of them were away for summer vacation so we werenít able to meet anyone.

Standard alley in the maze that is the medina:




A couple of days after we left Morocco was the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha or the Sacrifice Feast. This is a holiday in remembrance of the Akeida (of Yishmael as it turns out) and they slaughter sheep and have a feast in celebration.
It was interesting to see the preparations taking place wherever we went. Sheep were being brought every which way. One funny sight was a bunch of guys stuff a herd of sheep into the luggage compartment on a coach bus. Unfortunately, we passed that on the highway and donít have a picture.





We visited a carpet cooperative where we got an impassioned speech from one of the owners about the cohesiveness of the country, and the great relationships that existed between Muslims and Jews. He served us mint tea and showed us a couple of gorgeous pieces. After looking around, we went up to the roof for an amazing panoramic view of Fes.






We then visited another herbalist where we got a similar presentation to the one weíd gotten in Marrakech.
After that, we went to an amazing factory/shop where they had a giant loom and were sitting there weaving the most amazing scarves, pashminas, and tablecloths. One of the workers told us that he makes an extra-long, white tablecloth special for the Jews.






We got a ride back to our hotel in a special Ďcabí.


We ate dinner and relaxed by the pool for the rest of the evening.




September 26, 2017, 11:46:27 AM
1
Re: Iceland Master Thread Well I only went back and forth 20 times, so I think need to stop now or it will never end!
The end of my snorkeling will probably be getting dark out, which is not perfect, but doesn't bother me too much.
1. Yes. Ideally, I would pitch a tent or stay anywhere I can find :) Gotta do what I gotta do.
2. It seems that everything works very differently in the winter. The meeting point for snowmobiling is not at all near the south. It's northeast from Reykjavik in Hķsafell, which is north to the glacier, as opposed to the south which is the summer meeting point. So it wouldn't work.
    Technically, it doesn't make sense to drive back and forth. But in our case, we're a large (some slow-moving) crowd and I don't think it's worth the hassle of switching locations.
3. Would love to, if we have time on Monday. It looks like it's on the route I plan to take.

Thank you!

December 06, 2017, 10:34:18 AM
1
Winter Weekend Getaway to Iceland Iceland was the perfect location for a quick weekend trip. So, when Icelandair ran a sale a few months ago, we quickly booked tickets without thinking twice about it.
I then set out planning an itinerary, attempting to maximize our brief time there to the fullest.
WellÖ woman plans, and God laughs.
 
We started out Thursday evening by heading on an uneventful flight. By trying to save on luggage space, we had worn our thick coats and boots on the plane. By the time we landed in Keflavik Friday morning, we were hot and looking forward to some cool weather.

I was dismayed to see the temperature displayed on my screen at a balmy 40 degrees, but as Iíd soon learn, this was not the 40 I was used to.

We stepped out of the airport and were stunned at the ferocity and intensity of the winds and hail, we were literally almost blown over. In a matter of minutes, we were freezing cold and any exposed skin was numb. It was super exhilarating after spending so much time on a stuffy airplane.

We made our way to the car rental by airport shuttle. We chose Blue Car Rental for their customer service and prices, and they didnít disappoint. They provide studded tires all winter and we got a wifi router for free, which really came in handy for mapping.

We packed up the car, which was a lot hard than it sounds and involved filling a rooftop luggage rack while having to hold onto it with all my strength so the lid doesnít go flying backwards, at the same time holding onto the car door, so it doesnít fly off into the wilderness, amid attempting to lift suitcases onto the roof of the car, all the while being whipped in the face by freezing rain and wind.

With that taken care of, we set out on our way. It was completely dark and felt like it was in middle of the night, but in reality, it was already around 9:00 AM (the lack of streetlights doesnít help matters).

We made a quick stop at Bridge Between Continents, only because we were in the area.  Itís a nice little photo op but thatís about it.



We then made another stop at Gunnuhver Hot Springs. This was actually pretty fascinating and Iím glad we went. Thereís a strong smell of Sulphur, hot mud and boiling spitting water, with a large spring that sends clouds of steam in the air. If youíre in the area, itís definitely worth a stop.



At this point it was starting to get a bit lighter. We made our way to Blue Lagoon for our scheduled 10:00 visit. I had heard repeatedly that itís overpriced and a tourist trap. It was all these things, but we still enjoyed immensely (aside from getting in and out, which was no fun). We watched sunrise from the boiling hot water, while the air around us was freezing cold. It looks otherworldly with the milky blue water surrounded by steam and black rocks. (For any females, the sulfur did a REAL number on our hair)





After spending a couple of hours at Blue Lagoon, we drove up to Reykjavik where we had rented an Airbnb for our stay, which worked out great.

While getting ready for Shabbos, I made a quick trip to the nearby Bonus store. Not much there has a hechsher. Either way, everything is extremely overpriced, but we bought some fruits and vegetables.

We enjoyed a nice relaxing Shabbos. A funny moment was Friday night, after going to bed really early, a couple of us woke at around 9:30 and spent 20 minutes wandering the house trying to figure out if it was AM or PM. It was dark outside, and we werenít sure if we had slept for 1 hour or 12. As it got later, and the sun didnít rise, we brilliantly deduced that it must actually be PM and went back to bed.

Motzei Shabbos is when things started to go sideways. When Shabbos was over, I pulled out a computer and see an email that our snowmobiling for Sunday has been cancelled due to weather concerns (more on that later). They had emailed me Saturday morning, so I made a last ditch effort and replied asking if anything had changed.

On top of that, our plan for the night was to try to see the Northern Lights, and when checking the forecast sites, I was greeting with a glaring big zero. On the maps I could see that there was less cloud cover at that particular moment over Grotta Island Lighthouse. We figured itís worth a shot and raced over, but to no avail. The sky was foggy and cloudy with nary a light in sight.

We were disappointed but, ready to salvage the rest of the night, we headed to Laugavegur Street, which is the main shopping street in Reykjavik. Itís a cool, quirky street and we enjoyed strolling around and shopping. It was surprising when a random passerby came over and asked us if we're Jewish. After affirming, he threw his hands up in the air and exclaimed 'Thank God! I thought I was the only one!". He wasn't religious, but I guess our crowd of skirts drew him over.  We understood his surprise, as the only Jew we saw was in the airport waiting to transfer to Israel.



We got back to another email confirming that snowmobiling was well and truly cancelled. I quickly put together a backup itinerary and we were off to bed. 

Sundayís schedule was supposed to look like this: leave early and drive out to the meeting point at Hķsafell. Weíd meet up with the snowmobiling company whereíd we drive out onto LangjŲkull Glacier for snowmobiling. It sounded incredible and we were really looking forward. After the 4-hour tour, we were going to drive to řingvellir for a snorkeling tour at Silfra.

In place of the snowmobiling, we chose to do the standard Golden Circle tour and end up at řingvellir where we needed to be anyways.

We drove out of Reykjavik and promptly saw why the snowmobiling was cancelled. The car was shaking from the wind and when I stepped outside, my hat flew straight off my head and I was practically lifted into the air! I assume that out on the glacier, itís that much worse.

Our first stop was Keriū Crater, a striking volcanic crater lake just along the Golden Circle route. The lake was frozen, which was a very different look than the bright blue water thatís seen in the summer. We spent some time admiring the amazing view and trying (some of us failing) to not go slipping and sliding on the very icy ground.



Next up was Geysir, the famous hot spring that gives its name to geysers all over the world. Though Geysir itself is hardly active anymore, the area has a few hot springs, including Strokkur, which spouts a large amount of water every 10 minutes or so. It was freezing and full on icy sleeting, so we only stayed for a couple of minutes.



We went to Gulfoss Waterfall next. I was thinking we can really skip it since we had much more impressive waterfalls on schedule for Monday. But as it turned out, I'm glad we went and we got at least one waterfall in! (cue ominous foreshadowing music)

Gulfoss was actually quite beautiful. The whole surrounding landscape was snow covered and the falls themselves were frozen solid, so it was a sight to behold.



After admiring the falls, we went into the rest stop to eat lunch. At this point we were soaking wet and freezing. It was raining so hard that our supposedly waterproof coats and boots were completely soaked through and we were drenched. None of us were even slightly in the mood of going into icy water now to snorkel, but we had scheduled the tour.

We headed out towards řingvellir, and when we were almost there we came to a road that had a small 'closed' sign somewhere on the sign. We started going anyway but quickly realized that the entire road was covered in a sheet of ice. Not feeling particularly fond about taking an icy plunge into the nearby lake, we turned around and went the long way around the park. 

řingvellir National Park:


We had made a special appointment for later in the day. Generally, they don't go past around 2:00 PM this time of year so they have full sunlight, but they agreed to move it later to accommodate our schedule. We ended up being even later that we were supposed to be, due to the circuitous route we were forced to take, but it turned out fine.

Once we got to the right area of řingvellir National Park, we quickly met our guides from Arctic Adventures and began suiting up in a large cargo van (no building or changing rooms). We first donned a thin suit over our base layer, and then squiggled and danced our way into a thick dry suit that squeezes the living daylights out of you. For the slightly claustrophobic it's not fun, but you can breathe through it and get used to it. We then did a frigid penguin march to the entrance where there's a ladder going down into the water. 

The water in the Silfra fissure is fresh glacial water, which keeps a temperature of 35įF year-round. It's a cool concept that it's freezing cold outside and you are in the water. The water was cold when we first entered, but the dry suit did an excellent job and it was really not bad. Putting your face is another story as the only parts that got cold was anything exposed, namely hands and lips. The guide warned us that our lips would turn numb and we'd come out 'looking like Angelina Jolie'. As he had warned, it was painfully cold for the first moment, and then you stop feeling much at all. In order to keep some feelings in your hands, they advise you to keep them behind your back, out of the water, for when youíre just floating. This was a bit warmer than keeping them in the water, as the gloves we were wearing didnít do much to keep the cold out.

Silfra is the only place where one can dive or snorkel directly in the crack between two continental plates. The fissure is actually a crack between the North American and European continents, meaning you can actually be swimming right where the plates meet and drift apart slowly.

The water takes your breath away, in more ways than one. The underwater visibility is amazing, partly because of the temperature (itís glacial water), and because itís filtered through the underground lava.   

This is different than any other snorkeling Iíve done, as thereís no coral or fish, but it was a completely different kind of adventure and an incredibly cool one at that. Plus the water is clear and tastes fresh and delicious. 



The Silfra Fissure:


After a snorkeling tour of about 35 minutes (shortened a bit due to the sun setting), we climbed out and walked back to the lot. We then began the arduous task of peeling off our layers, which is harder than it sounds in icy temperature and with completely numb hands. The guides served us some hot chocolate which helped warm us up a bit.

We were hoping to catch some Northern Lights tonight but realized that it was still super cloudy and weíd have to admit defeat. So, soaking wet, tired, and shivering, we drove back to Reykjavik for the night.

 

Monday was supposed to look like this:

Leave Reykjavik very early and drive to Vik. Catch sunrise at Reynisfjara Beach, one of the most beautiful black sand beaches. After spending some time there, weíd drive west up the coast towards the airport, making stops along the way at Skůgafoss and Seljalandfoss Waterfalls. Weíd be at the airport in Keflavik in time to return the car and catch our 5:00 PM flight.

Like the previous couple of days, Mother Nature had other ideas. We woke up as planned, packed up the car and were out of the house at 7:00 AM. Within 10 minutes of leaving Reyjkavik, it had started to snow heavily, and visibility was steadily worsening.

We checked the weather and realized that were heading straight into the storm, which was supposed to last all day. We had approximately 6 hours of driving on the schedule and knew that the driving conditions will only be getting worse. So, as the responsible young adults that we are, with heavy hearts we turned around and drove back to the house. We hung around and napped for a bit until the sun was starting to rise. We then headed back to Grotta Island Lighthouse to watch sunrise from the nearby beach, which turned out to be quite spectacular.





Sunrise at 10:00 AM:


We spent some time there enjoying the beautiful scenery and then headed to the nearby shopping mall where we strolled around.

Not having much else to do, we went back to Laugavegur Street and enjoyed some time there shopping and walking the streets.





Incredible mountainous scenery at every corner:


Although it was a bit of a waste of day, once we got on the road towards Keflavik, we had no regrets whatsoever. It was snowing heavily and got worse the further out of Reykjavik we got. At one point it was complete white-out conditions and I was driving absolutely blind on a highway full of cars. It was one of the scariest things Iíve ever done and Iím quite glad I didnít have to do that for hours at a time. Not to mention that I was driving about 5 miles an hour, so we most probably wouldíve missed our flight.

Thankfully, we made it to the airport in time. Our flight ended up being delayed, and then stuck on the runway for an hour, so it turned into a not so pleasant trip home, but allís well that ends well.

Although we didnít get to cover a lot of what weíd planned, we still had a great time. Iceland is amazingly beautiful, and just driving along the road felt like another planet.

Weíll definitely need to go back though!

Random pictures from the road:







Reykjavik:

March 07, 2018, 05:20:05 PM
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Re: Iceland Master Thread Trip report posted here
March 08, 2018, 03:54:31 PM
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