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Trip Reports / Winter Weekend Getaway to Iceland
« on: March 07, 2018, 05:20:05 PM »
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.
Well… 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 I’d 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 didn’t 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 doesn’t go flying backwards, at the same time holding onto the car door, so it doesn’t 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 doesn’t help matters).

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

We then made another stop at Gunnuhver Hot Springs. This was actually pretty fascinating and I’m glad we went. There’s a strong smell of Sulphur, hot mud and boiling spitting water, with a large spring that sends clouds of steam in the air. If you’re in the area, it’s 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 it’s 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 weren’t sure if we had slept for 1 hour or 12. As it got later, and the sun didn’t 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 it’s 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. It’s 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. 

Sunday’s schedule was supposed to look like this: leave early and drive out to the meeting point at Hśsafell. We’d meet up with the snowmobiling company where’d we drive out onto Langjökull Glacier for snowmobiling. It sounded incredible and we were really looking forward. After the 4-hour tour, we were going to drive to Žingvellir for a snorkeling tour at Silfra.

In place of the snowmobiling, we chose to do the standard Golden Circle tour and end up at Žingvellir 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, it’s that much worse.

Our first stop was Keriš 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 that’s 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 Žingvellir, 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. 

Žingvellir 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 Žingvellir 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 35°F 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 you’re just floating. This was a bit warmer than keeping them in the water, as the gloves we were wearing didn’t 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 (it’s glacial water), and because it’s filtered through the underground lava.   

This is different than any other snorkeling I’ve done, as there’s 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 we’d 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, we’d drive west up the coast towards the airport, making stops along the way at Skógafoss and Seljalandfoss Waterfalls. We’d 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 I’ve ever done and I’m quite glad I didn’t 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 would’ve 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 all’s well that ends well.

Although we didn’t get to cover a lot of what we’d planned, we still had a great time. Iceland is amazingly beautiful, and just driving along the road felt like another planet.

We’ll definitely need to go back though!

Random pictures from the road:


Trip Reports / A Summer Trip to Morocco: Marrakech, Casablanca, Fes
« on: September 07, 2017, 12:25:01 PM »
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 I’d 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 that’s busy season.
The currency is Moroccan Dirham – 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 didn’t think we’d want to drive for 3 hours after sitting on a plane for 7, but that turned out to be the one thing I’d change looking back.
CMN airport, is… 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 they’d 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 it’s 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 I’ve 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 – 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 it’s 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 you’d miss easily if you didn’t 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.

Just Shmooze / Travel Coffee Table Book
« on: March 27, 2016, 11:20:50 PM »
Can anyone recommend a really great travel coffee table book?

Trip Reports / South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana Trip Report
« on: September 02, 2015, 11:11:04 AM »
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 didn’t 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 Tutu’s homes, stopped at the Mandela Family Museum (but didn’t 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 don’t bring any diseases to the animals. Then, after hearing the landing gear go down and circling for a while, we were told that we couldn’t 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 woman’s 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 Devil’s Pool and tried to arrange it. Unfortunately we didn’t realize that you normally have to book 2 days in advance, and we weren’t 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, you’re not in the water. Oh well… next time  :)

VicFalls3 by ponash, on Flickr

VicFalls by ponash, on Flickr

Here you can see some people in Devil’s 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, don’t 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. Zimbabwe’s 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 don’t 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 ‘office’ 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...

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