Monday, 3 April 2017

Goa in a group I - South Goa

Sunset at Varca beach

We did no sightseeing, visited no church, did not hang around in the lanes of colorful Panjim and did not indulge in losing money in offshore casinos. Our 4 days in Goa revolved around the beaches and restaurants. When the program is so simple and to the point, this results in a lot of focus; a lot of bantering and great camaraderie  between different families and different age groups.

A combination of south and north Goa is a heady mix but an avoidable one at a time when one is in a large group and the group is  spending  just  90 hours on this gem in the southern-western coast of India. But we made no effort to avoid the pitfall and during this short trip our southern most point was Mobor Beach at Salcette and Northern most point was Vagator.  They happen to be 70 km’s apart. Actually staying in South and North Goa did work out pretty well. 

Our group reached Goa  in 3 different flights on the same day from the same Destination – Delhi. The last one to reach was my son Kartik who boarded the flight immediately after his class 12 board exam. He arrived almost at midnight . As the others were travelling in a larger group, they started partying from Delhi airport itself. Photographs were clicked liberally and shared on whats app group. It seemed that each minute was documented. In a short holiday, each minute does become precious.

Club Mahindra at Varca is a fine property but always very crowded. 

Club Mahindra resort at Varca is a popular resort for those who are the time share owners. It is a flagship property of the group and has given a chance to lakhs of middle class Indians to get a feel of 5 star infrastructure. The resort is well laid out and has fantastic spacious rooms. It is equipped with spa, swimming pools, cheap dining options , games  for all ages and is right next to a nice and clean beach. The big drawback here are the over energetic families who throng the resort in large numbers and are relentless in creating a lot of noise from dawn to dusk. And then the resort management gets into action by organizing a DJ and a dance floor for fun and frolic. The two large swimming pools stay busy as families from Gujarat, Kerela, Maharashtra and all over India jump into the tempting water. Many women do jump in with their salwar kameez and sarees and the lifeguard has a tough time convincing them that this is against the resort rules. Not many venture to the beach during the time the sun is up so for us that is the place to be. Much of morning and post noon we spend in the sea and in the shacks nearby. The food may not be great in these shacks but thankfully the  Beer is standard and choice is plenty.

At a shack near our resort. Capt Shayam Kalra made sure that each moment was photographed and shared.
We stayed in this resort for a short duration of 36 hours and took advantage by visiting the popular restaurants of South Goa. Fisherman’s Wharf at Mobor (just short of Leela hotel) was our destination on our very first evening. We proceeded towards the restaurant within 30 minutes of reaching the resort. It has a lovely setting by the river. The place is nicely done up and is obviously very popular as it is always full. The live band adds to the charm. As the evening progresses the dance floor fills up.  The reflection of shimmering lights dancing in the river looked very elegant and peaceful. The food is expensive here and honestly speaking, this time we didn’t find the food to be ‘value for money.’ The liquor prices also happen to be around 30% more expensive than other comparable restaurants. Each time we stay in South Goa we do visit ‘Fisherman’s wharf’ but now I think , time has come for a change . The options are Betty’s and Mike’s place which are very near the Fisherman’s wharf. Or we could just go to Madgaon which boasts of several top class eateries.

Our large table at Fisherman's Wharf at Mobor. On the left of this pic is the river and on the right is a bar and a hall with dance floor. 
 Our group consisted of 5 teenagers and 2 senior citizens. The other 6 members being middle aged couples. There were 3 vegetarians and many hard core non vegetarians. The biggest challenge was the common minimum program. Here comes the advantage of a place like Goa. Each person can co-exist with another in such a place and atmosphere. My dad, nearing 80 was as enthusiastic about the waves hitting him as the youngest member Rishab, who is around 15. Daal and Subzi were available at each restaurant  along with fish and crab. Each person wanted to have the fun in his own way and I think each one did. Some went for long walks on the beach in evenings, some stayed in water most of the time. Those who wanted to spend time in room and chill were given the space to do so. 

The teenagers were as much at home as senior citizens and middle aged couples !

Talking about crabs, there is no better place in Goa for crabs than ‘Martin’s corner.’ On our second evening we trooped into this extremely popular eatery (with reservations)  at Betalbatim and selected two live crabs each weighing around a kilo . One was converted into King Crab masala fried, apparently a favourite of Maestro Sachin Tendulkar (so says the menu), and the other one into King crab garlic butter. The crabs were devoured with great relish and nut crackers were liberally used for maximizing the value from these sea animals.

Crabs 'Before.'
Crabs 'After'

Renovations have taken place at Martin’s corner in last one year and now it has an impressive bar . This area had earlier been wasted. The music is mediocre but effective as tourists thronged the dance floor just as soulful English numbers were replaced by hindi pop. The liquor is more affordable here than Fisherman's wharf and due to the atmosphere, you do get the feel of being on a holiday. The menu is quite thick and you get all kinds of food here including Goan, Punjabi, south Indian, continental and Chinese. There were quite a few foreigners here just as there were many locals. The place is pretty large and you can see a fleet of taxis in the parking lot. Our drivers seemed very happy ( sozzled) and content when it was time to leave. I am sure the management of Martin's corner must be looking after them for getting tourists to their restaurant !

The swanky new bar at Martin's corner

Our short holiday to the southern part of Goa was coming to an end and next morning we were to move to North Goa. Normally we do travel further south to Paloliem and Canacona but this time we hardly had a chance to do so. 

Taxi Unions at resorts in South Goa are extremely painful. They don't allow you to hire self driven cars nor do they allow you to hire taxis from outside. This monoply translated into high taxi rates. Those who have tried defying them have learnt the lesson the hard way as these cabbies are capable of violence and breakages. Even I have had an episode or 2 with them in the past.

For North Goa we wanted flexibility and for that it was important having self driven vehicles. For that we needed impeccable planning so that we could hoodwink the resort taxi union and arrange the self driven cars. A difficult task but quite doable with a bit of planning !

We hired the resort cabs till a nearby place. Got off and relaxed under a huge tree with our luggage till the cabbies were out of sight. It may have looked strange that a large group of tourists was relaxing near Colva church under a tree with all their luggage, but strange things do happen in Goa. Then our contact delivered us with the desired vehicles and very soon we were crossing the river Zuari, bypassing Panjim, crossing river Mandovi , driving through Sangolda and reached Calangute/Candolim at 12 Noon. We now had 48 hours for part 2 of our trip.

That will follow soon ....................

Friday, 26 August 2016

Chiang Mai - 50 hours well spent

Sudden trip faulty planning

The thought process was to spend 3 nights in Chiang Mai. Having been to Thailand more than a dozen times , this was a city which had eluded us thus far. Our preferred destinations had been Phuket and Bangkok. Other destinations in Thailand like Pattya, Surat Thani and, Krabi and Samui have also been visited and enjoyed by us in the past. Chiang Mai was often discussed and planned but dropped in favour of a beach destination. Now a long weekend provided us with this opportunity of going northwards in Thailand. With my son off to Jodhpur representing his school in 'Round square conference', my wife, daughter and me packed our bags for Chiang Mai.

I take great deal in my planning prowess. The planning failed here as I decided not to take advance visa but take 'visa on arrival' as offered by Thailand. Chiang Mai is an international airport but for some reason we were asked to takes visas in Bangkok. Even Thai airways India office didn't seem to know this as they had informed me that visa on arrival would be in Chiang Mai. So, while we stood in the queue at Bangkok for our visa, the flight to Chiang Mai took off leaving us high and dry.

We exited the arrival area and customs and went to departure area and sought help of Thai airways. As our flight had been the last one to Chiang Mai for the evening, they were kind enough to book us on the 8 AM flight the next morning. They were also efficient enough to immediately send someone with me to the customs area to retrieve our baggage. As I was back in customs area, never to let go of an opportunity, I took this opportunity of picking up a bottle of single malt from the duty free. Needed to have a few drinks to get over the stress of missing flight to the destination and finding a hotel somewhere at night.

Novotel hotel is attached to Suvarnabhumi Airport. But the price was quite high considering we were just to spend the night. Going into town was foolish as it was nighttime and we had to be back at the airport by 6.30 AM. A travel agency kiosk at the airport gave us an offer which seemed quite practical. Even though the agent charged us a bit more, the Sinsuvarn airport suites hotel turned out to be fairly reasonable; it was neat and clean; it was just 10 minutes away from airport; and it offered free shuttle both ways. Once we checked in we went for a walk to the nearby food market but for Devicka and Sanya the smell was overpowering so we decided to have dinner in the hotel itself. It was a restless sleep as there was fear of missing the morning flight as well. After all we had been booked at Chiang Mai hotel for 3 nights and had already wasted one night which was planned for the saturday night walking street.

A view from holiday Inn

Chiang Mai airport is just a short distance from the town. It took just 10-15 minutes to reach our hotel 'Holiday Inn' from the airport. We now had just 2 days or 51 hours in Chiang Mai . Normally people stay in or around the Old town in the city. Holiday Inn was 10 minutes or 100 Bahts away from old town by tuk tuk (auto rickshaw). Realising that we didn't have much time, without wasting any time we had our breakfast and hit the road by 10.30 AM.

At the entrance of the famous old town. The Chiang Mai gate.

The Old town - heart of Chiang Mai and full of temples

The first destination was the famous old down. This is a big square in the middle of town with roads running in grid fashion. It was once a walled city but much of the wall is gone. The place was still coming alive at this morning hour and not many people were on the road. Chiang Mai is more of an evening place than a morning place. But a couple of hours later cafes starting filling up and tourists started thronging the temples . Every hundred yards or so there would be a temple and each would be better than the last. If I were to describe the Old town then I would call it the town of Buddhist temples. We ended up spending a lot of time in temples and admiring the intricate work and gold domes & minarets. Maximum time was spent at Wat Phra Singh which had a ceremony going on with participation of monks. They also had a small shopping street with souvenirs and very tempting street food. 

The street food inside the temple

The old town is also full of excellent cafes, some of them full of colour. As Chiang Mai is favoured by bag packers and trekkers, they tend to live for weeks. The infrastructure in old town has come up for such tourists in the shape of budget cafes, laundries and self sufficient apartments.

Colorful cafes

 Massages of Thailand- worth visiting the country for

You do get tired walking on the roads of the old town and visiting all the temples. Massages are part of culture in Thailand and for tourists it is a great boon to get pampered for an hour or so for around 200 Bahts. Did I say pampered ? Well, if you get a girl who is adept at this art you will want to scream in pain the way the yoga postures are tried with your body which may not be as supple as the requirement demands. We visited the fancy Oasis spa but the price was exorbitant. I had been recommended Green Bamboo massage but the place was totally booked so we took an appointment for the morning we were leaving. We saw some place called Lila Massage and the place seemed decent. Important thing was that all 3 of us got the slot there . The Lila Thai Massage was established by Naowarat Thanasrisutharat, former Director of Chiang Mai Woman’ Prison  to help support the lives of newly released inmates in society. This rehabilitation process includes training of these former inmates. The Thai traditional massage was pretty satisfying here and as our bodies were turned and twisted , it gave us a real painful satisfaction.

Actually massage became a daily ritual and if it were upto me it would have been a 2 hour massage each day. The next day we tried a place on Nimmanhamin road which was just about OK. The oil massage in any case can't be compared to Thai traditional massage. My oil massage was relaxing as it is supposed to be. Ideally it should be an hour of Thai traditional massage followed by an oil massage. This is what holidays should be all about in this part of the world.

We did finally try Green Bamboo massage near the old town on the day we were leaving and the massage was really good. The price was also just Baht 250 for an hour. The walk from the massage parlour to the main road was fascinating. In those small lanes there were guesthouses, cafes, laundries and lovely beer gardens. Hidden gems which I need to explore in detail when I go next. On reaching back to the hotel I realised I had some time to spare so immediately went to the neighbouring lane for a foot massage. It was painful but exhilarating. If you ask me if I would like to go back to Thailand then my answer would be YES- mainly for the great massages.

Drive to the mountains with Sam Pong 

We met Sam Pong by chance. His cab was hired by us from shopping centre near the Airport to our hotel. He turned out to be a chatterbox and extremely entertaining. When he offered to take us to the mountains the next day I did not even bargain with him. Before long we knew all about him and his family. He also gossiped about the Thai politicians and people. Our knowledge about Chiang Mai was complete by the time we ended with him the next day. The visit to the mountains was lovely. It was cloudy and drizzled a bit and the mountains looked lush green.

Our first stop was Bhubing Palace at Doi Suthep. The sprawling estate was full of exotic flowers and plants. It was a pleasure roaming in such lovely environment. You go up and down admiring the plants and flowers. Dress code is strict and shorts and sleeveless shirts are not allowed. But they rent clothes out to you for a nominal price.

As we came back to the taxi we found that our dear friend had donned a hat and goggles, he had plugged in his electric guitar and a speaker to aux power of the taxi and was busy singing and entertaining fellow cab and bus drivers. I asked him to continue and enjoyed this rock concert by our versatile driver. 

Sam Pong-the entertainer
Staying with Sam Pong, when we had finished the palace and the temple , we asked him to drop us at Maya shopping centre so we could roam around the Mall and then take a walk on the famous upmarket Nimmanhamin road. He was very disappointed as he had many other places to take us for which he was charging us. He did not like the idea of our leaving him before the scheduled time. Frankly speaking we were not interested in Tiger Kingdom or the snake show. I think tigers are all drugged in these places and the incident of Bangkok a few months back is still fresh in mind where dead cubs and drugged tigers were found. It was also found that the monks there were indulging in tiger organ trade. We asked him not to worry and bid him goodbye. He took out his phone and clicked a selfie with us. He keeps an album of all his overseas customers ! 

Wat Doi Sutep temple in the mountains

The Wat Doi Sutep temple a few km's below the palace is a lovely temple. As it is perched up on the hill, you could go up by a cable car. We did go up by cable car and enjoyed looking at the architecture of the temple and also the tranquility the place offered. We walked down the steps so we could enjoy the environment. While my daughter and dear wife were busy taking blessings in the temple I spent time photographing the place and enjoying the energy of the chanting hymns. 
On the way down there are a lot of street food places and a market for clothes and souvenirs. 

A walk down from temple

Nights in Chiang Mai

The night market

The night market at Chang Clan Rd is a big tourist attraction and held each night. It is bright and colourful and full of bargains. I mean you have to be a good bargainer. I do regret not picking up one of the lamps in the photograph. 

There is also a Saturday evening market at Wualai street and Sunday market along Ratchadamonoen Road. Thankfully the sleaze is missing from Chiang Mai night life. I mean it is not evident from the walks we took though I am sure there must be areas for this. In Bangkok and Phuket sleaze is evident in many areas and it is difficult to avoid it. 

For dinners we went to the riverfront. The Riverside bar and restaurant was too noisy and loud with live band playing so we decided not to spend time there. Someone noticed and they came and offered us a nice table near the river outside in the open. Near where our table was they had a boat docked and it had dinner seating based on cover charges. The view of the river , the lighted up bridge and twinkling lights made it into a nice evening. There are many other restaurants on the river adjoining the riverside bar and restaurant. They are all in a row. 'The gallery' was shut for some reason and 'the good view' was also as busy as the one we went in. There are many Jazz bars and rock band places which make the evenings interesting. 

The next evening Devicka and I went to the much acclaimed 'The Service 1921 Restaurant and bar' at Anantara. The setting was romantic on the waterfront but food was disappointing. 

There is only this much someone can do in 50 odd hours. I would have liked more time for massages, using hotel facilities and going to all those hidden cafes in the lanes and by lanes near the old town. But time was up and it was time to fly back to Delhi via Bangkok. It is another matter that our Chiang Mai flight got delayed and we had to rush and run at Bangkok Airport to get to our Delhi flight. 

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Blue Lagoon - the Icelandic wonder

Blue Lagoon looks like a large lake.

A week in Iceland had been spent gaping at one natural wonder after another. Only in the morning we had arrived at Reykjavik after a long drive from Akureyri. Last one week had us driving around 2400 km. And now late in the evening there was a chill in the air but we were lazing in a hot bath sipping beer. The bath was an open air natural wonder and the color of water was a different blue.  This was the famous blue lagoon of Iceland.

The Blue Lagoon in Iceland is their largest visited attraction. They call it a natural wonder of the world. It beats all the waterfalls, Glaciers, iceberg Lagoons, crater lakes, national parks, geysers and even the whale watching expeditions as far as tourist inflow is concerned. Many people transiting through Keflavik airport just come here to soothe themselves in the nice warm water.

In 70's a Geo thermal power plant was built near Reykjavik, not very far from Keflavik Airport. A pool accidentally came into existence from waste water from this plant and some people after bathing in it felt that the water had healing qualities. People started bathing regularly and in 1992 a Company was formed which built the facilities and 'the blue lagoon' came into existence.

The geothermal water originates around 2 km below the surface of these Lava fields. The  freshwater and seawater combine at extreme temperatures and then this water is harnessed via drilling holes at a nearby geothermal power plant to create electricity and hot water for nearby communities.
On its way to the surface, the water picks up silica and minerals and emerges at a perfect 38 deg to 40 deg C which is lovely to have a bath in.

The Lava fields near Reykjavik. Blue Lagoon is situated in their midst. 

When I asked the person at the counter at the facility why the water was so blue (it looked artificially blue) I was told that the geothermal water has a unique composition, featuring three active ingredients – Silica, Algae & Minerals. These minerals give the color to water and they have healing properties for lot of skin diseases. 

We had left the visit to the blue lagoon right to the end of our trip. Our thinking was that we could perhaps visit the bath at the Myvatn nature bath situated in the Northern side of the country on the way to Akureyri. These nature baths have also been rated very highly and had we actually managed to have  a bath there, our group of 7 would have saved Euros 750.00 ( Rs 56000). This is how the elements conspired to make us spend more money :

- We made no bookings for Blue Lagoon in advance as the intent was to have bath in similar Myvatn nature baths at the Geo thermal area of Myvatn. We were travelling that side and self drive vehicles with us. 
- If you book in advance the Blue Lagoon has 4 categories of tickets a) Standard : Euro 40 b) comfort : Euro 55 c) Premium : Euro 70 and d) Luxury: Euro 195. We would have booked standard as that is without any frills. All details can be got from the website
-  As we reached Myvatn area, it started pouring. As the rain did not stop even after several hours we skipped the lava fields and Geo thermal area and proceeded towards Akureyri. So, we missed out on the thermal bath. 
- A decision was then taken to book the blue lagoon tickets but as we were very near the date, most tickets were sold out. We finally got standard tickets for Euro 65 and for the same evening as we were reaching Reykjavik. They start messing around with ticket prices based on demand and supply. So each ticket came at a premium of Euro 25. And as Blue Lagoon is more popular than Myvatn, the price of ticket at Myvatn  is much cheaper at Euro 25.
-  On the return to Reykjavik we had to return our cars so there was no option but to go to Blue Lagoon by cabs. The cabs would not charge per vehicle but per person. And believe me, they charged hell of a lot.
Well, now that accounting is over, it is time to visit the blue lagoon.

 The Blue Lagoon- a natural wonder

It did not take too long to enter and once we had registered and handed over our customized wrist band we could operate lockers with it and also purchase anything to eat or drink. Payment for all extras were to be made at exit time.

The standard ticket gave us access to certain kind of lockers and showers.  It also gave us a silica mud mask to put on face.The premium ones would have given us a free drink, better showers, towels and Algae mask. We were smart and had carried towels from hotel.

Regulations says that shower without clothes is compulsory before entering. We followed all rules. 
The water has silica etc so use of conditioner in hair is recommended before and after bath. This is important as the hair can really go sticky. Conditioner and Shampoo is all provided there.

It was cool and crisp with temperature around 15 deg C so getting into warm 38 deg C water was great fun. There were loads of people and the the place was quite full. It had a lot of people but it wasn't cramped for space. The place is huge. Blue Lagoon is open till midnight and I think we were there around 8 PM and spent an hour in water. Adjoining the main pool there was another pool and a trainer giving some exercise training to those who had opted to do so. There was a pool bar which was quite popular and lot of people were having Beer. Many like us had put on Silica or Algae mud packs for some time on our face. At a price there are lot of facilities like massage, restaurants, spa and they even have a luxury hotel. 

For quite some time I stood under a waterfall and it felt great to have hot water massaging shoulders as it fell with great force. It took all the tiredness away.

Under the hot waterfall. 

Near where this waterfall was there were a few steam rooms and Saunas. We did justice to everything and spent time in each of these facilities.

All around the bath there are hills, lava fields, smoke and some kind of a smell. The drive to the facility is through lava fields. Many people describe it as a rotten egg smell but really - it wasn't that bad. It was some kind of a smell but one got used to it pretty quickly.

This is just outside the blue lagoon complex. The water is the same. 

It is just as well that we went to the blue Lagoon. Many people ask me how my trip to Iceland was and invariably the next question is : "How was Blue Lagoon ?"

Thursday, 28 July 2016

Tips for Iceland visit

Driving in Iceland and insurance muddle

 There are many car rental companies and local ones are better than international ones. We took cars from Go Car rentals and got 2016 models of vehicles. There are some other good ones like Lotus etc. which had been considered but then I asked the owners of Rey Apartments where we were scheduled to stay and they recommended Go Car rentals.

Make sure that you spend money and take adequate insurance for cars. I think we had super collision damage waiver (SCDW) or Grand collision damage waiver (GCDW) along with basic insurance. This restricted the liability to around Euros 300 to 500. We also had windshield protection insurance . Study the terms of insurance carefully and see if you require gravel and ash insurance or not. If you want to cross rivers or Fjords or go to highlands then only certain vehicles are allowed there and you need special insurance. A map is useful to know which are prohibited roads for your kind of cars.

GPS of course is a must. Set it to Icelandic keyboard and try to type in names of  places as written in guide books the Icelandic way.

GPS was extremely helpful

We were warned that winds could be a major factor and on opening the vehicle door on some days could be dangerous if the car was not facing the wind. The wind in that case could blow away the door and that is not covered in insurance. It could cause serious injury as well. Each morning go to website and study wind patterns and speed of the area you plan to visit. This is best website for weather conditions in Iceland.

Each morning do study the road conditions on Vegagerdin website. This is important for winter months.

India driving license in English  is valid in Iceland and it should be issued at least 12 months prior to driving date in Iceland.

The ring road or Road no. 1 is in good condition and you can easily drive at 90 km/hr (the allowed speed limit). There are not too many cars on road so this 2 lane road appears sufficient as of now. As you reach a town the speed limit becomes 45-50 km/hr so be very careful as cameras are installed there.

As toilets are mainly found at gas stations, make sure you use them when required otherwise you may not get a place to go for a long time.

The Ring road is a basic 2 lane road but in good condition. There are a few narrow bridges on the way meant for a single vehicle so the other side has to stop. 

Though it is tempting to stop everywhere and anywhere when you see a spectacular view, it is advisable to stop only at designated areas. There are quite a few such areas.

A couple of days at Reykjavik is more than enough. It's a charming city but the charm of the country is when you get out and travel all around.

We did Golden circle on the day we went out of Reykjavik and then went upto Skogar on the same  day thus taking an anti clockwise route on ring road. This is a good decision as you get the real taste of natural beauty on the first 3 days of the drive itself. Please prefer to my earlier blogs on this.

Drinks and Food

The tap water is perfectly safe everywhere in Iceland. Even the streams, lakes and waterfalls have excellent drinking water. Carry empty bottles and fill them up with water wherever you go. No need to buy expensive water.

Great fun drinking pure water from streams
Even glaciers have great water
There are portions on ring road when you don't find a restaurant or a gas station for almost 100 km's. There are probably more active Volcanoes than restaurants in certain areas. Make sure car is tanked up and you have enough snacks in the car. 

In places like Hofn and Akureyri we were staying 8-10 km's from main towns. Restaurants shut by 9-9.30 PM and also we did not want to drink and drive. The apartments we stayed in had full kitchens and barbecues. We bought stuff from supermarkets and cooked at apartment in these places. Barbecue used to be great fun after the day's driving. Supermarkets had good marinated lamb, pork, chicken and potatoes for us to cook. You could also buy vegetables there.

Many of us Indians like our food to have some chilies and spice. I carried chili sauce and chili flakes in my bag pack all the time. This made steaks and fish more interesting in restaurants.

Icelandic food is mainly lamb, fish & all sorts of seafood . Their traditional lamb meat soup is very popular.  Fast food places are mainly in towns. But cafes in small places did serve hamburgers.

Liquor is expensive in Iceland so it's best to carry from duty free. In Akureyri we were told that bottled liquor is Govt controlled and available in just a couple of places.

For my Indian friends who like Indian food or vegetarian food- please be prepared to cook so carry some spices etc. Other than Reykjavik and perhaps Akureyri - Indian food would be hard to find. Packet food could be carried from India. Hire apartments with kitchens and buy grocery from supermarkets on the way. Lazing around in apartment and getting food of your choice at the end of the day is the ultimate luxury.


My DSLR camera was with me all the time. Waterproof clothing was very important.

Iceland is a photographer's delight. The summer is not the time for Northern lights as it doesn't get dark but still I would love to take full equipment like tripod and different lenses the next time I travel to Iceland as each place is unique and scenic. There are many strong waterfalls and each one has a distinct characteristic. I never thought that we will be touching Glaciers and lazing around them as if were an exclusive picnic spot for us.

Make sure you have extra battery for camera and enough high speed memory cards.

Cover your camera well when going on hi speed boat rides to Glacier lagoon or whale watching as water can destroy the lens and sensors. Even near the waterfalls the sprays are so strong that it is important to cover cameras. Simple formula is to keep some plastic in your camera bag.

As we walked behind this waterfall we were totally drenched and so were the cameras. 

Don't get too excited at the sight of sheep or horses on the first day itself and start clicking hundreds of pictures. You will find them plenty everywhere. Sheep outnumber humans in Iceland three to four times over so you may be deprived of human company at times but you will find plenty of sheep everywhere.


Bring waterproof pants and water resistant shirts for visiting waterfalls or you will get soaked . It also rains quite a bit so they will come in handy. Carrying a towel around is also not a bad idea. In India these Columbia shops sell some good stuff for a trip like this. We bought the waterproof trousers, insulated shirts and sturdy shoes from the one in Ambience Mall, Gurgaon.

Dress in layers as it gets warm inside the car but could get very windy and cold as soon as you come out. An effective wind breaker is required before you get out of car. 

If you are going to snow areas or for a glacier walk, carry shades as the snow and ice can get very bright in sunshine. 

Shoes should be sturdy as you will walk a lot and in different terrains. For glacier walk they provide you with crampons but that is over some nice sturdy shoes which you should be wearing. 

Currency and credit cards

You can either covert Euros and Dollars into ISK  (Icelandic Kroner) in Reykjavik or some other big town. We exchanged some money at airport and some at Reykjavik. Other than that we didn't see any facility for money change anywhere.  ATM's are available in quite a few places. 

It is better to use ISK's for sundry purchases as Indian credit card companies charge high commissions on foreign transactions. I used to take out ISK's from ATM's using my debit card. 

Many gas stations are unmanned so one has to use credit cards with PIN. Make sure you remember your PIN. Otherwise in some places pre-paid cards for gas stations are available. 

I got very confused initially when I put in my debit card at gas station for full tank. They immediately debited me 25000 ISK even though I filled petrol for 8000 ISK. The SMS message I got was for 25K and I could not talk to anyone to get explanation. This was worrying. Later I checked my account and my bank had credited me the balance. What a relief !

Other comments

Teenagers got a taste of Glaciers, icebergs,hot pools, waterfalls and black sand.

We traveled with teenagers and they enjoyed themselves. They got Wi fi in all places we stayed in so they were happy in the evenings after full day of sightseeing. They did a lot of things which they don't get a chance here. Examples : hiking to top of waterfalls and behind waterfalls; hiking on glaciers; touching Icebergs; daily barbecue party and counting sheep !

Reaching Keflavik (airport) is not too tough from Europe. Many countries like Germany, Finland, UK etc have direct Iceland air flights. Keflavik is 45 minutes away from Reykjavik.

Taxis charge around ISK 12000 one way for upto 4 passengers from Airport to city centre. This is expensive as it is almost $ 100.00. Buses are convenient but they charge ISK 2700 per person. So, if it is just one or two people then it's best to take this bus. There is a discount on bus if you take it for return journey. Tickets can be bought from there itself. 

Even though Icelanders drive on right side of the road ( We, in India drive on left side) , driving was not stressful and we got used to it pretty quickly.

Iceland has just 3,20,000 people in the country. They are not very equipped for mega tourism and can only handle certain amount of people. Do book accommodation well in advance especially for summer months. Even excursions like Zodiac boat tours get sold out much in advance.

The 2 pin plug works so no problem about charging of gadgets and batteries. 

Make sure data roaming on your mobile is off. Mine was on for just 5 minutes as we landed and it cost in Rs 1100.00 ($ 20) due to incoming whats app and email messages. 

I decided to take a siminn SIM card for use in Iceland. It was for 2990 ISK and promised a lot of free calls and data. But it just did not work. I got a call from India which I did not even receive and I was asked to recharge the card. I recharged the card and barely used data and again the balance finished. Maybe I used it incorrectly or maybe did not understand the concept. 

You can see glaciers, Icebergs and many other things for no cost at all. But we spent money for Glacier walk and Zodiac boat ride for Icebergs. These were 2 most thrilling things we did. You could also add whale watching if you go north. Many people go for super jeep rides on glacier and these jeeps are awesome with huge tires. 

We did Blue Lagoon at an exorbitant cost.  Was it worth it or should we have done Myvatn hot bath ? Will write about it soon. Hope you read that as well. 

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Driving in Iceland 5 - Sizzling earth, Gushing water and getting close to Arctic

The Geo thermal activity became a fascination for all of us. It smelt terrible though. 

The earth sizzles and smells but looks exotic

Being in Iceland gave me a fair idea now what earth must have looked like in nascent stages. There is no predictability in what you would come across next and after a couple of days we were no longer surprised by what came along as we drove from one place to another. This does not mean that fascination deserted us. Each new thing concerning nature fascinated us and we hungered for more. 

As we drove towards north Iceland and crossed the Myvtn lake area, we could see smoke from a spread out area. Many cars were parked there to see this wonderful Geo thermal phenomenon of this place called Námaskarð which earns its notoriety chiefly because of its sulfurous mud springs and steam springs. You can smell sulfur in the air and it is extremely overpowering. While the rocks sizzled and smoked, the gurgling sound of hot pools could be heard a few hundred yards away as it spurted small quantities of hot water. Pathways have been made and certain areas had been cordoned off to avoid accidents. We walked around these rocks, pools and the sizzling earth in a very disciplined manner. 

This is next to Námaskarð pass. The color and feel of landscape is very different in this area. I loved the way the road meanders in between the brownish hills.

The Myvatn area itself can surprise you by it's beauty as well as ugliness. Some parts of earth look as if the inside of the earth has erupted and come out on surface. Someone described it as earth turning upside down. The Myvatn lake is nice and was formed due to volcanic activity and nearby are sizzling lava fields as well as the Krafla Caldera. Krafla lava fields have walking trails and that is another experience as rocks could be hot and falling on them dangerous. Nature itself is strange. While these volcanic activities sound unattractive, they have produced areas having rare fauna and flora. The fish are the best and birds found here are rare. 

The boiling pool. I think it was 100 mtrs deep. It would keep gurgling and spitting.
My wife Devicka doesn't like strong smells but here surprisingly she looks very comfortable even as sulphur smell rules the atmosphere. 

Dettifoss- The strongest falls of Europe

While you get the views as per the photographs above, not very far from here are the strongest waterfalls of Europe called the Dettifoss. The falls are 100 metres (330 ft) wide and have a drop of 45 metres (150 ft) down to the Jökulsárgljúfur canyon. While coming towards Myvatn we had taken a detour to go to Dettifoss as these falls are pretty famous. The road going to the falls was not too good but once you reach the destination, you feel refreshed seeing the gushing water. You have to hike down to the falls from the parking area. There were just basic toilets here and once again there were no tickets and no please to eat or drink. Many people were walking to another falls around 45 -60 minutes hike away. We didn't do that but lazed around and walked around. The water is slightly brownish here and it's all to do with volcanic activity. The area around Dettifoss is rough and rocky and it's difficult to believe that just a few km's away the grounds are green and lush. 

The sound is deafening as the Dettifoss plunges deep down the gorge. 

The Jökulsárgljúfur canyon cut by river and the rocky landscape near the Dettifoss waterfalls. 

The Northern Capital -Akureyri 

View from our apartment.of a town normally covered with clouds. Cruise ships come from Norway. 

One would have liked to spend more time at the Myvatn area as it had a lot to offer and lot of interesting 'nature' to offer including a Geo thermal hot bath, but it poured incessantly so we went for lunch. My son Kartik was interested in Volcanic caves and Krafla lava fields but as the rain refused to stop we decided to drive on to our apartment at Akureyri. Akureyri is the second largest town of Iceland and known as the Northern Capital. Our Halllandsnes Apartments were bang opposite the town on a hill and we had the sea between us. The apartments had in it's vicinity a gushing waterfall and it was boiling hot water !  It was while we were in Akureyri that Iceland played an important match of Euro 2016 against England and came out victorious. Iceland Captain Aron Gunnarsson was from Akureyri so the entire town went doubly wild. It was a night of celebrations all over Iceland. 

Victory of England meant all night of celebration and hangover the next day. 

We were in Akureyri for 2 days and our time in Akureyri was a relaxed time as we went for long walks, bathed in hot tub, had self made barbecue dinners and we went for a drive near the tiny but scenic airport and found a lovely Christmas shop. Christmas in Iceland is very different from rest of the world and not only do celebrations last many days but for the tiny population, it is the biggest social  networking time. As an excursion from here, we drove to the North town of Husavik on Arctic sea, famous as a Whale watching centre. Akureyri itself was pretty and had some good restaurants and supermarkets. After being in wilderness for last few days it was good to see some civilisation and to have some places to shop and good restaurants to have meals. 

After roaming around the whole day the hot tub in open was soothing. 

We enjoyed these barbecue dinners and had to shift in shade as it would rain each evening. 

Christmas shop. It was very sweet and interesting.

Husavik - A place for whale watchers

Husavik was a small little town ( population around 2300) and it seems that anyone who comes here does so for whale watching. They call it the Whale capital of Iceland. There is almost a guarantee of getting very close to whales. We had seen enough whales during the Alaska cruise so gave this a miss. It was also very cold and windy and the idea of being in a boat in Arctic sea for 3 hours was not very appealing. We met a few people who had been for a boat trip and they had all seen whales from close quarters during the trip. 

It had been a lovely drive and we drove through Goðafoss ( Waterfall of the gods). This was another spectacular waterfall and by now we had lost count of the number of amazing falls we had seen. 

Goofoss falls have a lot of stories associated with them.

This church is the landmark of Husavik. Don't miss the lavender coloured mountains behind the church. All over Husavik we found these lavender mountains.

The Arctic sea. Cross this and you are at Arctic circle. You can see full town of Husavik in this snap. 

End of driving

With this, we were almost done with what we had come to Iceland for. We would leave for Reykjavik the next day and would spend a day there. Blue Lagoon tickets had been bought and we planned to go there on the same day as we reached Reykjavik. It was expected to take us around 6 hours from Akureyri moving towards west Iceland and then to Reykjavik. Western Fjords and highlands are very famous in western part of the country but that is another world altogether and we had decided not to do it this time. I believe that is a tough drive.
The drive to Reykjavik was as scenic as what we had got used to. Though it rained incessantly, it was a pleasure driving on those curvy roads with mountains, rivers, lakes, sheep, horses and lush fields.
It was a relief returning the car to car rental agency as we had had no mishaps but then we were equally sad to end this 7 days of driving in the most beautiful country that we had ever visited.

From 7) above we drove to Reykjavik 8) in around 6 hours (including stoppages and lunch).