Searching for Puffins in Iceland

I was convinced we would  get so close to the puffins I could reach out and pet one. Not that I wanted to pet a puffin, but I did want to photograph their adorable little faces up close and personal. That’s what I thought when I booked a puffin tour for the two of us from Reykjavik.

Wrong.

I suppose it’s not the tour company’s fault. They took us out on an express boat to an island 20 minutes off of Reykjavik’s old harbor. The boat’s ability to get close to the island depends on the weather and the tide – neither of which were in our favor that day.

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I got super excited until I realized this is NOT a puffin. This is your run of the mill seagull.

The tour company offers a 100% success rate. But I guess it depends on your definition of success. We certainly saw puffins – or specks of birds that resemble puffins. I brought my telephoto lens specifically for this task, so you can actually make out the orange-beaked birds in my pictures… barely. But this was a far cry from the tête-à-tête I was expecting.

***IMG_5306***IMG_5329***IMG_5456**IMG_5259Are these guys not the cutest?

Our puffin disappointment aside, it was nice to be out on the water, watch the city grow ever smaller, and stare up at the mountains that seem to go on forever.

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But if you want to see puffins, skip the $50 express tour in Reykjavik. Drive south or west to one of the puffin colonies that offer a much better chance at a face-to-face meeting. Iceland Magazine has a handy map. Hopefully your puffin search will be more successful than ours!

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A Hate Letter To New York City

Dear New York City,

We’ve had our good moments. In my youth, I spent a good six years roaming your streets, soaking up the thrill that only you seem to offer.

Maybe I am just getting old, and that’s not your fault. But, with age comes crankiness, impatience, and a need for a modicum of personal space. As I sit on a non-air conditioned subway car, clinging to a pole for dear life with five other passengers, listening to the conductor blare for the fourth time: “Ladies and gentleman, we are delayed because of train traffic ahead of us,” I can’t help but think: Thank God I don’t have to do this every day.

When I was young and sprightly, your quirks were charming. Newsflash: It is no longer charming when maneuvering up 6th Ave. feels like an episode in the Hunger Games. I am not certain about much in life, but this I know: That is not a normal way to live.

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When I was young, you were exciting and accessible. Who wants to get something to eat at 11:30 p.m.? Who wants to take a 3 a.m. bus to Washington D.C. from Port Authority? Why? Because we can. This is New York City for goodness sakes.

You are never boring, and there is something to be said for that. I’ve enjoyed your museums, your restaurants, your soaring buildings, your constant indulgence for more, and the shopping – we can’t forget the shopping. I’m still very much a city girl. I like the options, the hum, the productivity – and did I mention the shopping? – that comes with city life.

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New World Trade Center Oculus transportation hub

But you are the edgy, sullen friend that appeared oh so very cool when I was in high school. Now, you are just a colossal pain in my ass.

Or maybe – in the spirit of “its not me, its you” – you are the one getting old. Your arthritic infrastructure heaves and sighs beneath the weight of eight million people competing for meager crumbs of space. Maybe your subway tracks need a new jolt of life (or a complete overhaul). Maybe you need a custodian (read: mayor) more concerned with livability than ideology.

Either way, we will be forced to grow old together. You are home to my favorite people in the world, and so this relationship will carry on. I’m sure we will have good moments ahead of us and many more f-bomb laced bad ones.

Sincerely,

Nam

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Thoughts on Reykjavik

Reykjavik (and the rest of Iceland) truly feels like a world apart. For starters, when you land in Keflavik airport, it feels like landing on an alien planet. The cool weather, the out-of-control wind, the nearly incessant daylight, and the other worldly scenery add up to an alien sensation – but in a good way.

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The crazy wind wreaks havoc on M’s hair

Reykjavik is a small city, and we easily explored most of it in two days. Sitting on the edge of the water with massive mountains looming overhead, the scenery is beautiful.

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Reykjavik’s old harbor

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View of Reykjavik and the surrounding mountains

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This guy has something to say!

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Birds in flight over Reykjavik’s Lake Tjornin

We started with a walk through central Reykjavik, taking in the colorful houses, the street art, and the quirky signs. We saw Hallgrímskirkja, Reykjavik’s hard-to-miss church with a bird’s eye view of the city, attended a concert in Harpa, and took a short puffin tour. We even stopped at the eccentric Laundromat Café to do our laundry – the only laundry game in town.

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The walls of Harpa, Reykjavik’s super modern concert hall

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Inside Harpa, post-concert

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Color!

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Hallgrimskirkja

Iceland strikes me as a country that prides itself on individuality and humor. Unlike mainland Europe, it’s architecture is modern; its vibe is fresh – even hip; and it doesn’t take itself too seriously.

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The sign says: Single gloves – speed dating

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Haha…love this.

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Color in Reykjavik

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Street art

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More street art

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Sign at the Chuck Norris Grill

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A view of Reykjavik from atop Hallgrímskirkja

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Look at those colors!

 

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Even the bus stop has to crack a joke

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The two of us atop Perlan, which houses the country’s hot water tanks

I could get used to this… even with the 25 mph wind gusts… except for those damn prices.

Sure, it is now possible to get to Iceland on the cheap thanks to discount airlines and possible to find affordable lodging thanks to hotel points, but there is no getting around the fact that EVERY SINGLE PURCHASE feels like you are one dime away from declaring bankruptcy. Part of the fun of vacation is splurging a little, buying a coffee or diet coke on the go, but every time I forked over my credit card I cringed. Four dollars for a diet coke??? Six dollars for a coffee? Fifty dollars for a one-hour boat tour??? Eesh. And forget about the alcohol which is singled out with an exorbitant tax.

Iceland in the spring and summer is really amazing, and I’d love to come back to see the northern lights. But I might wait for the Krona to sink a bit before I hop on a plane.

 

 

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Review: Priority Pass in Dulles Airport

The Priority Pass lounge card gives you membership in a network of 900-plus lounges all across the country. It now comes free with several credit cards, including the Chase Sapphire Reserve and the Citi Prestige card.

In the past, I have primarily used Priority Pass in Europe, where the lounges are more plentiful, but I was excited to try out Priority Pass in Dulles since we flew economy to Iceland.

Here’s the catch: Due to the influx of new members, many priority club lounges have placed limits on when you can enter. For example, the KLM lounge in Dulles’s Terminal 1 (closest to Iceland Air) is only open to Priority Pass members from 7:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m to 8:30 p.m. The British Airways lounge is only open to Priority Pass members from 7:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. We arrived at the airport  at 5:00 p.m. during peak travel time. So we headed off to the Turkish Airlines lounge – the newest Priority Pass lounge.

It was great! While on the small side, there is a fantastic spread of food and drinks, comfortable seating, outlets, showers, and even a nap area. While Priority Pass is not a perk I use everyday, it is the perfect perk to alleviate the pain of flying economy on an international trip.

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IMG_9627As Priority Pass becomes increasingly popular, it may become increasingly useless for members, but for now, we were able to make it work.

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How We Ended Up Honeymooning in Iceland and Ireland… with My Boss

Our honeymoon began unconventionally.

My boss, Mark, said: “I have to give a speech in Dublin. Do you guys want to come to Ireland with me?”

I said: “Will you drive on the other side of the road for us?”

Mark: Sure!

Roundabouts

Roundabouts are hard enough on the right side of the road.

After a little research and I lot of frustration trying to figure out the new avios site, I found return tickets from Dublin to D.C. on Aer Lingus f for 26,000 avios and $251 for two people.

When I couldn’t find direct flights from D.C. to Dublin, I proposed expanding our trip into a real honeymoon – without Mark (sorry Mark). We settled on Iceland because of the short flight and because – it’s Iceland, duh, home to glaciers, volcanoes, geysers, and all sorts of other cool stuff.

M’s Chase Sapphire Reserve came in handy as we sought to minimize the costs of the notoriously expensive country. We booked two seats on Iceland Air through Chase’s travel portal, with each point worth 1.5 cents. The two flights costs us 45,212 Chase points, worth $678.20.

While there are limited points hotels in Reykjavik, I managed to stretch my meager reserve of Hilton points (after I spent the bulk of them in Barcelona) by booking four nights at the Hilton Reykjavik Nordica for 16,000 points and $40 a night. While the hotel is a 20 – 30 minute walk to the center of town, the affordable price and my Hilton diamond status made it an easy choice. The more centrally located and newer Hilton Canopy was going for 70,000 points a night. Eesh.

Finally, we had to find a way to get from Reykjavik to Dublin to meet up with Mark. Believe it or not, the only nonstop flight is on Wow Airlines… at 6 a.m. in the morning. Since the airport is a good hour from the Reykjavik, I booked our last night at the Park Inn near the airport for 10,000 Club Carlson points and $110 dollars. Since we are renting a car for our last two days, we’ll return the car at the airport on our last night.

And that’s how we ended up honeymooning with my boss… sort of. Stay tuned for a full report!

I’m Sorry…I got Married…Life Got Busy… You Know…the Usual…

For the record, I’m not complaining. Just explaining.

Life got really busy, and I disappeared off the face of the earth, or, off the face of this blog. In my defense, I got married, and wedding planning is a form of modern torture right up there with makeup and high heels. I’m not sure why our gender imposes these hellacious rituals on ourselves. Again, not complaining – just explaining.

Thankfully, we survived the wedding planning, which leaves me convinced we can survive whatever life throws our way. You got nothing on us life – we’ve already endured tablecloth colors and seat arrangements!

So, while I owe my patient audience many posts about our winter trip to Spain, let’s review the biggest event of my life after the Cubs winning the World Series.

A quick review:

  • Wedding dress shopping is another form of torture and should be banned by the appropriate international committee. After two painful days of scouring the racks, my mom suggested we get my dress made – and use HER wedding dress as inspiration. I love that I didn’t look like a traditional white marshmallow.

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  • Instead of spending millions on floral arrangements, I asked my sister-in-law, who is an amazing baker and runs a bakery in Baltimore, to make cupcakes for our centerpieces. It was a great idea, if I do say so myself. The cupcakes were pretty and delicious!

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  • I insisted on making candy-filled place cards myself — chocolate hearts for the adults and lollipops for the kids. Seeing all the lollipop toting kids made me very happy.

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  • I asked the band to do a Cubs music set, and they obliged. My siblings and I rocked it out to “All the Way” and “Go Cubs Go” — never mind the curious stares.
  • M and I tried not to take ourselves too seriously, which is the best way to enjoy a wedding. The photographer was amused.

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I am legitimately napping in this photo. Weddings are exhausting!

  • The best part was being able to see so many friends and family members in one place. The worst part was that we only had about five minutes with each of them…

Six weeks after our wedding, people like to ask, “How is married life?” I tell them, “The best part about being married is we don’t have to plan the wedding anymore.” I am 80 percent joking.

Stay tuned for details on our upcoming trip to Iceland and Ireland. WHAT? Another trip? I know! Crazy.

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2016 In Review

2016 was a very busy, eventful, miraculous year. A crazy election…my first surgery… got engaged… Cubs win…whirlwind tour of Spain… A year ago, I had no idea that any of these things would happen.

With a boyfriend/fiancé in tow, I ended up driving a lot more instead of flying or taking the train on local trips. I took more short-haul trips and fewer big vacations, including countless road trips to Pennsylvania for work, a bunch of family visits in Maryland and New York, and trips to Chicago, Cleveland, Utah, and of course, Spain. With a wedding to plan and our usual hectic lives, I expect 2017 to be another busy one, but I hope M and I can add a country or two to our list.

2016 in numbers:

0: New state visited. I have still visited 39 out of 50 states.

1: New country visited – Spain.

2: New national parks visited – Arches and Canyonlands.

2: New credit cards. This is very low for me, as I’m trying keep the numbers down so I can apply for some Chase cards.

3: Countries visited, including the U.S.

15: States visited, including Washington D.C.

15: Amtrak trips taken.

23: Flights – half the amount of last year’s 43.

3,539: Amtrak points earned.

17,698: Number of miles flown, 30,000 less than last year.

160,000: Number of miles redeemed. This includes two tickets from D.C. to Barcelona in business class and two economy tickets from Madrid to D.C.

361,690: Number of points redeemed at hotels, including one free night due to credit cards. This includes six nights at the Westin Palace in Madrid, 1 night at the AC Palacio De Santa Paula in Granada, four nights at the Alexandra Barcelona (Hilton), two nights at the Courtyard St. George (Zion National Park), and four nights at the Hyatt Regency in Chicago.

Too many to count: Car trips to Pennsylvania (along with some stops in Baltimore, New York, and Pittsburgh).

Spain #1: Barcelona & All Things Gaudi

Barcelona and Gaudi are almost like the same word. The Gaudi structures were the attractions I wanted to see most in Barcelona, and they’re the items Barcelona markets the most.

Antoni Gaudi was a Catalan architect in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He was a practitioner of Modernista architecture and heralded in his lifetime. Today, he is an artistic hero in Barcelona. Gaudi (and the modernista architecture movement that he is known for) is everywhere.

Of course, the Modernista movement was bigger than Gaudi. There are many beautiful homes and buildings built by Guadi’s contemporaries or students. As we walked throughout the city, there were constant traces of Modernista architecture: A lamppost, the distinctive curved doorway, the soft bowed windows, not to mention the merchandising in every single gift shop.

The Gaudi structures are also insanely expensive. Twenty euros for Guadi’s most famous houses. A whopping 29 euros for La Sagrada Familia. Even Park Guell charges seven euros now. Luckily, M was able to wrangle a press card that let us in for free in some of Barcelona’s biggest draws so we could experience Gaudi without selling one of our kidneys.

Our first stop was CasaBatlló, a Gaudi home built for Mr. Josep Batlló i Casanovas and his family on Passeig de Gràcia. The home was built between 1904 and 1906, and the family lived in it until the mid-1950s.

**IMG_5040.JPGWalking down the street, it’s impossible not to notice the façade. It is, in a word, weird – in a whimsical and fantastical way. Walking into Gaudi’s homes feels is like into a fantasy world – the stuff of movies. But it is very much real.

img_5032As I first walked in and took stock of the curved walls and wavy staircase, I was struck by the notion that Gaudi sought to defy gravity. Where traditional walls are straight and box-like, he insisted on warping them. Everything is turned on its head.

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img_5070img_5095img_5096The house is narrow and tall, climbing many floors. The curvy staircase lets out onto a rooftop with views of the city below and more of Guadi’s unique creations.

img_5160img_5169img_5081Only a few blocks away you can find another one of Guadi’s famous houses – Casa Mila. We didn’t go inside, but the exterior is a site to behold.

img_4888img_4891Gaudi is probably most famous for Park Guell and La Sagrada Familia – the famous sprawling church that has been under construction for nearly a century. More on those to come and the rest of Barcelona’s Modernista sites.

Spain, Here We Come!

In less than a month, M and I embark for Spain. This is our first international trip together and M’s first business class experience. We’re both very excited to see all the traditional sights, but I’m also over-the-top excited about the hotels I booked.

Madrid

I booked our Madrid hotel first. I knew I wanted lodging close to the Prado art museum in the center of the city. With its five nights for the price of four policy and central location, SPG was an obvious choice. It came down to choosing between the Westin Palace (category 5) and the The Principle Madrid (category 5). The Westin was 12,000 points a night while the The Principle was 16,000 (despite both being category 5 hotels) and M preferred the Westin’s traditional decor. I booked six nights at the Westin for 60,000 SPG points.

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westin-room

Granada

Next, I booked our single night in Granada. There is a dearth of points hotels in Granada so it came down to a choice between the Marriott’s AC Palacio De Santa Paula, Autograph Collection and non-points options. For 35,000 points, I splurged on the AC Palacio even though it’s a bit removed from the center of town. I’m even more excited about this decision now that I’ve achieved gold status with Marriott after completing a status challenge this fall. Turns out, there are some benefits to living out of three star hotels in suburban Pennsylvania. With gold status, we’ll get free breakfast and hopefully, a sweet upgrade.

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I’d love to get upgraded to this gorgeous suite.

Barcelona

Barcelona was my biggest dilemma. I was sitting on a nice pile of Hilton points, but the Hilton of my choice – the Alexandra Barcelona DoubleTree cost 50,000 points a night vs. 113 euros. That is not a great points per dollar value. In contrast, there are several good value Hiltons for 30,000 points a night, but they are farther from the center of town. Thus began the great debate of 2016:  Stay father away and save some of my points, fork over $600 for four nights at the DoubleTree, or bite the bullet and hand over 200,000 Hilton points. After much agonizing, I decided on the latter option. I love the idea of staying in the center of Barcelona and decided to save our money for other trip expenses. Plus, as a diamond Hilton member, hopefully we will score a nice upgrade. The DoubleTree boasts a couple of spacious suites that will make my day.

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doubletree-exterior

Seville

Seville has no points hotels in the old quarter where we want to stay. Since we’re not traveling in peak season, there are many afforadable options. My major priority after location was space. While we’re not planning to spend a lot of time in our hotel, I hate walking into European hotel rooms that are essentially a box. Is it too much to ask for some space on either side of my bed? In the end, I settled on an apartment-style lodging that is affiliated with a nearby hotel. Apartamentos Murillo gives us 300+ square feet for two nights, and it’s a short stroll to the Royal Alcazar.
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Cordoba

Cordoba was the least stressful decision. We will only be there for one night, and there are only a handful of decent options in our price range within the city walls. For $70, I booked Eurostars Conquistador, a four star hotel next door to Mezquita.

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Miracles!

This has been a year of miracles.

First, the Cubs won the World Series… after 108 years.

Then, all of our candidates won on election night (no, not Trump).

Then, I got engaged.

WHAAAAT!?!?

cubsI know, crazy. Who believed the Cubs could actually pull it off?

In all seriousness, it’s been an exhausting, but a great year so far. Losing (in baseball and politics) sucks. And being single and doing the endless dating crawl sucks.

Dating is a crapshoot, and it often seemed like I was getting served a lot of crap and not so much of anything else.

I got lucky and met M. But before I got lucky, I went on bad dates, waited on ex-boyfriends, and despaired. I am, appropriately, a born and bred Cubs fan, of whom the famous Chicago writer Mike Royko once wrote: “A pessimists see the glass as half empty; a Cubs fan wonders when it’s gonna spill.”

Like the Cubs, I got my miracle. In a month, M and I are off to Spain. In a few months, we’ll get married. And we plan on having many more adventures, and hopefully, some more miracles along the way (Red Sox vs. Cubs World Series maybe???).

And in case, anyone doesn’t believe in miracles, I refer you to this definitive episode of How I Met Your Mother:

 

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