Iceland in Winter

When I woke up on Tuesday morning, my first thought was “I dreamed a friend and I went to Iceland for 5 days.” Then I remembered that we had actually done the trip; it was not a dream, but a dream come true.

The dream actually started more than a year ago when we had seen an Icelandair ad for some low-cost package tours to Iceland to see the northern lights. We weren’t able to get in on the action last year, but when the deal popped up again this year, we decided to go for it!

Here are a few random observations and photos from the trip:

1. I will (hopefully) no longer fuss about the short days in Minnesota during the winter. In Reykjavik in December, the sun rises around 11:15 and sets around 3:15. The twilights preceding those two events, however, are long (and gorgeous), which meant we had a little more than 6 hours of daylight in which to do our sightseeing. It did make for some great lighting, however.

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2.  There are no words to describe the beauty of the northern lights, and photographing them is extremely difficult. This is especially true if you are on the deck of a moving boat. It’s blurry, I know, but here’s proof that we saw them.

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3.  Our trip to the Blue Lagoon Geothermal Spa was on a cold evening, so we floated and bobbed around in a thick cloud of steam. I’m sure the water was blue, but we had no way of seeing that. Watching heads emerging and disappearing in the steam made me think we were on the set of Gorillas in the Mist.

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4.  If you love trees, you might find Iceland hard to appreciate. My mom is a tree-lover, and all she could say when I was telling her about the trip was “No trees? How can a place with no trees be beautiful?” Trust me; it is!

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5.  In a city known for its hard-partying and world-class drinking, here’s what our night out on the town looked like:

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6.  How’s this for the perfect rental car?

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7.  There is something mildly appealing about a country that doesn’t have Starbucks and MacDonald’s.

8.  In 2008, the economy of Iceland, which was based on financial services, collapsed. They are rebuilding it on tourism. I say “hat’s off” to the Iceland Tourism Bureau, because in the middle of December there were tourists everywhere. And from everywhere. In fact, at each place we visited, we stumbled across a bus load of tourists from China!

And finally, here are a couple more of my favorite photos:

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Go here to see more photos on my Flickr page.

And I was right about one thing this might do — whet my appetite for a longer visit. In the summer.

Time to Use the Visa Again

I’m heading back to the Middle Kingdom for a couple of weeks, which means it’s time, once again, to make use of my 10-year visa!

tenyearvisa

I thought this would be a good time to re-visit my post from last April on 10 things to know about the 10-year visa:

1. It’s real. I admit that when it was announced that China would be issuing a 10-year tourist visa last fall, I was skeptical. But I applied for it and got it, so I know first hand that it is real.

2. This new validity period is the result of a bilateral agreement between the United States and China that was announced in November and designed to encourage more travel between the nations. Visa requirements for Chinese tourists and students coming to the US have been relaxed as well.

3. In section 2.1 of the application form, check “tourist.” (see an application example here)

4. In section 2.2 of the application form, check “other.”

5. This 10 year visa seems to be the new standard issue visa; however, the embassy/consulate reserves the right to issue it at their discretion.

6. You need to submit evidence of a booked flight itinerary. This can be a ticket or evidence of a booked, but not necessarily purchased reservation.

7. You need to submit evidence of confirmed lodging. You can book a hotel online, and cancel it later, if need be.

8. The visa is multiple-entry; this means that in the 10 years of its validity you can enter/exit China as many times as you want, staying up to 60 days at a time.

9. It is valid for 10 years even if your passport expires, SO LONG AS you retain possession of your expired passport and have it with you upon entry into China.

10. The cost is the same as the 1-year tourist visa, which means its ten times cheaper!

If you’ve got a China trip coming up and need to get a visa, I wholeheartedly recommend the good folks at Allied Passport in Washington, D.C. They are great to work and can turn around an application very quickly. You can visit their site for a detailed explanation of the requirements to obtain this visa, as well as a sample application form.

And in the interest of full disclosure, I am a member of their affiliate program. When you apply for a visa through Allied, you can write my name (or the name of this blog) on your order form to get a $5.00 discount. In addition, I’ll get a referral fee.

The way I see it, everybody wins!

1912 Road Map

I love road trips and I love maps. In fact, when I take my road trips, I still use the good old Rand MacNally Road Atlas to figure out how to get from one place to another. No GPS for me, thank you very much!

Two weeks ago I had the chance to do a long and fast road trip from the Twin Cities to Colorado and back to attend a memorial service with my sister and mom. We had friends visiting from England, and we piled them into a rented mini-van with us so they could experience an American road trip. We left home on Tuesday morning, and returned on Saturday evening.

After we got back I ran across this fascinating map on a site called Internet Archives. It is a 1912 AAA road map of the United States, published in a magazine called The Bicycling World and Motorcycle Review.

I was particularly interested to see how one might have traveled by road from Minneapolis to Denver in 1912. (Please go here to see a larger version of the image.)

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Interestingly, you can see the ancestors (so to speak) of both I-35 that runs from Minneapolis to Des Moines, and I-80, which connects Des Moines to Denver (via I-76 spur).

If you’re interested in knowing more about the development of the US interstate system, I heartily recommend the book The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways, by Earl Swift.

The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways

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Scenes from a Western Road Trip

Road Trip: St. Paul to Skagway, AK

An Impromptu Road Trip

Home at Last

And just like that our epic road trip comes to an end. We finally rolled back into town Monday evening after a LONG drive across northern Wisconsin. We drove 5655 miles (just 40 shy of what we drove on our  trip to Alaska 2 years ago) through 7 states and provinces.

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It was a fantastic trip, and we all left a bit of our hearts in Newfoundland. I’m already plotting my return.

On our last day on the island we drove through the fog to visit the Rose Blanche Lighthouse, at the end of the highway that runs east from Port aux Basque. We were not disappointed.

rose blanche lighthouse

If you ever have a chance to visit Newfoundland, do it!

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Road Trip Reading

A Former Fjord

The Newfoundland Pittmans

Newfoundland and 9/11

Breaking Bread

Sunglasses

Farewell Newfoundland

Farewell Newfoundland

On Thursday afternoon, we boarded the MV Highlander in Channel Port aux Basque, Newfoundland for the 6-hour run across the Cabot Strait to North Sydney. It was day 1 of our 5-day journey back to Minnesota.

newfoundland ferry

When we got on, both town and ship were shrouded in fog; by the time we reached North Sydney, the weather had changed completely.

newfoundland ferryOnce the ship docked, we returned to Big Red, which was parked down on deck #5, to begin our drive home.

newfoundland ferry

That’s Gracie saying “Farewell, Newfoundland; we’ll be back!”

Sunglasses

I have a thing for sunglasses. If the sun is out, I pretty much can’t function without them. So, high on the priority list of things to take on this 17-day road trip was a pair of sunglasses. Well, multiple pairs, actually, because I wouldn’t want to be caught without any. Before we left I gathered up all the pairs of sunglasses I own and made sure they were in a designated place in the car.

I suppose it’s good to be prepared, but perhaps this is a bit ridiculous!

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Breaking Bread

If you want to find the best visitor center in Newfoundland…no, in Canada….no, in North America, you need look no further than the one at Boutte du Cap Park in Cape St. George.

The park sits at the very western edge of Cape St. George, a gorgeous headland along the southwestern coast of the province. Boutte du Cap means “The Boot Cape” for the unique boot-shaped rock formations along the cliffs.

When we rolled into the park late Wednesday morning, our intention was simple — to catch a glimpse of the rugged cliffs that form the coastline. Instead, we stumbled upon a tradition that is being kept alive in the communities on the Cape — community bread ovens.

Upon entering the small visitor’s center, we were greeted by two friendly park staff kneading bread dough.

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“Stick around,” they said. “We will be serving fresh bread at noon!”

Fresh bread? In a tourist visitor center? Only in Newfoundland.

There was no way we were going to miss out on this, so even though it was only 11, we decided to explore the park while waiting for the bread.

Shortly before noon, the smell of baking bread drew us back to the outdoor oven where we joined the bakers, other tourists, and a few locals to swap stories of our travels and of life in Newfoundland.

We also gave excited pronouncements of what we would put on the bread.

“Molasses!” said one visitor from Newfoundland.

“Butter!” said another.

“Peanut butter!” my sister declared. “We are Americans after all!”

Promptly at noon, the women took the freshly baked rolls out of the oven and served them to us.

What a fun way to end our time in Newfoundland — breaking bread with new-found friends!

Thanks to my sister for taking these photos:

community bread

community bread

community bread

To read more about the community bread ovens around Cape St. George, here’s an interesting article from the Huffington Post (2014).

And if you find yourself in southwestern Newfoundland during the summer, be sure to pop in between noon and 12, Monday – Saturday for fresh bread!