London (Part 4) Activities and Attractions

Published December 1, 2012 by theblondebackpacker

Tower of London

I love sparkly things and dark, morbid stories – nowhere blends those two together as seamlessly as the Tower of London. Visit the tower if you want to read about executions and imprisonments or if you want to see the beautiful Crown Jewels. If you visit in the winter months, they even offer an outdoor, twilight tour that’s supposedly creepier. Also, if you’re like me and looking at other people’s crowns makes you sad, then stop by the Tower’s Jewel House shop and buy one of your own. The first time I went to London when I was 16, I bought a sterling silver crystal tiara there that I still have today. I ended up spending a little more on it than I had intended since, being a dumb teenager, I completely forgot about the whole conversion rate thing. But it is really beautiful, and when I wear it to formal events, I love getting to tell everyone it is from the Tower of London.

Afternoon Tea

One of my favorite memories from London is having tea at the Georgian Restaurant inside of Harrod’s department store. Their tea room is really lovely with crystal chandeliers, white tablecloths, and a piano player in the corner. After you’ve been served your selected tea type -I stuck with the classic Earl Grey; Liz was more adventurous and tried the Rooibos – then the waiters bring out a multi-tiered tray filled with all sorts of goodies. One tier has miniature desserts, like fruit tarts, coconut macaroons, and chocolate pastries. The second layer has English scones and jellies, and the last one has a variety of little sandwich; my favorite of which was made with a lobster cream paste. Liz and I stayed here for a couple hours and we ended up drinking about two pots of tea each.

http://www.harrods.com/visiting/restaurants/georgian-restaurant

delicious!

The Science Museum

Easy name to remember, right? This is a big, interactive museum featuring hands-on science experiments, an IMAX cinema, a 3D flight simulator, workshops for kids, and a horrible machine that will digitally age your face.

Shopping at Harrods

Anyone who loves shopping has to stop by Harrods. It’s the most amazing department store ever – it easily beats the Macy’s in NYC. They even have a section called Pet Kingdom. It sells everything from designer dog clothes to canopy pet beds. I got my kitty the softest velvet blanket with a little teddy bear attached.

Kensington Palace

Any fan of the late Princess Diana should visit Kensington Palace, her home from 1981 until her death in 1997. Even after all these years, people still sometimes leave flowers and letters at the gate. She reminds me of Marilyn Monroe in a way – I’m not saying their lives or personalities were similar, but they both obviously had a gift for being able to inspire or connect with people they never even met.

Double Decker Bus Tour

This will take you by all the major sites, like Buckingham Palace, Picadilly Circus, and Big Ben.

London Eye

This extremely slow ferris wheel isn’t my personal favorite, but if you want to see a good view of London, then you might want to check it out.

Madame Tussaud’s Museum

I also don’t understand the appeal of these wax museums – when you get down to it, they’re just fancy candles. However, I’ll include it on the list because I know they’re really popular. And I guess it is your best bet if you’re trying to convince people you bumped into Kate Middleton.

London Theatre

London is considered one of the best cities in the world for live theatre, so definitely try to see a play. Note for Spice Girl fans -Viva Forever is a new musical based off the Spice Girl’s music! It hadn’t opened yet when I was there, so somebody see it for me and report back.

 

 

London (Part 3) Where to Stay

Published November 29, 2012 by theblondebackpacker

I stayed at a hostel called Clink 78, located near Kings Cross Station. Its claim to fame is that it use to be a courthouse/jail.  Personally, I don’t really look at holding cells and think wow i hope I get to sleep there one day...but apparently a lot of other people do, because Clink 78 is really popular. I had been hoping to stay at the Palmer’s Lodge hostel, but it was all sold out.

My overall opinion of Clink – not bad, not great. Here’s my pro/con list

Pro – Breakfast

They offer a free, basic breakfast. Even though I don’t always wake up in time for it, I still love it when hotels offer some sort of breakfast. It just seems polite. Plus, London’s expensive, so you shouldn’t pass up any available free food.

Con – The Bathroom Setup

There was only one toilet on my floor and the showers were upstairs. The shower situation got old fast. You had to press a button, then the water would take a few seconds to turn on and then a few more to heat up. About 15 seconds later, right as the water pressure and temperature would be getting comfortable, it would automatically shut off. For a guy, this probably isn’t so bad, but for a girl with long hair, it was pretty annoying. I’ve stayed at other hostels that charged for showers, and I personally prefer to pay a euro for five solid minutes of warm water rather than deal with the whole on/off again thing.

Pro – Internet

The on-site computer lab is pretty awesome. You do have to pay to use it, but not having to go out and search for an internet cafe is very convenient

Con – Temperature

I’d heard that their rooms get too hot in the summer; after seeing how toasty my room got in October, I can definitely see that it might not be such a great place to stay in July.

Pro – Clean Sheets

The sheets and bed were both clean and comfy enough. No complaints with either.

Pro or Con – The Social Atmosphere

Clink has an on-site bar and a noisy, party atmosphere. I don’t think that falls into the good or bad category, it just depends on your personal preference.

Now, while I spent most of my time in England at Clink 78, Liz and I did stay at this great hotel in Kensington for two nights. (We wanted to live the high life for a couple days.) I’ll write about that in my next post.

 

 

London (part 2) The Nightlife

Published November 29, 2012 by theblondebackpacker

London has an amazing nightlife. Note I chose the word amazing, not cheap. If you’re looking for the cheapest option, I would stick with the bars & clubs located inside hostels. The bar inside Clink78 looked really popular, especially on the weekends, and their menu is budget friendly. A pint of beer is 3.40 (in pounds, not $) and cocktails start at 5.00.

If you can afford it, however, try to visit a regular nightclub or bar at least once. Fabric is one of the most famous. It opened in 1999, which make its pretty old in club years! Its claim to fame is literally in the architecture; the speakers at Fabric are located underneath the dance floor, the result being that you can actually feel the music. I expected a club this popular to have a strict dress code, but jeans seem to be the way to go. I guess they work the we’re-too-cool-to-care angle?

Fabric is for ages 18 and up and it’s opened on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights. You can buy tickets in advance on their official website.

http://www.fabriclondon.com/

Although it’s a legendary nightclub, it’s not for everyone. Don’t go here if…

  • you hate crowds
  • you plan on dancing for 20 minutes and then spending the rest of the night talking at the bar
  • your plans for the next day require that you still have the full ability to hear
  • you just want to dress/ look beautiful and stand around with other people doing the same

Fabric is for people who love music, dancing, and craziness. Put on shoes you can dance in, down some Red Bull, and go nuts. If you’re going to be in London on a weeknight, or if Fabric just doesn’t sound like your sort of place, then…I guess you’ll just have to figure out something on your own ; ) But don’t worry, that shouldn’t be hard. The British are known for being some of the best drinkers in the world, so London doesn’t exactly have a shortage of bars.

Tip – London does have some private bars/clubs only open to members, so make sure to check on that before heading over.

 

 

 

 

 

London (Part 1) Introduction

Published November 28, 2012 by theblondebackpacker

I’m proud of being American, and I don’t think I would ever voluntarily switch my citizenship. However, if I had to become a citizen of another country, I would choose England. England’s just bad ass. I mean, think about it-they’re this tiny little country,yet they became one of the most powerful nations in the world. At one point or another, every country on this planet has been part of the British Empire. OK, that’s an exaggeration, but not as much of one as you might think…

A Few Examples; America, Canada, New Zealand, India, South Africa, Australia, Bermuda, and the British Antarctic Territory. Look at all those places on a map, look at the size of Great Britain, and tell me that isn’t impressive. (Of course, how they treated people in these colonies/territories/domains is not always as impressive, but seeing how every country has done some bad things in the last few hundred years, I’ll let that go) And then people wonder why the Queen looked annoyed during the Olympics-honestly, how many of us don’t get irritated when watching all the countries we use to own prance around?

Now, if England’s power doesn’t impress you, they’ve also made crucial contributions to literature, music, and film, with the three most obvious examples being William Shakespeare, the Beatles, and Robert Pattinson. (Screw you Team Jacob!) In my opinion, they also have the best royal family around. (Screw you royal family of Denmark!) Plus, you shouldn’t be tempted to overeat in England, since their food=not the best.

Add in to all that their dry humor, awesome accents, and high enthusiasm for drinking, and they officially have the blonde backpacker’s seal of approval!

Congrats, England.

PS if you love rainy weather, they’ve got that too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Iceland (Part 6) Northern Lights/Aurora Borealis

Published November 15, 2012 by theblondebackpacker

About the Northern Lights

*they’re caused by electrically-charged solar particles colliding with the Earth’s atmosphere

*their most common color is green, but depending on the type of molecules the solar particles collide with in the Earth’s atmosphere, the lights can also be pink, red, or violet

*your odds of seeing the lights increase during dark, moonless nights with cloudless skies

*in addition to Iceland, other popular spots for viewing the lights are northern Norway, the Swedish Lapland, northern Alaska, and northwestern Canada

*the lights are mysterious and can never be perfectly predicted- basically, they like to play hard-to-get

I’ve always wanted to see the Northern Lights, so I was willing the universe to allow them to appear during my trip, even though I knew the conditions weren’t favorable. The solar activity predictions were low, plus I was there during the week leading up to the full moon. Darkness is needed for the lights to be visible, so generally speaking- the brighter the moon, the worse the viewing. Still, I kept hoping…

By the time I was on a bus, however, headed back to the airport, I had completely given up. I wasn’t even thinking about the lights anymore. It was 5AM- I was tired, moody, and worried about my cat. (There was no particular reason to be worried, as he was back in Virginia, being well-cared for by his grandma. However, despite looking and acting younger, he is 19-years-old, and I always worry about leaving him)

I was starting to zone out when I heard the bus driver say, very nonchalantly, “oh, the lights are dancing.” I thought it was a joke, but I still jerked my head up to check, and BAM-there they were, the northern lights! The emerald streaks moved slowly across the sky, twisting and intertwining, like glow-in-the-dark ivy climbing a black wall. It was a small show, but it was still one of the most striking things I’ve ever seen. In some parts of the world, the natives believed the lights were the spirits of those who had passed on. Modern scientists believe it’s charged solar particles hitting the Earth’s atmosphere, but after seeing them, I have to wonder if there isn’t something to both theories. There’s a reason the lights are considered alluring and eerie- they really do feel alive. At any rate, isn’t that a nice thought? That when we die, our souls could still visit the Earth and give everyone a beautiful show as a colorful collision of particles? When we’re dead, we should definitely try it.

That morning reminded me of the best thing about traveling-that there’s always a good chance something interesting will happen. Even if you aren’t expecting it or looking for it, even if you’re not in a good mood…there’s just always that potential…

If you would like to take a look at the expected Aurora forecast, check out the link below from the University of Alaska’s Geophysical Institute

http://www.gi.alaska.edu/AuroraForecast/Europe/2012/11/15

Anyways, that was the perfect ending to my trip to Iceland. A couple hours later, Liz and I were back on Iceland Air, this time heading towards London…

Iceland (Part 5) Brief History

Published November 11, 2012 by theblondebackpacker

The Beginning

Iceland was settled in the 9th century by Ingólfur Arnarsson, a Norwegian nobleman looking for a new home after feuding with the King of Norway. Why was he pissed at the king? Over taxes-specifically, the king wanting him to pay them. Hmm…a rich man not wanting to be taxed…well, thank God that issue’s never come up again in modern politics. Anyways, about a half a century later, the settlement was doing pretty well with an estimated population of about 35,000 inhabitants. The Althing, a legislative body made up of chiefs, was created to help maintain law and order.

Alleluia

Christianity comes to the island in 1000.

The 1200′s

Ingólfur Arnarsson rolls over in his grave as his Icelandic settlement falls back under the rule of the King of Norway.

The 1300′s

Norway, and thus Iceland, unifies with Denmark.

The 1700′s

Not such a great time to be in Iceland. The bubonic plague wipes out one third of the population and volcanic activity destroys large amounts of farmland, resulting in widespread starvation.

The 1900s

In 1918, Iceland was granted sovereignty but still remained in a royal union with Denmark. In the 1940s, Iceland was occupied by British and American troops during WWII. In 1944, the Republic of Iceland was officially established.

The Millennium

In 2001, Icelandic singer Bjork wore a swan dress to the Academy Awards, causing many people to actually think about Iceland for the first time in their lives. In 2008, Iceland’s economy takes a big hit due to a banking crisis-join the club Iceland : (  In 2009, Iceland elects Jóhanna Sigurdardóttir, the world’s first openly gay Prime Minister.

Icelandic Pride

Iceland (Part 4) Activities & Attractions

Published November 4, 2012 by theblondebackpacker

Stay in Reykjavik and you’ll have access to plenty of activities going on around you, including-

*Horseback Riding

*Nature Tours

*Snorkeling/Scuba-Diving

*Blue Lagoon

*Glacier Hiking

*Whale/Dolphin Watching

*Northern Lights Viewing

Horseback-riding  Why Icelandic Horses Do It Better 

Most normal (ie crappy & boring) horses only have 3 gaits-walk, trot, and gallop. Meanwhile, the oh-so-skilled Icelandic horse has 5-walk, trot, tolt, gallop, and fly. For people concerned with the racial purity of their trail horse (and really, who isn’t?) rest assured that all Icelandic horses have a very pure bloodline. Iceland outlawed the importation of  horses to their country, thus ensuring that trashy international breeds never get the chance to mingle with their noble steeds.

In case anyone hasn’t picked up on this-Icelanders are very proud of their Icelandic horses! All mocking aside, they are strong, beautiful animals and I had a great time riding at the Viking Horse’s farm. I opted to do the Lava Tour, which takes riders through otherworldly-looking fields of lava rock. During this tour, the horses use a combination of gaits, alternating between walking, trotting, and tolting. This keeps things a lot more exciting than your average trail ride. Want to see what tolting looks like? Check it out here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iyAsIz64gAY

(Tip for my fellow busty readers-wear multiple sports bras unless you want your boobs to be tolting around, too!)

They also offer slower tours for the cautious horse enthusiast, as well as advanced tours for experienced riders. There’s a tour for everyone! That is, everyone except Liz who passed on the horse-riding all together. As a teen, she was thrown off a horse once, and being a good little grudge holder, she still isn’t fond of horses today. But it all worked out, while waiting for me she had an excellent time touring the Icelandic glue factory next door ; )  Just kidding, while I was riding my Barbie-haired horse Glowy, Liz went on a guided tour of southern Iceland, which brings me to the next activity on the list…

Guided Nature Tours

There’s a wide selection to chose from, so decide which category of natural attractions are most important to you-glaciers, volcanoes, caves, geysers, or waterfalls. Tours of the Golden Circle are very popular, and our roommates at KEX hostel really recommended taking one. The Golden Circle is a 190 mile loop in southern Iceland that takes you through waterfalls, geysers, a crater, and a national park.  That route, however, does not include a glacier, which Liz was dead set on seeing, so she opted for the GTI South Coast Adventure tour. During her 9 hour tour, she walked behind roaring waterfalls, explored black-pebbled beaches, and saw her first glacier. Ironically, the glacier was the only part of the tour that disappointed her. She said it was small, covered in dirt, and overall just kind of underwhelming. She found the beaches and waterfalls to be far more impressive.

If you want to book the same tour Liz went on, you can make a reservation on their website: http://www.gatewaytoiceland.is/south-coast-adventure

black sanded beach

waterfalls

Rural Iceland

Rural Iceland

Snorkeling/Scuba-Diving

This might surprise you, but Iceland is actually an amazing place to snorkel or dive. It has some of the clearest water in the world, and tours will provide you with the high quality wet suits needed to enjoy it. I ran out of time and had to skip snorkeling, but it will be the first thing I do when I go back!

Blue Lagoon

Perfect for anyone who likes to lounge in style, and I LOVE to lounge in style. The Blue Lagoon is a spa (and a hotel-for those who aren’t on a backpacker’s budget) located in the countryside about 35 minutes outside of Reykjavik. Its claim to fame is it’s beautifully blue geothermal lagoon. The warm, steaming seawater feels amazing and definitely makes for a stunning photo. Plus, the mineral-rich water contains silica and sulpher, both of which are good for your body and skin. For the price of one entry ticket, you can stay all day. This was perfect for us, since Liz and I saw no reason to leave!

Forget your bathing suit? The spa will rent you one.

Hungry? There’s a cafe and restaurant inside.

Sober? The lagoon has a swim-up bar

Bored? The lagoon’s actually pretty big, so you can swim around and explore the man-made cave and waterfall, or find some privacy in one of the little nooks.  Also, take advantage of the big jars of white silica mud! It’s expensive to buy, but you can use as much as you want while you’re there. Pile it on your skin and let it dry! Liz and I laughed-and we weren’t the only ones-because, well, when the white gel is still kind of wet and dripping off your face, will you look like you belong in a porn video? Yes..yes you will. But it’ll be totally worth it when you rinse it off and see how much softer your skin feels!

Tip: The Blue Lagoon is pretty in the daytime, but it looks 1,000 times more amazing in the dark. The billowing puffs of steam become far more visible and dramatic-looking at night, and the crowd dwindles down. Prime skinny-dipping time. With all the steam, and the wide dark sky, it feels like you’re on another planet. Liz said it was one of the coolest moments of her life, and I had to agree!

the Blue Lagoon

Glacier Hiking

To me, hiking is something you do if you’re either
a)trying to lose weight and cant afford a gym
b)trying to get back to civilization after surviving a plane crash in the middle of nowhere.

Liz also passed on this option, so I don’t have any personal stories to go on, but for anyone who’s interested, glacier hiking does exist as an option!

Whale/Dolphin Watching

I skipped this activity as well. I’m sure it would be fun, and if I had unlimited amounts of money I would’ve gone. Unfortunately, I don’t have an unlimited budget, and I have seen whales and dolphins in the wild before. Plus, Liz hates dolphins. (That feud dates back to our sophomore year at JMU. She needed a calender, due to a limited selection, she ended up buying one with dolphins. Everyone who stopped by our room noticed and started talking about how dolphins are so cute and playful. She started getting dolphin gifts because everyone presumed she loved dolphins. It really pissed her off. How is the dolphin to blame for this? I have no clue. I suspect she’s just insane. Regardless, to this day she still looks smug while eating tuna)

Northern Lights Viewing

Last, but sure as hell not least, is the Northern Lights, but you’ll have to read Iceland (Part 6) for that story!

Iceland (Part 3) Where to Stay/What to Eat

Published November 2, 2012 by theblondebackpacker

I loved KEX Hostel!!!

KEX Hostel has:

*a lovely location in Reykjavik, right on the water and only 2 or 3 blocks to all the bars and clubs

*easy access to affordable food-there’s an Icelandic fast food chain a few feet from the front door and a grocery store near the back area

*a staff that will do your laundry for a reasonable fee and help you book excursions

*very clean rooms & facilities

(On the downside, KEX does charge guests  to borrow sheets or eat at the breakfast buffet. They also have some steep stairs and no elevator-so if you plan on getting drunk while wearing stilettos..you might want to request a lower floor )

cozy reading corner at KEX

cozy reading corner at KEX

6 person bedroom

6 person bedroom

The best thing about KEX is the restaurant/bar located on the ground floor. Its official name is Sæmundur í Sparifötunum, but for obvious reasons, I just referred to it as the KEX restaurant. Liz and I both adored its atmosphere-it has this old-school traditional European look. And no, I’m not sure what the hell “old-school, traditional European”  even means, but that’s just the term that came to my mind when I first walked in! It’s very dimly lit, with scratched-up dark wooden tables and chairs that look like they could be 100-years-old. In one corner there’s a a couple of sofas and a few large bookcases filled with travel guides, novels, and scholarly texts that anyone’s welcome to borrow. I guess that sounds very basic, but I think that was part of its charm. What really made it fun was the diverse crowd it attracted. Young people, old people, locals, tourists, couples, singles, families. It was casual and noisy, with quite a variety of languages being spoken. The menu was interesting too! Lots of hearty items-like lamb meat or fish stew.

Liz and I ate at the KEX restaurant on our first night in Iceland, and its actually one of my favorite memories. The wind was whippin around outside, and we were in this dark restaurant, eating steaming stews and greasy sausage meat by candlelight. No one around us was speaking English. It was the perfect omg-we-did-it-we’re-in-freakin-Iceland moment. : ) So, even if you decide to stay elsewhere, at least stop by KEX for dinner or drinks.

Now, while I’m on the topic of food…you will have the option of trying whale meat in Iceland. Whaling is a very controversial topic, so you might want to research the issue before your trip. If you want to try it, it’s available at  Hereford Steakhouse, Tveir Fiskar,Vin og Skel, and Þrír Frakkar. If you want to protest it, go to http://www.nrdc.org/wildlife/whaling.asp to learn how.

Also, if you’re like me and cold weather makes you want ice cream (okay maybe i just always want ice cream) go to Eldur & Is. It’s a yummy ice cream parlor on the main street that also serves crepes, coffee, and hot cocoa.

Iceland (part 2) the nightlife

Published October 31, 2012 by theblondebackpacker

Are y’all familiar with Saturday Night Live’s digital shorts? Do you remember the one with Andy Samberg called “I Threw It on the Ground?” If you haven’t seen it, you should check it out here:

http://www.nbc.com/saturday-night-live/video/digital-short-on-the-ground/1163268/

This video can help to prepare you for the nightlife in Reykjavik because drunk Icelanders realllly like to throw stuff on the ground. Mainly glass, but in case there’s a shortage of that around, they’ll throw other stuff as well. (They’re practical like that). But yeah, glass is definitely their favorite thing to throw, which is understandable since it makes that nice shattering sound.  So if you wanna fit in….buy a beer, chug it, and then slam it on the fucking street.

Confused? I was too at first. But after spending a few days in Iceland, I think I’ve figured it out. Sunday morning to Friday afternoon the Icelandic people are polite and very calm. Almost too calm. Their lack of facial expressions made me wonder if perhaps the whole town had overdosed on botox. So come Friday night, they’ve got a lot of repressed emotions to release. And they successfully do so by shoving aggressively in line, getting really drunk, dancing like crazy, and of course, by throwing glass on the ground.

Basically, it’s crazy and a lot of fun : ) For the most part, all the bars and clubs are located on main street aka Laugavegur which makes it really easy to bar hop. Since the nightlife keeps going until around 5 AM, you’ve got plenty of time to explore. Liz and I really liked B5, it was a trendy little club that played a lot of good dance music. There weren’t many Americans around, but while we were outside waiting in line, we met three friendly New Yorkers who helped us push our way to the front. Other than actual Icelanders, who could help you survive the chaotic club lines of Reykjavik better than people from NYC? In case any of them ever read this- thanks for the backup support!

As for the fashion, if you’re on the short side I would recommend wearing heels, as Scandinavians are a tall bunch. At 4’11, I was even more of a midget than usual, and I kept getting smacked in the head with people’s elbows when they put their arms down. So yeah, you might find heels helpful! I don’t know if there is an official dress code, but most of the people looked pretty chic, so don’t think you’ll get away with looking casual just because it’s chilly out.

Then again, one guy looked very casual….he was walking around the street barefoot and in his underwear. Not even boxers, just tighty whiteys. It was about 32 degrees F out and like i said glass is all over the place….he wasn’t even phased! He even stopped to explain….apparently, he had been hooking up with this girl and then her dad came home and tossed him outside without his clothes. Everyone else around was just like (shrug) yeah sucks when that happens. It was awesome. So, I guess the moral of the story is that you really can get away with any look as long as you wear it with confidence…

To summarize-if you like to party and you’re headed to Iceland, spend a weekend in Reykjavik! And remember to either wear closed toe shoes or bring some band-aids!

a sign of a good night in Iceland