Iceland (Be Prepared)

  • The Gullfoss waterfall
  • Be prepared for cold*.
  • Be prepared for rain, sleet, snow and wind.
  • Be prepared to be blown away (figuratively).
  • Be prepared to be awed.

We visited Iceland in early May and that may have been a bit early in the season. We were told a few times that this place has a beautiful Summer but unfortunately nobody knows when that week will happen. During the time that we were there the daytime temperatures probably averaged in the high 20’s to low 30’s but with winds often gusting at 30 and 40 mph it really seemed colder.

Hallgrimskirkja Cathedral

You have to ignore the weather and let this country just overwhelm you. Reykjavík is a beautiful, clean and an easy city to walk around in. The centerpiece of the city is the Hallgrimskirkja (the Presbyterian Cathedral) standing almost 245 feet tall it towers over Reykjavik. The spire is open to the public with breathtaking vistas taking in the whole city.

 

 

The Harpa Opera House

The cities opera house, Harpa stands at the edge of the Reykjavik Harbor with Iceland‘s biggest concert hall suitable for a broad range of concerts and cultural events. The city is also home to the Imagine Peace Tower dedicated to John Lennon. It is a work of art conceived as a beacon to world peace by Yoko Ono. The work is designed in the form of a wishing well from which a powerful tower of light beams into the night sky.

Central Reykjavik

Eating in Reykjavik can be an exotic experience considering the staple foods of this country (roasted puffin, sheep cheeks) but one item of note is their famous hot dogs. The most famous location is the Baejarins Beztu Pylsur stand located downtown just two blocks toward the water from the park in front of the government building. Most people order them all-the-way which includes a crunchy onion based relish, ketchup, a remoulade sauce and sweet mustard on a steamed bun. We just followed the trail of people walking up the street eating hot dogs and found them worth the walk. It is worth noting that most hot dog stands have no seating indoor or out and the only option is to order at the window and eat while walking away. We were also told you can order your hot dog  Bill Clinton style which is with just mustard.

 

To get the real impact of this land you need to get out into the country where you can experience the real wonder of this unique place. Driving across Iceland you are immediately struck by the stark beauty of its landscapes. Snow covered tundra backed up against rugged snow-capped mountains.

The Rift Valley

One of the most popular trips is the Golden Circle tour with the three primary stops on the route being the Þingvellir National Park, the Gullfoss waterfall, and the geothermal area in Haukadalur, which contains the geysers Geysir and Strokkur. Though Geysir has been mostly dormant for a number of years, Strokkur continues to erupt every 5–10 minutes.

Path thru the rift

Þingvellir National Park is centered on an exposed rift where the North American tectonic plate is pulling away from the Eurasian plate. What is exposed is an opening between the higher plates with a walkway where you can stroll along Earths newest real estate.

Haukadalur geothermal area

While Iceland is one of the Earths most geo-thermally active places much is spread out over hundreds of square miles. Visiting Haukadalur was somewhat disappointing but that may have been because we had spent some time in Yellowstone just recently, Strokkur was erupting every five minutes while we were there but its energy was much lower than the famous Old Faithful. It didn’t help that the temperature was in the 20’s with a stiff wind blowing.

The Gullfoss waterfall

 

The highlight of the tour was the Gullfoss waterfall. This was an amazing multi-tiered waterfall dropping at a right angle into a deep gorge. The landscape exposed the typical Icelandic starkness mixed with energy of this amazing waterfall.

Gullfoss waterfall
Eyjafjörður fjord in North Iceland leading to Akureyri
A shopping street in Akureyri in northern Iceland

 

 

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This Old House (St. Croix)

This is somewhat travel related but it is more a commentary on the nature of things in general.

A few years ago at an outdoor art fair in Ft. Lauderdale there was an artist showing watercolors of scenes in the Caribbean. One caught my eye as it was an old house that I thought I recognized and I asked if it was on St. Croix. She said yes and that she had lived there for a while so I bought it. In January of this year we made a trip back to St. Croix and without any real intent I found myself across the street from what I thought was that same house.

I can’t be sure it is the house as much of the house has probably changed over time and the architecture is common in the Virgin Islands, but it didn’t stop me from thinking about these kind of properties and how the island has failed to protect much of its history.

This house sits one street back from the sea on King Street in Frederiksted, St. Croix and is in an advanced state of disrepair. I have spent a lot of time in St. Croix over the past thirty-five years and can remember seeing this particular house a great number of times. I can never remember it being worthy of a spread in Architectural Digest but mostly it was one of the better properties on the street.

A major hurricane swept across St. Croix last September doing a significant amount of damage all across the island but the condition of this particular house appears more the result of time and neglect than that storm. The watercolor, which I believe was painted between ten to twenty years ago, shows it in much better condition than now.

Looking at this house from a historical perspective I am sure that a few hundred years ago this was a large and elegant townhouse in a thriving Dutch colonial town. Virgin Island towns were wealthy places with sidewalks covered with brick colonnades to protect people from the tropical sun and the frequent passing showers. Construction was mostly of locally fired brick with stucco coatings and upper floors were built of heavy wood with tall windows to catch the ocean breezes. Roofs we usually of hip-roof design to prevent hurricane winds from finding something to push against and windows and doors were protected with substantial shutters. Most townhouses also contained inner courtyards or rear gardens for comfortable outdoor living in the shade of mahogany trees.

Today as back than, St. Croix has two principle towns. Christiansted on the Northeast side of the island and Frederiksted on the West-end. Christiansted sits within a protective reef and features a good sailboat anchorage. In addition to housing the government buildings it also has a thriving tourist economy. Frederiksted, which is blessed with a deep water pier and a very attractive beach along the waterfront has struggled for decades just to stay alive.

On that January visit it was obvious that the island government had invested* in improving the pier, nearby support buildings, streets and waterfront parks. Unfortunately this seems to be just a facade on a crumbling town. Just one street back from the waterfront many buildings sit empty. There are few shops and restaurants, the streets are littered and there seems very little to engage cruise passengers when their ship docks here. If you look past the current decay you can catch glimpses of what this town once was and maybe imagine what it could become again but it is going to take a new plan and commitment by land owners and local residents to work a real change.

Consider cruise stops like Costa Maya, Sint Maarten, Roatan Island, and Willemsted. If other Caribbean locations can build cruise piers and entire visitor villages from scratch, why cannot St. Croix simply rehabilitate the town that is already there?

While cruise lines seem to be showing increased interest in St. Croix as a destination, we believe Frederikstead is now the biggest obstacle to developing this business for the island.

 

* I’m not sure I approve of thinking about government using the word investing when it relates to using tax dollars.

The RMS Titanic

A Legend That Lives On…

In the annals of travel there have been a number of great tragedies.

  • The Hindenburg Disaster
  • The air disaster at Tenerife
  • The Vegas hotel fire
  • The Tsunami at Ao Nang, Thailand

Along with a number of ocean liner sinking disasters that include;

  • The Lusitania
  • The Andrea Doria
  • The Costa Concordia

But one tragedy seems to be a true legend and stands out from all the rest. The sinking of The White Star Lines RMS Titanic. After more than one hundred years the story still holds our attention. It has been the subject of a half dozen movies and numerous books and even much speculation even over just what music the band was playing when the liner slipped below the sea.

There are at least four museums; Belfast  and Cobh, in Ireland along with two in Orlando, Florida. In addition to the museums a popular tour is to the cemetery in Halifax, Nova Scotia where many of the passengers and crew are buried.

The Titanic tragedy remains of interest for a number of reasons. Firstly, it was the maiden voyage of what was promoted as an unsinkable ship. Next it was a disaster that could have been easily avoided and with the loss of life aggravated because she didn’t have enough lifeboats. Additionally, a large number of wealthy and famous people died in the disaster but equally a larger number of of lower class passengers were prevented from using the lifeboats. The Titanic sinking caused a number of countries as well as companies to change policies regarding safety at sea.

Belfast is famous as the shipyard that built the Titanic. At that time the Harland and Wolfe Shipyard was one of the worlds largest and employed thousands. Today much of the area of the old shipyard has been turned into a memorial to this one ship featuring the drydocks, the slip way, the tender and a museum that was built to match the giant ocean liner’s height and size.

Titanic Museum, Belfast
Titanic Museum, Cohb

The Cobh, Ireland connection is that it was the great ships last port of call before she set sail across the Atlantic and sank. Cohb was called Queenstown at that time and was where the last passengers boarded the ship for its intended journey to New York. Of those one hundred and twenty three, only forty four survived. Today, the original buildings, streets and piers of a century ago are still standing along the waterfront including the offices of the White Star Line which today are the Titanic museum.

The Gibraltar Apes Got Lazy…

A Short Story

Not paying much attention.

My first encounter with the apes of Gibraltar was in the mid 1960’s when our ship made a liberty call (Navy term for a non-working visit) at the port. Several of us joined a tour of The Rock and while out at an overlook we were visited by a family of apes. Suddenly they started running around and several grabbed things from us. I lost my hat and a woman with the group lost her camera and in a second the apes ran off. At the time I joked that the apes were trained by someone that gave them food in exchange for their haul. At that time nobody running the tours seemed to advertise seeing the apes.

The Apes Den

The population of apes in Gibraltar are actually Barbary Macaques and they are monkeys not apes. They are the only wild population of monkeys in Europe. Presently the population on Gibraltar numbers about 300 in five families.

Caverns inside the Rock of Gibraltar

Jumping forward fifty years, my wife and I visited Gibraltar just recently. We took a tour of “The Rock” and our guide seemed focused on finding a family of monkeys for us. He referred to them simply as monos (Spanish for monkey) and we located a troop at an overlook next to Prince Ferdinand’s Battery which the locals now call The Apes Den. There were more than a dozen monkeys walking around the area and they seemed to have little interest in us tourists. Actually they seemed almost lethargic and perhaps a bit over-weight but I found that preferable to my last encounter.

We were told that years ago it was common for a troop to make it into town on occasion and cause all sorts of mayhem but that it rarely happens any more. Perhaps they are victims of the good life just like us…

A T-Shirt in Tahiti

A Short Story
Papeete open air market

While on a short visit to Tahiti we went on a shopping adventure. Our brother-in-law is a Harley Davidson fan and has asked us if we could pick him up Harley Davidson t-shirts as we travel. Over the years we have picked him up some shirts from a number of exotic places so when we hit Tahiti we went searching.

In Papeete we started with the tourist/t-shirt shops but nobody carried any Harley Davidson shirts. We inquired at a number of other shops and stands and the people were very friendly and wanted to do anything they could to help. Several people even recognizing the name Harley Davidson. The hunt than became a quest when someone suggested we go to a place on the other side of town where they could probably help.

Papeete, Tahiti, French Society Islands
Locally printed fabrics

When we got there the owner of the notions store didn’t know any place to get a Harley Davidson shirt but would make some calls. After a number of calls she had good news, she found someone who had what we were looking for.

We eventually found the location to discover that yes the man had a Harley Davidson and was willing to sell it. I’m beginning to think that that was the only Harley Davidson motorcycle on Tahiti. But no shirts.

While everywhere we went most of the people spoke English and were friendly and helpful it seemed that at times their English and our French may have left some communication deficits.

A FastPass Thru U.S. Immigration

Did you know there’s an App for that?

I don’t even want to get into telling stories about coming home and getting delayed in Customs and Immigration. I’m sure we all have our stories.

We were excited some time ago with the self-service kiosks that were being installed at a number of locations. After a few times thru that system we realized this wasn’t the answer to our prayers. It just didn’t happen that fast. You had to scan your passport and everyone had to – not just the head of household. You had to get your picture taken by the kiosk than respond to CBP inspection questions and submit biographic information, whatever that was. After that you were given a printout strip and than you went and stood in line again.

While traveling we have come to realize that some other countries have figured out how to get people thru the process. Our favorite is Australia – scan your passport at a kiosk, tick off a couple answers and show the receipt to the nice person as you exit. Maybe the online visa Australia makes you get helps them with the process? Somehow going thru our CPB process doesn’t make me feel any safer coming into the U.S.

Recently we’ve read a couple of articles about the U.S. CBP App and so far the reviews are positive. First you have to download the Mobile Passport App on your iPhone or Android device, it’s free. Use the App to scan your passport and save the information.

Here’s what to do when you arrive back in the U.S. from the Mobile Passport website. Once you are at your port of entry (airport or sea port), connect to wireless or wi-fi and submit your data to CBP. Remember: when you submit, you are confirming under penalty of law that your information is correct. Within a few seconds, you will receive a CBP receipt with an encrypted barcode. Your receipt will be valid for 4 hours.

No more customs forms!

Next follow the Mobile Passport Control signs to the designated Mobile Passport Control line. Show your passport to the CBP officer and scan back the barcode on the digital CBP receipt. And that’s it!

The system is currently active at twenty-four U.S. airports and Ft. Lauderale’s, Port Everglades, with more coming soon.

We have one report that the system is a breeze. That may be because there aren’t that many users yet but hopefully CBP will expand to keep up.

 

Graffiti Around the World

I am not sure why but my camera is drawn to record graffiti as we travel. Some of it is incredible street art while much is just a defacing of public and private property.

Historic fortifications, Vigo Spain
Housing project, Crete

I have developed some opinions about why some places are rank with graffiti while others are completely devoid of it. My first belief has to do with how attractive a place is along with a natural reluctance in most people to deface real beauty. The exception of course involves a subculture that sees destroying a places intrinsic value and even natural beauty as a form of expressing hatred for the very place where they live and even the people they live with.

My second conclusion involves regional and local authority. Some places are either overwhelmed by the task of trying to

Ho Chi Minh City

prevent or punish street vandals and do not think the vandalism rises to the level of a serious enough crime to warrant strong punishment. In these circumstances the result is usually a growing blight on the community where the locals just learn to accept the problem as part of life.

Stangeland, Norway

The counterpoint to that is a strong local government where punishment is quick and serious enough to cause potential “artists” to reconsider their chances of arrest, jail or worse.

Graffiti is not new but has been around for thousands of years. Examples of graffiti have been unearthed from ancient Pompeii and Rome. One of the most common forms has been for protest but more and more recently it seems to have no real purpose other than to desecrate.

There are places where graffiti has been channeled into a socially acceptable art form where artists are celebrated and whole communities get involved in decorating walls and fences.In addition to the above there are economies where tourism is a major source of income to the community and tolerance for graffiti has a serious economic impact.

Western Europe seems to be an increasing target for graffiti and many locations seem to be helpless to stop it. Unlike graffiti in many places in the world, the canvas in Europe has often become churches, historic sites and public buildings.

Quebec
Stangeland, Norway

Often modern graffiti is becoming less political protest and more an ethnic challenge. It is becoming more and more common in the West to see Arabic writing as a major element of graffiti from Greece to Norway to Quebec along with counter graffiti.

Vietnam

Interesting that there are places in the world that are virtually graffiti free. It is rare to see it in rural areas of America, or in cities in Australia and New Zealand. I can’t say I noticed any in Amsterdam which is a very permissive culture  nor in Singapore. In the case of Singapore it probably has to do with a very harsh criminal code and strict enforcement. Even the fine for not flushing a public toilet in Singapore is S$200.

Graffiti on graffiti…

Anyone else a collector of graffiti? Care to share your thinking on this? Love to see what you found and where. E-mail us at TheIntentonalTraveler@gmx.com