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Waterfalls and Glaciers: Blönduós and Húsafell


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My kids had never been river rafting before this summer, and here we were on our way to do it for the third time. I had carefully planned these adventures to begin as mildly as possible and slowly progress in difficulty once I was able to see how they managed the excitement. The first trip had been more like a float, and they had enjoyed the second which had some light grade II rapids. My understanding was that we would be in for some grade III rapids today on Vestari-Jökulsá, the West Glacial River. The fact that they allowed six year olds on the trip allayed my nervousness to some degree but I still wondered if I was really making the best judgment of risk versus reward in scheduling this trip.

The stretch of Ring Road from Akureyri to Varmahlíð had an eerie beauty that morning. A low fog obscured the mountaintops and merged into the milky sky. At times it seemed that we were about to drive into pea soup and I steeled myself for a near-total loss of visibility but the mists always seemed to clear at the last moment. Fortunately for my nerves there was almost no traffic in that rather unpopular region of Iceland in the early morning, despite the fact that we were on the main road that circled the country.
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When we arrived at the headquarters it was clear this was a more serious endeavor than the rafting trips we had taken in Utah. Our guide took a lot more time to give us instructions and informed us we would be wearing dry suits and helmets. The dry suits were a particular challenge to struggle into and at the end the kids looked like a band of Oompah Loompahs that had escaped from the chocolate factory. A short bus ride brought us to the departure point and s soon as I saw the river I wondered if I'd made a terrible mistake. The rafts were on the bank of a river that was completely white with churning foam, and the water seemed to be moving as fast as any I had ever seen. It almost reminded me of the waters of Jökulsá á Fjöllum just before they went off the edge of Dettifoss, not the most comforting memory. I was relieved to learn that the guide who had given instructions to the whole group would be navigating our raft, as he seemed to be the most confident and experienced. As soon as I had a chance to talk to him in confidence I made it clear that I didn't see any of the kids getting pitched into the water as part of the adventure. I wanted him to do whatever he needed to do to keep us all in the raft. He seemed to get what I was saying and told me not to worry. They'd had plenty of young kids on the rafting trips before and never had any serious problems.

It shouldn't come as a surprise that we all ended up surviving the rafting trip. The water was fast and the rapids were certainly rougher than anything we had experienced, but we never came close to getting tossed out. I did notice our guide steering us away from the most turbulent sections but fortunately our kids weren't old enough to notice they were getting a softer treatment. The kids also didn't seem to mind when I declined the offer to jump in the water, although the Icelandic teenagers on the raft ahead of us seemed to enjoy it. I was very relieved when it was over and everyone had enjoyed themselves without injury. We had lunch in a cafe attached to a service station in Varmahlíð, which isn't as bad as it sounds. In fact, this was our third service station lunch in Iceland and the offerings can be quite varied and substantial. As Varmahlíð was barely large enough to qualify as a village, the cafe was also our only option.

Swimming is something of a national pastime in Iceland, thanks to all the geothermal activity that allows natural heating of pools. Some of the most small and remote towns have the most renowned sundlaugs, or swimming pools. In fact, the pool in the miniscule village of Hofsós is often rated as the top swimming pool in all of Iceland. I thought this reputation was worth checking it out and it's never hard to convince the kids to go to a swimming pool. We drove about a half hour north partway up the western coast of the Tröllaskagi Peninsula to Hofsós, a typical Icelandic coastal village with a blue-roofed church and a backdrop of mountains shrouded in mist. The unique feature of the pool was its infinity design, but a rim of land around the far edge detracted from the illusion of continuity with the fjord beyond. I think the kids would have preferred slides like the ones in Höfn but they still enjoyed themselves.
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A fringe benefit of the detour to Hofsós was that we got to drive Highway 75 which traversed the innermost point of Skagafjörður. The landscape is always more beautiful closer to the water. We crossed the base of the Skagi Peninsula before arriving in Blönduós, a tiny town that I had chosen mainly for a restaurant owned by two well-known Icelandic chefs. I had chosen our guesthouse despite my concerns about a shared bathroom but when we arrived it was clear that the third bedroom would be vacant that night. Being the only occupants made the guesthouse more like a bargain Airbnb with some substantial common areas. The COVID precautions that were prominently displayed seemed somewhat eccentric. Avoid contact with stray animals in market areas, in Iceland?
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The coastal town was bisected by the mouth of a river and most of the hotels were packed into a quaint little corner on the southern bank of the river right next to the fjord. I hadn't even realized that our guesthouse was next door to the restaurant so we only had a two minute walk to dinner. Our hotel was adjacent to a classic little Icelandic church and a horse pasture.
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Brimslóð Atelier seemed like a prime candidate to provide our first exceptional dinner in Iceland. The owners have published several cookbooks and are among the most well-known chefs in Iceland. The particular attraction of the restaurant is that the set menu provides locally sourced dishes with the atmosphere of a home-cooked meal. The kitchen was indeed continuous with the dining area although largely blocked from visibility by cupboards, and with two long communal tables there was actually more seating than some of the other restaurants we had visited. We proved unlucky with the evening menu as the appetizer was tomato soup and the entree was Arctic char, a dish we had seen on almost every dinner menu and were trying to avoid. The fish was well-prepared and tasty, but I couldn't describe the dinner as a memorable experience from a culinary perspective.
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Our Ice Cave Tour in Húsafell didn't start until three and it was a two and a half hours drive, so we needed something to do in the morning. Unlike in southern Iceland, where there were always enough waterfalls and canyons and Ring Road sights to fill an entire day, exciting activities in northern Iceland were somewhat sparse. I couldn't find anything worth seeing en route so it looked like we'd have to hang out in Blönduós for a bit. We went back to Brimslóð Atelier for breakfast, which we oddly found more enjoyable than the previous night's dinner. It seemed Blönduós had a decent swimming pool with slides like the one in Höfn. The kids had just been swimming the previous day in Hofsós but there hadn't been any slides, so they jumped at the chance to go again. As it turned out the slides were even longer than the ones they'd been on the last time, so they had a blast. I was going crazy trying to keep track of all three of them because they kept stopping in the middle of the tube and I was imagining one of them getting stuck on something inside. Fortunately there was no one else around to hear me frantically yelling into the tube every two minutes. The most amazing part is that entry was completely free for the kids and our only expense was renting a towel to dry them off with. In the lobby they were selling ice cream but I found the brand name somewhat unappetizing.
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We'd already seen what passed for an old town in Blönduós by walking a few steps from the guesthouse to the restaurant. The only other distinguishing feature of the town was the uninhabited river island of Hrútey which is protected for nesting birds. It is open for hiking all year except for the spring. A footbridge connects the island to the northern bank of the river.
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When we arrived we discovered that there was an avant garde installation by an Icelandic artist called Shoplifter on the island. Colorful tufts and towers of synthetic fiber were strategically placed close to the path that circled the island. Our walk quickly turned into a competition between the kids for who could be the first to spot the next composition. Some were obvious but others were hidden behind other features of the landscape. Our progress was regularly slowed by the profusion of wild blueberry bushes that surrounded us. We were so entranced with the island that we almost forgot our itinerary and had to rush through the final leg of the path to stay on schedule.
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The two hour drive to Húsafell was fairly bland relative to the scenery we had seen on the southern coast and the wild northeast. Nevertheless we had some pleasant views of fields dotted with wrapped hay bales and occasional clusters of Icelandic horses. We drove as quickly as we dared given Iceland's strict photo-enforced speed limits and arrived at the departure site of our next tour in sufficient time to wolf down a quick lunch before rushing to the bus.
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One of the few disadvantages of visiting Iceland in the summer is that the natural ice caves that form under the glaciers every winter are too unstable to visit. The next best thing is the man-made ice cave that was built under the glacier Langjökull in 2015. The bus drove us to the edge of the glacier, Iceland's second largest, where we were outfitted in waterproof outfits and boots. A specialized glacier truck then drove us over the glacier for forty minutes until we reached the mouth of the tunnel. We had seen plenty of desolate volcanic landscapes in Iceland but this was a completely different kind of bleakness. The ash-stained ice extended around us to the horizon in every direction and once again we felt like we had taken a spaceship rather than an airplane to this singular country.
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The entrance to the tunnel was like the open mouth of some giant glacial worm. We quickly reached a chamber where we were provided with crampons to give us footing on the wet ice of the tunnel floor. For the next hour or so we gingerly plodded through a network of neat rectangular tunnels with glistening, lumpy white walls. We occasionally stopped at points of interest such as illuminated chambers, a bottomless hole, and streams of meltwater which could be caught and drunk from a bottle. It was somewhat interesting and fun for the kids but probably not comparable to the beauty of a natural ice cave. At the end we clambered back into the glacier truck and reversed the process until we were back at the departure point in Húsafell.
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We had just enough time to squeeze in a visit to Hraunfossar on the way out of Húsafell. The unique feature of this wide waterfall is that it emerges from below the edge of the enormous Hallmundarhraun lava field when it reaches the Hvítá River. The water originates in the nearby glacier but is completely invisible until it reaches the river because it flows underneath the pahoehoe lava. A walking path provides different perspectives on the waterfall and eventually leads to another waterfall named Barnafoss where the river churns through a twisting passage of sculptured basalt.
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Soon we were gazing once again at marshmallow haystacks dotting green fields on the forty-five minute leg west to Borgarnes, where we would be having dinner and spending the night. It felt good to be back on our normal hectic schedule after slowing down our pace on the northern coast. From the looks of things we were going to be pretty busy for the next three days as well.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 10:20 Archived in Iceland Tagged road_trip family_travel travel_blog friedman tony_friedman family_travel_blog Comments (0)

A Southwestern USA Expedition: Bisti Wilderness and Shiprock


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Our first stop on the long drive to the Bisti Badlands was the Monday farmers market in Española. We only knew about it because of a sign we'd seen while driving the Low Road, and it turned out to be a pretty small operation. We bought some snacks and looked around for a few minutes but there wasn't much to see. The driving was pretty routine until we turned off the main highway to state road 96 after Abiquiu. Almost immediately we drove by a huge lake that was so pretty we had to turn around and visit the overlook. This was Abiquiu Lake, a reservoir formed by the damming of the Rio Chama. The still, chalky lake was surrounded by juniper-covered hills with stately mesas in the background. For the next hour or so the one lane road snaked gently through the mesas of the Santa Fe National Forest, passing by towns on the map like Coyote and Gallina that were barely more than clusters of buildings.
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As we drew closer to the New Mexico badlands the ground flattened completely and the vegetation largely disappeared. The last hour and a half of driving was as dry and boring as anything we'd experienced on the trip. It was tempting to cut across the badlands on one of the ramshackle county roads but I knew we had enough time to make our rendezvous if we took the longer, more conservative route so that's what we did. We arrived at the meeting point which was just a sign at the intersection of two roads and waited about fifteen minutes until our guide arrived. I'm pretty sure Navajo Tours USA is the only outfit that conducts tours of the Bisti Badlands. Our guide Kialo founded the company and he leads almost all of the hikes himself. I was glad to be a part of supporting a local small business with a mission of introducing travelers to this largely unknown natural wonder.
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One of the things that drew me to Bisti was that I had never heard of the area before beginning my research for the trip, yet as soon as I saw the pictures I realized that it would be an unforgettable experience. I don't think I'm alone in my ignorance. I haven't spoken to a single person outside the immediate area who has ever heard of it either. Bisti Badlands is the western section of the larger Bisti/De Na Zin Wilderness. Both Bisti and De Na Zin are derived from the Dine language of the Navajo, with the former meaning "shale hills" and the latter meaning "cranes". The area is protected and administered by the Bureau of Land Management but does not enjoy any special federal status.

The hike was scheduled to be five hours, but I prevailed on Kialo to shorten it a little for the sake of the kids. I've never known them to walk more than three hours at a time, and that was in cities with frequent breaks. I soon realized that part of the reason for the long duration of the trek is that we had to walk almost an hour from the parking lot across a relatively featureless expanse of dense, cracked ash. Kialo kept the kids entertained by teaching them about the geology of the badlands. The land where we now walked was once at the edge of a huge inland sea that left behind coal, fossils, and petrified wood. The kids had some fun playing with the red "clinkers", clay chips that had been hardened by a cataclysmic fire thousands of years previously.
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Eventually we reached some taller hills of hardened ash and clay in shades of beige, black, and ochre. As we crossed through them we began to see clusters of hoodoo rocks, mushroom-shaped structures formed through millennia of gradual erosion by water and wind. Some of them looked fragile enough to be toppled over with a gentle push and probably were, although they may stand for centuries longer if undisturbed by human touch. Eventually all the ones we saw will crumble to be replaced by others which hopefully will be marveled at by future generations for centuries to come.
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The heart of the Bisti Badlands was a breathtaking, barren tableau of grey-striped ash hills, flat clearings criss-crossed by the dry beds of ancient streams, and innumerable clusters of hoodoo rocks. I could easily have believed that we had been deposited on the surface of some unknown planet as this was the most alien landscape I had ever experienced. I was grateful to have an experienced guide as the area seemed designed to disorient neophyte hikers.
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I could have spent hours exploring the badlands and marveling at every new vista and formation but it was clear the kids were getting exhausted. We still had an hour walk back to the parking lot which proved very brutal for them. We were lucky that it wasn't hot but the distance was really overwhelming after we had already been walking for three hours. Even after we passed the last hill and could see the parking lot in the distance it was still forty more minutes of walking. Eventually both Spenser and Cleo flagged out and needed to ride piggy back part of the rest of the way which was no small burden. It hadn't come easy, but seeing this incredible and unique place had been completely worth the effort.

By the time we reached Farmington it was dark and a steady cold rain was falling. We ducked into a Thai restaurant downtown for a quick meal before locating our Airbnb on a quiet little cul de sac in a nondescript part of town. It was one of those evenings where our only goal was to get our belongings indoors and get to bed as efficiently as possible.
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Farmington was a convenient place to crash for the night after an exhausting day of traveling and hiking, but it felt very generic from a cultural perspective. Main Street was a bland selection of fast food joints and Americanized ethnic restaurants along with the usual assortment of brew pubs, thrift stores, and tattoo shops. Armed with my research we did spend time at a couple of interesting businesses at the center of town. Artifacts Gallery is a collection of artist's studios with a small cafe that also sells chile-based foods and cookbooks, all housed within an atmospheric old lumber warehouse. Not many artists were there on a Tuesday morning but it was fun to browse through the displays. A few blocks away, Fifth Generation Trading had the best selection of Native American artwork and crafts that we had seen since Albuquerque, but the prices were significantly higher for very similar items. I was hoping to find a turquoise necklace for Cleo and concluded I could probably do better on the Navajo Reservation, where we would be spending the next two nights.
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There didn't seem to be much worth seeing on the drive from Farmington to Chinle on the Navajo Reservation with one possible exception. Shiprock was another Southwestern landmark I had never heard of, the solidified core of a volcano whose softer exterior eroded away millions of years ago. The rock is remarkable for its dramatic height of 1600 feet in an area that is mostly flat and nondescript. We probably wouldn't have gone far out of our way for it, but it seemed to be smack in the middle of our route. The drive west down Interstate 64 was quite boring until I noticed an oddly shaped blob on the horizon between the distant mesas. We were still twenty miles from our destination so I didn't think it could be Shiprock but as we drew closer the jagged outline became clearly defined and it was apparent that this isolated monadnock would be a more impressive sight than we had expected.
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Since I hadn't researched Shiprock very much I had failed to realize that I had set a course for the town of Shiprock rather than the rock formation. Once we reached the town it was clear we were still some distance from our goal, and some quick browsing indicated that we needed to make a southward turn down Route 491. Google Maps started to get a little squirrelly after this, frequently switching routes as we were driving. The turn off from 491 quickly became a dirt road, but we were heartened by the fact that we seemed to be moving closer and closer to the rock, although not in a straight line. At this point we were south of the rock and close to an amazing formation which had previously been hidden to us. This was a dyke of lamphrphyre, the same variety of igneous rock that formed the monadnock. Lava escaping from Shiprock's volcanic ancestor had filled a trench in the earth and solidified, and then had emerged as a jagged ridge as erosion tore away the softer layers around it.
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We noticed that the closer we got, the rougher the road became until we were eventually slowed to a crawl by ridges and deep trenches that appeared in front of us. Mei Ling and I probably would have continued if we had been on our own, but the thought of breaking an axle in this very deserted spot with the three kids in the back was too unpalatable. We reversed course and sought another route on the Google Maps GPS. For the next hour or so we coursed around the dirt roads nudging the GPS which didn't seem very eager to cooperate. One displayed route would dead end and we would touch activate another that the GPS had ignored. We would change direction, get a little further, and then dead end again. If we wanted to get closer to Shiprock, we would have had to go off road entirely. It seems strange now that we were trying so hard to reach the base of this rock formation that we could already see perfectly well, but both Mei Ling and I were feeling a strong pull to the site. I won't go so far as to claim it was something spiritual since we're not mystical types, but it was interesting because we hadn't felt anything similar in Sedona which is supposed to be filled with energy vortexes. Of course Sedona was beautiful and captivating, but we don't believe that places have any intrinsic energy except for the obvious kinds created by geothermal forces. I do think that we all have deep longings and emotions inside us and sometimes these can be triggered by objects and landscapes, and that effect was certainly apparent to us at Shiprock. Nevertheless, we eventually had to concede that there was no safe way to get close to the rock in our vehicle and we contented ourselves with recording the memory digitally as best we could.
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Perhaps another reason that we gave up on our quest to reach Shiprock is that when I was researching for a route online I learned for the first time that many Native Americans consider the rock sacred and disapprove of tourists off-roading all the way to the base. I did read some accounts of travelers being chased and harassed by locals but I didn't give them much credit at the time and I believe them even less now after spending time on the Navajo reservation. The modern Navajo tend to react to offenses committed intentionally and unintentionally by visitors with stoic resignation, rather than open hostility. Nevertheless, I'm glad in retrospect that we knew when to call it a day at Shiprock. It was still a highly fulfilling and rewarding experience, even if we were never able to touch the rock.

Feeling subdued by our encounter with the majestic monolith, we continued onward to Navajo Nation. The route across the border into Arizona through the Chuska Mountains turned to be quite fascinating. From the road we could see small communities and occasional monoliths with the colorful mountains in the backdrop. Occasionally we would leave the road for a closer look at a particularly interesting rock but all roads eventually ended in someone's backyard well short of our destination.
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The section of the highway that passed through the mountains was called Buffalo Pass. This was the most spectacular stretch of road that we had been on so far, with rapid changes in elevation and serpentine curves through stately evergreens and rounded cliffs of putty-like sandstone. Mei Ling had fallen asleep by this point which was ironic because she loves to take pictures of scenery and she was missing the best that the day's drive had to offer. There was nowhere to pull over but I had to slow the car down to a crawl at a couple of points because the road was too beautiful not to photograph.
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Close to the end of Buffalo Pass we stopped briefly at the Totsoh Trading Post. Many of the trading posts in Navajo Nation date back to the nineteenth century while others are modern convenience stores that have adopted the trading post aesthetic. I'm not sure which category Totsoh fell into, but they had an interesting selection of Native American crafts and goods along with the snacks and sundries for daily living. Upon our inquiry they took us upstairs to show us their collection of hand-woven blankets, each of which cost thousands of dollars.
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We were now in the heart of Navajo country. We knew that over the next two days we would be visiting some of the tribe's most sacred and historic sites and learning even more about Native American culture than we had in Zuni. With a growing sense of excitement we drove the last half hour into Chinle.

Posted by zzlangerhans 19:32 Archived in USA Tagged road_trip arizona new_mexico family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog Comments (0)

Waterfalls and Glaciers: Akureyri


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Akureyri may be Iceland's second largest city (when all of Reykjavik's suburbs are counted as one municipality) but its population of less than twenty thousand wouldn't make it stand out among coastal villages in the rest of Europe. Many Ring Road travelers just stop by for a few hours or even bypass it completely, but we had chosen it for our only two-night stay aside from Reykjavik. We had been moving nonstop for a week at this point and we needed a moment to slow down for a little and enjoy just one day without packing our bags and jumping back on the road. I knew that Akureyri had a pleasant shopping street, an interesting church, and a botanical garden but not much else about the city.
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We slept a little bit later than usual, but not much, and drove down from our guesthouse for breakfast. Kaffi Ilmur is located in a hundred-year-old house halfway up a hill at the end of Hafnarstræti, the main commercial street of Akureyri. It's the most popular place in town for breakfast for locals and tourists alike but fortunately it was only moderately busy on a Monday morning. Mei Ling went inside and ordered while I supervised the kids at the playground at the base of the hill. The food was good enough to justify the reputation and it was pleasant to watch the colorful street and the busy little playground while we ate.
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A stroll down Hafnarstræti barely took half an hour, even though we stopped for a look in most of the small stores on the street. The buildings were painted in vivid colors and some had little steeples to accentuate their fairy tale character.
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From the corner we could see the town's landmark church Akureyrarkirkja atop a steep hill. The church has the same architect as the renowned Hallgrimskirkja in Reykjavik, although it doesn't boast the same awesome dimensions. Nevertheless its position at the apex of several exhausting flights of stairs and its geometrical, modernist facade endow the church with substantial gravitas. The church was closed for a ceremony so we couldn't see the famous stained glass windows or the ship suspended from the ceiling, but we enjoyed the climb and the view of the harbor from the top of the hill.
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We came down the other side of the hill to Kaupvangsstræti, the other main street in the center of town. We were hoping to look around the Deiglan art gallery but it was closed until the afternoon. Across the street we saw the sidewalk pavers in front of the Akureyri Art Museum were painted like a quilt of bright colors. Planters next to the building were overflowing with colorful flowers. It seemed that someone had put a great deal of effort into beautifying this part of the street. Even the trash receptacles were covered with thick, woven frog cozies. We were so entranced by the vibrant display we almost didn't notice the woman who was working on a paper mache sculpture just outside of an open studio in the same building as the museum.
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The artist seemed pleased to encounter the kids and we stopped to chat with her for a while once it was clear we weren't disturbing our work. She was gracious enough to invite us all to tour her studio and didn't seem the slightest bit concerned about any of the kids damaging the artwork that was stacked everywhere. She worked in an extraordinary variety of media and it was clear she was the person remarkable for the frog cozies on the garbage receptacles.
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At this point we had seen everything of any possible interest to us downtown, and it was still morning. If we spent a couple of hours in the Botanical Garden we'd be finished by two with six hours to go before dinner. I started searching for other things to do near Akureyri, but the north of Iceland is far less interesting than the south when it comes to outdoor activities and scenic vistas. Eventually I settled on the Laufás Museum, a vicarage composed of nineteenth century turf houses that has been preserved as a heritage site. On the way back to the car we walked along the city harbor where a whale watching boat was getting ready to depart. Local teenagers were doing backflips from a short esplanade into the murky water.
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Laufás was about a half hour drive north of Akureyri, on the eastern side of Iceland's longest fjord Eyjafjörður. Without any time pressure we were able to enjoy the amazing feeling of driving on an Icelandic coastal road, with the fjord on one side of us and the omnipresent snow-capped mountains on the other. We frequently pulled over to take pictures and soak in the feeling that we were the only people in this beautiful part of the planet.
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While many of Iceland's surviving turf houses are single bedroom huts, Laufás was a relative mansion with numerous rooms that remained in use until the 1930's. The indoor furnishings were preserved as well down to the cooking implements and the skis and snowshoes used by the occupants. It was hard for us to imagine that people had been living in such different conditions in Iceland just a hundred years previously. As with many places in Iceland, the setting of the vicarage in tall grass surrounded by snow-capped mountains was breathtaking. We had a light snack in the museum cafe to tide us over until dinner.
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We still had plenty of time to kill so we continued north alongside the fjord to the tiny fishing village of Grenivik. This was the end of the highway and beyond lay the wild and uninhabited Fjörður Peninsula, accessible only by four wheel drive. The village was very modern and well-maintained, but we weren't surprised to see no sign of its human population. From a short concrete dock we could look out over the fjord to the formidable mountains on the opposite side.
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Lystigarður Akureyrar has the reputation of being the northernmost botanical garden in the world. We weren't expecting very much given the city's diminutive size but we were quite favorably impressed. There was an extensive network of paths through an extraordinary variety of colorful and interesting plants and trees, as well as several fountains and pools. We saw far more people here than we had anywhere else in Akureyri, sipping drinks at the central cafe or sprawled on the grassy meadow in front of the gazebo. It was probably the most enjoyable experience we had in the city.
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Our final approach to the problem of how to fill a day in Akureyri was to move up our dinner reservation an hour to six thirty. This worked out well because we hadn't had a real lunch and were quite hungry, and of course we had absolutely nothing else to do once we finished with the botanical garden. It was a strange situation to be in after the frantic rushing that had consumed every day of our journey up to this point. I didn't have regrets about our decision to spend two night in Akureyri but I can't say I recommend more than one night in the city for travelers who like to stay busy. Tonight's dinner was special because it was Ian's eighth birthday. The first time we had celebrated his birthday while traveling was five years earlier, and the restaurant at Prague had done a wonderful job singing Happy Birthday to him in Czech. I was hopeful we would be able to repeat the experience in Icelandic and perhaps create something of a tradition. I had hoped to make a reservation at Strikið. which seemed to be the top restaurant in the city, but for some reason it was completely booked for the whole weekend when I checked a month in advance. Instead I chose the Japanese - Icelandic fusion restaurant Rub23 which was almost equally lauded. It was right next to the art museum on Kaupvangsstræti where we had visited the studio that morning.
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Rub23 turned out to be pretty typical of an Icelandic restaurant. The Japanese food was pretty mundane and the portions were tiny, requiring us to lay out an ungodly amount of cash to avoid leaving hungry. The host got a hunted look in her eye when I asked about the birthday song and told me she would ask and let me know. Later on when I hadn't heard back I asked our waitress if it was going to happen and she told me it was. Eventually she came out all on her own with the little dessert and a candle and sang so meekly we could barely hear her. I felt a little guilty because clearly this wasn't the kind of thing they were used to doing in Iceland but the important thing was that Ian had a huge smile on his face.
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When we left the restaurant there was a large crowd of hopefuls waiting for a table. I felt gratified that our decision to eat earlier meant that another family wouldn't have to be turned away. I was also glad to have the time to beginning packing our bags in the evening, as we had to be back on the Ring Road fairly early in the morning. One of our most eagerly anticipated Icelandic adventures lay just ahead.

Posted by zzlangerhans 01:22 Archived in Iceland Tagged road_trip family_travel tony_friedman family_travel_blog grenivik laufas Comments (0)

A Southwestern USA Expedition: The Low Road to Taos


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The highway north out of Santa Fe is a pleasant drive through dusty, brown hills studded with juniper bushes that passes by the traditional pueblos of Tesuque and Pojoaque. At Pojoaque the so-called High Road takes off into the mountains but we held our course on the Low Road until we arrived at Vivác Winery, located right next to the highway. We had never known there were wineries in New Mexico, but apparently the Spaniards began planting vineyards soon after they colonized the region in the early seventeenth century. The modern era of winemaking in New Mexico began with the discovery that hybrids of French and American cultivars grew well in the dry, high altitude environment. Despite the proximity to the cars racing by it was a very idyllic place with rows of orderly grapevines and heavy bunches of unripe grapes hanging from a wooden trellis. They grew a surprising variety of red wine grapes, many of which were totally unfamiliar to us, and we shared a flight of single varietal wines and sampled the tantalizingly beautiful chocolates that were made on site.
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We took a short detour from the Low Road down Highway 75 to the tiny town of Dixon which was reputed to have a thriving artist scene. We found what seemed to be a completely deserted ghost town with a couple of closed galleries and a row of beautiful adobe buildings. We strolled around the dry, gravelly streets for a while and saw no signs of human life whatsoever.
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At this point it was just another half hour dive to Taos so we decided to go for it. I had scheduled a night in Taos on our original itinerary but ultimately decided that there wasn't enough of interest to merit the additional eastern detour. Now here we were going there anyway on a day trip. Although the name is legendary among ski resorts the only place of particular interest to us in the summer was Taos Pueblo, which we knew to be closed for COVID. We decided to see if we could drive by the pueblo anyway and at least see it from the outside. Taos proved to be a disappointment, seemingly an average colorless midwestern town albeit with more art galleries than one would expect. We drove around for a while hoping to find some area that was quaint or alluring but ultimately found it far less interesting than Steamboat Springs, where we had spent our only ski vacation. The access road to Taos Pueblo was closed denying us any opportunity to even get close.
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I hadn't done much research on the Taos area since I'd stricken it from our itinerary, so I scrambled to find an alternative to justify the journey as there wasn't anything in Taos that seemed worth getting out of our car for. Fortunately I stumbled on mentions of the Rio Grande Gorge and the Earthships Community, which proved to be very worthwhile destinations. The Rio Grande Gorge is a deep canyon through which the great Rio Grande flows for about fifty miles through northern New Mexico en route to Texas. The Rio Grande Gorge Bridge is a steel arch bridge that is one of the highest in the US highway system, six hundred and fifty feet above the river at one of the deepest parts of the gorge. There are parking lots on either side of the bridge and it's a short walk to the midpoint with great outlooks over the narrow chasm. Just as with the Colorado River at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, it is hard to comprehend how such a slender ribbon of shallow water was able to carve such a ferocious trench in the earth. It provides some humbling perspective on the tiny flash of our existence on this earth when compared to the millions of years nature needs to effect real change on the landscape.
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Just a couple miles past the bridge on Highway 64 is Earthship Biotecture, the original community of sustainable buildings that were christened Earthships by the visionary architect and founder Michael Reynolds. From the highway it appeared as though we were approaching a colony established on a distant planet, as the buildings looked like nothing else I had seen in our own world. The only thing I could compare the architecture to is the Gaudi creations of Park Güell in Barcelona, although I think the resemblance is purely accidental. The ingenious design of the buildings becomes more apparent as we approached closer on foot. The main principle of Earthship construction is that the homes should be as environmentally sustainable as possible. Towards that end they rely largely on solar and wind energy for climate control and power and on recycling of waste for building. The basic units of construction are discarded tires filled with compacted earth and walls or bricks made of recycled bottles and cans, with the gaps filled with concrete or adobe. The final result is extremely different from traditional architectural aesthetics but also very beautiful in its own way. Water conservation and sustainable organic food production are other important elements of Earthship life. While the community of sixty buildings we were now visiting was the original assemblage of structures created and inspired by Michael Reynolds, the concept has spread around the world and there are now Earthships on five continents. We had arrived too late to see the interior of the building that is open for self-tours, but we greatly enjoyed studying the whimsical and colorful exteriors. If we ever return to Taos, we'll strongly consider staying in one of the Earthships that is open for short-term rentals.
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I had planned on taking the High Road from Taos back to Chimayo but somewhere along the way Google Maps switched me back to the Low Road and by the time I realized we were off course it was too late. Instead we retraced our course on the Low Road all the way back to Española and then headed east on Highway 76. It was an interesting drive through wooded working class residential areas interspersed with the occasional art gallery. Our destination was Rancho de Chimayó, a legendary outpost of New Mexican cuisine. We already had a dinner reservation in Santa Fe but we hadn't had a real meal since the farmers market and we were starving. The restaurant occupies most of a sprawling, colorfully decorated hacienda on the outskirts of the small town. The large parking area was already filling up but we were fortunate to be early arrivals and we were shown to an outdoor table on an upper level. Mei Ling suggested I cancel our reservation in Santa Fe but I had been highly anticipating that dinner at one of the city's most recommended restaurants. Instead we restrained ourselves and ordered just enough food to assuage our hunger. We ordered modest portions of salsa and sopapillas and followed them with salad and trout. We then had to rush back to the highway to make our dinner reservation and missed our chance to see the town's other landmark, the Santuario de Chimayo church. And of course, Mei Ling was right as usual. The highly recommended tapas restaurant near the plaza proved to be barely average.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 01:47 Archived in USA Tagged taos chimayo family_travel travel_blog friedman tony_friedman family_travel_blog earthships Comments (0)

A Southwestern USA Expedition: Santa Fe


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Santa Fe was a pretty important milestone for our road trip. Aside from being a highly anticipated destination of itself, it meant we had reached the eastward vertex of the triangular itinerary that began in Las Vegas. By the time we left, we would be halfway through the trip and aside from Salt Lake City we would be finished with major cities. We were eager to explore this iconic American city and compare it with Albuquerque, the surprisingly beautiful and enjoyable city we had just departed.
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Our visit to Santa Fe got off to a great start with our Airbnb, a perfect adobe cottage in a beautiful enclave of similar homes tucked away on a tiny alley. The entrance to the alley off the main road was so unobtrusive that we passed it twice before figuring out where to turn. The interior was comfortable and inviting, compact but spacious enough to suit our needs.
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We had some time to kill before dinner so we headed to Santa Fe Plaza, the center of the old town that dates back to the time when the city was just a Spanish fort on the colonial frontier. Some of the famous buildings in the area of the plaza are the Palace of the Governors and The Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. Across from the cathedral is the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts whose colorful pillars have become a city landmark since they were painted in 2015. The galleries and sidewalk craft vendors that lined the plaza were somewhat of a disappointment after Albuquerque's Old Town. We didn't see much authentic, high quality work at reasonable prices. It seemed mostly to be either knick-knacks or overpriced jewelry designed to appeal to tourists.
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Our first dinner in Santa Fe was the strangest meal of the trip, and possibly one of the weirdest we've ever experienced. I chose Liu Liu Liu because it was clearly a unique restaurant in a city which didn't seem particular adventurous from a culinary perspective. Our GPS took us far from the center to an unappealing strip mall dominated by the parking lot of a Food King supermarket. The restaurant was nowhere to be seen. There were no address numbers on the storefront and the GPS seemed to be pointing to either a barber shop or a driver's education school. It seemed that Google Maps had led us astray but I double checked the address on our reservation confirmation three times. I was about to try calling the restaurant when I saw there was another door between the barber and the school that didn't appear to belong to either of those business. Sure enough the door had the name of the restaurant in small lettering. Inside was a tiny, dark restaurant with just six tables and a bar. A few more tables were in a fenced-off patio just outside. There was only one other table occupied so we had almost the full attention of the server and the maître d', who was clearly also one of the owners. I felt a little awkward at first in such a rarefied environment with the three kids but they were behaving well and the owner was very laid back. I immediately noticed that the first page of the menu was devoted entirely to different kinds of water and asked the maître d' about it. He told me he had been a "water sommelier" at a restaurant in Los Angeles and began an extensive description of the different kinds of water with respect to qualities such as mineral content. Ironically I belong to a tiny minority of people who dislike water intensely. When I'm at home I only drink carbonated water mixed with lime juice and when I travel I drink mostly beer or unsweetened tea if I can't find the lime juice. I couldn't tell how serious the water thing was meant to be and I wasn't sure how long I should let him expound on it when I had absolutely zero interest in water. It was quite distracting searching for the entrees after the long list of waters and boutique soft drinks, and the eventual selection proved to be quite small. We ended up choosing most of the dishes which were generally Taiwanese-inspired but executed in a very avant-garde manner. I wish I could say that the food was outstanding but honestly most of it wasn't to our taste. Regardless it had been a very interesting and memorable experience and I probably would have done it the same way again, especially considering the lack of other distinctive restaurants in Santa Fe. I'm always happy to see new restaurants taking chances and breaking with a conservative dining scene.

I had timed our stop in Santa Fe so that we would be able to visit the Santa Fe Farmers Market, also known as the Railyard Market, on Saturday morning. The Railyard is a formerly-blighted area around the city's train depot that has been redeveloped over the last fifteen years and is now a hub for art galleries, cultural centers, brewpubs, and all the usual hipster hangouts. The centerpiece of the area is the large Saturday farmers market that sprawls alongside the old railroad tracks. It was a fun and energetic market with plenty of fresh produce and some oddities like a guy selling red composting worms.
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Besides the outdoor tents there was a large covered mercado with more fresh produce, prepared foods, and some crafts. At the far end of the market there was an artisans market with more craftspeople and artists that worked in different media. So far we had done very well with farmers markets for two weekends in a row after finding very little of interest in Las Vegas.
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We made a brief stop at Liquid Light Glass to see if we could watch any glassblowing. Their classes were already booked even if he had wanted to participate but we were content to watch from outside the studio for a while. The showroom inside had some beautiful glass sculptures but there are few things more stressful than trying to watch three kids simultaneously in a room full of fragile and valuable glass. Cleo is pretty responsible at this point but Ian is a risk for bumping into shelves and Spenser is a total wild card.
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If there's one thing Santa Fe is famous for besides adobe buildings it is art galleries. Of course Canyon Road has the highest concentration but there are other areas such as the Railyard that are full of galleries as well. The queen of all Santa Fe's galleries is Nedra Matteuci Galleries, a sprawling two acre estate filled with art that hides an amazing sculpture garden within its walls. The focus here was on more traditional 19th and 20th century Southwestern art than the exuberant abstracts of the Railyard and Canyon Road. We dutifully trudged through the labyrinth of rooms but our real interest was the garden. We finally found the entrance to the garden in one of the back rooms and found ourselves in an urban oasis full of greenery and whimsical bronze sculptures. Somehow we were the only people in the garden despite it being Saturday morning at the height of tourist season. This amazing and unique place may not be available to visit for much longer as the property has apparently been listed for sale after more than thirty years of being the Matteuci gallery.
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We were now just a block away from the beginning of Canyon Road and the logical next step would have been to walk down the iconic road hopping from gallery to gallery, but we realized we couldn't face it. We'd been soaking up art in New Mexico ever since Zuni and by this point we'd simply had enough. It didn't seem fair to the kids either since they'd put up with so many galleries in Albuquerque, Madrid, and Santa Fe over the last few days. I impulsively decided that we would embark on the itinerary we had originally planned for Sunday and drive towards Taos along the route known as the Low Road, a day trip that I've written about separately here.

On our last day in Santa Fe I was at something of a loss. We had pretty much blown through our whole itinerary the first day and until the evening I only had our back-up destinations to keep us occupied. Oddly enough it was chilly and rainy in the morning, a sharp contrast to the oppressively hot weather we had endured for most of the trip thus far. After breakfast we returned to the Railyard to visit the weekly Artisan's Market. The market had some interesting crafts but a lot of the stalls were devoted to clothes and antiques which weren't really our thing.
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The Santa Fe Botanical Garden and many of the city's museums are clustered together in a small area called Museum Hill, in the southeastern part of town. I've always liked to visit botanical gardens when we travel since they're usually beautiful places and keep the kids occupied in the outdoors. This one had some interesting sculptures but it was quite small and dare I say it, somewhat ratty. We went through it in about an hour.
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We're not big on museums but since we were already in the museum zone and I had hardly any ideas left for the afternoon we dropped into the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture. The fellow at the front desk let us know that much of the museum was closed that day so we decided not to go for the half price offer and just visited the gift shop instead. On the other side of the plaza was the Museum of International Folk Art which had a little more to see but was mainly a way for us to kill time. This was the first time on the trip that we'd found ourselves without enough to do. When we couldn't stand to look at any more dolls and masks I started hunting around for an early dinner. I found a Japanese restaurant that didn't really work for us but the spa hotel that it was associated with looked so interesting that we decided to drive all the way to the northeastern outskirts of town to take a look for ourselves. Ten Thousand Waves is a Japanese-style bath house built on a steep hill just off the highway to the local ski resort. Seeing such typical Japanese buildings in rural New Mexico felt quite incongruous. It was the most interesting thing we'd seen the whole day.
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We drove back to the middle of town to eat at Chomp, Santa Fe's lone food hall. From the looks of things Santa Fe might be headed back to zero food halls in the near future. Despite being only six months old the space seemed dilapidated and somewhat depressing, with only a few customers. There were only five or six restaurants and just a couple seemed to be open. We were able to put together a meal of pizza and Cambodian food but the dreary atmosphere was a far cry from the Sawmill Market in Albuquerque.
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There was no question that this had been the weakest day of our journey so far, but it was only a small damper on a spectacular first half of the road trip. Santa Fe had proved to be a major anticlimax after Albuquerque. We could certainly see the attraction of the beautiful adobe art galleries but there was much less of an authentic urban vibe. Most of the allure of Santa Fe seemed designed for the pleasure of the tourists and the privileged, and the city faded quickly outside of the center. Perhaps we missed some facets of the city during our short stay but we found very little to occupy us in Santa Fe even though we made sure our visit coincided with the weekend. If it hadn't been for the amazing day trip on the Low Road to Taos my decision to spend three nights in Santa Fe would have been a major error. We still weren't quite done with the city, though. I had booked an evening slot at House of Eternal Return, Meow Wolf's original immersive art experience that preceded Omega Mart in Las Vegas. It was another interesting quirk of our itinerary that it had taken us to both of Meow Wolf's installations, and we were optimistic that the second would be as good as the first if not better.

Outside of the warehouse that housed the Meow Wolf experience were several enormous sculptures similar to those outside Area 15 in Las Vegas. There was a colossal robot, a giant dog constructed from blue metal panels, and an ominous spider that reminded me of the one outside the Guggenheim in Bilbao. On the inside, House of Eternal Return was fronted by a creepy house that appeared to have been abandoned by a distressed family. It quickly became clear that the central mystery was far too complex and metaphysical for us to tackle, but at least there were some individual puzzles here that could be solved. And of course the house had all the colorful art, cool audiovisual installations, and secret tunnels the kids had loved at Omega Mart. It was a good way to end what had been a disappointing day up to that point.
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Our departure from Santa Fe didn't just mark the midpoint of our journey in time. Up to this point we had been visiting major cities at regular intervals and enjoying the relative comforts of urban tourism. From here on we had a much more strenuous and unfamiliar path through Native American lands, small towns, and national parks with few stops more than a single night. What we were really doing was cramming two separate road trips into one long itinerary, and we were about to embark on the second adventure. We celebrated the moment with one of our best breakfasts of the trip at Dolina, a Slovakian cafe that we had almost overlooked even though it was just steps away from our Airbnb. The savory goulash and other Eastern European specialties were a welcome change from the Southwestern breakfasts we had been growing accustomed to. Pleasantly fortified, we set off for our first major challenge of the second act, the Bisti Wilderness.

Posted by zzlangerhans 01:46 Archived in USA Tagged taos family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog earthships Comments (0)

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