Tuesday, September 30, 2014

All Around the World: Iceland and Norway (and a little bit of London)

Wanderlust: A very strong and irresistible impulse or desire to travel the world.

Iceland and Norway (and a little bit of London)

Remember how I said while I was on vacation my roof leaked and blah, blah, blah? I want to focus on that vacation, my friends, a vacation in Iceland and Norway AKA "The Most Ooo-ey and Aah-ey Trip Ever."

We decided to take a cruise so we could hit up all of the spots we wanted to see in an easy way. We'd heard the two countries were vast and could require a lot of driving, so we found a 12 day Royal Caribbean cruise leaving out of Southampton, England. This was perfect because it gave us some time to spend in one of my favorite cities- London. One thing I always recommend is to fly in an extra day early before your cruise ship is supposed to leave in the event that you run into an airline/airplane issue. You don't want to get left behind in the airport terminal on the day your cruise is leaving due to a broken plane.

London. There is nothing I don't like about London. I won't go into too much about things to do/see in London, but I will say that because we didn't have a lot of time there, we took advantage of the original Hop-On Hop-Off bus tour, which was well worth our time. Loved every minute and I would do it again in a heartbeat. That evening, we dined at a gluten free Italian restaurant, Cotto, that offered entirely gluten free options to everything on their menu. The owner came and sat with us for a while and we had a lovely talk with him about his life and how he came to make gluten free food (he suffers from Celiac). We shared a pasta with sausage and an incredible seafood risotto, which I highly recommend.

It's pretty easy to get to Southampton from London. All you need to do is hop a train for about 90 minutes (from the Waterloo station), and you're there. The cruise port is very close to the train station, however, I recommend taking a cab instead of walking only because the roads are uneven and it's not the easiest walking conditions with suitcases. The cab ride is worth the five pounds, trust me. My suitcase recommends this as well.

You have to be at sea for two days to get to Iceland, which meant plenty of boat time. Since that's a topic really all of it's own, and since the differences between two particular lines and how they do gluten free dining is different, that will be part two of this next week. For now, let's focus on the awesomeness that is known as Iceland.

Our first stop for the first two days was Reykjavik (pronounced ray-kuh-vick). On the first day we went to the world famous Blue Lagoon. After all of the stresses of moving, a dip in the hot blue waters was exactly what we needed. The rain broke long enough for us to enjoy the beauty, warmth, and magic that is the Blue Lagoon. The water is truly beautiful and it is worth your while to visit. It's quite a distance away, so you would either need to rent a car or book a local tour to get you there.

We had several hours to kill and I had a personal mission of finding a church I had dreamed of seeing in person, Hallgrimskirkja (pronounced - your guess is as good as mine. I never could get it right). We bought tickets for an elevator ride to the top which provided us with amazing city views from all directions. We attempted to stop for dinner, but ran out of time to actually stay and eat. While I don't normally recommend gluten free places without having dined there, I must say just based on the smells, amazing service, and cool atmosphere of the place, KOL Kitchen and Bar is a place to try. Many of their items are gluten free.

The next day we went on an eco tour, Ring of Fire, that circled around Hengill, an active volcano. We saw a geothermal plant powered by the volcano that produces energy and hot water for something like 90% of people there, a town called Hveragerdi and it's bubbling hot springs (where they bake their cakes, muffins, and bread right from the steam vents), and Thingveller, a UNESCO neovolcanic rift zone where you literally cross over from one continent to another.
A view from Thingvellir

While I very much enjoyed seeing the mighty power of Iceland on this tour, I must admit that it would have been better to rent a car and go out and about on a drive on my own. I say this because there were many places I would have liked to stop at along the way or stop at longer (like Thingvellar - that deserves a nice, long visit). Keep that in mind if you're there. The roads are well paved, small, and easy to navigate, so renting a car is perfect. One adorable thing I learned was about the animals of the land. Lambs and ewe's travel in packs of 3, usually with one ewe watching over the two lambs. Everywhere we went, three little sheep. Another interesting fact…they have earthquakes every single day in Iceland. And a lot of them! I believe they said it's normal to experience 30 a day. They must be small, because I don't recall feeling one, but nonetheless, wow!

The next day was spent in Akureyri (pronounced just like it looks, ack-you're-eh-ree), probably my favorite stop of all. We went on a tour called Jewels of the North and yes, these beautiful things we saw were true treasures. We looked at pseudo-craters at Skutustadir, the geothermal field at Dimmuborgir, the Godafoss "Waterfall of the Gods," Lake Myvatn, and some very smelly (albeit beautiful) sulphur pots. If there's anything I wish I had done differently, it would have been renting a car this day and driving this on my own. I could have stopped a million times at every beautiful thing we passed. The hotel/restaurant with views over Lake Myvatn made me the most delicious gluten free cheese sandwich I've ever had, and I don't even like cheese. But really, they were so accommodating and the bread was amazing. The great thing about the cruise port here is that the town is right by. There were some very cute little stores to shop at with some very large fake trolls, as this part of the world is full of legends of trolls, giants, and mystical magic.

After Iceland we were headed to the picture postcard perfectness of Norway- turquoise waters, green mountains, complete and utter breathtaking beauty. Our first stop was in Trondheim. We didn't have nearly enough time in Trondheim and because of that, plus just how beautiful Norway is, we'll be going back to Norway for a full blown Everything Norway trip one day. Norway reminds me of Switzerland in the sense that everything is so ridiculously beautiful it's hard to believe you haven't just stepped into a painting. Norway is gorgeous!

Trondheim reminded me of Venice, with this one giant canal and all the colorful buildings lining it. We did a quick Trondheim Sightseeing tour and visited the very beautiful Nidaros Cathedral before walking back to the ship. If you go straight past the church you can find a very popular bridge that leads you to a walking path through the city. It was gorgeous and it had a gluten free cafe, Annas Kafe, along the way with gluten free options of everything and amazing customer service.
The bridge to the walking path.

After our too short day in Trondheim, we went to Alesund (pronounced Ole-eh-son) and had a walking tour through town before venturing out on our own. Little towns that are close to the cruise ports allow you to do whatever you want and those are my personal favorite. There's nothing quite like having your own unplanned adventure.

One thing we ended up doing was getting on a Hop-On Hop-Off city tour to take us specifically to Mount Aksla for views of the city. Normally, you can walk a 400+ step path up to the mountain, but it was closed down for construction. The bus tour was great and had I known about it, I probably would have opted to do that instead of the walking tour. That being said, our tour guide was fantastic and oh-so kind. Not to mention, she showed us things we wouldn't have found on our own and took us right past a store with my new all time favorite thing ever, Christmas Gnomes. This was me all day, but with, well, gnomes.

"Ohhh, it's a gnome! A gnome, a gnome! Give me the gnome, give me the gnome, givemethegnome!"

Seriously, I have a slight-verging-on-very-serious addiction to what is actually referred to as Christmas Santa's or Tomten's. But for real, you guys, look how cute they are! I mean it, look! They're so stinking adorable! My heart is so happy right now.

So, uh, anyway…back to, uh, Norway, and stuff…
After Alesund we were headed to Olden, my all time favorite day of the trip. Olden is this tiny town in-between big, beautiful, glorious fjords. There were a lot of wonderful touring options that day but I must say I think ours was the best. Not only did we get to cruise on lake Loen, but once we got to Kjenndalen we got to eat waffles (they made me fresh gluten free waffles with the traditional strawberry jelly and sour cream, which is so good I am drooling right this second) and got see the very blue and very famous Briksdalen Glacier. I loved this day.

I would do this day over one hundred times. It was a rainy, cloudy, coldish day, but it was so beautiful I didn't feel it. Lake Loen has the most blue, calm, serene water I've ever seen. The mist and the mountains just make it that much more jaw dropping. The little waffle house in the middle of nowhere, gah! Too cute. And even though we saw the glacier from a distance, it's beauty did not escape me. Nor did all the stories of trolls and giants, as I walked the little path through the mountains to the glacier. I could feel the history, the legends, alive and well in those mountains.

Our last stop was in Stavanger (pronounced stah-vaughn-yah) where we had ample time to take a famous Lysefjord boat ride, walk the pebbled Old Town path, and explore the lively city. The boat trip was very nice, but I have to admit, Olden kind of ruined it for me. While the Lysefjord was quite impressive and beautiful, Olden was far more so. That being said, we did see goats, seals sun bathing, and drank water right from a waterfall, so that was quite fun.

Goats on the mountain

The Pulpit Rock
Seals sun bathing

The Old Town (only a few steps from the cruise port) was lovely, as was the little cafe situated within it's walking paths that had homemade raspberry ice cream that was so good I would punch someone for it right now. We did some good touristy shopping (I got more gnomes), but we were really surprised by how American the stores in the city were. We had all of them back home so it wasn't all that exciting. However, we walked to the edge of the boardwalk, took a right, and found an incredibly colorful, hippie like section of town that was awesome.

This was a trip that did not disappoint. If you ever have the chance to go to these two amazing places, go. Keep in mind the different seasons and the different things you get with them. For example, I would love to go back to Iceland in winter so I can go on a reindeer sled ride and experience the all encompassing white beauty of winter. Regardless of when you go, just go. The people are great, the food is good, the nature and history and beauty of the land is breathtaking.

Part Two coming next week: A cruise line comparison with gluten free food reviews.

You can find all of these pictures and more on my Society6 page!

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