Early arrival to Iceland’s KEF (Reykjavik) airport should be followed by a trip to the pool

Flights from the USA to Iceland typically arrive at KEF very early in the morning.

Though KEF is often referred to as “Reykjavik” airport for marketing purposes, it is actually 45 minutes outside the capital in the city of Keflavik. There is a smaller city airport that handles short flights from Reykjavik proper, but that is irrelevant to most international visitors except, perhaps, those from Greenland.

“Very early” on my two flights to Iceland meant before 6 am. At least in June unlike March, this was after sunrise.

Food & transport from the airport

KEF is a fairly nice airport. It is modern and well designed. Though it could use more water bottle filler fountains. Iceland, however, is a tiny island nation with a population of just a few hundred thousand people.

Keflavik isn’t New York City. This isn’t a 24 hour kind of town. Even Reykjavik itself, where the majority of the nation’s citizens live, doesn’t offer too much for the tourist before 8 or 9 am.

Sporty types who don’t suffer jet lag so badly could take a lovely walk or hike. Nature, in June, is open 20+ hours per day.

The wrong way to arrive: witless & unprepared

On our first visit, the kids and I rode the FlyBus from the airport to our hotel. Naturally, our room wasn’t ready yet just past 8:00. After all, typical check in times are in the early afternoon.

We sat in the lobby staring dumbly at the poor receptionist, and she did get us into our room by about 9:30 am. It was a miserable first couple of hours in a new place, however.

Icelandic pastry

A typical Icelandic pastry, according to our favorite tour guide, Steinthor

The kids were too tired to even go in search of pastries when the receptionist suggested a bakery nearby!

Better alternative: ready to meet bodily needs

Having a much better idea of what to expect upon arrival, I planned more wisely for our second trip to Iceland. Of course, it helped that it was just me and my now teenaged son. He’s reached a stage of offering more help than he requires, especially when it comes to schlepping heavy luggage about.

I was going to rely upon public transit options again, but decided on a rental car at the last minute.

We could have reached a public pool via mass transit and reasonable walks, but it would have been one nearer our lodging and after taking the FlyBus away from the airport.

Rental car freedom

The forecast called for chilly days (in the low 40’s F) and plenty of clouds and rain… in mid June.

There was also a museum I’d wished to visit on the first go ’round that remained just as difficult to access without a car. It was so tantalizingly close to the airport… but the city bus only ran from there back to Hafnarfjördur and Reykjavik every two hours. Missing it would mean a very expensive taxi ride, in the ballpark of the auto rental cost, or an unacceptably long wait.

If I found myself so exhausted from the flight that I couldn’t drive safely, I determined we would nap in the car for an hour or so before leaving the grounds of the airport. I felt better having a backup plan in place, even one in which I felt like a bit of a vagabond.

Even if you dislike driving a strange car in a foreign country, it is pretty manageable in Iceland. Traffic is light, eliminating the thing I hate most about driving near my suburban home in the USA.

Icelandic drivers rank, en masse, somewhere in the middle of the pack I’ve experienced worldwide for road manners; they aren’t as courteous as Oregonians, but behave less aggressively than New Yorkers. There’s none of the insanity of Rome or Israel.

While road signs are in Icelandic and can throw you for a loop, most turns on major roads are roundabouts, so you can just keep circling while your child navigator figures out the way, or rely upon the GPS who will mangle the Icelandic language for all s/he/it is worth so you can enjoy a good laugh while you are circling the rotary for the fourth time.

Between Iceland’s major airport and capital, road conditions are good. Consider that “possible weather events excepted,” of course, but, even in Iceland, those are somewhat less risky in June.

Breakfast at KEF: not many options

I’d already determined from my online research that buying an espresso and sandwich or pastry on site before heading out would be our likeliest spot for a very early breakfast. There is a Dunkin’ Donuts branded cafe after customs at KEF arrivals, co-located with a convenience store.

Dunkin’ Donuts didn’t open until 8:00. The people of New England will be outraged when they learn of this. Dunkin’ Donuts is bizarrely popular where I live.

Joe & the Juice was doing a brisk business, though, and it was also quite near the car rental kiosks. A turkey and pesto sandwich (hold the mozzarella for DS’s lactose intolerance) helped kick start our groggy metabolisms. Yeah, the espresso helped a bit, too! A packaged caramel muffin proved a necessary adjunct for the voracious teen.

The museum was only 15 minutes or so from KEF, but it didn’t open until 8 am. Even taking our tiiiiiiiiime at the airport, we would be at least an hour earlier than the door opened. Plus, I knew I’d feel grungy and sore after sleeping in a cramped Icelandair Economy seat.

Note: the seats have really gone downhill on Icelandair between Boston and Keflavik. I think this was the worst seat I’ve ever had for legroom. I was disappointed, remembering this otherwise nice airline as much, much better a few years ago!

Does jet lag wash off?

The solution was the local pool, Reykjanes Swimming Center/Waterworld. It was only about ten minutes from the airport, and that includes time spent driving around a construction project that barred the GPS’s suggested route. Note: this is easy driving, too, with very light traffic. I hate using rental cars, but hardly minded it, even jet lagged, stiff and sore, and in a city I’d never visited before.

Americans, take note: this is more like your local YMCA pool than the “Waterworld” name might imply. Yes, there is one waterslide and a children’s activity room indoors, but both of those were closed during our 7 am visit. The facilities were quite nice and up to date, but nothing like a theme park.

There are a few major benefits to hitting the pool first thing. For me, having a chance to wash my hair before sightseeing was a big one. My morning shower is an integral part of my waking up ritual. It helps me to feel like myself.

Next in importance to me is having somewhere to go before I can check in to my hotel anyway. I’m not a skulker or “see what I can get away with” kind of a person. I’m careful and rule abiding. I don’t want to nap by the side of the road or in an airport, but I’m also not up to much more than a good nap after a night flight.

Visiting an Icelandic city pool offers a great insight into what regular, everyday life is like for people here. It isn’t just hardcore lap swimmers and toddlers taking lessons like I’d see on a weekday morning at my local YMCA. Icelanders are socializing and meeting up in the water.

There were more retirees represented than any other age group at this hour and in this neighborhood, though.

The abundance of cheap geothermal energy from the volcanic activity underfoot means outdoor pools are heated to comfortable temperatures no matter how cold the air temperature is that day. In addition to a moderately warm heated pool (cooler on the lap swimming side), there have been multiple hot tubs (locally translated as “hot pots”) at each facility I’ve visited as well.

Waterworld had three: 36-39 C in both shallow and deep varieties and 41-43 C with the deeper sitting depth.

I believe there was also a cold plunge pool, but the object I guessed to be such wasn’t labeled with a sign and there was no temperature posted to help me confirm my guess. One guy climbed into whatever that was, however.

Having traveled with so much discomfort up front that I failed to raise my arms high enough for the TSA cancer inducer body scanner to clear me as a terrorist threat, I was less than limber upon arrival. I spent every minute past the safety briefing of my too-short-for-a-night’s-sleep five hour flight in fitful sleep, but it wasn’t restorative. I struggled to reach my feet for the required soapy shower before going into an Icelandic pool.

At that point, the hot pots offered unmitigated bliss.

While our two night stopover in Hafnarfjördur, Iceland, was designed primarily to ease my travel related pain and jet lag (i.e., it wasn’t intense or highly scheduled), I do believe that hitting the pools provided a soothing balm to both of these maladies.

Warm water is obviously going to ease joint pain. So does reducing one’s experience of gravity due to buoyancy, of course. But the effect upon jet lag was just as profound and somewhat less expected. I suppose the combination of light exercise and being outdoors under the sun in the morning explains most of it.

Read more about what foreigners should expect at an Icelandic public swimming pool, especially for those of us with mild mobility impairments who wonder about handicapped or otherwise accessible accommodations in the facilities.

Prevalent smoking should, perhaps, keep you from visiting Austria

Austria is a lovely place to visit. It has gorgeous scenery, world class art and architecture to enjoy, and a population that generally struck me as warm and welcoming.

img_0895Bilingual acquaintances from the German language learning camp in Minnesota we attended told us that we would be given more opportunity to practice our speaking skills in Austria when compared with Germany. I found this to be true.

Austrians were, as a rule, friendly and helpful. They really didn’t immediately switch to English when they heard my attempts to speak deutsch. (Germans generally do, in my experience. And, yes, their English is better than my German, almost to the man, and woman, and very small child...)

 

Perhaps the one overriding negative experienced by an American tourist in Österreich—if the language barrier is a benefit to you as it is to me, as opposed to a real barrier—is the constant exposure to second hand smoke.

img_1055.jpgI’m old enough to remember the bad old days of smoking sections in the closed compartment of an airplane, though, thankfully, those disappeared before I began flying several times per year to attend college. Smoky bars and restaurants where I wouldn’t go with my friends due to air pollution were a real issue well into my young adulthood.

Being in Austria is like being transported into the past in this regard. It took me several days to adjust. Young people in the USA today probably don’t have the adaptive response to scope out a cafe before taking a seat lest one inadvertently land in the stinking smoking section.

Though there was some Austrian legislation enacted in recent years to create separate smoking and non-smoking sections in restaurants, I still experienced unpleasantly smoky interiors several times during my trip.

Worse yet, it seems that Austrians don’t feel a need to segregate outdoor space for both smokers and non-smokers in any way. Some of us are sensitive enough that, no, even being seated the great outdoors is not enough to make it okay to sit at a table adjacent to or downwind from an active smoker.

My eyes water, and I start to cough. It’s not posturing; the smoke simply does affect me that quickly. My tearing eyes swelling shut and the irritation in my throat make me look around for the source, not the other way around.

Worse yet, because smoking is taken so much for granted in Austria, newcomers into a restaurant or onto a terrace who plan to smoke don’t think to take seats at a maximum distance from non-smokers who are already there. Try though I did to sit “far away” from all the smokers in otherwise lovely cafes, I was constantly being smoked out by new arrivals in Austria.

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These polite Austrian smokers sat at the stern of our pleasure cruise ship on the Danube, but the entire open top deck stank of cigar smoke from one man sitting forward at the bow

I gather that the xenophobic right wing government* currently in power is working to defend the rights of smokers even more violently valiantly in Austria. What a tragedy for the health of Austria’s citizens. Because, while I am easily swayed by libertarian arguments on many issues, smoking is simply not the same as free thought or speech.

The smoker has at least the option of a filter between himself and the known carcinogen he opts to ignite and inhale; standing nearby, my right to breathe freely is stolen from me.

Smoking in public places fundamentally infringes on the health and safety of others in the space. There are few other vices so directly malevolent to the public good.

Heavy drinker? While you could overindulge and vomit onto my shoes, you may be a quiet, maudlin drunk and not affect me at all. There is no equivalent for smokers. Anyone in the presence of a lit cigarette is being affected; the only remedy is to leave.

When someone invents the “smoker’s spacesuit” that operates with complete isolation of its user’s air supply and exhaust, there will be room to discuss the rights of smokers to light up in crowded public spaces.

I acknowledge your right to smoke, but I’d say the responsibility you shoulder when exercising that right is to maintain a great distance between yourself and others while you do so. The fact that you can no longer smell smoke from a few feet away is a part of the burden you’ve elected to carry with your habit; healthy people can be negatively affected at a dozen feet or more.

I was charmed by many kind, witty, thoughtful Austrians whom I encountered there. It was otherwise a wonderful place to visit, and there are many sights around the country I’d love to come back to see. Until a more modern and health-conscious public smoking policy has been enacted, however, I will probably stay away, and I would most certainly never take my asthmatic child to such a dangerous place.

Schade. What a shame.

*Self styled as the “Freedom Party,” though formed by former Nazi party members after WWII. Once again, do we see the same party harming others to grant themselves more freedom to enjoy their own lives?

A NY Times article I read while writing this post goes into more details of the political situation.

Velvet Burger restaurant, Riccarton, Christchurch, NZ

Carnivores who find themselves hungry on Riccarton Road in Christchurch, New Zealand, should consider stopping in at Velvet Burger. I know that I will return if I’m ever back in the neighborhood.

This might be where I confess that my husband believes our elder son was built entirely from hamburgers based upon my eating habits during my first pregnancy.NZ Food Velvet Burger - 3

NZ restaurant Velvet Burger Riccarton Chch - 2Velvet Burger does offer a Vege option, and their fries—both potato and kumara sweet potato—looked pretty darn good, but I would think being around so many meat eaters might be less than appealing for the Vegan set.

Eat down the road at exclusively vegetarian Dux Dine instead if you are offended by sharing space with the omnivores.

Gluten free buns were available for an extra charge.

Here’s my Velvet Lady chicken burger, sliced in half because I wasn’t sure I could finish it. I ordered it without bacon.

NZ Food Velvet Burger - 2nz-restaurant-velvet-burger-riccarton-chch-3.jpg

If I eat here again, I’ll order from Velvet Burger’s list of Mini menu items. A 3/4 size sandwich would suffice for me.

The bun for the regular Velvet Lady was nearly the size of a luncheon plate and a bit flatter/thinner than I’m used to back home. It had the mild taste of other New Zealand white sandwich bread I tried. I suspect they use less salt in the baking, as a rule, but I don’t have the supertaster skill set to say this for sure. The bun had no seeds, which is what I prefer.

Velvet Burger offers vege, chicken, pork, and lamb burgers.

For the traditionalist, of course, they offer beef patties, too.

NZ restaurant menu Velvet Burger ChCh Beef Pork

Menu Velvet Burger beef pork

You’ll order at the counter, then take a seat with your little numbered flag to help the staff find you when your order is ready.

As with most New Zealand cafes, drinking water was self serve and both glasses and larger refillable bottles were available to take to your table. It’s an easy nation in which to stay hydrated without increasing your carbon footprint.

The restaurant wasn’t crowded when I stopped in during the early afternoon. Though the finishes weren’t overly plush, there was no din such as one finds in some industrially styled public spaces. Both booths and tables were available.

Restrooms are tucked away in the back hall. They were clean, and there were several. No complaints here.

I happened upon Velvet Burger when I went in search of the bus depot. I wanted to find my bus stop first to be certain of its location, then eat a late lunch before heading into the suburbs to meet DH after work. You’ll find this Riccarton restaurant very convenient for a quick stop before boarding public transit in Christchurch.

Roma on Riccarton Luxury Motel in Christchurch, New Zealand: everything you need, with a smile

We didn’t choose the Roma on Riccarton Luxury Motel near Christchurch‘s Hagley Park and a reasonable walk from the Central Business District. Since DH was traveling for work, his extraordinarily helpful host from a local University made our reservations.

Sometimes, collegiate sponsorship means staying in student housing that is barely adequate though students these days are getting fancier digs than I remember! Other hosts seek to thrill my illustrious spouse with “charming” accommodations in historic properties. Those are my favorite, but his nightmare. DH prefers predictable, three- to four- star chain hotels with room service offering standard American fare. If there isn’t a basic hamburger* available on the menu, he’ll come home sighing about his stay.

Getting back to the Roma on Riccarton, the most important thing a foreigner should know is that the motel designation does not carry a downmarket connotation in New Zealand like it does in America. It would be hard to take a name combining “Luxury” and “Motel” seriously back home.

NZ Motel Roma on Riccarton - street viewIn the USA, I tend to avoid motels when traveling alone or as a solo mom with children in tow. I prefer the greater security of indoor corridors and staff at a centralized front desk. It’s absolutely true that there’s a lot of convenience to unloading from the car straight through a motel room’s door. It’s also true that crime, both violent and petty, makes that same easy access doorway a risk in many places.

This time, I was staying with my husband, and the Roma on Riccarton parking lot was small, open to bustling Riccarton Road, and frequented by the cheerful owner and his wife.

I felt quite safe staying here, and we were confident enough in our surroundings to leave windows open for ventilation night and day.

NZ Motel Roma on Riccarton - doorNZ Motel Roma on Riccarton - parking lotThe entire property presented a welcoming and cheerful aspect. The central car park wasn’t overly busy, and it didn’t create any noise nuisance for us, either. The light colored, stucco exterior had an almost Mediterranean appearance, but was modernized by the extensive use of glass in large doors and windows.

Perhaps it was due to New Zealand’s strict building codes for seismic resilience, etc., but noise from other guests or the busy road simply was not an issue. If I hadn’t seen cars and people coming and going, I could’ve assumed I was alone in this motel based strictly on volume.

Though centrally located, rooms here are very quiet.

Motel comfort and amenities

Bed

Most vital to any lodging’s rating, in my opinion, is a comfortable bed of reasonable size. We found that at the Roma on Riccarton. Our room—of the standard, Executive Studio, not spa bath type—had a large (queen?) bed made up with crisp white linens.

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Hokitika Gorge and the town of the same name on New Zealand’s West Coast

The town of Hokitika on New Zealand’s West Coast reminded me of a nostalgic seaside experience I’d never actually had. Though the views are spectacular and tourism services are plenty, the region maintains an element of the undiscovered country. Sure, there are tourists, but they don’t overwhelm the place.

There’s an electrician’s shop on beachfront property. Industrial spaces like these have been gentrified in every seaside town I’ve visited in the USA. Driving along Highway 6 from Greymouth, you’ll see cows in a pasture with a view. More than a view, this is 100% ocean frontage, and the cows don’t even appreciate their prime real estate. They just stand there nibbling the ever-growing grass as the Tasman Sea churns beside them.

On a Sunday afternoon in February–New Zealand’s summer–the easy availability of parking in Hokitika’s heritage district made me fear we’d arrived after the shops and restaurants had closed. In fact, there were a few shuttered doors, but most cafes were serving and opportunities to buy pounamu (greenstone) and possum merino abounded. I was also struck by the number of book shops and vinyl record stores for a little hamlet. No wonder they call themselves “the cool little town.”

Having arrived on the TranzAlpine train to an hour of heavy downpours in Greymouth, we learned immediately to appreciate the sun when it showed its face. Make hay–or make merry!–as soon as the sun shines.

Note: Every season warrants foul weather gear in the Westland. Do not visit New Zealand without a rain jacket unless you plan to buy one for an apt souvenir.

Our decision to store the large baggage with a helpful Greymouth i-Site Visitor Center employee at the station while we ate a late lunch and let the crowds disperse from the car rental counters turned out to be clever. An hour after the TranzAlpine’s arrival and subsequent return to the Canterbury Plains, we were the only people requesting information in the fully staffed station that had been a scrum a short while before.

I still forgot to ask where I could buy postage stamps, but not because of madding crowds. Chalk that one up to my aging brain or jet lag.

Note: My postcards arrived about two weeks after I mailed them from a downtown Christchurch streetside post box. Don’t be surprised if you beat your posted letters home.

“Hiring” a car, while not essential, offers the West Coast visitor the most flexibility to vary one’s itinerary with the rapidly changing weather. Neither DH nor I particularly enjoyed driving a strange car on the “wrong” side of the road, but the low population density and clear signage in our native language made the process manageable. He never did master using the turn signals backwards, though. We ran our windshield wipers every time we turned.

The next morning, being blessed with stunning weather, sunny and warmer than average, sent us from our oceanside B&B in Awatuna straight to Hokitika Gorge… after a better than average continental breakfast and one more cup of coffee.

The GPS knew the way, but the simple tourist map available everywhere plus bright yellow informational signs at every relevant crossroads would have gotten us to the popular site without any need for modern technology.

New Zealand rates and advertises many public parks with specific advice for fitness levels and time required to complete each track. This attention to detail is reflected on road signs as well.

The primary car park at Hokitika Gorge was full by 10 AM, but the overflow lot had plenty of space when we arrived. Parking looked a bit more difficult closer to noon, but there were definitely still spaces available. I’ve found that most popular tourist destinations are best seen either early or late in the designated hours, and that seemed to hold true here.

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