Canadian Wanderer

Travel plans, thoughts & lessons

Month: November 2016

Hotel Review: Ibsens Hotel, Copenhagen

‘Buy local’ is an economic principle I’ve been applying to my accommodation choices in recent years, bypassing anonymous international lodging in favor of locally owned and run hotels but rarely have I encountered a hotel that feels as much a part of the neighborhood as Copenhagen’s Ibsens Hotel who in turn helped me feel like a local even if only for a few days.

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In writing this and other blog posts I find I’m constantly weighing words for their brevity,  precision and ability to convey a mood, sense or feel so resisted mislabelling the Ibsens a ’boutique’ hotel as I felt this trite and overused cliché doesn’t accurately describe what is it all as boutique hotels are too often overhyped and overpriced who strive so hard to create their own identity they almost ignore the larger community they inhabit. It’s like designing a hotel from the outside in rather than from the inside out which is how it felt at the Ibsens as the neighborhood of Nansengade and its many resident artists have been invited to contribute to the hotel’s homey décor since it was rebuilt in 2011. There is a little book about the Ibsens story here but the artistic flair is immediately evident in the lobby with the colourful design that adorns the pyramid of room safes for guest use.

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The hotel front desk offered a warm welcome when I arrived for my four night stay and handed me a  small mustard coloured leather bag tag that held the ubiquitous plastic room key adding another unexpected unique element.

Off to one side is a small box of art prints for sale created by registered artists who pay for a portion of their stay with ‘art money’. Larger prints are also displayed on the walls of the restaurant area adjacent to the reception desk.

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After taking the stairs to the second floor instead of the elevator and noticing the map of Copenhagen in the hallway carpet arrived at room #259, an interior courtyard facing “Small Room” which is aptly named as the space measures around 130 square feet. What space there is however is organized well with room under the twin bed for your luggage, shelves and the end for coats and shoes plus a clothes rack and half a dozen hangars in a small corner beside the window.

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A wall-mounted flat screen TV, handy reading light and small night stand and window shelf space made for a cozy room that felt bigger with a high ceiling. The window opened easily and I used it to cool off a warm room but in doing so heard much more of the noise from the courtyard below.

For a smaller room the very white bathroom was a good size for a single guest with a sink and small shelf for toiletries, toilet and in one corner a shower stall.

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The tile in the shower stall was lowered about a half inch and centered on a drain so the morning shower didn’t flood the whole bathroom unlike other rooms with a similar set-up I’ve stayed in. With the shower curtain pulled there isn’t too much room to manoeuver but with strong water pressure and always a good supply of hot water was more than adequate. One design flaw missing from the shower stall is a wall shelf or rack for the bottles of Nordic Amber designer shampoo and body wash the hotel provides.

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As my room rate included breakfast I enjoyed a leisurely coffee and fresh farm-to-table Nordic food from local farmers and bakers. A bowl of Muesli, wheat and oat brand mixed with seeds and nuts, followed by an open faced sandwich of dark rye bread with sliced sausage and organic cheeses topped with a chilled small jar of skyr, the Nordic equivalent of yogurt but a little milder, made for a hearty way to begin the day.  As diverse as the selection is there are no hot eggs or meats available for breakfast which is served 7 – 10 AM weekdays and 7:30 – 11 AM weekends. Note that not all room rates include breakfast so read the fine print of any reservation carefully as adding it locally while possible will run around CAD$29 which for a morning meal is fairly pricey for a three-star hotel even with Copenhagen’s higher cost of living.

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The Ibsens location is a quieter residential district but as central Copenhagen is very walkable the casual stroll to Tivoli Gardens, for example, is only 10 minutes. The metro in from the city’s international airport runs every 4 – 6 minutes during the day and the closest stop is Nørreport Station which is a few blocks to the hotel with its neon sign a handy beacon. Between the station and hotel is Torvehallerne, a city market and food hall with over 60 local vendors offering everything from fresh fish, which in Danish is frisk fisk, to smoked meats, fresh produce, cheeses and specialty freshly brewed  coffees. There are both indoor and outdoor seating areas but as my visit was in the cool and rainy Fall season I stayed inside to sample a few of the delicacies on my trips past Torvehallerne which acts as a natural landmark for the Ibsens a few short blocks away.  


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As almost everyone in Copenhagen bicycles it’s the best way to explore this flat and compact city center. The Ibsens has rental bikes available for the equivalent of CAD$28 per day so inquire at reception desk.

Cozy Hour is a daily ritual between 5 – 6 PM where guests are encouraged to enjoy a complimentary wine or beer and interact with others or spend time with friends & family. I very much enjoyed relaxing with a beer in an easy chair beside the fireplace after a day of sightseeing and meeting fellow travellers including a British couple whose kids had surprised them with a weekend in Copenhagen for their 25th anniversary.

The staff are what helps make for such a casual atmosphere as there was always a friendly greeting or helpful suggestion at every interaction. In one case realising I’d forgotten to pack my smart phone charging cord and adapter plug asked at reception if there was one I could borrow thinking it was a long shot. The clerk dug around in the back room and brought one out that fit my Android phone and so I was able to used it the rest of my stay to recharge my phone which I use to take photos and videos in my travels. The small tech rescue was very much appreciated and seemed part of the hotel’s customer service focus.

My short stay at Ibsens flashed by all too quickly but came away grateful I’d experienced such an authentically local hotel as it’s sadly an all too rare encounter.

 

Flight Review: Icelandair

The mid-October blizzard that blanketed Edmonton making driving unnecessarily stressful couldn’t prevent me from weathering the storm to get to the airport to board my Icelandair flight to Copenhagen by way of Reykjavik I’d booked one sweltering summer day that seemed years and not mere months earlier.

While I braved the difficult conditions and arrived at Edmonton International Airport early the same could not be said of the inbound Icelandair aircraft which was delayed 30 minutes departing Reykjavik. When it was announced to the assembled passengers that a late arriving plane and not the adverse weather was the cause of the delay I couldn’t help a wry smile at the irony.

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Once fully boarded and after enduring a short detour through the airport de-icing station we took off an hour later than scheduled putting my original 65 minute connection in jeopardy. The crew did apologize several times for the delay and the captain noted a tailwind would help us gain back some of the lost time so should allow those of us with razor thin connections to just make it. Knowing there was a later day flight to Copenhagen if I did miss my connection and being unable to control a thing sat back in my economy window seat for the six-and-a-half hour overnight flight to Reykjavik.
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Icelandair’s stalwart Boeing 757 aircraft are configured with three classes of service: a business class cabin called Saga Class that features many extra service perks and a comfortable if not world-class lie-flat seat, an upgraded economy seat branded  Economy Comfort with a few more inches of legroom and the center seat converted as a console similar to WestJet’s Plus seats on its Boeing 737 aircraft and the standard economy seats I was travelling in. There’s a video overview of all three classes of service here and these will remain even as the airline introduces larger Boeing 767 and new Boeing 737 aircraft into its fleet over the next five years. I couldn’t resist snapping a photo of the Economy Comfort seats as economy passengers are paraded past them upon boarding.
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Economy seats offers a healthy 32 inch seat pitch in one of three seats on either side of a narrow center aisle. The in-flight entertainment system was a small disappointment as I found a limited amount of content compared with other airlines I’ve flown transatlantic flights recently including KLM. The few newer movie releases and TV shows are augmented by classic movies such as 1967’s Bonnie & Clyde and Iceland travel documentaries but should the somewhat limited selection not be to your liking there is always in-seat power to plug in a tablet or laptop although I would recommend packing earbuds as forgetting them will set you back EUR6 buying a pair onboard.

As in-flight meals are not included in the ticket cost there are a number of buy-on-board meals available for purchase from the basic Skyr, an Icelandic cultured dairy product not unlike yogurt, for EUR3 to the more adventurous chicken curry or hamburger sliders for EUR13 – 15 which at around CAD$20 I found a little on the pricey side. There’s a more detailed in-flight menu here but have your credit or debit card handy to pay for on board purchases as cash isn’t accepted.

While in-flight food and alcohol are for purchase even the lowest priced economy Icelandair ticket allows up to two complimentary checked bags and advance seat assignment and are free perks which are sadly becoming increasing rare among its competitors.

Once the snack and meal service was over the cabin lights are dimmed and the northern lights dance on the aircraft ceiling, a neat effect unique to Icelandair.
Northern Lights aboard our Icelandair flight to Reykjavik
Northern Lights aboard our Icelandair flight by sergejf is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License.

In the end I made my connection in Reykjavik but only because I travel with carry-on luggage and sprinted through the airport and an empty customs hall to arrive at the gate for the Copenhagen flight a scant few minutes before it was closed, which was closer than I’ve ever experienced during a connection. When the airport terminal announcement is calling for the last few travellers by name and warning that the flight is about to be closed momentarily you know you’ve cut it very close.

The organization of gates at the Reykjavik airport isn’t ideal as at least half-a-dozen U.S. & Canadian flights all depart within minutes of each other from gates so close it creates a logjam of passengers all squeezed into a small terminal space which added to a few frayed nerves when boarding time for the Edmonton flight arrives and there’s not an airline staffer to be seen. Once the lone airline employee did arrive and set up the station boarding commenced unannounced and on a first come, first served basis unlike all other Icelandair flights I’d flown where boarding was conducted by rows from the back of the aircraft to the front in an orderly fashion. Airport administration isn’t Icelandair’s responsibility so can’t blame it for terminal design however flight scheduling is very much within its control and while I can appreciate that the late afternoon departures are clustered together so they arrive at their destinations early evening and can make a short turnaround to head back to Reykjavik having so many departures set for almost the same time seems to compound overcrowding.

Worth noting is that while Icelandair has a loyalty program called Saga Club the lowest priced economy tickets earn very little frequent flyer miles, around 8,400 roundtrip, which represent a fraction of the 67,000 required for a free roundtrip ticket Edmonton – Reykjavik. The one advantage that makes enrolling before your first flight beneficial is that Saga miles may be used to pay for on board purchases so even a relatively few may be enough to pay for an in-flight food item on a future flight and so offer a small value.

The in-flight service is friendly and polite and so despite a few issues with in-flight entertainment and connecting in Reykjavik it’s hard to beat the sheer value of Icelandair as my ticket Edmonton to Copenhagen with a stopover in Reykjavik on the return came in just under CAD$500 with taxes on a summer seat sale, a price low enough to forgive a few limitations. I am sure the airline will tempt me to fly to Europe again on one of their low fares as I can resist almost everything except the temptation of super low airfares.

New customs entry rules catching some visitors to Canada unaware

After a soft launch lasting a full year Canada’s new pre-screening system for visa-exempt travelers — known as electronic Travel Authorization, or eTA — came into full force on November 10, 2016 and it’s already catching some travellers by surprise.

British comedian Robin Ince was denied boarding for an Air Canada flight as he hadn’t obtained an eTA but was at least able to joke about his experience as reported in this CBC article. Others however may not find levity in their predicament which is why airlines, the travel industry and the federal government are doing all they can to publicize the new rules which Ottawa says are meant to screen people before they arrive in the country.

Not every traveller requires an eTA to enter Canada as U.S. citizens, travellers with a valid Canadian visa, dual citizens and Canadian Permanent Resident (PR) card holders however those from visa-exempt countries such as Britain, New Zealand, Greece or the Netherlands. To find out if you or someone you know who may be planning a trip to Canada requires an eTA, consult the Immigration and Citizenship website here.  Worth noting is that an eTA is only required for arriving into Canada by air, not by land or sea.

As always it is solely the responsibility of each traveller to ensure they have obtain the proper documents to board their flight and online resources are readily available help highlight the paperwork required. One such resource is the Skyteam airline alliance’s Passport, Visa & Health Requirements  website.

Plaza Premium Airport Lounge @ Edmonton International

For those frequent flyers whose airline elite status includes airport lounge access it can be a safe haven far from the maddening crowds but for those of the rest of us who don’t travel enough to attain such exalted status there is a way to enjoy these comforts for a relatively small price.

Edmonton International Airport’s two Plaza Premium lounges are located in the domestic/international terminal opposite Air Canada’s Maple Leaf Lounge and in the new U.S. departures terminal and feature free Wi-Fi, computer terminals, newspapers and magazines, hot food items such as soup, small sandwiches, cookies and snacks, coffee, tea and alcoholic beverages.

I was gifted entry into the domestic/international lounge ahead of a early evening flight on Icelandair to Copenhagen through Reykjavik and enjoyed a 90 minute visit with a few craft beers, light bites and downtime after a treacherous drive through a late Fall blizzard that had suddenly enveloped Edmonton.

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Lounge access is $40 per person for 2 hours or $50 for 3 hours and may be confirmed online or upon entry at the lounge location, subject to there being room available when you arrive.

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The lounge is more a cozy space than cavernous warehouse and the warm welcome from the friendly bartender on a first-name basis with a few regular visitors helped personalize the visit.

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The finger food available won’t replace a good meal but is enough to temporarily stave off traveller starvation .

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The entry cost may appear high at first but after factoring in the cost of a few craft beers and light bites in a quiet zone far from the maddening crowds the net cost really isn’t too expensive and may be something I incorporate as a small splurge on future travels.

 

Iceland’s Incredible Blue Lagoon Geothermal Spa

Depending upon whom you believe Iceland’s Blue Lagoon is either a  man-made modern marvel or monumental money-making tourist trap but after my first visit to the geothermal believe the truth lies somewhere in between these two extreme viewpoints.

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To better understand the present it helps to take a quick look back at the attraction’s past which dates  to 1976 when by a happy accident the silica rich water raised to the surface and held in large ponds at a geothermal power plant was found to have beneficial effects on the skin. Soon bathers began coming for therapeutic properties of the milky white water that looks blue because of the way sunlight reflects of the silica and that early trickle of local bathers grew to a include intrepid international travelers so that by the mid 1980’s the first permanent facilities were opened.

Thanks to the jet-black lava fields that surround the Blue Lagoon these early visitors remarked on the unique, otherworldly experience but the caché this early exclusivity implied has been replaced by mass market tourism as this year Iceland has welcome some 1.6 million tourists, more than triple the number it did in 2010, so there’s no hiding the tourism tidal wave that’s engulfed this North Atlantic nation of only 330,000 citizens. This surge in popularity is examined in more detail in this excellent article but given the Blue Lagoon’s high profile it is no longer the small, hidden gem of an experience it once was. In fact today’s Blue Lagoon, which features such resort-like creature comforts as swim-up bars and full-service spa with work underway on a massive new luxury hotel addition, has become so popular that visitors need to purchase their admission for a specific date & time in advance to avoid being politely turned away at the reception desk because the facility is full.

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While the Blue Lagoon may not be as rustic and undeveloped as it once was having grown into a large scale tourism destination I nevertheless wanted to join the hordes wading into its magical waters to judge for myself its relative merits or lack thereof.

Having scanned the entrance packages I opted for the 70 Euro Premium plan which included my entry, silica mud mask, towel, robe and slippers, one complimentary drink in the water and another during my meal with a reserved table at LAVA Restaurant. There are less expensive admission packages that start at 40 Euro but as I travel light didn’t want to have to pack my own towel and wanted a larger lunch before boarding my mid-afternoon Icelandair flight home. While the cost of the meal isn’t included in the admission package it was a splurge I told myself I was due after 90 minutes of floating around in the lagoon and ordered the beef tenderloin which looked almost as good as it tasted.

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As with most upscale restaurants in Iceland the cost of meals at LAVA Restaurant is fairly high so for those wanting a less expensive dining splurge there is also a cafeteria on-site.

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The Blue Lagoon’s 9 million litres of water range in temperature between 37°C and 40°C, warm enough during my cool and rainy October visit to create a constant steam clouds to shroud the bathers. It was busy enough on a mid-week mid-morning visit to pay attention not to bump into others but not so crowded you couldn’t find some personal space.

To help manage the millions who make their way to the Blue Lagoon annually some high tech tools are used to lock your locker and track purchases made while on-site. A ‘how-to’ video about visiting the Blue Lagoon may be found here.

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Part of the reason behind the Blue Lagoon’s popularity lies in its proximity to Iceland’s main international airport, Keflavik Airport, which is a short 15-minute drive away. I’d opted for a morning visit ahead later afternoon departure but some travellers prefer a refreshing dip soon after arriving on their overnight flight.

I came away from my visit relaxed and ready to endure the last leg of my journey home having happily played in the healing waters for a leisurely length of time but unsure whether I’d return should I find my way back to Iceland in the future as it isn’t exactly an inexpensive detour and has an almost Disney-like mass tourist attraction quality. Make no mistake the Blue Lagoon is well worth experiencing once and I was glad I’d soaked it all in for myself but given the number of natural hot springs and other scenic sights spread around Iceland I’ll probably give it a pass next time through.

 

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