Canadian Wanderer

Travel plans, thoughts & lessons

Month: January 2017

Two wheel touring Austin, Texas

As Austin consistently ranks as one of the most bike-friendly cities in the U.S. I was curious to give it a spin during a short November visit and while under gray, gloomy skies that hid a few scattered showers riding the compact state capital’s sights in dedicated bike lanes and miles of scenic trails it’s easy to see how the honors were earned.


Austin: The Most Bike-Friendly City in Texas by Streetfilms is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 International License.

I’d considered renting a bike and exploring Austin on my own but as it’s more fun and informative joining a guided tour I stopped by Austin Bike Tours and Rentals converted shipping container located just off Congress Street, the city’s main downtown thoroughfare, and found Austin’s Lakes, Springs and Bridges tour in need of one more person to go ahead that afternoon so signed up for this leisurely two-hour spin. The tour is USD$49 and may be booked online in advance or in person but in low Winter season is subject to availability.

The tour moves from the historic heart of Austin down the Third Street dedicated bike lanes  through the nearby Rainey Street Historic District, a colourful cluster of bungalows many of which have been converted to lounges, bars and restaurants.

After leaving leafy Rainey Street the tour cycles onto Butler Trail, a 10-mile trail network that loops around the Colorado River and Lady Bird Lake named for the wife of former American President and Texas political icon Lyndon Johnson and boasts some excellent spots for downtown skyline photos.

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This skyline has changed dramatically as the city of Austin’s population has doubled to 920,000 in the last 30 years largely as a result of an influx of high tech companies such as Dell, IBM and Samsung.

When the Congress Avenue Bridge opened in 1980 engineers had no idea crevices in the concrete designed underneath the structure would prove to be an ideal refuge for millions of bats but that’s what has come to pass and the furry flyers have become a local tourist attraction through the Summer month as crowds gather around dusk every night to watch the swarm of up to 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats emerge from their roosts.

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As my visit was in November there were no bats to be seen as they fled to warmer locales in Mexico.

The last stop on the bike tours is at Barton Springs, the oldest spring-fed pool in Texas whose waters stay at a constant 68 – 70 Fahrenheit or 20 Celsius making it warm enough for year round swimming. The brown Colorado River waters gave way to blue waters as we rode alongside the creek the springs feed.

Despite the quick shower that force our small tour group to shelter under a sprawling oak tree at Barton Springs the tour was very much enjoyed and tour leader Hannah was excellent in highlighting Austin’s history, its changing skyline with the tech boom in recent years and the expanding pedestrian and bike network that makes this flat, compact city core so easy to explore on two wheels. The Austin’s Lakes, Springs and Bridges tour is a great mix of urban and parkland trails but there are other general tours such as the Austin Icons Tour as well as specialty tours like the Texas Craft Beer tour and Music Icons tour to offer enough choice for almost everyone. Some tours may not operate in the Winter off season so it’s worth checking in with the very friendly staff at the kiosk just off Congress Street as to availability.

 

Hotel review: Omni Austin Hotel Downtown

The Omni Austin Hotel Downtown is a business-oriented hotel with a soaring Texas-sized atrium ensconced in the heart of the city that delivers a solid if less memorable room than the striking interior design.

The Texas capital is blessed with inexpensive and user-friendly public transportation to the downtown core so happily hopped on the #100 bus for the 20-minute ride to the nearest stop to the Omni which is at 4th Street & Trinity Street leaving a short 4-block walk to the hotel. For USD$1.75 one way this service has to be one of the biggest values in airport transportation I’ve encountered in my travels but worth noting is that this is a regular city bus so without special features such as luggage racks making travelling light advantageous.

Stepping into the Omni’s lobby with its long granite reception desk and enormous open-air interior atrium makes for a memorable first impression.

The glass elevator ride to my tenth floor deluxe room offered a good look at the atrium.

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The Atrium Lounge on the left in the photo below is a good place to meet for drinks after a day of meetings and is flanked by Ancho’s, a restaurant with its Southwest inspired menu.

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The above photo is taken from the second floor business center that has guest-use computer terminals for complimentary airline online check in and a pay-per-use internet set-up.

The deluxe room featured two queen beds and offered a good city view on a cloudy day.

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A desk next to the window has several plug-ins which is handy for plugging in laptops or recharging smart phones but the plug was loose and no amount of wiggling would create a solid connection so ended up plugging my devices into the wall socket instead.

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The Classic Deluxe room décor is a little dated and could be updated to lend a more contemporary and less classic look.

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For a four-star hotel there were a few quirks about the room that were a little unexpected including no exhaust fan in the bathroom making for a steamy room after a hot shower and a closet immediately inside the room whose doors would come into contact with the hallway door if both were opened at the same time.

Despite these quirks however the room was quiet enough to offer a good night’s sleep which is one of the most important factors for this very light sleeper.

I had a small window of free time during my three night to visit the heated rooftop pool with its sweeping city views but was foiled by a lightning alert that closed the pool for safety sake. Having been burned on a few pool decks over the years I thought I’d not risk Mother Nature’s ultimate burn and relaxed in the Atrium Lounge instead.

The location of the Omni Austin Hotel Downtown is excellent with Congress Avenue, Austin’s main downtown artery which leads to the Texas capitol building, a two block stroll. Sixth Street with it’s vibrant nightlife and live music venues that Austin is famous for is also in very close proximity to the hotel with the rest of the city center an easy amble away making a car rental unnecessary.  

I would recommend joining the Omni Select Guest loyalty program as it rewards every member with free in-room Wi-Fi, a pressing service and morning juices or coffee delivered to the room.

There was a small billing error with my hotel rate but it was handled with a visit to the front desk and the staff there and everywhere I encountered them were universally helpful, polite and friendly so despite a few small issues the overall marks for this hotel are high but could be higher if the rooms were refreshed.

A moveable Austin feast

Deep in the heart of Texas is its capital Austin and the citizens of this fine city take great pride in doing things differently  –  the city slogan is “Keep Austin Weird”  – so it should come as no surprise that it offers a host of funky restaurants and eclectic entertainment venues to keep a visitor happily wined and dined for days.

Instead of being a staid, plaid state capital with big government as the big employer, Austin is a young, vibrant, artistic city thanks to the University of Texas and a cluster of global high tech firms including Intel, Google, Oracle and eBay. This  combination of youth and a self-starter entrepreneurial zeal has lead its current crop of culinary celebrities to go their own way including Aaron Franklin of the renown Franklin Barbeque which is often ranked as one of the top barbeque spots on the planet.

Sign Sign by A Vandalay is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License

Aaron Franklin has barbeque in his blood having apprenticed in his parents barbeque joint as a pre-teen before working  in an Austin barbeque restaurant that went under leaving him without a job but with the 1400-pound wood-fired pit that he used to perfect his now famous brisket which he began serving from a vintage 60’s trailer in 2009 before moving into the current building two years later selling out of its meat every day since.

The interior is a casual affair with exposed cinder block walls, low ceiling and a hodge-podge of tables and chairs.

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Franklin Barbeque’s interior design or lack thereof however isn’t why people line up for hours before it opens every day, it’s for the meat which they slice before the line of hungry patrons.

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The boneless brisket is the star of the show with its peppered black shell but a pink center than almost falls apart on your plate and has a distinct smoke flavor in every bite. Adding to the pile on your paper plate are also pulled pork, sausage, ribs and turkey with sides of coleslaw, potato salad and pinto beans and plain white bread.

franklinbbqphoto courtesy of beckoa

The special treat was that I and a few dozens other lucky souls were hosted for a private event by a large internet company and so had Franklin Barbeque to ourselves for 4 hours in the evening as normally the line-ups begin before dawn for the restaurant’s 11 AM opening. The lengthy line-ups and a behind-the-scenes look at the Franklin Barbeque are in this New York Times video:

For more barbeque how-to videos check out the Franklin Barbecue’s YouTube channel here.

Known locally as the Dirty Sixth for its rowdy reputation, the Sixth Street Historic District is a nine-block area of low two or three storey buildings built in the 1880’s that house dozens of bars, clubs, restaurants and live music venues.

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Every weekend traffic is blocked on a six block stretch of Sixth Street from the Interstate 35 highway to Brazos Street giving revellers easy access to the many watering holes that line both sides of the street.

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sixth street by Charlie Llewellin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License

With warm weather even in early November the Irish pub inspired B.D. Riley’s throws open its windows for some open air live music most nights.

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Live music can be found in many joints along Sixth Street and around Austin every night of the week. The city bills itself as “The Live Music Capital of the World” partly because of all these smaller venues but also because of major music festivals held every year, South by Southwest (SXSW) and the Austin City Limits Festival.

The University of Texas Longhorns logo is seen everywhere in this city including in neon in this bar along Sixth Street.

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The craft beer scene is alive & well with 47 breweries in and around Austin with most producing beers year round with the rest releasing seasonal specialty brews.

Eureka on the corner of Sixth Street & Brazos Street has a vast selection of on-tap local micro-brews and among my favorites are Live Oak’s Hefeweizen, a cloudy German wheat beer that’s been crowned by some as the top Austin brewed beer, and 512 Brewing Company’s Double IPA but there’s no shortage to sample with over 40 beers on tap.

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Craft Pride on Rainey Street meantime has over 50 taps dedicated solely to the beers brewed in Texas that change often so the variety is vast. The beers on-tap are grouped into classifications such as porters and stouts,  IPA’s, lighter ales and pilsners, malts and even sour beers.

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‘Round back of Craft Pride is a patio with a food truck serving Detroit style square pizzas. (full menu here) The whole vibe is very low key and it’s a great space to kicking back and wait for your pizza pie or gather with a group of friends over some evening drinks. A notice tacked to the fence informed me I was lucky enough to visit Austin during Beer Week. And, no, I didn’t leave thirsty.

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The Rainey Street Historic District is an easy amble from Sixth Street but is very different in that the bars and restaurants are mostly in bungalows without outdoor beer gardens on a narrow one lane street. The once sleepy residential neighborhood with 1930’s houses was rezoned in 2004 as a business district and now buzzes with party-going pedestrians.

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Just up the street is Bangers Sausage House & Beer Garden, a sprawling indoor & outdoor beer hall with frequent live music and Austin’s largest tap wall with over 100 draft beers on-tap plus another 50 in cans and bottles. The full beer menu is here and it contains a few surprises from around the U.S. as well as others such as Quebec’s Unibroue Fin Due Monde, a blonde Strong Ale with 9% alcohol by volume (ABV).

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There are 30 varieties of house-made sausages to choose from and all are USD$10 with sides like fries so offers a good value. I wolfed down the Currywurst which sounds like it’s super spicy but really wasn’t. I washed my sausage and fries  down with an Adelbert’s Naked Nun witbier that tastes sinfully delicious. The full sausage menu is here.

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Seating inside and out is on long wooden picnic tables that foster a social scene with everyone in close proximity. I’d recommend coming to Bangers after dusk as the live music and patio lights make for a really relaxed place to linger.

It’s worth mentioning that the nightlife along Rainey Street is easily walkable from my accommodation, the Omni Austin Hotel Downtown, in under 20 minutes at a casual pace. There are a number of hotels even closer to Rainey Street as it’s  under a mile from the Austin Convention Center.

After a night or two of reveille a hearty breakfast helps start the day and there’s no better place to dine than the oldest restaurant in downtown Austin, Annies Café & Bar, which was inspired by the bustling bistros and great sidewalk cafés of Europe.

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The outdoor tables were occupied while I was awaiting my breakfast despite the cloudy & cool conditions.

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The interior has a café feel from the 1940’s and I chose a table with a street view to people watch over a leisurely breakfast.

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The short stack of buttermilk griddle cakes arrived with a side a side of crispy bacon and given the size of the serving was glad I hadn’t upsized to the full stack of pancakes!

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Austin’s city center is compact at approx. 15 square blocks making it easily walkable and almost as fast to walk as to drive. Walking also avoids having to find a designated driver after you’ve spent an afternoon and evening on a moveable Austin feast sampling all this city that marches to its own beat has to offer.

The Golden Circle, Iceland

For visitors to Iceland with a limited amount of time on a short stopover the Golden Circle has become a popular half day tour that takes in three notable sights near the capital Reykjavik. I had confirmed myself on this tour and was fortunate to have a dry if not warm day of sightseeing.

While many travellers opt for the 8-hour full-day Golden Circle tour in comparing the itineraries and on the advice of friends I opted for the shorter 6-hour Golden Circle Afternoon half-day tour as it included all the stops of the longer tour except for a lengthy stop at a geothermal-fueled greenhouse growing all natural (pesticide free) fruits and vegetables. Combining Golden Circle Afternoon half-day tour with a morning Reykjavik city sightseeing tour is a better value than booking these separately with combo prices in the CAD$120 range which includes hotel pick-up and drop off and a tour leader.

The first stop is located in a rift valley at the crest of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge that marks the junction of the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates Þingvellir, anglicised as Thingvellir, is a national park and UNESCO World Heritage Sight that has significant geological as well as cultural importance to Iceland’s as it’s ancient parliament, the Althing, was established here in 930 holding sessions until 1798 before being restarted in Reykjavik in 1844 where it’s met since. The national park was created in 1930 to mark the 1000th anniversary of the Althing.

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Within a short walk of the park’s visitors center is the Almannagjá fault, a deep canyon created by the two tectonic plates moving away from each other.

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Despite the popular myth the two sides of the gorge do not represent the two tectonic plates as both are on the North American plate side with the Eurasian side being 5 kilometres away across the rift valley floor.

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Our guide reminded us that as this gorge was in an active geological area some of the craggy rocks looming overhead could come crashing down as occurred late one night a few years earlier. While no one was injured in that collapse it did serve as an important reminder that despite the millennia of local history the fault was relatively young  in geological terms and still be shaped by the forces of nature.

For the very intrepid nearby is the Silfra fissure, the only spot on earth to SCUBA or snorkel between two shifting tectonic plates. Thanks to crystal clear glacial water the visibility underwater is unparalleled extending to 100 metres.

From a look-out the whole rift valley, or what isn’t obscured by low clouds, can be seen including the Thingvellir Church which is near where the Athing was established. The current wooden church dates to 1859.

A scenic drive around the top of Þingvallavatn, Iceland’s largest natural lake, is the Laugarvatn Fontana, an open-air hot spring bath and spa not unlike the larger and more famous Blue Lagoon. Nestled on Laugarvatn Lake, the spa is surrounded by steam vents creating an almost toxic fog that hangs close to the ground but this being Iceland the haze is nothing more harmful than super heated water escaping through holes in the ground.

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Nearby is an equally active area known for its hot water blow holes the Icelandic called Geysir which is where we get the English term ‘geyser’. The Geysir Hot Spring Area was until the early 1930’s in private hands but was donated in perpetuity to the people of Iceland and has a number of boiling mud pits and geysers including Strokkur which erupts every 6 – 10 minutes sending water up to 20 metres in the air.

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I stood watching the geyser for what must have been half an hour grateful I’d brought my toque and gloves as the open ground aided the wind in making the windchill drop the temperature.  Despite the cool weather it’s quite a natural phenomenon to behold.

Strokkur is across a two-lane highway from the Hotel Geysir and adjacent souvenir shop and restaurant but without a controlled crossing be mindful of the traffic. The shop has the standard tourist trinkets and sweaters but a good variety of professional photos of the geysers so I couldn’t resist buying an 8 x 10 inch matted picture of Strokkur for around CAD$20 which was as much as my Gull beer and sandwich in the bistro.

The final stop is at the Gullfoss Waterfall which sees the Hvítá (White) River plunge 32 metres in two stages into a steep canyon whose walls rise to some 70 metres.

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Gullfoss was almost lost to an early 20th century hydroelectric project but for the heroic efforts of Sigriður Tómasdóttir, the daughter of the farmer who leased the falls to an Englishman who upon hearing of the plans used her savings to hire a lawyer to stop the project but when her legal efforts failed Sigriður resorted to threatening to throw herself into the falls if construction was begun. Her stubborn efforts to preserve this natural beauty were ultimately successful and the falls were eventually sold to the Iceland government who designated it and the surrounding area a nature preserve in 1979.

Iceland has a wealth of natural beauty that is worth exploring at a leisurely place but for those on a short stop-over on their way to or from Europe joining a Golden Circle tour is a good way to experience some of this island nation’s most important sights.

Hotel Review: Skuggi Hotel, Reykjavik

Needing a two-night stay in Reykjavik on the way home from a short October Copenhagen escape I’d done countless hours of research on the accommodation options in the Iceland capital but keep circling back to the Skuggi Hotel for it’s location, quality and value and after my stay can happily report that it exceeded all my expectations in all three of those aspects.

Having fed the street address into Google street view for a quick look only to draw a blank I learned that this way because the hotel is that new opening its doors in late 2015 but despite that relative newness there wasn’t any confusion about the hotel from tour leaders or airport transfer bus drivers I encountered.

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At one hundred  rooms the Skuggi (pronounced Skoo-gee) Hotel isn’t large so has a comfortable compactness that allows guests, for example, to take the stairs instead of waiting for the elevator as the former was usually faster than the latter.

My single room #324 came equipped with a single bed, upright shelves behind the hallway door, small clothes rack, desk, wall-mounted flat screen TV and easy chair. The dark parquet floors gave the room an upscale feel although a splash of colour could help animate a fairly monochromatic décor.

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The quote above the bed is from renown Icelandic photographer Ragnar Axelsson whose books are found in every room to offer an authentically local flavor.

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The bathroom is as well appointed as the room with a shower stall complete with rainfall shower head separated from the toilet by a half wall. The vanity offers more than enough space for toiletries bag and the heated towel rack hiding behind the door was a nice touch. The water pressure and speed of hot water are both excellent so coming back to the room after a cool day of sightseeing to a warm shower and towel are nice perks unexpected in a three-star hotel.

The room has heavy drapes and liners to block out the midnight summer sun along with a balcony that would be a nice space in warmer weather but was used for my stay as a weather gauge inevitably to discover overcast skies and light drizzle.

Daily full buffet breakfast was included in my room rate and it’s an outstanding way to start the day with an extensive selection of pastries and breads, cereals, pancakes, juices and coffee, hot eggs cooked differently each day and bacon or sausages. The bonus for me was the bacon was actually crispy, a rarity in my travels to the point it’d become a punch line in many a joke about undercooked hotel breakfasts.
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The hotel location is excellent as it’s one block to Laugavegur, Reykjavik’s main street with shops, cafés, restaurants, gift shops and exciting nightlife. A few block walk in the other direction brings one to a waterfront promenade with striking sculptures leading to the multi-coloured Harpa, Iceland’s premiere concert hall and conference centre. On the same street as the Skuggi on the next block is a 24-hour grocery and convenience store called “10-11” whose prices for snacks and sodas is far lower than in the shops found on Laugavegur.

There is one guest computer in the lobby but it is on a waist high shelf and without a stool or chair to linger which I suppose helps shorten the average length of use.

The hotel staff was universally friendly and exceedingly helpful with the front desk staff even coming to my aid to save my day tour with a quick call to the tour company after its transfer bus failed to show at the appointed time.

You can pay more for Reykjavik accommodation but am unconvinced there is a better lodging value than the Skuggi Hotel and hope I can return for a longer stay one day soon.

A short stay in Reykjavík

Iceland’s capital, Reykjavík is a city of contrasts as it’s warmer than its latitude suggests, has a small town feel but is a big city, and mixes modern with medieval to create a vibrant vacation destination the world has discovered so I joined the masses and built a 2-night, 2-day stop over on my way home from a visit to Copenhagen to sample its sights.

Legend has it that the Norwegian Ingólfr Arnarson upon sighting Iceland’s shores somewhere around AD 870 cast his ship captain’s seat pillars into the ocean vowing to build a settlement where they washed ashore.  The pillars ran aground in an area called Reykjavík which roughly translates into English as smoke cove or smoky bay in many a modern travel guide.

While the most northerly capital city in the world thanks to the Gulf Stream the weather in Reykjavik is actually fairly temperate with the lowest temperate on record  at -19.7 °C, a temperature often experienced in Edmonton throughout the Winter months.

It’s worth packing smart and coming prepared with a good waterproof outer layer to cover an under layer of a warm sweater and T-shirt. Gloves and a toque are also necessary even in summer months especially if out sightseeing in the countryside. My hotel, the Hotel Skuggi,  had a heated towel rack in the bathroom that served to dry out wet clothes overnight but it pays to avoid heavy cotton sweatshirts or denim pants that take a long time to dry in favor of other materials such as wool sweaters that provide warmth without the weight when wet. Wool sweaters are a big tourist souvenir but can be pricey so it pays to shop around. Don’t forget to pack the bathing suits as there are a number of natural and man-made geothermal mineral baths found around the country.

The main entry point into Iceland for most travellers is Keflavik International Airport which is located a 45-minute drive southwest of Reykjavík. While taxi’s and car rentals are available the least expensive way into town is on the Flybus which runs regularly throughout the year and costs the equivalent of $47 Canadian Dollars. Note however that this basic ticket only provides transportation to a central Reykjavík bus terminal and not to hotels so would recommend paying the extra $10 to buy the Flybus Plus which includes hotel drop-off and pick-up.

The weather was felt even before touching down on the airport tarmac as the Icelandair Boeing 757 I was flying in from Copenhagen was being buffeted by high winds which made for an unusual taxi to the gate once we did manage to land. As there was no jetway the passengers braved the blast of Artic air and fine mist to descend a stairway for a short walk to a waiting bus for the brief ride the terminal. It was quite an introduction to this northern land where weather plays a big part of any tour plans as a found out shortly thereafter while boarding the Flybus into Reykjavík to hear the highway had been closed earlier due to extremely high winds which roar in from the ocean and over the treeless lava fields the road cuts through.

Much of Reykjavík’s city center is walkable and so has a small city feel but it’s capital region sprawls and is home to almost two-thirds of Iceland’s population of 330,000. I opted for a guided morning half-day tour of the capital which connected on to a half day Golden Circle tour of scenic spots a short distance from Reykjavik which I’ll save for a future blog post. A longer stay would allow more time to linger and explore all the sights in and around the capital but will have to save those for another visit.

The tour’s highlight is a visit to the Hallgrímskirkja, a landmark visible throughout the city with its soaring spire grey said to resemble the hexagonal basalt columns formed from lava flows which are a common natural feature found around Iceland.

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The Lutheran church with its soaring nave and austere interior was commissioned in 1937 but not consecrated until 1986.

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One of the few highlights of warm wood in the monochromatic grey church interior is the Klaisorgan, a 15 metre tall pipe organ with some 5,000 pipes which was installed in 1992.

Creative Commons Licence
Hallgrimskirkja Organ by Tony Hisgett is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 International License.

The statue of native son and Nordic explorer Leif Eriksson who visited North America 500 years before the Columbus explorer occupies a central spot right in front of the Hallgrímskirkja making for good photos. The statue is actually older than the church itself as it was a gift from the United States to mark the 1000th anniversary of Iceland’s parliament in 1930.

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At 73 meters the Hallgrímskirkja spire is the second tallest building in Iceland and its observation platform may be accessed for a small entry fee and a little patience waiting in line for the elevator ride to the top . The view from upon high takes in the harbour and multi-coloured buildings and if the timing is right a small commuter aircraft landing at the city center Reykjavík Airport.

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The splash of colour helps to bring variety to what can be a grey North Atlantic winter.

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Höfði House is the stout harbour front house that was built for a French consul in 1909 but is most famous for having hosted the 1986 Reykjavik Summit between the U.S. President Ronald Reagan and the U.S.S.R’s Mikhail Gorbachev that help bring an end to the decades old Cold War.

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Near the historic house is a statue to one of its former residents, Einar Benediktsson, a leading poet and editor of the nation’s first daily newspaper in the early 20th century whose nationalist sentiments helped the Icelandic independence movement to eventually end almost 600 years of Danish rule in 1944.

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The Pearl (Perlan in Icelandic) is a multi-use building that houses six massive water tanks, revolving restaurant, café, souvenir shop and a public observation deck that affords a view over Reykjavík.

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 Sun Voyager is a harbour front steel sculpture by Jon Gunnar Arnason which resembles a stylized Viking ship but is in instead a dream boat and ode to the sun. Sadly there was no sun to be seen on my October visit and was greeted instead with a steady drizzle that quickly grew to a pelting downpour.

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The low clouds and sudden squall kept me from venturing further along the harbour front promenade that stretches from the Sun Voyager to Harpa, the concert hall and conference center that features an ever changing coloured glass façade.

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The main shopping street in Reykjavík is Laugavegur which literally translates as “wash road” as it used to lead to the great old hot springs in Laugardalur where the entire city’s washing was once done.  Today it’s a fairly touristy thoroughfare with souvenir shops, restaurants and bars but is very walkable and worth a stroll day or night.

While I was elated having seen the intensity of the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights weeks before my visit in news reports I was deflated to learn that my prepaid tour to watch this natural northern phenomenon was cancelled two nights in a row due to overcast skies. It’s clearly stated that the tour is non-refundable as there’s no controlling the elements but the tour companies will allow you to reschedule for another night during your stay when the weather may be better. I’d considered reserving this tour once I arrive into Reykjavik but didn’t want to run the risk of the tours being full which is a definite concern in the Summer high season when hotel occupancy and tour availability is in its highest demand.

There is far more to the city however than just its man-made and natural sights as I found the people of Reykjavik and Iceland to be warm and engaging and fluent English speakers. Tourism plays a large and growing part of the economy but it’s still fairly new so there isn’t the pervasive level of tourism I’ve experienced elsewhere with street hawkers, timeshare sharks or porters with their hands out expecting a tip. The driver and guide for the city tour is a working mother in a country where it isn’t as uncommon as other countries and talked about her kids, the school they were in and the languages they were learning and offer some real insights into national politics and economic trends that have buffeted Iceland in the past decade helping to shape its current fortunes. Iceland consistently ranks as one of the happiest places on earth and it’s often attributed to factors such as gender equality, a high standard of living with social programs, and a confident, resilient population who believe in a strong sense of community to raise their own children and those of their neighbors. Having received such a warm welcome on my first short visit this traveller looks forward to another longer visit to this happy island.

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