Iceland & Munich: Scenery, History & Breweries

Diamond Beach in Iceland

My boyfriend and I recently returned home from a trip to Reykjavik, Iceland and Munich, Germany. While we were away, we spent three days exploring the various landscapes of the northern country of Iceland as well as another six days or so taking in the history and breweries of the capital of Bavaria. I’m going to try to keep this as short and simple as possible by sharing a quick daily recap as well as some photos. I hope you enjoy. Please also feel free to share your experiences of these two places in the comments below.

Day 1 – Reykjavik

Entering the city centre of Reykjavik.

At about 6:30am in the morning on our first day in Reykjavik, we hopped onto a shuttle bus that took us to the nearby Sixt car rental location. There, we picked up our vehicle, which we had rented for the next three days in Iceland. (TIP: If you already have car insurance built into your credit card, don’t worry about paying for extra coverage. As long as you don’t intend to go off-roading, it’ll be fine when you take the rental back. Just beware that they will put a hold on your card equivalent to about 1,500€ until they see it’s in good condition upon return.)

It’s about a 45 minute drive from Keflavik airport into Reykjavik. Since we couldn’t check into our hotel until the afternoon, we decided to meander around by car. With a stop at the Perlan Museum, a coast along the harbour, a visit into the Hallgrimskirkja Church, a stroll around the city centre (tons of street art and Instagrammable walls; I sadly watched as an amazing piece was painted over), a midday snack at ROK, and an evening walk not too far from our accommodations, CentreHotel Arnarhvoll (not worth the money for what you get and the rooms have no air circulation), we fit in as much as we could in a single day.

Best of all, we drove out of the city to a dark spot to watch for the northern lights. Neither of us had ever seen them with our own eyes, but we lucked out on this occasion because the sky lit up for us. It was magical, to say the least.

The Aurora Borealis

Of note:

  1. We noticed that there is a ton of construction happening in Reykjavik, which is great. There economy is obviously doing well, likely boosted by the upsurge in tourism in recent years.
  2. It’s expensive in Iceland. Small sharing plates at ROK cost about $20 CDN each. Although the food was delicious, our money didn’t go that far there. Drinks are especially marked up. I would recommend picking some liquor up at the duty free shop before leaving the airport. Lastly, gas was our largest expense at over $2 per litre. While the car we were given was pretty economical, we did a lot of driving and every fill-up was a hit to the wallet. Make sure to budget in advance.
  3. Most of the restaurants close relatively early in Reykjavik. Some bars do stay open later, but they may not serve true meals, so plan to eat a bit earlier.

Day 2 – South Iceland

Öxarárfoss in Iceland

On our second day in Iceland, we opted to hit the road and venture south. In the morning we went to Öxarárfoss, one of their famous waterfalls. It’s situated in the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Þingvellir National Park, which we took some time to walk through as well.

Back on the highway, we needed some sustenance, but we didn’t have a lot of time to stop for a sit-down meal. After all, we were chasing daylight. So, where did we go when we reached Selfoss? Domino’s. Now, I’m not going to knock the pizza chain. The food hit the spot. Even though it was super greasy, I could not get over the brilliant option of having fresh garlic added into the cheese for free. Game changer. We need that in Canada.

Before it got dark, we made it to Skógafoss, one of the biggest waterfalls in the country. It’s worth a stop, and with good shoes it’s possible to walk right up to the falls.

That evening we stayed in the countryside at the quaint Country Hotel Anna. It’s got a vintage charm to it, but it’s quite well-equipped. They even offer a free breakfast in the mornings (as did the other hotel in Reykjavik). Once it’s dark out, head out a little ways from the building. It’s the perfect spot to stargaze.

Day 3 – South Iceland

Glacier lake in Iceland

We were on the road the longest during our third day in Iceland. It took much longer to make it from Vik to Jökulsárlón, a large glacial lagoon on the southeast side of the country. Just across the highway from there is Diamond Beach. Covered in black sand and small icebergs, it’s absolutely gorgeous on a sunny day. I’m so glad that we pushed ourselves to get there because the visuals were spectacular. This was one of my favourite spots.

On the way back towards Keflavik, we also took in the Laufskálavarða, a lava ridge that is surrounded by a number of stone cairns. The stacks of rocks are a tradition meant to signal good fortune on the journey.

Finally, as we reached the village of Vik once more, we stopped at Reynisfjara, a unique black-sand beach surrounded by huge basalt stacks that form an otherworldly looking cave. I have no doubt that on nicer day, this would have been an amazing site. Unfortunately, it was incredibly windy (I could barely stay standing) and cold, so we got a few photos and then we left.

That evening, we checked into the Bergás Guesthouse in Keflavik. It was run by a friendly husband and wife. In all, I think we spent only about eight hours in the room. Ultimately, it met our needs though. It was very close to the airport for our early morning departure, and it was spacious and clean.

Of note:

Iceland has a very diverse landscape with rocky mountains that reminded me of the Nevada and Arizona desserts, fields of lava that are now covered in bright green, squishy moss, snow covered peaks as if we were in Switzerland or Whistler, and pools filled with the icy remnants of a glacier. Account for the time it actually takes to get to each place, and then tack on an extra hour or two for all the abrupt halts that will be made to snap photos.

Day 4 – Munich, Germany

The view from our apartment in Munich.

I just want to make a quick note about the Reykjavik airport. It’s not a fun place. The check-in area is a complete gong show in the morning with people everywhere you look. There also didn’t seem to be great signage indicating where to head to for security. As it turns out, there’s only one spot and it’s upstairs. Security was quick to get through though (they have a machine that feeds out the bins; I’ve never seen that anywhere else). After that, it’s kind of a nice looking terminal, but past the food vendors and shops, it becomes cramped and it feels like all the passengers are just cattle. There’s no sense of organization and they never seem to make announcements about flights boarding, so we really had to be aware of our gate and watch for movement in the lines.

In any case, we made it to Germany! The S-Bahn train (S1 or S8) took us to the closest station near the apartment we booked through Airbnb. The neighbourhood of München-Neuhausen was wonderful. It seemed to be a wealthier area of town that was very family friendly and safe. From there, we were able to walk to a lot of the popular spots in Munich.

Since we arrived mid-afternoon, we settled into the apartment and then we went for an amble around the nearby blocks. We also took advantage of the suggestions made by our Airbnb hosts, trying out a restaurant called Holy Burger. They specialize in organic ingredients. The burgers were delicious; however, the side of veggie fries — made of carrots, beets, and a vegetable that our server didn’t quite know how to translate into English — was tasty, but lacking in portion size. Plus, it was costly. For two burgers, the shared side, a beer, and a hot chocolate, we paid 45€.

After supper, we wandered further and came across one of the grocery stores, Rewe Dien Markt. My boyfriend picked up three half litres of beer for less than four Euro, a total steal compared to what we pay for drinks in Edmonton, Alberta.

Day 5 & 6 – Munich, Germany

So many beer steins!

I’m not sure what it was about being in Germany, but we really slept in almost every single day. I’ll chalk it up to a lack of sleep during our few days in Iceland. I also think I was a bit under the weather. Regardless, it was a lax couple of days after our arrival.

When we woke on our second day, we went back to the grocery store and stocked up on meats, cheeses, eggs, bread, condiments, and beer. With access to a kitchen, our plan was to make ourselves breakfast each morning. We spent the rest of the day just putting together an itinerary for the remainder of the trip. We did eventually leave the house to grab some dinner. Our intention was to try another recommendation from our hosts, a pizza place called Neuhauser. We arrived to find it absolutely packed full of patrons. There was no order to anything in terms of getting a name down for a table, so we ended up ordering food to go. It turned out to be quite tasty and we got a lot for our money (22€ for both of us).

Our third day was quite uneventful until the evening. A friend who is living in Munich was able to meet up with us for dinner and drinks. We arranged to connect at Marienplatz under the tower of the New Town Hall (don’t confuse it with the Old Town Hall even though it looks like the older one). He took us for a walk and then he whisked us over to Augustiner Klosterwirt for a delightfully “refined” meal of traditional German food. We shared a mixed sausage platter (so much sauerkraut) and the veal schnitzel. I was happily full by the time we left. Not to mention, the beer is fantastic (the radler — lager with Sprite or 7-Up — is my go to). The Augustiner brand is a local favourite because it’s almost exclusively found in the city of Munich.

After our filling meal, we trekked back the way we’d come. Ending up at Augustiner-Keller, another branch of the brand. This location is home to a huge outdoor beer garden during warmer weather. Plus, inside the building is an awesome underground bunker that’s now used as a beer hall.

On our way home, our friend led us to the München Hauptbahnhof (central station) to show us how to buy our train tickets to Salzburg. For just 31€ for the two of us, we could do a round trip past the border into Austria.

Day 7 – Munich, Germany

The immaculate upper church inside the Bürgersaalkirche.

We explored much more of the city on our fourth day. Again, we went on foot towards Karlsplatz (Stachus) and Marienplatz. It was incredibly busy with tourists, which I didn’t love (even though I was a tourist as well). But, it was still a great experience.

We came across the Bürgersaalkirche, a historical building that is split into an upper church and lower church. The one on the second floor is a stunner and was quite a surprise. Eventually, we made it to the Munich Residenz where we went through the Museum. I would also have liked to visit the theatre and treasury, but we didn’t have enough time to fit that in. At the end of the day, we stopped at Odeonsplatz. It’s mired in the history of World War II when Munich became a Nazi stronghold and one of Hitler’s main bases of operation. Seeing these spots where such darkness took place was sobering and also somewhat enlightening. Today, the people of Munich and Germany teach their youngsters about what happened, so that they can learn from the past. They’re not hiding it. It’s too important a lesson to shy away from.

Dinner on this night was had at Bollywood, a cozy Indian restaurant that made an amazing mango lamb dish (using real pureed mangos). It was probably one of the best meals we had on the entire trip.

Day 8 – Salzburg, Austria

Love locks on a bridge in Salzburg, Austria.

In Munich, Tuesday, October 31 was considered a holiday. I believe it was the 500th year of Reformation. Therefore, all shops and stores would be closed. Save for main city attractions, there wouldn’t be much to do except eat at a restaurant or drink at a bar. I checked and Salzburg, Austria was not celebrating the same holiday. I deemed it the ideal day to check entering another country off our list. It took about two hours to get there by train.

I’ve actually been to Salzburg before. I remember it as the birthplace of Mozart. But, beyond that, I can’t say I recall too much of it. It’s not very big, so it’s incredibly walkable. Granted, I couldn’t talk myself into trekking up the steep path to the castle, nor did I want to wait in the long line to get into the building. It seemed that a number of tourists thought this was also a great day to visit this city.

There are a number of gypsies begging for money in Salzburg, which is something we didn’t see much of in Munich. One sat outside the Stiftskirche Sankt Peter Salzburg as we entered the church. Behind that spot is Petersfriedhof Salzburg, a peaceful cemetery — the oldest in the city — where it seems whole families are laid to rest.

Prior to leaving, we also visited the Salzburg Cathedral (the Dom). It’s a much busier church that all the tourists go to. The door is monitored and there does seem to be an expectation of some sort of donation as one leaves.

We were in Salzburg for all of about four hours. It’s plenty of time if you’re not going through any museums or stopping for food or drinks. We made it back to Munich in the early evening. It’d been a pretty long day of travelling, so we opted to stick close to the apartment for dinner. Just around the corner from where we were staying is a pub called Hirschenwirt. The beer was fine, but the food was so-so. What made up for mediocre meal was the hospitality of the owners. The woman who served us was also the cook. As soon as we gave her our order, she opened the door to the kitchen, flicked on the lights and got going. We could tell it was the neighbourhood hangout full of regulars and that made it fun.

Of note:

On holidays, shops and grocery stores will be closed in Munich. The exception to that is at the central station where groceries can still be purchased and a number of food vendors will be open. It can be a lifesaver, if one forgets to stock up beforehand.

Day 9 – Munich, Germany

The interior of Nymphenburg Palace.

This was a wonderful day! We walked the 45 minutes or so from our apartment to the Nymphenburg Palace and Park. I’d love to see it in the summertime with the greenery and everything in full bloom.

When we finished there, we headed back towards our neighbourhood. My boyfriend wanted to check out the McDonald’s. He was so impressed with the separate McCafe side of the shop. I’d already seen that split in Hong Kong, so I wasn’t as enamored with that, but I was excited for the desserts as we don’t have them available at home (chocolate cake, cheesecake, and apple crumble). They were all much better than I expected. Fresh, moist, flavourful, and not overly sweet.

In the evening, we met our friend and his classmate for supper at Paulaner Brauhaus. It’s another Munich Brewery. Food-wise, it was still German cuisine, but it was elevated. The presentation and the preparation was just a lot more highbrow than Augustiner (and that was already supposed to be better than other places). I’d go back there in a heartbeat. I also learned here that schnapps are to be slowly sipped and not downed like a shot. It’s a strong liquor that isn’t sweetened to death like it is in North America.

As this was still a holiday in Munich, it was pretty difficult to find places open late in the evening. However, we found a haunt by the name of Neiderlassung for a nightcap. It was a laid back spot that played toned down versions of recent pop hits; quiet enough to actually have a conversation with friends. They also make a spectacular sloe gin.

Late at night, we were back at Marienplatz. Everything was closed and the square was empty. It’s a bit surreal to see it that way, but I highly recommend going there when it’s quiet.

Day 10 – Munich, Germany

The 1979 BMW Art Car seen at the BMW Museum.

This was our final full day in Munich (we had to leave the next morning for the airport), and we decided to spend it at the BMW Museum and BMW Welt. The Welt is free to enter. It’s basically a showroom for all of their products and there are a few cafes and restaurants inside as well. The BMW Museum cost 10€ per person. I didn’t know what to expect. I’m not a car person per say. Nevertheless, I can appreciate the craftsmanship of some vehicles, and I have to say that this was an incredibly well-designed building and the exhibits were put together with care and precision. We really enjoyed ourselves here. My only wish is that I had also gotten to do the tour of the plant. Unfortunately, the plant was closed for holidays until a week into November, so we didn’t get to do that this time.

In the evening, while we were back in Marienplatz, we couldn’t decide on where to go for dinner, so we paused to buy a sausage in a bun from a vendor. It was alright. I would have preferred a bratwurst.

No matter though. We chose to finish off our trip with one last visit to Augustiner Klosterwirt. We imbibed in some more local beer, sausages, pork shoulder and spinach dumplings. It was warm, comforting food, and I couldn’t think of any better send off.

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Unconventional Las Vegas

To celebrate my 30th birthday a week ago, my friend and I flew down to Las Vegas for a long weekend trip. Itinerary in hand, we had no plans to party or gamble over the four days. This being our third holiday in Vegas within a two year period, we didn’t need to go dancing and drinking until the clubs close at 4am. No, this vacation was going to be different and unconventional – relaxing, eye-opening and filled with great food and a bit of shopping.

Here’s the info on where we stayed, what we drove, what we ate and where we went. I’ll try to be as brief as possible and let the photos do most of the talking.

Hotel

Whenever we go to Vegas, we tend to stay at a different hotel. On this occasion, we purchased a flight and hotel package through Expedia that included accommodations at The Mirage. Upon check-in, we were given keys for a non-smoking, two queen bed room on the 15th floor. The room was clean (although the countertop was a bit dusty) and spacious with enough room to lay out our luggage and walk around.

There is a fridge under the counter, but it’s a fully stocked minibar, which I didn’t dare touch because you just never know and my money isn’t going towards overpriced mini bottles of alcohol or bags of candy. I do wish that there was some empty space in the fridge to store some leftovers though. Otherwise, the beds were comfortable and housekeeping never bothered us in the mornings.

Overall, I liked the hotel enough to consider another stay there and I would recommend it to others.

On a side note, I still question why Vegas hotels continue to charge people a daily resort fee. This is especially the case during the colder months when amenities like their pools are often closed for the season. What exactly are we paying for?

Car Rental

For this trip, a car was required for drives to the Grand Canyon and Valley of Fire State Park. We rented through E-Z Rent-A-Car because it was one of the cheaper options. It was easy enough to get to the large rental location because of the shuttle bus from the airport, but the problem with E-Z is that we thought what we paid through Expedia would cover the entire cost. Unfortunately, liability insurance (we thought my friend’s credit card coverage would be enough) still had to be added on top of that, meaning we didn’t really save any money. We’ll probably look at other options next time.

The one good thing is that we were upgraded to a nice sage green (they listed the colour as white) Prius for the weekend, which was really efficient on gas.

Shows

Instead of going to Cirque du Soleil or a concert this time, we decided to change things up by checking out some new shows.

Lipshtick

Our first evening in Vegas, we ventured to the Sands Showroom at the Venetian for Lipshtick. They’ve been running shows under this name for the whole year to showcase female comediennes. The headliner for the night was Whitney Cummings who was hilarious. I’m actually happy to have seen her do live stand-up. She can be crass, but she has great rapport with the audience and she’s quick on her feet with jokes and comebacks.

Whitney Cummings will be back in Vegas for another show in January under the Lipshtick banner. I’m hoping that they continue to add new dates because they’ve also had Iliza Shlesinger in the past and her Netflix shows always make me laugh out loud.

Mat Franco: Magic Reinvented Nightly

America’s Got Talent 2014 winner (I never watched the series), Mat Franco, now has his own residency in Las Vegas at the LINQ. Neither my friend or I had seen a magic show in Vegas (I’m fairly certain I haven’t), so we were game to check it out.

Mat Franco is definitely a showman and he has got his tricks down. I was impressed with his humour and his sleight of hand. Also, I’m one of those people who doesn’t think about how a trick was done. I don’t need to know. I just want to be amazed.

Food

Jean Philippe Patisserie at Aria

For lunch when we arrived in Vegas, we ate savoury Italian crepes at Jean Philippe Patisserie. The two of us had each redeemed myVEGAS vouchers, so we got to eat for free. The crepes were huge with plenty of veggies for the filling and a good portion of prosciutto on top. This was a satisfying meal.

Sage at Aria

Dinner led us back to the Aria hotel where we indulged in the $89 Signature menu at Sage. To start, we ordered the Pearfection cocktail, recommended to us by our wonderful server. Bread (with butter and salt) was provided as well as an amuse bouche.

The Signature menu consists of your choice of four courses. Both of us had the wagyu beef tartar. That dish was fantastic. I could have eaten 10 plates. My friend had the salt roasted beets next. It was a beautiful dish that looked delicious. I had the Maine day boat scallops, which were perfectly seared and tender. The salted caramel reduction was rich and went well with the slightly bitter greens and the earthy mushrooms.

For our mains, my friend had the 48 hour beef belly and I selected the Beecher’s Farm whey fed pork loin. The bite I had of the beef belly was really succulent. The pork loin wasn’t as juicy as I would have liked, but it was tasty and not too heavy.

Knowing that I was celebrating my birthday, our server had told the kitchen about the occasion and my pumpkin clafoutis dessert arrived with a candle in it. That was a nice touch that I didn’t expect.

Tableau at Wynn

Before our excursion to the North Premium Outlets on day 2, we stopped at the Wynn for brunch at Tableau. What a gorgeous restaurant. We were seated near the entrance by a window that looked out into the garden. I didn’t see further back, but I think there’s an atrium space with more tables that would have been lovely.

My friend had a juice and I had a smoothie (vanilla strawberry balsamic) to wake us up. Both were refreshing. The smoothie was interesting because the balsamic made the drink more acidic than it would have been without. Judging from the strawberry that was placed on the rim, if it had just been vanilla with strawberry, it would have been very sweet because the strawberry was the best I’d had in a long time. I would love it if we could get such amazingly flavourful berries at home.

Viewing the menu, we both chose the duck hash & eggs. Our server told us that was one of the most popular dishes, so much so that it has never been removed from the menu even when they make updates. The duck was smoky, the eggs were fluffy, the pastry was decadently buttery and the hollandaise sauce was lighter than normal.

Sprinkles Cupcakes

Prior to our Vegas visit, I joined the Sprinkles Birthday Club and received an email offer that allowed me to redeem for a free cupcake on my celebratory day.

This turned out to be our quick “dinner” before the Mat Franco show. I ended up getting the pumpkin cupcake (seasonal) along with an additional chai latte flavour, which was my favourite when we picked up Sprinkles in San Diego earlier this year.

Sprinkles cupcakes are awesome. However, I will say that two of them eaten back-to-back does cause sugar overload, and I don’t say that often.

BLT Burger at The Mirage

After the magic show and a drink at the Seahorse casino bar at Caesars Palace, we were feeling pretty famished, so we decided to head back to The Mirage for some food at BLT Burger.

This was a great choice. The burgers were stacked high and for a decent price you could add a drink and a side of fries (skinny, curly, fat, waffle or sweet potato). My friend opted for the buffalo chicken burger and I went for the sesame tuna. Everything about mine was scrumptious. What was most surprising was seeing that they stacked two steaks (not extremely thick though) of ahi tuna on top of each other for my sandwich. Our crisp sweet potato fries were also accompanied by some ranch dip. Yum!

The Buffet at Monte Carlo

The reviews for the Monte Carlo buffet were less than stellar, but going in with lower expectations meant that I was pretty pleased with what we got for breakfast.

Eating for free because of another redeemed myVEGAS reward made it all the more worth it.

I had some banana bread french toast, hash potatoes, potatoes au gratin, bacon, chicken apple sausage, fruit and a glass of club soda and I was ready to go.

I would have tried more of the food, but I didn’t have a big appetite that morning. If I had, I would have gone for the roast beef, which some reviewers have said is often dry, yet it looked cooked to a nice medium rare when I walked by.

Maybe we can give this place another go.

In-N-Out Burger

On our way to the Grand Canyon, we paused in Kingman, AZ at the In-N-Out Burger for a snack.

My friend had been wanting to try their burgers for a while, so we thought this was the perfect opportunity. Plus, celebrities always rave about this chain.

Sticking to the regular menu (they also have the not-so-secret one), we both ordered a single patty cheeseburger without onion. I have to say that I was underwhelmed.

When we were waiting for our orders, I saw customers picking up their double-doubles and they looked good. However, when I ate my burger, the patty, while fresh, was thinner than I thought it would be. The meat itself wasn’t that seasoned, so most of the flavour came from their special spread. By far, the best part of the burger was the toasted bun.

Wolfgang Puck Bar & Grill at MGM

Another day, another deal from myVEGAS. This time, we got a free entree with purchase of another during dinner at the MGM Grand’s Wolfgang Puck Bar & Grill.

The restaurant is the bees knees. Our server was friendly and quick to offer his suggestions and favourites off of the menu. We each started with a pineapple mojito to quench our thirst. Those were great. I would absolutely order that drink again.

A basket was also provided with two types of bread. The onion bread is amazing. In fact, we asked for more and our server practically gave us a whole loaf.

We continued our meal with a plate each of the short rib entree and shared sides of roasted cauliflower and brussels sprouts with pancetta.

The amount of food that came with our order was crazy. We ended up packing half of it with us (bread included) for breakfast and snacks the next day.

If you ever go there, and you like meat, I highly recommend that you try the short ribs. The beef is divine and I swear that they gave us twenty ounces of meat per plate. We could have shared one entree with the same sides and it would have been more than enough to feed the two of us.

Sushi Roku

With just a little over an hour before we had to leave for our flight home, we grabbed a quick dinner at Sushi Roku in the Caesars Palace Forum Shops.

Their happy hour is a great deal and I ended up getting a small order of albacore tataki and three maki rolls – spicy tuna, rock shrimp tempura & jalapeno and salmon & avocado – for $29, including tax and tip.

The service is good and the food is prepared fast while the seafood is fresh.

More info about Sushi Roku can be found in my last post about Vegas.

Fun Stuff

North Premium Outlets

Since we happened to be in Vegas the day after Black Friday, I expected to find better discounts and deals at the outlet mall, but they weren’t as great as I thought they would be.

That’s not to say I didn’t find anything. Actually, we did a lot of damage in five hours, and we weren’t even able to get to every store that we had planned to stop at.

One of the reasons for that is the addition of an extra strip to the mall. An associate at the new Marc by Marc Jacobs outlet store said that they had just opened earlier this year. They also now have a Neiman Marcus Last Call Studio, Saks Fifth Avenue OFF Fifth, Dolce & Gabbana and AllSaints among others, so it was a lot to take in.

Grand Canyon National Park

On day 3, we drove the four and a half hours to the south rim of Grand Canyon National Park, avoiding the exorbitant entrance fees charged by the Hualapai tribe at the west rim.

Once through the south entrance, we drove along making stops at many of the parking lots. We got out to walk along the rim at each location. The best spot that we went to was the Desert View Watchtower. With the canyon and the Colorado River before our eyes, it was a beautiful sight to behold. The watchtower provided various vantage points to take photos and it is also home to an extremely showy raven.

It was windy and cold that day, but nature is amazing and, if we weren’t freezing and it wasn’t going to be dark so soon, we would have stayed there longer.

On the drive back to Vegas, I noticed that the sky was so dark that all of the stars could be seen. They sparkled so brightly. We ended up taking the exit onto the Kingman Wash Access Road, so we could stop and soak it all in.

Valley of Fire State Park

Rather than revisiting Red Rock Canyon, we decided to go somewhere different during this vacation.

I came across images of Valley of Fire State Park on Instagram about a month before we were set to leave and it looked beautiful.

About an hour away from the Strip, we were able to fit it in on our last day in Vegas.

Although we didn’t quite make it to every feature of the park, we managed to see Atlatl Rock, Arch Rock, Beehives, Rainbow Vista, White Domes and Fire Canyon/Silica Dome within two to three hours. That’s only about half of the sights in the park, not including various hikes that you can do as well. Some Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep also graced us with their presence.

We’re certainly planning to go to Valley of Fire again. But, we’ll be a bit more prepared next time. Here’s a tip: bring hiking boots with excellent grip and high ankle coverage. Much of the park is covered in deep sand, which makes for a difficult walk in basic flats or runners.

This was another whirlwind holiday down south. I like that we’re going off the beaten track to explore more of what Las Vegas and Nevada have to offer, and we’ll continue to do so on subsequent visits.

Again, I hope that this information inspires others to expand their horizons whenever they might find themselves there.

Continued Explorations: Autumn in NYC

Grand Central Terminal

Grand Central Terminal

Every so often I get the urge to revisit New York City. People always ask me why I go there as frequently as I do. The reason is because it’s a vibrant place to be, but one that I can easily leave behind when I want to go back to the more slow-paced lifestyle that is Edmonton.

This latest trip was one that had been discussed for sometime. However, due to other circumstances, it didn’t come to fruition until this year.

Over a decade since my friend and I had first traveled there together, we made plans to go back and experience the City that Never Sleeps from a more mature perspective.

Hearing that autumn is a gorgeous time of year there, we booked our holiday to run through the first week of October. Although the weather proved to work against us throughout part of our vacation (leading to itinerary changes), it still turned out to be a fantastic several days.

Only ever pausing to sleep in our room at the Seton Hotel, our trip was a mishmash of neighbourhood explorations, music, museums, culture and food as we clocked about 60 kilometers and over a hundred thousand steps through the streets of Manhattan.

The following is a daily account, with pictures, of our adventures. I hope they inspire some of you to explore restaurants and places that are a little off the beaten path.

DAY 1

Accommodations: Seton Hotel

The Seton is a clean, comfortable, renovated boutique hotel. We stayed in a premium room with two double beds and a private bathroom (a number of their rooms have shared baths). It is actually quite spacious if there are only a couple of people staying together. There are a number of spots to layout your suitcases without it feeling overly cluttered. The bathroom is also nice, and while they don’t provide any body lotion for use, they do supply soaps, shampoo, conditioner and packaged makeup wipes.

It’s important to note that your room key must be dropped off with the staff every time you leave the hotel. There is also no in-room safe (the front desk has one) or fridge in each room. But, they have a lovely lounge on the main floor. They also provide free tea and coffee as well as umbrellas that can be taken out on rainy days. On our last day there, the hotel held our luggage between checkout time and when we had to leave for the airport, which was handy.

As with most large cities, there is usually construction nearby and the Seton wasn’t immune. During the weekdays, workers typically started up with the jackhammer just after 8 AM. As luck would have it, we were always already awake, so it didn’t make much of a difference to us. Yet it’s worth noting that you may want to request a room towards the back of the hotel away from the street and the elevator.

The location itself was extremely convenient. Situated on 40th Street between 3rd and Lexington Avenues, the Seton was only a few blocks away from Grand Central Terminal and from Fifth Avenue. Although it was often quiet late in the evening, it always felt safe.

Staring at the art on the walls of the Cafe Duke

Staring at the art on the walls of the Cafe Duke

Nourishment: Bohemian

Bohemian is an exclusive, referral-only restaurant located in the East Village of Manhattan. It’s hidden behind a butcher’s shop. The address is actually quite easy to find online. However, you do have to obtain an invite directly from the restaurant or get the phone number from someone who has previously dined in order to make a reservation. Walk-ins are not guaranteed a table.

After a while wandering the neighbourhood to kill time before our 9 P.M. reservation, my friend and I opted to go with the 6-course tasting menu. It included a Farmer’s Fresh Vegetable Fondue, Uni Croquette, Washu-Beef Short Rib Sashimi, Pan Roasted Branzino, Washu-Beef Mini Burger OR Sashimi Rice Bowl and a Yuzu Pannacotta.

Needless to say, our starving bellies were more than stuffed after our two and a half hour dinner. By the time we worked our way through the majority of the branzino, we could have given up. But, we powered through like champs and finished the entirety of our meal.

The staff were great there and the food is worth the slightly increased effort required to book a table. It’s especially good value for the price – a drink and six dishes came to less than $70 before tax.

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DAY 2

Attractions: Central Park, The Met, Lincoln Center, The Book of Mormon, Times Square

The forecast called for rain, but we seemed to luck out in the morning as we strolled from Norma’s through Central Park to The Met. Having been to NYC several times, this was my first visit in the autumn, and the most time I’ve ever spent in the park. As we meandered through all the areas on the east side of the park between 59th and 85th Streets, we were surprised that the trees were still so green. It wasn’t quite the imagined yellow, orange, red paradise that we expected, but it was still a beautiful and relaxing respite from the rest of the bustling city.

Eventually, we made it to The Met where we spent hours perusing the maze of collections housed in its walls. The American Wing and European Paintings were my favourite. Sadly, the Costume Institute collection on the ground floor was closed off, so we didn’t get to see that, which is unfortunate. Their most recent exhibit, China: Through the Looking Glass, looked like a superb view on fashion, so it’s too bad that it closed before we arrived.

On our way back to midtown, we cut through Central Park. Unfortunately, we got caught in the rain. The trees helped to shield us a bit, but we were still a damp by the time we managed to make it to Lincoln Centre. My one wish is that we could have seen up-close the two large murals by Marc Chagall that hang in the lobby of the Metropolitan Opera House. The unmistakable style caught my eye through the windows of the building and I didn’t want to look away. If only it wasn’t pouring out, so we could have lingered longer.

A performance of The Book of Mormon at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre gave us a break from the rainy weather. Finally, after years wanting to see this show, I did. Was it worth the money? Probably not, but the Mormon song and dance numbers and the spun stories were highly entertaining, especially for those who are not easily offended.

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As we exited the theatre, our evening finished off in Times Square. Other tourists jostled past us as we found our way to the subway station and we called it a night.

Nourishment: NORMA’s, Whole Foods, Shake Shack

NORMA’s at Le Parker Meridien has been a favourite of mine ever since my cousin took me there for brunch back in 2009. Every trip since, I have made a point of going there. This visit did not disappoint. I’d been thinking about the restaurant’s Waz-Za Waffle for months and it was as good as I remembered. My friend’s Red Berry Risotto “Oatmeal” was hearty and scrumptious as well.

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Later in the day, after our long perusal of The Met and two lengthy walks through Central Park and photos at Lincoln Center, we made a quick pit stop at the Whole Foods at Time Warner Center. We had intended to buy a bit of sushi and eat in their food court area, but it was so full that we weren’t able to get a seat. We ended up trying to sit on the floor of the mall to eat until security told us we had to get up. The guard was nice about it though. He said we could stand and eat wherever we wanted.

The Midtown East Shake Shack just down the block from our hotel was perfect for quick late-night meals or snacks after shows. My friend’s featured bratwurst burger looked so tastily greasy that I was a little jealous when I decided to eat the chicken dog instead. However, the chicken dog was perfectly satisfying and light enough just before bed.

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Late night snack from the Shake Shack

DAY 3

Attractions: NYPL Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, Grand Central Terminal, MoMA, Terminal 5

When I was last in NYC back in December 2013, I pretty much just stumbled upon the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building of the New York Public Library. Located on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, it was so close to our hotel that I had to take my friend there this time. Having studied to be a librarian, I knew that she would appreciate the building and the rooms housed within. We arrived before it opened to the public for the day, which gave us time to take some photos in the rain. So, as soon as the doors were unlocked, we booked it inside.

The NYPL provides free tours at 11 A.M. and 2 P.M. Mondays to Saturdays. Our original plan was to check out the library shop until the tour started, but we ended up skipping the tour because it was quite crowded and it was hard to hear the guides. Instead, we wandered around on our own and stopped to watch the excellent video about the building in the library’s theatre, which I would certainly recommend.

Following the NYPL, we headed over to Grand Central Terminal for a guided tour led by a docent from the Municipal Art Society of NYC. Our guide was extremely knowledgeable. She took us into different areas of the building while telling us about the history of the Vanderbilt family, the Biltmore Hotel, the decline of the terminal and Jackie O’s part in saving the landmark. Despite tired feet, the tour was incredibly interesting and worth it.

We took advantage of MoMA’s Free Friday Night sponsored by UNIQLO (if you’re tight on money, you can save a lot by hitting up most of the museums on evenings where entry is complimentary; check out their websites for information). Arriving shortly after 4 P.M., one of the museum staff members told us that the wait to get inside could be up to an hour and a half, but we stuck it out. Thankfully, construction scaffolding shielded us from the rain the majority of the time we were outside, and it really only took about 30 minutes for us to make it around the block and through the doors. That gave us about three full hours to view the top five floors, which we were able to do. Although it was packed in some of the galleries, it actually wasn’t too bad. We even managed to find bench seating every so often when we felt like taking a breather. Some of the rooms even emptied out enough to allow us more time and space to soak in the art.

Our day finished off at Terminal 5, a nightclub turned live music venue, where we saw The NBHD and Bad Suns. It’s a neat venue with three levels, but its sight lines aren’t the best if you’re not one of the people who gets a spot leaning against the railings.

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Nourishment: Cipriani Le Specialità

I wasn’t feeling all that well during the Grand Central Terminal tour, which I chalked up to hunger. Therefore, as soon as we finished there, we sought out a place to eat. The food court in the lower level was way too warm, so we went outside for some fresh air. Along the way, we came across Cipriani Le Specialità. It’s part of the Cipriani group of restaurants, but it’s a teeny little fast service eatery with a handful of tables where you can either eat-in or takeaway. The day’s feature steak and pasta was actually perfect for a quick meal and I felt much better afterwards.

Steak and pasta for lunch at Cipriani La

Steak and pasta for lunch at Cipriani Le Specialità

DAY 4

Attractions: Shopping at Century 21, New Yorker Festival

Original plans for the day had included a Watson Adventures High Line scavenger hunt. However, the company decided to cancel the event the day before due to the dismal weather. That left us with a fairly wide open schedule. This was the only day that we slept in at all. Thankfully, there was no noise from construction on the Saturday.

A subway performer packing up her things

A subway performer packing up her things

Once we finished lunch at Time Warner Center, we took the subway over to the Century 21 department store by Lincoln Center, which we had passed by a couple days earlier. It was not my intention to do any shopping during this particular trip, but entering Century 21 quashed that notion. I walked away with a few things, all useful to me, and a bill that indicated savings of over $350. That’s my attempt to look at my receipt with a glass half full.

A dancer practicing his moves

A dancer practicing his moves

Later in the evening, we went to a New Yorker Festival talk between Lauren Collins and Ellie Kemper. I had to pick up my tickets from will call and then we joined a very long line up. As it turns out, the line up was really for the Patti Smith event in the same venue, but none of the staff pointed that out to anyone. When we finally got to the front of the line, we were turned away and asked to wait outside until they started seating for Ellie Kemper. It still worked out though. If that hadn’t happened, I probably wouldn’t have spotted Damian Lewis of Homeland fame leaving from his talk, and the ticket taker made sure that those who were already at the door for Ellie Kemper were the first to enter. We ended up getting seats right in front of the stage. Ellie Kemper is absolutely hilarious and charming. It was great to end the night with some laughs.

Nourishment: Landmarc at Time Warner Center, Bouchon Bakery, Mira Sushi & Izakaya

As luck would have it, the cousin I stayed in NYC with back in 2009 was in town for a few days. He treated us to a wonderful lunch at Landmarc. We left the decisions to him and were met with delicious appetizers of fois gras terrine, fried calamari, and roasted marrow bones along with shared mains of certified black angus marinated skirt steak with chimichurri sauce and chicken sausage cavatelli. He always has the best suggestions when it comes to food.

Before we parted ways, he took us next door to Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bakery where we split a lemon tart and chocolate cheesecake between the three of us. As great as both were, the density of the second dessert really pushed us over the limit for lunch.

Dinner before the Ellie Kemper talk was had at Mira Sushi & Izakaya in the Chelsea neighbourhood. The restaurant was busy, but not entirely full when we arrived. However, we did make a reservation (on OpenTable) as did others. The Yuzu Lychee Sangria was a little pricey, but they didn’t skimp on the alcohol, ensuring that it wasn’t overly sweet. For our meal, we both ordered the salmon sampler set. The fish was fresh and the rice was perfectly prepared for the sushi. The spicy salmon roll was so tasty, but didn’t quite have the heat that we expected. What really made this supper memorable was the dessert. We shared a matcha green tea brownie s’more and it was heavenly.

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DAY 5

Attractions: The Cloisters, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, Rockefeller Center, Hand to God

The morning didn’t go as smoothly as we hoped. The train that Google told us to take ended up being only an express train on the Sunday, so we had to switch lines part way there. The last stop was further removed from The Cloisters and we stopped to ask a tailor for directions.

We eventually made it to Fort Tyron Park, which seemed to have been taken over by a medieval festival. Rather than join the crowd, we bypassed it and followed the signs to The Cloisters building, eventually finding the entrance.

The museum is filled with medieval European art, including the famous Unicorn Tapestries donated by John D. Rockefeller Jr. We almost missed seeing them as we took a staircase down to the lower level of the building and ended up looping past the room all together. But, I made sure that we went back into the galleries before we departed. The gardens are also beautiful and tranquil. I’m not sure how busy The Cloisters is on a regular day, but it was clear that the festival taking place outside brought in more than usual.

When we were done at The Cloisters, we caught a bus (the coldest bus we’ve ever been on) down to the Cooper Hewitt museum. With exhibits that cover historical and contemporary design, there were some unique pieces on display. What I loved the most about the museum is the digital pen that you’re given for use during your visit. If you see something you like, you can press the pen up to the symbol on the summary cards and it saves it to a URL that is specific to your entry ticket. It gives you a chance to look back at what you saw and takes less effort to document the things that capture your eye.

Prior to our evening performance of Hand to God, we made a quick trip to Rockefeller Center to see if we could obtain a Dwight bobblehead doll from the NBC Experience Store. To our dismay, it was already closed for the evening (silly, considering all the tourists milling about at 6 P.M. on the weekend).

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Since that was a bust, we started walking towards Broadway in search of food. As soon as we finished eating, we met up with the TodayTix staff member who hand delivered the tickets that we ordered using the app. Hand to God, showing at the Booth Theatre is a new American play about an awkward teenager whose sock puppet seems to come to life, bringing to light the many issues that surround him and those closest to him. It was sad, funny and, as our shows often leaned, inappropriate. Hand to God will remain in NYC until January when it moves to London.

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Nourishment: Carve Unique Sandwiches & Pizza, Shake Shack

Food was kind of low on our list this day, so we were starving by the time we got close to Times Square. We tided ourselves over with slices of pizza from Carve. The thin-crust spinach and ricotta pizza was delicious and it hit the spot before the play.

Spinach and ricotta pizza from Carve

Spinach and ricotta pizza from Carve

Another night, another stop at Shake Shack before bed. I stuck to my tried and true chicken dog, but added a draught root beer (to be honest, the drink was nothing special). My friend got the ShackMeister Dog™. Again, I was slightly envious that I went the healthier route once more.

DAY 6

Attractions: 9/11 Museum & Memorial, The High Line, Bowery Ballroom

The day started with a somber visit to the 9/11 Museum and Memorial. When I was in NYC less than two years ago, the museum wasn’t complete yet. Now that it’s open, I thought it was important to see it, and while I still believe that to be the case, it is a tough one to get through. The exhibits have been carefully curated and are thoughtful despite the subject matter. I cried a lot. The museum covers one of the worst days in recent history and as a remembrance of the event and the people who were lost, it feels like a necessary reminder.

What I love about NYC is that there’s always something “new” to do. For me, this was the High Line park. We managed to fit this in on our last full day in the city. Unbeknownst to me, the park (phase one) was established as far back as 2009, but until this year, I hadn’t heard of it. Created from a disused elevated railway, the tracks from 34th Street and 11th Avenue all the way down to Gansevoort Street have now been transformed into a gathering place for citizens and tourists to enjoy the beautiful views of Manhattan’s west side. We spent a couple of hours spotting the public art, large murals and graffiti tags along the route. We people watched, stopped to watch bees pollinate flowers and saw the sun setting over the water.

Our final evening was spent at the Bowery Ballroom where we saw Geographer and Stars perform. Both were excellent. I walked in as a fan of Stars and left loving Geographer just as much. The Bowery Presents runs Terminal 5 and the Bowery Ballroom, and it may come down to the performer each evening, but I have to say that the Bowery Ballroom felt like a better fit for us. The venue was much smaller (a capacity of less than 600 versus 3,000 at Terminal 5) with just two stories and better sight lines. The crowd was closer in age to us and everyone seemed to be respectful of personal space. My only suggestion is that they add a bit more seating to the venue.

Nourishment: Bouley, KULU Desserts

When we met with my cousin for lunch on the weekend, he mentioned dinner with his colleagues that same evening at a restaurant called Bouley. He was lamenting the fact that he was in store for a 6-course tasting menu just two hours after eating with us. We couldn’t help him, but we were certainly intrigued, so we looked into Bouley later that night. What we found was the lunch tasting menu, which is an absolute steal at $55 for 5 courses compared to the $185 for the 6-course dinner. Once we found that, we immediately decided to book a table.

We were forewarned that Bouley, located in Tribeca, was more upscale, so we knew we had to dress up a little. I still felt slightly out of place (I packed appropriately to fit in with the Manhattanites, but not so well that I looked like I belonged in a fancy schmancy restaurant like Bouley). However, all of the staff we came into contact with were extremely friendly and accommodating. They made us feel like we were their best patrons. The food wasn’t too shabby either. Every dish I had was fabulous. Even the ones that seemed simple to execute surpassed my expectations.

On the way out of Bouley, the hostess grabbed our jackets for us and then promptly handed us a couple of gift bags. I heard her say something about lemon tea. As it turns out, the bag had a pamphlet about chef David Bouley’s empire and an entire loaf of lemon tea cake. I carried that cake around for the rest of the day because I really appreciated the extra thought that Bouley put into their diner’s experience.

Our dinner that evening wasn’t exactly a real meal. I had purchased a Groupon ahead of the trip for a place called KULU Desserts. The reason why I really wanted to try this place is because they make Asian fusion desserts like ones that I ate in Hong Kong and Singapore from Honeymoon Dessert. Talk about dessert ruining your appetite for supper. $20 worth of food was more than enough to fill the two of us up. We shared the Mango Pomelo, Black Sesame Paste, Matcha Sawdust Pudding and a Papaya Smoothie. Everything was great, but I’d definitely go back for the Mango Pomelo bowl.

Our dessert dinner at KULU

Our dessert dinner at KULU

DAY 7

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Nourishment: Zengo

Day 7 of our trip was pretty short. We made a quick, last-minute jaunt to the Library Shop at the NYPL Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, so my friend and I could pick up some gifts before we left. A bit of time was also spent circling the neighbourhood around our hotel because the restaurant we had our eye on didn’t open until 11:30 A.M.

Zengo, a Latin-Asian fusion eatery from chef Richard Sandoval, sat on the corner across from our hotel, so it was the perfect place to relax over a nice meal before we began our journey home. For a little while, we were literally the only people in the restaurant, so the service was excellent. The place did fill up quickly at around noon though, so it’s good to know it’s well frequented.

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I thoroughly enjoyed my bento box, which consisted of the Angry Zengo Roll (spicy tuna), grilled skirt steak, wok vegetables, green papaya salad (not my favourite due to the addition of cilantro) and jasmine rice.

The deconstructed key lime pie was the perfect finish to lunch and, in a way, a good visual of what our vacation was. A mishmash of various flavours and textures that, when brought together, created magic.

West Coast Wonder: Vancouver, A Weekend Getaway

Moonlight from Iona Beach

Moonlight from Iona Beach

For as long as I can remember, Vancouver has been the quick and easy getaway for my family. It’s pretty much the fastest trip you can take from Edmonton to see the ocean and mountains all together while still enjoying the feel of a laid-back yet big city.

When I was younger, we would road trip all the way there and back; the numerous hours on the highway were an adventure to me. Now that I’m grown, I don’t think I can sit through such a long drive. What was once seen as fun has become daunting. That’s not to say that the scenery along the way won’t be beautiful and worth it, but it also depends on who’s willing to travel with you and vice versa. Pick the wrong person or group and count yourself in for two to three days of stress filled travel.

Thank goodness for airplanes! With the commute cut down immensely, Vancouver is actually the perfect weekend holiday for us landlocked Albertans. When I visit, I’m usually there for at least four days to a week, but back in April, I went to visit my friend and some of my relatives for a two day jaunt. Surprisingly, you can fit quite a lot into such a short time frame.

That particular weekend included a catch up with my aunt, uncle and cousin, birthday celebrations with my friend, strolls around Granville Island and Queen Elizabeth Park, shopping along Main Street (Front & Company and Barefoot Contessa) and Robson Street, and copious amounts of food from Burgoo, Lucky’s Doughnuts, Sala Thai, Joey Burrard and Kaya Malay Bistro.

Here are some photos from that trip!