Dateline: Reykjavik

After the winter we just had, I’m not entirely sure why Iceland in June seemed like a good idea, but something about a land of volcanoes, ice, and elves appealed, so a couple weeks ago, I unearthed my ski socks, down jacket, and mittens, and packed a bag for Reykjavik, where the average June temperature hovers below 50.


My plan for this trip was to do some serious hiking in southern Iceland (more on that later), but before getting out of town, I spent a day exploring Reykjavik. Europe’s northernmost capital was smaller than I expected, more akin to a seaport like Gloucester or Annapolis than a bustling European capital. Which is appropriate: Reykjavik was founded in 870 A.D. by seafaring Vikings, and for centuries operated as a seaport. Until the 20th century, there were few roads linking communities on the island. Instead, people travelled by boat.


Though Reykjavik is relatively small, I managed to walk 15 miles in the city on the first day. I couldn’t help it: the small streets and picturesque houses make it a very walkable city. The city was hosting a color run the morning I arrived, which made for a pretty hilarious spectacle with hundreds of fair-haired people running through clouds of neon dust. I spent the rest of the day passing people with rock-star quality hair and crossing blue and pink tinged streets.

Rather than give you a play by play of the day, here are a few highlights:

My first stop was at Hallgrimskirkja, Reykjavik’s iconic church. It was about 8 a.m. when I arrived, and the city was just waking up, so the church wasn’t open. I walked around and snapped some photos and then headed into town in search of coffee.


Reykjavik has a great cafe scene, I don’t think I had a bad cup of coffee the entire time I was there, regardless of whether I was at a quaint cafe, a mountain hut, or a gas station.

Harpa Concert Hall
After breakfast, I headed to the coast and found myself near the Harpa Concert Hall, another of the city’s iconic structures. Of course I had to go in for a gander. Built of steel and glass, the structure reminded me of a giant honeycomb, overlooking the harbor.


Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur
I never would have sought out hot dogs in Iceland has I not read this story in Conde Nast Traveller. Iceland’s culinary history is colorful (to be generous). With a short growing season and long winters, food preservation was important: smoking, drying, and brining meat and fish is pervasive. But while whey brined shark (hakarl) is an acquired taste, hot dogs hold more universal appeal. So, I headed to Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur (translation: the best hog dog in town) to try one of the famous Icelandic hot dogs, made mostly from free-range organic lamb wrapped in a natural casing (with a bit of pork and beef thrown in for good measure).

There was a line when I arrived, but it moved quickly. At 400 krona (about $3), they were a steal, so I got two, with everything. Everything was raw onions, fried onions, sweet mustard, and “remoulade” a mayonnaise-based sauce. The hotdogs were served in a perfect, soft, white bun, with the onions underneath and the sauce in two neat lines over the top. The casing crunched satisfyingly, and the actual sausages weren’t as salty as their American counterparts. All in all, it was a pretty great lunch.

The harbor
The day I arrived was also the start of the Festival of the Sea. Every Icelandic ship was in the harbor, and all the sailors had a day off. I walked from the Harpa Concert Hall along the water, reading displays about Iceland’s maritime disasters (there are many), admiring boats, and looking confusedly at an exhibit of Icelandic seafood that featured real, slightly decaying specimens.


It was a great way to learn more about the history of Iceland, and if you’re hankering for a fishing or whale watching excursion, this is the place to go. There are also a host of seafood restaurants overlooking the water, as well as a maritime museum.


When your homeland has a lot of volcanic activity like Iceland does, you also have some pretty awesome geothermal resources. Icelandic communities have capitalized on this by building a host of outdoor, heated, community swimming pools, and making swim lessons compulsory for all school children.

In Reykjavik, the biggest of these pools is the Laugardalslaug, located slightly east of downtown Reykjavik. It was about a half hour walk from my hotel downtown, but the pool is also accessible by public bus (routes and schedules here).

Icelanders use minimal chemicals in their pools, so a cleansing shower (with soap, no bathing suit) is required before you get in. The wet walk from the locker room to the outdoor pool was something of a shock (it was 45 degrees the day I went), but the warmth of the hot tubs made it all worth it.

Iceland17Fortunately, the pool didn’t look like this on the day I visited. In addition to several hot tubs of various temperatures, the facility features a lap pool, a huge children’s play area, floating chess and waterslides. With admission about $5 (plus another $5 to rent a towel), it’s a steal. For the best people watching, go when work gets out and Icelanders are enjoying time with their families.

Reykjavik is also the culinary and shopping hub of the country, so if you’re looking for a good meal or neat souvenirs, this is your spot. I had a traditional tasting menu one night featuring smoked puffin, seared mike whale, reindeer, arctic char, and skyr… it was a different, but delicious experience.


Hiking the Kalalau trail

There was only one thing I had my heart set on doing when I went to Kauai: hiking the Kalalau trail.

Meandering along the north coast of Kauai for 11 undeveloped miles, the trail offers access to remote beaches and breathtaking vistas. An overnight stay (and a permit) is generally required to complete the 22-mile round trip, so I opted to do a shorter hike and see Hanakapai’ai Falls, an 8-mile journey.


Originally, I planned to do this hike earlier in my stay, but a stomach bug meant that my body wasn’t doing anything more strenuous than laying on the beach for several days. Friday was my last full day on the island, so if I was going to see the Kalalau, I knew I was going to have to muster up some strength. I stopped at a gas station on the way and bought some Gatorade and water and then made my way to the trail.

For what it’s worth, the Kalalau trail is one of the most popular hikes on Kauai. If you arrive at the trailhead much after 9 a.m., the parking lot will be full and you’ll end up parking in a crater ridden lot down the road. Many people seem to ignore the no parking signs and leave their cars by the side of the road as well. It was a swath of humanity when I went: church groups and families, people with children, and people with selfie sticks… generally just a lot of people, many who appeared to be in much worse shape than me. While I knew I wouldn’t be running this trail (my original plan), there was a part of me that felt like even in my weakened state I had to be in better shape than the retirees in sport sandals. Not the most charitable thoughts, but it got me motivated.Kalalau9From the get-go, I got the sense that people may show up unprepared for this hike, because there were constant reminders that “YOU ARE ENTERING NATURE AND IT MIGHT NOT BE SAFE.” A collection of signs just past the trailhead warned of cliffs, flash floods, and falling rocks. Later on, signs warned of hazardous waters and rip currents, with hash marks detailing the number of visitors killed. Two days before my hike, 32 people had to be rescued when rising waters made the Hanakapiai Stream impassable.

The trail went up for the first half mile or so and then leveled off at what was essentially the side of a cliff. From there, it was another 1.5 miles to Hanakapiai beach. I tried to pass as many people as I could on this stretch and avoid getting stuck behind groups. I like hiking alone, with nothing to distract me, but Kalalau was far from remote. Still, each vista seemed more beautiful, and I even saw some humpback whales swim by in the waters below.


Pretty soon, the trail was descending and I was at the infamous Hanakapi’ai Stream river crossing.


On a good day, this crossing requires hikers to remove their shoes and wade across thigh-deep water. On a bad day (i.e. when its been raining), the stream swells, making crossings deadly. Fortunately, crossing was no problem on this day.


For many, the rocky, cairn covered beach at Hanakapi’ai seemed to be the turnaround point. Couples snacked, played with feral kittens, and watched the powerful surf. No joke, you do not want to swim here. I stayed long enough to snap some photos and then continued on.


From the beach, the trail turned south towards the interior of the island, following and eventually crossing the Hanakapi’ai stream a few times. One crossing had ropes to help keep you above the water, but another was just rocks. It was easy to see how one could get stuck if it rained.

The trail started to get crowded at this point; solitude was no longer an option. I listened to a surfer guy give his girlfriend lessons in Hawaiian and tried to stay a few steps ahead of two brothers from Philly. The trail was pretty level; I wished I had it in me to trail run, but I was still feeling pretty terrible. Finally, I caught my first glimpse of Hanakapi’ai falls.


I arrived at the base of the falls about 30 minutes later. The air there was cooler thanks to the mist; the water was downright frigid. After a 2.5 hour hike in 80+ degree heat, I was surprised to find that I didn’t want to go swimming.

Traveling solo (and being in crowded quarters), it was hard to capture how truly tall and majestic the falls were. They were movie quality. One of the brothers from Philly tried to take a photo for me, but warned that he couldn’t get the whole waterfall in the picture. I tried…

Kalalau blog

I didn’t stay long at the falls. The air was cold, it was kind of crowded, and my bad stomach meant that my picnic consisted of a yellow Gatorade, which I sipped while walking. I passed even more people on the way down than I had on the way up… I wished I’d started earlier.

But before I knew it, I was back at Hanakapi’ai beach and warm enough to take a dip in the stream. It felt delicious.


Shoes back on, I booked it back to the parking lot, pausing every now and then to take photos of the vistas. Before I knew it, my glorious hike was over. Though, between the traffic and the heat, I couldn’t wait to get out of there and head to town for a shave ice. But I have a feeling that I’ll be on Kauai again, and that when I am, I’ll venture to Kalalau.

Dateline: Koloa, Kauai, Hawaii

After weeks and weeks filled with snow and sub-zero temperatures, I decided enough was enough and booked a trip… to Hawaii.



I spent a night in L.A. and then went straight on to Kauai. After six hours over the Paciifc, I got my first glimpse of the island’s ragged peaks and red cliffs from the air. As the plane descended over the ocean, I looked out my window and saw a humpback whale surface, a telltale puff of air and water rising from the sea like smoke. I knew then that I was in for something special.

I’d expected to feel as ambivalent about Hawaii as I do so many Caribbean islands: tropical places full of tourist traps, sometimes dirty and unsafe, hard to distinguish one from the other, and too hot to make you want to do too much. I couldn’t have been more wrong. A strong native culture permeates the islands, with gentle reminders to “live aloha,” something the locals practice as well as they preach. The water is crystal clear, and a steady trade wind takes the edge off the heat.


secret beach

A lot of folks I talked to were surprised to hear that I planned to spend all 10 days on one island. They encouraged me to hop over to Maui or Oahu to see the sites. But quite frankly, I felt like I could have spent three weeks just in Kauai and not gotten sick of it. There were numerous hikes I wanted to do, beaches to laze on, and shave ices to eat. On the few occasions I returned to the same spots they felt different: the ocean is always changing, and each day brings new things. One day you might see some iridescent silver fish while swimming off a beach, the next day it might be a sea turtle. You never know.

Also, how do you get sick of views like this?


Or this?

IMG_9365Waimea canyon

And the food… oh, the food. Hawaii seems to have adopted the best of everything: Asia’s rice and raw fish, the so-Cal beach culture’s tacos, and a cornucopia of tropical fruits. Even the papaya was palatable, and I never like papaya. Coconut (my favorite, in all forms) was ubiquitous.

My favorite local dish however, was poke, Hawaii’s answer to tuna tartare. Made from whatever fish and ingredients are on hand, the possibilities are endless; it’s served in upscale restaurants on porcelain plates, as well as at the local grocery store in plastic containers. Often, the grocery store varieties are quite good, and super affordable. My favorite poke spot was the Koloa Fish Market, on the south side of the island. Little more than a counter and a cash register, the market makes several varieties of poke, as well as traditional Hawaiian boxed lunches, which are definitely worth a try. I liked the avocado best (so creamy!), but the Korean version, with a slight kick of spice and sprinkled with sesame, were also quite good.


Of course, when you aren’t in Hawaii (or even if you are), you can make poke yourself pretty easily. All you need is access to sushi-quality fish. Here in Boston, you can find this at a few wholesalers that sell to the public, as well as Whole Foods. The key to good poke is to be sparing with your ingredients; you want to add flavor, but you don’t want the fish marinating in a pool. It’s not ceviche.

Here’s a primer to get started, but feel free to edit depending on what’s on hand. Avocado, sriacha, and onion make great additions.

Classic poke

1 to 2 pounds of sushi grade ahi tuna
1/2 to 1 pound white albacore tuna
a few Tablespoons of sesame oil
soy sauce
3 scallions, sliced thinly

Dice tuna into bite sized pieces and put in a bowl. Add enough soy sauce and sesame oil to just coat the fish- you do not want any extra in the bottom of the bowl. Add diced scallions, sesame seeds, or hot sauce, if desired. Serve immediately.