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Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Iceland 2016: Snaefellsnes National Park

We started the day intending to visit Sanefellsnes National Park, but immediately upon leaving town saw a beautiful waterfall and stopped for a quick hike and picture.

We actually spent most of our time in the park at Djupalonssandur beach, which was a black sand beach with beautiful views of the mountain and glaciers. Both kids enjoyed playing on the beach and watching the wind and waves.

A park ranger, however, gave me a tip, which was that right outside the park, there was a crack in the mountain with a canyon inside that was worth a visit. We went in and indeed, it was very strange to feel the strong wind on the coast blowing hard and then suddenly disappear as we approached the canyon entrance and then see the sky go away once we entered the canyon proper.

Returning back to Grundarfjordur, we had a fairly late dinner and prepared for a return to Reykjavik the next day.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Review: The Way of Kings

I picked up The Way of Kings at a huge discount from Amazon in preparation for a transatlantic flight. I usually try to avoid buying the first book of a series, especially an unfinished one, because of poor experiences, but Brandon Sanderson's established a little bit of credibility with me and it seemed like at least the first book would be a worthy standalone novel.

What's cool about Sanderson is that he thinks through his magic systems, and isn't afraid to drive them to their logical conclusion, D&D style. If a human figures out a system that's equivalent to magic, then he's going to keep using the same tricks over and over again. That's human nature, and it's good for magic systems in the series to reflect that.

His Mistborn series, however, focused so much on the magic system that the characters were barely sketched out. With 1000 pages, however, The Way of Kings does a much better job of character building. One of the protagonists, Kaladin, has a hugely long backstory that's largely told in flash-backs. It's well done and the character somewhat complex. Even though you know where he ends up, each plot twist is still a surprise: a sign of good plotting.

Most first novels are simply setups, but The Way of Kings does a good job of being more than that, doing world building (though fairly simplistic world-building --- don't expect Tolkein here!), conflict setup, back-story exposition, and world exposition all at once. None of the tropes of traditional fantasy are here --- nearly everything's fairly original, so don't worry that you're getting into yet another Western European Tolkein rip-offs with the serial numbers filed off: there's not a hint of elves, dwarves, orcs, or incantations here.

It took me weeks to get through this book, and the length of the book is such that I'm contemplating paying full price for the Kindle version of the sequel rather than repeated renewals of a dead tree book. If you know me that's about as high a compliment as I can pay any book.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Iceland 2016: Vidgelmir Cave and Grundarfjordur

The day threatened rain. My original plan was to head directly to Grundarfjordur, but on looking at the map (and getting lost), we decided that it was better to try to do a cave tour. I'd been in a cave tour before, but this one promised ice! Indeed, it was icy (and cold!), but the people running it were very flexible, so we got into the 2:30pm tour despite arriving at 3:00pm!

The cave had newly built boardwalks, and so was a much more user-friendly experience than previous cave tours I'd done. That's a good thing, since the age limit was also fairly low (4 years old). What's disappointing is that apparently the ice has been melting and we'd missed the peak ice time, but then Bowen got so cold that he said he was done with ice cave tours.

After the cave tour, the tour guides recommended that we visited the a nearby waterfall that was built on a lava flow. It was well worth the trip.

We arrived at our AirBnB too late in the evening to do much except buy groceries for dinner, though Bowen and I managed to visit the local swimming pool to swim. Unfortunately we did not bring his wet suit and I didn't take into account that he'd gotten used to the extra buoyancy of the wet suit for swimming, so he quickly looked like he was in trouble and the life guard jumped in to "rescue" him. She didn't quite believe he could swim so after that he was stuck in the hot tub for a bit.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

BVI Trip moved to April 2017

The previous trip solicitation resulted in a trip and boat reservation, but it's been moved to the first week of April next year. There's one cabin left if you're interested.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Iceland 2016: Siglufordur Penninsula

We were blessed by another sunny day for our day in Akureyri. That meant that we should spend time hiking, and forget about museums and other city-things. I looked at the map and decided that the Siglufordur Peninsula was worth a trip.

We started off at the Dalvik visitor center asking for a hike. We were given a map of all the hikes in the area, and recommended a couple of easy ones. Well, finding the trailhead was a little challenge, but once again we quickly discovered how rugged the terrain was. We did get pretty amazing views though!

Driving further down the peninsula, we found more fishing towns, and gorgeous waterfalls set amongst cliffs in the road.
We finished off with a short hike at a local bird refuge, which did indeed have plenty of birds to look at. Clouds started rolling in and we drove back to town just as it was raining.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Iceland 2016: Dettifoss & Myvatn Nature Baths

The day started off gloomy, so we weren't too sad to be leaving Eglistadir to head to Akureyri. On the way would be the famous Dettifoss, which could only be reached by driving a dirt road for about 35km. At first the dirt road was scary, as at low speeds the entire car would judder. I wondered whether my confidence in not opting for a full-on SUV had been misplaced. Then I realized that the car actually had less judder at higher speeds! After that, the rest of the trip went quickly.
Arriving at Dettifoss parking lot, I realized what a zoo the place was. We did manage to get parking fairly rapidly, but it was clear that visitors were arriving at a rapid clip! Arriving in the middle of the rain also made Bowen unwilling to get out of the car, but grandma didn't want to go either, so it was me, Xiaoqin, and Boen.

The actual falls is about a 15 minute hike. You could hike more and get more waterfalls, but given how cold it was, we retreated back to the car to head towards Myvatn Nature Baths. I don't actually have any pictures of the baths, but Bowen and I both enjoyed it. It's quieter than the Blue Lagoon, but also has a much stronger smell. I wouldn't recommend a trip just to visit it, but if you're in the area it's not a bad place despite the exceedingly expensive restaurant on-site.

At Akureyri, we found our AirBnB near downtown. I'd booked the place thinking that it would be a great place to explore the town, but in reality, the town was really tiny! We did manage to walk downtown to eat at a restaurant, and it was also nice that the nearest supermarket was within walking distance, but the town itself wasn't nearly as pretty as the environs.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Iceland 2016: Seyðisfjörður

The day began with another dirt traversal on our mini van, which was remarkably challenging, since I had to keep shifting gears to keep the car from stalling out on the steep dirt roads. The Citreon Grand Picasso has a feature that I thought was quite broken: there's no separate hand brake control. Starting the car and putting it into drive automatically turned off the hand brake, while stopping the car and putting it into the park automatically engaged the hand brake. While a nice convenience feature on flat land, it makes starting on a hill with the usual trick of "engage the hand brake, then slowly let out the clutch while providing gas and only disengage the hand brake when the car's not going to stall" impossible to utilize. I stalled the car a couple of times, but between the dirt road, the fog, and my obvious incompetence at the stick shift (the car did roll back a couple of times while I got the hang of starting off on dirt) meant that not only was my wife too nervous to take pictures, she was also to terrified to consider asking me to stop for pictures.

Once the road became paved and we started up the road to Seydisfiodur, however, the scenery became even more stunning. On a good weather day don't expect to take less than an hour to traverse the road because it's simply too pretty. We stopped at every turn out, even in some places blocking dirt roads for pictures, and when we found the hiking pull out about 500m in elevation above the town we simply had to stop.

The scenery was gorgeous. The hiking reminded me a lot of my first day on the coast to coast: soaked through with water, and a severe test of the water proofing on my Salomon XA Pro 3D trail runners (summary: they failed --- the waterproof label is pretty worthless). Staring at the trail map, it looked like you could hike all the way to town from there, and it would have been awesome to arrange a one-way taxi from town to this location so you could hike down to town, or find the corresponding location in town to hike up --- it looked very rugged, but with gorgeous scenery it's definitely not something any serious hiker should pass up.

In town, we had a supermarket lunch, and then proceeded to find more hiking spots.

We shot picture after picture, and hiked up to a waterfall. Iceland on that day definitely exceeded my expectations --- it felt just as pretty as Switzerland was, but with its own unique vegetation and terrain.

We had to drive back to Eglistadir for lodging, and reluctantly left in the mid afternoon. The drive to our AirBnB turned out to be once again over a dirt road to a bunch of newly built buildings. The furnishings were quite elegant and compact, and it had an outdoor BBQ. We made dinner and then, given the infinite amount of light we had, ambitiously went for another waterfall hike. As usual, Google maps misled us as to where the trailhead was, but we eventually found it thanks to a local runner. When we got to the trailhead, it was quite clear that the trail was under going some heavy duty renovation: huge machines were driving up and down and were clearly about to pave it.

This one wasn't nearly as gorgeous: while the waterfall was promised to be one of those that you could hike behind, when I got there with Bowen, it was very clear that this was beyond the ability of a 4 year old: you had to drop off into a dark canyon/ravine holding on to a chain. Any slip could cause a major injury. What blew my mind was that this hike was rated "easy." I was learning that Icelandic Hiking is set at a level far beyond what I was used to in other countries. In Switzerland, for instance, I learned that a 2 hour hike according to the sign would take me an hour and a half at most going at full speed. Here in Iceland, a 2 hour hike would actually take me 2 hours, and despite carrying Boen I'm still a faster hiker than most visitors I saw! If you visit Iceland for a hiking trip, bring all your gear and be prepared for the "easy" hikes to take much more than you expect. And yes, Bowen did do all the walking himself, though he wasn't fast. This is definitely a country for those hikers who like challenges.

We got back to our AirBnB in time to see the horses back in their pasture. For more than the first time, I wished that I could have known in advance to spend way more time out here on the East Coast of Iceland, but the reality was that the forecast was for more crappy weather and we probably wouldn't have gotten a chance to do more hiking anyway.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Iceland 2016: Vatnajokull National Park and Jökulsárlón

Talk to anyone in America about a trip to Iceland, and the assumption nearly everyone makes is that Iceland's a small country and it wouldn't take a day to drive around it. In reality, of course, that's impossible: like many island countries, Iceland doesn't actually have that many roads, and the ring road around the country is a 2 lane highway with a maximum speed limit of 90kph. Couple that with potentially poor weather, slow RVs sharing the road with you, and long distances between population centers, and you have a recipe for very long road trips of the type I don't enjoy at all: lots of driving between destinations with little change in scenery in between.
Google had projected a 6 hour drive for us that day, but I had 2 main destinations in mind: Vatnajokull National Park and Jokulsarlon. We arrived at Vatnajokull National Park just in time to see the sign for a ranger guided hike that would take place right after lunch.

The guided hike was informative, and took us all the way to where the glacier was 15 years ago, showing us how quickly the glacier had retreated over the years. We got close enough to see the water coming off the melting glacier, but couldn't actually touch it.

The kids fell asleep while driving to Jokulsarlon, but that's a pretty impressive lake with ice floes floating and cracking along on it. It was very exciting and a lot of fun.
Past Jokulsarlon, the road actually became fun and pretty, with tunnels and many things to see, but no place to stop to take pictures! At Djupivogur, we stopped for an early dinner before arriving at our AirBnB farm stay down a dirt road that was actually part of the ring road!

Monday, August 22, 2016

Iceland 2016: Westman Islands, Puffins

One unfortunate side effect of not planning the entire trip out was the more-or-less botched trip to the Westman Islands. We made it to the ferry on time, but at the ticket booth, were told that (1) all the car spots are taken, and (2) we had to return on the 1:00pm ferry if we went as passengers, because the later ferries were all full!

Well, we did want to see the Puffins, so we accepted those terms and got onto the ferry. My first choice, which was to go on a boat tour of the Westman Islands, was foiled: upon reaching the other side, the tour company recommended by our guidebook had canceled the day's tour because of weather. So we switched to our secondary goal, which was to see puffins.

The first place we went to was pretty, but any puffins were too far away to be seen.
From there, I used Skype to call a taxi to take us to the official blind. From inside the blind, the EOS M3 with the 55-250mm lens actually got us a few pictures of the Puffins:

The scenery was not bad either, but we quickly ran out of time and had to return to the ferry for transport back to the main island. If I had the trip to do all over again, I'd book a night on the island instead and arrange to bring the mini van over, as the town looked pretty and the scenery reasonably good for hiking.

On returning to the mainland, we visited the waterfall again with the good camera, and then I wanted to head over to the Eyjafjallajokull Erupts exhibit, where Bowen and I got to see a documentary of the volcano erupting in 2010, disrupting flights throughout Europe for a week.

Then we drove back to enjoy the hot tub as it started to rain quite heavily, and prepare for a long day of driving the next day.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Iceland 2016: Trip Index Page

This is the trip index page for our trip in Iceland in 2016. We drove around the island on the ring road, and visited various sights.

In the past, I used Picasa Web Albums to host and serve photos. Google has retired that in favor of Google Photos. While Google Photos provides unlimited storage (in compressed JPG format), it eliminated many of the great features that made Picasa Web Albums such a joy to use. For instance, you can no longer enable slide shows or embed albums into a blog. Photo embedding is also awkward and funky. Worse, Google seems to have defocused on the user relevant part of the app (such as sharing, embedding, slide shows) in favor of the machine-learning part of the app such as Photo Assistant. Photo Assistant, in particular, seems geared entirely towards people who have crappy cameras (such as those found on any smartphone). Those cameras have low resolution, lousy dynamic range, poor sharpness, and you need to introduce "filters" such as sepia toning, blur-addition (yes, Google photo assistant thinks it's improving your photos by making them blurry!), and other wacky monkeying with the images in order to make them viewable even on small screens like the iPhone's 4.7" display.

By contrast, I shoot on "large" sensor cameras (such as the Sony RX100, EOS M3, Canon 5DM2), take pains to aim for as sharp a picture as I can get. Note that the Canon 5DM2 is now 7 years old but yes, will still beat the top of the line smartphone cameras without breaking a sweat. I also know when to turn on fill-flash, use an ND grad filter (post-processed or not), polarizer, and frequently can even switch lenses for appropriate use. I never post any photos without processing them on Lightroom or Photo Mate R3 first. As a result, I want to show my photos in their full glory without any "value-add" by Photo Assistant but have no way to do so thanks to Google's new philosophy. I can't even embed a cover image on this blog!

I apologize for this rant. Thinking about how badly Google has screwed up on photo presentation will do that to me. Here's the photo link for my trip pictures.

Trip Report:

Friday, August 19, 2016

Iceland 2016: Seljalandfoss & Skogafoss

Today was our first day down the ring road around Iceland. We loaded up the mini van, and drove down first towards Stokkseyri for the Icelandic Wonders museum.  The place turned out to be a tourist trap that didn't draw either my attention or the children's attention for long, so we moved onto our AirBnB at Hvolsvollur. We unpacked, ate lunch, and then headed down to see Skogafoss, but on the way saw Seljalandfoss and discovered that it was by far the most impressive waterfall I'd seen with a "walk behind" trail.
Skogafoss also turned out to be quite pretty, but it's actually more famous for being the start of a 20km trek to Landmannalauguar.

The fall itself is impressive, but if you take the trouble to hike all the way to the top of it, don't stop there! There's a little ladder that goes over the fence (actually the start of the 20km hike), but 200m past that is another fall that's also pretty.
We took advantage of the hot tub at the AirBnB, and turned in early since we thought we'd try to make the ferry to the Westman Islands the next day.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Iceland 2016: Hiking Mt. Esja

We woke up to overcast skies, but it wasn't forecast to rain, so I thought we'd risk a hike to Mt. Esja, introduced in the guidebook as the place local residents went for hiking. Before that, we took a detour to the viking village, but went there to discover that the place was closed and had been closed for a couple of weeks. It's apparently not a year round destination, and the guidebook had neglected to tell us that.

Driving to Mt. Esja took a while, and we got confused by the Google directions, but once we got started, it was an impressive location.

The trails were not well marked, but while the scenery was not spectacular, the environment was. We traversed forest, fields of flowers, as well as fields of tall grass. The going was steep at first but flattened out though we never did find the color'd loop we were supposed to be following.

When we were done with the hike, we had some time left so we detoured through Reykjavik and saw the classic church as well as the concert hall. Bowen even found a little crevice among the rocks near the Atlantic Ocean.