Why Visit Iceland? My Top Five Reasons

I had just booked my second trip to Iceland and I excitedly told my friends and co-workers that I was going back; their first impression was all the same. Yay! Cool…that is so amazing! followed by a common second reaction: Wait! Iceland? Why Iceland? Isn’t it cold there?

Which way Akureyri

Which way Akureyri?


I can answer this common question for all of you out there wondering the same. Iceland is awesome! Its natural beauty is incomparable to any other place I have ever been. Iceland is a land of extremes, marked by bubbling natural springs, enormous glaciers, active volcanoes, and dramatic rushing waterfalls.  If that is not enough Reykjavik, the capital city is a sophisticated urban destination with trendy restaurants, welcoming pubs and plenty of shopping.

There are so many reasons to visit Iceland but I will try to break it down into five major reasons: affordability, adventure tours, the summer solstice and Midnight sun, Icelandic cuisine, and geothermal spas.

Reason #1: Iceland is Affordable

Currently prices for travel packages to Iceland from the United States are at an all-time low.  Icelandair offers a variety of packages that include both airfare and hotels. For example currently Icelandair is offering a “Volcano Tour and Glacier Walk” package that includes RT airfare from a variety of US cities from $845 per person; with add on nights at an extremely low rate of 55.00 per couple. The highlights of this tour are the off-road Super Jeep tour of Eyjafjallajokull Volcano area and also a Glacier ice hike tour on Solheimajokill Glacier. This is just one example of affordable tours, I recently booked a package that included a Northern Lights tour, 3 days in northern Iceland Akureyri, international and domestic airfare, 8 total days with hotel and breakfast for $1150.00  with tax and everything included. Of course these prices are subject to change. The trip was highly organized and the hotels were both four stars-the money we saved on the trip we used for shopping and more expensive tours we wanted to do.

Reason #2: Adventure Tours and Opportunities



A staggering number of tours and activities are offered through tour companies in Iceland. One can go horseback riding in the morning and later the same day-Whale Watching. Most tours can easily be arranged through your hotel or through the tourist information center located in Reykjavik. One popular tour iconic to Iceland is the Golden Circle tour. This popular day or afternoon trip takes visitors usually by bus to Iceland’s main natural highlights: Geysirs, Godafoss waterfall and Thingvellir National Park.
The difference between the full day and the half day option is the length of time at the locations. I have been on both tours. The main difference I noticed was that on the half-day tour we only briefly stopped at Thingvellir National Park. We heard a short explanation of what the park was and looked out from the overlook at the park. During the full day tour we had ample time to walk around the park and get a close up view of the spring where the tectonic plates are actually visible. During the full day tour we also stopped at the geothermal facility and learned about how Iceland uses geothermal heat and power. One huge benefit to the half day tour was the stop at Kerid eruption crater I was excited because it was different that the other tour I had been on.

There are a number of adventure tour options available for those looking for more activity. Tours to volcanic hot spots are very popular. Many people around the world have heard of Eyjafjallajokull volcano when it made international news in 2010 when it spewed a massive cloud of ash into the air shutting down air traffic for weeks. A number of tours are offered to view the aftermath or to check out this sub-volcanic glacier. There is a wide range of tours and activities to choose from that range from high activity tours such as Kite-boarding, dogsledding, ice climbing and snowmobiling to those less strenuous like whale watching and puffin spotting.

Reason #3: The Summer Solstice and the Midnight Sun.

Iceland is a great place to experience the summer solstice and the phenomenon known as the Midnight Sun.   This occurs naturally on June 21st when the day is the longest of the year but in Iceland or other Nordic countries the sun is visible for up to 24 hours. The first time I visited Iceland was in June during the summer solstice and the days seemed endless with bars and pubs filled and people out having fun in the city streets till all hours of the night. We also stayed up all night losing track of time sightseeing and taking photos taking advantage of the long hours of sunlight. When it was time to sleep the guest house had heavy curtains to block out the sunlight making it easier to sleep.


Sun Voyager!


Reason #4: Interesting Icelandic Cuisine  

Are you a foodie or an adventurous eater? Icelandic cuisine offers a variety of food and drink choices most people have never heard of let alone tried. Hákarl or fermented Greenland sharkmeat is a traditional Icelandic delicacy. Because the Greenland shark is poisonous it needs to buried underground in sand and gravel for a period of 6–12 weeks to allow for the toxins to be expelled from the body before it can be consumed. Once the toxins are removed the shark meat is then cut into strips and dried. You can sample Hákarl at the Kolaportid flea market in Reykjavik city center. Traditionally the shark meat should be washed down with a shot of Brennivín or Black Death. Although Black Death is technically a liquor, I felt like a was drinking a shot of very strong vodka or grain alcohol.

Most restaurants offer an Icelandic feast which can be any combination of Icelandic specialties. One of my absolute favorite restaurants in the world is Tapas Barinn located in city center Reykjavik. They offer tapas with an Icelandic twist. Their version of the Icelandic gourmet feast starts with of course a shot of Brennivin, followed by Icelandic Sea Trout, Lobster tails baked in garlic, Pan-fried line catfish, Icelandic lamb, Minke Whale, and for dessert White chocolate “Skýr” mousse. Skyr is a delicious white creamy yogurt specific to Iceland.  Many locals do not support eating whale meat and I actually asked that they substitute this item for another one of their 70 dishes. They also serve great sangria. This is just one of a number of great restaurants in Reykjavik.

Reason #5 Geothermal Spas in Iceland

Reason number five is certainly not the least of the reasons for a visit to Iceland. The spas in Iceland are both natural and luxurious! Every visit to Iceland must include a trip to the Blue Lagoon. The Blue Lagoon is a luxury geothermal outdoor spa located near Keflavík International Airport. The minerals contained in the spa mainly sulphur and silica are said to have anti-aging and healing properties. Visitors can float around all day regardless of the season in the toasty 98-102 degree water and afterwards indulge in a number of spa services or have lunch at Lava restaurant located on the premises. There is also a Lagoon bar you can swim up to for cocktails and snacks.

Laugardalslaug is Reykjavik’s largest city pool. The pool and spa is a short bus ride from Reykjavik center in Laugardalur Valley. It is an enormous spa that has an indoor and outdoor pool, 7 outdoor hot pots, a salt water Jacuzzi, a steam bath, sun lamps, and an 86-meter-long water slide. I loved the outdoor “hot pots”; each one has a slightly different temperature. It was fun to move from pot to pot until you find the perfect temperature and then afterwards cool off in the large heated but cooler-temped pool.

ablog2These are only my five top reasons to visit Iceland there are actually so many more wonderful experiences in store for anyone traveling there. I highly recommend visiting as either a full vacation destination or as a stop-over en route to another European destination.

Copyright Christine Zenino

Planning Your First Trip to Europe?


Planning your honeymoon in Paris, backpacking it through Prague or touring the Italian countryside? Whatever your final destination may be, planning a trip to Europe can be exciting! But once the flight is booked and the hotel is confirmed most travelers are unsure of what they need to do next. Whatever your European destination may be,  here are some important details to take care of or consider before traveling abroad.

Currency, Credit Cards and Conversion Rates for Traveling Overseas

Taking care of financial details should be a main priority for travelers after booking the hotel and airfare. Most of Europe is on the Euro but other countries such as Hungary, Czech Republic or Iceland have their own currencies. Currency conversion rates vary depending on the country you are visiting and they fluctuate daily. It is a good idea to write down and keep a copy of the conversion rate and know how to figure it out even if you have to bring a calculator. All airports have a Foreign Exchange Desk but these do not always offer the best conversion rates. Before you change money ask them specifically how much you will get for the money you are converting, often there are hidden costs or extra fees.

A standard ATM often offers the best rate and they dispense the money in the currency of the country you are in. Keep in mind that foreign transactions and credit card transactions are subject to the exchange rate and a foreign transaction fee of usually 3% in addition to the ATM withdrawal fee. Despite the fees ATMs are still an affordable option to get foreign currency.

Some credit cards waive the foreign transaction fee which saves a lot of money, especially if you are paying for something costly such as the hotel or a tour in Euro. Look into Capital One, Chase, and American Express cards to see if these fees can be waived for card holders.

Call your bank or your credit company prior to the trip and report what countries you will be using your debit card and credit cards in. Many cards have fraud protection that will not allow transactions to go through overseas unless they are reported ahead of time. Make sure to give them the dates of the entire period you may be using the cards. For example I have been denied credit transactions weeks before my trip to Rome for the Vatican Museum because I had not reported that I may be purchasing items on an Italian website.

Get the international customer service phone number for your credit card. 800 and 866 numbers do not work out of the country. You can save the numbers to your phone or email the numbers to yourself for easy access in case of emergency.

Plan for Unexpected Expenses While on Vacation

Even though most people spend more money than anticipated on vacation, it is still a good idea to set a budget and attempt to stick to it. That way you won’t blow all your money the first half of the trip. Travelers should always plan for unexpected expenses. On a recent trip from Italy to Paris I reluctantly checked my bag and the worst possible thing happened-my luggage never arrived. The airline assured me it would turn up but after a couple days it was obvious it was lost. I had to purchase clothes and essentials for an entire two entire weeks plus another carry-on to hold my new clothes in. The added expense of the clothes could have ruined my trip if I hadn’t had enough money in the bank. Unfortunately I never got my luggage back but I did learn a couple valuable lessons: Consider purchasing travel insurance if flying on smaller airlines and don’t purchase expensive looking luggage. All airlines will reimburse for lost luggage but it could take months for the check to arrive.

Packing Essentials and Carry-on Luggage

The choice to carry on your luggage or to check them is a very important detail to think about ahead of time for a number of reasons. Price is always a consideration as many airlines charge additional fees when you check bags. Another concern is there is always the possibility of your luggage not showing up at baggage claim due to a delay or to it being lost. If possible I suggest to carry-on your luggage. Check with your airline for luggage carry-on sizes and weight restrictions. Most large airlines like United Airlines will allow one carry-on piece of luggage measured at 14 inches x 9 inches x 22 inches, and one personal item like a backpack, purse or laptop bag. Some smaller airlines or aircrafts have even stricter restrictions so it may be necessary to check your bags. Never pack items like electronics or prescriptions that are expensive or that you cannot do without in the event that the airline right before boarding asks passengers to check their luggage-which often happens.

Pack common over the counter medicines with you such as cold medicine, ibuprofen, eye drops or anything you regularly use. Do not assume you can purchase these essentials everywhere, European pharmacies do stock medicine of course but it is most likely not the same items you are used to using in America. Don’t forget to pack extra contact lenses and contact lense solution too if needed.

Make a copy of your passport and put it in your luggage- or scan and email copies of your passport and credit cards to yourself, in case you lose them. It is also a good idea to keep important documents and extra credit cards in the hotel safe when you don’t need them. Some shops ask to see your passport when you are purchasing items with credit cards, don’t be offended while this is not standard in the United States, it is typical in Europe.

Trip Logistics

Don’t forget to plan for your arrival at the airport. Taking a taxi from the airport to your hotel is maybe the easiest option but rarely the most cost effective. Don’t assume everyone speaks fluent English. I suggest printing out the hotel address to show the cab driver in case they are not familiar with your destination. You should be able to find a more cost effective method of transporation to your hotel and back to the airport by visiting the tourist board online for each country you will be visiting. Look for a shuttle, train or a bus which is generally more cost effective than cabs in Europe. Do the research before you go on your trip. Look for the most uncomplicated transportation option for a reasonable price. Check with the hotel you are staying at as sometimes they offer convenient shuttles for free or for a reasonable price. Another option is a shared shuttles that take passengers into the city center where they then will have to walk or take a bus to their final destination.

Tourist Maps and Guide Books

Once you arrive at the hotel ask the hotel clerk or concierge for a map and explanation of the area and city. They generally have a helpful but standard speech prepared that gives visitors a quick rundown of the main streets to use, local restaurants, and the main attractions to check out.

Bring a practical guide book with for the cities you are visiting. I am not a fan of the guidebooks that list every single fact and detail of the country. These are fun to read before you go on the trip to learn interesting facts but do not provide enough practical information for me. I like the guides that list the main attractions and neighborhoods and outline itineraries that make sense for travelers. My favorites are the DK Eyewitness Top 10 Travel Guides and Fodor’s 25 Best Travel Guides; both of which are compact and can easily fit into a backpack or a purse. They also contain valuable practical information such as pull out maps, list of attractions of a city, and have suggested itineraries.

Travel Adapters and Converters for Europe

Europe has different electrical outlets than in America, so it is imperative that you purchase an adaptor plug for the country or countries you are visiting. You will have an extremely hard time finding them overseas. Voltage throughout Europe is 220 volts at 50 cycles while the standard American household operates on 120 volts at 60 cycles. Which means you cannot just plus your items into a European outlet.

Not all of Europe uses the same standard adapter plug either. Do not wait until the last minute to purchase an adapter it is easier to find the standard US to European adapter but some countries like Switzerland may have a different style plug, these may have to be ordered online which can take a few days to get. Keep in mind travel adapters do not change the electricity. So the adapters are all that is needed for cell phone chargers, battery chargers, and most laptop plugs, but if you are bringing a hair dryer or hair straightener then you will need to purchase an electricity converter. These converters actually convert the power down from 220v to 110v. But if you are not taking these items don’t bother purchasing one the adapter will work for everything else. If you are visiting for an extended period of time it may be cheaper to purchase a hair dryer or curling iron from a department store, this eliminates the need to buy a converter.

How to Use Your Cell Phone or Skype in Europe

Before you depart for your trip call your cell phone provider and notify them you are going out of the country. They will need to turn on roaming otherwise your phone will not work internationally. While you are on the phone with customer service ask them how much the rate is per minute in case you need to use your phone. The most cost effective advice is to turn off your phone, as any calls that go to voicemail will be charged by the minute and by call whether you answer them or not. Some companies such as T-Mobile have an international plan that will save you money on both data use charges, texting and calls. Don’t forget to turn off the data or internet on your smartphone or anytime you turn it on you could be racking up some hefty charges.

Make sure you know how to check your voicemail too-which doesn’t just work by dialing the standard voicemail number you use in the states. Check the text rates too-as this is a much cheaper option if you need to contact someone back home rather than call. If you bringing a laptop a cheap way to make calls is through Skype, this free service allows users to call other Skype users for free. Many tour guides and travel agents use Skype too.

Most tourists bring a camera on vacation but don’t forget the accessories. Always take extra memory cards. Purchasing them in Europe may cost more or worse, you may not be able to find one that fits your camera or a convenient shop that sells them. I also suggest buying an extra battery in case something happens to the one you brought. Also don’t forget to pack the battery charger.

Taking a vacation to Europe should be exciting and fun not stressful. Taking care of these little details will ensure you can enjoy your vacation; no stress involved.

Chicago’s Haunted History


Haunted holidays and ghost tours are fast becoming a popular tourist pastime in many cities around the world, and Chicago is no exception. Even though Chicago is the third largest city in the United States, it certainly has its fair share of ghostly lore. Whether you believe in ghosts or not, these tours and tales are a fun way to learn about a city’s hidden history. There are a number of formal ghost tours to join in Chicago offering a glimpse into many of the most popular Chicago haunts including the site of the Fort Dearborn Massacre, the Iroquois Theater, the Hull House or Harpo Studios. Another option, not for the faint of heart, is to purchase a book on Chicago haunts and check out the following ghostly attractions such as Robinson Woods, Bachelor’s Grove and the Dunning Asylum Cemetery, on your own. These locations are a little bit less touristy but none-the-less reported to be among the most haunted locations in Chicago.

Robinson Woods; Indian Burial Ground

Chicago’s Indian Boundary woods are packed on the weekends during the summer; a popular recreation spot for hiking, fishing, biking and running. What many people don’t know is that these woods have a section dedicated as an Indian burial ground. In addition these woods harbor many dark secrets. The woods were once inhabited by Alexander Robinson, Chief Chee Chee Pin Quay and his family. Robinson was the Chief of the Potawatomi, Chippewa, and Ottawa Indian tribes. Robinson was an influential leader who lived in Chicago until his death in 1872. He was awarded this large wooded plot, located on Chicago’s Northwest side, for his heroic efforts in the Fort Dearborn massacre.

Now called Indian Boundary Division; the area is composed of Catherine Chevalier woods, Shiller woods, Che Che Pin Quay Woods and Robinson woods. Robinson used this area as his family home and as he and his family’s final resting place; aka the Indian Burial ground. After his death, the Robinson family continued to live in the woods off of Lawrence Avenue and E River Road. The family was well known in the community and supposedly threw wild parties that lasted well into the night. For reasons unknown the house burned to the ground in 1955. Robinson and his family are buried on these grounds, the graves marked by a single large boulder.

In the same year that the fire occurred, on October 18th, 1955, a more horrific discovery was made. The bodies of three boys; John and Anton Schuessler and Robert Peterson were found tied up, beaten, and murdered in a ditch near the picnic area in Robinson Woods. Despite many leads, the crime went unsolved for over 40 years. A witness finally came forward offering new evidence linking one of early suspects in the case. Kenneth Hansen, a local stable owner at the time of the Peterson-Schuessler murders, was found guilty of these horrific crimes in 1994 and was sentenced to up to 300 years in jail. To read more about this terrible tragedy check out the book by James A. Jack: “Three Boys Missing, The Tragedy That Exposed the Pedophilia Underworld .”

With such a dark past, it’s not surprising that Robinson Woods is listed as one of Chicago’s most haunted sights. Ghostly images of Native Americans and strange glowing orbs have been reported by many a passerby. Others report hearing a loud chopping noise similar to wood being cut with an axe. Spooky Indian drums, eerie voices and random floral scents are among the other reported phenomena. A large population of deer lives in the woods too. Most of the time large groups of them can be seen wandering around oblivious to the crowds of people. A strange but common reported occurrence is that the deer will follow and watch you at close range for an uncomfortably long period of time. Don’t believe it? There are miles of trails that branch out through the woods along both the site of the murders and right up to the burial grounds. Go for a walk on one of the secluded wooded trails at dusk and decide for yourself.

Bachelor’s Grove Cemetery

Bachelor’s Grove Cemetery located in Midlothian, a South Suburb of Chicago, has a dark reputation for being the most haunted graveyard in the entire country. This private cemetery dates back to 1864, and since its opening, over two hundred bodies have been laid to rest on its grounds. The last burial was as recent as 1965. Some claim the pond located on the grounds became a watery grave for many who crossed famous Chicago mobster Al Capone during the 1920s; a convenient but dark spot to throw bodies, never to be found again.

Over the years, the property has become a run-down and completely desecrated graveyard, with tombstones overturned, moved or many of them dumped into the nearby pond. Currently, there are as little as 20 gravestones left, most of which are not in their original spots. Evidence of satanic worship and grave robbing became a disturbing trend in the 60s and 70s. Many claim to have seen full apparitions of the dead and there is photographic evidence of the “Lady in White,” who haunts the grounds. Over the years many report similar occurrences, such as a strange floating blue light, a mysterious ghostly house that appears and vanishes, phantom cars, full-blown ghostly apparitions and other paranormal activities

Sadly, not much is known about the poor souls who are buried in the grounds. One well-marked tomb just states INFANT, a sad memorial to a once beloved family member. Visitors will frequently leave little toys and offerings on the grave. The property has been taken over by the Cook County Forest Preserve and is technically closed to the public. Despite being located off a main thoroughfare, the cemetery is actually quite hard to find. Many make the mistake of searching for the old cemetery in the section of the woods labeled as Bachelor’s Grove, but the actual cemetery location is southwest of Rubio Woods on 143rd Street, just east of Ridgeland Avenue.

robinson woodsThe entrance to the cemetery is across the street from the parking lot; look for a small hidden path leading to the cemetery. The gates are usually unlocked during the day and easy to get into. Visiting the graveyard at night is not advised; it is trespassing to visit after the park closes, and the police patrol the area frequently. It is also quite dangerous due to the fact that it has become a well-known haunted attraction that many people are drawn to.

Dunning, Dunning open your gates…

If you grew up on Chicago’s Northwest side you may have teased your little brother with this eerie children’s rhyme: “Dunning, Dunning, open your gates here come Johnny on roller skates.” The Cook County Insane Asylum or Dunning was the name of the city’s main mental institution and poor home that dated back to 1851; it not only housed the insane but also the poor, the sick and orphaned children. The original institution was a massive brick structure located at the intersection of Irving Park Road and Oak Park Avenue. The original Dunning officially closed on June 30, 1912, and reopened as the Chicago State Hospital, then once again switched to the smaller Chicago-Read Mental Health Center. However the institution is not what is reported to be haunted but the Institution’s cemetery grounds.

This disturbing tale picks up decades later when in 1989 construction crews were breaking ground for the new shopping complex “Dunning Square” and its nearby condominium complex. Somehow the developers and the city did not know they were building over the grounds of the long forgotten Dunning Insane Asylum cemetery which also included bodies from the Dunning Cemetery, the Ridgemoor Cemetery, the County Burying Ground, the Poor House Cemetery, and Chicago State Hospital Cemetery . In an incident reminiscent of the movie “Poltergeist,” the construction crew unearthed a startling number of human skeletons and bones; long forgotten patients and residents from the original asylum. Although the city was disturbed by these events the construction forged on by simply moving the bones to a small dedicated area now called Reed-Dunning Memorial Park. It is estimated that over 40,000 bodies were buried in unmarked graves in this area to the east of the original asylum, as many as possible have been moved and are now buried in the park.

Currently this small cemetery surrounded by the condominium complex just looks like a small grassy park. Upon closer inspection however, visitors will notice that the large circular concrete path markers are actually memorial markers for the mass graves. Each category of resident from the asylum is represented: orphaned children, the victims of the 1871 Chicago fire, the sick and infirm, the insane etc. To bring some closure to this mass desecration, a local Reverend William Brauer; a retired Presbyterian minister, led a memorial service in an effort to try to bring some rest to these forgotten souls.

Chicago Ghost Tours

One of the most popular ghost tours in Chicago is through “Chicago Hauntings.” These fun and informative tours are based on author and ghost hunter Ursula Bielski’s 20 years of experience as an expert in Chicago’s lure as well as her famous series of books “Chicago Haunts.” The tours operate daily and meet at an easy to find location right in the downtown area near the Rain Forest café and Rock and Roll McDonalds. Participants can easily find the big black bus marked ghost tours. There are a variety of tours available such as the popular 2.5 hour “Signature Ghost Tour,” which may visit such sites as the Fort Dearborn Massacre, the Iroquois Theater, and the Eastland river disaster site. For a more in depth experience check out one of the specialty tours such as the “7-Hour Ghost Hunt,” where participants will learn about ghost hunting while visiting a number of haunted sites.

Whether you reside in Chicago or are planning a visit, joining a ghost tour or reading about its haunted history offers a fun but informative look into the city’s past. Learning about such events as the Eastland Tragedy, the Fort Dearborn Massacre or the Sausage Vat Murders offers a vastly different perspective than that of the typical tourist experience.