Monday, August 29, 2016

Sigtuna, Sweden's First Town

Sigtuna, Sweden, was built around 970 AD and is known as the first Swedish town. King Erik the Victorious declared himself the king of Sweden--the first time anyone had ever done so--and decided it was high time to build a town. Thus, the birth of Sigtuna.

And what better way to spend one's first day in Sweden?

I had arrived in Stockholm a mere three hours earlier by the time I boarded the bus to Sigtuna, which is about an hour's drive. Our guide, Eva, explained that many Swedes have not even been to this city--turns out our bus driver was among them! Regardless, Sigtuna had always been an international city, evidenced by coins and currency found throughout the ages.

At our first stop, the five-star 1909 Sigtuna Stads Hotell, we had coffee and got an overview of the hotel and our day to come. Unfortunately, the hotel owner was sick, so Eva read her story in place. Marilyn Bellman had always dreamed of owning a hotel, and after taking some self-development and leadership courses, leading to increased confidence, she bought the 1909 Sigtuna Stads Hotell. Her goal is to make it as cozy and home-like as possible, and I think she's done quite well!

Eva and Ted, the Museum Director of Sigtuna Museum, gave us a walking tour following our morning provisions. On the museum grounds, you could see exactly where the church walls were--in those areas, the grass did not grow over the foundation.

We also came across runic stones, of which Sigtuna has the most in the world! Destination Sigtuna sums it up much more eloquently than I ever could, so here is their description:
Visitors are sometimes surprised when they are advised to look for runic stones near the many early Christian churches (built of stone in the 12th and 13th centuries). “Weren’t the Vikings heathens?." Not many know that the majority of all runic stones are Christian. The cross on the stones indicates just that. Most of the stones were put up in memory of deceased family members and intended to be seen by others. They are to be found where people congregated or passed by. The churches that came later were built on those sites, too, and runic stones proved to be quite good building material. 

Our tour ended at the Rådhus, or town hall. Not only is it the smallest town hall in all of Sweden, but my favorite anecdote originates here. Way back when, Sigtuna had a population of only 380 people, yet there were 16 bars on the main street. Clearly, they had a drinking problem. Legend has it that, in a hidden compartment on the outer wall of the building, there was a spare key to a prison cell. If the men got too drunk to go home to their families, they'd let themselves into the cell and make themselves at home!

One last thing of note--the beautiful pastel colors of the buildings are not by accident. In Sigtuna, there is actually a list of approved paint colors, and you must abide by it.

I think any history buff would enjoy Sigtuna, so make it a day trip the next time you're in Stockholm!

Thank you to TBEX and Destination Sigtuna for providing me with this amazing opportunity!

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Architectural Charm in Iceland

Iceland blew me away. The weather was delightful, Icelanders are so friendly, the natural sights are jaw-dropping...the list goes on. And as I expected, the architecture was beautiful, too!

Aside from Hallgrímskirkja Church, which towers over Reykjavik, the houses and buildings are quite small. What they lack in size, they sure make up for in color!

I mean, just look at this view. (P.S., this photo was taken from the top of Hallgrímskirkja--best panoramic view of the city!)

Blue bicycles as street blockers were the cherry on top of this colorful city!

I especially love the added touches of the painted ramp and sidewalk!

And with that, my posts about Iceland have come to an end...for now. Stay tuned for my next trip series--Sweden!

Monday, August 15, 2016

The Hiking Mecca of the Indiana Dunes

Growing up in Michigan, I've always equated the word "dunes" with the Sleeping Bear Dunes, one of our state's most beautiful parks. It only recently occurred to me that you can hike up sand dunes, visit beaches, and roam historic villages in one of our neighboring states--Indiana.

Located on the shore of Lake Michigan, the Indiana Dunes has sand dunes and hiking trails of varying difficulty, beaches, water sports, bike trails, and wildlife areas. Better yet, it's only a three-and-a-half-hour drive from Metro Detroit, so it's the perfect weekend getaway. You can even do a day trip from Chicago--the South Shore train that runs between Chicago and South Bend makes a stop near the dunes (the ride takes about 90 minutes), and the ticket is less than $8 each way.

I've done a dune hike only once, and that was in the Sahara Desert; I think I'm overdue for another. Seriously, dune hikes are HARD. I like to think that I'm in really good physical shape, but man, nothing gets your heart rate going like ascending a giant sand hill. I basically melt once it hits 75˚F, so sometime this fall, when the temps cool, will be the perfect time to venture into the Indiana Dunes.

Mount Baldy, the crown jewel of the Indiana Dunes, is currently closed to hiking, so my eyes are set on the Tolleston Dunes Trail. At under two miles, it's a relatively short hike, but you're traversing sandy trails. You really get the best of the park on this trail: wetlands, sandy terrain, and wildlife. And once you've finishing hiking, you can go to West Beach, where clear skies will permit views of the Chicago skyline!

If you're not into climbing some sand, fear not, as there are flatter hikes (complete with boardwalks), too.

To learn more about the hikes that the Indiana Dunes offers and to get information about lodging and dining, click here for your one-stop information source.

So, who wants to go on a hiking trip with me this fall?

Monday, August 8, 2016

Hiking Up to the Glymur Waterfall

I guess you could call me a thrill seeker of sorts. You'd never catch me bungee jumping, I wouldn't be caught dead skydiving, and I'm terrified of rollercoasters. In theory, these sound like awesome activities, but I prefer to get my thrills from adventurous hikes.

As Iceland is known for its majestic landscape and somewhat-rugged terrain, I knew I couldn't leave without a day hike. If I had a few more days in the country, maybe I would have opted for a longer trek, but the three-hour hike up to the Glymur Waterfall hit my schedule's sweet spot. Glymur has been long regarded as Iceland's tallest waterfall, but Hraunfossar took the gold a few years ago after a volcano erupted and created it (literally). Glymur is only about an hour's drive from Reykjavik, making it easy to fit into a tightly packed schedule.

We were a small group, but there were plenty of other hikers around. The description said that it was an easy hike, but our group came to the consensus that it was a moderate-to-hard trek--it required holding onto ropes as we climbed steep hillsides, balancing on a log across a stream, and grabbing onto rocks as we made our way upward.

In fact, there wasn't even a clearly marked path for the second half of it, so we sort of figured it out as we hiked. I may or may not have fallen on my butt at least twice, but you didn't really hike if you didn't fall, right? ;)

By the time we made it above the falls, we had hiked about 1,000 feet altitude-wise. No word on the total distance, but it was hard.

Our guide told us to stay at least one meter away from the edge of the cliffs, and not necessarily because we may fall over. The seagulls peck holes into the sides and nest there, so the cliff support is not as strong on the edges. The birds left us alone but were so cute as they flew around looking for fish in the waterfall basin!

On that note, it was such a treat to drink the stream water. I know I sound like a lunatic, but I've never had fresher, cleaner water in my life. I ended up dumping out my water bottle and refilling it from the stream!

I paid to go with a group/get driven, but you could easily drive here with a rental car and do the hike on your own. There is no admission fee to the park, and the majority of hikers are self-guided.

This was absolutely the highlight of my trip to Iceland, and it brought back my hunger for adventure. Plus, it seemed like the one thing I did that was different from my friends' Icelandic experiences! Let me know if you did any hikes in Iceland and how you liked them--after all, it's never too early to start planning another trip.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Atlantic Puffins & the Golden Circle

Day two in Iceland was a "must-do" day. I spent the morning doing the activity about which I was most excited, and the afternoon doing the activity that everyone else said I needed to do.

Clearly, going on a puffin-watching tour was the entire reason I visited Iceland.

I pre-booked a puffin-watching tour with Special Tours for approximately $35, which promised an hour full of puffins. The earliest tour during peak season is 8:30 a.m., and being the early bird that I am, I opted for that first tour of the day. Boy was I in luck--it ended up being a private tour! Turns out, no one else felt like waking up that early, but no complaints there.

After stepping onto the boat, the captain retreated to his quarters and we left Reykjavik Harbor. It was really just me and the guide, Guðjón (pronounced like "good John"), who is a university student studying the fishery business. It was his third summer working as a puffin tour guide, and it was really nice to have someone close in age to chat with. He did his job of guiding, but also told me a bit about Icelandic culture, and how the grandmothers are knitting less and less nowadays--sad, because that means the sweater tradition will die out!

Not even 20 minutes away from Reykjavik and we approached an island where nearly 20,000 puffins live. These birds are SO cute and almost cartoon-like! I couldn't get a ton of great photos, but I could see them so clearly, especially with the binoculars they provided on board. Did you know that an Atlantic puffin can hold 10-20 fish in its beak at once? Seeing the glints of silver hanging out of their beaks was such a treat.

This wasn't the best puffin-watching spot in Iceland by a long shot, but definitely the most convenient to Reykjavik. We docked back in the harbor by 9:30, giving me a great view of a sleepy Reykjavik, as well as the rest of the morning to explore the city.

At around noon, I headed to my next activity--an afternoon Golden Circle tour.

Ugh. "Tour" is the right word--it was SO touristy. Iceland's Golden Circle is comprised of the Great Geysir, Gulfoss Waterfall, and Þingvellir National Park, and while they are all beautiful natural wonders, there is no reason that they should be the crown jewels of Iceland. Rather, I think that the Golden Circle is Iceland's way of profiting off of FOMO--if one gives off the illusion that these are "must-sees," then everyone will flock there (and pay good money for it). Mad props to the tourism board, or whoever decided to create this.

The Golden Circle tour definitely wasn't worth the money I paid, especially since all of the sites had free admission, and this is really where I saw the advantages of renting a car. Still, I did not feel comfortable driving around a foreign country as a solo female traveler, no matter how safe it was, so this was the only way I was willing to do it. Plus, our bus driver rushed us at every site--we only had 15 minutes to spend at Þingvellir National Park. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, where the Eurasian and North-American tectonic plates meet (see that giant crack?), Þingvellir is also the site of the oldest parliament in the world. The parliament has since moved to Reykjavik, but it would have been really nice to further explore the area. I think the site is important enough that it should have been dignified with more time.

At least we had almost an hour at the Great Geysir. The geysir itself isn't super amazing (check out the crowd!), but there are plenty of hills to hike up. The view was much better from the top!

The tour also included a visit to Kerið, a volcanic crater lake. Aside from trekking around the Great Geysir, this was my favorite part of the tour. It is absolutely stunning there!

So now that I've seen the Golden Circle, I don't need to go again. Been there, done that. There are much better natural sights that don't require navigation through hoards of tourists--for example, the waterfalls and black-sand beaches along Iceland's southern coast--but at least I'm not "missing out" now.