3 January 2022

Iceland - Land Of Fire And Ice!

I think a lot of us who love travel many hours during lockdown planning and dreaming about the places we wanted to go when travel was back on again (let's just say that a few Lonely Planet guides dropped through my letterbox over twenty months). Being a city break person, I realised I hadn't spent much time going to the traditional destinations that are popular around Christmas time, such as Vienna, Salzberg, Cologne, Estonia, Prague and Talliin, to name a few. Vienna was high on my list for the gluhwein, traditional coffeehouses and the Giant Christmas Bow. I was about to book to fly from Newcastle with Jet2, but unfortunately Austria went into lockdown on the same day. Determined to experience Christmas in a different culture, my thoughts drifted to Iceland. I was all set to go there about ten years ago but I got sick just beforehand, so the travel guide has been sitting on my bookshelf for a long time. I managed to find a good deal with lastminute.com - return flights from Manchester and four nights in Hotel Muli, a three star hotel close to the centre of the city for £288. 

At that point (December 6th) the only testing requirement was a Day 2 PCR (which, annoyingly had gone up considerably to £48 from the £19 I paid for Majorca). Then in the days that follows the powers that be decreed that a pre-departure test (not a home test) was required, as well as a test in a testing centre before you left the destination. Great! My pre-departure test was with ExpressTest (£39) - luckily Iceland is accepting antigen lateral flow fit to fly tests which are cheaper than PCR tests. I found a test centre in Rekjavik the night before I flew back which was offering free tests. Instead of using Testing For All for a Day 2 PCR when I came back, I found a slightly cheaper price with Randox Testing (£43 with £5 off with an Easyjet code). So all in all £82 for tests, which would be enough to put a lot of people off but I didn't have a choice, having already booked. (If you're travelling make sure you check the requirements for where you're going as some places accept antigen tests and others insist on PCR, and others aren't asking for a test to enter the country, making the trip much cheaper). If you need a pre-departure test that needs to be shown at an airport, they won't accept home tests - you need a certificate from a provider. 

The view from the flight, a Christmas boy at the airport, Hotel Muli and the Imagine Peace Tower

That's the testing bit over, thank God! And now on to the nice part. The hotel was a couple of stops by bus to the centre of Rekjavik so I decided to spend the first of three days checking out the city centre. (I didn't have a set plan before travelling of what I was going to over the three days, I usually like to go with the flow, but I quickly realised it's the kind of place where you can do lots of trips - I imagine lots of people have a full itinerary before they leave. Luckily there were places left on trips so I booked them via the Get Your Guide app while I was there. More on trips later). When I got to my hotel on the first night, I noticed a blue laser beam shining up into the night sky and I remembered that Yoko Ono had created the Imagine Peace Tower - a wishing well from which a tall tower of light emerges between October 9th and 8th December (his birthday and anniversary of his death). As a massive Beatles fan it was a very cool thing to see, and it's possible to visit the Videy island to get a closer look. 

The unique Hallgrimskirkja, Rekjavik Art Museum, Tjornin lake and a traditional Icelandic house)

I decided to do the typical tourist stuff and to start took the bus to Hallsgrimskirkja, a church like no other most people have ever seen. Constructed to resemble volcanic basalt, it looks like a weird, white concrete spacecraft and is visible from twenty miles away. Named after a poet who wrote Iceland's most popular hymn book, the building was controversial and the architect didn't live to see it completed (it was finished in 1986). I was hoping that the interior would match the impressive exterior, but it was quite plain (it's easy to take stained glass for granted).  It's possible to go to the top but I didn't realise until afterwards. 

Some Rekjavik street art, sculpture and christmas decorations (they love cats)

The church is really close to the main shopping streets, Laugavegur and Skolavordustigur (known as the artist's street), where you'll find  a mixture of  shops and quirky boutiques, cafes and bars. I was quite surprised at the number of shops selling souvenirs - so many! The centre is pretty compact - my first stop was the Rekjavik Art Museum in Hafnarhus (1500ISK or £8.60), just near the Old Harbour. Looking through the windows I clocked a very strange multicoloured fur dome which was part of an exhibition called Abrakadabra - The Magic of Contemporary Art. The museum has a permanent exhibition of collages by famous Icelandic postmodernist Erro, which is definitely worth a look. And I realised that a lot of places do free tea and coffee which is a bit of a revelation!

I had lunch across the road at Vegan World Peace restaurant, which has an Asian menu and perfectly replicated typical meat dishes with meat substitutes (the Kung Pao was delicious). Then I set off to the National Museum, which is about fifteen minutes walk from the centre and takes you past the scenic Tjornin lake, complete with many swans. It was pretty frozen and some brave people were attempting to skate on it. The National Museum (2,000ISK or £11.60) holds some amazing artefacts from the time of Settlement (by the Vikings in the 10th century) spanning all the way up to modern day. You'll find glass covered skeletons, weapons and day to day objects, as well as lots of religious artefacts and replicas of traditional housing and even longboats. The cafe is a great place to take a break before walking back to the centre (especially if you go in December and are acclimatising to -3C temperatures). 

Speciality Lobster soup, vegan chinese at Vegan World Peace, amazing ice cream and my new obsession Malt og Applesin 

By this time I was getting hungry and happened to walk past Saegreifinn, which had a sign outside offering lobster soup in a bowl made out of black bread. When in Rome...The soup was delicious and warming and the staff were lovely and really helpful in answering my tourist questions. I couldn't eat all of the black bread though. If you fancy a few drinks its worth hitting the happy hours between around 4pm and 6pm otherwise the cocktails can get expensive. I popped into the Hard Rock Cafe to check out the memorabilia and had a cocktail just outside of happy hour, ouch! I was pretty tired after hitting the museums so made my way back to my hotel to check out the different tours that I'd seen advertised in the windows of the tourist companies in the city centre. The Get Your Guide app was really helpful and easy to use - I decided upon the eight hour Golden Circle bus tour (£38), which is one of the most popular tours and takes in the spectacular Gullfoss Waterfall, the sprouting geyser of Strokkur and the Kerid Crater. Most of the tours leave from outside the Storm Hotel in the centre at Bus Stop 12, so I got an early night for a 9am start. 

I somehow managed to drag myself out of bed on time and get to the tour bus, which ended up being pretty full. Our guide was knowledgeable and calm (handy traits for a tour guide). After about forty minutes we stopped off at Hveragerdi to get a coffee and snacks before our first real stop at the Kerid Crater, a 3,000 year old crater lake which is normally deep blue with vivid green moss and red rock, when not covered with snow. It was still really impressive, if not a bit too slippy to get really close. I definitely wasn't prepared for the majesty of Gullfoss Waterfall, the 105ft marvel is absolutely spectacular and I could have spent many hours just staring at it, wrapped up with cocoa. Like many of the tourist sites, there's a cafe where you can get some hot food to warm up. We then carried on to the famous Geysir hot spring in Haukadalur Valley. The actual geysir isn't very active, so to see some explosive action you're transported to Strokkur hot spring which shoots boiling water between twenty metres and forty metres into the air, approximately every eight minutes. I nearly froze my hand off, gloveless holding my phone waiting for it to erupt, but it was worth it - a reminder of the power of nature. Around the geyser the ground bubbles, which reminded me of the sulphur pools in Roturua, New Zealand. 

After lunch our last stop was Thingvellir National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the site of the first national assembly of Iceland in 930AD (basically their first parliament). You can walk between two tectonic plates (the North American tectonic plate and the Eurasian plate) in the Almannagja Gorge.  The Park was heavily featured in Game of Thrones in Season One and Season Four. Adventurous types can snorkel or scuba dive in the Silfra ravine. Thoroughly impressed with the tour, on the way back to Rekjavik I booked onto the slightly longer (ten hour) South Coast tour, again using the Get Your Guide app. 

(from top left - the Kerid crater, Strokkur, Gullfoss waterfall, Thingvellier Park)

That evening I decided to check out the Hlemmur Food Market, an eclectic food hall housed in the old bus terminal. Great for foodies who'd like to try a variety of Icelandic and world cuisines, here you can find an experimental restaurant which showcases foraged Icelandic foods (Skal) as well as Vietnamese (I had some delicious vegetarian rolls), a steakhouse, an authentic Napolitan pizza place, an LA taco joint and a pretty impressive gelato shop where you can get Icelandic Skyr ice cream. You can also sample Icelandic lamb and top quality tea and coffee. I also got obsessed with their national Christmas drink, Malt og Applesin - a non-alcoholic mix of orange soda and malt drink. You can buy it mixed or separate and mix it yourself - a lot of Icelandic people have their own family recipe to get the quantities exactly right and often add cola or other mixers. I tried to bring as much back as possible but ran out quickly and need more (the malt drink by itself is delicious). The highlight food-wise for me was the Lobster soup at Sjavarhornid in Rekjavik centre; served with black lava bread - highly recommended! 

After a good night's sleep I dragged myself out of bed to get to the bus stop at 8am for the South Coast tour (£58), hungry to see more sites. Our tour guide was Polish who'd lived in Iceland for a while, and played us a variety of Icelandic music over the course of the tour. We stopped off pretty early at Hvolsvollur to get coffee and snacks - a small town of 950 people with an interesting interactive earthquake museum. Next stop was Skogafoss (not far from the Eyjafjallajokull volcano that caused travel chaos in 2010), another magnificent waterfall with a sixty metre drop. You can walk right up to it and also get a great view from a staircase that leads to an observational platform, and often there's the chance to get a great rainbow shot. I was not prepared for how stunning the Solheimajokull glacier would be - I practically cried when I got up close to it. The shades of blue of the ice were capitavating and along with the Gulfoss waterfall the most spectacular sites for me. It deeply saddened me to hear that it's likely to disappear in the next thirty years due to climate change. We finished the tour at the Reynisfjara Beach, famous for it's black sand, unique rock formations and jagged sea stacks, said to be trolls that were frozen in time because they were out in sunlight! The Gardar Cliff looks like something out of Game of Thrones, which look like giant organ pipes. I was blown away by the tours and think they're great value to see as many sights and natural wonders as possible. I'd like to go back in the summer and hire a car but it was too icy and dangerous to drive in winter, in my opinion. 

Skogafoss waterfall, the spectacular Solheimajokull glacier, Reynisfjara black beach and sea stack basalt columns 

I knew that Iceland was going to be memorable but I was genuinely blown away by its natural beauty, culture, art and food and will definitely be going back - I'd love to do:

* The Northern Lights tour by boat (visibility wasn't great when I was there)
* A Volcano hike (scary)
* A snowmobile tour 
* The Blue Lagoon/Sky Lagoon (very touristy but must do)
* Whale watching 
* A food tour (a couple at the airport told me that it was great)
* Horse riding 
* Ice caves 

I hope I've done a good job of convincing you to put Iceland at the top of your travel list! All of the places I visited are hyperlinked so you can find out more. Happy travelling! 

Debbie x 

3 December 2021

Bonnie & The Bonnettes Christmas Spectacular - Live Theatre

Is it bad that I don't fancy a traditional panto this year? Yes, pantos are great but I'm always on the lookout for alternative Christmas shows - improvised panto, that type of thing. So look no further if you're looking for a show that's a bit different and hilarious to boot.

Manager Kim's on a rant 

The crazed lovechild of Bonnie & The Bonnettes (theatre company/drag+ cabaret trio) and Your Aunt Fanny (all female comedy sketch group), this Christmas Spectacular gives us an insight into the mythical Gosforth Office Christmas Party which starts off, like many office parties being a bit rubbish, but then descends into chaos when Middle Manager Kim (Lydia Brickland) drunkenly sends, lets just say an unprofessional email to the big boss. People pleaser Holly (Katy Powell) has put in months of effort organising the party (complete with vegan quiches) which was never going to go to plan. Failed DJ from Napa Stacey is dropping the beats and developing feelings for the foul-mouthed yet loveable Carol. Naive Penny (Brogan Gilbert) isn't quite sure why she's there and speaks a language no one else understands (social media). Ivy (Matilda Neill) is the office bitch, unable to feel emotions and shagging the big boss, to Holly's dismay. Chain smoking office matriarch Lynne (Cameron Sharp) has seen it all (she's been there since the war, after all). And last but definitely not least Lorraine (Hattie Eason), the put upon one in every office who quietly seethes in the background whilst agreeing to do everyone else's work. 

Lynne and Lorraine (don't ask)

What follows is truly spectacular, complete with hilarious one-liners, killer dance routines, deeply moving lipsynchs (!) and a mad dash to erase the offending email from existence via IT, breaking and entering and a run in with Security. Who will take the wrap? High points for me were every dance routine, Lorraine's transition from office bore to the life and soul of the party, anything Penny says, the scenes with IT and Security and Lynne's epic lip synch. Kim's rendition of My Way isn't bad either. To be fair the whole show is a high point, and  the standing ovation was well deserved. 

Bonnie & Fanny's Christmas Spectacular is at the Live Theatre, Newcastle until Thursday 23rd December. Tickets £10 - £20 (£6 concessions). Book here for belly laughs! 

It was so good I think I'll go again! 

Debbie xx

10 November 2021

A Post Lockdown Trip To Majorca...

Ok, I snapped and went to Majorca. I've been lucky enough in the last few months to travel around the country a little bit going to some festivals, but I knew deep down what I really needed. To get out of the country after putting up with so much fear-based shit for so long. There's something about getting on a plane that psychologically as well as literally creates enough distance to think or look at things in a bit of a different way; to escape or leave behind the normal day to day issues which for me is more effective than staying in the UK. Of course, getting some sun and heat in the winter doesn't hurt. I recently bought a light box which I can't live without now; the darkness is my perpetual enemy and every year my SAD seems to get worse. I think going abroad in November and January/February is a good way to combat it. I'm even contemplating going away for the whole winter, that's how much I struggle with it. I'm learning about the best places to go for winter sun -  Malta, Madeira, The Canaries, the more southern Greek Islands to name a few. 

I think a lot of people are waiting until next year to brave flying and leaving the country, but it was a lot easier that I thought, and worth the time it takes to do the paperwork to get that feeling of escape from all of the doom and gloom and that hit of heat. I know the requirements are different depending on where you go, but for the Balearics it wasn't too difficult. You need proof of vaccination; I just got the NHS Covid Pass on my phone which shows the dates of both vaccinations and QR codes to be scanned if necessary. Before you go you fill in an Overseas Passenger Locator form (your airline should provide a link to this on their website) which gives you a QR code that is scanned at the airport. The form did stress me out a little bit when it disappeared when I was close to completing it (make sure you register first so it will save it), and it was a bit confusing when it came to uploading the proof of vaccination (just upload a screenshot of your second vaccination). I had to google how to input my telephone number into it but eventually figured it out. You need to fill in the form to get your boarding pass if you're not checking in at the desk. 

I had my NHS Covid Pass in my Apple Wallet on my phone along with the PDF of the locator form in my emails, but a lot of people had printed everything out which is probably sensible in case something happens to your phone. The UK passenger locator form on the way back was pretty straightforward, just make sure that you complete both locator forms within forty-eight hours of going and coming back. 

You also need to order your Day 2 COVID test before you leave (I got mine at Testing For All for £19). So for anyone thinking that the tests are still extortionate, it's not - you don't need a test to fly out to the Balerics (other places may have different requirements). You tell them the date that you're coming back and they deliver the test on that day. It's practically the same as the free NHS lateral flow tests; you do it and set your phone timer for fifteen minutes, then take a picture of the test on a small card featuring your name and the time, and upload that to the testing website.  Luckily mine was negative, if it's positive then obviously you need to isolate and I guess that if anyone on your flight was positive then you get informed etc etc. 

I found it pretty easy to get through Newcastle airport and it didn't take much longer than pre-COVID. I just scanned the QR codes from the NHS Pass and the locator form when asked and there wasn't loads of extra checks or anything. 

Ok, enough with all the rules and regulations and onto the nice part - the actual trip to Majorca. Normally I do city breaks, book my flights and accommodation separately to keep the costs as low as possible and don't really consider package holidays. However after everything that's happened, I knew that I wanted a pool and a beach, and things to be as easy as possible, so I opted for a five night half board holiday with Jet2 Holidays at HM Tropical hotel in Playa de Palma (about twenty minutes by bus from Palma City). I knew that I'd want to do some sightseeing (I cannot lie beside a pool or beach for a week) but I also knew that I did need to have some downtime and not run around every day like I normally do. I couldn't remember the last time that I'd had my meals included, so I decided to do that (even though during it I realised that I need restaurant diversity and get bored with the same buffet every night). I tried to book flights to Palma separately at first but given that it was the last flight out of Newcastle until spring understandably there were no seats. I decided to make my life easier and do a package, and probably overpaid for it but after not being able to travel for so long I couldn't be bothered to look around for the best priced option. 

Views from the hotel and some of the art/neon

The hotel, HM Tropical was built about thirty years ago and has undergone numerous refurbs - I was pleasantly surprised at how modern it was with some cool art around the ground floor, and in a great location literally yards from the beach, over the road from a supermarket and around 100 metres from the bus stop to Palma (bus no. 20). I had a great view of the beach from my room on the sixth floor. I kind of knew that I'd have to wear a mask in the hotel and it got a bit annoying to keep taking it off and putting in on (as it wrecks havoc on my skin) but it's a small price to pay and I guess it keeps us all safer. 

The poolside food was all top-notch

The hotel has a good sized pool with a children's pool attached (but separated for safety reasons). The pool area is generous with plenty of space and no shortage of sunbeds (although this may be different in high season, but with the beach across the road I suppose not so much of a problem). You can hire Bali Beds for a bit of luxury, but I was fine with your bog-standard sun bed. I was really impressed with the bar/poolside menu - on the days I wasn't sightseeing I had my lunch there - a tasty, very authentic Currywurst (probably on the menu to please the hoards of German holidaymakers staying at the hotel and indeed the whole of the island), a delicious Tropical pizza drizzled with honey and a filling Veggie Burger with guacamole. I only drank Sangria by the pool (at €3.50 each who can blame me). The breakfast and dinner buffets had lots of choice so you could basically have something different every night, but I realised that trying different restaurants are part of the holiday experience for me, but I'm sure I saved money on food. I got bored of the hotel restaurant by the Wednesday and ended up having some top-notch sushi across the road at Sushi Fresh (amazing California rolls). 

The stunning La Seu (Palma Cathedral)

I knew that I wanted to check out some art in Palma and see the famous gothic Cathedral, and luckily the bus network is pretty reliable and easy to use (it's €2 per trip). From Playa de Palma it's about twenty minutes to Palma with the bus stopping right next to the cathedral (otherwise known as La Seu). It's €8 to enter, and it's worth it to see the stunning stained glass and Gaudi's wrought iron front altar centrepiece. I also really enjoyed visiting the Fundacion Juan March (free entry), a modern art museum situated in a 17th century manor house right in the centre of Palma. The permanent collection features a Dali (Portrait of Luli Kollsman), The Dog by Miro, some amazing works by Equipo Cronica aka Chronicle Team - The anteroom (1968) and The Little Room (1970). The highlight for me were the artoons of Pablo Helguera; cartoons poking fun at the art world - fifteen are on display in their own exhibit, and others invade the permanent collection creating an interesting juxtaposition between the styles. I really wanted to go to the Fundacio Miro, which houses 6,000 works donated by him but I ran out of time, but it's definitely on my list for next time. 

Food-wise I'll have to go back to be able to write a comprehensive post about Majorcan food (mainly because I wanted to keep it simple and eat in the hotel).  I did check out an amazing coffee shop called Anita Cakes - very Instagrammable and pink-themed. They bake cupcakes, brownies, cronuts, macaroons and the like on site, and have two shops (Palma, Alcudia) and a cute caravan in a shopping centre in Palma. After much deliberation over the menu, I decided upon Pink Latte (complete with rose petals and white chocolate) and the most calorific cinnamon bun-type creation covered in bright pink icing and filled with white chocolate. The sugar rush kept me going all afternoon and probably into the next day. They also do breakfasts and some more savoury dishes. There's a great mix of international and Spanish (Zara/Mango) high street shops in Palma which will satisfy the most ardent shopper. 

The decadence that is Anita Cakes

I'd had some recommendations to do a day trip to Soller in north west Majorca, so I ventured there the day before I left (I took the 20 bus then the 204 using Google Maps to tell me when to change - it took about fifty minutes one way from the hotel). Famed for its extensive citrus groves (especially oranges which can be found in a local liquer and juice sold everywhere there), the town become wealthy in the 19th century due to its fruit exports. Oranges aside, it's really pretty and surrounded by mountains which isolated it from the rest of Majorca until the 90s when a tunnel was built. Many people never left (I met a woman on the bus who lived on the same street that she was born in). 

Soller town square and the amazing Miga de Nube cafe

You can find lots of unique independent boutiques and cafes; I was lucky enough to stumble on Miga de Nube, a slow cafe and art gallery which serves beautifully presented vegetarian food both indoors and in a picturesque garden out the back. I loved the art on sale (the artist works on site) - the tiles were especially cool. They had a large selection of cakes; I especially enjoyed the lemon cake with orange zest and took full advantage of the citrus theme. The main square has lots of bars and cafes, and you can get on the  tram here which links the town and the port. One of the main tourist attractions is the distinctive wooden train which links Soller to Palma via a twenty eight kilometre trip through thirteen tunnels and amazing scenery (next time). 

I didn't want to come back and am already planning my next trip! I hope that this post was helpful, I really wanted to get across that doing a short European trip isn't that difficult right now, please be aware that a lot of hotels in Majorca are now closed for the winter - Malta, Madeira and the Canaries are good option right now and they have year round sun. It was amazing to travel abroad again and really improved my mood. Where next? Have a brilliant time if you decide to get some winter sun! 

Debbie x  

24 October 2021

Cool Neon Collab - Keith Haring x Yellow Pop

"Neon is emotional for everybody," uttered by the great Tracey Emin, who started working with it as a medium in the 90's. You've probably seen her unique handwritten neon (each one expressing deep thoughts and desires) - I remember being in St Pancras station and being mesmerised by the 20m long pink "I want my time with you" sprawled below the clock (apparently a message to European visitors during Brexit).  Neon is both retro and modern, and never seems to go out of fashion (I love it anywhere, from galleries to bars and as home decor).  

So when I got an email about a new Yellow Pop neon collection, a collaboration with the studio of 1980's New York graffiti artist Keith Haring, I had to check it out. The collection consists of eight highly collectable pieces depicting his pop art and murals, which have never gone out of fashion. Some of his most famous designs, such as Barking Dog, Dancing Man, his LOVE sign and the Radiant Baby have been translated into LED neon for those who would appreciate a piece of his pop art in their home. 

Dance Love (£250), Barking Dog (£350), Dancing Man (£350) and Radiant Baby (£250)

Born in Pennsylvania in 1958, Haring moved to the Lower East Side of New York in 1978 to study art. He was heavily inspired by cartoons growing up, and later by Jackson Pollock, Christo (who inspired him to include the public in his art) and Belgian artist Pierre Alechinsky. His instantly recognisable black and white graffiti in New York subways in the early 80s included the Radiant Baby (which he also used as a tag) and Barking Dog. After being featured in numerous exhibitions in New York, his work achieved global acclaim, and he was commissioned to go to a wide variety of countries to share his art (he did a mural on the Berlin Wall, had a solo exhibition in Amsterdam and created murals in art galleries in Australia). 

He collaborated with Vivienne Westwood and Grace Jones (amongst others), and in 1986 a shop opened in Soho, New York, commercialising his work by selling affordable t-shirts and posters. Much of his work uses images to advocate for safe sex and AIDS awareness. He was taken too soon at just 31, due to AIDS related complications. His work is still just as relevant, which is reflected in the number of collaborations, exhibitions, documentaries and books which have been created since his death in 1990.    

Twisted Man (£420), Send Love (£490), Radiant Heart (£850), Radiant Love £750)

Any self-respecting pop art lover will covet a piece from the collaboration with Yellow Pop, which allows you to own a piece of his fun and powerful work and surely impress any visitors. Prices start at £250 for the smaller pieces (Dance Love, Radiant Baby) to £750 for my personal favourite, the larger Radiant Love piece. 

Click here to find out more about the collection, but be warned you might end up with some new neon! 

Debbie x