Seljavallalaug: A Hidden Swimming Pool in South Iceland

Iceland is, hands down, one of the most beautiful places that I’ve visited.  And, while there are a number of great natural wonders along the so-called “Golden Circle” route, I enjoy taking the less-touristy far-southern route along the coast on the Highway 1 ring road.   There are a number of beautiful hidden gems that used to be truly off-the-beaten-path but, with wonder of the Internet, they have become much more accessible to all.  One of those sites is Seljavallalaug, one of the most beautiful man-made swimming pools in the world.

Seljavallalaug is not the easiest place to get to, but it’s not difficult either.  Your main risk is a plunging your feet into some freezing water, depending on the time of year, or maybe slipping on some rocks.  And, thankfully for prospective visitors, it’s now marked accurately on Google Maps:

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Seljavallalaug is located about 150km from central Reykjavik. The drive is choked full of scenery.    If you wanted to, you could pull off every 10 minutes to take photos of something new and amazing:  beautiful views of the water, an active volcano, cute little houses or seemingly infinite fields of flowers:

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To get there, you must pull off onto an access road that leads to a farm.  From there, it’s about a 20-30 minute walk to the pool, depending on the time of year and the flow of water in the mountain stream and river that protect the area.  When you start walking toward the valley that contains the pool, you’re greeted with an amazing world all around you.

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As you continue walking down the path, you’ll notice that there are waterfalls as far as the eye can see.  I can only imagine how many there are during the spring thaw.

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You’re then greeted with a small stream, followed by a small river.   You can probably make it across the stream by hopping on rocks, if the water level is low.  Be aware, though, that even in July, the water temperature was freezing.  You can see the small river in to the left of me:

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At this point, you have two options:  Wade across the cold river or turn left and take the rockier route, which is more dangerous.   I chose the latter, which wasn’t too bad at all.

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As you make it across and around into the valley, you see the pool from a distance:

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It’s basic, to say the least, as are the rudimentary changing rooms.  The facility isn’t maintained by anyone, except for the one time a year that locals come out and scrub the algae down off the walls.  The water, however, is crystal clean and warmed by geothermal heat, as most of Iceland’s water is.  If you’re lucky enough to get some time to yourself, the entire experience is just serene:

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Sit back, relax and enjoy the scenery…

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Finally, a few tips:  Bring a change of socks and shoes in case your feet do take a plunge into the river.  Also, a pair of flip-flops are nice to have when walking around the pool area and dressing rooms, which are covered with dirty and algae.

Is it worth it?  Undoubtedly.

NY Jets vs. Buffalo Bills from the Field and the Owner’s Box

A few months ago, I was invited by the wonderful Johnson family to join them at MetLife Stadium in the Owner’s Box to watch their team, the New York Jets, battle it out against the Buffalo Bills. It was a beautiful day and a great experience. I’ve had the opportunity to spend time on the sidelines in the past, the most memorable time being the Christmas Eve do-or-die game between the same-stadium rival Jets and the NY Giants in 2011 (I posted some photos about it ). However, watching from the owner’s box was certainly an experience, particularly since I stood next to team owner Robert “Woody” Johnson most of the game.  To the delight of the Johnson family and fans alike, the Jets took the game 27-20.

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Above:  Happy Endings and The Mindy Project star, Adam Pally.

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Trying the NY Times Best Restaurants of 2013

So, I’m no stranger to good food, of course, but this year I’m trying to get ahead of the game of New York City foodie game and hit all of the NY Times 10 Best Restaurants of 2013.

On Christmas 2013, the Times released it’s list.   The headline is a bit misleading, however, since the ten featured are not actually the ten best in NYC – they’re not even the ten best reviewed of the year.   But I assume they are actually the ten best new restaurants, as Pete Wells says:

This may be why some of the best new restaurants I reviewed this year came from chefs or owners who were relatively unknown, while established operators came up with places that weren’t quite convincing.

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Sadly, I must say that I’ve only been to one of them on the list (which I’ll go to again).  Happily, that also means that I’ll have 9 new places to try!   I’ll be writing about each of them here.  As I post each one, they’ll be tagged with “NYTimesTopTen2013”, so you can access each of them here.

Stay tuned…

Quick Update: Briefly Featured in a CNN article regarding “The Longest Flight in the World”

Earlier this week, I was briefly featured in a CNN article about the demise of Singapore Airlines flights 21 and 22, often referred to as “the longest flights in the world”.  Coincidentally, that’s also the name of the article, which is accessible here:

http://www.cnn.com/2013/10/19/travel/worlds-longest-flight/

One of my most visited blog posts over the past four years is my review of this flight, titled “Singapore Airlines All Business Class and the Longest Flight in the World”:

https://chrisjur.wordpress.com/2009/10/28/singapore-airlines-all-business-class-and-the-longest-flight-on-earth/

Funny enough, I’ll actually be flying SQ21 in early November, which will be my last leg on this very special, storied flight.

Tel Aviv in the Summer

Tel Aviv brings surprises around every corner.

There are normally two things that take people by surprise when I tell them about this amazing costal city:

1.  Tel Aviv is as cosmopolitan as New York City.

2.  Tel Aviv is a secular city.

The city has become increasingly liberal and open over the years and non-Jews and secular Jews, alike, will not not only feel comfortable there, but will enjoy the same cultural amenities that you’d find in any of the top cities in the world.  The food is top-notch.  The bars are packed and crowds spill into the streets until early in the morning.  It’s reputation as one of the top party cities of the world brings in everything from the world’s best DJ’s to one of the largest gay pride celebrations in the world.   It provides the perfect balance between daytime, urban coastal relaxation, history and late-night indulgence.

Many of the great hotels and restaurants are huddled around the coast.  And while the Hilton, Sheraton provide direct beach access, I prefer the boutique Hotel Melody just across the road.  And during my time there, I can say that I probably had my best Friday/Saturday night meal combination in any city of the world this year, thanks to the cool and trendy  North Abraxas and thoroughly-modern Herbert Samuel.

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Macau: Gambling Capital of the World

Where do I being with Macau? While the gambling capital of the world is, in so many ways, worlds away from Las Vegas, they are both siblings in that they seem something like a theme park. In much the way that Las Vegas was a desert-covered cowboy town before gaming came along, I can’t imagine what Macau was like before the casinos were built. Back in the days when the Portuguese ruled the world, they laid a cultural foundation within this small Asian island that spawns its language, food and architecture. It is a bizarre hybrid of Euro-Asian everything, although formidably more Asian these days, particularly as the thirst for gaming amongst the mainland Chinese continues to grow.

A short ferry hop from Hong Kong in fast hydrofoils that provide a comfortable first-class service, you have your choice to dive into the tourist-ridden older parts of the city, the quieter parts of the island that seem to be undisturbed by the gaming chaos, or boring and quiet stretches of the city that are lined with miniature versions of Las Vegas casinos (a mini Wynn Las Vegas, anyone?).

Good for a day or two’s visit, if you’re looking for a duplication of Las Vegas or Atlantic City, you won’t find it. The gaming floors are typically packed, smokey and filled with games that you’ve probably never even heard of. But it’s a fun place to explore and the combination of new-found wealth and history makes for an entertaining time.

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Above:  Grand Lisboa Casino

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Above:  A famous pork chop that you can find at a few places throughout the island.   It’s essentially a fried, thinly sliced pork chop on a fresh roll with butter.  Not the healthiest thing in the world, but delicious!

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Above:  Their version of jerky can be found all over the island.

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Above: As you would expect in a former Portuguese colony, there are many simple, but beautiful Christian churches.

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Quick Review: United Airlines International First Class Suites Service (Now United GlobalFirst)

Note as of January 2014:  This review was originally written before the full integration of products after the United/Continental merger.   This service is now known as “United GlobalFirst”, which, as of this time, is served out of the pre-merger United SFO, LA, Chicago and Washington hubs.   The hard service (seats, entertainment, etc.) has not changed since that time, but the menu an on-board service has been updated (slightly for the better, IMO).

Unlike some of my comprehensive reviews of Business and First Class airline travel, this one will be relatively quick.   Quite frankly, there isn’t too much to write home about, anyway.

For this installment, I take a look at United’s latest international first class product, marketed as the United First Class Suites.  It’s important to point out that this is the international first class services from the pre-merger United Airlines – this is NOT a review of (pre-United merger) Continental Airlines’s BusinessFirst service (you can read my review of the upgraded Continental BusinessFirst seat here, if you’d like.   It should be noted that the new United Airlines will maintain a mix of two-cabin and three-cabin services, including the seats that I review today, as well as the new-ish Continental BusinessFirst product and the fairly-new United International Business product.

This review happens to be my first experience in United First Class on an international route.  Despite that fact that I live a few miles from the “new” United’s hub at Newark, I actually have limited experience flying United over the years.  This is, in fact, only my third premium class trip on United and, to date, I have to say that I’m not overly impressed.

My route on this trip was from Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport (PVG) to Los Angeles International (LAX).   The PVG-LAX route was flown on a Boeing 777-200, configured in three classes.  The first class cabin seats a total of 8 people in a two-row, 1-2-1 configuration. The adjacent business class configuration on this flight seats 40 people in a bizarre 2-4-2 forward facing/read-racing configuration – pretty much guaranteeing annoying bathroom break disturbances for every single business class passenger throughout the flight.

The single star in this service is, without a doubt, the First Class Suite.  It is a very large, comfortable seat that provides ample room for storage, making for a comfortable flight, whether sleeping, eating of lounging.

No, it’s not the most luxurious looking suite on the market today, but it is comfortable.   Each seat is slightly angled, which helps a bit with privacy issues if you’re sitting in the middle aisle – as you can see, there are no dividers between the seat next to you.   One small annoyance is the addition of a shoulder seat belt (in addition to a lap belt) in this configuration.  The shoulder belt can be uncomfortable, to say the least.

In this suite, stowage is no challenge, as there are a number of different compartments to place all of your goodies, including a huge bin located on the aisle side of the seat:

The console next to the seat provides seat controls, headphone jacks, USB charger connects, a power port and a remote control:

Legroom is quite large, even for all 6 foot 4 inches of me, although the television is relatively small compared to some of the other comparable first class products on the market (Emirates, Singapore, TAM, etc.):

My 11.5 hour flight to LAX departed at 8:25pm, so I certainly did get a chance to catch some sleep and have to say that I’ve slept as good as I ever had on a long-haul flight.  It is certainly a comfortable space.

Unfortunately, however, the service was less than first-class.  I found the food to be mediocre, at best, the selection to be limited and the preparation to be less-than-spectacular.  Don’t get me wrong, the quality of food beats anything in Economy any day, but for a $12,000 ticket, I typically expect more.  The service include:

…a sloppily presented tomato soup:

An overcooked steak:

A miniature appetizer:

A poorly-presented and tasteless pasta:

Again – I’m not expecting Michelin three star-quality food, but, at a minimum, you would think that United’s First Class service would match Continental’s BusinessFirst Serve, which is a pure business-class product.  Excellent First Class seat aside, it does not.  In fact, I find that Continental’s transcontinental domestic first class service often provides better meals.

Flight crew service on the trip was friendly and just attentive enough.  I didn’t see them much at all after dinner, but they were there in an instant when I needed something.

Upon arrival at LAX, I was greeted with further disappointment:  While United does maintain a very comfortable dedicated First Class Lounge, there are no showers in any United Club facilities.  Thankfully, however, the First Class Lounge offered a variety of food, beverages and super-friendly staff.

The Quick Conclusion

All in all, the flight was comfortable and it got me across the Pacific without much incident. But the large seat aside, I find it difficult to pay the premium for United’s First Class versus, say, Continental’s BusinessFirst service.  I have subsequently encountered several times where seats on the direct PVG-EWR Continental route had no BusinessFirst availability and, instead of choosing United First Class, chose to add another few hours to my trip by flying Emirates back home via Dubai.