Practical advice for visiting Iceland

Reykjavik from the bell tower of Hallgrimskirkja Church with the statue of Leif Eiriksson below
Reykjavik from the bell tower of Hallgrimskirkja Church with the statue of Leif Eiriksson below

My daughter, Ashley and I visited Iceland at the end of February this year. We absolutely loved the beauty of this diverse country and the friendliness of the people. It was a wonderful couple of weeks spending quality time together, experiencing new adventures and meeting some amazing new friends.

I’ve been wanting to share some of our experiences here as well as some practical advice. There are two places that we have been recently that everyone seem to us ask about. Cuba and Iceland.

I’ve been so busy with work and other travels that I’ve kept putting it off writing these posts. Being asked three times in a 24 hour period. Then hearing that Rick Steves was planning on publishing a guide book on Iceland this fall and his star researcher, Cameron Hewitt need travelers advice, pushed me to finally get these posts done! After all, the Rick Steves guide books have been extremely helpful all these years in planning trips to Europe. It is my chance to finally give back.

First things first
The flights to Iceland are cheap, but the costs while you are there are not. Don’t let that discourage you from going though. Iceland is an amazing country.

I wanted to experience the Northern Lights, so I chose to go during the winter months. I booked our trip for the end of February and beginning of March thinking that it wouldn’t be as cold as say December or January. The joke was on me though. We arrived in a frigid snow storm that ended up being the largest snowfall in the last 60 years in Reykjavik! Lesson learned. You can’t predict the weather! Oh… And take plenty of layers of warm clothing and snow boots. Layering is the key no matter what time of year you decide to go.

We took the bus into Reykjavik to our hotel. I booked online. The bus is the cheapest option for traveling to/from the airport, the Blue Lagoon and the airport. The only difficult part is the bus always goes to the terminal in Reykjavik before you grab a van to/from your hotel. I booked a private transfer back to the airport through our hotel because I was afraid that we may end up being late and I didn’t want to risk missing the hourly bus to the airport. The extra cost was worth peace of mind to me.

Our visit to The Blue Lagoon and our GoEcco 3 Day Ice Caving & Northern Lights tour both deserve posts of their own. Both well worth doing.

The Hotel that I highly recommend:



We actually stayed in two hotels in Reykjavik. On our first three nights we stayed at the Raddison Blu Saga. It was a large hotel outside the city center.

Our home away from home at Kvosin Downtown Hotel
Our home away from home at Kvosin Downtown Hotel

On our return from our three day GoEcco ice caving tour, we stayed at the nicest ‪boutique hotel in a great central downtown location near restaurants, tourist sites and shopping. They have lovely, modern decorated rooms with a small kitchen and a nice espresso machine. Reasonably priced. Free wifi. I highly recommend them. ‬

Kvosin Downtown Hotel

Kirkjutorg 4

Reykjavik

IS-101. IS

‪+3545714460‬

Kvosin Hotel

‪Ways to save money on eating in Iceland:

‪Icelandic water from the tap is some of the best in the world. Bring along a stainless steel bottle and fill it up from the tap at your hotel. Icelanders think it’s silly when tourists buy bottled water. Ask for tap water in restaurants too. ‬

‪Be aware that an inexpensive meal in Iceland means spending $22-35 US. Iceland is definitely expensive, but there are a few ways that you can save a little money and not go hungry.‬
‪Take snack foods with you. We packed peanut butter and crackers, protein and breakfast bars, nuts and other filling goodies to eat rather than paying for a full three meals a day. This enabled us to spend more time taking in the sights and more cash for souvenir shopping.‬

‪Look for a hotel or apartment with a kitchen or a microwave and coffee maker. We picked up packaged frozen dinners and ‘cup of soup’ from a grocery store for a couple of meals. Bonus is a good option. Their grocery stores are still more expensive than what we are accustomed to in the USA, but still way cheaper than restaurants. I brought along instant coffee, tea bags and creamer too. ‬

‪The Icelandic hot dogs are tasty and a good value. They are available at about every gas station around Iceland. You will find them in beef or lamb. Try the lamb. Very good.‬

‪Restaurant recommendations:‬

‪We tried several restaurants that were recommended by locals which were moderately priced. These were our favorites.‬
Reykjavik:

Dinner at Saeta Svinid Gastropub
Dinner at Saeta Svinid Gastropub


 

Saeta Svinid Gastropub

Hafnarstræti 1-3 / 101 Reykjavík

Sími: 555 2900

http://saetasvinid.is/en

‪Open 11:30-23:30‬
‪Their menu is filled with Icelandic specialities like puffin, minke whale, and horse. Though we did not venture to try any of the fore mentioned dishes, we did try the lamb, the salmon and their really good burger. ‬

Inside Uno Restaurant
Inside Uno Restaurant


Uno

‪Hafnarstraeti 3‬

‪Reykjavik 101, Iceland‬

Uno
‪We enjoyed this cozy restaurant on one of our first evenings in Reykjavik. Nicely appointed interior with many choices of reasonably priced food. They also have an outside seating area to enjoy your meal on a sunny day. ‬

Nice treats to warm up with at ‪Salka Valka - Fish & More
Nice treats to warm up with at ‪Salka Valka – Fish & More

‪Salka Valka – Fish & More

‪Skolavordustigur 23,‬

‪Reykjavik 101, Iceland ‬
‪Cozy little fish shop on busy Skolavordustigur street just down from ‬

‪Hallgrimskirkja. Nice place to take a rest and warm up with a little lunch or dessert and coffee. Very friendly staff.‬

Fresh ground coffee at ‪Reykjavik Roasters
Fresh ground coffee at ‪Reykjavik Roasters


Reykjavik Roasters

‪Karastigur 1 (corner of Frakkastigur)‬

‪Reykjavik 101, Iceland ‬

‪Cute little coffee shop with coffee to enjoy there or to take away. They also sell pastries. Grab a fresh roasted cup of coffee and grab a window seat or take a cup with you and walk across the way to Braud & Company for pastry and head to Harpa Concert Hall like we did to enjoy a unique setting for breakfast. (Many thanks to Jonathan and Tomas for that great idea!)‬

Fresh made bread and pastries at colorful ‪Braud & Company
Fresh made bread and pastries at colorful ‪Braud & Company


‪Braud & Company‬

‪16 Frakkastigur‬

‪Reykjavik 101, Iceland ‬

‪Wide selection of made from scratch pastries and breads that you are only able to take away. A great bakery that you can smell from blocks away early every morning. You are able to watch the bakers while standing in line waiting your turn. Highly recommend the croissants and cinnamon rolls. ‬

‪ ‬

Lots of shopping and coffee shops on the street just in front of‪ Hallgrimskirkja Church
Lots of shopping and coffee shops on the street just in front of‪ Hallgrimskirkja Church


Souvenir shopping in Reykjavik:‬
‪Head to Laugavegur and Skolavordustigur streets for a wide selection of shops to pop into. You can find all types of souvenirs to take home. Be sure to compare prices as we found that there can be a very wide difference from one shop to the next on vertically the same items. ‬
‪I fell in love with all the handmade woolen accessories. I purchased socks for everyone on my gift list. They are so warm and cozy!! ‬

A special souvenir to remember Iceland in your home everyday
A special souvenir to remember Iceland in your home everyday

‪My daughter loved all the hides. She ended up purchasing two as souvenirs to decorate her home. She purchased a sheep hide at a darling shop at 22 Skolavordustigur street (one building down from Fish & More Restaurant) just down from Hallgrimskirkja Church on the right side. They had a nice selection at a good price. This shop had a wide assortment of reasonably priced souvenirs of all kinds. Worth a visit.

She also purchased a reindeer hide at The Blue Lagoon gift shop. They had a really nice selection of hides at a good price as well.‬

‪Handknitting Association of Iceland

‪Skolavordustigur 19‬

‪Reykjavik 101, Iceland ‬
‪A cooperative of women who knit many types of clothing and accessories from Icelandic wool. Huge selection of items! Sweaters,hats, socks, mittens, scarves, You can even purchase wool to take home to make your own items. I highly recommend purchasing the socks if you are visiting Iceland in the winter. They will keep your feet warmer than any sock you can purchase in the USA. Believe me, you will need that warmth! The cooperative’s handmade items were my choice for souvenirs for myself and my family.‬

‪Places to visit in Reykjavik:

‪Hallgrimskirkja Church
‪Hallgrimskirkja Church


 

‪Hallgrimskirkja Church

‪Hallgrimstorg 1‬

‪101 Reykjavik, Iceland ‬

Hallgrimskirkja
‪Be sure to head into the gift shop in the hall to the left as you enter the church to purchase the elevator tickets to go up to the top of the church. You will be rewarded with outstanding 360 degree views of Reykjavik, the harbor and the mountains across the way. ‬
‪Enjoy the modern church interior as well.‬

‪Statue of Leif Eiriksson‬

‪Sits at the front entrance to Hallgrimskirkja Church‬

Looking out through the windows of Harpa Concert Hall
Looking out through the windows of Harpa Concert Hall

‪Harpa Concert Hall‬

Austurbakka 2, 101 Reykjavík

Sími: 528 5000

Harpa
‪Beautiful glass and steel building on the waterfront in Reykjavik. You can go inside and explore for free. Nice place for a picking in the seating areas on the upper floors. Great view of the mountains and harbor. ‬

‪Check their website for events. I wish we would have had time to take in a show called “How to Become Icelandic in 60 Minutes.” Our friends that went said it was really funny and, better yet, our GoEcco guide said it was funny and very true. We will do this for sure on our next trip. ‬

How to Become Icelandic in 60 Minutes

Fun shoe skating on frozen ‪Lake Thornin
Fun shoe skating on frozen ‪Lake Thornin


‪Lake Thornin

‪Picturesque little lake in the Reykjavik city center that is nice to stroll around and watch the swans, ducks and other water fouls. It iced over during our visit which made it more fun as we skated around in our snow boots. ‬

The Blue Lagoon
The Blue Lagoon


The Blue Lagoon

‪Outside of Reykjavik but it’s only a 45 minute bus ride away.
Having been to Iceland, next trip I would do it a little differently. I would take the bus to the Blue Lagoon from the airport instead of heading directly to Reykjavik. I’d stay at the Blue Lagoon’s hotel/resort my first night and enjoy more time there. If you decide to go to the Blue Lagoon, be sure to book everything online long in advance! I’ll write a separate post on just the Blue Lagoon and some of its amenities.

Love at first sight! The Aurora In Iceland!
Love at first sight! The Aurora In Iceland!


Experiencing the Northern Lights:

‪Pick a time of year when the nights are very dark. Usually that means from October through March for the best chance to see the lights. Try not to go during a full moon. This took me a lot of time researching for the best time for my daughter and I to go to Iceland. Seeing the Aurora was my top reason to go, so it was extremely important to me. ‬

‪The longer that you stay in Iceland, the better chance you have seeing the lights. Keep in mind that the weather is extremely unpredictable. We arrived at the end of the winter season to the largest snowfall in Reykjavik from the last 80 years. Totally unexpected. Even though the aurora was active the first three nights we visited, we couldn’t see them because of cloud cover. ‬

‪I had booked a super Jeep excursion with ‬Arctic Adventures for our second evening. Literally, every other company cancelled their northern lights tours due to cloud cover, but Arctic Adventures did not. It was an extremely frigid, disappointing evening. They did take us outside of town, but there was too much cloud cover and no lights. Unfortunately, it was a waist of a lot of money too. Almost $400 for the two of us. I understand other companies are willing to reschedule or refund if things don’t go as planned. I thought I had done my research as to the best company to use. This is a warning to others.

‪The aurora forecast website to watch:

Aurora Forcast

‪Follow this account on Twitter:

‪Aurora Forecast @AuroraIceland for both the Aurora forecast and cloud cover. ‬

‪Photographing the Northern Lights:

‪There are a few things you will need if you are planning on trying to photograph the lights. First, you’ll need a good DSLR camera. I had read a couple of articles about apps for your iPhone that were capable of photographing the Aurora. I downloaded two of the apps that looked promising. The first evening that we saw the lights, I pulled out my iPhone and gave them both a try. Some people may be happy with the results, but it just wasn’t good in my opinion.‬
‪There are plenty of photography websites and books out there that explain how to set your specific DSLR camera. I’ll leave that to the people who do that type of photography all the time. They are the experts and it is quite a detailed process. I would suggest that if you have a couple of free hours in Reykjavik, to head to the small museum by the harbor, Aurora Reykjavik and ask the sweet people there if they wouldn’t mind setting your camera for you. Be sure to take the time to look at all their beautiful displays while you are there. Some wonderful examples of photography of the Aurora and you may begin to understand the Aurora better. Well worth the entrance price. You are also able to book Northern Lights tours on their website. They have several to choose from. ‬

‪Aurora Reykjavik: The Northern Lights Center
‪Aurora Reykjavik: The Northern Lights Center


Aurora Reykjavik: The Northern Lights Center

‪Grandagarður 2, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland‬

Aurora Reykjavik

‪Open 7 days a week 9 AM – 9 PM‬
‪Be sure to bring along extra batteries for your camera and other devices. A battery pack is also good to have. Batteries drain their power quickly in the cold. ‬

Things I’d love to do on our next visit to Iceland:‬




I really want to do this photography tour:‬

‪I’ve been following Icelandic photographer ‬Iurie Belegurschi for several years now on social media. His photographs are what inspired me to go to Iceland. Being a photographer, I wanted to experience the crystal ice cave and Northern Lights myself.

Iceland Winter Photo Tour
‪I still really want to do this tour. Though the tour we took was really wonderful and I highly recommend it to everyone, this tour is geared for photography. I would have had to go alone as my daughter isn’t interested in photography. Maybe one day. Still on my travel wish list. ‬

Staying in a clear bubble dome in the middle of nowhere:‬

‪I think staying in a bubble would be a dreamy experience! That is if I could ever go to sleep with all those stars and the Northern Lights! ‬
Bubble
‪I did look at staying in a bubble before our trip. I just couldn’t figure out how to get there without renting a vehicle. We Texans have no idea how to drive on snow or ice, so that was totally out of the question. ‬

Viva la Cuba!

Viva the people. The cars. The culture. The food. The cigars. The rum.

Have you dreamed about going to Cuba before the island changes forever?

This video is compiled from photos I shot on the incredible trip we took to Cuba this March. Hopefully it will inspire you to experience this unique place that everyone says is stuck in time.

I’m ready to go back!! 

And we are!!! Our next trip will be on Southwest Airlines first flight from Ft Lauderdale to Havana this December!! So looking forward to a whole new experience in Cuba around the holidays!!

Would you like to go to Cuba in 2017? We may try to get a group together to go back. Contact me at val110358@aol.com for more info. Meanwhile, enjoy our last trip… 

Magnolia House exterior transformation 

Ok. I might have been a house stalker. To a certain extent anyway. Our restaurant is in the same town that Chip and Joanna Gaines bought and refurbished the 1800s farmhouse in the middle of downtown McGregor. The bank we use for our business is right across the street. We have to go to that bank at least once a day. Every day. Seven days a week. Except Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.
Magnolia  House B&B in McGregor before renovation copyright Valerie Citrano
That’s how I began noticing the work being done on my dear friend, Mrs. Truelove’s former house. The home had fallen into disrepair after her death. I’d often thought what a shame it was. In its former glory, it was such a beauty.

I don’t think there was anyone other than Chip and Jo that could have taken the house and transformed it as beautifully. It is now nationally known to fans of Fixer Upper as Magnolia House B&B.

Have a look at some of the photos I took with my iPhone as the house progressed.

Magnolia  House B&B in McGregor before renovation copyright Valerie Citrano

The Carriage House besideMagnolia  House B&B in McGregor before renovation copyright Valerie Citrano
the Carriage House beside the Magnolia house before renovation

Magnolia  House B&B in McGregor during renovation copyright Valerie CitranoMagnolia  House B&B in McGregor during renovation copyright Valerie CitranoMagnolia  House B&B in McGregor during renovation copyright Valerie Citrano
Is it really stalking if you tell the owners? No! Surly not! Right?

My husband and I both ended up going to the bank when the 18 wheeler furniture truck happened to be unloading all of the furniture for Magnolia House. We both took a picture.

Joanna's new furniture line being delivered to her Magnolia House B&B in McGregor, TX copyright Valerie Citrano

And then the next day we saw Chip and Jo.

I’m only posting this picture because the look on Chip’s face is just so priceless! Pretty sure it’s the way he looks every time he sees me. I’m really not sure why! Haha!

Chip and Joanna Gaines with Donald and Valerie Citrano www.pieladylife.com

And my husband showed Jo the picture of the truck unloading at the house.

(If I would have known a friend was taking these pictures, I promise I would have turned around!)

Jo told us the furniture was from her new line that would soon be available for purchase. She also told us that the producers of the show wanted to do the reveal at the end of the week. Cool insider information direct from the source. I was good. I didn’t tell anyone.

Chip and Joanna Gaines with Donald and Valerie Citrano www.pieladylife.com
Yes, I told them that we had totally been stalking the house and how wonderful it was that they chose the house in our little town of McGregor to open a B&B. So, when you tell someone that you may be stalking, it’s not really stalking. Right?

And they still took a photo with us! Haha!!


And then my friend Debby, who owns Greenlife Nursery and Landscaping showed up for lunch at The Coffee Shop Cafe and we were off for a whirlwind day …. I got to help her with the Fixer Upper house……. 

Visiting Singapore 

Friends we met on the road


One of my very favorite things that I love about traveling is making new friends. We have been blessed to meet some wonderful people whom we stay in touch with.

We met Samuel and Rita on a group tour ‘following the steps of Paul’ through Turkey and Greece a few years ago. We totally clicked on our trip, sharing the gospel and just worshiping Jesus along the way. We stayed in touch after our journey ended.

Rita and Samuel came to Waco for a visit while they were in the United States a couple of years ago. We took them to The Texas Ranger Museum, walked along the Brazos River banks, over the Suspension Bridge and to a Wade Bowen country music concert. We had a lot of fun showing them our city and our restaurant in nearby McGregor.

Well, this year we made a point to go to Singapore to visit them for a few days after our trip to Thailand. We were just too close to them to not drop by and catch up on their lives and I just wanted to hug my friend, Rita’s neck!

They showed us a little of Singapore 

We began with a proper Singapore tea. 

Coconut jam and butter on toast! Something very new to us and very tasty! Try it at Toast Box. According to their website, they have several locations.

We walked around the downtown area that is filled with street art! Even the buildings were amazing!

After dinner, we headed to their colorful Chinatown 


The next morning, we visited the Singapore Zoo. The highlight for me was seeing both the panda and red panda.

Visit Singapore Zoo for more info on their four very different parks and even a breakfast that I would have loved to have time to do.

The Peranakan Museum

The museum focuses on the rich heritage of the Singapore people.

For more information about their many lovely exhibits, visit their website: Peranakan Museum Singapore

Singapore Botanic Gardens

We spent a beautiful afternoon walking in the botanic gardens full of tropical plants. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site. There is a very special garden devoted to all types of orchids. A real must see!  For more information: Singapore Botanic Gardens

Samuel and Rita treated us to so much wonderful food! 

We visited restraunts in a mall, outdoor market and in a revolving tower! We tried foods that we have never tried before and everything was so delicious!

 Thank you, our friends, for showing us your beautiful Singapore! We loved it and seeing you again was very special!

Have you ever met people on a trip and promised to stay in touch? Have you? Be sure to share your stories with us! 

Simple Strawberry Cake

This is a very easy cake to make in a hurry that is still very delicious and worthy of a family gathering. The basic recipe has been around forever and used in our household over and over.


It’s one of those basic recipes that is super simple to change out the flavors with different flavors of gelatin and fruit. Try peach, raspberry, apricot, blackberry or cherry! Use orange juice concentrate in place of puréed fruit for a very refreshing cake. All very flavors good!

 

Strawberry buttercream frosting is really yummy on this cake, but this time I decided to use a refreshing Cool Whip strawberry frosting to lighten it up. By the way… The Cool Whip flavored this way is great in a trifle or just spooned into perfect cups with fresh fruit.

Be sure to share how you used these recipes!! We’d love to see your cakes and deserts!

 

Here’s a beginning bakers guide to preparing your cake pans.

Purée frozen strawberries to be added to cake batter.

Slowly pour purée into the batter.

Mix well.

Separate cake batter evenly in two cake pans that have been lightly greased and floured.

This is a dense, moist cake that will need to be checked often for doneness.

Simple Strawberry Cake



1 box of white cake mix

1 box of strawberry gelatin (3 oz instant)

1/2 cup vegetable oil

1/4 cup water

4 eggs

1 package frozen strawberries in syrup (around 15 oz)

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Prepare two cake pans by lightly greasing and flouring them.
Purée strawberries in a blender or food processor. Or, just mash them with a fork. It will still be good!
Combine cake mix and gelatin in a large mixing bowl. Add oil, water, eggs and puréed strawberries. Mix at medium speed of an electric mixer until smooth. Pour evenly into prepared pans. Bake 35 minutes or until a wooden toothpick comes out clean. (Ovens vary, so check early and often) Let pans cool 10 minutes before inverting them on a wire rack to cool completely before frosting.
For the quick, light frosting..

Purée fresh strawberries and add to Cool Whip in a medium mixing bowl.

Wisk the strawberries into the Cool Whip until smooth.



Strawberry Cool Whip Frosting



1 (16 oz) container Cool Whip

2/3 pint fresh strawberries (more for decoration if you’d like)

1 teaspoon sugar

Spoon Cool Whip into a medium mixing bowl.

In a blender (or magic bullet) purée the 2/3 pint fresh strawberries and sugar until smooth. Pour into cool whip and whip with a white wisk  until completely blended. Frost cake with this mixture when completely cool. Decorate with fresh strawberries, if desired. Store cake in the refrigerator.

Cool Awards: Best Pies in Texas, Best Breakfast in Waco! 

Wow! I can’t tell y’all how amazed and humbled we are about the awards and accolades we’ve been receiving lately concerning our restaurant! We wanted to be sure to Thank y’all!

Texas Highway Magazine, the official travel magazine of the state of Texas, named my pies third best in the state! What an honor!! I came in behind two cafes with a long tradition of having some of the best pies for longer than I’ve been alive! I’ll take being the newbie in this prestigious group. They also named The Coffee Shop Cafe one of the 40 Best Small Town Cafe’s in Texas! Crazy awesome, huh!?

Then, the restaurant was was given a readers choice award by Waco Today Magazine for having the best breakfast in Waco! Y’all, if you haven’t come out to The Coffee Shop Cafe for breakfast, you are really missing out! We serve breakfast all day and on weekend mornings we have a totally amazing breakfast buffet! All sorts of eggs, bacon, sausage, ham, pancakes, gravy, fruit and lots more. My favorite, migas, are on the buffet too. It’s over at 10:45 AM on Saturday and Sunday, so come early and hungry!

We want to Thank all our friends and customers for voting for us! Without you, we wouldn’t be where we are today! 



We also had a really fun honor when the producers from HGTV’s show, Fixer Upper stopped by and filmed part of our decorations for their Christmas special featuring Chip and Joanna Gaines new bed and breakfast in town, Magnolia House. How fun to see a quick flash of our restaurant on their show! Of course, it went by so fast that if you hadn’t ever been to the restaurant before you would have never even known where it was filmed! Haha! Still super cool for Donald and I and for our regular customers that spotted us! We appreciate all of their business with us too. Lots of wonderful people!

🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

All the glory goes to God! 

 

 


I may be known for baking some of the best made from scratch pies in the state of Texas, but did you know I've been a professional photographer for about 40 years now? Yikes!! That's a long time!! This blog is about combining my love of food, photos and traveling. I invite you to come along on my journey!