Quebec City Winter Weekend

Continuing my series on Quebec and why it should be on your travel bucket list.  For my other posts on places to visit in Quebec, see earlier posts on Montreal and the Eastern Townships.

Last Minute Adventure 

So what’s the fun of moving to a new place that is full of exciting things to do if you don’t go explore them?  A few amazing pics on Instagram of hanging out with a giant snowman while zipping down toboggan slides in front of a château was all it took to convince me that I absolutely must to go to Quebec City’s annual Bonhomme Winter Carnival.  Like now.  After all, it is one of the world’s most visited winter carnivals and i live practically next door.    However, since it was last minute, I figured that a hotel room was going to require us to start renting out the cat for hourly pet sessions over the next 6 months.  I hopped on my favorite hotel booking site booking.com and, peeking out from between fingers, was pleasantly surprised to find super affordable options, including one at Hotel 71 where we have previously stayed and loved.  So while hugging a giant snowman and sipping hot chocolate in front of fires did not have my hubby jumping up and down, the fact that we would be a hop, skip, and a jump away from one of his favorite cross-country ski areas did.  So after some very fast and poor packing (I should have followed my own packing tips) I was on my way to start stalking a giant, walking, talking snowman.

Why Quebec City is Super Cool

So if you didn’t know, Quebec City is a UNESCO world heritage site and is like a little piece of Europe in North America.  The fact that is it French-speaking only adds to that charm and the feeling of being on another continent.  Founded over 400 years ago, in the 17th century, it was the capital of New France and later the British colony.  It is one of the only fortified cities in North America (you have to go to Mexico to find the others), which means you have to enter and exit the city through the amazing gates.

Rue Petit Champlain
Rue Petit Champlain is considered to be one of the most charming streets in North America and is consistently named one of the best places in the world to celebrate Christmas.

 

Day 1: Carnival Fun

One of the first things to do when arriving is purchase in Effigy, which is the pass that will give you access to all the carnival events.  It is affordable (it was $15 for 2018) and can be found almost anywhere including hotels, restaurants, and shops.  We purchased ours at the hotel front desk before heading out.

Ok, first things first…find that slide!  Located in front of the Chateau Frontenac and overlooking the Saint Lawrence River it’s only $3 per person to slide down and it was every bit as fun as I thought it would be.  We even went back to slide down at night.

IMG_1284
Receiving an overview of proper toboggan etiquette. Apparently, I have the look of a rule breaker.

After warming up with some French Onion Soup we set off to explore the rest of the events and hunt down the Bonhomme (name of the legendary snowman).  We did find him and while I was on a mission for a selfie with him it would have required that I throw some elbows with 3-year-olds and that just didn’t seem like the best choice, so I had to settle for cozying up to the statue version.

IMG_0059

We toured the International Snow Sculpture exhibit where there were teams from all over the world still working on their pieces.  It was really cool to see these teams creating these amazing pieces of art (even if only temporary) from lumps of snow.

afterlight (9)

Throughout Petit Champlain, there were ice sculptures to enjoy and they even made a throne to welcome me to the carnival!afterlight (7)

And I even tried to morph into a snowman (didn’t work).

afterlight (11).jpeg

We took an evening tour of the Ice Palace that included an awesome light show and fun music as we bee-bopped our way through:

afterlight (12)

And at the end of the night, we warmed up with wine at the super cool 1608 bar in the Chateau Frontenac.  With a fabulous panoramic view of the Saint Lawrence River, it’s the perfect place for a pre-dinner drink.

Note: We did miss out on the night parade which is supposed to be spectacular so I don’t recommend missing it.  But after our warm-up pre-dinner drinks and with a 10-minute drive,  we decided it would give us a good reason to return next year.

Kerri & Bonhomme
A bientôt Bonhomme!

Day 2: Mont Sainte Anne and Parc de la Montmorency

One day was plenty of time to get the full carnival experience (although I did kind of want to do the toboggan sled just one more time).  The second day we opted to go a little north-east of the city to go skiing in Mont Sainte Anne, which is one of the well-known ski areas in Quebec.  We opted for cross-country skiing (classic for me, skate ski for Philippe) but there is also great downhill skiing.  I have yet to master the skill of hurtling downhill at 50+ mph with 2 sticks strapped to my feet.

It only takes 45 minutes to get there from Quebec City so it is very easy to do as a day trip if you are staying in Quebec City for more than a weekend.

afterlight (15)
One-ski selfie. I needed proof that I was actually skiing.

On our way home we stopped at Parc de la Montmorency which has the highest waterfall in Quebec (even higher than Niagara Falls).  We rode the gondola to the top where we took a short hike to the suspension bridge that goes over the top of the falls. We didn’t get to spend much time there since the park was closing, but we will definitely be back in the summer to spend more time hiking and exploring the area, which was once an economic center of Quebec.

Parc de la Chute Montmorency
Suspension Bridge that goes over the Montmorency Waterfalls.

Due to the condensation, the sides of the waterfall become massive frozen sheets of ice and it is a very popular place for ice climbing.  However, this is a sport that I am happier to observe with my feet planted firmly on the ground!

afterlight (16)
The original manor burned down, but the replacement is just as beautiful and often hosts special events (such as weddings)

So there you have it, a winter weekend in Quebec City!

Planning & Packing Tips

arrowWhere to Stay: I definitely recommend staying in Old Quebec City.  This is the area with all the charm and character from the long history of the city.  Staying in the old town will allow you to walk everywhere, avoid paying to park each time you want to come back into town, and battling for parking spaces.

arrowFood: Quebec City is full of good restaurants and while there is a heavy lean toward French cuisine you can find many options.  Very few restaurants require reservations so if they have availability you will get right in.  Some of the local Quebec cuisines include poutine, pate chinois, and you can’t miss sampling the maple products.  And of course, due to the French influence, the pastries there are really, really good so I definitely recommend finding a boulangerie and grabbing some fresh croissants in the morning!

arrowLanguage: Quebec City is strongly French (one of the reasons I love it) and while many people in the tourist parts do speak some English, do not automatically assume that everyone speaks English.  However, communication is not a problem and even if you only can say “Merci” and “Bonjour” you will be just fine.

arrowCurrency: The currency is the Canadian Dollar which is not the same as the US Dollar.  However, many places will accept US dollars if that is all you have.  However, I recommend getting Canadian Dollars or using your credit cards because the exchange rate is not 1/1 and you cannot expect your server or cashier to do the conversion for you.

arrowCell Plans: Most major US carriers either include Canada in their plans or have a package you can add-on to include Canada.  Check with your provider before leaving.  Wifi is also available in most places, so connectivity should be pretty easy.

arrowWhat to pack: The winter carnival is in the dead of winter so it is very likely to be very cold.  Since it is on the Saint Lawrence River it can also be windy so you definitely want to pack warmly.  This earlier post is full of packing tips, but in addition, you will want to make sure you pack appropriate cold weather gear:

  • Winter Jacket
  • Lined Hat
  • Warm Gloves
  • Winter Boots with Grip Soles
  • Scarf
  • Base Layers
  • Wool socks
  • Warm Sweaters
  • Hotshot warmers for your hands and feet

I wish you a warm, cozy, and adventure-filled stay in Quebec City!  It is truly a charming one-of-a-kind experience in North America.  If you have any questions about planning a trip to Quebec, let me know and I will be happy to do all I can to help out!

bon voyage

Planning Your Iceland Trip

Iceland is a unique trip for most people so preparing for it can be a bit baffling.  Before our trip we were fortunate to get immensely helpful tips and tricks from friends who had previously visited.  So I am combining those with the tips and tricks that we learned during our trip in hopes that this will help with the question “What exactly do I need to know about Iceland and what in the world do I pack?”  

Related Post: Road Tripping Iceland in 7 Days

Tips & Tricks (i.e, Stress Relievers)  

Those little things you wish you knew before you arrived that might make your trip just a bit smoother.

Currency

The local currency is the Icelandic Krona, but worry not because money is super easy over there.  In fact, we didn’t have cash at all during our trip because literally everywhere accepts credit cards.  Even the bathroom stalls (and you do have to pay for some of them!).  This is likely because there are some very isolated areas where ATMs are not available and you would be stranded without a card.  However, make sure that your credit card providers are aware of your travel plans.  You will be swiping a lot and you definitely don’t want to be cut off.  For more tips on foreign currency check out this prior post.

Budget

Iceland is notoriously for its high prices for some basics such as food and drinks. But with a bit of planning this trip is very affordable.

1. Plane Ticket Budget

Getting to Iceland from the US or Canada is really affordable.  If you watch prices it is very easy to get a round-trip ticket for $400 or less on WOW airlines.  What I also love about WOW is that you can schedule a layover in another European city for no extra cost.  So you may want to consider slipping in another destination for a week or two!

2. Food & Alcohol Budget

While the flights to Iceland can be a steal, once you are there it is notoriously expensive. However, with a bit of planning it should not be an issue.  Some of our fav ways that we saved $$$:

arrowAlcohol:  While alcohol prices in Iceland can make you want to jump on the bandwagon for the duration of your trip, there is a solution!  Purchase at duty-free and stuff it in your carry on.  We each purchased 2 bottles of wine and those 4 bottles lasted us all week.

Tip: If you are bringing bottles or wine or plan to buy bottles at the grocery store once you are there, don’t forget to throw a corkscrew into your suitcase.

arrowFood: Usually I love to experience the local cuisine and while we ate dinner out a few times we considered this to be an adventure trip instead of a gastronomic trip so we saved a lot of money by being creative.  

  • Breakfast:
    • We bought a variety of breakfast bars and foods with us.  
    • The traditional Icelandic yogurt, Skyr, is super good, affordable, and can be picked up at any grocery store or gas station.
    • Look for guest houses or hostels that include breakfast with their rate.  We stayed at a few places that included breakfast and found it to be quite good.
  • Lunch & Snacks:
    • Like breakfast bars, bring along snack foods like crackers or granola bars in your suitcase.
    • Find a grocery store during your trip and stock up on sandwich items, fruit, and other items that are easy to eat in the car.    
  • Dinner: We did eat dinner out a few times and if you love fish you definitely want to try some since this is one of their specialties (usually caught right off the side of Ring Road!).  But the rest of the time this is how we rolled:
    • Stayed at AirBnB’s or Guest Houses that had a kitchen so we also cooked easy things such as pasta.  
    • N1 Gas Stations are affordable with a surprising array of food such as salad bars, pasta bars, soup, hamburgers, etc..  In some of the tiny villages this is only “restaurant” around so you will see lots of locals there as well.   

Tip: You CANNOT leave Iceland without eating at least one bacon wrapped, cheese hot dog.  Yummy!

Rental Vehicle

Renting a car is pretty much required in Iceland if you want to leave Reykjavik. In fact, Iceland is pretty much a road trip vacation.  The terrain is very rough on cars and the rental car companies are super stringent about any damage to the vehicle.  Honestly, this was one of the biggest sources of stress on our trip.  So if you don’t want to spend 80% of your car time (and there is a lot of car time in Iceland) freaked out about the state of the car, 2 things to splurge on:

arrowAdditional Insurance: At a minimum buy the gravel, wind and volcanic coverage because the risk is real.  We received the same advice before we left and still debated it at the rental car counter but ultimately went with it.  And once on the road, we were so happy we did because it did alleviate some of the driving stress.     

arrowGet the 4X4:  Always the budget travelers we opted for the economy car and ended up with a Nissan Micra.  Cute but definitely not practical even for parts of the Ring Road (we didn’t drive on any F-roads).  We were chasing hubcaps several times as we bounced over parts of the roads (some of our funniest memories but still I don’t recommend it).    

Tip: Many of the roads on the interior of the island are referred to as F-Roads and it is illegal to drive on them unless you have a 4X4 but even then they are known to be quite dangerous.

We were lucky that even though we were missing a hubcap we were not charged additional amounts for car damage.  We heard several people telling horror stories about paying thousands of dollars due to damage.  I promise you both of these will take a lot of anxiety out of your trip.

Micra at Pjofafoss Waterfalls
Our adorable Nissan Micra at Pjofafoss Waterfalls. It was a cute car, but we wished we had opted for the 4X4 even though a bit more expensive. Note our missing rear hubcap 🙂

Cell Service

Iceland is very well connected and there are mobile hotspots everywhere to make connecting to google maps or searching for information on the next destination easy. Even so, though there are remote areas (especially in the North) without wifi.  We both purchased the Verizon travel pass on our phones which at just $10 per day was really affordable.  Check out your phone providers options, but generally, this is pretty easy in Iceland.  For more info on international cell phone plans check out this prior post.

Tip: Even with travel passes on our phones in some of the more remote areas the signal was not always reliable so be prepared with knowledge of your route just in case.

Other Tips & Tricks

Language

Icelandic is the official language but not to worry because nearly everyone speaks English.  Which is a relief because while it is lovely to listen to them communicate in their language, it is not one you are going to master in time for the trip.  As hard I tried I was never able to pronounce a word the same way twice.

117f40d386423afe6dc6e2d6f78111e6
This pretty much says it all when it comes to trying to understand the Icelandic language in time for your trip. This t-shirt made me laugh each time we saw it in a gift shop.
F-roads vs. Paid Tours

Many of the interior roads on the islands are called the F-roads and it is illegal to drive on them without a 4X4.  So if you think you want to venture into them you most definitely want to upgrade the rental car to a 4X4.  However, if off-road driving is not your cup of tea even with a 4X4 (like ours) there are plenty of tours that can take you into some of the amazing interior portions of the island.  

Car Time

There is a lot of car time involved in an Icelandic vacation getting from place to place.  A lot and especially in the north.  The good news is that it is beautiful and lots of opportunities to stop and stretch your legs.  But be prepared for hours in the car between locations (such as downloading any audible books, podcasts, or music playlists in advance).

Chargers

Iceland is in Europe so make sure to bring along converters for charging your devices.  Since there is so much car time this can be a great time to charge up all your devices.  In addition to phone car chargers, a charging pack like this could come in handy for multiple devices or even for charging a.  

What to Pack

You will be spending most of your time in the car or doing outdoor activities so if I had to pick 3 words for packing for an Iceland vacation it would be: warm, casual, comfortable.  I strongly advise against packing cute/go-out clothing because you really won’t have an opportunity to wear them and will wish you had used the space in your suitcase for something more practical.  Everyone you see is going to be dressed similarly so unless you are going out for a night on the town in Reykjavik anything other than comfy outdoor gear and you will be wayyyy overdressed.  

arrowLots of Layers: You will be shedding or adding clothes between sitting in the car and getting outside to explore.  Plus depending on the sunlight it can get “warm”.  So layers of shirt, sweater, and a jacket is definitely recommended.

arrowCold weather accessories: Hat, gloves, scarves, and socks (warm and at least calf length)  

arrowBase Layers – Merino wool base layers are the best, but any base layers that you have definitely bring along.

arrowRain/Wind Gear: A jacket that doubles for both rain and wind protector as well as an umbrella.  It rained the whole time we were there and many areas are very windy. But even if you are lucky enough not to encounter rain you will be getting close to a lot of waterfalls and so the rain jacket comes in quite handy on a daily basis.  

arrowCold Weather Jacket: Down jackets are really the best, but regardless of material you will want to have a warm jacket, especially in the winter.  It can always come off if needed.  We were there in late September and with the rain and chilly weather we often wore our rain jackets over the top of our cold weather jackets and that kept us comfortable.

arrowMaterials: Cashmere and wool are the best cold weather materials to keep you warm so pack those if you have them!

arrowHiking Boots/Shoes: Not cute, fashionable wanna be hiking shoes but durable comfortable hiking shoes (and they can be cute…I have a very cute Salomon pair). Unless you are just poking your nose out of the car to observe (and I certainly hope not) you will be doing lots of walking over rough terrain.  And the area around waterfalls is really slippery so you want a good grip.

arrowBathing Suit – While you are not likely going to jump in the ocean you most definitely want to slip into at least one hot spring while you are there!

arrowTowel – This definitely comes in handy if you are going to stop and dip into hot springs.  Even at the larger lagoons/hot springs the towel rental can be expensive (around $5).  Plus depending on your accommodations towels may or may not be included.  I threw in a camping microfiber towels from REI which is super thin and fast drying making it perfect.

arrowMap of Iceland – Throw it back to 1995 and bring along an old-school map of Iceland.  Audrey brought one along this Michelin Map and it came in quite useful a few times because when cell service was under 3G our GPS was not always reliable.

arrowCamera – This is one of those vacations that would be perfect to turn into an animated flip book because just about every square inch is a photography dream (whether you are a novice or a pro).  So make sure to bring along your photography equipment (camera, tripod, or other fancy schmancy stuff you have).  For some vacations your phone is enough, but for Iceland you will really want that camera.

arrowFood & Such – Don’t forget to add any food items or corkscrew that you are opting to bring along.

arrowToiletries – Add a packet of tissues or wet wipes to your toiletries along with a ziplock bag.  There can be long stretches of road without access to a restroom so if you have to stop on the side of the road you will be really glad you have these (and you do not want to leave behind any litter).

Bonus Pro Tip:  Car doors can double as privacy shields if you have to make an emergency roadside stop.  

Tip: If your itinerary is going around Ring Road and moving accommodations every day or two remember that you will be hauling your suitcase out of the car and repacking A LOT.  I definitely recommend packing as light as possible.  If you can find guesthouses or AirBnB that has access to a washer and dryer this will also help you limit what you need to bring. By packing just 2 outfits each we were both able to get everything in a carry-on suitcase.  For more on packing light, take a peek at this earlier post.  

Planning Your Trip

Iceland 2017 Map
Kerri & Audrey Iceland 2017 Itinerary, Route, and Places Visited

So I am just going to put it out there…you won’t be able to do it all.  I am convinced you could live there and not do it all.  There are infinite things to do and to this day I still see amazing pics on Instagram of all the things we missed and I am green with jealousy.  So while everyone puts together a “Top 10 List” keep in mind that is from their trip and they probably missed all kinds of things too.  Just driving down the road in Iceland is an experience and you will want to stop every 2 miles (seriously, just wait and see).  

We booked our trip last minute and we stayed in Iceland only for a week and once we started planning realized that we should have gone for a minimum of 10 days (really 2+ weeks is more ideal).  However, those were the tickets so we did some mad planning!  You can go here to see that places we visited in Iceland.

arrowRing Road – This is the road that circles the whole island and will be the primary route for your journey.  Many of the more popular tourist attractions are in the south (like Golden Circle), which means most people depart Reykjavik taking Ring Road south. However, because of our chosen itinerary, we actually did the opposite and departed Reykjavik going northwest.  

I recommend starting with the Northern part of the island first and working your way to the south because it is more scenic in this direction.  How do I know this you ask?  Well, interesting story!  When we were 60% around the island a bridge on Ring Road collapsed due to rain and that section of the road was closed for the duration of our trip.  We had to turn around and drive all the way back around the island to get to the southern part. We lost a day of our trip, but we were able to see the island from both directions and we found north to south to be more beautiful.

arrowAccommodations – Outside of the main cities and some of the larger villages the typical hotel in Iceland is scarce. Most accommodations are Airbnb, Hostels, or Guest Houses.  I love these types of accommodations because you get a chance to meet more locals or interact with other visitors to Iceland since you are often sharing a common living space.  

For booking this trip Airbnb and booking.com were great resources for finding affordable accommodations almost anywhere on the island.  

Tip: While I often take trips where my accommodations are not booked in advance I would recommend (at least on the first trip to Iceland) booking in advance.  Rooms can be limited in some villages or a long distance outside of a village.  We were there in a low season so there were open rooms, but in high season this could be a challenge.  But also be flexible, you never know when you may run into a car or nature issue and requires you to change your plans without notice.

Other super-cool accommodation options that are available are camper vans and tent camping.  While we did not do that on this trip I have done both of these in prior vacations and had a blast. I highly recommend them as a great way to have an adventure vacation.  Iceland has a lot of campgrounds in which you can have both a camper van and a tent.  My next trip to Iceland will likely involve a camper van.   

Iceland Cheat Sheet
Iceland Cheat Sheet – This is a pic I snapped at the airport when we arrived. Its stuffed full of good info about Iceland that we referenced several times during our trip! It might also help you pick the time of year you want to visit!

Most Importantly…Have Fun!

Best of luck with planning an amazing Icelandic adventure and if you have any questions send me a note and I will help out as much as I can!  Or on the flip side if you have an Icelandic tip or suggestion send it to me so I can add to the list (with reader credit of course).

bon voyage

P.S. To check out our Icelandic adventure, visit this blog post: Road Tripping Iceland in 7 Days.

Road Tripping Iceland in 7 Days

As one of the current hotspots for travelers, Iceland had my curiosity piqued and it was on my travel list.  But to be honest, it was not at the top.  As someone who already lives in 4 -5 months (minimum) of winter, I usually want to go to sunshine and warmth for vacation, not in search of more cold.  However, one of my girl travel sidekicks, Audrey, had it high on her list and when we both started itching again with the travel bug and airline tickets were crazy cheap for both of us, the deal was sealed!

Preparing for our Iceland trip was an adventure in and of itself.   So I wrote an accompanying piece about our lessons learned and tips & tricks to help you with planning a fabulous Icelandic adventure if you want to jump ahead!  

Our Iceland Adventure

Beautiful, otherworldly, spectacular, rugged, jaw-dropping…just a few descriptors that come to mind when trying to describe Iceland.  Despite rainy weather, missing the island’s east side and the Highlands due to an unexpected bridge outage (what is an adventure without a few unplanned mishaps), and losing some missing car parts (oops!) our seven days there exceeded all our expectations.  (You can read a bit more about our mishaps here in the next blog post about planning your Icelandic adventure)  

I can’t wait to share with you what we discovered!  

Northern Iceland

Kirkjufell Mountain

Located on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula next to the village of Grundarfjordur, Kirkjufell Mountain is said to be the most photographed mountain in Iceland.   The view of the mountain is stunning from the road, but I recommend taking the very short walk up to Kirkjufellsfoss waterfall where the view is spectacular.  As a photography hotspot, definitely expect to encounter tons of cameras and tripods, especially at sunset with the backdrop of the sunset and when the northern lights are on display in the winter.  But this should not keep you from visiting if you are in this area of Iceland.

Kirkfujell Mountain Iceland

Godafoss Waterfalls

Over 98 feet wide Godafoss Falls translates to “Waterfall of the Gods”.  According to local legend, when Christianity became the official religion of Iceland in the year 999 – 1000 a pagan priest threw his statues of the Norse gods into the waterfall after converting to Christianity.  We stayed nearby one night and the falls were so gorgeous we visited twice! 

Iceland Godafoss Falls 

Husavik Village

One of the best places in Iceland to whale watch the small village of Husavik was founded in 870 A.D.  According to the Icelandic Sagas, Gardar Svavarsson was the second Scandinavian to reach Iceland and founded the village after his ship was stranded by a storm and he was forced to spend a winter here.  When he departed, he left behind some of his party who settled the village.  But he was so inspired by Iceland that he did return.

Husavik Village

Since neither of us had seen whales up close and personal in the wild, we decided to take a whale watching tour.  While spotting a whale is not guaranteed, we had 7 sightings of Orca whales!  This expedition had us both giddy with excitement and can definitely recommend if you are on the fence about taking one.

Audrey Whale Watching
In addition to seeing whales who wouldn’t want the chance to strut around in this awesome outfit for 3 whole hours!!

We used Gentle Giants for our whale tour and I have to say they were amazing!  I am sure the other tour companies are also great, but we really enjoyed our tour and the staff was so friendly and let us pepper them with questions!  We learned a lot during our voyage about whales and their habits.  For instance,  did you know what the underside of the tail of an Orca is unique to the whale like a human fingerprint?  These unique markings are used to identify whales and track them all over the world.

Orca

Photo credit of Audrey Ann Photography.  Follow Audrey on Instagram

Lake Myvatn (& Surrounding Area)

This massive volcanic lake that was created approximately 2300 years ago when a volcano erupted.  It is a huge nature habitat with some many different experiences that it would be possible to spend several days here alone exploring.  We did spend the majority of a day exploring but reluctantly had to leave to keep with our itinerary. Recommend stopping by the visitor center in Reykjahlid where they are awesome at helping you figure out what to go see based on your interests.   

Lake Myvtan

Photo credit of Audrey Ann Photography.  Follow Audrey on Instagram

Star Power: Apparently many scenes from Game of Thrones are filmed in the Myvatn Lake area so they may look familiar to some.  However, I am apparently one of only 7 people on the planet who has never seen an episode so it was all new to me!

Grjotagja Cave (Lake Myvatn)

The lava cave has an underground that for many years served as a bathing pool but was closed in the 80’s due to the temperature of the water rising above 50 degrees Celsius (122+ degrees Fahrenheit).  However, it seems that as of recently it may possible to bathe it again depending on the temperature which would be awesome!  So that might be worth checking out if you are visiting the cave.

afterlight    

Not to be missed is the view from the top of the caves which has a large fissure dividing the ground and an amazing panoramic view of the mountains and you can even see steam rising off of the geothermal pools in the distance.

Grjotagja Cave Top

Namafjall Geothermal Area (Lake Myvatn)

Also known as Hverir this area has a spectacular array of colors created by sulfur crystals and boiling mud pots.  It feels like you are stepping out of your car and into the planet Mars.  You can walk around in this area and there is even a small hiking trail.  Friendly warning: There is a very strong sulfur smell but it’s totally worth it and besides you start to get used to it after a few minutes.  

Namafjall Geothermal Area

Dimmuborgir (Lake Myvatn)

Called the Dark Fortress of Myvatn, Dimmuborgir is a massive lava rock formation field that was created 2300 years ago when molten lava for the volcanic explosion flowed over a pond.  The formations were created when the water that was trapped beneath the lava turned into steam that escaped through vents in the lava.  You can wander through the formations by following the paths that have been created.

Dimmuborgir at Lake Myvatn.jpeg

Hofdi Peninsula and Kálfastrandavogar Lava Pillars (Lake Myvatn)

One of the few places we visited that was full of gorgeous vegetation and trees, the Hofdi Peninsula has beautiful walking trails that provide spectacular panoramic views of the lake.  The peninsula also provides the perfect way to see the free-standing Kálfastrandavogar lava pillars.  These free-standing pillars were created the same way as the Dimmuborgir formations.   

Hofdi Peninsula & Kalfastrandavogar Lave Pillars

Photo credit of Audrey Ann Photography.  Follow Audrey on Instagram

Icelandic Highlands: A total of 40,000 sq km the Icelandic Highlands is one of the largest uninhabited areas of Europe and has some of the most amazing beauty in Iceland (such as Landmannalaugar and Hekla Volcano).  Due to the unfortunate Ring Road closure while we were there we lost our day to visit Landmannalaugar but we did drive through a small slice of it between Husavik and Hofn.  The rugged, uninhabited beauty is just…wow and at the top of my list for my return trip (yup, that is definitely going to happen).    

Iceland Highlands

Southern Iceland

Golden Circle

One of the more popular tourist areas in Iceland you can expect to share space with a lot of people (in contrast to the hours you can spend on the road with few signs of other people).  However, it is popular for a reason and so we spent a day exploring it and the surrounding area.  Despite the numerous selfie sticks (I have an abnormal hatred of selfie sticks), it was worth it.

Gullfoss Waterfalls (Golden Circle)

A 2-tiered phenomenal waterfall and is one of the most powerful waterfalls in the world (more powerful than Niagra Falls!).  And to add to the mystical beauty of the waterfalls rainbows are created by the mist and sunlight. In fact, Iceland is full of rainbows so if you are looking for a pot of gold this is a good country to search.

Gullfoss Waterfalls

Geysir Geothermal Area (Golden Circle)

Several well-known geysirs are in this area, including Great Geysir.  Since it has been dormant since 1926 the chances of seeing it erupt are pretty slim.  But not to worry because it’s neighbor, Strokkur Geysir, erupts approximately every 10 minutes and has a trajectory of 66 to 132 feet so it’s pretty impressive to watch!

Strokkur Geysir

Kerid Crater Lake (Golden Circle Area)

Formed around 6,500 years ago this crater is almost perfectly oval and its beauty comes not just from the gorgeous blue of the lake at the bottom, but also from the rocks of red and orange along with the colorful vegetation that grows within the crater.  Kerid is on the way to the Golden Circle so definitely worth swinging by on your way.

Kerid Crater Lake Iceland

Photo credit of Audrey Ann Photography.  Follow Audrey on Instagram

Note: There is a nominal fee of just 500 ISK (around $5 USD and $6 CAD), but don’t let this deter you!

Fridheimar Tomato Farm:

Ok, so not a site but definitely worth a visit, because one has to eat after all, right? Fridheimar is a tomato and cucumber farm that grows their produce in these amazing and gorgeous greenhouses that are kept warm by the geothermically heated water.  So pop in and have possibly the best tomato soup and Bloody Mary’s in the world (seriously, in the world).

Fridheimar Tomato Farm

Pjofafoss Waterfall

Our most off the beaten path site that we visited.  We were not sure the Nissan Micra would survive (Audrey had to convince me a few times not to turn around).  However, put this under the “Totally worth it even if we could have driven off a cliff” checklist.  We arrived at this waterfall just as the sun was setting and we were the only people there. This is why I love the path less traveled; it is when you find the most spectacular treasures.

Pjofafoss Waterfall

Seljalandsfoss Waterfall

Located right off of Ring Road it is one of the highest waterfalls in Iceland at 60 meters (197 feet).  One of the really unique things about this waterfall is that you can walk behind it into a small cave with the water tumbling down in front of you.  Super cool, but make sure you wear a rain jacket and hat because you will get wet (but completely worth it).

Note: You do have to pay a nominal fee to park and see the falls.  Pay at an automated machine with a credit card.  Don’t just park alongside the road to avoid paying because they are pretty aggressive about giving tickets (and they should be).

Seljalandsfoss Waterfall

Secret Lagoon Hot Springs 

Located in the small village of Fludir and dating back to 1891 the Secret Lagoon is the oldest swimming pool in Iceland.  While it is far less crowded than Blue Lagoon, it is not quite a secret anymore and you are likely to be sharing the pool with other people.  We were there at night, but it does have a feeling of being in nature and you can sip on a wine or beer while relaxing in the cozy waters enjoying the night sky.   

Secret Lagoon.jpeg

Drangshlid

Right off the side of Ring Road, a series of houses and barn embedded into the bottom of a mountain that has a lot of elf folklore surrounding it.  Elves or no elves these old houses are charming.

Drangshlid

Reynisfjara Black Beach

One of the most famous of Iceland’s black-sand beaches due to several unique formations.  The first of those is the basalt columns.  This unique column wall was formed as a result of the cooling and cracking of thick basaltic lava flow at the surface.  

Reynisfjara Black Beach - Kerri

Photo credit of Audrey Ann Photography.  Follow Audrey on Instagram

The second is the Reynisdrangar lava formations off of the shoreline.  According to legend, these are actually two trolls that were trying to pull a ship out of the ocean but were caught by daylight, turning into stone.  

Reynisdrangar Lava Formations

And finally, the basalt column cave which you can slip into for a unique view of the basalt columns.     

Kirkjufjara Black Sand Beach

Black sand beaches are a result of the lava flow from volcanoes but may not actually be sand!  They can also be small black pebbles and these pebbles are quite beautiful. Kirkjufjara has several lookout points with very different views and both are quite stunning.

Kirkjufjara Black Sand Beach

Blue Lagoon

We were on the fence about visiting Blue Lagoon due to many reviews that thought it was overrated, expensive, and too touristy.  However, in the end, we decided to go to the Blue Lagoon because it would be the equivalent of not going to the Eiffel Tower when in Paris.  So we literally hit it up on our way to the airport and we were both so glad that we did!  We purchased the base level tickets, each bought one drink, and we were able to keep the cost reasonable.  But it was an amazing experience and while there were lots of people there, we didn’t find it to be overcrowded as they control the number of people allowed to enter.  Plus our skin was super fabulous after the silica mud mask that is included with the ticket (and we both splurged for the algae mask for an extra $4). However, the state of our hair with all that silica in it after flying back home and letting it air dry was a completely different matter.  I should have taken a selfie cause it was a pretty…ummm…unique look!  

Blue Lagoon Iceland

Photo credit of Audrey Ann Photography.  Follow Audrey on Instagram

Iceland Bonus

One of the most famous things about Iceland is its horses.  While they are smaller than the typical horse we are used to don’t you dare call them ponies.  Once you see them you will know why…they are gorgeous and majestic, and regal.  More importantly, they are friendly, love people, love being pet, and are everywhere on the island!  So make sure you stop (and stop often) to give some attention and love to these beauties.

Icelandic Horse

Until Next Time Iceland

And there you have it!  That is our journey through Iceland.  It’s like stepping off the plane into a whole other planet.  And it should have been higher on my bucket list.  I will definitely be back because there is so much left to explore due to our short trip, rainy weather, and missed the eastern side of the island. But it’s ok…because now I have lots of reasons to return!   

All the places we visited and our route are shown on this map, but if you have specific questions feel free to ask!

Iceland 2017 Map
Kerri & Audrey Iceland 2017 Itinerary, Route, and Places Visited

Iceland or Bust

So I am starting my must-see list for next time and I will keep adding to it as I discover more!  I am sharing with you in case they are places you want to check out as options for your trip.  If you have any “you just can’t miss this” places send them my way to add to my “Iceland or Bust” return list!

Western Iceland

  • Western Fjords
  • Lóndrangar Cliffs

Eastern Iceland

  • Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon
  • Northern lights
  • Vatnajokull National Park
  • Klifbrekkufossar Waterfall
  • Bustarfell Red Houses

Southern Iceland

  • Thingvellir National Park
  • Fjallabak Nature Reserve: Landmannalaugar and Laugahraun Lava Fields
  • Myrdalsjokull Glacier Park
  • Take a Glacier & Ice Climbing Hike
  • Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon

Next Post: Preparing for a Trip to Iceland

If you are anxious to start planning your trip to Iceland and want some insider “been there done that” advice compiled from our trip visit the blog post Planning Your Iceland Trip.

bon voyage

Eastern Townships (Cantons de l’est), Quebec

Ready for a break from the hustle and bustle of the city and a nice chill weekend in the mountains?  If that is a yes, I know your next destination…to come visit me in the Eastern Townships in Quebec!  Seriously, you can feel your stress level dropping by at least 12 notches here.  This collection of adorable villages is situated between Montreal and Quebec City making it a perfect stop in any Quebec adventure.    

So if you have not guessed this is my home base and I am just in love with it (except in late winter when it is time for the snow and cold weather to just go away).  I will confess that despite growing up in a small town, I was not certain how I would re-adapt to small town life after city living and globe trotting.  Well turns out I kind of won in the “best places” to live lottery.  Plus there is so much to do that after 2 years of living here I will have a long “to do” list.

I tried to keep it brief but there is so much to do here, this post ended up being a bit longer than usual but hopefully the links will help you move around easily to the things you are most interested in.

Villages

The good news is that these villages are so close to each other they are drive-able as a day or semi-day trip from wherever you decide to make your home base for this excursion.

  • Sutton – Pick from plenty of outdoor activities such as  hiking, road biking, and skiing.  After you are done with the physical exertion, there are also many great restaurants, coffee shops, and local boutiques to explore.  And as one of the stops along the Quebec Route des Vins you should definitely explore the close-by wineries.  One of my personal favorites on the route is Vignoble Domaine Bresee and if you are going at lunch take a picnic to enjoy with a bottle of their wine!  Sutton also has plenty of unique adventures including Au Diable Vert which also has the Velovolant.
  • Bromont – Only 45 minutes outside of Montreal Bromont is a hotspot for outdoor adventures.  With an excellent mountain biking trail system that is continually expanding for the summer months and Ski Bromont which is one of the largest (possibly the largest) illuminated alpine ski centers in North America.  And no matter which season you are visiting in you can relax those sore muscles at the Balnea Spa followed by a beer at a local microbreweries and then dinner at one of the many local restaurants.  Two of my favorites are Le Macpherson for a unique volcano cooking stone experience or Le David et Goliath for an affordable and delicious table d’hote menu.
  • Orford – My personal favorite of the eastern township villages (my Canadian hometown!) this is one of the smaller villages but with easy access to the outdoor adventures.  Alpine ski at Mont Orford or if you prefer not to plummet downhill at the speed of a human rocket (like me!) you can opt for Mont Orford National Park which is one of the largest XC and CC ski centers in Quebec.  And depending on the season there are plenty of outdoor activities to choose from including camping, snowshoeing, hiking, kayaking, canoeing…well pretty much close to everything you can do outdoors in a park.  Check out the restaurants in the petit village or Magog is a short 5 – 10 minutes drive for an expansive selection of restaurants and shops.  Not to be missed is the Espace 4 Saisons which is a super cool place to stay, but there are also a lot of AirBnB ski chalet’s in this area which is absolutely perfect for a ski resort area!  
  • Magog – Situated on Lake Memphremagog is a bustling little village with so much to do!  In the summer there are plenty of water activities on this gorgeous lake and a perfect little downtown chock-full of adorable restaurants and boutiques.  Dine along the river or have a glass of wine on the lake shore while watching the sunset.  The Orford Express departs from here, choose from an array of lake cruises, or you can relax at the Spa Nordic Station.  And if you look closely you might just get a glimpse of the fabled and absolutely adorable lake monster, Memphre (I am still on the lookout for her).  Also easily accessible from Magog is the St Benoit Abbey du Lac.  Since I live right in this township I do have some restaurant recommendations for you:
    • Fondissimo – fondue restaurant that you can bring your own wine!  While it is casual it is very popular so reservations are definitely recommended (but not required, if they have a table they will give it to you)
    • Microbrasserie La Memphre – Our favorite place for grabbing some yummy Quebec style pub food and their beer is really good too!  I almost always get the flight because I can never pick just one…
    • Les Enfants Terribles – Our favorite thing about this place is the rooftop terrace in the summer with a fabulous view overlooking Lake Memphremagog
  • North Hatley – one of the smaller villages in Eastern Townships this is also one of the prettiest!  This village is on our regular cycling routes as we love to get their just in time for lunch from Saveurs Et Gourmandises Boulangerie and eat in the little park that borders the lake.  This place is absolutely one of the most picturesque and definitely worth at least spending part of a day and having a drink at one of the several restaurants on the river or lake and exploring the local boutiques.

Things You Probably Should Not Miss (#Bucketlist)

  • Forest LuminaParc de la Gorge de Coaticook comes alive at night with a really unique and super cool multimedia light show.  Enter this magical other-world by venturing across the swinging bridge and pulling away the mystical veil for a peek into the magical and supernatural world that runs parallel to our world.  This adventure just might explain a few of those “what was that ?!?!?” experiences you may have had in the woods.  We had so much fun that we went back to see it again! 
  • Route des Vins – So wine is not probably the first thing that comes to mind when you think about visiting Quebec.  But definitely give it a second thought!  While Quebec is mostly known for the sweeter dessert types such as Ice Wine, Late Harvest, and Cider (which are a yummy treat) white wines are also quite good and recently I have found some really good red wines!  

Plus just imagine visiting during the fall harvest season, and zipping along the route with windows open or on a bike, leaves turning brilliant fall colors, and having a bottle of wine and a picnic at any of the fantastic outdoor spaces that many of the wineries offer.  Truly a perfect day.  This awesome website will help you plan the perfect trip.   

  • Orford Express (Magog) – A leisurely train ride that takes you through several of the villages traveling along Lake Memphremagog, over several rivers and bridges is the perfect way to spend some time on the weekend.  We opted for the brunch ride and not only was the food amazingly good the atmosphere was topped off with a live jazz singer after brunch was finished.  Sipping bubbly, listening to jazz, and enjoying the gorgeous scenery from a luxury train car is a truly relaxing way to see several spots in eastern Quebec.
  • Nordic Spas – After a day filled with any of the myriad of outdoor adventures you must finish off the day by relaxing tired muscles at one of the Nordic Spas that are sprinkled around.  Not only are they super relaxing with the outdoor ambience of Canada, your tired muscles will feel like they are floating on clouds.  These spas are perfect any time of the year and don’t miss out on the cold bath (even in winter) as part of the routine!  Those of us from warmer temps tend to want to skip it, but truly it’s a must.
  • Sugar Shacks – If you are visiting Quebec in the late winter/early spring it is a must to have an authentic sugar shack on your list.  After a few years of living in Quebec I finally visited an authentic sugar shack with my hubby and sister!  I love maple syrup so a whole meal smothered in freshly made maple syrup is…well…amazing ! Choose your sugar shack carefully because there are lots of options out there that are more commercial in nature, but I prefer a smaller more authentic experience and those are smattered throughout the Eastern Townships.

If you are in the Magog/Orford area I can definitely recommend Erabliere Chic Rustique. This is the only sugar shack that I have visited myself but between a horse-drawn carriage ride to the shack, the small rustic shack, and hike in the woods after to see the trees “at work” I cannot imagine there is a better experience.  Plus it was BYOB so don’t forget to pack your favorite adult beverage that matches well with maple syrup!

  • St Benoit Abbey du Lac – A working monastery the abbey is absolutely breathtaking.  If you love touring the old churches of Europe you will not want to miss this.  Or if you have not had the opportunity to visit European churches yet you should not miss this so you can get a taste of how extraordinary they are!  Attend a gregorian chant service, purchase products made onsite by the monks such as cheeses, apple ciders, and jellies (and I can attest that they are fantastic), take a hike on the grounds, or pick apples in the fall.  
  • Things still on my to-do list
    • Lake Memphremagog Cruises – I really want to check out the scenery from a boat so my next victim (I mean visitor) to come to Quebec will get to be the lucky one to experience this with me!  With plenty of options including pirogue boats, pedal boats (if you have a desire to captain your own boat and stay closer to shore), pontoon boats, brunch cruises, dinner cruises.  Some of them even let you bring your own picnic lunches so you can definitely design your own experience.  And if you are lucky maybe spot Memphre the lake monster!
    • Velovolant (Canopy Cycling) – Bicycling in the treetops from a suspended bike…why, yes I would love to!  This is one of the newest activities in the area and I absolutely cannot wait to try it out!  If you do before me let me know what you think!

Experience Stays

If you are an outdoor or camping enthusiast, the Eastern Townships have several experience stays you really should consider.  We have done all that are recommended here and I can tell you there is no better way to disconnect that going offline for a day or two and picking any of these unique options!

  • Au Diable Vert (Sutton) – Sleeping in a tree house but for adults is such a fun alternative to a typical overnight stay.  We loved it so much we had to go back a second time!  It is a camping experience so you will need to make sure you bring your supplies for sleeping and cooking (unless you opt to go into town for your meals).  We cooked our meals around an open camp fire next to a field full of the cutest cows who are quite friendly.  

Tip: You will need to carry your supplies to your tree house and while wheelbarrows are provided it can be a bit of a hike so make sure you prepared for this and don’t over-pack.

  • Canoe Camping – So forget drive-up camping…how about going up the adventure experience a few notches and try paddle-in camping!  There are many outdoor activities to experience at Parc National de la Mauricie but one of the most unique is their secluded canoe camping.  So test your partner communication skills, wildlife survival skills and paddle your way into an unforgettable experience. During the day you can hike, canoe, and road bike.

Tip: You will be paddling your camping supplies in the canoe with you so don’t pack the house…just what you really need.

Tip: You are in a wildlife area so make sure that you read the advice and instruction they provide at the park station because it is important that you keep yourself and your fellow campers safe.  We have never had an encounter with a wild animal but we do follow the rules very carefully.  

  • Yurt – Another fantastic trip we had was when we rented a yurt for the weekend.  There are plenty to pick from in Quebec and since you are in a national or provincial parc there are likely plenty of day time outdoor activities.  We had a great time mountain biking and canoeing down the river when we stayed at Vallée Bras du Nord.  We had so much fun that it is on our list for a return trip!

So if all that roughing it in the outdoors has you ready for some pampering and luxury you are covered there too!  Or if you want to skip the outdoor experiences and just go straight for luxury (really I don’t blame you) totally go for it!  

  • Hovey Manor – Recently named #27 in the “Top 100 Hotels in the World” by Travel + Leisure Magazine and as one of two luxury hotels in the area Hovey Manor is a perfect splurge.  It is our go-to when we need a close weekend getaway and we have celebrated a few New Year’s Eve’s here and I can tell you that they never fail to disappoint on experience.    
  • Ripple Cove Manor – The second 5-star hotel in the area Ripple Cove is just as enchanting.  While we have not stayed here we did host our wedding reception here and it could not have been any more perfect.

Of course there are plenty of other options in the area as well including unique AirBnB’s and plenty of adorable B&B’s to choose from.

Outdoor Activities

  • Camping – There are a ton of camping experiences for all types of campers from tents to RV’s to Cabins to Yurt’s to Tree Houses (yup..pretty much everything).  Likely if it is a camping accommodation the Eastern Townships has it.  Simply pick your level of “roughing it” and then choose a location to serve as your homebase while you explore the area.
  • Hiking – So we are in the mountains which means there are plenty of trails and experiences to pick from!  This awesome trail finder will match you to your dream hike!  Pick your length, level of difficulty, location, and even some cool things such as pet/stroller/wheelchair friendly.  Think of this like your dating app…it find the perfect trail-mate for you!
  • Road Biking – Eastern Quebec is considered a biking destination for road cyclists.  In fact,  I learned to road bike in Quebec and that is partly because it is so incredibly bike friendly that I rarely feel intimidated by cars.  Most roads have plenty of shoulder space for peaceful co-existence of bikes and cars.  In addition they have a lot of public messaging encouraging a “share-the-road” mentality and in general I find the cars to be very courteous (probably because many people in cars are also cyclists).  Much is built into the tourism infrastructure of Quebec to accommodate cyclists:
    • Bike Taxi’s – To return you to your home base if you have gone just a bit too far
    • Accommodations – An established “Bienvenue Cyclists” designation will identify accommodations that can also safely house your bikes and gear when you are not in the saddle.
    • Cycling Maps/Routes – From the wine route, getting from village to village, multitudes of distance to choose from they have thought of it all!
  • Mountain Biking – So one thing I have learned is that many Quebecois are die-hard mountain bikers so there are several trail systems to keep you on your toes and probably teach you a few new tricks!  As a mountain biker’s destination trip trails and bike parks being built regularly.  And if you didn’t travel with your bike most towns have a local bike shop that can help you out with a rental.  Check out these links for more information on various trail systems:
  • Skiing: Canada + Winter + Mountains = Ski opportunities galore!   Whether it be hurdling down a hill at neck breaking speeds or keeping up with your cardio routine you are covered!  This awesome ski matching-making site will help you choose just the right place!
  • Snowmobiling – For those with a taste for speed and zipping through the woods snowmobiling is a perfect activity.  Quebec has a great snowmobiling trail system and places to rent.  Not really my cup of tea so I don’t know much about it, but lots of people here love it!

Special Events

There is always something going on somewhere in an Eastern Townships village.  Here are a few that I know of but for the complete listing at the time of your visit check out this event site!

  • Vendanges (Magog) – Eat, drink, and be merry!  If you are around the first 2 weekend of September the place to be is at this festival.  Hosted on the shore of Lake Memphremagog, filled to the brim with local wines, beers, food, artists, gourmet presentations by local chefs, and tasting events this is pretty much the definitely of fun.  
  • TriMemphre Triathlon (Magog) – If you are an endurance athlete this might be worth checking out and putting on your training schedule.  Starting in 1995, there are now over 2,000 athletes that come to participate in the swim, bike, run competition.  It’s a beautiful place for you to put your skills to the test!
  • Magog Marathon – Prefer to keep it simple and to just one sport…cool…then there is the marathon that happens in late October, because why not run 26.2 miles in the gorgeous fall scenery?
  • Grand Coulée Beer Festival (Orford) – Even though it is one of the newer events in the area, this festival is wildly popular.  Why?  Well because of the plethora of local micro breweries, food trucks, live bands, and chairlift rides up the mountain.  Yup…lots of fun!
  • Fall Festivals – You don’t get a more perfect fall than in Quebec.  With crisp, cool mornings and evenings, warm days, and stunning leaves there is nothing more fun than a weekend of fall festivals in Quebec.  Pretty much all the villages host them so make sure to find one (or two) and check it out!

So basically you now have no reason not to come visit the Eastern Townships because there is something for everyone in all seasons.  Plus you can come visit me!

If you have any feedback on any of these suggestions of know of something that I should add to the list share with me!