Iceland: a visit to the land of fire and ice

I just returned from a four-day trip to Iceland and can’t wait to plan my next trip. The country is, no doubt, one of the weirdest places on earth. It offers a varied, stunning, and oftentimes eery landscape (volcanoes! glaciers!), and a fascinating history (vikings!). Here are five quick and dirty must-dos that I hope will be useful if you are planning a trip to the land of fire and ice:

1. Drive yourself.

15 Drive to Blue Lagoon
Driving to the Blue Lagoon

Most tourists in Iceland seem to prefer the day tour option. And no wonder, since it seems so convenient. The tour company picks up you at your hotel every morning in a big bus, takes you to two or three popular tourist sites, and drops you off in the evening. Sounds good so far. Yet … I don’t know about you, but I didn’t come all the way to Iceland to be stuck on a tour bus with other Americans (no offense — go ‘murica!). More importantly, you don’t want to miss out on the wonderful sense of freedom and adventure that you can only get from driving yourself through a truly spectacular and unspoiled landscape. You can pull over and admire the beautiful mountains, volcanoes, fields, and beaches at your will. The main roads are easy to navigate and in excellent condition. They are also nearly empty. Every half and hour or so, we’d pass by a tour bus, but otherwise, it was just us and the mountains. Renting a car is easy. You can easily reserve one with any of the rental companies servicing the Keflavik Airport. Our cheapest quote happened to come from Budget. Be cautious when selecting a vehicle — most on offer are manual, and they will be labeled as such. And definitely get the GPS.

2. Drive from Reykjavik to Jökulsárlón and back in one day — it’s doable.

113 Drive to Jökulsárlón
The stunning drive to Jökulsárlón.

Speaking of driving, there’s a ton of debate on the web about whether or not it’s feasible to drive from the capital city to the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon and back in one day (4.5 hours each way). Most of the recommendations skew toward spreading the trip over two days instead. I disagree. If you’re like me and didn’t want to burn a second day, the ~9-11-hour roundtrip is both feasible and enjoyable, even in late October. We woke up early, grabbed breakfast and a few snacks for the road, and left our hotel in Reykjavik before 8 a.m. We easily made it to Jökulsárlón around 2 p.m.– a trip that included stops at Seljalandsfoss, Skógafoss, and Vík along the way, not to mention numerous pit stops we made to take photos, as the southern coast is simply breathtaking. After a tour around the gorgeous region (see featured photo above), an amphibious boat tour of the lagoon, and some coffees at the cafe, we were on the road again just after 4 p.m., and we made it back to Reykjavik just after 9 p.m. Although the drive is long, it is a straight shot along freeway 1 until you get closer to Reykjavik. We even had enough energy to go out for drinks and dinner that night!

3. Seljalandsfoss. 

In the belly of the beast.
In the belly of the beast.

Seljalandsfoss is my favorite waterfall and it’s on the way to Jökulsárlón! Yes it may be Iceland’s most famous waterfall, but no it is not merely a tourist trap. Huffington Post recently described it as one of the most relaxing places on earth, which seems weird to me, since I would go with “astounding” or “powerful” instead. Walking around Seljalandsfoss is a cold, wet, loud and even harrowing experience given how slippery the “walking path” can be (wet jagged rocks and no handrail). But you as you steady yourself on the colorful rock wall, wipe the cold spray off your face and camera lens, and look out onto the world from behind sheets of rushing water, you will feel completely exhilarated. Strap on your sturdiest waterproof hiking boots and enjoy!

4. Mount Esja.

Halfway up!
Halfway up!

On our last afternoon in Iceland, we wanted to do something that the locals in Reykjavik do. A waitress recommended that we hike up Mount Esja, the beautiful snow-topped mountain range to the north of the city (“We go hiking there on the weekend to stay fit,” she said). After a 20-mile drive north, you can park your car in one of the lots and choose your preferred path. We chose to head for “Steinn.” You can actually walk up most of the mountain–it’s not Everest–without any equipment, and view of the city below is amazing and probably not something that most tourists see. Dress in layers, as it gets blustery near the top, and be careful where streams have turned to ice. This website offers more details about the hike.

5. Kopar. We had our best meal here. Friendly service, excellent food, a great wine selection, and a lively mix of Icelanders and tourists. What else do you need, really, to rejuvenate after a long day of adventuring? Order the rock crab appetizer.

Bonus tip. Do not take a northern lights tour. Just don’t. Yes, the tours, like all tours, seem convenient, and the guides purport to know the “best places” to view the lights. And yes, they offer a free redo if you don’t see the lights. But it wasn’t worth it, and I’ll tell you why. After two aurora-less nights, we got desperate and booked the Gray Line tour. It was a borderline scam. The tour bus first took us to a field not far from Reykjavik where the city lights were very visible and clearly polluting the sky. Nothing happened. Then they took us to a restaurant half an hour away where they had “arranged” hot drinks and food for everyone. Of course, nothing was free or even discounted, and I’m sure that the restaurant made a killing. Even worse, the sky was so bright from the restaurant and surrounding neighborhood that we could barely see the stars — on a perfectly clear night! After an hour or so at the restaurant, they got everyone back on the bus and during the drive back to Reykjavik announced that there was no northern lights activity in Iceland at all that evening.

I realize that the elements are well beyond a tour company’s control, but the ground circumstances certainly weren’t. Maybe there are tours that offer real off-roading in monster 4x4s to areas that are truly beyond the city lights. But my understanding is that if they get a big enough group that night (and they nearly always do), they’ll drag you around in a bus. My advice: wait for a clear night, look at the aurora forecast, and drive to wherever’s best yourself.

In sum … go to Iceland and DIY! Hope these tips are helpful. Obviously, everything above is subjective, so please don’t hesitate to chime in and leave me a comment.

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A long weekend in Cape Cod

I spent a long weekend in Cape Cod. The weather was good on Friday, humid on Saturday, and cool on Sunday. I spent most of my time biking along the rail trail, touring the tiny galleries in Brewster, eating oysters, and thinking about the irony that is the cape.

Maybe it’s my ignorance as a west-coast transplant, but I can’t help feeling that there wasn’t anything really special about this place. I liked it, but its charms were never more than a little charming. It’s funny to me that the cape, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket have a reputation for being a playground for a rich and fabulous. The most special thing about the area seems to be how normal it is — how distinctly “small-town” it is compared to the urban centers these rich and fabulous folks live in year round.

The beach at sunset ... obviously :)
The beach at sunset … obviously 🙂

Am I the only one who finds it ironic that some people gobs of money for the privilege of summering in a place that feels like an average American town? It reminds me a little of Marie Antoinette’s passion for her faux rustic summer cottage (minus the negative implications … I think).

But what was I expecting? Maybe I need to go again for a better sense of the milieu. I like to like places so much that perhaps it would be worth a second shot.

Disappointing dystopia

I thought this was going to be really good. Sigh.
I thought this was going to be really good. Sigh.

Elysium has so much going for it. A $115 million budget, a brilliant young director, an Oscar-winning cast, the best digital effects available, and a sharp sociopolitical plot. Last week, I sat in my scratchy chair at the Kips Bay theater, giddy with anticipation. But about halfway through the movie, my enthusiasm waned. Why? Because the movie doesn’t live up to its promise. It doesn’t even come close. Granted, director Neill Blomkamp gave himself a tall order to fill, and he seems to be filling it nicely up until the moment that — spoiler alert — William Fichtner’s defense contractor character dies. Then things start falling apart.

See this? This shouldn't have been so dull.
This shouldn’t have been so dull.

Here’s my rough diagnosis of what went wrong:

  1. The sociopolitical satire falls flat on its face. The initial set up is fantastic. The year is 2154, and a privileged few live on a space station circling above earth, while the rest of humanity live on poverty-stricken, disease-ridden earth. The conceit basically takes our society’s growing angst about the 1% and whips it up into a fantastical but not implausible extreme. That’s great, but the set up is all that we get. Where are the revolutionaries who want to overthrow the system? There are none. Why is it that Matt Damon’s character couldn’t care less about any of this and only wants to invade Elysium to 1) cure himself of radiation poisoning and 2) make sure his childhood sweetheart doesn’t think too badly of him? There’s no reason for his apathy throughout the entire film — in fact, it does a great disservice to it. Three quarters of the way in, I realized that I had no one to root for. Blomkamp spends a lot of minutes trying to position Damon’s character Max as a struggling everyman who unwittingly turns into the revolutionary that he was born to be (he even throws in a prescient nun who tells Max this as a little boy). But the second half of the equation never fully manifests, and that was disappointing. The socioeconomic satire that seemed so riveting in trailers dissolves into petty inter-fighting among various ragtag groups, which was confusing thematically, perplexing logistically, and, honestly, just plain boring.

    Not her best.
    Not her best.
  2. Jodie Foster is misused and, frankly, kind of weird in this movie. Foster is one of my favorite actresses of all time. I’ve seen Contact about ten billion times, and the idea of watching her in another blockbuster sci-fi flick (as a villain this time!) was thrilling beyond words. I kept waiting for her show-stopping speech defending Elysium’s way of life over the underprivileged masses stuck on earth. (“Why do you get everything, and I get nothing?” a tear-streaked Damon would demand. “Because we do,” she would respond icily.) But it never came. Sure, she looked great strutting around the space station with her steely clothes and attitude, but nothing came of it. Spoiler alert: she disappears well before the end and is effectively replaced by a far less interesting villain. This made no sense to me whatsoever. Why dispose of your symbolic antagonist so cavalierly? Why, come to think of it, would you prevent your protagonist and antagonist from ever meeting? That’s right — Damon and Foster come face to face zero times. Sure, I’m all for subverting viewers’ expectations in clever ways, but this felt bungled. Also, what’s with Foster’s pseudo-British accent? People in my theater were laughing.
  3. We never find out much about Elysium itself. Is it a mere coincidence that a fabricated paradise bears the name of the ancient Greek afterlife? It might as well be, since the movie does next to nothing to show us a side of the glittering Stanford torus that isn’t two dimensional (if you’ll pardon the pun). Apart from flashes of sloping lawns and blue pools and fleeting glimpses of a party at the defense minister’s pad, Blomkamp offers us few hints of what it’s like to live there. What do these elite Elysium citizens have that earthlings don’t, aside from Versace medical pods? Is life there perfect, or is it invariable, tedious, deadening even, as its name suggests? Who can afford a ticket and what does it cost? How did it come to be in the first place? All of these questions probably should have been answered or at least alluded to in the movie, but they weren’t.

In summary, Elysium offers plenty of teasers, but little follow-through. Full disclosure: I have not finished District 9, but I look forward to finishing it soon to see what Blomkamp can create when he’s at his best.

Read the New York Times and New Yorker reviews for far more positive takes on Elysium than mine.

Charles Ives by Detroit: a review

A view from the dress circle
A view from the dress circle

This is my brief and belated review of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s all-Ives program at Carnegie Hall last week.

I found their performance of symphonies 1-4 cheerful, engaging, and quite ambitious. Perhaps a little too ambitious, as the string instruments had trouble making the sharper turns, particularly in the 1st symphony. But that may have just been jitters, for they performed the 4th and most difficult symphony of the set beautifully. I also appreciated conductor Leonard Slatkin’s commentary on the 4th prior to the performance. He illuminated its wit and complexity for the many Ives novices in the audience (including myself). Although the 4th is not the composer’s most clamorous piece, it can sound chaotic to new audiences, with its abrupt transitions, ghostly refrains, and eerie off-stage drumming. Mr. Slatkin encouraged us not to struggle so much to make sense of the components, but rather to take it as a whole. It was certainly a good reminder. As Ives said, “Maybe music was not intended to satisfy the curious definiteness of man. Maybe it is better to hope that music may always be transcendental language in the most extravagant sense.”

Charles Ives
Charles Ives

I did not, however, appreciate historian (or Ives-ian, as she called herself) Vivian Perlis’s protracted lecture between the 1st and 2nd symphonies about Ives, his college life, insurance business, and the lovely time she’s had exploring his life. Good for you, Ms. Perlis, but the only thing that I want to hear after the 1st symphony is the 2nd symphony. The audience didn’t like it either. Many groaned and took out their smartphones when she reached the 10-minute mark of her speech. If anyone wanted to revisit Ives’s biography or endure a detailed historical account of his pieces, it’s right there in the programs. That’s what they’re for.

Anyhoo…

The crowd was a mix of New Yorkers, tourists, and supporters from Detroit, who waved red scarves in solidarity with their musicians. I found the rambunctious crowd to be a refreshing change from the usual sea of white hairs that usually flood Carnegie Hall (at intermission, a man in a tweed jacket said to a Hispanic couple from Detroit sitting next to him, “I thought the only Ives fans were old white people from New England”).

Thanks, Detroit, for offering up an uplifting Friday night. You can read the New York Times review here.

Brooklyn Blossoms

Cherry Blossoms 1

Spring is coming!

If you’re being technical, it arrived about 40 days ago. Yet we’d barely had a taste of spring weather here in New York before now. To celebrate, I rambled through Brooklyn Botanical Garden’s cherry blossom festival on Saturday. Plump blossoms and tulips were aplenty. Although they had no daffodils, Wordsworth’s I wandered lonely as a cloud, which I found so cloying in high school, danced pleasantly through my mind. Enjoy the pictures!

Cherry Blossoms 2

Tulips

Tulips 2

Human Nature in Rock Center: a review

Human Nature

Every morning for about a week now, I’ve passed by the NYC Public Art Fund’s latest installation in Rockefeller Center, Ugo Rondinone’s Human Nature. Being the philistine that I am, I thought at first that it was an homage to Stonehenge, which would’ve been sort of tacky but on par with the installation’s touristy venue. I didn’t pick up on each (30 ton!) rock formation’s resemblance to human figures until the city made its official announcement. But I see it now.

Eh.

I’ll concede that, at first blush, the figures have a kind of quiet dignity. They are certainly more attractive than the terrible monuments that the city routinely puts up in the Doris Freedman Plaza by the southeast corner of Central Park. I’ll give the Art Fund that.

But still I shrug. I hardly feel a thing while standing in their presence, which continues to be my base test for contemporary art. “Forest of giants”? “Primal forms”? It’s a stretch for me.

My ambivalence might have to do with my general aversion to rock sculptures ever since I saw Lee Ufan’s nutty Marking Infinity exhibit at the Guggenheim (a security guard confided to me that the rocks were from the Jersey shore and the artist didn’t personally nudge the rock into their formations, or the cut up wires and cotton balls with which they were arranged himself).

Or maybe the art’s incongruity with its bustling setting throws me off. Rock Center is hardly the place to quietly contemplate our human race’s “distant origins.”

Hmm.

Well, since I still staunchly support public art, I hope that my opinion turns more positive in the coming weeks. Stay tuned.

Die Walküre at the Met: a review

Die Walkure

I saw Die Walküre last Saturday and read the Times review the next day. I have to say, the Times and other reviewers really need to get off their high horses about Robert Lepage’s “machine,” as they call it. Anthony Tommasini at the Times describes the apparatus as a “45-ton set consisting of 24 rotating planks” and then proceeds to rip it to shreds. “Some of the most sublimely beautiful music ever written becomes background for an art installation,” he sniffs.

We’ve heard this before. In fact, almost every single review that the Times has published on the Ring cycle at the Met takes a side swipe at the elaborate machine, its malfunctions, and oppressiveness. This review even seemed disappointed that the machine did not break down—not once—on Saturday, noting in the lede that it “worked without noticeable hitches” during the performance, though “you never know when the machine might malfunction.”

Get over it. By fixating on the machine, you critics are doing exactly what you persistently complain that the machine is doing: concentrating on stagecraft rather than the music. Yes, I will concede that the “aerial view” of the fiery mountaintop (pictured above) at the end was gimmicky and did distract the audience from the music (as the gasps across the orchestra section would indicate), but no where does the review mention how beautifully the planks depicted the forest, or Hunding’s forbidding home.

Besides, such sneering does a disservice to what many would consider a dying art form. I haven’t the faintest clue why opera critics would relentlessly, and I think unfairly, mock their own bread and butter. Those continuing to do so may soon find themselves grousing in an empty auditorium.

Enough of my own grousing and onto other thoughts. The Siegmund switcheroo in Act I was a bit unnerving, and I wished that the Met decided to retire the ailing Simon O’Neill for the show rather than letting him exhaust himself first before finally swapping in Andrew Sritheran mid-scene. Nonetheless, I thought that the understudy did a remarkable job of seamlessly integrating himself into the cast. His voice may not have been as powerful as O’Neill’s might have been if not for his early morning allergy attack, but I thought that Sritheran’s athletic build and energy gave much-needed vitality to the role.

I found Martina Serafin’s voice strong and clear, and her acting subtle in the opening minutes. But by the end of Act I, perhaps under the influence of a sturdier Siegmund, Sieglinde seemed to explode with drama, and not in a good way. Her quivering on the planks, awkward two-handed-backward grasping of the Northung sword, and staggering around the edge of the stage were all too much for me, and certainly too much for the oppressed character. It was hard not to chuckle. Whoever directed her to act like that is better off directing a second-grade adaptation of Hamlet.

Mark Delavan succesfully portrayed a commanding but conflicted Wotan. Deborah Voigt as Brünnhilde was as plucky and bright as she always has been in these productions. Stephanie Blythe as Fricka was a perfectly spiteful and forceful goddess, as she was last season. And the $15 plastic glasses of prosecco at the bar were as delicious and exorbitant as ever.